Entering the final year of his rookie contract, Dallas Cowboys safety Byron Jones has reached a critical point in his career. 2018 could easily be his last year in Dallas if the former first-round pick does not clearly establish his role, and value, for the defense going forward.
The 27th-overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, Jones played cornerback in his rookie season just as he had at the University of Connecticut. However, even when he was first drafted, Byron was often looked at as having a brighter future at safety.
That transition came in Jones' second season and to good reviews. The expectations for 2017 were very high with a full year under his belt, plus the general rule when it comes to players entering their third professional season.
Unfortunately, last year did not see Byron Jones emerge as the elite safety we'd hoped for. Only one interception and very few other notable defensive plays were disappointing, especially given the improvements in the Cowboys pass rush from 2016.
That leaves Jones' future with the Dallas Cowboys as a pretty big question mark going into this fourth and final contract season. There are a few factors which could make 2018 his last with the team.
Since Byron was a first-round pick, the Cowboys do hold a team option for a fifth year on his rookie deal. That would be a costly move, though, as it would give Jones an $8.7 million salary and cap hit for 2019. He hasn't earned that kind of money yet, and Dallas certainly isn't in a position to pay it without seeing equal value on the field.
The arrival of Kris Richard from Seattle as the new Defensive Backs Coach could be major for Byron's future. Richard may like Jones better as a cornerback, given that he fits the physical mold of corners that Richard had with the Seahawks. Transitioning back to CB could be a good thing for Byron's career, but it also means competing with Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis for playing time.
What's more, many have speculated that All-Pro safety Earl Thomas could follow Kris Richard to Dallas via free agency. If Byron Jones is going to stay at safety, would he be paired with Thomas or would the Cowboys rather see Xavier Woods or Kavon Frazier competing for that spot?
There's plenty of room for Byron Jones to have a productive year and remain with the Cowboys beyond 2018. However, he clearly does not enjoy the same job security that guys like Travis Frederick and Zack Martin have had as their rookie contracts recently expired. Jones will need to become much more noticeable, a clear difference-maker, to ensure he remains in Dallas beyond next season.