The Dallas Cowboys have suffered their first serious injury of 2015 with an ACL tear for cornerback Orlando Scandrick. He was the best corner the team had and was also a key on-field leader. Up to the point he went down after a collision with Lucky Whitehead, the cautious approach the Cowboys had been taking with injuries had been paying off, but you can only dodge those bullets so long in the NFL.
Now the team has to move forward. As the shock begins to settle in, it is wise to remember how short-handed the Dallas defense was last year. Sean Lee was out for the year, DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher were playing elsewhere, and Morris Claiborne was not fully healthy before he went out for the year. By the time the season ended, the Cowboys were relying on Scandrick, Brandon Carr, Tyler Patmon and Sterling Moore to handle the cornerback position. There is no way to minimize the loss of Scandrick, but in 2015 Dallas has a much better situation to overcome his absence.
Carr and Patmon return. Carr has been seen as underperforming his large contract, but he is still a legitimate starter. All reports on Patmon are that he is an improved player, and it looks like he will the the first choice to step into the slot position where Scandrick was so potent.
Jerome Henderson said Tyler Patmon will assume O Scandrick's role as slot corner. "We'll start with him and figure out a plan from there."— David Moore (@DavidMooreDMN) August 26, 2015
Claiborne has also had a very good camp and looks to be in better health than he has been in any previous year with the team. He is likely to join Carr as one of the starting corners. There is some legitimate hope that he will finally get to show everyone why the Cowboys traded up to draft him sixth overall.
The team also made two major acquisitions in the offseason that now are very important. First they signed Corey White after he was waived by the New Orleans Saints, and he has impressed so far in camp. Then they drafted Byron Jones in the first round. The ridiculously athletic rookie has also turned out to be very intelligent on the field. Both White and Jones also bring a degree of position flexibility that allow them to play all cornerback spots as well as help out at safety, something the team seems to want to keep as part of their arsenal even with the Scandrick injury. That gives them what looks to be five quality cornerbacks, which is much better depth than they had at any time last year. The loss of Scandrick may also open up a spot for Robert Steeples, Joel Ross or even Rod Sweeting. But the more likely outcome is that the team will go with five corners and perhaps try to stash one or two on the practice squad. The developments also probably firms up safety, with Barry Church, J.J. Wilcox, Danny McCray and Jeff Heath all looking very solid to make the 53.
Pass defense is not only about the secondary. One of the biggest stories out of camp is the quality and depth of rushmen the team has, and it looks like the defensive backs will not have nearly as long to have to cover receivers while players like DeMarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory, Tyrone Crawford and eventually Greg Hardy are harassing the quarterback, along with several other players who are showing real ability to penetrate and disrupt. Linebacker is also looking good, with the return of Lee the biggest news. The Cowboys will have to start the season waiting for Rolando McClain to sit out his suspension, but Anthony Hitchens, Damien Wilson and Kyle Wilber look to give them some solid options for finding an interim starting three. And Lee is very good in pass coverage, which can take some pressure off the slot corner position.
Injuries are the dark side of football, but also an inevitable part of the game. Dallas has been working to build real depth, and this year it looks like they have gotten there, especially on defense. It is going to be harder now that one of the real stars of the secondary is likely gone for the season. But harder does not mean insurmountable. It is time for the rest of the team to step up.