Defense was pretty much the only topic that wasn’t a sore one for the Dallas Cowboys in 2015. Pretty much everything else that could go wrong did, but Rod Marinelli’s unit provided a silver lining and some optimism heading into a somewhat uncertain 2016 season in which many changes could be on the horizon in Dallas, particularly at the cornerback and safety positions.
The Cowboys haven’t even gotten to the official offseason yet, but secondary coach Jerome Henderson is already off to Atlanta. So before we even get to the roster, we already know someone else will be coaching the players on it in 2016.
Morris Claiborne, who started much of the season opposite Brandon Carr, is a free agent and there are conflicting reports regarding his and the team’s desire to work out a new contract. This past season was undoubtedly Claiborne’s best as a pro, but that’s not saying much. The very small sample sizes of Terrance Mitchell and Deji Olatoye near the end of the season provided more promise than Claiborne’s last four years with the Cowboys.
Speaking of those two youngsters, they are now the Nos. 3 and 4 cornerbacks on the roster behind Orlando Scandrick and Carr, respectively. Last year’s first-round pick, Byron Jones, will start at safety this season alongside Barry Church. Jones proved to be a natural tight end stopper in his rookie season, playing well against big names like Rob Gronkowski, and showed promise to go along with natural abilities behind the rest of the defense.
J.J. Wilcox, who has started at free safety the past two and a half years, will likely back up Jones this year unless Dallas decides to part ways with him. His minimal salary could keep him around for the next two seasons if he plays on special teams after this demotion.
Church is coming off arguably his worst season as a starter, but word around Valley Ranch is he has the front office and coaching staff’s confidence and backing for 2016, assuming he rebounds with a revamped unit around him. The same goes for Carr, who has played relatively well throughout his career in Dallas, but not nearly well enough to justify his hefty salary. He was almost a cap casualty in 2015, but ended up sticking around, which turned out to be a huge break for the Cowboys when Scandrick was lost for the season.
Because of that, and the fact Dallas has no other experienced corners on the roster, Carr will likely be kept for next season. However, he could be asked to move at least part of his $9.1 million cap number to 2017 when it’s currently just $2 million.
So what does all of this mean for the 2016 NFL Draft and free agency period? It means the Cowboys will likely use a relatively early draft pick on a cornerback again this year, and possibly even bring in a mid-tier-level free agent to fortify the position group.
Jason Garrett’s moronic decisions to cut Corey White and Tyler Patmon now make things a lot tougher on Stephen Jones this offseason. Sure, Garrett felt pressure to give the fan base a head or two during the unbearable losing streak, but he did plenty in 2016 to show how he still has some learning to do to become more than an average NFL coach.
Fortunately, there will be a slew of solid options available when free agency starts in March, so it’s very possible the Cowboys could snag a viable starting-caliber corner without breaking the bank. That will be influential in the team’s approach to the No. 4 overall pick in the upcoming draft.
If Jones had turned into a surefire cornerback, then Dallas could just take Florida State’s Jalen Ramsey and be done with it. But Ramsey is similar to Jones in that he’s more of a hybrid player who fits best at safety. Thus, the decision at four will be an interesting one to say the least, especially if Ramsey is still on the board.
Of course, the Cowboys definitely shouldn’t force anything with that fourth pick, or anytime in the draft. The most important goal is getting an immediate difference-maker with that fourth pick, regardless of position. Sure, the team needs a corner, another pass rusher, linebacker depth and a quarterback to start grooming for the post-Tony Romo era, but forcing picks for any of those needs would just make things worse.
With all this in mind, the Cowboys very likely will enter the 2016 season with Scandrick, Carr, a free agent, a draft pick and either Mitchell or Olatoye as their five cornerbacks. Church and Jones will start at the two safety spots with Wilcox and possibly some other new acquisitions (Jeff Heath and Danny McCray are both free agents) to fill out the depth chart at those positions.
Either way, Dallas’ new secondary coach will have a revamped group of defensive backs with which to work in 2016, and that’s probably a good thing for the Cowboys and their fans.