Last year, the Dallas Cowboys completely remodeled their secondary as both their starting cornerbacks, Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne, left in free agency. The team looked to the draft and selected three new corners - Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, and Marquez White. In the blink of one offseason, the team had cycled out the meat and potatoes of their cornerback position group. When you factor in the early injuries to Lewis and Awuzie, the release of free agent Nolan Carroll, and the late-season injury to Orlando Scandrick, you would’ve thought the secondary would’ve been a train wreck last year. But as it turns out, it wasn’t. The younger guys actually did a pretty good job. There were only a few instances last year where the pass defense didn’t look very good.
The Cowboys have done next to nothing as far as additional upgrades at the position. Scandrick has been released and will now play for the Washington Redskins. Byron Jones will be transitioning from safety to the cornerback position as the team now thinks his skills would be put to better use at that position. The Cowboys didn’t sign a new corner in free agency, nor did they select one in the draft. The only real change for Dallas is the firing of secondary coach Joe Baker, replacing him with defensive backs coach/defensive passing game coordinator, Kris Richard.
The addition of Richard might be a more vital piece of the equation than some realize. The success he had with the Seattle Seahawks speaks for itself, but that had a lot to do with the talent of their players. Of course, Richard had a role in that development and will look to do the very same thing here in Dallas. And even though there aren’t any new faces showing up to help the secondary, Richard may have everything he needs already. The Cowboys have three young corners looking to break out in 2018.
The constant shuffling of Jones from corner to safety, back to corner again has done him no favors. He’s got a lot of different traits that make it easy to fit him into either of those positions. He’s an amazing athlete and has great football intelligence. His smarts and recovery speed make him seem like an ideal candidate for safety. But Jones also has some traits that have hurt him at that position. He plays with a high center of gravity and will sometimes struggle changing direction. This has led to Jones being caught out of position at times which can take him out of the play, wasting his athleticism.
The Cowboys are attempting to change that by just giving him a corner assignment and letting him play. Jones has outstanding closing speed, which has been evident many times when he’s had to stay with a receiver. Jones' success at corner could be a little Jeckyl-and-Hyde-ish depending on how much air is put under the ball. He’s more susceptible at getting beat by quick-cut receivers when the timing of the pass is good. However, if you give this guy a chance to recover, he’s going to make a play on the ball. This play is a perfect example of Jones’ coverage ability as he’s trying to stay with the ever-elusive Cole Beasley.
Byron Jones with the PBU vs. Cole Beasley: pic.twitter.com/lrn70yrfPE— Brandon George (@DMN_George) August 21, 2017
Despite entering his fourth season, Jones’ full potential at corner is still a big unknown. He’s going to be average at the least, but can his ceiling make him one of the stronger corners in the league? Mickey Spagnola had a chance to sit down with Richard and this is what he had to say about his new cornerback toy:
“I always wanted an opportunity to work with Byron Jones. You’re talking about one of the premiere athletes now that he’s going to be playing corner. He has tons of work ahead of him, but he’s doing a phenomenal job. He’s a tremendous student, he’s cerebral. We already know the type of athlete he is. It’s a joy to work with guys of that nature. He’s a consummate professional, he’s a leader on our football team, and it’s just good to have him around.”
As it looks now, Jones will be one of the starting outside corners for the Cowboys. Will this new position help elevate his performance to a higher level?
Because of his intelligence and reactive athleticism, Awuzie’s name has come up before as a possible safety candidate, however, he’s got a lot of traits that scream corner. Unlike Jones, Awuzie’s movements are fluid and he changes direction extremely well. He’s physical enough to jam receivers at the line of scrimmage and has springy feet to jump routes. Here is one of my favorite Chido plays, even though he wasn’t the one who got the interception.
Chidobe Awuzie deflection, Sean Lee interception pic.twitter.com/kjYOZwgMiu— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) December 12, 2017
Awuzie only has a short sample size to go off of, but if we’re judging on his playing time - the guy was very effective as what he does. Pro Football Focus has him listed as one of their second-year players who are primed to break out in 2018.
The former Colorado product played a whopping 252 defensive snaps, 92 percent of which at left outside cornerback, in Dallas’ final five regular season contests after playing just 57 snaps in their first 11 games. Awuzie allowed just 6.9 yards per reception allowed, ranking fifth among cornerbacks with at least 10 receptions allowed in said span. He also earned 81.0 overall game grades in three of the five games.
When the Cowboys made the change to Awuzie over Anthony Brown, they went 4-1 in their final five games and the defense held their opponents to an average of just 11 points a game.
A third-round pick a year ago, his career got off to a slow start after he suffered a hamstring injury in training camp. But once he got on the field, he never came off and last season, Lewis was the team’s best corner.
Despite a strong rookie season, Lewis could find himself reduced to a slot role on the team. This isn’t necessarily a knock on his ability, but rather fitting everyone into what they do best. At 5’ 10” he doesn’t fit into what Richard looks for in a corner, but Lewis has the athleticism to mirror his receiver. He’s got great lateral quickness and outstanding closing speed, which is one of the reasons he’s so perfect for the slot. Richard loves guys with length so they can disrupt the receivers path at the line of scrimmage, but despite Lewis’ size, he’s still a physical guy who doesn’t get pushed around. He’s a fiery competitor and whatever role they choose for him, he’s going to be a strong coverage guy for the defense.
And while he can give away a step or so at times, he’s got great recovery and always seems to get his hand in there at the last minute to make a play on the ball.
Jourdan Lewis has ball skills. pic.twitter.com/REgDhUg80o— Cowboys Nation (@CowboysNation) September 26, 2017
Which one of these corners to you think has the best chance to break out this season?
Which of these three Cowboys corners will break out in 2018?
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