We are on the cusp of the first 53-man roster for the Dallas Cowboys. It will likely have some churn as the team manages various injury situations and might bring in outside players before the first game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but that first draft of the roster will be a good indicator of how things eventually come together. One player who is seen by many as being on a bubble is rookie defensive back Israel Mukuamu.
He has an advantage in being one of this year’s draft picks. That status often tips the scales with the Dallas staff, but he also could be a player they believe would clear waivers and make it to the practice squad. The preseason is now over, and the data is in. If we look at how Mukuamu did in those games, what does it say about his value to the Cowboys?
That is exactly what a recent article at Pro Football Focus examined. Their conclusions are that he should be part of this year’s roster for Dallas.
Don’t be put off by the odd comparison to NBA star Kevin Durant made by Mukuamu’s agent. It was a hyperbolic way to highlight the flexibility Mukuamu brings to the field. While he was moved to safety by Dan Quinn, his actual use during preseason points to him being one of several players, like first-round pick Micah Parsons and veteran Keanu Neal, that can line up in a variety of ways.
Mukuamu preseason usage
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Further, as the article states, he did well. Among the sixteen rookie safeties who played at least 50 snaps this preseason, he ranks fourth per PFF’s metric, with a 71.2 coverage grade. That alone is a good reason to keep him on the team. There is also evidence that the staff was looking very hard at him to both evaluate his worth and to help develop him. He was fifth in snaps played among all rookies this preseason, with 154. (The article doesn’t state where the one additional snap happened.)
Those are pretty impressive numbers for a sixth-round pick. Still, he was taken late enough in the draft that nothing is truly guaranteed.
That’s why the numbers PFF came up with are intriguing. While the high snap counts could be partially attributed to the relatively small group of safeties that the team had in camp, the distribution is very important. It is clear that the team is looking at him to have more than a single role. His usage is more like the way they have been deploying both Parsons Neal. Neal is converting from safety, just like Mukuamu has changed from college cornerback to nominal safety. I say nominal, because playing over a third of his snaps as a slot corner, according to PFF, makes him a bit of a challenge for opposing offenses to account for. And those snaps from the line of scrimmage offer real hope that Quinn’s uncharacteristic high level of blitzing during preseason may be a sign of things to come. At 6-4 and 220, Mukuamu has the length to be a real asset against taller receivers, including tight ends, and has the size to deal with running backs in pass protection when he comes after the quarterback as well as helping out against the run.
In the loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, Mukuamu was on the field for 100% of the defensive snaps, and also played a third of the special teams total. That latter stat can also be a big factor for roster decisions, adding value for backups, which Mukuamu would be at the start of the season.
He is not one of the locks to make the team, but this all is an indication that there are plans for him. We’ll find out very soon.