Dallas was intent on fixing its defensive backfield after the 2016 season.
That was the rookie seasons for Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott. Those two helped lead the Cowboys to an improbable 13-3 record and an NFC East title.
But the Mike McCarthy-led Green Bay Packers came into town and ultimately ended Dallas’ season, 34-31. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers had a typical, impressive performance, passing for 355 yards and 2 touchdowns, while tight end Jared Cook caught 6 passes for 103 yards and a TD. Receivers Davante Adams (5 receptions for 76 yards) and Randall Cobb (7 receptions for 62 yards) also had big games.
The Cowboys’ defensive backfield of Morris Claiborne, Brandon Carr and Orlando Scandrick at cornerback and Barry Church and Byron Jones at safety didn’t necessarily have bad games. Church and Scandrick, in fact, had two of Dallas’ three sacks.
But it was obvious that secondary group had run its course in Dallas.
Jones was in his second year but was playing out of position at safety. He wasn’t going anywhere. The same could be said of then-backup safety Jeff Heath, who also had a sack in that game and had the only interception. And then-sixth-round rookie Anthony Brown seemed like a keeper.
As for Church, Claiborne, Carr and Scandrick, though, their time with Dallas was nearing an end.
By 2017, the defensive backfield’s changing of the guard took another step forward with the additions of Chidobe Awuzie (second round) and Jourdan Lewis (third round) at cornerback and Xavier Woods (sixth round) at safety.
Their core group over the next several seasons now included Heath and Woods at safety and Jones, Awuzie, Lewis and Brown at cornerback.
The problem? A lack of turnovers.
Dallas had 9 INTs in 2016, 10 in 2017, 9 in 2018 and 7 in 2019.
So it was time to focus on the defensive backfield again. Last year, Dallas drafted CB Trevon Diggs of Alabama in the second round and DB Reggie Robinson II of Tulsa in the fourth round. Safety Donovan Wilson Jr. was selected in the sixth round the year before, 2019, but didn’t play as a rookie.
And the team added more pieces to the secondary in this year’s draft, with Dallas selecting CB Kelvin Joseph in the second round, CB Nahshon Wright of Oregon State in the third round, and corner-turned-safety Israel Mukuamu of South Carolina in the sixth round.
Diggs’ and Wilson’s place in the lineup felt secure. But surely the team wouldn’t go into the season with Lewis as the starting slot corner and Brown as the other outside corner, right? Fans and media alike surmised that at least one of the rookies would start over Lewis or Brown.
But no one could have predicted that those two would go on to have career years this season. Brown and Lewis are tied for second on the team with 3 INTs. Brown leads all Cowboys defenders with 971 snaps, or 97 percent of the team’s defensive plays. Lewis is sixth with 703 snaps. Brown’s also third on the team in tackles with 69 – an impressive feat for an outside cornerback, while Lewis is sixth with 53. Brown and Lewis also rank No. 2 and 3 on the team behind Diggs with 15 and 11 passes defensed, respectively.
Their play, along with Diggs’ NFL-leading 11 INTs, are a big reason why Dallas leads the NFL with 25 interceptions, which is tied for seventh in team history with two games to go. (The team INT record, by the way, is safe. Dallas had a whopping 37 INTs in 1981, the most in team history.)
As for the safety group, Wilson has barely played this season due in part to injuries. Instead, the team has relied heavily on a trio of one-year free agent signings in Damontae Kazee, Jayron Kearse and Malik Hooker – and all have made major contributions, including Kearse, who went from special teams ace in Minnesota to leading the Cowboys in tackles with 95, or 16 more than the next-closest player, linebacker Micah Parsons, who has 79. Kazee and Kearse each have 2 INTs, while Hooker has one.
So while Dallas appears set at cornerback for the foreseeable future, questions await the safety position, as Kazee, Kearse and Hooker will all be unrestricted free agents at the end of the season. The Cowboys are unlikely to sign all three of them due to the sheer number of starters who will be UFAs at the end of the season, including edge Randy Gregory, receiver Michael Gallup, tight end Dalton Schultz and guard Connor Williams. In fact, it’s possible that all three safeties could leave via free agency, although Dallas will likely try to re-sign Kearse.
And yet, despite the newfound stability at cornerback and the uncertainty at safety, it would be hard to pass up a corner like Florida’s Kaiir Elam, Cincinnati’s Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner, Clemson’s Andrew Booth Jr. and Auburn’s Roger McCreary or even slot corner Trent McDuffie of Washington if available when Dallas is on the clock, presumably late in the first round.
It’s possible, if not probable, that at least one of them will be available late in the first round despite their rankings. McCreary is the No. 14-ranked prospect in the latest Fanspeak-Jake Rigdon big board, followed by McDuffie (16), Gardner (18), Elam (19) and Booth (26).
That’s because of how the talent is dispersed in this draft. Among the top 32 players in the Rigdon big board are six pass rushers, six cornerbacks, five offensive tackles (a sixth, Central Michigan’s Bernhard Raimann, is ranked No. 33 overall), five receivers (a sixth, Penn State’s Jahan Dotson, is ranked No. 34 overall) and four QBs.
Therefore, it’s reasonable to assume that one of those cornerbacks will still be there when Dallas is on the clock in the first round.
Another reason Dallas might draft a corner over a safety is the lack of first-round talent at the safety position, as Notre Dame’s Kyle Hamilton is the only consensus Day 1 prospect. Daxton Hill of Michigan (53) has been mentioned as a potential first-round target for Dallas, but he lines up against the slot receiver much of the time and the Cowboys have a greater need for a free safety to pair with Kearse (if he re-signs), the strong safety. However, Pro Football Network recently mocked Hill going to Dallas in the first round.
If Dallas doesn’t take a safety with its first pick, the Cowboys would likely take one on Day 2 if the team needs to find a potential starter – and there are plenty who should be available. Georgia’s Lewis Cine (47), Hill, Penn State’s Jaquan Brisker (60) and Alabama’s Jordan Battle (62) have second-round grades in the latest Rigdon big board, while Baylor’s Jalen Pitre (87) could be a second- or third-round target.
The team could skip the cornerback position altogether if it doesn’t take one on Day 1 or 2, as Dallas already has two developmental rookies who were drafted in the second and third rounds this year. Adding a third, when Joseph and Wright are getting so little playing time, doesn’t make sense unless that cornerback is expected to start, which you would expect out of a first-rounder.
The idea that Dallas might take a corner in the first is starting to gain some traction. Pro Football Focus mocked Gardner going to Dallas in a Dec. 13 mock draft.
From PFF’s Austin Gayle: “A physical, uber-talented cover corner, Cincinnati’s Ahmad Gardner had one of the most impressive seasons we’ve ever seen for a college cornerback. He played 448 coverage snaps and allowed receptions on just 17-of-36 targets for 117 yards and zero touchdowns.”
Coach Fickell: What will you do when your back’s against the wall?
Ahmad Gardner: pic.twitter.com/yvBEYdLpoc
— Cincinnati Football (@GoBearcatsFB) November 4, 2019