Big things are expected from second-year cornerback Chidobe Awuzie this season. After dealing with nagging hamstring issues early on, he finally got healthy and started demonstrating why the Dallas Cowboys selected him 60th overall in the 2017 NFL Draft. With new defensive backs/passing game coordinator Kris Richard now running the show, fans are optimistic that their young corners Awuzie, Byron Jones, and Jourdan Lewis can all take steps forward and be effective cornerbacks this season. All three are good players, but it’s Awuzie who could emerge as the leader of the pack. Former Cowboys Chief Talent Scout and current NFL Senior Media Analyst Gil Brandt recently picked one candidate from each NFL team who he thinks could earn their first Pro Bowl selection in 2018 and Awuzie was his guy.
DALLAS COWBOYS: Chidobe Awuzie, CB, second NFL season. Awuzie has exceptional short-area quickness and explosion and can play slot corner, corner or safety. He’s very intelligent and has above-average coverage skills. Provided he stays healthy, he’ll seriously improve Dallas’ defense as a starter this year.
I fully support Brandt’s view of Awuzie. The raw potential combined with the intellectual makeup certainly increases his chances of being successful in this league. But in order to stand out as one of the league’s top corners, he’s going to need to showcase dominance in coverage, and based on the Cowboys schedule of opponents this season - that will be no easy task. Dallas will have 10 games this year against a team that has a Pro Bowl #1 WR. And they are:
Julio Jones (Falcons) - 5 Pro Bowls
T.Y. Hilton (Colts) - 4 Pro Bowls
Odell Beckham Jr., twice (Giants) - 3 Pro Bowls
DeAndre Hopkins (Texans) - 2 Pro Bowls
Doug Baldwin (Seahawks) - 2 Pro Bowls
Mike Evans (Buccaneers) - 1 Pro Bowl
Alshon Jeffrey, twice (Eagles) - 1 Pro Bowl
Michael Thomas (Saints) - 1 Pro Bowl
That is a total of eight Pro Bowl receivers spread across 10 games where Awuzie will have his work cut out for him. That’s not to say that Awuzie will draw all these guys as specific match-ups may dictate who lines up against who, but it’s a safe bet that Awuzie is going to have to deal with them some of the time.
The Cowboys played some of these teams last year, but because of injuries, a couple of these match-ups didn’t happen. Awuzie did not play against Julio Jones and the Falcons and Odell Beckham Jr. missed both games against the Cowboys. So we don’t have an idea how that is going to play out. There were a couple of battles that did happen last year though. Chido’s worst play of the season occurred when he was going up against Seattle’s Pro Bowler Doug Baldwin.
This week's Devastating Route Award goes to Doug Baldwin on rookie Chidobe Awuzie in the slot. pic.twitter.com/hpnPTRqEBe— Ian Wharton (@NFLFilmStudy) December 27, 2017
Ouch. I’m sure Chido is going to be looking for a little redemption for that one.
But there was some good news too. He faced off against the Eagles new receiver Alshon Jeffrey and completely shut him down.
Note: Awuzie played in their first match-up of the season as well, but he only played 15 snaps on special teams. He did not play defense in that game.
Besides these 10 games with difficult matchups, Awuzie will also square off against the Carolina Panther’s new first-round star receiver, D.J. Moore. We all know how much Cowboys fans are enamored with Moore. Other notable opponents include Marvin Jones with the Detroit Lions. Jones is loving his new home in Detroit as he’s put up career numbers in each of his two seasons with his new team, including a 1,100 yard and nine touchdown performance last year.
Having a tough slate of opponents can certainly make things difficult for anyone, but that doesn’t mean Awuzie isn’t up for the task. Last year, La’el Collins faced the daunting task of squaring off against some of the league’s best pass rushers and he held his ground pretty well.
La'el Collins will have his hands full in his first season at right tackle pic.twitter.com/KspWSwof9k— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) July 18, 2017
By the same token, Dez Bryant had quite the obstacle ahead of him last year, but things didn’t go so well for him.
Can any of these corners shut down Dez Bryant? pic.twitter.com/YaM7FR9EJH— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) July 19, 2017
Bryant wouldn’t have a single game of 100 yards receiving last year. In fact, he averaged a detestable 52 yards per game last year, despite getting 132 targets on the year. These tough battles may have exposed Bryant for his inability to win one-on-one battles, which was a big factor in his release this offseason.
Which group will Awuzie fall into? Can he hold his own against these star receivers are will they take advantage of his limited experience? A good year against this level of competition could show the world that he’s a Pro Bowl caliber corner.