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Moving Parts: How Will The Cowboys Use Their Defensive Backs?

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The Cowboys love versatility - the ability of players to play different positions. With that in mind, how are they going to line up their secondary?

NFL: Combine Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

In 2016, the Cowboys secondary was set, with well defined roles for its defensive backs. Brandon Carr switched from the left to the right side, where he had played his best ball as a Kansas City Chief. Morris Claiborne, who was finally healthy through training camp and the preseason, moved to the more critical left side, where other teams often put their top receivers (because most QBs are right handed). Orlando Scandrick made his career as a slot receiver, so that was his natural position. Anthony Brown, the new kid on the block, was expected to fill in wherever needed. Leon McFadden was the fifth cornerback, and he was used very sparingly. Because both Claiborne and Scandrick were hurt, Brown ended up playing slot and left cornerback, and ended up with the second most snaps. They ended the season with these totals.

  • Brandon Carr. 1,015 snaps, all on the right side.
  • Anthony Brown. 717 snaps, mostly at left cornerback, but quite a few in the slot.
  • Orlando Scandrick. 645 snaps, mostly in the slot.
  • Mo Claiborne. 408 snaps, all on the left.
  • Leon McFadden. 56 snaps, wherever they used him.

Total CB snaps - 2,841 for 1,058 plays = 2.69 CB per snap

The situation was different at safety, where the Cowboys employed more than two safeties a third of the snaps. Even there, Byron Jones was considered the free safety and Barry Church the strong safety, with the third safety moving around as the nickel safety. That gave plenty of work to J.J. Wilcox, and a fair number of snaps to Jeff Heath, with scraps for Kavon Frazier. Here are the snap counts.

  • Byron Jones. 986 snaps.
  • Barry Church. 676 snaps.
  • J.J. Wilcox. 557 snaps.
  • Jeff Heath. 243 snaps.
  • Kavon Frazier. 37 snaps (21 of them in the last game, when regulars were rested).

Total safety snaps - 2,499 for 1,058 plays = 2.36 safeties per snap

How will the Cowboys use their new defensive backs?

With Brandon Carr (1015), Barry Church (676), J.J. Wilcox (557) and Mo Claiborne (408) gone, how are the Cowboys going to fill their roles?

In free agency, the Cowboys added corner Nolan Carroll and safety Robert Blanton. Then they drafted Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, Xavier Woods, and Marquez White. That’s six additions to replace the four free agents who left. In addition, Kavon Frazier will be entering his second season, when players often take a big leap forward.

How is Dallas going to deploy these new players? Will they move them around, or put them mostly in one spot, like last year? Let’s check out what Will McClay just said.

"Flex" was a big word at The Star last weekend. Do you want versatility in players to create depth or would you prefer a guy who can take over, say, the right cornerback spot and own it?

It's ideal to me to have depth. To play in the NFL, you're going to have to do a number of different jobs. You're going to have to play special teams, you might have to play inside and outside. The more flexibility we have the better the matchups are. ... If you're able to play different spots, you understand the full game, you understand the full defense. And over the course of time, you'll have a better feel for how and when to make plays.

That makes sense, because other than Nolan Carroll, who has mostly been an edge cornerback his seven years in the league, a few the new guys have tended to move around.

Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis have played a great deal in the slot and been used aggressively by their college coaches to blitz the quarterback and get tackles behind the line. Both have also played outside at times, and Awuzie has also played safety and is bigger and faster than Xavier Woods. As Michael Sisemore’s post-draft analysis pointed out, Awuzie was “the best blitzing cornerback in the draft with 26 tackles for a loss and 9 sacks.”

Here’s what Will McClay recently said about Awuzie.

First of all, he’s got length. He’s a smart player, he’s an instinctive player, he’s a physical player,” McClay said. “I think the key with him is that he’s a versatile player, so we can play him in the nickel, we can play him outside, we can play him at safety, and part this deal in the NFL now is you have to have versatile players because injuries happen, things happen and you want to have people who fit within your scheme and are instinctive enough and smart enough to be able to play at a high level no matter where their spot is.

“I know we don’t want to cross-train guys too much, but playing in the back end, it gives him the ability to do a lot of things, which adds to the versatility of our defense.”

If you went with the veterans, Nolan Carroll would likely line up in Brandon Carr’s slot on the right side, Anthony Brown would be on the left, and Orlando Scandrick would be in the slot, with Byron Jones and Jeff Heath as the two safeties.

Where can the rookies slot in? Is Awuzie good enough to take a starting edge corner job away from Carroll or Brown, or push Scandrick back outside or to the bench? Or would he be better supplanting or splitting time with Jeff Heath, who played the fewest snaps of any returning Cowboy, other than Kavon Frazier and Leon McFadden?

Is Jourdan Lewis, who’s been called the best slot corner in the draft, good enough to carve out snaps in the slot position, pushing Awuzie elsewhere?

Will Anthony Brown build on his excellent rookie season and grab hold of the left cornerback spot?

What about Xavier Woods, the hard hitting safety from Louisiana Tech? Can he carve out the same kind of role that Jeff Heath played, getting snaps when the Cowboys go to their three-safety look?

Will Marquez White play well enough to make the team, battling with Leon McFadden for that fifth cornerback spot?

There are a lot of questions right now with no clear answers. My personal view is the Cowboys should figure out who the best five defensive backs are, regardless of position, and get them on the field for the most plays. With Jones and Awuzie, at least, having CB/S position flex, that should be possible.

OTAs will begin May 23-25, and will provide a first glimpse of what the Cowboys may be thinking. Until then, let the arguments and speculation begin!