With the loss of Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Barry Church, and J.J. Wilcox to free agency, countered only by the signing of Nolan Carroll, the Cowboys have significant holes in their back end.
As we discussed in this article on the age of the Cowboys’ position groups, the secondary also has two cornerbacks who are both 30 years old - Orlando Scandrick and Nolan Carroll. No other position group on the team has more than one starter 30 years or older.
The Cowboys barely have enough players to start in the back end, and that’s assuming either Jeff Heath or Kavon Frazier, or a combination of the two, can hold down one of the safety slots.
When looking at the snap counts for the defense from 2016, Dallas has lost:
- Brandon Carr, 1,015 snaps
- Mo Claiborne, 408 snaps
- Barry Church, 676 snaps
- JJ Wilcox, 557 snaps
At safety, Jeff Heath is being talked about as a replacement, but he played only 243 snaps. Kavon Frazier played 37 snaps, which is not enough to draw any conclusions about his abilities. Between them they played about half of the snaps Wilcox played. It might be a realistic leap for them to cover for Wilcox on top of what they did last year. That would boost their combined snaps from 280 to 837. But that would leave Barry Church’s 676 snaps to fill. Do the Cowboys expect a rookie draft pick to fill in these snaps? J.J. Wilcox got 515 snaps as a rookie third-round pick in 2013, but was that for the best? Recall that was one of the worst Cowboys defenses of all time.
At corner, the Cowboys are losing 1,423 snaps from Carr and Claiborne. To fill in, they have Nolan Carroll, who played 910 snaps. Anthony Brown can probably increase from his 717 snaps, and Orlando Scandrick, who was hurt much of 2016, might be able to add to his 645 snaps. The issue here is what happens if one of them gets hurt? Obviously this is where drafting a quality cornerback — or two — is essential.
Note also that the Cowboys often played with extra defensive backs last year. In 1,058 defensive snaps, the secondary played 5,340 snaps, which would mean that if five defensive backs were on the field for every defensive snap, they would still need 10 more snaps to cover. Another way to think of it is the Cowboys played 5.04 DBs per snap.
At linebacker, the Cowboys only played 2,263 snaps, or 2.13 linebackers per snap. On the line, they had 4,012 snaps, or 3.79 linemen per snap.
You also have to factor in familiarity. Just as experience together improves an offensive line, a defensive backfield that switches off from man to zone, nickel and dime, has to know what it’s doing. Last year, the Cowboys finally seemed to have a group that understood its assignments and covered well for each other. How long before the new players can assimilate and bond with the carryovers?
If the Cowboys are done in free agency, they must be expecting to fill these holes in the draft. That’s not a terrible strategy. Certainly, the Cowboys need to get younger, and much better, in the secondary, and it’s hard to get much better returning older free agents. But it’s a very risky one, since the team doesn’t know who will be available when they draft, and if they want to draft the best player available, what do they do if a defensive back isn’t the best player when they are on the clock?
The good news is that it’s supposed to be a strong draft for defensive backs. The Cowboys need it to be, so that they can find quality DBs throughout.