This is part two of a three-part series about moves the Cowboys need to make this offseason that will spark some debate, and maybe some anger, within the fanbase.
A couple weeks ago, we discussed the feasibility of a possible contract extension for Dez Bryant. Something like that may never come to fruition, but it helped serve as a reminder that there are going to be decisions made by the front office that are not going to be very popular. That got me thinking even more, so I wanted to look at other decisions that might go down this offseason that will create a bit of a stir in Cowboys Nation. A few days ago, we threw out the idea of overpaying Anthony Hitchens. Now, we will look at another front office move that some fans will not be too fond of.
#2 Fifth-year option Byron Jones
Entering last year’s draft, of the team’s six first-round selections remaining on the team since 2010, five of them are All-Pro players. The lone exception - Byron Jones. How embarrassing.
Actually, it’s not that embarrassing at all. Jones has been a pretty good player. But when a team is churning out All-Pro after All-Pro, the expectations can become rather large and fans can’t help being a little disappointed. After setting records at the combine, it looked like the Cowboys would have an athletic star knocking down passes for years to come. During his rookie season, the team wasn’t sure what to do with him so he started out at cornerback, only to log snaps at safety down the stretch. Jones is a smart player, but isn’t a quick-twitch change of direction type of player so the coaching staff felt he was best suited for the safety position. And that is where he’s played over the last two seasons.
Now, the team could be having second thoughts. His instincts, as it turns out, aren’t as great as originally thought and they have gotten himself into trouble at the safety position. Several times he’s been caught over-committing to where he took himself out of the play. He’s got great speed and that certainly has helped when he had to run down his mistake, but his skills are not being utilized to their fullest at safety. When Jones was assigned a specific receiver to cover, he handled that job very well. While the receiver (or tight end) may have gotten separation at first, Jones recovered well and more times than not was able to get into position to knock down the ball.
The shift to cornerback may produce a more valuable defensive back. We won’t know that until it happens. It’s worth a shot because of the upside of what could be, but it should also be noted, that Jones has still been an asset to the team despite not living up to those big expectations. Bob Sturm explains:
Has Jones been good? Yes. And at times, he has been quite good. In 2015, as a rookie who played primarily as a corner, he trailed only Demarcus Lawrence, Sean Lee, and Greg Hardy in splash plays with 17.5, leading all defensive backs in the metric that measures “big plays”. In 2016, he only trailed David Irving and Sean Lee and had 17.5 again to lead all defensive backs on the team as he was moved over to safety. And then this year, in 2017, he had 15.5 and finished 4th on the team behind Demarcus Lawrence, David Irving, and Sean Lee.
So, in 48 games as a pro, he has 50.5 “splash plays” which easily leads any Cowboys defensive back over that span. Has he been less than you might have hoped? Sure. That is fair. There is nothing wrong with wishing he was even better. And this news that suggests he is a corner again is a great indicator that they want more.
Indeed, the Cowboys want more from Jones. And if that means putting him out on the field for special teams, so be it. Put his athleticism to work.
While it’s been a frustrating ride yo-yoing him back and forth between defensive backs position, what’s done is done. Hearing that the team wants to get more out of Jones is a breath of fresh air and it’s important to figure out what they have in him before he hits free agency. He is on the last year of his rookie contract, but the Cowboys can choose to exercise his fifth-year option (deadline May 2nd) to keep him on the team through the 2019 season. And because he played safety last year, they would get him for the safety price of just over $6 million (versus over $9 M had he played corner last season). That’s good savings.
The Cowboys are under no obligation to honor his salary (unless he gets hurt) should Jones end up being flat out terrible, but if he does, well - they can get locked into another year without being forced to make a decision on him long term.
Dallas declined to pick up Morris Claiborne’s fifth-year option when they had the chance in 2015, but that was an easy decision. Because he was a top 10 pick (and a cornerback), his cost would have been expensive and nowhere close to matching his production on the field. Plus, there were the always-present injury issues.
For Jones, it’s a different situation. For a player who has never missed a game and still has room to grow, it’s an investment the Cowboys need to make.
The Cowboys have let their defensive backs walk in free agency when they don’t feel they are worth their asking price and just because Jones is a former first-round pick, he’s not immune to being shown the door. If he’s not good enough, he’s not good enough - those are the rules. But we don’t know exactly how good he is just yet. The team should buy into him for another year and see what he can do at the cornerback position.