Continuing our series of looking at positional groups. Today, we look at the Dallas Cowboys cornerbacks.
The hiring of Kris Richard saw immediate improvement in the Cowboys defense. Some of that can be attributed to DeMarcus Lawrence continuing to dominate, Jaylon Smith’s progression, and the emergence of Leighton Vander Esch, but there is no denying that Richard had a big impact on this defense taking a jump.
One of the bigger moves that Richard made was the decision to move 2015 first-round pick Byron Jones from his spot at safety to cornerback. Richard believed that the long, lengthy, and athletic Jones could thrive at a new position. He turned out to be right.
Elsewhere, we saw Chidobe Awuzie continue to show flashes of growth and Anthony Brown develop into one of the better slot corners in the game. Jourdan Lewis was the odd man out, as his snaps dropped significantly despite an impressive rookie campaign.
Kris Richard bet on moving Jones to corner and it paid off. Dating back to Richard’s days with the Legion of Boom in Seattle, it is clear that he prefers the bigger, longer defensive backs. That is why Jones and Richard fit so nicely together last season.
For the first half of the season, you could have made a strong argument that Jones was one of the better corners across the NFL. He used his size and length to take away the opponents’ receivers week in and week out. He struggled against Deandre Hopkins (who doesn’t?), but had a strong performance versus Michael Thomas in the Thursday Night Football win over the Saints.
now heres great work at the LOS. Byron Jones took away the space forcing a lateral release by Michael Thomas. Nice inside hand stab. washed receiver down the line. In slow motion he's there just a tad bit early but live thats a bang bang play. Thomas worked for every inch pic.twitter.com/NCKgJhtAzE— The Press Coverage Podcast (@PressCovPodcast) May 22, 2019
Jones was not as good toward the end of the season because of injury, but that does not mean he was bad. The former UConn star was a huge component on the growth of this defense, totaling 67 tackles, two TFLs, and a career-high 14 passes defended en route to his first Pro Bowl appearance.
Now that he is entering the final year on his deal and the second season at corner, how will Byron Jones perform in 2019?
I remember wanting Awuzie in the first-round of the 2017 NFL Draft due to his versatility and upside. Fortunately, the Cowboys were able to draft the former Colorado defensive back in the second round.
Awuzie battled injury during his rookie season, but still showed enough promise in the 10 games in which he appeared in that had fans excited:
Chidobe Awuzie makes a play on the ball, setting up Sean Lee for the INT and ending the game. pic.twitter.com/lDpQ6nqCXf— Cowboys Nation (@CowboysNation) December 10, 2017
Then in the 2018 preseason, Awuzie showed some incredible ball skills against the Bengals:
Awuzie finished the 2018 season with 71 tackles, 11 TFLs, and one forced fumble. It will be interesting to see how the young corner develops with another offseason under Richard.
We always talk about Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, and Jaylon Smith when discussing the historic 2016 Cowboys draft class, but the franchise also found a pretty solid defensive back in the sixth-round: Anthony Brown out of Purdue.
Brown’s speed made him an intriguing prospect coming out of college and he has used that to become a reliable player in the NFL. Brown has been in the starting lineup for at least nine games in all three of his seasons with Dallas. He has had some ups and downs — which is to be expected, especially for a player that was drafted late on day three — but 2018 saw Brown take a huge step in his development.
Playing in the slot, Brown made 44 tackles, two TFLs, a pair of sacks, three QB hits, eight passes defended, one interception, and one forced fumble. Brown was used all over and he capitalized on the opportunities that he was given.
Exhibit D.— John Owning (@JohnOwning) June 4, 2019
Anthony Brown can also be used effectively as a blitzer. Notice how he follows the DE upfield for a few steps, this, combined with the DT twist, enables Brown to dart into the backfield, sidestep the RB and bring down Colt McCoy for the sack. pic.twitter.com/BNaFQShr0t
Much like Jones, Brown is entering the final season on his rookie deal. Will he continue progressing under the coaching of Richard?
There was a moment in time in which it looked like Jourdan Lewis was going to be the best corner on the Cowboys roster. His play on the field during his rookie season, combined with the confidence in which he brings, made him a fan favorite of many.
Lewis’ rookie season showed promise, but the hiring of Kris Richard put things into a bind. Anthony Brown stepped up and won the starting job at the slot, while Lewis struggled to see meaningful snaps at defensive back — a complete 180 from his first season in the league.
While it would be pretty understanding to see Lewis be frustrated, he know his role in the defense and is doing his best to maximize it.
“It’s just more understanding my role,” Lewis said on Sunday. “We’re trying to maximize that as much as possible to see if I can get on the field. We know that I can make plays, so I’m just excited to see how he uses me and when he uses me. I just gotta be ready whenever I’m called.”
One of the best examples of Lewis maximizing his new role with the Cowboys was the best play of his young career: an interception on Drew Brees that sealed the huge win for Dallas last November.
The play was the Cowboys’ game plan in a nutshell as the focus was obviously to take away Alvin Kamara. It worked.
The key play of the game, Jourdan Lewis interception. One of the tactics Rod Marinelli and Kris Richard created for this game was to cover RB Alvin Kamara as a WR with a CB used to being in coverage.— Ed Werder (@EdwerderRFA) November 30, 2018
Lewis does not fit the prototype of Kris Richard defensive backs, but he knows how to make plays. We will see if that earns him more snaps in 2019.
No, not the musician. The Cowboys spent a 2019 draft pick on a corner: Miami Hurricanes’ Michael Jackson. The 6-foot-1, 210-pound defensive back possesses 32 1⁄2 arms, much closer to the defensive backs that Richard has had success with than the aforementioned Lewis.
Throw that in with a 4.45 40-yard dash and 40.5” vertical jump, and Jackson appears to be a player that has a chance to make an impact with some NFL coaching and development.
Our own David Howman wrote a piece on Jackson, explaining why the former Miami DB is a potential nice fit for what the Cowboys want to do.
And therein lies the fit with the Cowboys. Jackson is a big, long, strong corner who excels in press coverage. His physicality at the line of scrimmage helps to hide his average agility, and that plays well into the style that Richard has his defensive backs play. By coming to Dallas, Jackson will be asked to almost exclusively do the thing he does best.
And when he does that one thing, he does it very well. Check out this nugget from Pro Football Focus:
The #DallasCowboys selected CB Michael Jackson from @CanesFootball in the 5th round of the #NFLDraft2019— PFF DAL Cowboys (@PFF_Cowboys) May 1, 2019
Jackson was most targeted on Go Routes last season. On Go Routes, he allowed 5 receptions on 18 targets for 118 yds, 0 TDs, and a 54.4 passer rating. #CowboysNation pic.twitter.com/LGDLIWSgPr
You can never have too many defensive backs in today’s day and age. Can Jackson develop into a reliable player for the Cowboys?