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Grading the NFC East cornerbacks and how the Cowboys’ group compares

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Do the Cowboys have the best corners in the NFC East?

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NFL: New Orleans Saints at Dallas Cowboys Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

This season the Dallas Cowboys will look to repeat as NFC East champs. Dallas will try to become the first team to win back-to-back NFC East titles since the Philadelphia Eagles won four in a row from 2001-2004.

Despite their offense turning it on at after the Amari Cooper acquisition at mid season, Dallas relied on their defense to carry the load. As a team, the Cowboys finished sixth in the NFL with 20.2 points allowed per game and allowed just 329.2 yards per game, seventh best in the NFL.

If Dallas wants to repeat as division champs, Cowboys cornerbacks will have to repeat their performance from the 2018 season. Overall, the cornerback position is a fascinating one when looking at the entire NFC East.

Today we will take a deeper look into how the Cowboys’ cornerbacks stack up compared to the rest of the NFC East.

Washington Redskins

We start off by examining the Washington Redskins’ cornerback group. On defense last season, Washington allowed 22.4 points per game, 353.4 total yards, and 237.1 passing yards per game. All three of these numbers were middle of the pack in the NFL, and overall Washington had a pretty average defense.

Their cornerback group is led by former All-Pro Josh Norman. The 31-year-old played in all 16 games last season and recorded 64 total tackles to go with nine passes defensed, three interceptions, and accounted for seven turnovers. While these numbers look solid, if you dive deeper into the stats Norman was not that effective.

Locked on Redskins noted that according to Pro Football Focus, Norman had a passer rating against of 114.2 to go with giving up eight touchdowns.

Norman is not what he once was, so Washington will need Fabian Moreau, Greg Stroman, and Jimmy Moreland, who they drafted out of James Madison in the seventh round, to step up their production. Moreau is clearly the most talented out of that group. He played on 81% of the defensive snaps in 2018 to go with 58 total tackles and forced four turnovers in just 10 games. Redskins head coach Jay Gruden expects big things from the second-year man after what he saw in OTAs.

The Verdict: Overall, despite the former star power of Norman, Washington has a pretty underwhelming group at the cornerback spot. Moreau and Moreland will be the wild cards. If they are able to progress the way Washington thinks they will, Moreau, Moreland, and Norman could be a solid trio.

Final Rating = C+

New York Giants

As a team, the Giants were one of the worst defenses in the NFL last season. They allowed 25.8 points per game to go with 371.4 total yards per game and 252.8 passing yards a game. New York allowed 20 points or more in four of their six NFC East matchups and allowed 25 points or more in a game eight times. The secondary as a whole ranked 26th against the pass per Football Outsiders DVOA.

The poor play from the Giants’ cornerbacks, maybe best shown in their Week 17 matchup against the Cowboys, caused New York to go out and make some upgrades at the position this offseason. The Giants will have former Pro-Bowler Janoris Jenkins back as their starting RCB in 2019. Last season, Jenkins was able to play in all 16 games for the first time since 2013 and recorded 70 tackles to go with three interceptions and one forced fumble.

Despite not producing terrible stats, according to Big Blue View, Jenkins has not had an above average season in the league since 2016.

With Jenkins clearly not playing up to the level he once was, the Giants will rely on the young group of DeAndre Baker, Grant Haley, Sam Beal, and Julian Love to help him man the cornerback spot.

Baker and Love were both draft picks in 2018, and the Giants actually moved up late in the first round to snag Baker with the 30th pick. So far through just OTAs, Baker has already impressed the Giants with his swagger and toughness per Pat Leonard of New York Daily News Sports.

Baker was a first-team All-American and winner of the Jim Thorpe Award in 2018 given to the best defensive back in college football, so the talent he possesses is clearly immense. Baker will be battling with for a starting spot with Sam Beal who was picked by New York in the third round of the 2018 NFL Supplemental draft but missed his entire rookie season with a shoulder injury. Before getting hurt, Beal was projected as a late first-round pick in many early 2019 mock drafts, but his injury situation forced him to go the supplemental route.

