Yesterday, fellow writer Sean Martin wrote a good piece on reasons for optimism for the entire Cowboys secondary. I’m not quite as excited about the cornerback situation as he is, and because of that I wanted to dig a little deeper into second-year man Byron Jones. Despite his youth and inexperience, I think he is still paramount to the Cowboys’ defensive success in 2016.
All indication is that Jones, who shifted between cornerback and safety as a rookie, will be locked in as the free safety this year. His athleticism and skill set make him prototypical for the rangy, ball-hawking “center fielder” that the Cowboys haven’t had since… ummm… ever?
The terms “free” and “strong” safety haven’t meant a lot in Dallas for a while. Whether it was Barry Church or Gerald Sensabaugh, the Cowboys’ top safety has had to move all around the field in various formations. Despite being ideally sized and skilled for playing down in the box, both Church and Sensabaugh have also been the best coverage players at safety and have had to play out in coverage more than you’d really want them to.
While Byron Jones will certainly be used on the occasional blitz, and Church may drop back into coverage to confuse quarterbacks, it appears they will bring back the more traditional roles of the starting safeties. This puts tremendous pressure on Jones, in just his sophomore season and first year as a full-time safety, to deliver as the last line of the Cowboys defense.
As mentioned earlier, I’m not as optimistic about the Cowboys’ cornerbacks as others. Orlando Scandrick is coming back from a major injury and, frankly, has always been a little overrated. He’s certainly a solid starter and appears to be a strong locker room guy. Still, I think his value has been overestimated because he’s been the best of an otherwise weak position group.
Even if Scandrick comes back completely unhindered, he’s not a Pro Bowl corner.
Scandrick’s inflated value trickles through the rest of the group. Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne, who have barely been worthy starters in Dallas, will battle for the number-two job. They appear locked into the top three, barring a surprising third-year surge by Deji Olatoye.
Sadly, we’ve seen worse cornerback groups in Dallas. Still, this crop is going to have issues and it’s going to force Byron Jones to clean up those mistakes.
If that wasn’t concerning enough, it appears the Cowboys will have another year of pass-rushing issues. Suspensions to their two best talents at defensive end, DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory, will force unproven youngsters and journeyman veterans into starting roles early in the year. Tyrone Crawford and Cedric Thornton could emerge as a great duo at the tackle spots but still have to prove it.
Of course, this means more time for opposing quarterbacks and receivers to let routes develop. It means the field getting stretched further and decisions having to be made on which guy to cover. And who does that impact more than anybody else on the field?
Byron Jones could be the next Ed Reed, but Ed Reed wouldn’t have been Ed Reed without the rest of that great Baltimore Ravens defense in front of him. Even if Jones is playing at the highest level, will his teammates give him a chance to show it?
Thankfully, Byron Jones gives the Cowboys more potential and talent at safety than they’ve had since at least Roy Williams. If he can make a few big plays early in the year, Jones could give opponents something new to worry about if they test him. It’s been a long time since any of Dallas’ safeties weren’t liabilities in coverage, let alone a threat to the other team.
It’s a lot to ask from a second-year player, even if he was a late first-round pick. We can only hope that Byron Jones is ready for the challenge.