Given the option of Ezekiel Elliott or Jalen Ramsey, the Cowboys opted for Elliott. I’m thrilled Elliott will be playing for Dallas and I’m rubbing my hands together in anticipation for Week 1. While the idea of Ramsey paired with Byron Jones and Orlando Scandrick seemed exciting, that fantasy is not reality.
So in reality is the secondary fine the way it is, or could it have used more attention in the draft? Many would agree that, at this point, the Dallas Cowboys’ achilles heel is the defensive line. The line could benefit from a strong defensive backfield, but is the defensive backfield also a concern?
The Defensive Backfield is a Concern Because…
The depth of the secondary in general looks shallow. Behind Brandon Carr is Josh Thomas, Brandon McGee, and then Arjen Colquhoun. Rookie Anthony Brown sits behind Morris Claiborne and before Olatoye Deji and Terrance Mitchell. Behind Byron Jones is J.J. Wilcox and Jeff Heath and behind Barry Church is rookie Kavon Frazier. After Orland Scandrick is Milligan Rolan.
Unfortunately, the last time we saw Orlando Scandrick in the regular season was in 2014. He tore his ACL weeks before the season opener and missed the year entirely. Scandrick may have recurring issues with his knee and there’s also the chance that he simply may not be able to return to the same level of play.
Even though Scandrick may be the Cowboys’ best corner, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t struggle at times. In 2014 opposing QBs completed about 74% of passes against Scandrick. Ideally you’d like that number to be around 50% or less. Not to mention, he isn’t much of a ball hawk. He had two picks in 2014 and has seven on his career. Numbers like those can comfort a QB and make them more inclined to throw in his direction.
Scandrick’s supporting cast, Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr, both seem to be playing for their jobs. The question of releasing Brandon Carr was asked over and over before his pay cut. His production could also be declining as he gets older. Claiborne may suffer from the same issues that have made him a disappointing first-round pick.
More so, without a dominant pass rush, especially the first four weeks of the season, the defensive backfield could look bleak. We’ve seen how Carr and Claiborne can struggle when quarterbacks have time to throw. Assuming that Jones is playing safety, Scandrick, Carr and Claiborne are the Cowboys’ top cornerbacks and that won’t change in 2016.
And if Jones does plays safety, then behind him is J.J. Wilcox. Wilcox might even have some trouble making the final roster, especially if he’s not head and shoulders above Jeff Heath at the safety position. He has started the last two years but struggled to make plays against both the run and pass.
It’s also hard to compete with Heath who lead the team with two interceptions. The Cowboys defense in total had eight interceptions.
There’s plenty of reason to worry about the defensive backfield but there are just as many positives as there are negatives.
The Defensive Backfield is Not a Concern Because…
Byron Jones played both corner and safety last year as a rookie, although he looked more comfortable at safety. One of his most impressive games, in my opinion, was against New England when Jones was tasked with covering Rob Gronkowski. Before the Patriots played the Cowboys, Gronkowski scored four touchdowns and averaged 102.6 receiving yards. Against Jones, Gronkowski was held to four receptions and 67 yards.
Jones finished fifth on the team with 76 tackles and led the entire defense with 12 pass deflections. Jones is likely to start next to Barry Church and the two could serve as a very formidable duo.
I think Church gets a bad wrap because he is not great in coverage, not a ball hawk, not among the league’s elite safeties. It’s important to remember he is still a good box safety and a fantastic leader for the Dallas defense. He’s excellent in run support and excels when brought up closer to the line of scrimmage. He’s also a defensive captain and a positive locker room personality. Pairing Church with an athlete like Jones might help mask whatever Church lacks and could end up being very productive in 2016.
Scandrick is also due for a comeback season. He did not allow a touchdown in primary coverage all season and graded as the eighth-best cover cornerback in the league in 2014. He was one of only three corners who, when targeted 80 or more times, did not give up a single touchdown.
He does his job on the defense and he does it effectively through good positioning and awareness. While he is better in zone coverage, which is where he frequently plays, he is still talented enough to cover a team’s best receiver while in man.
Scandrick joins Morris Claiborne who showed promise last season, and earned him a new one year deal going into 2016. And with rookie safety Kavon Frazier and corner Anthony Brown there’s room for growth and improvement.
Perhaps most important to note is that the Cowboys ranked 5th in Pass Defense. That was without Scandrick.
I have confidence in the defensive backfield. Just because the Dallas Cowboys’ secondary may not be flashy, doesn’t mean they can’t fly under the radar being competent and making stops when needed.