The word on the street is that the Cowboys are giving serious thought to moving cornerback Chidobe Awuzie to safety. After drafting two cornerbacks last week and signing Daryl Worley on Tuesday, leaving a crowded cornerback group might be best for Awuzie anyway.
How would the move to safety actually work for Awuzie? The determination hasn’t been made yet as Michael Gehlken of Dallas Morning News reported:
“One person indicated that any determination won’t be formalized until the Cowboys’ coaching staff can share a field with players and properly evaluate a young cornerback group.”
It seems that the position switch is dependent upon the Cowboys believing they can man the cornerback position adequately without Awuzie. Awuzie did come into the league with the versatility to play multiple positions as University of Colorado beat writer Brian Howell told Dallas Morning News back in 2017 when he was drafted to Dallas:
I think he might wind up as a corner or safety in the NFL just because of the instincts he has and flexibility. He never struck me as a really big speed corner. I think he’s just so instinctive that with the speed of the NFL I wonder if he’ll be better when he can react more. I think he can help the Cowboys in a number of positions and the way he reacts, as smart as he is and the way he studies film, he’ll be more impactful as a safety.
There were also rumblings at the time that the Cowboys actually saw Awuzie more as a safety already, but injuries to the cornerbacks ahead of him on the depth chart meant Awuzie played there instead. But after three years starting at cornerback, Awuzie routinely demonstrated a major struggle in turning his head around in coverage and locating the ball in the air. As a safety, Awuzie wouldn’t be asked to do that as much and would be able to better capitalize on his instincts and reactive abilities.
When talking about transitioning a player from cornerback to safety, Mike McCarthy certainly knows how to do that effectively. In Green Bay, McCarthy and then-defensive coordinator Dom Capers initiated a similar position switch when they signed Charles Woodson in free agency prior to the 2006 season.
Woodson had played for the Raiders for eight years at the time, and while he had once been known as a premier lockdown corner, age and injuries slowed him in his final two seasons. Woodson joined the Packers under the newly-hired McCarthy, and he immediately became the starting outside corner opposite Al Harris (now the Cowboys cornerbacks coach).
But Woodson didn’t play exclusively at cornerback; McCarthy and Capers moved him around a bit on a near-weekly basis, gradually playing him more at safety each year before his position was officially changed to safety in 2012. ESPN’s Kevin Seifert broke down Woodson’s position versatility at the time:
McCarthy estimated that Woodson’s role “may change somewhere between six and eight percent from what he’s played in a past,” a line I originally thought was sarcasm but now believe was an honest projection. McCarthy added: “We’re not re-creating the wheel with him. I would define him as a playmaker in our defense and it’s our responsibility to see him line up in positions where he can make plays.”
In 2012, Capers acknowledged, that could mean more use of what the Packers call “corner Okie,” a version of their “Okie” base defense that in 2011 typically included Woodson, safety Morgan Burnett and cornerbacks Tramon Williams and Sam Shields.
You could call that a three-cornerback set. Or, as Capers said, “All ‘corner Okie’ is is [Woodson] going in and playing safety. And when you look at the different teams we played, ‘corner Okie’ took the place of ‘Okie.’”
A lot of this is inside football, but the way I interpreted what everyone said Tuesday is that Woodson will play in a role similar to safety when the Packers are in their base defense. In Capers’ tenure with the Packers, the use of base has been rare — about 25 percent. In the nickel, dime and other looks, you can count on Woodson lining up across from an inside/slot receiver.
Sound familiar? It should. Cowboys draft guru Will McClay just made headlines for revealing McCarthy’s preference for “players over system,” so it’s not surprising to hear that even back in 2012 McCarthy was focused on fitting their scheme around player strengths. And in the case of Woodson, moving him away from the position he had played his whole career at that point was the way to maximize his talents. For the record, that position change paid off big time, as Woodson saw a career rejuvenation in Green Bay and snagged 38 interceptions over seven seasons.
This isn’t to say Awuzie is going to be the next Woodson, because Woodson is going to be a Hall of Famer very soon and Awuzie is, to put it nicely, not there yet. But it’s encouraging that McCarthy has been through a similar position change before, and that it went as well as it did. In short, McCarthy knows what he’s doing here, and he might just be able to salvage Awuzie’s career in Dallas if this works out.