It is no secret the Dallas Cowboys have underperformed this season — mostly because of poor defensive play and coaching.
This roster has the pieces to seriously contend but, sooner rather than later, the Cowboys are going to be forced to let key players walk including Pro Bowl cornerback Byron Jones.
Dallas’ secondary has been subpar all season, void of playmaking production. Even though Jones is not necessarily considered a ballhawk, he is still one of the best pure cover cornerbacks in the NFL. If this secondary loses Jones, it will only amplify the biggest weak spot on the roster.
Reports have already indicated Jones is set to walk in free agency, and because the Cowboys are cap-strapped, the team will have to draft well to find his replacement. Both quarterback Dak Prescott and his favorite target, Amari Cooper, about to get paid. If the Cowboys want to stay in contention next year, they must fill this secondary with young, cheap playmakers through the early rounds of the 2020 NFL Draft.
With Jones expected exit, Anthony Brown — another starting corner — is also set to enter free agency. If the team cannot get Brown back on a cheap, prove-it deal, then the two are going to part ways. It presumably leaves Dallas down two starting CBs. Add in the fact Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis, both of whom have underperformed, are free agents in 2021 and cornerback becomes the Cowboys’ sneakiest need.
I expect Dallas to possibly double up at the position in the top-100 picks next April. Here are some of the names that fit the profile of what this front office looks for to fill the defensive backfield.
If Kris Richard returns to Dallas next season, he is going to absolutely fall in love with Alabama senior Trevon Diggs. His combination of size, length, speed and ball skills are Richard’s prototype on the boundary. Richard has not had the chance to get one of “his guys” at cornerback since arriving in Dallas in 2018, so I am willing to bet this front office will be looking for these long, athletic CBs. But more than anything, Diggs is a playmaker. As a former wide receiver, he is a natural ball getter and attacks the catch point with excellent timing, leaping ability and hands. The Cowboys rank dead last in interceptions this season, and a player like Diggs would go a long way in turning that around.
Another playmaker this front office could consider is Jeff Gladney. The TCU senior will be a legitimate option at the end of the first round if Dallas indeed makes it to the postseason. Now, if Richard is not brought back, this front office may be more open to a smaller corner on the boundary. While Gladney is not necessarily undersized, he does not necessarily have the build to fit Richard’s strict size thresholds. With that being said, Gladney’s game draws plenty of parallels to Atlanta Falcons’ Desmond Trufant, who came out of Washington, with his ball skills, twitch in man coverage and playmaking range in zone coverage. Gladney will be one of the top CBs on my board because he is an elite athlete who has an NFL-ready skill set on the boundary. If Dallas wants a prospect who is ready for snaps on Sunday, Gladney should be on the shortlist.
If Dallas decides to go in a different direction in the first round – defensive tackle, safety or even wide receiver – they could get Byron Jones-lite in Notre Dame’s Troy Pride Jr. He is going to be one of the most athletic players at the NFL combine with his speed and leaping ability, but what will stand out the most is his ability to stay in phase with receivers in man coverage at all levels of the field. If it is a crosser, he has the explosiveness and range to stay attached over the top. If it is a vertical, he has the speed to match the receiver stride for stride. If it is an inside or outside breaking route, he has the hip fluidity and twitch to maintain control on the hip pocket. Pride Jr. is one of the draft’s most underrated CB prospects, and I have a feeling that sentiment will change very soon.
Wake Forest senior Amari Henderson is more of a later-round option for the Cowboys, but at 6-foot-1, 190 pounds Henderson has great length and a solid base skill set in press coverage. He is patient and controlled at the line of scrimmage, able to consistently re-route receivers with good play strength and is adept at tracking and attacking with his back to the ball. Henderson is a Richard cornerback through and through. But the most impressive aspect of his tape is how surprisingly twitchy he is in off coverage. He has an excellent click and close speed as his ability to quickly key, diagnose and make plays on different routes in man coverage is incredibly strong. Henderson is the kind of playmaker Dallas can find later in the draft that can provide immediate contributions in 2020.