Newsflash: the new Dallas Cowboys want ballhawks. Defensive backs coach Maurice Linguist said that earlier in the week. Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan echoed a similar sentiment as well. It’s clear that this new staff is going to prioritize taking the ball away, something the Cowboys have struggled mightily with the last few years.
Wanting ballhawks and having ballhawks are two completely different things. Every team would surely love to have a bunch of ballhawks starting in the secondary, but that’s usually an unrealistic expectation. So who do the Cowboys currently have on their roster that could blossom into ballhawks under the new regime? And what options are there going to be in free agency? Here’s a breakdown:
Currently on the roster
Byron Jones - Of course, Jones is on an expiring contract and there’s some uncertainty about whether he’ll be brought back, especially amid all this talk about takeaways. Jones has been one of the NFL’s best cover corners the last two years but he hasn’t intercepted a pass since 2017 and he’s never recovered a fumble.
That’s not to say Jones is incapable of taking the ball away. In college, where he exclusively played cornerback, Jones picked off eight passes in four years as a starter. Perhaps playing under a coordinator who emphasizes interceptions over knocking down passes could help Jones rediscover that nose for the ball he had at UConn.
Jourdan Lewis - He sat on the bench for a year and a half because he was “too short” but Lewis has been highly productive in his time on the field. Lewis has logged four picks and three fumble recoveries in three years despite only playing 18% of defensive snaps in 2018. Additionally, he showed in 2019 that he can be effective as a blitzer with four sacks.
Lewis also recorded two interceptions each of his three years as a starter at Michigan. It’s clear that Lewis is just adept at getting his hands on the ball, and that’s continued in Dallas despite his erratic usage. He should benefit greatly from the new regime’s focus on takeaways.
Xavier Woods - While Woods regressed in his coverage and tackling skills in 2019, his ball skills remained an asset. Woods tied with Lewis for the team lead in interceptions with two, bringing Woods’ career total to five over the course of three years. And that’s taking into account that he didn’t see significant snaps until roughly halfway through his rookie year. Woods has also forced three fumbles and recovered two in his career.
He was much more of a ballhawk in college with a whopping 14 interceptions in just three years, as well as six forced fumbles. However, these numbers are a bit inflated since he was playing against lower talent in the Conference USA. Still, though, Woods flashed his ballhawk traits and has carried it over to the NFL. Like Lewis, he could take things to the next level under the new regime.
Donovan Wilson - Despite an impressive training camp and preseason, Wilson only saw 2% of defensive snaps in 2019, somewhat due to an injury he sustained in the first few weeks of the year. But Wilson did impress in the preseason, tallying 11 total tackles, three passes defensed, and three interceptions.
Wilson also flashed ballhawk potential in college, where he posted eight interceptions over three years while forcing four fumbles and recovering two of them. Also worth mentioning is that his position coach in his senior year was Linguist, and in that year working together Wilson set a career high in tackles and sacks as well. With Linguist now working with the defensive backs, and specifically focusing on safeties, maybe Wilson will get more of an actual shot in 2020.
Options in free agency
PJ Williams - He’s spent his whole career thus far in New Orleans and is at the end of his contract, so his familiarity with Nolan could come into play. While playing mostly in nickel and dime packages, Williams has snagged four interceptions in three years and also forced two fumbles. He’s not a priority but is someone who Nolan knows well and could probably be signed at a cheap price.
Bashaud Breeland - About to play in the Super Bowl, Breeland has been productive everywhere he’s been. He recorded eight interceptions, seven forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries in four years with the Redskins. He was then signed by Mike McCarthy’s Packers in 2018, where he grabbed two picks, before joining the Chiefs this year and getting two more picks. He’s currently playing on a deal that pays him $2 million for the one year, so Breeland might be available at a reasonable cost, though Kansas City probably wants to hold onto him.
Damarious Randall - Drafted in the first round by McCarthy’s Packers in 2015, Randall has been a takeaway machine. He primarily played cornerback in Green Bay and had 10 interceptions in three years. He was traded to Cleveland prior to the 2018 season, where he moved to a safety/nickel corner hybrid. Randall put up four picks in his first year in Cleveland, but for some reason failed to get any in 2019. Still, 14 interceptions in four seasons playing multiple different roles is impressive. And his connection to McCarthy could persuade him to take a cheaper deal and redeem himself after a zero-interception season.
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix - Another former Packer that McCarthy knows well, Clinton-Dix was Green Bay’s first-round pick the year before Randall. In his four and a half years in Green Bay, Clinton-Dix posted 14 interceptions and three forced fumbles, but a midseason trade to the Redskins halted his productivity. But after spending the 2019 season on the Bears’ formidable defense, Clinton-Dix rebounded with two picks and two fumble recoveries. He’ll probably cost more than the $5.5 million price tag Chicago gave him last year, but he might be worth it.
Eric Berry - The story of Eric Berry is at once inspiring and heartbreaking, but after taking the 2019 season off from football, the All Pro safety is ready to play again. Berry received some interest from the Cowboys last offseason, and now he’d be reunited with Al Harris, who coached him in Kansas City the last six years of his career. While Berry hasn’t played a lengthy bout of football since 2016, he has 14 picks over five and a half seasons as a starter, and has long been considered one of the league’s best safeties. Perhaps Dallas will still have interest now that he’s ready for a comeback.
Anthony Harris - Joining the Vikings as an undrafted free agent in 2015, Harris rose the ranks to become a star contributor, and he blossomed into a ballhawk the last two seasons with nine total interceptions. His four career fumble recoveries also speak to his ability to get the ball. He’s set to hit free agency this year, and Spotrac lists his market value at an average annual salary of $13.8 million, but perhaps the arrival of longtime Vikings defensive coordinator George Edwards to Dallas can help get a deal done.
Of course, this doesn’t take into account the draft, where there are plenty of other players with impressive ball skills to be had such as LSU’s Grant Delpit, Florida’s C.J. Henderson, Minnesota’s Antoine Winfield Jr., and many more. While it’s not realistic to expect a drastic change in this area, there are certainly some options for Dallas to get more of a ballhawk mentality in their secondary going into 2020.