The Cowboys’ top target in free agency this year will unquestionably be Dak Prescott, who’s coming off the franchise tag and expected to command top dollar. However, the expectation is that the Cowboys will tag him again if they’re unable to come to a long-term extension, so it seems safe to assume Dak will have a star on his helmet next year no matter what.
That allows us all to collectively turn our attention to other potential free agent prizes, and one possibility emerged on Monday with the announcement that the Arizona Cardinals will be moving on from star cornerback Patrick Peterson.
The #Cardinals and long-time Pro Bowl CB Patrick Peterson are parting ways, per @MattVerderame pic.twitter.com/eLcInuzg9Y— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) February 8, 2021
Peterson will be turning 31 this summer and is coming off a rough season, so it’s unclear what the market will be like for this eight-time Pro Bowler. But Peterson was one of the very best cornerbacks in the NFL for the majority of his career, frequently getting left on an island against the opposing teams’ best receivers and locking them up.
Naturally, Peterson has declined as he’s gotten older, but injuries haven’t been a part of that. Peterson has never missed a game due to injury in his entire 10-year career, with a six-game suspension at the start of last year being the only time he’s ever missed.
While Peterson may not be playing at an elite level anymore, he’s still better than your average cornerback. And for the Cowboys, who don’t have many solid options at the position outside of Trevon Diggs, Peterson quickly becomes a valuable commodity.
Standing at 6’ 1” and weighing around 200 pounds with 32” arms, Peterson is the ideal frame for an outside corner in the kind of scheme run by newly-hired defensive coordinator Dan Quinn. Focusing heavily on Cover 1 and Cover 3 with press techniques, Quinn’s scheme is made for bigger, longer cornerbacks who can by physical in coverage.
Not only does that fit Peterson, but his ballhawking skills are a result of that style of play. Only once in his 10-year career has Peterson finished with just one interception, and he’s recorded 28 picks over the course of his career.
As mentioned, though, Peterson’s biggest weakness now is that, at 30 years old, he doesn’t have the pure athleticism to keep up with teams’ best receivers in one-on-one coverage all game long. That’s why joining the Cowboys could not only help Peterson next year, but potentially extend his career even longer. While Quinn has shown a willingness to mix up his coverage schemes more than his fellow former Seahawks coaches, Cover 3 is the base scheme. Additionally, defensive passing game coordinator Joe Whitt Jr. is expected to implement more split-safety looks, as he did under Quinn in Atlanta last year.
This means Peterson would no longer be tasked with moving all over the field with little help over the top, and could instead focus on reading the quarterback and using his natural instincts to wreak havoc with the ball in the air.
Those are the reasons why Dallas is a good fit for Peterson, but he offers more than that to the Cowboys. The aforementioned Diggs showed plenty of promise in his rookie year, and seems to possess the kind of traits that are needed to become a top-tier cornerback in the NFL. With a year’s worth of NFL experience under his belt and a switch to a scheme that’s more of a natural fit for his talents, Diggs should be expected to take a step forward anyway.
But putting Peterson on the opposite side of the field from Diggs would give the Cowboys a very talented cornerback tandem, and more importantly, give Diggs a chance to learn from one of the very best cover corners of this era of football. That combination could prove very valuable to Diggs’ growth in addition to just adding a talented player at a position of need.
Finally, another reason to go after Peterson - assuming, of course, the veteran cornerback doesn’t command top dollar on the open market - is the impact it would have on the team’s draft strategy. There isn’t a clear difference maker on defense in this draft class, least of all at cornerback; there’s no Jeff Okudah or Denzel Ward for the Cowboys to zero in on with their tenth overall pick. While some have been making the case for Virginia Tech’s Caleb Farley or Alabama’s Patrick Surtain II, it’s clear that neither has separated themselves as the top guy at their position.
There are also some fairly talented corners that will be available in the later rounds of this draft, such as Stanford’s Paulson Adebo and Syracuse’s Ifeatu Melifonwu. Signing Peterson would free up Dallas to focus on selecting the best player available at 10, as they did with CeeDee Lamb last year, instead of backing themselves into a corner (get it?) with one position. Obviously the market for Peterson will determine a lot of this, but if he’s not going to be asking for a huge contract then the Cowboys should make Peterson their top priority in free agency this year.