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Sophomore standards: What the Cowboys can expect from Israel Mukuamu in 2022

What can the converted safety do after a redshirt year?

Las Vegas Raiders v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

The 2021 NFL Draft marked yet another season in which the Cowboys responded to a varying degree of uncertainty at the safety position by refusing to make a premium investment in it. They had already signed Jayron Kearse and Damontae Kazee to cheap, short-term deals, and would later do the same with Malik Hooker.

In the draft, Dallas had ample opportunities to select a safety with an early pick, but they waited until the end of the sixth round to select Israel Mukuamu. Coming out of South Carolina, Mukuamu was listed as a cornerback, although he played a hybrid role that led the Cowboys to draft him with the intent of moving him to safety full-time.

It wasn’t long after Mukuamu’s selection that people pointed out two strong connections that likely led to his drafting. First, Dallas very publicly conducted a lot of scouting on Mukuamu’s college teammate, Jaycee Horn, which undoubtedly exposed Cowboys scouts to Mukuamu. Second, defensive coordinator Dan Quinn once worked with and has maintained close ties with Mukuamu’s college head coach, Will Muschamp, and defensive coordinator, Travaris Robinson, thus giving Quinn some better insight than others might have. While these factors helped Dallas target Mukuamu, it didn’t prevent him from taking a de facto redshirt year in 2021. So what could be in store for the converted safety in 2022?

What He’s Done

Mukuamu’s rookie year was primarily spent on the sidelines, often in street clothes. He was inactive for 12 of the team’s 17 games. He played in just four games, with two of those games being entirely on special teams. Mukuamu saw very limited defensive snaps in both games against the Eagles; he played four snaps in the first blowout win over Philadelphia and then 16 snaps in the second blowout win.

Mukuamu failed to register any box score stats in those brief appearances, which is a testament to how the Cowboys finally enjoyed solid safety play between Kearse, Kazee, and Hooker. Simply put, there was no need for Mukuamu to play, and since he was a rookie learning a new position in a new defense, it made sense to sit him as much as possible.

What He Can Do

Both Kearse and Hooker were re-signed after strong 2021 seasons, and are expected to take up the bulk of reps on defense. Kazee left in free agency, but Donovan Wilson - who missed half the year last season with injuries - figures to play a significant role as well. That limits Mukuamu once again, and likely puts cold water on any expectations or hopes of a breakout year for him.

Not only is Mukuamu unlikely to see a meaningful uptick in snaps, he’s got more competition for the back end of the roster this year. Undrafted free agents Markquese Bell and Juanyeh Thomas are two names that were highly touted at the time of their signing, as both were expected to be drafted but fell to Dallas in free agency. Fellow undrafted free agent Isaac Taylor-Stuart is listed as a corner but has the versatility to play safety as well, especially if it means filling a special teams role.

Mukuamu didn’t see the field enough last year to prove he can be counted on in special teams just yet, so that’s likely where he’ll need to prove himself this year. Of course, if injuries occur to any of the presumed starters ahead of him, Mukuamu may get a chance to actually see the field on defense.

If that happens, it’ll be intriguing to see how he responds. Standing at 6’4”, Mukuamu has incredible size and length for the position and demonstrated impressive ball skills in college, with seven interceptions over three seasons. After effectively redshirting last year, Mukuamu should have learned the position and scheme by now, which sets him up for a strong preseason performance as well. He appears to have some critical physical tools, but if Mukuamu can show that he learned enough last year it could go a long way towards solidifying his roster spot for this year, as well as his long-term outlook with the team.