The Dallas Cowboys have plenty of questions to answer this offseason. One of the first they have to tackle is deciding if they will attempt to retain any of their impending free agents in the secondary. Three key members of the back end, Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, and Xavier Woods are all unrestricted free agents. All three are members of the 2017 draft class, and there’s a real possibility they have all played their last snaps in Dallas.
Dallas currently has around $18 million in cap space, according to Spotrac. However, this number will significantly decrease if they are once again forced to franchise tag quarterback Dak Prescott. Regardless if they reach a long-term deal with the signal-caller, money will be tight in Dallas this spring.
The monetary constraints the Cowboys are facing likely will force them to chose one of the three aforementioned free agents to potentially retain. If Dallas is only able to pick one, which player should they be most interested in bringing back?
We’ll start by looking at the highest draft pick of the group, cornerback Chidobe Awuzie. The four-year corner played in just eight games this season and was overall pretty disappointing. Awuzie recorded just five pass defenses, failing to consistently make plays on the ball. His 15.8 yards per reception given up were the highest of his career, as was his 65.8 percentage of targets caught, according to Pro Football Focus.
This TD drive: One play. 81 yards. 20 seconds.— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) December 27, 2020
Eagles extend lead to 14-3, DeSean Jackson burning Cowboys CBs beginning with Chidobe Awuzie. Caps his score with a somersault. Ouch.
PFF had Awuzie with a 52 coverage grade on the season, 18 points lower than his 2019 grade of 70. The Colorado product also gave up the same number of touchdowns (four) in eight games that he did in 15 games in 2018. Quarterbacks had a 124.5 passer rating when targeting Awuzie in 2020, 30 points higher than they did in 2019.
Whether it was an inability to stay on the field, or poor play when he was on it, Awuzie’s 2020 was extremely disappointing. Before this season, Awuzie probably would have been the obvious choice out of the three free agents to retain. Now, he likely is one of the odd men out.
We turn to the sixth-round pick in that 2017 draft, safety Xavier Woods. The 25-year-old has been a starting safety for three years now and had high hopes coming into 2020. Many believed he would be the breakout player on the Cowboys defense, but much like Awuzie, Woods’ 2020 did not go so well.
He had no trouble staying on the field, playing in 15 of 16 games, but he just didn’t produce much. He also had an incident in the middle of October that raised some eyebrows. When asked about the overall effort of the defense, Woods was quoted as saying, “We’re in the NFL. You don’t expect guys to (go) full speed for 70 plays; that’s not possible.”
Now as everything in Dallas is, this was blown out of proportion and taken as Woods saying they just don’t give full effort when they are out there. Our very own RJ Ochoa of Blogging The Boys summarized what he really meant perfectly.
“Some might read Woods’ quote as him saying they aren’t giving 100% of effort all the time, but it seems like he is simply saying that it is not possible for them to be running at top speed all of the time because it is literally impossible. I understand his point, but the wording of it will incite some fires. Give it some consideration before you throw gasoline, please.”
Woods’ quote was overall not a big deal, but it did put the spotlight on him for the rest of the season. This was unfortunate for the fourth-year safety because his play was not great.
Woods struggled in coverage, contributing to multiple blown assignments like this one below. His 73.9 percentage of targets caught was the second-highest of his career. Opposing quarterbacks had a 121.4 passer rating when targeting him, 65 points higher than their rating was in 2019, all according to PFF.
The Dallas Cowboys Safety Darian Thompson & Xavier Woods Blown Coverage VS Seahawks pic.twitter.com/HUZSpBnd9H— Law Thomas (@LawsNation) September 28, 2020
For a sixth-round pick, Woods was a solid player during his time in Dallas, but it seems likely that time has come to an end. The Cowboys need to look to revamp their approach at the safety position, and simply bringing back Woods would not be good enough.
We finally get to the guy who should be the top choice to retain, cornerback Jourdan Lewis. The former third-round pick saw the field way more than he had in any season to date and posted some solid production.
Lewis’ 67.5 percentage of targets caught was the second-lowest of his career. He gave up just over nine yards per reception and 55 less yards than he did in 2019. This is pretty impressive because Lewis played 250 more snaps in 2020 than he did in 2019, and he still gave up 250 less yards.
Lewis’ best game of the season came towards the end of the year. Against San Francisco, he had a 76.6 PFF coverage grade, his highest mark of the season. He showed his versatility, recording a sack, a pass breakup, and a tackle for loss in the win.
Jourdan Lewis once again showed his ability to contribute in every phase of defense vs SF. Finished with a sack, four stops and a PBU. He can be a really impactful DB when in the right role. #Cowboys pic.twitter.com/APIZxNoUGJ— John Owning (@JohnOwning) December 21, 2020
Lewis certainly had his downs as well, including a mindboggling penalty against New York in Week 17, but his versatility and ability to stay on the field make him the obvious choice out of the group to retain. Lewis could be your slot corner from day one, giving Dallas a chance to pair Diggs and a draft pick as their two outside corners. Lewis also has played in 61 of the 64 games since he was drafted.
He’s not going to instantly become some lockdown corner and fix the Cowboys secondary, but Lewis’ ability to play in the slot or play some safety make him a good choice to bring back to Dallas this offseason.