The Cowboys defense will feature a whole lot of new in 2020. Every coach except for defensive tackle coach Leon Lett is gone, and new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan is bringing a multiple 4-3 defense that will feature a wide variance of disguised coverages.
But beyond that, the Cowboys’ actual secondary will look quite different, too. Byron Jones, their top corner the last few years, is in Miami now, and the other regular starter, Chidobe Awuzie, may be moving to safety. And on top of it all, Dallas has two rookie cornerbacks in Trevon Diggs and Reggie Robinson who will be vying for snaps. But where do they fit in?
The Cowboys have a bit of a logjam at cornerback right now, and intentionally so. Losing Jones left a gaping hole on one side of the secondary, and Awuzie’s play in 2019 didn’t exactly inspire confidence in his ability to fill that hole or even retain his own starting role - especially after being benched in Week 16. Right now, Dallas has a whopping 11 players listed as a cornerback on their roster.
Now, one of those is Awuzie, who may or may not switch to safety depending on how the other players perform in training camp and preseason games. Others, like Deante Burton and the XFL’s Saivion Smith, are likely camp bodies or destined for the practice squad at best. And others still are competing for depth and/or special teams roles, notably C.J. Goodwin and Maurice Canady.
While any of these players are more than welcome to surprise us all, it’s likely that the two rookies’ main competition for starting jobs are the likes of Daryl Worley, Anthony Brown, Jourdan Lewis, and potentially Awuzie. Sifting through those players first will give a better idea of where Diggs and Robinson might fit in.
Firstly, there’s Lewis, a diminutive player with bona fide ballhawk skills. Lewis has the potential to work as the Cowboys’ top corner, and has put up valuable reps on the outside, but he has the ideal skill set to play in the slot. For the purpose of sifting through this positional group, let’s just view Lewis as a slot-only player.
Then there’s Brown, who has been Lewis’ main competitor for snaps in the slot. A sixth-round pick out of Purdue in 2016, Brown impressed at the combine with his 40-yard dash and bench press performances. He’s had an up-and-down career thus far, with some promising seasons and some mediocre seasons. In 2018, as the primary nickel corner, Brown actually allowed the seventh-lowest average yards of separation in the league, but injuries cost him his starting job in 2019.
Brown has the strength, aggressiveness, and athleticism to fit in as both an outside corner and slot corner in the new approach Nolan and cornerbacks coach Al Harris seem to be bringing in. If Lewis wins the starting slot corner role, Brown could still be featured at one of the two outside roles, and could even split time between playing outside and inside.
The biggest uknown in all this is Worley, who could be a darkhorse contender for a starting job. Worley spent his first two seasons in the NFL with the Panthers, playing well but not exceptional in their zone-heavy scheme. After some legal troubles, Worley found himself in Oakland for two years in defensive coordinator Paul Guenther’s scheme, which places a heavy emphasis on tight man coverage. Despite a radical shift in coverage styles, Worley put up similar production as he did in Carolina, showcasing his versatility.
Here’s the catch, though: Guenther’s scheme is virtually identical to the one his mentor, Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer, runs. Of course, Dallas now has George Edwards as their senior defensive assistant, who worked as Zimmer’s right hand man in Minnesota for the past six seasons. Given that Edwards will be focusing on defensive sub-packages, it stands to reason that there will be a lot of similarities to what Worley has worked with the last two years, and that could give him an inside track in the position battle.
So where does that leave our rookies? The book on Diggs is that he’s a strong and athletic outside corner who thrives in press man coverage, Cover 2, and Cover 3 assignments. Much like how Lewis is likely relegated to slot coverage, Diggs is probably only a fit on the outside, putting him in competition with Worley and potentially both Awuzie and Brown.
As for Robinson, he shot up draft boards due to his athleticism and versatility. At Tulsa, Robinson played multiple roles and found success in a variety of coverage assignments. He also played safety in high school, and could see some work there as well. But Robinson was also noted as needing refinement on his techniques in order to be reliable in the NFL. Luckily, he’s in a great position in Dallas, since the Cowboys have so many options at the position.
That goes for Diggs too, as neither of these rookies will necessarily be counted on to contribute right out of the gate. The Cowboys could feature both Worley and Awuzie at the outside spots, or another combination, if neither Diggs or Robinson look ready in training camp. Alternatively, the Cowboys don’t have any major financial resources tied up in any of these veteran corners that would influence their decision, so if either or both of the rookies impress during the preseason they can earn a starting role.
Either way, the ceiling is high for both prospects. Diggs is likely a more realistic option to start right away, but Robinson’s versatility should get him some snaps in a sub-package, and his impressive tackling skills might get him involved on special teams as well. The picture may be a bit unclear for 2020, but it does seem like Dallas has found two starting cornerbacks in the long run.