The starting slot cornerback position has been a seemingly constant source of intrigue for the Cowboys in recent years. It’s a bit of a coincidence that this back-and-forth competition has unfolded as the slot corner role has gradually increased in importance, with star receivers like Keenan Allen, Tyreek Hill, Michael Thomas, and now even Amari Cooper frequently moving inside.
For the Cowboys, the two familiar names are Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis. A sixth-round pick out of Purdue in 2016, Brown joined a team that already felt set at cornerback, with Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne on the outside and Orlando Scandrick in the slot. But injuries for Scandrick led to Brown seeing time early on, and when he returned it was Claiborne who missed time. Brown played well enough to make Dallas feel comfortable moving on from both Carr and Claiborne that offseason.
However, it wasn’t enough to prevent Dallas from also drafting Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis. Brown ultimately lost out on a starting job, but injuries once again pushed him back into the starting rotation. Brown’s 2017 season was a stark disappointment, while rookies Awuzie and Lewis impressed in limited snaps. With Kris Richard coming onboard for the 2018 season, Brown and Lewis were thrown into a competition for the starting slot corner job, a dance they performed again in both 2019 and 2020.
So far, things are a bit different for the 2021 Cowboys though. Brown has been doing his best to hold down a starting job on the outside opposite Trevon Diggs, although rookies Kelvin Joseph and Nahshon Wright are putting up a real fight. Lewis has been listed as the unquestioned starter in the slot, but has also missed some time with an injury. That’s paved the way for Maurice Canady to turn heads.
Like Brown, Canady was a sixth-round pick in 2016, coming out of the University of Virginia. He played four seasons with the Ravens, mostly playing on special teams until 2019, when Baltimore traded him to the Jets. After that season, Canady joined the Cowboys in a move that many considered to be simply adding a camp body who, at best, would find a special teams role. Canady ended up opting out of last season, but has returned to the team this year with a vengeance.
Getting more playing time with Lewis sidelined, Canady has taken full advantage. He’s snagged five interceptions in team drills, and picked off a pass from Matthew Stafford in the team’s intra-squad scrimmage with the Rams. In the Cowboys’ preseason debut, Canady got the start in the slot and seemed to constantly be around the ball. His performance this camp has prompted some praise from Will McClay:
Maurice Canady touching the ball and doing some of those things, taking the ball away from the other team. You got to do it in practice. He’s done that.
McClay wasn’t the only one, with Mike McCarthy singling him out as well:
“I didn’t know his ball skills were this good,” McCarthy said. “He’s a heck of a player, we obviously we loved him when we signed him – didn’t have him because of the pandemic – but my goodness, just the way he tracks the football, I’ve been so impressed with him. He’s having an excellent camp. His ball skills were much better than I was aware of.”
And then there’s defensive backs coach and passing game coordinator Joe Whitt Jr., who went so far as to offer some insight on Canady getting play time during the regular season:
“I think he’s done an excellent job in there at the nickel position,” secondary coach Joe Whitt Jr. said. “He’s touched more (passes) than anybody in the secondary, anybody on defense. I think both of those guys together (Canady and Jourdan Lewis) are causing us to say, we need to find a package where both of them are on the field at the same time.”
“To be honest with you, I didn’t know that he would be at the level where he is,” Whitt said. “He’s playing fast, he’s playing with intent, he’s downhill, playing with purpose, and it just needs to continue. He can’t get satisfied with where he is, and none of us can. But just been pleased with him.”
The unprompted praise for Lewis seems to suggest that Cowboys coaches still view Lewis as their starting slot corner, but it also seems like they’ve already made up their minds that Canady is making the final roster. That shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone after what we’ve seen, but it’s also noteworthy that the thought process - at least for Whitt - is focusing on how to get Canady on the field more instead of merely functioning as a depth piece.
As good as Canady has looked, this nickel role still largely comes down to the other two names discussed here. If Brown doesn’t hold down a job on the outside, would he move inside? Will Lewis be healthy in time for the start of the season? Those questions will likely dictate how much action Canady actually gets, but Dan Quinn and company have to at least feel better about the position knowing that they have a reliable fallback option in Canady.