It’s started to become a bit more common in the last week or so: seven round Cowboys mock drafts have started including a cornerback taken at some point. And while the Cowboys have scheduled 27 of their 30 pre-draft visits, two of those prospects are cornerbacks.
That’s tied for the lowest amount of invites at a position so far, and it seems as if safety and defensive line are still the top priorities for Dallas heading into the draft. Still, the cornerback position always seems to be an area of emphasis for them.
But why? Byron Jones is coming off his first Pro Bowl season after switching to cornerback and dominating, and between Chidobe Awuzie, Anthony Brown, and Jourdan Lewis, the Cowboys seem to have a really strong position group.
The reason is about money, as it usually is in the NFL. Stephen Jones has shown a significant level of fiscal restraint since assuming a more pivotal role in the front office, rarely spending big money in free agency and judicious in giving big money to keep their own players. It’s part of the reason why the Cowboys let DeMarco Murray walk right after he won NFC Offensive Player of the Year.
And right now, Stephen Jones has to be in a state of constant resource planning because he has a very talented team that’s mostly on cheap contracts with very little time to take advantage of that fact. Here’s the list of starters and key contributors whose contracts are up after the 2019 season: Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper, Allen Hurns, Randall Cobb, La’el Collins, Robert Quinn, Maliek Collins, Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith, Byron Jones, and Anthony Brown.
Of those 11 players, only Cooper has a 2019 salary over $10 million. Most of them will have that in 2020, though. Now, some players like Cobb and Lee are on the downswing of their careers and may not be back anyway. But between Prescott and Cooper, the Cowboys are likely going to give them deals that make them among the highest paid of their position.
After that, the next priority probably becomes Jaylon Smith, and while the linebacker position is one of the less expensive positions, Smith will still command top dollar in the range of what Bobby Wagner and Luke Kuechly make. But then the attention turns to the two corners on that list, Jones and Brown.
As it stands right now, Jones and Awuzie are their two outside corners. Jones obviously had a career year in his first season in Kris Richard’s system, and while Awuzie struggled in the first half he caught fire near the end. Brown is the primary nickel corner, though he does occasionally alternate with the shorter but still talented Lewis. Cornerback has been a pricey position for a while (remember Brandon Carr’s contract?) but with the nickel package almost becoming the base package for most teams, the nickel corner is seeing a market surge, too. Bryce Callahan, who many considered the best nickel corner in 2018, inked a three-year deal in Denver worth $21 million with $10 million guaranteed. That gives him the 32nd highest contract value among cornerbacks, according to Spotrac, despite not being on the field in the standard base package.
All of this is to say that the Cowboys almost certainly won’t be able to retain both Jones and Brown, especially after all the other extensions they’ll want to give out before that. Dallas might also try to extend Ezekiel Elliott before then, too, instead of waiting until the end of the running back’s fifth-year option before the 2020 season.
If Jones performs as well in 2019 as he did in 2018, he’s going to be in line for a massive contract as well, potentially even pricing himself out of the Cowboys’ range. Prior to the 2018 season, Trumaine Johnson signed a five-year deal with the Jets worth $72.5 million with $45 million guaranteed. He now has the third most guaranteed money for a cornerback behind Patrick Peterson and Josh Norman. Jones would likely want in on that top-tier of corners if his 2019 is as good as this past season.
In short, the Cowboys can probably only afford to keep one of the two corners in the best case scenario. If Dallas retains Jones and lets Brown walk, Lewis can assume the full time nickel role; but if Jones walks, Brown has the versatility to play outside, with Lewis sliding into the nickel role. But here’s the catch, both Awuzie and Lewis will be free agents after the 2020 season, so neither of those plans are locked in long-term either.
That’s why the Cowboys are almost certainly going to draft a cornerback at some point in this upcoming draft. Whoever they draft, it’s likely to be someone who’s big, long, and strong, as is the profile that Richard seeks. The good thing is that there are several of those players in this draft class. Our own Connor Livesay already looked at Michigan State’s Justin Layne, who could be an option at the 58th overall pick.
But the Cowboys’ two invitees are intriguing. Chris Westry of Kentucky stands at 6’4” and ran a 4.31 40-yard dash at his pro day. Derrek Thomas of Baylor stands at 6’3” and ran a 4.44 40-yard dash to go along with his just-under 34” long arms. Both of these players could be options in the final rounds of the draft.
If Dallas can find someone they like who they can mold into a starter within the next year or two, then they’ll be doing themselves a favor by avoiding having to choose between a fiscal nightmare and an exodus of talent at one of the more important positions on defense. So expect the Cowboys to draft a cornerback this year despite it not being a pressing need.