The Dallas Cowboys have shown little reason for followers of the team to imagine any true success in 2019, so to find hope, one must look forward to the future.
In 2017 the Dallas Cowboys recognized insufficient, and ill-fitting talent at the wide receiver position and initiated a total reboot of the unit. By 2019 the unit was completely wiped clean of players who were on the 2017 opening day roster. A quick glance at on-field performance and contract expiration years points to a similar two year flip amongst the Dallas Cowboys’ defensive backs.
In short, the Dallas Cowboys’ defensive backs have not been good enough. Not close. Byron Jones is still solid. Rarely victimized as a cover man, but really beginning to show some poor effort in run support, and still without a single interception in two seasons as a starting cornerback.
Chidobe Awuzie has been absolutely scorched, and can’t get to the offseason fast enough where he can reinvent his game and dial back into his fundamentals. Jourdan Lewis has shown an ability to find and steal the football, but has been whipped by slot receivers, and does not have ideal size to compete with some of the NFL’s big bodies outside. Anthony Brown has been injured and underwhelming. CJ Goodwin is listed amongst the cornerbacks but is a core special teamer.
As far as the safeties, Jeff Heath is the new Nick Hayden. For those with short memories, Nick Hayden was a below-average defensive tackle for the Cowboys from 2013-2015. The Cowboys’ defensive line unit was awful during that time period. Hayden, inexplicably popular amongst fans actually logged 47 starts for the team. It always felt like you would know the defensive line had finally ascended to respectability when Hayden was no longer good enough to make the team. That’s what Jeff Heath is now.
Xavier Woods has been solid, but well short of the huge breakout year many expected from him. He has been fine in coverage but has displayed some disturbing tackling effort in recent weeks, and really just hasn’t had the impact many have been waiting on. Rookie Donovan Wilson hasn’t played enough to be evaluated, and Darian Thompson has shown himself to be somewhat a clone of Heath.
Jones, Heath, Brown, Goodwin, and Thompson are all unrestricted free agents at season’s end.
Awuzie, Lewis, and Woods will enter the final years of their contracts next season.
The only defensive back signed beyond 2020 is the rookie Wilson, who’s 4 year pact expires after the 2022 season.
Underwhelming group. Expiring contracts. The Cowboys’ DB room is primed for a full flip.
The washout should begin with letting Heath, Brown, Goodwin, and Thompson walk. No one in that group has shown anything that warrants another contract. Let the DBs under contract for 2020 stay, because you at least need warm bodies until you find better bodies. Maybe Woods or Lewis can play their way into an extension. Maybe not. Continue to let Woods develop.
Last offseason, and as early as mid-season this year, it felt as though Byron Jones was destined for a monster long term deal with the Cowboys. It certainly doesn’t feel like a slam dunk anymore, and the Cowboys may be wise to just go through with the full restart. Jones is in line for a deal in the neighborhood of a $14-15 million yearly average. Byron is one heck of a cover man, but for that price tag, you need him to also be a solid player in run support, and at least occasionally take the ball away.
The Cowboys’ offseason modus operandi is well understood at this point. Cover your roster holes with bargain free agents, then draft behind it. If the Cowboys choose not to retain Jones, they should look to acquire three players in free agency who would combine to come in under 70-75% of the estimated annual price tag Jones would have commanded.
The Cowboys can’t scrape the absolute bottom of the barrel on all three. One or two of these guys will probably end up logging a ton of snaps and therefore may require at least a mid-level contract to be acquired. The Cowboys don’t commonly sign players much over 30, so age and price considered, here is a cursory list of players who fit that criterion:
- Trae Waynes, CB, MIN – Age 28 – 2019 salary: $3.24M
- Kevin Johnson, CB, BUF – Age 28 – 2019 salary: $3.0M
- Ron Darby, CB, PHI – Age 26 – 2019 salary: $6.5M
- Darqueze Dennard, CB, CIN – Age 28 – 2019 salary $4.5M
- Bashaud Breeland, CB, KC – Age 28 – 2019 salary: $2.0M
- Anthony Harris, S, MIN – Age 28 – 2019 salary: $3.1M
- John Cyprien, S, ATL – Age 30 – 2019 salary: $800k
- Jimmie Ward, S, SF – Age 29 – 2019 salary: $4.5M
- Nate Ebner, S, NE – Age 30 – 2019 salary: $2.5M
Obviously, with the coaching situation very much in flux, it’s impossible at this time to determine what type of players the next coaching staff might want in the secondary. The glance-over list does, however, illustrate that there are affordable guys out there, and not all of them are just camp body roster fillers.
Four returning players who contract make them painless cuts if they are outplayed in camp. Three free-agent acquisitions, hopefully at least one with a non or low guarantee deal who can be painlessly dumped as well. Add in a pair of draft selections, and you have 9 guys to battle it out with your practice squad and camp guys for your 2020 roster.
Position group overhauls do come with growing pains, and if that is indeed the Cowboys’ plan of action, fans need to be prepared. The Cowboys clearly overestimated their own talent midway through the WR overhaul project and had to trade for Amari Cooper mid-way through 2018 to avoid having the offense completely sink.
A revamped defensive back group will absolutely experience some turbulence before the churn is complete. However with as lost as the current DB group has looked more often than not this season, almost any change would be welcome, bumps in the road and all.