While we wait for training camp to get underway, we’re taking a look at all the position groups for the Dallas Cowboys, with the focus on whether the team was successful in improving during the offseason. You can find the links for the earlier parts of this series at the end of this one. This is the final installment before a recap of the overall roster, looking at the secondary.
Separate posts on cornerbacks and safeties would have been rather short, so we’ll combine them, which also makes sense because the approach the team took to both was very similar.
The entire secondary presents a bit of a problem in the stated goal of this series, which is to gauge how much the team has improved. There is an implied attempt to deem whether it is sufficient. The trouble here is that the team did use free agency and the draft to bring in new talent - but it just is not as impressive as at some other positions. There were also groups where the growth or improved health of a player gives us good reason to think things are on the upswing. Dak Prescott and Travis Frederick are the best examples of each of those cases.
The thinking for the team seemed to be that the core already in place for both groups of defensive backs was solid, and they didn’t have to spend a lot of cap space or draft capital to be in good shape this year. That may be true - but the case is clearly not as strong as it is for the linebackers.
Cornerback has three starters coming back after a good season (the slot corner is for all intents and purposes a starting position, even though it is not traditionally considered as such). Byron Jones benefited greatly from the move back to cornerback after having been used as a safety out of necessity for a couple of seasons. He finished the season as one of the highest graded corners in the league, allowing only a 53.6% completion rate of the passes thrown to the man he was covering. Given the way NFL rules have evolved to favor the offense, that is very impressive. However, he is expected to miss at least part of training camp as he recovers from hip surgery. We have to see if he can pick right back up in the regular season.
Chidobe Awuzie was less dominant, but still provided a solid performance and should be entrenched in his job as an every down corner. He was on the field for 86% of the team’s defensive snaps. (Jones never left, logging 99.5%.) Anthony Brown was the main man at slot corner, seeing 67% of the plays. The fourth corner at the moment is Jourdan Lewis, who notoriously does not fit the Kris Richard mold - except for how well he does his job when given the chance. If anyone’s spot on the roster is at risk, it is Lewis’ - but more than likely, the rest of the corners currently with the team are fighting for a fifth spot.
Returning players that are in that mix include C.J. Goodwin, Treston Decoud, and Donovan Olumba. Of that group, Olumba currently looks like the best shot to break through.
However, the most likely player to claim a new spot is fifth-round draft pick Mike Jackson. (Technically, it is Michael Jackson, but there are indications the player prefers Mike for reasons that are obvious to almost all, especially those of us over 25 or so.) He is not a lock because of his draft status, since that is more applicable to those taken in rounds one through four by the Cowboys. But he is going to get every chance, and he looks to have all the traits Richard likes.
And then there’s UDFA Chris Westry, who takes the concept of a “long” DB to new, um, lengths, measuring 6-4. He is an interesting wild card to add to the mix.
Going into the offseason, safety was seen as one of the positions of greatest need for the Cowboys. But that may have been more a case of how the outside world perceived things, since the team took rather measured steps to upgrade there. The need was driven by both quality and quantity concerns. Xavier Woods had a very good year, and Gil Brandt has tabbed him a defensive back poised to break out this season. There was widespread dissatisfaction with the play of Jeff Heath, who has a tendency to be a boom or bust player. He will make some great plays, then take a rotten angle and miss a tackle or coverage. He does have one crucial intangible going for him in that the coaches apparently really like him and what he brings to the special teams. He is going to be hard to unseat, at least as far as his place on the 53-man roster. Backing them up is Kavon Frazier, who has flashed, but not really proven he is a go-to guy.
The team did dip into the free agency market to shore things up, netting George Iloka. He seems like a player who would do well in the Richard scheme, but doesn’t come with the most impressive résumé. Some much more accomplished free agent safeties were passed on. They also were parsimonious in the draft, famously passing on many options before they plucked Donovan Wilson in the sixth round. Wilson has some traits that could make him a late-round sleeper, and he could be in direct competition with either Iloka or Frazier if the Cowboys elect to carry only four, and also could be a fifth man in the group. How the Cowboys decide to allocate roster spots may be crucial for him.
The team also has returning players vying for a job in Jamiell Showers, Kyle Queiro, and Darian Thompson. However, Showers is a converted quarterback and Queiro has been working some at linebacker, where the Cowboys may have more room for him. All three are long shots, unless health concerns open up some opportunities.
So did the team improve the secondary during the offseason? That is at best to be determined. Corner has intriguing options in Jackson and Westry, while Wilson is a player to watch. But Iloka was more insurance than anything. Overall, this is another place where the team really was more content to run with what they have. After so many places where there was much to point to, defensive back is lacking in any real improvement to hang your hat on.
Here are the links to the earlier parts of this series.