Last week, Football Outsiders did a piece called “Four Downs: NFC East” where they looked at the Dallas Cowboys and each of their NFC East rivals. It was an offseason preview for each of the teams giving a run down of each team’s biggest roster hole, their pending free agents, and offseason priorities.
For the Dallas Cowboys, they listed defensive back as the team’s biggest hole to fill. Here’s what they had to say:
“Jeff Heath can not tackle. We noted last year in this space that Heath had more missed tackles (11) than defeats (six). The problem got worse in 2018, as Heath’s 22 broken tackles were the second-most allowed in the league. Heath just isn’t a starting-caliber strong safety; he’s a quality special teams player who has been promoted beyond his skill set. Bringing in a new safety — either strong or free, as Woods would do just fine moving into the strong safety position — would help a defense that ranked 19th or worse when covering tight ends, running backs, or third wideouts. In addition, cornerback Chidobe Awuzie finished 81st out of 85 qualified cornerbacks in success rate. Replacing either Heath or Awuzie, or preferably both, would help a defense that hasn’t finished in the top 10 against the pass since 2007.”
Bryan Knowles – FootballOutsiders.com
They aren’t wrong.
The piece, which is a good read to get a handle on what the Cowboys division rivals will be facing this offseason, also mentions that the Dallas Cowboys found some players in the secondary in Byron Jones and Xavier Woods. They mentioned both players as bright spots for a secondary that had struggled for most of the last six years.
The Dallas Cowboys have a few holes to fill as they approach free agency and the NFL Draft. Safety, defensive tackle, wide receiver, and tight end are probably the most important positions that the Cowboys front office needs to address when free agency and the draft come over the next couple of months. Jeff Heath, who had previously been a reliable player, even if he wasn’t spectacular, took a step back this season and was not nearly as effective in run or pass defense. Too many times he got carried by ball carriers as he attempted to strip the ball out instead of trying to bring them down five yards earlier.
Knowles mentioned what I mentioned the other day that Xavier Woods has the versatility to play both safety spots, and play them really well, which allows the Cowboys to have some flexibility in their safety pursuit. They don’t have to be locked in to one type of safety.
While Knowles accurately assesses the Jeff Heath situation, I think Chidobe Awuzie is another story. Yes, Awuzie wasn’t good for the first half of the season, but down the stretch, he played much better.
Through the first nine weeks of the NFL season, Awuzie allowed a quarterback rating of 128.3, which was the ninth worst rating allowed among cornerbacks who played at least 212 coverage snaps. He allowed 2.07 yards per snap, which was the third worst in the NFL in that same time frame.
Over the final 10 weeks of the Cowboys season, including the Wild Card and Divisional Rounds of the playoffs, Awuzie allowed a passer rating of just 77.2, which was good for 17th in the NFL, just behind Jalen Ramsey. In that same time frame, he only allowed two touchdowns into his coverage, tied with Patrick Peterson. In yards per coverage snap, Awuzie gave up 0.95 yards per coverage snap, which was the 23rd best mark over the last 10 weeks of the season, better than Richard Sherman and Byron Jones.
Chidobe Awuzie’s second half of the season is really something for him to build off of heading into his third season in the NFL. Remember, much of his rookie season was wiped out due to injuries in training camp and through the season, so he didn’t get regular playing time. That will hurt your year one to two development. Hopefully he’ll get another full offseason at cornerback this year and be able to improve off of his stellar second half of 2019.
The Dallas Cowboys are on the right track with their secondary. Anthony Brown continues to be one of the better slot corner backs in the NFL and Jourdan Lewis might be the best fourth cornerback in the league. Add a safety like Earl Thomas or Landon Collins to the mix and they’ll have a complete unit that will give opposing offenses fits in 2019.
Though the Cowboys have holes at other places, safety appears to be the most glaring, as Knowles points out. With a draft and free agent class that is deep at the position, the Cowboys are going to have an excellent opportunity to upgrade the position and potentially complete their defense.
They are only a few pieces away from being legit Super Bowl contenders in the NFC and this offseason they need to go all-in to make sure that happens.