New defensive coordinator Mike Nolan is certainly going to put a lot of emphasis on taking the ball away, and his defenses have a track record of being very good at that. He’s already talked about the importance of takeaways, leading some to believe this could influence the Cowboys to move on from impending free agent Byron Jones based on the large contract he will get from some team.
Whether the Cowboys re-sign Jones or not, they still have plenty of questions to answer at the cornerback position. Both Jourdan Lewis and Chidobe Awuzie will be free agents after the 2020 season, as will free safety Xavier Woods. So Dallas will either need to shell out some cash to their secondary or essentially hit the reset button on the back end of their defense... again.
In this discussion of the Cowboys corners, there’s three prevailing narratives about the three main players:
- Jones is a great cover corner but might not be worth what he’ll ask for
- Lewis is a ballhawk who needs to play more
- Awuzie is dangerously close to “just give up on him already” territory.
But the proverbial brakes need to be pumped on that last one, as there is a legitimate case to be made for Awuzie. There have been plenty of frustrating moments for Awuzie the last two years; most notably, these moments involved good coverage where a completed catch could’ve been negated by turning his head around. And yes, Awuzie did get benched in Week 16 for poor play.
Still, these isolated instances overshadow the fact that, on the whole, Awuzie was actually pretty good in coverage throughout the 2019 season. Awuzie was one of 21 defenders who was thrown at 90 or more times, and his allowed completion rate of 59.8% was seventh best among those 21 defenders.
In fact, Awuzie’s coverage numbers were nearly identical to Panthers cornerback James Bradberry; they both saw the exact same number of targets and completions allowed, and virtually the same average depth of target (ADOT).
The biggest statistical difference is Awuzie gave up two more touchdowns and had two less interceptions than Bradberry, and Bradberry was hailed as one of the more improved players in the NFL this year, while Awuzie was often the butt of the joke.
While there’s legitimate criticism to be levied at Awuzie over his lack of takeaways, that can easily be applied to the entire Cowboys defense. For what it’s worth, Awuzie has had one interception each season in his three-year career, and recovered his first fumble this year. That’s more picks and fumble recoveries than Jones has in his five years in the NFL.
Furthermore, a side-by-side comparison and Jones and Awuzie’s coverage stats from 2019 reveal just how good Awuzie really was:
Byron Jones: 53.1% allowed on 64 targets, 11.6 yards/completion, 6.2 yards/target, 10 yards ADOT, 87.7 passer rating allowed, 3 touchdowns allowed
Chidobe Awuzie: 59.8% allowed on 97 targets, 12.5 yards/completion, 7.5 yards/target, 12 yards ADOT, 89.1 passer rating allowed, 3 touchdowns allowed
Obviously Jones is the better corner, and these numbers reflect that, but Awuzie being so close in most of these stats despite a significantly larger volume of targets is impressive. And what makes this even more compelling is seeing how Awuzie’s numbers compare to the 2018 season:
2018: 56.8% allowed on 95 targets, 14.3 yards/completion, 8.1 yards/target, 12 yards ADOT, 96.4 passer rating allowed, 5 touchdowns allowed
2019: 59.8% allowed on 97 targets, 12.5 yards/completion, 7.5 yards/target, 12 yards ADOT, 89.1 passer rating allowed, 3 touchdowns allowed
Despite seeing nearly the same amount of targets at the same average depth of target, Awuzie yielded nearly two whole yards less per completion and a significantly lower passer rating against him. Additionally, Awuzie recorded double-digit passes defensed the last two years, making him the first Cowboy to do that since Brandon Carr in the 2012-2013 seasons.
In short, Awuzie is a very good cover corner who seems to get really unlucky. A bigger emphasis on locating the ball and trying to make a play could help him take another step forward as a defender, and perhaps Nolan’s new style of play can do just that. Even so, the numbers prove that Awuzie is better than he’s getting credit for.