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Dan Quinn was brought in to replace the one-year fiasco of Mike Nolan in order to fix one of the worse defenses in Dallas Cowboys team history. As difficult a task as it will be for the whole group and each of the position coaches to ensure their troops improve, the onus is likely to be the defensive passing game coordinator Joe Whitt Jr. and defensive back coach Al Harris.
They might have the toughest job on the staff, getting their respective unit ready for this season as the Cowboys’ DB room is very inexperienced. The team has a lot of teaching to do to get the unit where it needs to be, but their first job is to decide which players will make the 53-man roster. Here’s a breakdown of the various candidates as OTAs roll on.
(AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)
The Cowboys top cornerback going into the 2021 season is second-year man Diggs. He was thrown into the fire as a rookie, going one-on-one with the likes of Robert Woods, Julio Jones, DK Metcalf, Odell Beckham Jr., DeAndre Hopkins, Terry McLaurin and fellow rookie stud Justin Jefferson. Diggs persevered through some early trouble and ended the year as one of the top rookie corners in the league. He was much better in zone than man, pulling in all three of his pics on the year, but projects to do both very well with experience. https://twitter.com/JohnOwning/status/1396498410119729161
Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports
Rookies are going to have growing pains as Diggs will attest to. That said, Joseph should be getting the same treatment; just throw the rookie out there and let him learn on the job. The replacements aren't quality enough to keep Joseph on the sideline due to inexperience. The Cowboys should have a young, playmaking duo at CB for the next few seasons minimum. Joseph was considered by many evaluators to have the film of a first-round talent. The flag attached to his name came from both the LSU and Kentucky staffs indicating he wasn't one of their favorite players to coach. If that doesn't manifest itself in Dallas, the Cowboys could have a tremendous pick.
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
Brown is now the longest tenured player in the Cowboys defensive backs room. Byron Jones is in Miami and Jeff Heath is long gone. Chidobe Awuzie moved on to the Cincinnati Bengals this past offseason, leaving Brown as the last remaining regular starter from the Jason Garrett teams. Brown has played both in the slot and on the outside so it will be intersting to see what the influx of young talent does to his job description. Many continue to clamor for Jourdan Lewis, but he has never been able to take Brown's job.
(AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)
Wilson looks to be a sixth-round steal for the Cowboys. After Dallas fans asked for it to start the season, the Cowboys finally gave the starting nod to Wilson in Week 3. He did not disappoint. in 14 starts Wilson compiled 71 tackles including two for a loss, two intercepted passes, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries. He even added 3.5 sacks and another three QB hits showing he can impact the game in a multitude of ways. Compare that to one of the top SS in the NFL, Harrison Smith, who in 16 starts had 89 tackles, two for a loss, five intercepted passes, no forced fumbles or fumble recoveries, only a half of a sack, and five QB hits. Wilson will switch from No.37 to No. 6 and the team hopes he continues to improve his game-changing skills.
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The Cowboys fanbase has begged for a true FS for many years and if he can return healthy, Kazee can be that. In 2018 with Atlanta Kazee was left at FS for all 16 games, and 14 starts. He compiled 82 tackles, ten pass deflections, and seven intercepted passes. Him, along with Donovan Wilson on the back end, could add some true play making to the position. Coming off a torn Achilles, the fans and media alike were surprised that Kazee started OTAs as the starter and this could be a sign he will be ready and healthy as the season starts.
(AP Photo/Emilee Chinn)
There is a faction of Cowboys fans who see Lewis as the worst defensive back on the team, and another that believes he is an under-utilized star in the making. The truth could be somewhere in the middle. In OTAs Lewis revealed his roll will be up at the line of scrimmage making plays. What nobody but the team knows is does that mean at safety in the box, a nickel CB, or as a dime LB. Only time will tell how the versatile Lewis will line up, but with a new three-year deal in hand, Lewis will definitely be a big part of this DB room.
The top remaining contenders
CJ Goodwin The special teams ace of the Cowboys is possibly the second likeliest non-rookie to be guaranteed a spot on the 53-man roster. Special teams coach John Fassel will fight for Goodwin not only from the DB room, but more than maybe anybody on the roster for his unit. Nahshon Wright Cowboys valued Wright enough to to use a top-100 pick on him in this years draft. He has the ideal size and length that Quinn wants in his Cover 3, outside zone CB. He will have to lose a spot to not make it, Wright will get every opportunity. Israel Mukuamu With Will Mclay in the top spot the Cowboys have never drafted a safety before the sixth round. Quinn has already drafted corners to move to safety in the NFL. Put these two facts together, along with the fact that Mukuamu has played safety in OTA's already and it seems Cowboys have found their new project to try and develop. In 2019 Mukuamu was rated as the top DB on a South Carolina team that had top-ten pick Jaycee Horn on it. Could all the Cowboys worries at safety actually be relieved by two sixth-round draft picks? If Mukuamu can make plays like Wilson has so far it may be possible. Jayron Kearse Kearse has his appeal come from his versatility and special teams ability. Kearse could end up with Fassel and Joe Whitt Jr. both fighting for him to make the team. For Fassel it comes down as simple as that Kearse is a very good special teams player. For Whitt Jr., Kearse could use a back up with the ability to play both safety spots with experience. Kearse could even transition to a big nickel LB in a pinch.
Battling for a spot
Reggie Robinson If the Cowboys keep 11 defensive backs, Robinson could get that last spot. He was drafted last year, and fit the build of a Cover 3 outside CB. Mike Nolan decided to move him to safety and redshirt him a year while he learns. An unfortunate waste of a year for Robinson, that could cost him his spot on the 53-man roster. Under Quinn, Robinson is now moving back to the outside corner spot. Darian Thompson Thompson could be the first veteran cap casualty this young secondary causes the Cowboys front office to make. He has played many snaps for the Cowboys, but without much production. He made his plays more on special teams, but a cut of Thompson saves $1.2 million off the cap with only $100,000 in dead money. Maurice Canady After an opt out of the 2020 season, and a change at defensive coordinator, it seems a long shot Canady makes this team. A cut of Canady saves over $1 million on the cap with a dead money hit of only $200,000. Canady might get a look in case of injury, but otherwise expect him to be cut. Rashard Robinson Robinson has 42 games of experience and 18 starts in his short four year career with three different teams. He started three games for the Cowboys due to injury last season even. Robinson is an excellent practice squad player if he is eligible. Deante Burton Burton is like Rashard Robinson lite. He has some experience on other teams, and a few games here. Both are 6-foot-2, but Burton is much bigger at over 200 pounds. Although he has experience, and the size required by Quinn, Burton is unlikely to make the 53-man roster, but could find his way back to the practice squad. Steven Parker Parker is a practice squad safety with the size the Cowboys covet at the position. He is 6-foot-1, 210 pounds, and will likely make the practice squad again with that size, and eight games experience on the team last season due to injury.
Starting Diggs, Joseph, Brown, Wilson, and Kazee in nickel is a strong likelihood. Having Lewis back is almost a certainty thanks to his three-year deal. Two rookie defensive backs in Wright and Mukuamu, and special teams ace Goodwin bring a nice balance to the DB room. Kearse would get the tenth spot based on special teams, and position versatility. The question is if the Cowboys can keep yet another DB, and if so, why wouldn't it be Reggie Robinson? This DB room is very young, but they have a ton of potential if this defensive staff can coach them up.