Mike McCarthy is entering his fourth season as the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, but his first since taking over the offensive play-calling. Since coming to Dallas, McCarthy has led the Cowboys to consecutive 12-win seasons, but they’ve failed to reach the NFC Championship Game both years.
After getting a little more aggressive this offseason in an attempt to get over the hump, the Cowboys are hoping for a big 2023 season. In anticipation of that, let’s take an in-depth look at every position on the roster. Today, let’s take a look at the guys who try to stop quarterbacks from torching the defense: the secondary.
Stephon Gilmore’s impact
One of the biggest moves of the offseason in Dallas was trading for Stephon Gilmore, a shutdown corner who won Defensive Player of the Year just four years ago. Gilmore isn’t still on that level, but he’s one of the league’s better coverage men.
Gilmore immediately fills the hole left by Anthony Brown, and actually represents a sizable upgrade. Brown played well the last two years, but saw an immeasurable amount of targets that made it difficult to truly play well. Gilmore, on the other hand, has the kind of reputation that prompts quarterbacks to avoid him.
The hope is that pushes more balls towards Trevon Diggs, whose elite ball skills make him a dangerous man to target despite his continuing development as a cover corner. That, along with the mentorship from Gilmore, is why the decision to acquire the veteran was almost universally praised.
Are there any surprises in store at safety?
After decades of instability, the Cowboys’ safety group has become a strength the last two years. The trio of Jayron Kearse, Donovan Wilson, and Malik Hooker make up one of the best safety rooms in the NFL, and the depth is solid behind them with Israel Mukuamu and Markquese Bell.
So, is this position set in stone? Conventional wisdom says yes, as the only other safeties on the roster are Tyler Coyle, Sheldrick Redwine, and Juanyeh Thomas. Coyle has seen minimal action the last two years, but the practice squad seems to be his ceiling. Redwine was added to the practice squad during the playoffs last year; and Thomas spent all of last season on the practice squad. Odds are good that this safety group is locked up, but you can never rule anything out.
One storyline to watch: Kearse is entering the final year of his contract, and will turn 30 in February. It’s possible that this ends up being Kearse’s final year in Dallas, with Mukuamu or Bell waiting in the wings to fill his void.
The battle at slot corner is anything but Bland
Jourdan Lewis has been the Cowboys’ starter at slot corner since Quinn took over the defense, and he’s quietly played his best ball in that time. But he’s entering the final year of his contract and missed the final 10 games last year, and the playoffs, with a Lisfranc injury.
During that time, rookie DaRon Bland emerged out of nowhere to cement himself as the team’s second best cornerback (pre-Stephon Gilmore), to the point where he began playing outside once Anthony Brown got injured and rotating inside in nickel packages. In the playoffs, though, Quinn also experimented with Mukuamu in the slot and the results were equally impressive.
That puts Lewis in an uneasy spot. Coming off the injury, it’s still no lock for when he’ll be ready to play. Whenever he does return, though, Lewis will have to compete with both Bland and Mukuamu. The Cowboys value Lewis’ experience and leadership, but it’ll be a challenging situation for him.
Trevon Diggs’ future
There’s no denying that Diggs is a star, and his gaudy interception numbers are exactly what the Cowboys wanted when they decided to let Byron Jones walk in free agency. But he’s entering the final year of his rookie contract, which means the Cowboys will either have to pay him what they weren’t willing to give Jones or bid him the same farewell.
Jaire Alexander of the Packers is currently the highest paid corner in the NFL with an annual average value of $21 million. Given Diggs’ high profile and interception totals, Alexander’s deal is likely the starting point in negotiations.
Having said that, Diggs doesn’t have a ton of leverage. There aren’t many corners with upcoming deals that might further reset the market, which prevents the Cowboys from really having to rush things, and Dallas also has plenty of other young corners on their roster they might feel content to develop further if Diggs won’t budge. This has the potential to become a knock-down, drag-out fight.
Who wins the battle for depth?
Speaking of those young corners on the roster, the Cowboys are flush with them. We know the starters on the outside, and the slot role is a three-man race. But there’s the duo of Kelvin Joseph and Nahshon Wright, two 2021 draft picks, who have flashed some talent but also failed to remove doubt about their long-term viability.
The Cowboys traded to draft Eric Scott Jr. in this year’s draft, and it stands to reason they have a specific plan for him. But Scott will have to compete with Joseph and Wright - or, perhaps more accurately, they’ll have to compete with Scott - for pecking order as a backup. Undrafted rookies Myles Brooks and D’Angelo Mandell could get in the mix. too. How this position group rounds out will be heavily determined by the competition for depth between these younger players.