To go with all that talent New York also has fourth-round pick Julian Love who will compete for a starting slot corner spot. Love was projected by many to be a late two/early third-round pick in the 2019 draft but ended up slipping all the way to the fourth round. Love posted 32 pass breakups and four interceptions over his last two seasons at Notre Dame and has the instincts and physical ability to succeed as a slot corner or play on the outside.

The Verdict: The Giants have one of the most unproven cornerback groups in the entire NFL, but they are also one of the most talented. You have to figure at least one of Baker or Beal will live up to their preseason hype, and Jenkins will have a chance to have a bounce-back year not having to carry as much of a load. Pair those three guys with Love in the slot and you have immense potential out of this corner group. They still have to prove it, especially with all that inexperience, but the Giants could have an outstanding group of corners for years to come.

Final Rating: B-

Philadelphia Eagles

Coming into the season the Eagles seemed to have one of the best defenses in the NFL, but stats at season’s end tell a different story. Philly finished giving up an average of 21.8 points per game to go with 366.2 total yards and 269.2 passing yards, the worst mark in all of football.

Injuries played a clear part in the poor performance of the Eagles’ secondary, but they have some key players back healthy in 2019. Philly has Ronald Darby, Rasual Douglas, Avonte Maddox, Sidney Jones, and Jalen Mills as their current top five corners. Darby is the biggest name out of the group but was unable to stay on the field once again in 2018.

The 25-year-old was unable to appear in more than nine games for the second straight season and recorded just 43 tackles and one interception. Darby’s season ended on November 11 after suffering a torn ACL in a 27-20 loss to the Dallas Cowboys.

Despite Darby being the biggest name, according to Pro Football Focus, cornerback Avonte Maddox will be the Eagles X-Factor in 2019.

“X factor for 2019: Avonte Maddox. The former fourth-rounder struggled from a grading perspective as a rookie last season but did show a penchant for limiting receivers in his coverage. In fact, he led all cornerbacks by allowing a reception just once every 21.7 snaps he spent in coverage and limited opposing quarterbacks to a passer rating of just 59.9 when targeted.”

Maddox finished 2018 with 35 total tackles, two interceptions, and one forced fumble while also recording a league-low 0.56 yards per coverage snap.

Pro Football Focus

Sidney Jones started off 2019 very well, during Weeks 1-3 he had a 74.0 overall cornerback grade from PFF, which was 18th best in the league, allowing only 0.41 yards per coverage snap and had a 62.2 QB Rating when thrown at. It didn’t last as his play dropped off after that and injury limited him to nine games. This is an important season for him to regain his lofty pre-injury draft status coming out of Washington.

Young corner Rasual Douglas also had a surprisingly impressive year despite going through some learning curves. In the Divisonal Round of the 2018 postseason Douglas had the lowest QB Rating when targeted according to PFF.

Not having Darby, and Jones going through some serious growing pains and injury even though he had some good moments, are a big reason why the Eagles’ cornerbacks struggled so much last season. With a healthy Darby and more experienced group to pair with him, things should be better for Philly in 2019.

The Verdict: Overall, the Eagles are similar to the Giants in having young corners with potential, but they still have to show us they can play. Having Darby back for a full season, assuming he is totally healthy, will help the group greatly. Maddox, Douglas, and Jones are really wild cards at this point, but if they can all stay on the field the Eagles should have a fairly decent cornerback group.

Final Rating: C+

Dallas Cowboys

Last but not least, we get to our Dallas Cowboys. In 2018 the Cowboys’ defense exceeded expectations immensely. A big part of being the sixth best defense in terms of points allowed per game was the play of their cornerbacks.

