When All-Pro cornerback Byron Jones departed in free agency, the Dallas Cowboys were left with a huge void to fill at the defensive back spot. Finding a replacement to replicate Jones’ coverage skilss was not going to be easy. Instead of trying to find one high-profile player to step in and fill the void, like Chris Harris Jr., Dallas opted to go the route of bringing in numerous players to help lessen the blow.
In free agency, Dallas brought back Anthony Brown and signed veterans Maurice Canady and Daryl Worley. In the draft, they continued to upgrade the position, spending two picks on cornerbacks Trevon Diggs and Reggie Robinson II. The group of Brown, Canady, Diggs, Robinson, and Worley gives the Cowboys a group of young, affordable players who can step in and try to provide what Jones did for the Dallas defense.
The expectations have been highest for the two draft picks. Many believe Diggs has the ability to be a number one corner someday, and acquiring Robinson in the fourth round was seen by many as one of the steals of the draft. There also has been belief that fourth-year cornerback Jourdan Lewis, under a new defensive scheme, will get more playing time and become more impactful on the defense.
All this may be true, but the one cornerback who has been left out of this conversation, Chidobe Awuzie, is the really the most important defensive back on the Dallas defense. 2019 was an up-and-down year for the Colorado product. The fourth-year corner ended up being benched for a time in a Week Sixteen matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Chidobe Awuzie gets burnt by the double move, Jeff Heath isn't deep enough and just like that, the Jets are up 14-3.... pic.twitter.com/xeFypnum54— Tom Downey (@WhatGoingDowney) October 13, 2019
One of the possible causes of Awuzie’s struggles was that teams were targeting him all the time. Awuzie was the eighth-most targeted cornerback in the NFL with 90 targets. On those 90 targets, he gave up the 10th-most receptions in the league and the ninth-most yards.
In 11 of the Cowboys 16 games, Awuzie recorded a coverage score via Pro Football Focus of under 70. Four times his score fell under 60. His overall defensive grades were not much better, as he scored above a 70 just five times on the season.
According to Football Outsiders advanced stats, Awuzie recorded just 34 stops (the total number of plays by a defensive player that prevent a successful play by the offense, defined as 45% of needed yards on first down, 60% of needed yards on second down, and 100% of needed yards on third or fourth down) in 93 plays. That was good for a stop rate of 37%, ranking him 92nd among all cornerbacks in the league.
His struggles at the cornerback spot have let to the discussion this offseason of a potential move to safety which he played some in college. Right after the draft, a report came out via the Dallas Morning News that the Cowboys are seriously considering a position change for the defensive back.
Chidobe Awuzie played cornerback and safety in college at Colorado.
Next season, the Cowboys likely will tap into that versatility.
The team is exploring a position switch that would move the 2017 second-round pick from cornerback to safety, two people familiar with the situation said this week. 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.
The biggest determining factor in whether or not Awuzie switches positions likely will be the performance of the young defensive backs. Despite their talent, coming into the NFL at the cornerback spot is one of the hardest positions to have early success at. If Dallas gets into camp and their young corners struggle a bit, it would be foolish to move Awuzie to safety and leave themselves with a huge hole at the cornerback spot. It’s not going to be as easy as many believe to just slide the rookies in there and let the defense go. Even Anthony Brown wasn’t having a great season before his injury ended it.
Since 2010, just five cornerbacks have made the Pro Bowl in their rookie season. Obviously the Cowboys do not need the combo of Diggs/Robinson to make the Pro Bowl, but they do need their production to help fill the hole Byron Jones leaves behind.
Even with Lewis and the other two veterans, Dallas still desperately needs Awuzie to play better and provide something positive to the defense next season. He was a second-round pick for a reason. Dallas needs him to play like it in 2020. We have seen him play like the guy the Cowboys envisioned with they picked him. Many believed after 2018 he was ready to transition into a number-one caliber corner, but his struggles in 2019 have put that on hold.
The young corners were great additions, but they may fail to make the impact Awuize can right here and now. He’s clearly capable of doing it, and the Cowboys need it now more than ever. If the Dallas defense wants to smoothly move on from the loss of Byron Jones, they need Chidobe Awuzie to play a large part in their success.