I’ve been working on a project ranking the Dallas Cowboys roster that will be unveiled soon. In the process, I’ve discovered a question that leads to interesting discussion. In fact, it could have a major bearing on the 2017 season. Who is the second-best player on the Cowboys defense?
I say “second-best” because, as I’m sure you’ll agree, number one is clearly Sean Lee. The team’s top linebacker is the only current Dallas defender to ever go to the Pro Bowl and is the only one who would even be in that conversation right now.
The last defensive player other than Lee to be a Pro Bowler was defensive lineman Jason Hatcher, an alternate in 2014. The last time more than one player from the Cowboys defense were in the Pro Bowl was 2012 as DeMarcus Ware and Jay Ratliff were both named.
There is no question, whether you’re a fan of the team or an outside observer, that Sean Lee stands alone in Dallas defensive supremacy. While nobody may challenge him for that top spot in 2017, the Cowboys need some guys to at least close the gap. Right now, it’s difficult to point at one guy who clearly stands apart from the rest as the next-best player.
The guy with the strongest case for the number-two spot is safety Byron Jones. Consistently ranked among the better safeties in the NFL last season, Jones has been a steadying presence in an otherwise tumultuous secondary. He and cornerback Brandon Carr were the only defensive backs to start all 16 games last season.
What holds Byron back is a lack of big plays. He only has one career interception in two years. The expectation was that Jones, a superior athlete and intelligent player, would be a ballhawk in the defensive backfield. He has had some acrobatic plays on some deflections but hasn’t had the turnovers that really make a guy’s reputation.
Of course, that isn’t the fairest measure of a player’s greatness. Some guys don’t get many picks because quarterbacks won’t dare to throw it near them. This is usually truer of cornerbacks, but it’s no unreasonable to think that opponents were happier to throw it towards Barry Church or J.J. Wilcox’s side of the field than where Byron was prowling.
Entering his third season and only his second as a full-time safety, Byron Jones should be better than ever. If that helps him to make just a few more highlight plays, it should quickly elevate his status both with the Cowboys and perhaps get him a Pro Bowl spot in 2017.
Is it possible that when 2017 is over, another Cowboys linebacker could be the number-two guy?
Nobody on the Dallas defense was ever called an elite, top-five draft prospect but Jaylon Smith. Had it not been for his well-documented knee injury, Smith would have gone very early in the 2016 draft and been expected to be an instant impact player. If Jaylon’s healthy enough to play up to that potential, could he be Sean Lee’s best teammate?
We don’t want to get carried away with expectations for Jaylon, but we just established that the bar isn’t terribly high. Byron Jones was a steady performer but not exceptionally great in 2016, nor was anyone else. Maliek Collins and Anthony Brown has surprisingly good rookie seasons but still have work to do. David Irving flashed things but also needs more consistency.
If he’s a good as advertised, Jaylon Smith will be all over the field. He will likely get a least one or two interceptions. As we said with Byron, all it takes is a few big plays to emerge from the pack. Smith could easily do this if everything’s working for him physically.
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The Cowboys need someone else to become more of a difference maker. Sean Lee makes up for several deficiencies but needs help for this to be a championship-level defense. Whether it’s a pass rusher, defensive back, or another linebacker, at least one more Pro Bowl defender needs to emerge in Dallas.
The good news is that this is a roster on the rise. Thanks to their recent focus on the draft over free agency, the Cowboys enjoy a team full of young, developing talent. Most of our players should better next season, which is an exciting thought for a team that won 13 games.