There’s no question that the Dallas Cowboys need to add some talent to their secondary in the 2017 NFL Draft. Two years ago they spent a first-round pick on Byron Jones, who has since played both cornerback and safety. Now, Jones’ versatility could increase the Cowboys’ flexibility in this year’s draft.
For a long time now, the Cowboys front office has preached its devotion to the idea of drafting for talent over need. This isn’t always applicable; Dallas isn’t going to spend a first-round pick on a quarterback even if Mitch Trubisky falls to the 28th pick. However, as the recent picks of guys like Zack Martin and Ezekiel Elliott have shown, the Cowboys will lean toward superior talent when it’s logical.
Let’s hypothesize, then, that the Cowboys are on the clock late Thursday evening. A run on defensive ends has taken all of the guys Dallas liked as first-round picks off the board. That DE run, though, has left several good options available at cornerback and safety.
Dallas has a new home ready for any rookie defensive back. The departures of Brandon Carr, Barry Church, Morris Claiborne, and J.J. Wilcox in free agency left plenty of openings at both corner and safety. Dallas did sign veteran Nolan Carroll last month but that hardly makes up for all of the losses.
Where Byron Jones’ versatility really comes into play is the goal of getting your best players on the field together. Let’s say Dallas drafts a first-round safety but then Jeff Heath blossoms with increased opportunities. For most teams this would create a logjam, but the Cowboys could consider playing Jones at cornerback.
Many are not thrilled with the signing of Nolan Carroll. He had a down year for the Eagles in 2016 and is 30-years-old. Dallas clearly believes he can do well in their scheme, paying him over $3 million per season. The Cowboys usually do well with their free agent signings, but they don’t all work out.
It’s entirely possible that, in this scenario, Carroll would now be the sixth-best player in the Cowboys secondary. They would have their first-round rookie and the emerging Jeff Heath at safety, plus Anthony Brown and Orlando Scandrick at cornerback. It may work out that playing Byron Jones at corner is how you keep the most talent on the field in most of their defensive schemes and packages.
On the surface, Dallas would seem to need a cornerback over a safety. Anthony Brown, while solid in 2016, is still developing. Carroll and Scandrick are both getting older and Orlando has had a bad run with injuries. Ideally, a great cornerback prospect will be available and allow the Cowboys to improve there without moving other parts.
The point here is that they don’t have to feel stuck with that scenario, though. If there’s a safety available who is clearly better than any of the corners, Dallas should feel perfectly free to take that player. That rookie may simply beat out Jeff Heath for a starting spot, or both of them may play well enough that it makes sense to play Byron Jones at cornerback.
Options are a wonderful thing in the world of roster management. The Cowboys, and probably 31 other teams, put a premium on versatile players who provide more flexibility. Byron Jones is one of those guys; a former first-round pick whose presence could impact this year’s draft decisions.