Everyone wants a top-tier cornerback, but so few teams can actually get them. There’s only so many players with the skill to be counted on as a true “number one” cornerback, which is why they so rarely hit the market in free agency. The fact that the Cowboys let Byron Jones leave was one such rarity, and in turn he quickly became the highest paid cornerback in NFL history.
Dallas responded by re-signing both Anthony Brown and C.J. Goodwin while also bringing in Maurice Canady. Adding those three to a group made up of Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, Deante Burton, DJ White, and Chris Westry gives them plenty of bodies at the position, but no real top option.
Among all these players, the top three with regards to playing time are Awuzie, Brown, and Lewis. While they all have plenty of experience the last few years in Dallas, none have assumed the role of top-tier cornerback like Jones did. Lewis and Awuzie had some very promising rookie years, as did Brown, but have all struggled to reach that level of play since. Awuzie has had persistent issues with locating the ball in the air, while Brown and Lewis were engaged in an at-times frustrating battle for the slot corner role.
Given these players’ histories, and with the Cowboys free agency strategy, the assumption is that Dallas is going to do their best to find their new top-tier corner in the draft. While it’s a particularly good (and deep) draft class to be looking for a cornerback, the odds of getting someone who can actually fill that top-tier role are low. The only prospect who definitely fits that bill right away is Ohio State’s Jeff Okudah, who’s almost certainly going to be taken in the top five.
So the odds of finding a lockdown cornerback in the draft are not very good. But the question should instead be asked if the Cowboys even need such a player? Obviously they’d like to have one, but is it necessary? Could Dallas - now employing a mindset of simply fitting the scheme to their talent - instead go with a cornerback-by-committee approach?
It’s been done before, and successfully so. Of course, the definition of a top-tier corner is very subjective, and there’s always going to be debates about it - some still assert Jones was actually not a top-tier corner, and thus Dallas was right to not pay him. But putting individual debates aside for now, the last three years show that teams can have efficient pass defenses without having an elite cornerback.
This past season there were five teams who didn’t have a top corner that finished in the top ten in pass defense DVOA. Those five teams were the Pittsburgh Steelers, Minnesota Vikings, Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers, and Kansas City Chiefs. It’s also worth noting that the Baltimore Ravens finished in the top ten as well, and they played their first six games of the year without a top corner before trading for Marcus Peters.
Out of those five teams, three of them made the playoffs and won at least one game, and, of course, the Chiefs won the Super Bowl. The two teams that missed the postseason, Chicago and Pittsburgh, both finished 8-8 and did so with wildly inconsistent quarterback play that stalled their offense far too often.
This 50/50 split among top ten pass defense DVOA teams continued in 2018, with the Vikings, Ravens, Bears, Denver Broncos, and Cleveland Browns all fielding some great defensive backfields without a top-tier corner.
And in 2017, there were actually six teams who finished in the top ten of pass defense DVOA without a top-tier corner: usual suspects like Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Minnesota were joined by the Washington Redskins, Los Angeles Rams, and Philadelphia Eagles.
For those who were curious, the last time the Cowboys finished in the top ten of pass defense DVOA was all the way back in 2007. That year, the team’s top three corners were Terence Newman, Anthony Henry, and Jacques Reeves. Dallas has managed this ranking only two other times this century in 2003 and 2005.
It’s sobering to think it’s been that long since Dallas had a great secondary, and it hasn’t been for lack of trying. The 2012 offseason was dedicated to creating a top-tier tandem after signing the top corner in free agency, Brandon Carr, and getting the top corner in the draft, Morris Claiborne. And Jones was one of the league’s best the last two years, yet the Cowboys’ pass defense was only average at best.
But recent history has shown that it doesn’t take top-tier corners to field an elite pass defense. In fact, a slim majority of the best pass defenses the last three years didn’t have such a player. So perhaps the focus shouldn’t be on finding a guy who can play that Darrelle Revis or Richard Sherman role, but instead try to find a player who can help complete the backfield as a complementary piece.
If that ends up being the approach, there are some things that should comfort Cowboys fans. For starters, defensive coordinator Mike Nolan’s emphasis on tailoring his defensive scheme to his players’ strength is a big one. The presence of George Edwards as senior defensive assistant is another factor, considering his Vikings defenses have been in the top ten in pass defense DVOA each of the last three years despite not having any true number one cornerbacks.
Together, Nolan and Edwards should be able to create a defensive scheme that gives Dallas its most effective secondary in 13 years, even though they might not have the kind of big name players that everyone would like them to have.