The Cowboys have plenty to do over the offseason, but the secondary seems to be the spot that is getting the most play between free agent projections and mock drafts.
Biggest Need: Secondary
It is inconceivable that the Cowboys would let the 26-year-old helmsman of the No. 2 DVOA offense and No. 5 DVOA pass offense leave in free agency. Assuming they retain Dak Prescott either with a big contract or a franchise tag, then Dallas should turn their attention to their defensive secondary. The Cowboys underwhelmed with the No. 23 DVOA pass defense, and while their 6.8% adjusted sack rate was just 19th in the league, their 33.2% defensive pressure rate was sixth-best according to Sports Info Solutions. The Steelers were within a percentage point of the Cowboys with a 33.9% defensive pressure rate, but they led football with 54 sacks, 15 more than the Cowboys. The major difference was that the Steelers had quality coverage on the back end with three qualified cornerbacks in the top 32 in coverage success rate. Byron Jones led the Cowboys’ qualified corners with a 54% coverage success rate (36th), and he is a free agent. So too are safeties Darian Thompson and Jeff Heath. Keeping Jones and/or upgrading at cornerback and safety would eliminate the major weakness of the Cowboys defense and would likely make star defenders DeMarcus Lawrence, Leighton Vander Esch, and Jaylon Smith even more effective.
Film room: 3 draft prospects who could replace key Cowboys free agents, including Byron Jones’ possible successor - John Owning, DMN
Of course, what they do about Byron Jones will go along way in deciding how they address the secondary. If they don’t re-sign him, they could look to the draft.
One of the top options is TCU’s Jeff Gladney, who is one of the best pure man coverage corners in the draft. He has finely tuned feet, which enable him to stay in-phase with receivers in coverage. Gladney does an excellent job of reading a receiver’s low hip, which allows him to anticipate the break point and routes while in tight man coverage.
Gladney’s quick feet and fluid hips enable him to quickly change direction to remain sticky on receivers when need be. He has the quickness to survive in the slot to go with the deep speed to survive on the outside.
Gladney is also effective in zone coverage. He understands his responsibilities in zone and does well to take on and pass off receivers early on in the play. He shows good awareness in zone but is a half step slow to react than when in man coverage.
Some will be put off by the lack of turnover production by Gladney, who had just one interception in his senior year and five in his entire TCU career. But Gladney gets his hands on plenty of balls, with 26 passes defensed in his last two seasons. If he can get a little more comfortable playing the ball in the air, those interception totals should rise in the NFL.
They also need to think about upgrading the safety position.
What They Have: Lack of Security
For years, we’ve seen Jeff Heath start at safety for this team. He, Kavon Frazier and Darian Thompson are all free agents while Xavier Woods is under contract through the 2020 season. So really, you have Donovan Wilson. Linguist actually mentioned he saw some of Wilson at A&M, so maybe there will be some familiarity there. There’s no doubt this team is lacking some certainty of which direction they want to go, and it’s still hard to tell if they’ll bring back Heath.
Immediate Need: Game-Changing Starter
This is not a knock on anyone, but more a call for looking at the direction of the success of this league. There are certain positions you can’t skimp on if you want to be a championship caliber team, and the Cowboys are due for turnovers, interceptions, and momentum swings to help them run away with momentum and ultimately, more wins.
So will this be the draft that they finally spend a premium pick on a safety?
I see every year that most teams in the playoffs have at least a top tier safety, a former first rounder, a pro bowler and in some cases an All Pro guy. Why have the Cowboys typically stayed away from drafting a high safety?– SALOMON SABA / LAREDO, TX
David: They’ve made it pretty clear over the years that they think they can address the position without spending major resources. Why? I have no idea, because it hasn’t worked out very well for them. I think the philosophy around here is that a good pass rush makes your coverage look better. But to your point, teams all over the league are showing what you can accomplish with smart, versatile safety play. Hopefully the Cowboys are getting the memo.
Jonny: I think this comes down to a combination of opportunity, luck, and preference. It makes sense that each coaching staff has a couple positions that they’re confident in evaluating for talent and fit within their system. I think you tend to see that play out in picks 15-32, where you have to nail the pick, but there are less no-brainers available. If you’re a head coach, you don’t draft a guy at 17 unless you personally know he’ll be successful under you. If you’re wondering whether Mike McCarthy is confident evaluating safeties, the Packers selected Ha Ha Clinton-Dix with the 21st overall pick in 2014.
Cowboys position preview: After a tumultuous 2019 season, will Dallas look to replace its 3 specialists? - Michael Gehlken, DMN
The Cowboys special teams needs to change. How many of the key components from 2019 will be kept in 2020?
Brett Maher made history, but not mid-range field goals, resulting in the kicker’s December release.
Maher converted 20 of 30 field goals overall, including one of five attempts from between 40 and 49 yards. His successor was more consistent. Kai Forbath made all 10 field-goal tries, including seven from 40 to 49, during a three-game stint to close the year.
Long snapper L. P. Ladouceur was his usual steady self. He has appeared in a franchise-record 247 consecutive games for the Cowboys since 2005.
Punter Chris Jones had the worst statistical season of his career, although health was a factor. He dealt with not only a back issue but played through a sports hernia, sources said.
Prolonged rest, not surgery, was prescribed for Jones to begin this offseason.
Between the back injury and sports hernia, he wasn’t healthy for most of the season, and a case can be made he should’ve been placed on injured reserve. Jones pushed through pain to average 41.6 gross yards and a 37.0 net average per attempt. Both marks were the NFL’s lowest. By comparison, he averaged 44.9 and 40.5 yards, respectively, from 2011 to 2018.
Can Cowboys WR Noah Brown Finally Stay Healthy and Contribute in 2020? - Jess Haynie, Inside the Star
What is happening with forgotten receiver Noah Brown? Could he help on special teams?
Assuming that the Cowboys are able to re-sign Amari Cooper and Randall Cobb this offseason, they and Michael Gallup form the clear Top 3 among our receivers. But that fourth position and everything below it are wide open, and Noah Brown has as good a shot as anyone.
Even with the changes in the coaching staff, Brown still has an advocate on the team in Ezekiel Elliott. They were college teammates at Ohio State, and Jerry Jones has shared before that Zeke’s opinion was one of the reasons that they drafted Noah in 2017.
With Brown on the last year of his rookie deal there is no financial incentive for releasing him. Dallas should have him back competing for a spot, and his has already displayed skills that should at least make him a strong special teams candidate if not more.
Buy or sell Jerry and the Cowboys making a big splash in the draft? We’ll have more on that today, but first we’ll see what Bleacher Report thinks.
It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, then, to hear them all come up in some buzz from Tony Pauline of Pro Football Network: ”I can tell you this – a source close to the team told me, ‘Jerry wants to make a big splash in the draft.’ That leads me to believe Jones could look to trade up from the 17th overall pick.”
Even so, this one is a bit of a sell.
The Cowboys don’t figure to have the bandwidth necessary to make a major move. And “big splash” seems to imply they’re getting up into the top 10 or crossing their fingers to get in position for a potential Chase Young fall.
But while the Cowboys have north of $70 million in cap space, it’s going to evaporate quickly while getting deals done for Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper, at a minimum. Feel free to add in a potential extension for top corner Byron Jones.
The Cowboys are likely to pay up big to keep core pieces and lock down possible areas of need. Sacrificing major assets to move up for a rookie when the working idea is that the current core just needed a new coaching staff wouldn’t make a ton of sense.
If Teddy Bridgewater got $30M per season in free agency that could drastically impact Dak Prescott’s future contract. We discuss on the latest episode of The Ocho.
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