It was a big change for the Cowboys to enter the 2022 NFL Draft with cornerback being so low on their list of needs after the entire lead-up to the previous year’s draft was solely focused on that position. But that’s what happens when you field the second-most efficient pass defense by DVOA, which is what the Cowboys did.
Not only that, but Dallas accomplished such a feat without either of their rookie corners - Kelvin Joseph and Nahshon Wright - playing meaningful snaps for any extended period of time. That meant the Cowboys really didn’t need to address the cornerback spot at all this offseason, since their three starters are all still here and the rookies are entering Year 2.
So it was surprising to see Dallas spend one of their fifth-round picks on Fresno State cornerback DaRon Bland. As one of the Cowboys’ top 30 pre-draft visitors, Bland was someone clearly on the team’s radar from an early point, but not too many others knew about him, nor understood the need to take a corner.
As a no-star recruit out of high school in Modesta, California, Bland played three seasons for FCS school Sacramento State; he was also a track star there. Bland transferred to Fresno State for his final year before entering the draft. While he wasn’t invited to the combine, Bland still managed to catch the Cowboys’ attention. Dane Brugler of The Athletic had Bland rated as his 44th cornerback in the draft and valued as a priority free agent:
His twitch is slightly delayed at the top of routes, although his eye use and route recognition showed encouraging improvements in 2021 as he adjusted to the FBS. Overall, Bland has only average hips and will lose his feel for the route at times, but his length, speed, and toughness are desirable traits for NFL teams to develop.
Bland definitely fits the bill of a developmental project, but his speed and physicality are traits that should make him an ideal special teams member. And therein lies the most likely appeal for Dallas.
C.J. Goodwin is the Cowboys’ top special teams ace, and he’s been a core part of that unit since John Fassel showed up. But Goodwin is 32 years old and entering the final year of his contract, both of which are undoubtedly making the team ponder how much longer they’ll be able to employ his valuable services.
Nahshon Wright spent the majority of his rookie year playing special teams, and he came in fourth on the team in special teams snaps for the year. Kelvin Joseph also played a lot on special teams once he was activated off the injured reserve; he played on 60% or more of the team’s special teams snaps in seven of the ten games he played in.
But neither Wright nor Joseph are likely in the team’s long term plans as special teams aces. Joseph was drafted in the second round last year and immediately talked up as a potential day one starter until injuries slowed his development. Wright turned heads consistently in training camp and the preseason, suggesting a higher ceiling than his fourth-round draft pedigree would indicate.
Neither player figured into the starting lineup heavily last year, though, because veterans Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis both had impressive seasons playing alongside Trevon Diggs. Both players return, but Brown is entering the final year of his contract while Lewis has one year left, with a potential out after this season as well.
In other words, it appears possible, if not probable, that the Cowboys move on from both Brown and Lewis after the 2022 season and elevate Joseph and Wright into starting roles. Wright would likely be an outside corner exclusively while Joseph has been talked up as having the versatility to play both outside and in the slot.
That would open up a spot, or two, for special teams aid. That’s where Bland comes in, as his skill set and developmental curve make him best suited for such a role whether Goodwin gets extended or not. For 2022, Bland probably will have a de facto redshirt year much like last year’s rookie Israel Mukuamu did. But the current makeup of this roster seems to suggest that the Cowboys envision Bland taking on a large special teams role once Joseph and Wright are elevated.