When Kris Richard was hired he made the decision to move Byron Jones from the safety position back to cornerback and it paid off in a big way. Jones turned from an average NFL player into an All-Pro and clearly the best corner on the Cowboys roster. Jones recorded 10 total pass breakups last season which was tied for 10th most in all of football. He also allowed a catch percentage of just 53.6% and a passer rating of just 85.5 according to PFF.

https://www.profootballfocus.com/news/pro-byron-jones-solidified-himself-as-one-of-the-nfls-best-cornerbacks-in-2018 Pro Football Focus

Jones health is one minor caution in 2019, but according to his own estimation he thinks he can be back for his target date of being ready for training camp.

“Definitely. I want to be back at training camp,” Jones said. “I want to be back with my teammates and play in the preseason games. That’s the target.”

Jones played a huge part in the Cowboys jumping from the 15th best coverage team in the NFL in 2017 to the seventh best coverage team at a 89.6 rating in 2018. The 26-year-old was so good that he was the eighth-most avoided cornerback in the league, being targeted once every 8.8 snaps. Jones not being targeted played a direct role in impacting the season of the other Cowboys’ starting outside corner Chidobe Awuzie.

When you have a dominant corner on one side, your other corners are going to get picked on quite a bit, and this happened all year to Chidobe Awuize. The second-year corner played in 15 games in 2018 and recorded 71 total tackles to go with one interception and one forced fumble.

Despite being targeted so much, Awuize still had a fairly strong season. As our own Danny Phantom noted, Awuize was always around the football in 2018, he just couldn’t seem to get his head around and make plays on the football.

When talking about Cowboys corners, Anthony Brown is usually the forgotten man. He was a part of the loaded 2016 draft class that has turned out to be one of the best in Cowboys’ history. Last season, Brown finished the year with 44 total tackles, two sacks, one interception, one forced fumble, and eight passes defensed.

Although Brown plays out of the slot for Dallas, but he does have the versatility to move outside in a pinch. In his first three years in the NFL, he has started 10 games every season and has not gone a year without forcing at least two turnovers.

Brown has been one of the more underrated Cowboys since entering the league, his anticipation and ball skills were on display in the plays shown below in 2018.

While Kris Richard coming in may have been the best thing for Byron Jones, it may have been the worst for Jourdan Lewis. In 2017, Lewis appeared in 15 games and was a Cowboys starting corner in seven of them. He recorded 54 total tackles to go with one interception and an impressive 10 passes defensed in that season.

The rookie out of Michigan brought a swagger and confidence to the corner position that the Cowboys had not seen in a long time. Lewis showed promise to be one of the Cowboys’ starting corners for years to come, but Richard taking over limited his opportunities. At just 5’ 10”, Lewis does not fit the mold of Richard’s long, lengthy cornerback prototype.

In 2018, although he did technically appear in 15 games, he started just one, and his time on the field was extremely limited. He recorded just 12 total tackles to go with one interception and two fumble recoveries. Although he was only used in 15% of snaps, no one will forget the game-winning interception he recorded to beat the New Orleans Saints in late November.

When he actually got a chance to be on the field, Lewis was fairly productive, but with his lack of fit into the Cowboys’ scheme it would not be surprising if he is a player who is moved during the preseason. If Dallas does move on from Lewis, 2019 draft pick Michael Jackson will play a more important role in his rookie year.

Dallas drafted Jackson out of Miami with the 158th overall pick in the 2019 draft. Jackson is 6’1, 210 lbs and perfectly fits the Richard ideal defensive back mold. Before the draft Jackson apparently told the Cowboys to “come get him,” and by all accounts, they are encouraged with what they have seen out of Jackson to this point.

You can’t count out Donovan Olumba or Richard favorite Chris Westry from making the roster and having an impact at the cornerback spot this year, especially if Dallas does decide to move on from Lewis.

The Verdict: Overall, as long as Byron Jones is healthy, the Cowboys have a very good chance to have the best corner group in all of the NFC East. Dallas clearly has the most proven talent and also pairs it with young and improving talent which makes a very good combination. The ability of Richard to get the best out of secondary players can also not be discounted.

Final Rating: B