While the Dallas Cowboys have had some struggles at times, one player that has been nothing but excellent all season is cornerback Byron Jones.
Byron Jones has been the NFL's best cornerback through six weeks. pic.twitter.com/GciLKwWLx9— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) October 17, 2018
What is somewhat amazing is that he was a safety his first three years in the league. Now, under new passing game coordinator/defensive backs coach Kris Richard, he has been moved to his best position. Given the way he is playing as a corner, you have to ask the question: What in the world were the Cowboys thinking when they made him a safety? Our own Tom Ryle and Michael Strawn have some thoughts on that.
Tom: For me, this looks a lot like one of those “desperate times call for desperate measures” things. Remember, when he came into the league, the starting corners for the Cowboys were Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne, with Orlando Scandrick as the nickel corner. This was before the team realized they needed better solutions there. Jones saw some work as both a corner and safety that season, but the need was just greater at safety. He would continue in that role the next two years as the team added Anthony Brown, Chidobe Awuzie, and Jourdan Lewis which allowed them to move on from Carr, Claiborne, and Scandrick. Now Richard has put him where he is best, for which we should all be grateful. But I think it is not really correct to say the team made a huge mistake using him primarily as a safety to start his career in Dallas. They were trying to put together the best secondary they could. They just saw a bigger need for Jones at safety.
Michael: I do remember when Jones was drafted there was hope the Cowboys had finally drafted a quality safety. And yes, there was more need at that position than cornerback at the time.
But here’s what I find shocking. Kris Richard declared Jones a cornerback without needing a single practice or OTA. He knew Jones was a better CB than safety before he arrived.
Which means he understood Jones’ strengths and weaknesses better than the Cowboys’ brass. Remember, by the end of 2017 Jones had been demoted from the starting team in favor of Kavon Frazier, while the team was struggling to cover outside receivers.
In short, the Cowboys has an elite cover corner playing backup safety.
Tom: Well, that was one of the reasons they hired Richard, to come in and make the best use of the personnel they have. Given the heavy investment in defensive backs in 2017, it was fairly clear they wouldn’t feel a lot of pressure to add a lot of new talent there, which made all the Earl Thomas furor a bit puzzling (at least to me). Maybe some of the blame should go on Jerome Henderson for not properly utilizing his players. But that is all in hindsight. A look at the rosters Jones’ first three years with the Cowboys shows more talent at corner - at least if all you have to go on are the previous seasons. That is the problem with holding the team to this kind of standard. We have knowledge and data that they did not at the time. They had that hole to fill, and they found a way to. Don’t forget that he played both positions in college, too. Now they have made a better decision, and it still took a bit of a leap, because safety was once again seen as a weakness coming into this season. Had things not worked out so well with Jones this year, or if the safeties had really fallen apart, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion.
Michael: One has to wonder what Richard saw that the Cowboys’ coaches didn’t? It’s particularly bothersome in two ways. One, the most valuable asset in the NFL is a high quality player playing on his rookie contract. The Cowboys almost certainly should have gotten more from Jones than they did during his first three years in the league. Second, the staff seems to struggle mightily evaluating their own talent and where they should play. Recall the attempt to make Chaz Green a guard last season. Recall the team anointing La’el Collins the starting LG in 2016 and everyone finding out Ronald Leary was a better player only after Collins was injured. Tyrone Crawford has been moved so many times to this day no one knows if he’s an end or a tackle. There’s already talk about Taco Charlton moving to tackle.
The emphasis the team puts on position flex seems to harm them more often than benefit. Perhaps Richard being here and other coaches not is an indication they recognized their weakness. But from Jerry and Stephen to Will McClay to Jason Garrett and Rod Marinelli, they simply blew it with Jones.
Tom: Position flex is something the team seems to get a little too wrapped up in. But at the same time, it can be a necessity. One of the players you mentioned, Tyrone Crawford, has been very valuable because of that. He is probably never going to be a star as either an end or a tackle - but he is a very solid player at both, and probably is underappreciated by many.
Still, there are the outright failures like the (shudder) Chaz Green fiasco. Clearly, though, Jones does not fall into that category. He may have been just as stellar as a corner from the start. But we really don’t know. If they had it to do over again, he probably would have gotten the chance. It has taken Richard’s arrival to get it all straight. Again, that is part of why he is here and Henderson no longer is. Yes, they could have done better. But that group of names on the staff you mentioned have gotten a lot right in the recent past. I just don’t see using Jones at safety as being the major failure so many do.
Michael: I’m not saying the staff is a failure; they’ve done lots more right than wrong in my opinion. But they’re not perfect. If I were a member of the brain-trust, I’d be sitting everyone down and saying “what did we miss here? Why didn’t we see what others saw? And are we making the same mistake with others?” In fact, I’d be real curious if during the interview process Richard didn’t come right out and tell them they had an undiscovered gem on the roster. It’s certainly true they made the right decision this year. Because the reality this could have been even worse. Imagine the team kept Jones at safety. Imagine him still playing there with Jourdan Lewis and Awuzie and Brown as the starting corners. Imagine Jones had another mediocre year at safety and the Cowboys let him enter free agency. Where he then signed some unnoticed, mid-level deal with another team and then thrived as a cornerback. Now that would have been disastrous.