Over the last few days, I was asked a very interesting question on Twitter in regards to the Cowboys' secondary. A question that inspired this very article as fellow Cowboys' fan Mark Dempsey asked if the changes the Cowboys made at defensive back could help improve their lousy opposing quarterback rating? That was certainly something that stuck with me as I researched this column.
It's true, the Cowboys have struggled for some time when it came to limiting opposing quarterbacks over the past several years. Even when they have faced backup quarterbacks, the Cowboys are known for making them look a lot better than they should. Just last season, the Cowboys gave up a 94.2 passer rating to opposing quarterbacks which ranked them 24th in the league. To be fair, both the Green Bay Packers (97.2) and Detroit Lions (107.2) were a lot worse and still made the playoffs.
With that said, it's pretty telling that the Lions were smoked by Aaron Rodgers' passing attack, the Cowboys also fell victim, then the Packers were destroyed by the Atlanta Falcons. Being able to limit the opposing passer matters more and more in today's NFL. Any quarterback will find ways to take advantages of secondaries that don't make plays on the ball. That's exactly what's been happening to the Dallas Cowboys. Though they have had their moments, the former secondary for the Cowboys has lacked playmaking ability to go with their problems in coverage.
This isn't anything new either. Since Rod Marinelli was named the defensive coordinator, Dallas has been a bottom-feeder in opposing passer rating, completion percentage, and completions per game. It's not all Marinelli's fault as up until this year, he was coaching a secondary of players that he mostly inherited. In fact, the Cowboys have allowed 90+ passer ratings in each of the last five seasons. Considering that the top secondaries in the league are allowing passer ratings well below 80, the time was evident to make the change.
Only one team was worse than the Dallas Cowboys when it comes to opposing completion percentage and that's the Lions giving up 72.8%. Dallas, giving up 67.1% ranked 31st in the league along with completions per game at 26.6 passes per contest. To pile it on, the Cowboys also ranked 27th in passes defensed at 64 with only one player, Byron Jones, that had double-digits (10). Just to put that into a perspective of how poor that is, David Irving had five passes defensed.
We've more than established that the Cowboys' defensive backs just didn't cut the mustard. It's easy to point at the interception numbers being low (9, T-27th) but this secondary couldn't even force incompletions. The four defensive backs that departed in free agency only accounted for 24 passes defensed. Robert Alford, CB for the Falcons, had 25 passes defensed by himself. That's the biggest reason that the front office was done trying to get production out of this unit. Instead, they turned their attention towards the 2017 NFL Draft, which was chock-full of defensive backs, as their solution.
Now was as good a time as any for Rod Marinelli and company to go searching for more playmakers. Dallas put a premium on finding guys that made plays on the ball this offseason. Even Nolan Carroll was able to reach double-digits in passes defensed. Understandably, pass deflections aren't everything but we're driving home a point. They obviously kept their guys under contract in Orlando Scandrick, Jeff Heath, Kavon Frazier and rookie standout Anthony Brown. However, until they executed the draft, they didn't even have enough defensive backs to get them through a game.
By this time, everyone is aware that the Cowboys selected four defensive backs out of their nine picks. The front office opted to go with three cornerbacks and one safety though their selections offer up a ton of versatility. When you look at the college production for these selections, the point is even further validated.
Chidobe Awuzie, the second-round pick, had 34 pass deflections, 278 tackles, 20 TFL, 9 sacks, and five interceptions in his career at Colorado. He has played every position in the secondary and has played well too. Awuzie's 12 pass breakups in 2016 would have led the Dallas Cowboys last season. In coverage, over three years, Awuzie gave up 78 receptions, 59.5 catch %, only four touchdowns, and a 78.6 passer rating. He's instinctual with speed and intelligence to become a mainstay that shows out early for the Cowboys.
Jourdan Lewis was selected in the third round and it's pretty clear that if not for an off-field concern, Lewis would have gone much higher as he was considered the best nickel back in the draft. Lewis set the Michigan record for most passes defensed in a single season at 22 in 2015. He finished his collegiate career with 42 pass deflections, 135 tackles, 8.5 TFL, six interceptions, and a sack of his own. When thrown at, Lewis only allowed 67 catches on 182 targets, a catch % of 36.8, gave up 4 career touchdowns, and had an opposing quarterback rating of 46.0. He created a whole new meaning to no-fly-zone. His being undersized is not much to worry about considering his arm length (31 5/8 inches) keeps him in every play. Adding the ultra-competitive Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year was certainly a good move.
If that wasn't enough to tackle these issues of underachieving, the Cowboys' stole a potential starting safety in the sixth round. Xavier Woods exploded onto the scene with six interceptions as a sophomore. He finished his college days with 18 pass deflections, 272 tackles, 20.5 TFL, 14 interceptions, four sacks, and six forced fumbles. Needless to say, if you throw on Woods, he may make you regret that decision. Lastly, Dallas drafted the CB2 for Florida State, Marquez White, who in his own right played well behind guys like Jalen Ramsey. White only allowed one touchdown in two seasons as the starter and held folks to a 32.1 completion percentage in 2015. White had an opposing quarterback rating of 69.2.
The players the Cowboys added are potentially much better than the ones they lost, but they're young. Outside of Woods, though, these players all come from the power five conferences and have seen top competition. They've played in front of seas of fans and shouldn’t be shell-shocked by the NFL. The best quality they all have in common is that they have a history of making plays and limiting quarterbacks. If the Cowboys improve on those passing percentages in 2017, a lot of the credit will go to the remodeling project in the secondary. Even if they’re rookies, they’ll be expected make a positive impact and there is no reason why we should expect less than marginal improvement.