It was perhaps the biggest surprise the Cowboys have made so far this offseason, but Dallas opted to bring back cornerback Jourdan Lewis on a three-year deal worth up to $16.5 million. The other two defensive backs Dallas had drafted in 2017, Chidobe Awuzie and Xavier Woods, both found a new home in free agency. Lewis was expected to do the same, until he didn’t.
Out of those three, though, Lewis made the most sense. He was one of the Cowboys defenders who significantly picked up their level of play in the final few weeks of the season. In the last five games, Lewis tallied 26 tackles, four tackles for loss, two sacks, a hit on the quarterback, a pass breakup, and recovered a fumble.
Playing almost exclusively out of the slot, as he has for most of his career, Lewis showed the combination of physicality and playmaking ability that has made him a fan favorite despite inconsistent playing time. And it was clearly enough to convince new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn to bring him back on a long-term deal.
And that’s exactly why Lewis is primed to be the most underrated move the Cowboys have made this year. Lewis is a natural fit as a slot corner in Quinn’s defensive scheme, and we already know the slot corner is quickly becoming one of the most important positions on defense.
But it’s often overlooked in the scheme Quinn runs. That’s for two reasons. Firstly, the way this scheme is set up, it prioritizes an elite centerfield safety and aggressive, long cornerbacks on the outside. Secondly, some of the biggest names to play cornerback in this scheme - Richard Sherman, Jalen Ramsey, Desmond Trufant - have been outside corners.
But the slot corner is an important piece, especially in the defenses Quinn has run. He uses the position as a bit of a Swiss army knife. Quinn will have his slot corner drop back deep in coverage, play a robber role over the shallow middle, function as a second box safety, and blitz the quarterback, all on top of regular coverage duties out of the slot.
From 2016 to 2018 in Atlanta, Quinn possessed a particularly good slot corner in Brian Poole. Like Lewis, Poole was a bit undersized at 5’10”, but he had the combination of physicality and playmaking ability to play the position well.
Poole’s final season in Atlanta was by far his best, and it correlated to the season in which he played the most snaps as well. That year, Poole allowed a completion rate of 57.1% when targeted, picked off three passes, batted down six passes, finished fourth on the team in tackles with 74, and recovered two fumbles. Quinn also sent Poole on 29 blitzes, second most on the team, and he yielded three sacks and two quarterback knockdowns as a result.
The Falcons ultimately made the decision not to bring him back that offseason, largely influenced by the promising play of Damontae Kazee that year and the belief he could play in the slot in nickel packages. Injuries at the safety group thwarted that plan, forcing Kazee to play most of his snaps at safety and exposing weaknesses in the slot.
But Poole, who was recruited by Quinn to the University of Florida back in the day, is the prototype for what Quinn wants in his slot corner. And Lewis seems to fit that prototype very well.
Lewis famously struggled to see the field under Kris Richard, but when he did play he put up good results. From 2018 to 2019, playing in a very similar coverage scheme to what Quinn brings, Lewis allowed a 68% completion rate, a 72.5 passer rating, and just one touchdown while breaking up seven passes and snagging three interceptions. He also tallied 48 tackles, recovered three fumbles, and produced four sacks on 33 blitzes.
While playing a very different coverage scheme this past year under Mike Nolan, Lewis actually upped his game in some regards. His 63.3% completion rate allowed was an improvement, and it came with a significant increase in targets as he saw the field more. Lewis failed to record an interception for the first time in his career, but he batted down two passes and recovered a fumble. He also set career high marks with 59 tackles and seven tackles for loss, and turned two of his 10 blitzes into sacks.
The decision to bring Lewis back, and the details of his contract, suggest that Quinn sees a lot of value in him. He has a very similar style of play to Poole, who thrived under Quinn. The new defensive coordinator likely didn’t want to make the same mistake he did when he let Poole walk, either.
Much of the discussion around Dallas’ secondary has rightly centered around the outside cornerback spot opposite Trevon Diggs, but the value of the slot corner in this scheme cannot be understated. Lewis has already proven he can produce in exactly that role. With an expected increase in playing time from what Lewis saw the last time Dallas ran this type of defense, he could be primed for a big year.