It’s one of the oldest clichés in the world but the chicken-or-egg theory is relevant in football. Instead of what came first, it’s what’s more important, the pass rush or the secondary? The answer is somewhere in between but the Cowboys’ are certainly willing to test the hypothesis.
First of all, the Cowboys did upgrade their pass rush with the selection of Taco Charlton, but they put in a lot more work in the secondary. Of nine picks, seven were defensive players, of that seven, four were defensive backs. The media questioned how the Cowboys could ever replace the losses of Barry Church, Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, and J.J. Wilcox. Will McClay and Co. basically proceeded to do just that.
We’re not saying that these four defensive backs will be Pro Bowlers, there’s no guarantee that all of them will make the roster (no offense, Marquez White). With that said, these guys have the football pedigrees to give the Cowboys something they haven’t had in a while and that’s a playmaking defense. We have to give credit to Rod Marinelli and the staff for doing the best they could over the course of the last few years.
It’s not as if the players that left were bad players or the players that stayed are great players. It’s the fact that the Cowboys’ secondary wasn’t improving and it was time to make a change. This year, the Cowboys are focused on getting defensive backs that make plays on the ball. They’re showing that they want takeaways and guys that can help them change the momentum of how games are going. Their selections are a direct representation of what Dallas hopes to become - a defense that is opportunistic and is full of hunters on the back end. In the last four seasons, the secondary has been rather unimpressive.
In 2013, they had 15 interceptions, 10 of which came from the defensive backs but they were still 17th in the league, giving up 286 passing yards per game. In 2014, the Cowboys had 31 takeaways, 18 of those interceptions, but nine of those picks came from the linebackers. The 2014 defense was still giving up 252 yards per game and an opposing passer rating of 88.5. They also gave up 45 plays of 20+ yards or more and 14 of 40+ yards or more. In 2015, those statistics are skewed as the Cowboys’ ended up with a Top-5 passing defense.
However, look closer and you see that teams were running at will on them (121 yards per game). Also, the secondary gave up an opposing passer rating of 94.2 with 54 plays of 20+ yards or more and 10 plays of 40+ yards or more. It’s important to also note that the Cowboys’ tied their worst takeaway production with only 11, four of which came from defensive backs.
This past season, the Cowboys went back to being one of the Top-10 worst pass defenses surrendering 260+ passing yards per game. Dallas improved to nine interceptions but still gave up 45 plays of 20+ yards or more with only seven on 40+ yards. They weren’t terrible by any means but their fate was decided when in 3rd and forever, they allowed Aaron Rodgers to complete the most unlikely of first downs and the Packers kicked the field goal and sent Dallas home in the playoffs…again.
It is what it is and we certainly don’t want to act as if those former Cowboys didn’t contribute to a really awesome year. In fact, at the right price, some of them would have been welcomed back. Simply stated, the front office looked at this draft and the quality of defensive backs and decided it was the perfect year for a rebuild in the secondary. They didn’t need to pay their own veterans market value because there was opportunity in this draft. Let’s dive in a little more into these selections the Cowboys made.
Every single selection the Cowboys made has a chance to compete for playing time in their first year. That’s pretty remarkable to think of and how interesting that will make training camp. When the Cowboys took Chidobe Awuzie at pick 60, they got tremendous value in that selection. Many folks thought he had a chance to hear his name called on the first night because he’s got first-round athleticism. We’re talking about a cornerback that played multiple positions and even dabbled at safety without losing his ability to make plays.
Awuzie may have only picked off four passes but he broke up 34 career passes at Colorado, forced six fumbles, and had nine sacks on blitzes. [Correction] Awuzie is also what SPARQ would dub as two-sigma athlete meaning he’s at least two standard deviations higher than the typical NFL cornerback. Awuzie is a versatile piece that can be used to match up with all types of receivers, he’s more than just a feather-in-the-cap.
We’re not going to get into the discussion of Jourdan Lewis’ off-the-field concerns, that situation will just have to play itself out. But in terms of value to the Cowboys, this was a selection that may pay out huge on the field. Jourdan Lewis was considered by many the very best nickel cornerback in the country. He was a Jim Thorpe Award finalist and had six career interceptions at Michigan.
Like Awuzie, Lewis got his hands on a lot of passes, having broken up 37 of them. In 2016, Lewis allowed a paltry 23% completion rate. Jourdan Lewis is an absolute technician at 5’ 10” with the confidence of a man who is 6’ 4”. He attacks receivers with his stickiness and fluidity to turn and stay with his man. For a guy his size, he’s above average in run defense and plays with a feisty nature to him. He only allowed two touchdowns in his entire collegiate career, he can lock guys down.
Then you have Xavier Woods, the cherry on top in this Cowboys’ draft class. A guy who may have received the most excitement out of all the picks Dallas made. If you want to talk about value, how about getting a guy that folks were more than happy to take at 92 but got him at 191. Woods is perhaps the guy with the biggest opportunity to win a starting role out of the gate. He was a dynamic playmaker at the safety position for the Bulldogs. Woods made catalytic play after catalytic play and will be a welcome sight for the Cowboys in need of a rangy safety. In four years, Woods had 181 solo tackles, 91 assists, 20.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, 14 interceptions (in three seasons), two pick-sixes, and six forced fumbles. Again, just to reiterate, the Cowboys want guys that make plays on the ball.
The Cowboys’ pass rush may not be the strength of their defense. But with the guys they have at linebacker mixed with these guys we just talked about, they have a secondary that can perform. It all goes hand in hand, if the secondary is clogging the passing lanes, the pass rush may get home more often. In one offseason, the Cowboys gave themselves a shot at mightily upgrading a unit with versatility, production, and most importantly, playmaking ability. Get ready for that age-old theory to be tested.