Why Chidobe Awuzie Hasn't Unlocked Full Potential With Cowboys

Photo: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

In personnel evaluation, there are some fundamental questions that you have to be able to answer for every player you watch. These questions help define how you watch the player—what you’re looking for, and what matters in the messy action of a given football play. In college evaluations, for example, I want to be able to answer the question: “Is this player a functional athlete at the NFL level?” and for each position, that means I’m checking particular boxes for particular athletic thresholds. I need offensive tackles to be quick enough, safeties to be big enough, defensive tackles to be strong enough. 

At the NFL and college level alike, I have another question I need to answer: “What is the coaching staff asking the player to do?” This is an important question at all positions, and it is a dangerous question, as it does assume coaches are rational actors who maximize their available talent into the best possible scheme or technique. This is not always the case, and it likely was not the case with Dallas Cowboys cornerback Chidobe Awuzie.

Awuzie was the 60th pick of the 2017 NFL Draft and the 10th cornerback off the board in what seems to be a historic class in terms of top-end talent. Brought in to compete for the starting outside job, a hamstring injury cut his rookie season short, but Awuzie went on to start all the past two seasons at outside cornerback. In both seasons, Awuzie’s defensive backs coach was Kris Richard; in 2019, Richard became the primary play-caller on defense.

Richard was the designer of the defensive backfield, filling in the role left by Matt Eberflus, who had coordinated the defensive backfield in Awuzie’s rookie year before leaving for Indianapolis. Eberflus’ defenses like to drop seven zone defenders into safe two-high coverages, keep routes in front of them, rally, and tackle; Richard’s defenses are cut from a different cloth. 

After eight seasons coaching the Legion-of-Boom-era Seattle Seahawks, Richard was ready to bring with him an aggressive, suffocating single-high scheme. He put his cornerbacks on the line of scrimmage, asking them to cancel route stems and disrupt route timing. He asked them to dictate, control, and discourage passing attempts altogether. The passing concepts would lose their delicate spacing; the quarterback would panic in the pocket; the pass rush would arrive.

This defense unlocked CB Byron Jones, who just recently signed a fat deal with the Miami Dolphins for his dominant two seasons under Richard’s tutelage. But Jones’ gain came at Awuzie’s cost: he was not nearly as snug a fit as Jones in Richard’s defense, and accordingly, his opportunity for CB1 production has been limited.

This circles back to that which coaches ask of their players. Despite coming to the 2017 NFL Combine with above-average height (6-foot) and weight (202 pounds), Awuzie was significantly below average in arm length (30 ⅝”, 23rd percentile among cornerbacks). At Colorado, Awuzie primarily played in off coverage on the outside of the formation and was at his best using deep zone cushion to read route breaks and quarterback drops to close on plays developing in front of him. 

Those strengths followed him to the NFL. He rarely got zone coverage responsibilities in which he was initially lined up off the ball, but when working from off-man alignments last season, Awuzie was far more likely to get and stay connected to a variety of breaking routes. Awuzie is significantly more comfortable playing with his hips and shoulders into the line of scrimmage, where he can see the throw developing and time his click and close accordingly.

There are two traits to note here with Awuzie. He is wonderfully bursty and has that second and even third gear that is so often coveted in cornerbacks. He struggles to carry speed over distances, but when you’re looking for that extra moment of explosiveness to get connected to a wide receiver, Awuzie regularly delivers.

Secondly, Awuzie has a delightful knack for route breaks. On those each rep here, it’s easy to see Awuzie begin to cheat into the route break, as he understands where the route is likely to develop based off of receiver alignment and depth—and by sneaking peeks into the backfield, he can time his close with the quarterback’s drop as well.

Unfortunately for Awuzie, he didn’t frequently get man coverage from off alignments with Richard calling the shots—and the sad reality is that, even when he did get those alignments, his issues with length and physicality still showed up. Consider this critical third-down completion to Jakobi Meyers that Awuzie gave up in Week 12.

Sneaking Awuzie into the slot is a smart move, as it’s easier to get him in off coverage there, as opposed to out wide. The new defensive staff has even kicked around the idea of moving Awuzie to safety to continue slotting him in more advantageous spots. But in a catch-man technique here, in which Awuzie is anticipating a short-breaking route given the down and distance, Awuzie is unable to generate significant contact against Meyers. Meyers aggressively steps into Awuzie’s cylinder, striking his chest, which Awuzie has left open by widening his arms. Awuzie, still gaining depth, gives no impact to Meyers—he just presents a large target for Meyers to impact, which creates the separation that allows for the completion.

This is the simple reality of Awuzie’s press coverage under Richard. The Seattle Cover-3 approach utilizes a step-kick technique at the line of scrimmage, which forces corners to stay square to the receiver, giving up no vertical ground, and using the receiver’s release to dictate the direction the cornerback opens and the hand with which he punches. The best corners with this technique have length, strength, and stopping power—Awuzie doesn’t have that. 

So in press coverage, Awuzie’s weight often rocks back to his heels, as his internal discomfort with close-quarters play battles with the ingrained teaching of staying square and holding ground. His punches are invariably wide and flailing, more slaps across the shoulder pads than jabs to the chest that knock the receiver off his line. In press, Awuzie was frequently outmatched by bigger receivers and forced into a recovery phase. From here, his modest long-speed was challenged, and he gave up a healthy amount of targets on vertical routes. 

Awuzie should not be asked to do this, and even if he’s being asked to press, he should be allowed to use a different technique: soft-shoeing, a more traditional approach that allows the corner to give cushion and react to release moves more freely. This would maximize Awuzie’s natural tools: burst, fluidity, reactionary quickness. But it wasn’t available to him, and that limited his play. This was a point that was made by DB coach Clay Mack, who has trained Awuzie and other Dallas corners. 

The tough reality for Awuzie is that, even if he is escaping the step-kick philosophy that Richard championed in Seattle, he isn’t escaping press coverage. The Cowboys drafted Trevon Diggs out of Alabama and Reggie Robinson out of Tulsa—two corners with the requisite size and collegiate background to play as press-man corners. While Mike Nolan has alluded to a more complex and varied defensive structure, those selections, paired with the rumored interest in moving Awuzie to the slot, spells a continued usage of press coverage for the Cowboys defense.

As such, the best short-term solution for Awuzie may simply be finding a new home in a new defense. Moving into the slot or a box safety role for the final year of his rookie deal could highlight his strength when reading routes and playing downhill, making him an attractive option for other systems that translate better to his style of coverage. In short, Awuzie needs a coaching staff to ask for different things from him. And when he gets that, he may start blossoming into the player the Cowboys invested a top-60 pick in.