Coming off a disappointing 6-10 season that saw them finish third in the dreadful NFC East, the Dallas Cowboys were dealt a tough hand early in the season with the season-ending ankle injury to quarterback Dak Prescott. Relying on the injured Andy Dalton to carry them, the team’s offensive line, specifically Tyron Smith and La’el Collins, were injured and led to the offense’s demise.
But the bigger issue with this team, as it has been lately, was their defense. Being the second-worst unit against the run (2,541 yards allowed, 5.0 yards per carry) in terms of yardage allowed, the Cowboys were a sieve when on defense, which was a big contributor to their lost season.
Out of their entire defense, it is the secondary that needs the most work, and it also could see the most turnover this offseason – cornerbacks Jourdan Lewis, Chidobe Awuzie, and C.J. Goodwin, as well as safety Xavier Woods, are all free agents and could be playing elsewhere this upcoming year.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at three areas that the Cowboys could utilize to upgrade their defensive secondary.
2021 Free Agency
Awuzie and Lewis would be the bigger names of this group that Dallas should look into bringing back, especially since Trevon Diggs and Anthony Brown would be left as the top CBs on this team, a downgrade even from a below-average unit like they had this past year.
In a normal year that did not see the salary cap drop, Awuzie would command around $8 – $9 million per year, most likely over a three-to-four year period. Yet with how the 2021 salary cap is projected to tumble, it would be a safe bet that his value would drop to around $7 million. So, with the $17+ million in current cap space that the Cowboys have, they could bring Awuzie back for that price.
However, if they decide to look outside, the following options for cornerback and safety would make sense:
The former Washington and Buffalo CB put together an injury-riddled season, only appearing in nine games and making three starts. While he was passed over by Levi Wallace and relegated to the CB3 role for the Bills, Norman still recorded an interception and a forced fumble. The vet would command less than his $6 million deal that he signed with Buffalo last offseason, making for a cheap gamble for the Cowboys.
Having suited up for the New York Jets the past two years after spending his first three seasons with the Atlanta Falcons, Brian Poole could be plugged right in as the CB2 for this team, even though he only suited up in nine games (just like Norman). While the allure to play for new HC Robert Salah may be enough to keep him in the Big Apple for a third season, Poole would get to experience a change of scenery in Texas and it may be the best way to earn a big contract.
Picking from the Jets secondary again, safety Marcus Maye is going to be a hot commodity, as he will be in line for the most money as a safety in free agency alongside FS Anthony Harris. While the Cowboys do love to shell out money, they would be very smart to throw the bag at Maye, who is only 26 years old and is showing signs of being one of the better safeties in the league.
Along with Poole, he would do well to play under Salah’s defensive approach, but Dallas could do no wrong by bringing in the former Gator on a four-year deal that averages around $9 million.
Coming off a two-year deal with the Niners, Jaquiski Tartt would be a solid, albeit not flashy, addition that Dallas would be smart to target. A potential fit for an incentive-laden one-year deal, Tartt only played in seven games (six starts), but made his presence known throughout the year, and would give Dallas a nice veteran presence on the backend.
With the upcoming shrinking of the salary cap, odds are that teams will be looking to move some talent if it means that they are able to skirt underneath the cap and avoid any taxes. With that in mind, the two following options certainly have already or could become names thrown around this offseason to change teams.
Stephone Gilmore, the current leader of the New England Patriots’ defense, had his name thrown around during this past season’s trade deadline and could be a frequent topic this offseason as well.
The Pats may be looking to move on from Gilmore’s $17.1 million cap hit in the final year of his five-year deal, and the 30-year-old certainly has a lot left in the tank. The tough pill to swallow would be for the Cowboys to get Gilmore underneath the cap and bring back Prescott, but if they were able to redo Gilmore’s deal, turn it into an extension that allowed the team to push guaranteed money down the road, it might just work.
The Minnesota Vikings, even with the extension that they gave QB Kirk Cousins, are in cap hell moving into the ‘21 season, and veterans like Kyle Rudolph and Harrison Smith project to be likely cut/trade targets as the offseason progresses. While Rudolph does not have a ton of value, Smith’s $10.25 million cap hit (with $0 dead cap if released) would be a worthy lottery ticket for Dallas to take on.
The veteran would immediately be a solid addition and probably would only cost an early Day 3 pick.
Top-heavy in nature, this draft class certainly has some big names attached to it, both for its corners and safeties.
The big three of Caleb Farley, Jaycee Horn, and Patrick Surtain II headline this draft’s CB collection, and all three have the potential to be taken on the first day. Surtain leads this group and having had his father go before him certainly does not hurt his draft stock.
Surtain’s draft stock rose over his ‘20 season at Alabama even if the stat sheet does not match that, but his size (6’2) was a big factor in being such a dominant defender. With speed being one of the bigger lacking elements of his game, Surtain’s stock is that of the first CB off the board, even if he does not stack up to the likes of Jeffrey Okudah and others from last year.
Farley and Horn are a bit of a toss-up for the CB2 and CB3 roles in this class, but Horn gets the edge here based on a recent body of work. Farley sat out the entire ‘20 season, which should not be held against him, but a bit of recency bias with having fresher tape on Horn may boost the former Gamecock up above the former Hokie.
Horn has a good blend of physicality and speed, but Farley’s ball skills (he came to Virginia Tech as a WR) gives him an edge in this area. Injury issues followed Farley for his three years at VT, as he tore his ACL in ‘17 and a bad back injury in ‘19, although he played his best with the hurt back.
This trio of safeties is an impressive group, with Paris Ford (Pittsburgh), Jevon Holland (Oregon), and Trevon Moehrig (TCU) looking to be three of the better safeties prospects this year.
For Ford, playing in a zone-heavy scheme like the one Pitt uses is both a blessing and a curse, as he was able to showcase his coverage skills but was unable to match up often with tight ends or running backs in space. His physicality ranks quite high in this class and his cover speed is impressive, putting him firmly as the top safety.
Both Holland and Moehrig bring different elements to the table, with Holland possessing more downfield speed and better closing discipline on tackles, while Moehrig uses his height (6’2) to his advantage and is solid all across the board.
The Cowboys have a ton of avenues they could go this offseason, but the one thing that remains a constant is that their secondary has to improve if they want to field a competitive team in 2021.