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How Jamal Adams would fit in the Cowboys defense under Mike Nolan

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Mike Nolan would relish the safety’s versatility.

Oakland Raiders v New York Jets Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

Brace yourselves: the Jamal Adams hype train is once again leaving the station. News broke on Thursday that the supremely talented safety, who has grown publicly disgruntled with Jets management, officially requested a trade. And, of course, the Cowboys are on his list of seven teams he wants to be traded to.

It’s no secret that Dallas - or any other team, for that matter - would need to pay a high price to get Adams. But the Steelers showed last year with their trade for Minkah Fitzpatrick how much a versatile safety can impact a defense. Seattle saw similar success when they traded for Quandre Diggs last year as well, though to a lesser extent.

But how would Adams fit in Mike Nolan’s defense? The Cowboys currently have their two starting safeties in Xavier Woods and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, and they may try Chidobe Awuzie at the position as well. Adams would undoubtedly be an upgrade over any of these players, but would his acquisition preclude anyone else from seeing the field?

Not likely, if Nolan’s own comments are anything to go off of. Back when Nolan had initially been hired in Dallas, when he was asked about the Cowboys running a 4-3 or 3-4 defense, he had this to say:

It seems that Nolan’s top priority is getting the best 11 players on the field, which backs up other comments he’s made about having a multiple defense that can do a lot of different things. It stands to reason, then, that Nolan would find ways to still get snaps for Woods, Clinton-Dix, and potentially Awuzie even if Adams was brought in.

But how would that work? Let’s look at the Patriots defense, the textbook example of a multiple defense. Bill Belichick and his defensive staff do a tremendous job of deploying their players in a variety of roles, which makes it difficult for opposing quarterbacks to get any real read on them.

For an incredible in-depth look at the Patriots defense and how it operates, check out this piece from Locked On Dolphins’ Kevin Dern, but the gist is that most players have more than one position, and it can sometimes change on a weekly basis.

New England specifically uses three safeties with regularity as well. As Dern breaks down, Devin McCourty spent most of his time as either a single-high free safety or a free safety in split coverage, but spent the second most amount of snaps as a linebacker. Patrick Chung, on the other hand, played primarily in the box, either as a linebacker or edge rusher. Chung is a safety, though, and his ability to perform in the box like that makes him a dangerous chess piece. The same goes for Duron Harmon, largely used as a deep safety but spending time as a slot corner, linebacker, and edge rusher as well.

The Patriots also find success with their multiple defense because of their depth and rotation. When the Patriots’ defense was dominating virtually every single opponent last year despite featuring few household names, Belichick pointed out the thing that sets them apart from everyone else:

“Show me how many teams in the league play 20 players on defense - not too many,” Belichick said.

“We have a lot of good players. Each week is its own week,” Belichick said. “It depends on the situation, depends on the gameplan, sometimes depends on how they play the game. ... It’s not like we go into the game and say, well this is how many plays each guy’s gonna play. We just don’t do it that way. There’s a lot of factors. I don’t know what they all are. Ultimately, they all come in to play and try”

And in looking at the snap counts, that’s reflected all over. The Patriots had exactly 20 players with at least 20% of the defensive snaps last season; half of them saw the field for over 50% of the defensive snaps. Specifically for the safeties, McCourty was second on the team with 93.85% of the snaps, while Harmon got 65.18% and Chung was just behind him with 63.69%. There was a similar split with the Patriots’ top three corners: Stephon Gilmore had 94.44% of the snaps, while JC Jackson had 67.56% and Jonathan Jones received 61.41%.

While Nolan isn’t likely to employ an outright Belichickian scheme like Brian Flores has done in Miami - Nolan’s closest link to the Patriots coach is serving as the defensive coordinator for then-Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels for a year - it’s still conceivable that Nolan could take a similar approach to using a deep secondary if Adams were acquired.

Like McCourty, Adams would likely see the bulk of the defensive snaps - he played 100% of the snaps his first two years in the league and was on track to do the same in 2019 before an ankle injury sidelined him - while Woods and Clinton-Dix would be very much in the mix as well. And as the Patriots show, deploying three safeties regularly doesn’t have to translate into significantly less snaps for the cornerbacks, either.

As far as where Adams lines up in a Nolan defense, the possibilities are endless. He’s already been a Swiss-army knife for the Jets, and in 2019 he lined up at both safety spots, two different linebacker roles, outside and slot cornerback, and edge rusher. As a result, he finished with 75 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, 13 quarterback hits, 16 pressures, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, one pick, and allowed a meager 55.3% completion rate and a 75.2 passer rating when targeted.

Both Woods and Clinton-Dix have also accumulated experience in playing multiple safety roles, and Clinton-Dix was used as a pass rusher on occasion during his days in Green Bay, where he accumulated all 5.5 of his career sacks. If the Cowboys were to implement a similar approach in the secondary, Woods could easily fit the Harmon role of playing the deep middle of field regularly, while Clinton-Dix and Adams would be able to alternate between the various roles of McCourty and Chung.

It wouldn’t be a direct photocopy of what the Patriots do, because these aren’t the same players or coaches, but it’s at least a glimpse into what the Cowboys secondary could potentially look like with Adams in the mix. And with Nolan wanting to bring a multiple defense to town, adding a player of Adams’ versatility and talent would go a really long way towards doing that.