The Cowboys’ secondary is definitely taking steps in the right direction after turning over many positions to younger talent this past season. One area where they could still use a playmaker is at free safety. Byron Jones was drafted in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft and though he does some things well, he’s not the opportunistic free safety that the Cowboys were hoping for. In fact, are we sure he’s even playing the best position for his skill set?
[In this series, come along as we peruse the long list of free agents and focus on players that could be of interest for the Cowboys. Some of these players may, of course, price themselves out of range. However, any time you feel like your team is close like Dallas most definitely does, why not be a little aggressive in the acquisitions department?]
FS Tre Boston (6’1, 205 lbs, 25 years-old) - Los Angeles Chargers
2017 stats: 15 starts, 79 tackles, 8 PBUs, 5 INTs
Boston attended UNC where he started four games at cornerback as a true freshman, recording 32 tackles, four pass breakups, two forced fumbles and an interception. Boston was moved to safety and in both his junior and senior season he really developed into a quality one. He led the Tarheels in back-to-back seasons with four picks each and was named to the All-ACC second-team while achieving ACC’s Defensive Back of the week honors twice. Boston was drafted by the Carolina Panthers with pick 128 in the fourth round of the 2014 NFL Draft.
His rookie season didn’t get off to a great start as he had to have sports hernia surgery less than two months after being drafted. However, he still earned the starting safety position from Thomas Decoud midway through the season. He started five games of the 11 he played in, had 23 tackles, three pass breakups, and his first career interception was a pick-six in the final game of the season. The following week, he would intercept the Cardinals to ice a 27-16 wildcard victory for the Panthers.
According to PFF, he allowed five receptions on 222 coverage snaps his rookie year, which ranked him fourth among safeties. He would help the Panthers’ throughout their Super Bowl run in the 2015 season, though he only started one of the 16 games he played in. He did have two unfortunate penalties in the 24-10 Super Bowl loss to the Broncos. In 2016, he started 10 games at free safety, had 53 tackles, two sacks, seven pass breakups, and two picks. He was placed on injured reserve with a knee injury in late December of the 2016 season and was waived on May 2nd, 2017.
On May 5th, he signed a one-year, $900K deal to play safety for the Los Angeles Chargers. He started 15 games, played in all 16, recorded 79 tackles, broke up eight passes, and notched five interceptions this year, by far his best outing.
Where Boston helps the Cowboys is in his ability to make plays as a reliable finisher on the back end. He’s best used as a free safety playing single-high coverage, which is exactly what he’d be asked to do in Dallas. Boston has really improved in the NFL on his instincts to diagnose, follow the ball, and come downfield when he needs to make the necessary play, which were negative marks in his draft profile.
Byron Jones is a remarkably gifted athlete but he doesn’t always play consistently to his abilities. Boston is more of the vocal leader-type who knows where to line up and make consistent tackles when his number is called. He’s also a coordinator’s best friend to have in the secondary due to his high football intelligence. The Cowboys have tried Jones out as a free safety and he just hasn’t fit what they really want back there. He has just two career interceptions where Boston has eight and has only been in the league one season longer than Byron. For Rod Marinelli, it would benefit this defense to have a guy who can make an offense pay for taking ill-timed shots.
Where Byron Jones has had his best success is as an eraser to tight ends but also when he’s used on special coverage assignments. When he was drafted, he was going to play cornerback but Dallas had Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne. Perhaps the coaches desire for Jones to play free safety was greater than his ability to. He could have something as an outside cornerback, he certainly has the size, speed and range. He just doesn’t have the physicality of a finisher at free safety and though he’s not a bad safety, he could be a better fit at corner. The Cowboys may be looking to move on from Orlando Scandrick and Jones is quite good in man coverage as he leaves little room between himself and the receiver without being overly grabby. It’s going to be a hard sell for this coaching staff but here goes my best shot:
Move Byron Jones to the outside opposite of Chidobe Awuzie, as his athletic traits to play sticky man coverage plus his size will work nicely there. It will also allow Jourdan Lewis to play inside at the slot, where he has the ability to become the league’s best slot cornerback after achieving that feat in college. In free agency, make a play for Tre Boston to pair him with the tandem of Jeff Heath and Xavier Woods at strong safety. Boston isn’t the rangy-type athlete that Jones is but he just knows how to do his job really well. You don’t have to worry about versatility when a guy can dot the “i’s” and cross the “t’s” of his position like Boston does. Tre Boston isn’t a household name but he could be a tremendously savvy pick up for this defense. If you see a guy who’s young but can truly help your defense, why not put a star on this kid’s helmet, Cowboys?