On Thursday, we assessed one competition brewing on the offensive side of the ball. The battle for the final running back spot on the roster is going to garner a lot of attention this summer and the team will have to choose between a former first-round pick, a returning veteran, and a newcomer with a unique skillset. Today, we’re going to look at one Cowboys training camp competition on the defensive side of the ball that’s a little higher profile, and will largely play a factor in how successful Dan Quinn’s defense will be.
Jourdan Lewis vs. Israel Mukuamu vs. DaRon Bland, slot CB
As we did in our companion piece, let’s first establish the top of the depth chart and explain how this competition took shape in the first place. Currently, the Dallas Cowboys are set at outside cornerback. Their top two corners include All-Pro Trevon Diggs and former Defensive Player of the Year, Stephon Gilmore. Those two players are more than capable of playing outside numbers with a penchant for making big plays. However, who mans the slot corner is equally as important, and here’s why.
Since Quinn took over as defensive coordinator in 2021, the Cowboys have played in the nickel defense (two linebackers and five defensive backs) or some variation of it at one of the league’s highest rates. This puts a heavy onus on the Cowboys to make a concerted effort to find as good a slot corner as they can. It’s also noteworthy that the corners the team added in the draft, in free agency, and after the draft are projected to play outside. The role of slot corner will come down to three players who were already on the roster last year.
Jourdan Lewis, DaRon Bland and Israel Mukuamu are all vying for the third cornerback. Lewis missed significant time last season after suffering a Lisfranc foot injury. Early in his career, Lewis had a habit of coming up with big turnovers for a Cowboys team that was desperate for takeaways, the highlight being an interception of Drew Brees to give the Cowboys a win over a near-perfect New Orleans Saints team in 2018. Lewis’ best season came in 2021 when he recorded three interceptions. Lewis is in the last year of his contract and carries a cap charge of $5.8M.
Next, we’ll talk about Israel Mukuamu. The former sixth-round draft pick brings a unique size archetype for the slot position. Usually, slot corners are smaller players with terrific lateral quickness and excellent instincts for routes from the slot. Mukuamu is 6’4”, 215 lbs., and moves effortlessly. After the team searched for ways to get the rangy talent on the field, Mukuamu has found a niche as a big corner in the nickel defense. He was a key contributor in the Cowboys’ wild-card win against the Tampa Buccaneers and closed the passing lanes over the middle of the field.
.@DaRon_Bland gets his second INT of the half!— NFL (@NFL) December 5, 2022
: #INDvsDAL on NBC
: Stream on NFL+ https://t.co/l6eZ8mVvcp pic.twitter.com/mOGx4t0IB9
Finally, we have DaRon Bland. Due to a rash of injuries at cornerback last season, Bland cross-trained at both the boundary cornerback and the slot. Once Lewis was injured, Bland was the next man up and he delivered. Bland intercepted five passes his rookie season, including a two-interception performance in primetime against the Indianapolis Colts. Bland has demonstrated he can diagnose route concepts and is physical to the point of the catch, out-muscling receivers for the football. Bland is also a bigger corner not too dissimilar from Mukuamu. He did play at outside corner for a short stint but is much better at the slot.
It’s too early to tell who will emerge at the top spot, but Bland likely has the inside track at the position with Jourdan Lewis trying to reclaim his position, and Mukuamu as the wild card. Lewis’ high salary may also play a factor if he doesn’t win the job outright. Meanwhile, Mukuamu’s diverse talents may have him contribute to other areas if not in the base nickel defense.