Earlier in the week, our own Danny Phantom suggested the Cowboys should trade Jourdan Lewis for Buccaneers tight end OJ Howard. While there’s obvious appeal to the prospect of getting Howard - he’s fighting for playing time with Rob Gronkowski and Cameron Brate, and his skill set would be an ideal fit for Mike McCarthy and Kellen Moore’s offense - I take issue with the price tag. In fact, not only should Lewis not be traded for Howard, but he is the most valuable defensive back on the team.
Value is naturally a subjective term here, and it’s important to distinguish between how the team values Lewis and what Lewis’ actual intrinsic value is. For instance, defensive play-caller Kris Richard assigned a value for Lewis that most agree was well below Lewis’ intrinsic value. Regardless of what you thought about Lewis as a player, it was a general consensus that he deserved to see more than the 25 snaps per game he received under Richard; by contrast, Lewis was getting nearly 50 snaps per game his rookie year, prior to Richard’s hiring.
As far as how the new Cowboys regime values Lewis, that remains to be seen. Cornerbacks coach Al Harris has said that he’s “a fan of the bigger guys. If you look at the receiver trends, they’re not getting smaller. They’re getting bigger and faster.” But Harris also stressed the importance of his corners being aggressive, long, and fast.
Lewis fits those three categories perfectly. His aggressiveness when attacking the ball is why he’s earned a reputation as a ballhawk, and Lewis’ physicality as a tackler makes him ideal in the slot. Despite being nearly three inches shorter than Byron Jones, Lewis’ arm length was measured at just 3/8” shorter. And Lewis has the speed and quickness to not only play corner effectively, but has even gotten involved in the return game and occasional jet sweeps on offense.
So there’s reason to believe Harris and defensive coordinator Mike Nolan haven’t devalued the cornerback simply because of his height. But even if they have, it doesn’t take away from Lewis’ intrinsic value that he brings to the team, which is why he shouldn’t be traded (unless there’s a bonkers deal on the table).
The case has already been made for Lewis being the Cowboys’ top cornerback on the roster, but whether or not you buy into that shouldn’t determine Lewis’ intrinsic value. Rather, Lewis’ value stems from the fact that he’s a highly effective option perfectly suited for the most important and overlooked position in the secondary: the slot corner.
It’s impossible to ignore the NFL’s trend towards a pass-dominant league, and teams are running plays out of 11 personnel more than any other grouping. This means the slot corner, once a mere rotational player simply reserved for the top backup corner, is essentially a full time starter now. Of the top ten receivers in yards last year, half of them spent at least 20% of their snaps in the slot, with Jarvis Landry, Keenan Allen, and DeAndre Hopkins all spending roughly half of their time in the slot.
It’s imperative that the Cowboys focus on their slot cornerback options. Trevon Diggs, Reggie Robinson, Daryl Worley, and Chidobe Awuzie are all prototypes for what the Cowboys are looking for on the outside. Awuzie, of course, may see time at safety as well, but he shouldn’t be viewed as a realistic option inside. Anthony Brown is another valuable slot corner, but can also play on the outside.
Lewis, on the other hand, specializes in the slot. While he’s held his own on the outside, he thrives inside and, unlike Brown, has the ball skills to capitalize on opportunities. Since that’s also another thing this coaching staff has spoken about prioritizing, it would seem that Lewis should be their top option at the spot, at least on paper.
In short, Lewis plays at too high of a level and at too important of a position to trade him, especially right now. Cornerback is perhaps the team’s biggest weakness right now, and trading away their most valuable player at that position for anyone that isn’t a legit star already is not the way to make the team better.