Public service announcement, the Cowboys defense was bad in 2019. Public service announcement, that doesn’t mean Byron Jones wasn’t great (he was). Final public service announcement, Byron Jones is likely not returning to the Cowboys in 2020 and will be playing elsewhere.
According to multiple reports, Byron Jones is set to reset the cornerback market when free agency kicks off this Sunday.
With this becoming more and more likely, the Cowboys must find a way to replace Byron Jones’ production in 2020. One problem, there aren’t any free agents that are the caliber of playing that Jones is, and any cornerback in this draft class (C.J. Henderson, Jeff Gladney, Kristian Fulton) will likely take time to develop into a player of that caliber. The best way the Cowboys can replace Byron Jones’ production is to upgrade at other positions on defense by using the money the team would use to sign Jones to fill multiple other spots on defense.
When taking a look at some of the biggest holes on defense outside of finding a new CB1, safety, 3-technique, 1-technique, and possibly defensive end, depending on what happens with Robert Quinn, are positions that come to mind first. Luckily for the Cowboys, they have plenty of options available in this free agent class to chose from to help soften the blow of losing Jones.
The free agent safety class is loaded with viable options at both strong safety and free safety. In a perfect world, the Cowboys should look to add a strong safety, so Xavier Woods can remain at his best spot as the team’s starting free safety.
Reshad Jones, a 32-year old veteran strong safety, was released by the Miami Dolphins this week ahead of free agency. Jones, a two-time Pro Bowler is coming off a year in which he played in just four games for a struggling Dolphins team. Jones has 21 career interceptions, and has spent time playing both free and strong safety for the Dolphins in his ten year career.
Miami #Dolphins S Reshad Jones is such an underrated player, especially as a run-defender. Big-hitter, excellent tackler, and very good at diagnosing blocking concepts: pic.twitter.com/20ovXiltBj— Brandon Thorn (@BrandonThornNFL) June 15, 2018
Karl Joseph, a former-first round pick by the Oakland Raiders in 2016, is also an intriguing strong safety option to target in free agency. Joseph’s fifth-year option was not picked up in 2019, and will be able to test the market next week. Joseph has had a somewhat disappointing start to his career after being drafted in the top half of the first-round in 2016. He is at his best when he’s lined up around the line of scrimmage and can come down hill as a big-time hitter. He could benefit from a change of scenery and would be viewed as an upgrade on a Cowboys defense needing a middle of the field enforcer. According to Spotrac.com, Karl Joseph's market value is currently set at $6 million dollars average annual salary, and for a 26-year-old, with a first-round pedigree, that would be excellent value for the Cowboys.
Karl Joseph is a bad bad man. pic.twitter.com/xq2pmYxgWW— Christopher Hall (@WVHallBilly) November 8, 2019
Last but not least at the safety position, we have Jaron Kearse. Kearse, a four-year veteran with the Minnesota Vikings, will be hitting the open-market at a bad time, due to an arrest that happened in October of 2019. Kearse was arrested for driving under the influence with a loaded gun, but on the field he has the potential to be a Pro Bowler. He is 6’4”, 215-lb and entering free agency with experience playing cornerback and safety in Minnesota’s defense. Without the off the field issues, Kearse would likely be demanding decent money in free agency, but the Cowboys could land Kearse at a very low dollar figure because of the off the field issues. He would fit in well in the Dallas defense as a strong safety that can also play the nickel as well for Mike Nolan.
Watching Jayron Kearse’s final drive dubbed over “Don’t Worry Be Happy” is my new morning motivation #Skol pic.twitter.com/iOsbR5S6DN— Luke Inman (@Luke_SpinmanNFL) November 19, 2019
The Cowboys will likely be losing Maliek Collins, Michael Bennett, and Christian Covington in free agency. With the loss of three players who played pivotal roles for the Cowboys interior defensive line, the Cowboys will need to dip into the free agent pool to add multiple interior lineman before the draft.
