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Cowboys’ Secondary Overhaul May Be Necessary, But It’s Very Risky

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The Cowboys let four defensive backs leave as free agents. It may have been the right thing to do, but not certain that it’s going to turn out for the best.

NFL: NFC Divisional-Green Bay Packers at Dallas Cowboys Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

A few days ago, after Brandon Carr and Mo Claiborne left the Cowboys with new contracts, I wrote an article on why revamping the secondary was now the Cowboy’s most important need. At the end of the article, I supported the general idea of turning over an aging secondary to get better, but started to raise some of the risks.

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 next day, our Michael Sisemore took a somewhat different view, arguing that the Cowboys needed to let these players leave to get younger and better, without really accounting for any risks.

This exodus was a long time coming and it should be a welcome sight for sore eyes. The Cowboys will be a better defense next year despite being quite youthful. They have plenty of time between now and September to bring guys in that can make a difference.

....

There is no use in crying over spilled JAGs. This is about seeing the opportunity to make upgrades to a middling secondary. They’re not interested in just getting bodies, they want their defense to stop holding them back. In order for that to happen, Dallas had to be willing to part ways with guys that were average talents.

While I agree to a point with Sisemore’s view - there is no question the Cowboys needed to get younger and better in the secondary and just returning guys would accomplish neither - let’s not kid ourselves that what the Cowboys are trying is a risky move.

How Has This Approach Worked For Other Cowboys’ Position Groups?

Offensive Line

When you think of position groups, where have the Cowboys been successful in revamping them? Offensive line comes to mind. Why is that? It’s mostly because the Cowboys devoted three first-round draft picks, and then hit spectacularly on all three. In addition, the Cowboys had the veteran Doug Free reduce his cap hit to stay on a few extra years, and lucked out in getting both Ron Leary and La’el Collins as UDFAs. But they also spent a third-round pick on Chaz Green, who hasn’t been able to stay healthy his first two years. Can he take Doug Free’s spot and hold it down for a year? No one knows. So it hasn’t been all roses.

Defensive Line

The Cowboys strategy hasn’t worked so well on this side of the trenches. Let’s look at some of the moves Dallas made.

  • DeMarcus Lawrence. Traded their second- and third-round picks to move up near the top of the second round to pick Lawrence. How has he worked out? Injured his first half season, he did come back to register a couple of key sacks in the playoff game against Detroit. The next year he topped the team with eight sacks. But in his third year, he was suspended four games, and had back troubles during the season, finishing with one sack. He’s now in his contract year, after having offseason back surgery again. At the moment, few see him as the solution to the Cowboys’ pass rushing woes.
  • Greg Hardy. The Cowboys also tried signing a higher priced free agent who was coming off a suspension for off-field violence. He may have helped Lawrence get to eight sacks by drawing protection to his side, but he was a locker room cancer and the Cowboys cut him loose after a year.
  • Randy Gregory. The Cowboys were tempted by Gregory’s athletic qualities enough to take a risk on his off-field issues with marijuana, which have already forced him into multiple suspensions, including for the entire 2017 season, and perhaps longer. If he were allowed to play, Gregory showed enough in limited action last year that he could be a difference maker at right defensive end. However, the “if he were allowed to play” caveat is a massive problem.
  • Tyrone Crawford. This third rounder played sparingly his first season, then lost his second season to an Achilles tear at the start of training camp. In his third season, he was moved inside to play 3 technique instead of the defensive end slot of a 3-4. He showed enough promise that the Cowboys lavished a big contract on him to keep him, which he has not lived up to.
  • Cedric Thornton and Benson Mayowa. These defensive linemen received the biggest money Dallas doled out in free agency last year. Thornton was more expensive, and by all measures did not live up to his contract. Mayowa started slow, then was inactive for several games while Ryan Davis, a street pickup, was played. To his credit, when Mayowa worked his way back into the lineup, he got hot, eventually leading the team with six sacks.
  • David Irving. One of the most promising additions to the Cowboys line was plucked off the Kansas City practice squad. Irving shows bursts of great play, but not nearly enough consistency.
  • Maliek Collins and Charles Tapper. This last year Dallas may have finally drafted its best defensive linemen in Maliek Collins. He was injured early in the offseason and missed OTAs, training camp, and preseason, but very quickly displaced Tyrone Crawford back to defensive end once the season started. Charles Tapper, on the other hand, didn’t play a down because of an undiagnosed back problem - a pars defect - and is a wild card coming into this year.

In short, the Cowboys tried to revamp their line a number of ways. Over a multi-year period, they devoted two second-round picks, three third-round picks, and a fourth rounder, plus free agent money, to assemble a group most commentators argue still cannot rush the passer well enough to contend for a Super Bowl.

