Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Orlando Scandrick, Anthony Brown.
On the surface it seems as if the 2016 Cowboys had a strong quartet of cornerbacks. Now two of those four have left via free agency, so naturally they need replacing, right?
The team signed Nolan Carroll from the Eagles, but that doesn’t excite anybody, so surely this is the team’s biggest need right now, perhaps warranting the investment of two high draft picks in about a month’s time, right?
Despite the fact that the 2016 Cowboys seemingly had four competent, starting-level cornerbacks, the vast majority of the season was spent playing with only three. Ironman Brandon Carr did not miss a game and hardly missed a snap, he was always on the field. Rookie Anthony Brown actually played the second most snaps out of the cornerbacks after Carr despite the fact that he hardly played the first two games of the season, but after that is when it starts to get hairy.
Orlando Scandrick was slated to be the team’s slot cornerback as he was eased back into action after a torn ACL forced him to miss the entire 2015 season. Morris Claiborne surprisingly won the starting role opposite Carr in training camp and started off hot during the first five or six games of 2016.
But how often were these four all healthy and active on the 46-man gameday roster?
In the very first game of the season against the Giants Scandrick suffered a hamstring injury that he eventually returned from later in the game. He went on to play the next week against the Redskins, but he was clearly never 100%, and after that he would go on to miss the next four games with injuries to both hamstrings. He wouldn’t return until October 30th against the Eagles, although he would go on to play the rest of the regular season and playoffs without issue.
Claiborne on the other hand was completely healthy and playing great until Week 6 against the Packers where he suffered an apparent concussion in the first half, which forced him to miss the rest of the game. He returned the next week against the Eagles, but late in the game he suffered a groin injury that would keep him out the rest of the regular season. He did come back for the playoff game against the Packers, but he didn’t seem 100% and left the game with a rib injury early in the third quarter, never to return.
So to sum up, the Cowboys only played one game the entire season where all four cornerbacks were healthy and finished the game without issue, the first Redskins game, although as noted earlier Scandrick didn’t seem to be back to normal until after sitting out a month or so with the hamstring injuries. They also had their full complement of corners for the vast majority of the first Giants and Eagles games, despite the fact that Scandrick and Claiborne missed a handful of snaps due to injuries.
The other 13 games were played with basically only three true cornerbacks; Carr, Brown, and which ever of Claiborne or Scandrick happened to be healthy at the time.
So how did the team get by with only three cornerbacks all year?
The answer to that is the reason that I would argue that safety is a bigger need than cornerback, and that’s Byron Jones.
Jones was drafted without a true position, some thought safety, some thought cornerback. He spent his first season bouncing back and forth between both, and then last offseason the team announced that moving forward he would play safety, but is he really a true safety?
In base packages, sure, Jones was usually in a traditional two safety look with Barry Church, with each having a deep half of the field, or at times Church would roll up closer to the line while Jones would play back. But the real question comes in formations with three or four cornerbacks, which account for approximately 60%-70% of the plays in any given game.
When the defense went to nickel, and especially dime personnel Jones functioned primarily as a cornerback, usually in the slot, while J.J. Wilcox played the deep safety and Church played closer to the line of scrimmage as a safety/linebacker hybrid.
Take a look at this play from Week 4 against the 49ers, it’s the final play of the game, a 4th down stop that sealed the game:
There are 8 dropping in coverage here, two linebackers and six defensive backs. The single-high safety is Wilcox, at the bottom of the screen you have Jones in man coverage against a tight end, Church is a little more detached from the line but is seemingly in man against a running back, and at the top of the screen you have Carr, Claiborne, and Brown matched up against the 49ers 3-WR bunch.
Now let’s take a look at a play from Week 6 against the Packers:
This is the first play after Claiborne leaves the game, again you have Wilcox deep, Church closer to the line of scrimmage at the top of the screen at the 30, and Jones locked up in the slot in man coverage with Randall Cobb (top of the screen, tightest to the line).
Here’s another from Week 9 against Cleveland, at this point Barry Church is out with a broken forearm:
This was a critical stop on third and short, the Cowboys were only up 7-3 at this point and Cleveland was driving. Here you only have five defensive backs on the field with Carr and Brown on the outside, Scandrick lined up in the slot at the bottom of the screen while Jones is lined up over the tight end who is in a three point stance next to the left tackle, with Wilcox as the deep safety.
Now against the Redskins in Week 12:
With both Church and Wilcox out you have Jeff Heath and Kavon Frazier at safety, with Jones lined up in man on Jordan Reed at the bottom of the screen. Keep in mind that Carr, Scandrick, and Brown are all on the field, and even with all the injuries at safety, it is still Jones who is basically playing as a corner here.
Here is another from the same game, late in the fourth quarter:
This alignment is very similar to what we saw from the team all year, although it is Kavon Frazier at deep safety instead of Wilcox, with Heath around the 25-yard line in the short zone instead of Church, while Jones is in his similar spot in man coverage out of the slot on Jordan Reed tight to the right side of the offensive line.
So even in a game where both Church and Wilcox were out, the coaching staff still opted to shift Jones down to slot corner when the alignment called for four corners.
Before you ask whether or not using Jones as the fourth corner was simply a function of injuries to Claiborne and Scandrick, here are two plays from the first quarter of the playoff game where all four cornerbacks were active, and presumably healthy, and the coaching staff knew what they had in Brown as opposed to early in the year when the staff may have been hesitant to play him:
You have Church and Heath in a 2-deep look (Church rotates down as per usual, Heath drops deep), with Claiborne and Carr at outside corner, Scandrick is in the slot at the bottom of the screen, and Jones is in man coverage across from the tight end lined up tight next to the right tackle.
And another from the same drive:
Here you have Wilcox (deep) and Heath (rotates down closer to the line) at safety, Claiborne and Scandrick are at the bottom of the screen, Lee, Carr and Jones are at the top, with Jones lining up in man in the tight slot next to the left tackle.
So in the last game of the season with four presumably healthy cornerbacks, it is still Jones rotating down as the fourth corner in the slot with reserve safeties brought in, as opposed to bringing Brown in and leaving Jones at safety. It seems quite obvious that the staff loves to use Jones in this manner to matchup with tight ends and certain receivers, and that it’s not just purely a matter of personnel or being forced into it, especially because they did something similar in 2015.
Whether you like Nolan Carroll or not, the fact remains that the team tried to sign him last offseason, they clearly made him something of a priority this offseason with a three-year deal, and then seemingly made no effort to bring back Carr or Claiborne. This behavior doesn’t suggest that he was simply brought in to be the fourth or fifth corner and not even be on the 46-man gameday roster half the time. He’s going to play.
Along with Scandrick and Brown you have three corners, just as the team did for the majority of last season, with Jones acting as the fourth. The problem is that behind Jones at safety you only have Jeff Heath and Kavon Frazier, so who do you feel more comfortable with on the field in dime, a corner like Brown or Carroll, or Frazier at safety?
Clearly the team needs to add young talent at cornerback when you consider the age of Scandrick and Carroll, as well as the fact that Carroll just isn’t that good, so I certainly wouldn’t be upset with a corner in the first round if the value dictates it. With that said, all things being equal, the manner in which the coaching staff uses Byron Jones makes the need at safety more critical than the need at cornerback.