With yet another offseason coming and going without the Cowboys making a major acquisition at safety, Dallas will have a new look at cornerback but some familiarity at safety under new Defensive Coordinator Dan Quinn.
A change in the coaching ranks for the Cowboys secondary sees Al Harris take over as the defensive backs coach, after working with Maurice Linguist in 2020. Linguist is now the head coach at Buffalo, meaning Harris will work with Pass Game Coordinator and secondary coach Joe Whitt Jr.
From our camp preview of the Cowboys cornerbacks on Whitt Jr.:
Whitt’s ties to the McCarthy Packers run deep, hired in 2008 as a quality control coach, promoted to cornerbacks coach in 2009, and coaching his final season in Green Bay as passing game coordinator in 2018. The Packers archetype for CBs is similar to what the Cowboys are presently looking for, as Whitt coached the likes of Charles Woodson and Sam Shields while also overseeing high turnover at the position.
Looking for corners with size and length that can play in the face of opposing WRs is nothing new to the Cowboys personnel department or Whitt, who found himself on Dan Quinn’s Falcons staff in 2020.
Last year’s offseason regret for Dallas was hiring Mike Nolan to redo a defense left to virtual meetings for most of their basic installs. It was a hire made in good faith to a new head coach, who promptly had to move on from Nolan following a 6-10 season. In this case, the Cowboys secondary coaching apple still falls close to the tree, but is in line with the bigger picture of what they hope to build under Quinn.
Getting to know Al Harris
Harris played for the Packers from 2003-10, signing a two-year extension a year before Mike McCarthy was hired as head coach. Known as a tough coverage cornerback with the ability to take the ball away, Harris finished his playing career with the Rams in 2011 having come away with 21 interceptions and three touchdowns in his career.
Also playing for the Dolphins in 2010, Harris began his coaching career in Miami a year after retiring from playing. Before joining the Cowboys last season, Harris was an assistant in the secondary for the Chiefs from 2013-18. Harris will go from working with one of his former head coaches in Andy Reid to another in McCarthy.
The Cowboys are relying on a big step up in the play of second-year cornerback Trevon Diggs, bringing along Kelvin Joseph and Nashon Wright as rookies with the veteran presence of Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis at Harris’ disposal.
Returning Players at Safety
The Cowboys return Donovan Wilson, Darian Thompson, and Steven Parker at safety. With Thompson and Parker being more special teams players, the pressure is on Wilson to make good on the playing time he received in 2020.
The 2019 training camp standout began to see playing time in week four last season, prying snaps away from now-Viking Xavier Woods. The Cowboys felt good enough about Wilson’s performance at free safety to let Woods – a player who never reached his full potential in Dallas – depart in free agency.
Now, Wilson will get to play in a scheme where his ability to come downhill and read plays sideline to sideline is a point of emphasis for Dan Quinn.
Where Wilson is the rising player the Cowboys hope can be their future at one safety position, their need for a veteran presence may be filled by Darian Thompson. A solid special teams player under John Fassel in 2020, Thompson is not the player to expect plays in coverage from. At times Thompson can fill well against the run, but lacks the quick twitch ability to shed blocks and finish on ball carriers.
The intangibles he brings to the team could potentially be replaced by one of the new additions highlighted below. As for Cowboys safety Steven Parker, the relatively unknown practice squad player hasn’t been able to stick with the Rams, Dolphins, or Vikings, but was on the Cowboys active roster against the Giants and Cardinals in weeks five and six.
New Players at Safety
Aren’t you glad we don’t have to preface any talk about the Cowboys depth chart at safety without mentioning guys like Earl Thomas anymore? Just because the Cowboys once again didn’t make a big splash at the position, it doesn’t mean the roster hasn’t been churned with fresh blood at safety.
New to the roster for 2021 are Damontae Kazee, Tyler Coyle, and Jayron Kearse.
Kazee rejoins Dan Quinn after starting for the Falcons since 2018. It was an injury to another ex-Falcon turned current Cowboy, Keanu Neal, that allowed Kazee to start for Quinn.
Tearing his Achilles in week four last season, Kazee will be a player to watch closely in Oxnard as the Cowboys hope he regains explosiveness and can be another plus player in coverage. The San Diego State product led the NFL in interceptions in 2018 with seven, an ongoing goal for the Cowboys defense to create more opportunities and shorter fields for an elite offense.
Pairing Donovan Wilson with Kazee gives the Cowboys a lot of athleticism at both safety positions, but the team still lacks a true strong safety to play down against the run. By converting Neal to linebacker and drafting Micah Parsons while still rostering Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch at LB, the need for this type of player at safety may be diminished.
This also may be where Jayron Kearse can emerge as more than just a veteran journeyman with experience in Minnesota, Detroit, and most recently Baltimore. A practice squad member of the Ravens in 2020, Kearse was a seventh round Mike Zimmer pick by the Vikings in 2016 after playing his college career at Clemson.
Tyler Coyle is a UDFA addition to the Cowboys roster out of Connecticut. Added for his traits, Coyle is a burner at the safety position and led UCONN in tackles in 2019. Coyle played his final college season at Purdue, and now the six-foot, 209 pound project will have one of the best special teams coaches to work with in hopes of making this Cowboys roster.
Better or Worse? Cowboys Safety
Fellow Staff Writer Jess Haynie ran a series here at Inside The Star on if the Cowboys are improved or not at each position prior to the 2021 season. From his outlook at safety:
When it comes to the overall progress of the safety position, improving from Xavier Woods’ 2020 performance isn’t a hard ask. As long as Kazee is the same player he’s been in Atlanta, which isn’t a given as he comes from an Achilles tear, he should at least replace Woods and hopefully be a more stable presence in the secondary.
Kearse and Mukuamu aren’t necessarily moving the needle outright, but their presence does increase the competition level for the rest of the depth chart. The end result should be a stronger group than last year.
Final Verdict: BETTER
With Kazee ahead of schedule recovering from his injury and the potential for rookie CB Israel Mukuamu to see time at safety, the Cowboys have a much better outlook at safety compared to any previous season – so long as they’re confident in their ability to develop some young players and go through further growing pains introducing these defenders to another new scheme.