FRISCO, Texas – It's not surprising that the potentially looming quarterback controversy between Dak Prescott and Tony Romo continues to dominate plenty of headlines. But for the time being, another Cowboys rookie will have to fill in for a veteran with significant defensive implications.
Just as the Cowboys got Orlando Scandrick back and healthy, Morris Claiborne suffered a groin injury that is likely to keep him out at least a few weeks. Rookie cornerback Anthony Brown was supposed to be a temporary Band-Aid until Scandrick returned. He's quickly turning into something more than that for a team that normally relies heavily on three talented cornerbacks.
The secondary lost some experience with Scandrick out of the lineup for four games, but maintained a bend-don't break identity. Scandrick's return is a boost, but Claiborne has probably been the Cowboys best defensive back this season. Brown's role as a nickel back won't change much as Scandrick will slide over to the outside, but Brown will have to build on his opportunities against the Bears, 49ers, Bengals, and Packers.
"I think I did pretty well, but there's always room for improvement," Brown said of his time filling in. "A lot of things to work on going forward."
Brown by no means looked in over his head. There were no disastrous mistakes, and he even recorded 10 tackles against Green Bay. He's confident that improvement will continue with his level of involvement. "It's more just understanding the defense and understanding where to be at and where my help is going to be."
If Dak Prescott is the rookie who shocked the world and Ezekiel Elliott is the rookie who's managed to exceed the highest expectations then perhaps Brown will become the quiet surprise of last year's draft for the Cowboys. His progress certainly snuck up on head coach Jason Garrett.
"He's one of those guys who early in training camp he was doing OK—kind of looked like he was a rookie," Garrett said Wednesday. "And then as training camp rolled on and we started playing in some preseason games, he really grew quickly."
Brown's steady rise has given the Cowboys the confidence to think they have the depth to handle an injury to Claiborne amidst a career year.
"It's a great lesson for us coaches to have patience with these young guys," Garrett added. "And continue to try to put them in game-type situations and see how they respond."
Perhaps that early learning curve had something to do with Brown's role switch from college to the NFL. He's played almost exclusively in nickel packages as the slot cornerback for the Cowboys, but at Purdue he was a standout outside cornerback with game changing speed. He recorded four interceptions in his senior season. There were reports that the Cowboys had graded him at a fourth round value coming into the draft so they jumped at the chance to select him in the sixth round.
A nagging injury to Scandrick during training camp likely accelerated Brown's ability to understand the nickel coverage.
"I didn't think I'd be playing nickel when I first got here," Brown said. "But when I found out the situation with Orlando I had to flip my mindset and just take it on full charge."
With an entire training camp and four full games of playing in the slot, Brown no longer considers the transition to be a handicap. "I'm more of a Jack-of-all-Trades type of guy. I could do it all, really. [Outside] corner and the inside."
Brown's speed was apparent if you watched him at the scouting combine in Indianapolis, where he ran a 4.35 in the 40-yard dash, but Garrett's been impressed by the fact that he refuses to get pushed around.
"A big part of something that's impressive to us is that physical play," Garrett said. "Both as a nickel and an outside guy, he's shown up and made some physical tackles. He's shown he's more than just a fast guy."
Brown was never worried about being able to handle the NFL from that standpoint. "There [are] a lot of physical guys in college and there [are] physical guys in the NFL. It's pretty much the same thing. Just a couple guys that are a little bit bigger and a little bit stronger, and just as fast."
For the moment, Brown needs to just focus on avoiding mistakes. Unlike with Prescott and Romo, there will be no controversy once Claiborne is healthy. But if Brown continues to progress and do his job, then time might eventually put him in the conversation of talented Dallas cornerbacks.
"Orlando, Brandon Carr, and Morris, they all give me their little input and their advice on what happened to them in the game," Brown said. "I try to take a little bit from all of them and try to tie it to my game so I can get better."