The Dallas Cowboys 2023 offseason started similarly to the year prior with the news that defensive coordinator Dan Quinn was returning to the team after several more head coaching interviews. Leaning in even further to being a defensive-minded team now with Quinn entering year three, the Cowboys made their first splash of the new league year by trading a fifth-round compensatory pick for veteran cornerback Stephon Gilmore.
Gilmore played last season with the Indianapolis Colts, but is best known as a former Defensive Player of the Year, First-Team All-Pro, and Super Bowl champion with the New England Patriots. Gilmore was a staple of Bill Belichick’s defense, with the ability to take top receivers out of rhythm in man coverage. With Quinn looking for similar traits in an outside cornerback, this move is very low-risk and high-reward for the Cowboys - even as Gilmore turns 33 at the start of the upcoming season.
Cornerback depth is a need for nearly every team at all times, and the Cowboys experienced that problem when injuries hit the secondary in 2022. With Trevon Diggs, Kelvin Joseph, Nashon Wright, Jourdan Lewis, and Daron Bland all on the current depth chart, adding Gilmore to make this position group even stronger is the type of move fans have been begging for more of.
While it’s certainly true that Gilmore provides a veteran presence in the Dallas secondary now, the same could have already been said about Lewis, and safeties Jayron Kearse, Malik Hooker, and Donovan Wilson - the three of which are all reunited again after the Cowboys signed Wilson to a new three-year deal.
Where many of these players already under contract have experience playing as both slot defenders or on the edge, Gilmore has made a standout career as a physical outside cornerback. The need for a veteran presence at this position specifically is heightened as Bland, Lewis or a safety may be asked to play more in the slot in 2023.
A key to Quinn’s defense is playing athletic defenders that can cover ground over the middle, frustrating even the game’s best quarterbacks with their ability to take away space. If the Cowboys feel their current roster gives them this, there’s still a need for snaps at slot cornerback, where the opportunistic Daron Bland is ready for an even bigger role in year two.
Bland became one of the steals of the entire 2022 draft class by starting eight games and coming down with five interceptions. The Cowboys saw Bland’s upside as a turn-and-run man corner at Fresno State, but pairing him with a defense that led the league in turnovers the year prior helped Bland show off rare playmaking ability.
A rookie playing like a seasoned pro more times than not, Bland has a rare mix of the speed and athleticism needed to play inside with the strength and technique to also add depth as a boundary corner. Before trading for Gilmore, the Cowboys might have had to push Bland to the outside, but now his playmaking ability gives Quinn another matchup player to deploy in the slot.
While he’ll still have much more to prove entering year two with competition from the veteran Lewis, Bland is already the type of player that helps put the Cowboys offseason plans in perspective. Their predictable approach of favoring internal free agents and bargain shopping for outside help draws a lot of heat from the Dallas faithful. After trading for Gilmore and re-signing not only Donovan Wilson, but linebacker Leighton Vander Esch too, the mood around Cowboys Nation has been lifted.
A potential starting lineup of Diggs and Gilmore on the outside with Bland in the slot, plus Hooker, Kearse and Wilson roaming the middle of the field, while Micah Parsons and DeMarcus Lawrence lead a deep pass rush, is as good of a defense on paper as any in the league right now. The depth jumps off the page, led by a coordinator in Quinn that knows how to expertly rotate players and get the most out of every option.
While the Cowboys opted for a battle-tested player in Gilmore to likely start opposite Trevon Diggs, their veteran option of Lewis for reps in the slot should feel real competition from Bland in year two.
With so long still to wait until any of these players are on a field playing anything that resembles football, an early reading of the tea leaves suggests this move gives up-and-comer Daron Bland a clearer path to more starting cornerback snaps. Anthony Brown is now a free agent, and should his versatility to play multiple positions in the secondary entice another team to pay more than the Cowboys are willing to, they have more than capable replacements.
Daron Bland was an integral part of this defense in 2022, and with the acquisition of yet another experienced cornerback in Stephon Gilmore, he should be expecting to be called on plenty by Quinn in 2023 and beyond.