Defensive Secondary - Safeties

With that background, let’s turn to the secondary and the safeties.

  • Byron Jones. The only first-round pick left in the secondary. Mo Claiborne was the other, who cost a first- and second-rounder, but could never stay healthy enough to come close to his draft pedigree. Jones is a good player, but not a great player.
  • Jeff Heath. Heath joined the Cowboys as an undrafted free agent in 2013, and stuck around long enough to get a second contract mostly on his special teams’ abilities. He is one of two secondary members to collect two interceptions last year. But he’s always been a backup to the players who just left the Cowboys. He may provide a bridge to a better secondary, but it’s very hard to see him as an immediate upgrade over players he couldn’t beat out over four years.
  • Kavon Frazier. He was taken in the sixth round last year, and played 37 snaps on defense. Like Heath, he may be a bridge player, but does anyone think he will be better in 2017 than Barry Church was in 2016?

Let’s look at Barry Church for a minute. He was a team captain. When he got hurt last year, the Cowboys felt the need to protect their secondary by often rushing only three linemen and dropping eight. When he returned, suddenly the Cowboys could blitz and play more aggressive coverages. It’s very hard to see these three safeties able to manage the coverages the Cowboys will need to play better than what the team could do last year.

To improve, the Cowboys are going to have to hit some home runs in the draft at safety. They need at least one stud with a much higher upside than not only Jeff Heath and Kavon Frazier, but they really need someone better than Byron Jones. And yet they’ll have to find that player further down in the draft than Jones, even if they use pick #28 on a safety.

Defensive Secondary - Cornerbacks

At cornerback, things may be somewhat better, but only if the Cowboys stay healthy.

  • Orlando Scandrick. Injuries cost Scandrick all of 2015, and several games in 2016, and when Scandrick returned, he had been supplanted by rookie Anthony Brown. Now 30, are Scandrick’s best years behind him?
  • Nolan Carroll. He’s also 30, and lots of people have said they don’t care for his game. He’s ostensibly taking Brandon Carr’s position, but is it an upgrade?
  • Anthony Brown. As a sixth rounder, he was a savior last year. But is he a difference maker, or only an average cornerback like the “JAGS” who have left the Cowboys?

The reason I say this group may be better is that, unlike Heath and Frazier, these players have all played starter snaps in the NFL. However, as with the safety position, this is not a group that is going to upgrade the Cowboys’ secondary unless Anthony Brown grows by leaps and bounds. About the only way that can happen will be if the Cowboys draft exceptionally well, hitting on at least one stud. And even if they do, how good will that player be as a rookie?

Can The Cowboys Fix All Of This In One Draft?

Here’s the crux of the issue. It’s one thing to take the view that the way to improve is through the draft, and it’s a very different thing to be able to execute that strategy.

The Cowboys have been extremely fortunate to have done this on the offensive line, at quarterback, running back, and wide receiver. At tight end, they’ve used three second-round picks behind Jason Witten, yet they are all gone and Witten is still here.

On the defensive line, the Cowboys have not been as successful. They haven’t spent any first-round picks here in some time, but they’ve spent quite a few second- and third-round picks. It’s finally a young group with some upside. Will it materialize?

That leaves the secondary. If the Cowboys could devote all seven draft picks this year to the secondary, figuring some hits and some misses, with no certainty that the higher rounds would hit and the lower rounds miss, would that fix the problem? Maybe yes, and maybe no. That’s the nature of the NFL draft. You don’t know who’s there when it’s your turn, and as much scouting as is done, it’s very hard to know who will work out. Then there are injuries to derail even the best laid plans, and the fact that player quality often declines rather rapidly as you go lower in the draft.

Obviously, the Cowboys can’t devote all seven picks to the secondary. They have other needs. Offensive tackle, tight end, and pass rusher are three big ones, and a backup quarterback and running back need to be found some way.

Would the Cowboys solve their problem if they used their first, second, and third round picks on secondary players? Same answer as above. JJ Wilcox was a third round pick who never made it and didn’t earn a second contract. Byron Jones was a first rounder, and he’s competent, but not a game changer.

Conclusion

Let’s be clear that I’m not advocating that the Cowboys should have re-signed the departed players, especially at the prices they were able to get on the open market.

However, let’s also be clear that while this is just as necessary as when the Cowboys set about remaking the offensive and defensive lines, it’s almost certainly going to be a multi-year work in progress that may experience some success, and some failures. Somehow the Cowboys have to hit on their picks as well as they did last year. Will they? It looks like we’re going to find out.