The one name that makes the most sense for the Cowboys is Mike Daniels. Daniels spent 2019 with the Lions, but injuries limited his production for Matt Patricia’s defense. Daniels spent seven seasons in Green Bay with Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy. In his time in Green Bay, Daniels was one of the most disruptive defensive lineman in the league racking up 29 sacks, 47 tackles for loss, and 68 QB hits. Daniels has the versatility to play both the 1-technique and 3-technique in Mike Nolan’s scheme, and shouldn’t cost a ton as he doesn’t have too many years left in his career. While Daniels is on the wrong-side of 30, there is still some gas left in the tank, and would provide needed depth and talent at the position.
I know @Bischoff_Scott has been chatting a lot on how Mike Daniels finally gives the #Lions some interior pressure/pass rush. We saw a glimpse of that vs. the Bills. pic.twitter.com/SilenqZZes— Justin Simon (@justincsimon) August 26, 2019
If the Cowboys have completely changed their perspective on nose tackles, taking some of the money the team saved by not signing Byron Jones and giving it to 27-year-old Michael Pierce would be a wise move. Pierce is a force in the middle of the defensive line and is one of the best run defending defensive tackles in the NFL. Pierce played the nose in Baltimore’s 3-4 scheme, and was able to generate some pressure as well from a position that normally offers nothing in that aspect of the game. Spotrac.com has Michael Pierce’s market value at $4.7 million average annual salary which should be a no-brainer if the Cowboys are finally ready to add some beef up front.
Free agent NT Michael Pierce (6-0, 340) is exactly what the #Packers defense needs this offseason.— Joe Kipp (@joepkipp) February 22, 2020
Two-down run stuffer who holds up well at the point of attack. Moves well for his size. Strong as an ox. Rarely gets washed out. Can take on double teams. Sign him! pic.twitter.com/TxKSRnZVFW
Sticking with the nose tackles, veteran nose tackle Damon “Snacks” Harrison is a free agent, and could provide the Cowboys with a cheap, veteran presence to help stop the run. Harrison spent time with the Lions in 2019, and while he didn’t quite play to the level that we are used to seeing, he was still a very solid run defender. Harrison has expressed his interest in playing in 2020 and wants to join a possible contender. Again, this signing only happens if the Cowboys have changed their perspective on how they evaluate the nose tackle position. It is possible that them getting run all over in 2019 has helped push for the change in prototype.
Damon Harrison 2019 review..Snacks can still play!— Brandon Thorn (@BrandonThornNFL) March 11, 2020
He wasn't his usual self early on, battled through injury most of the year, but got stronger as the year progressed. Not many guys more fun to study in the trenches than him. Size/strength/technique/processing = very good pic.twitter.com/WML7Yhsg2u
Last but not least, we have a former draft crush of mine, Vernon Butler. Butler has spent his career in Carolina and finally started to blossom into the player I thought he could be coming out of Louisiana Tech in 2016. Butler, just 25 years old, broke-out in 2019 with six sacks, 33 tackles, and three forced fumbles in just 10 starts for the Panthers. Butler offers some explosiveness as 3-technique, but isn’t a liability as a run defender from the under tackle position. Butler is a young, ascending player who is unfortunatley hitting free agency in one of the most loaded groups in recent years. Butler could be a hidden-gem for the Cowboys as a middle-tier signing to push for a starting job in camp.
FILM ROOM— John Ellis (@OnePantherPlace) October 15, 2019
Vernon Butler gets to the spot in....
.... 1.27 seconds.
This was the first of his two CONSECUTIVE strips of Jameis Winston. Amazing stuff. pic.twitter.com/7hcsKG3TeE
With the amount of money the Cowboys are going to be saving by not retaining Byron Jones, they should be able to go after one of these safeties, and at least two of these defensive tackles. The Cowboys WILL NOT be able to replace Byron Jones’ production in 2020, but upgrading at these three-spots may allow the Cowboys to improve in other areas, to help soften the blow of no Byron Jones.
While I’d rather have the lockdown cornerback, getting a play-making starting strong safety, and two starting-level players at both defensive tackle spots would allow the Cowboys to go into the draft looking to find Jones’ replacement and draft the best players available in each round of the draft.