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FRISCO, TX — It's one of the biggest positions of need for the Dallas Cowboys, yet again, and one that will either stabilize with a possible early extension for First-Team All-Pro cornerback Trevon Diggs in tandem with a move or two in free agency and the 2023 NFL Draft, or one that will further destabilize — following a season of uncertainty on the depth chart.
Oil was struck when the Cowboys selected Diggs in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft, but the subsequent second-round pick at the position hasn't exactly lived up to his predecessor's greatness, and things become more precarious with Anthony Brown's contract set to expire in March.
Blowing past names like Jamel Dean, James Bradberry and Emmanuel Moseley — the likely market-setters at cornerback this offseason — let's take a look at several players who actually have a shot at getting the Cowboys to open up their pocketbook, keeping in mind no incoming deal would be worth potentially losing Diggs in the long run.
It's all a game of chess at this point, and adding any one of these pieces to defensive coordinator Dan Quinn's board could result in what the Cowboys so desperately crave:
Ask a group of Cowboys fans about their stance on Brown and you'll get a mixed bag of responses, but the fact remains he's mostly been the steady hand at the cornerback position in Dallas over the past several seasons. As he enters Year 7 of his professional career, he does so with an expiring contract in Dallas and is capable of continuing to be a starter for an NFL team — having began his career as a sixth-round pick but evolved into more.
It's true Brown has had his forgettable moments in coverage, but it's also true he's made critical plays to help the Cowboys win on more than one occasion. The biggest question for the Cowboys in assessing what to offer Brown is how comfortable are they, or are they not, at the CB2 position? There was a cavernous decline in that role with Brown on injured reserve, leading to a carousel of "tryouts" at the position late in the season.
Goodwin is also set to be an unrestricted free agent in March, and re-signing him or losing him would more so impact special teams than it would the defensive back rotation. The 33-year-old has been in Dallas since 2018 — spanning two coaching regimes — and has found a way to stick around, mostly because he's an ace for John "Bones" Fassel just as he was for Fassel's predecessor, Keith O'Quinn.
There's nothing in Goodwin's resume that would command big money but the fact he's so valuable on special teams while also being a leader in the locker room, and consummate professional outside of the building, makes it sort of no-brainer to keep him around on a low-cost, team-friendly deal.
It's not time to talk about Diggs' contract status, is it? You better believe it is, considering he'll be an unrestricted free agent in 2024 if no extension is agreed to and signed before then. As a former second-round pick, the Cowboys do not have a fifth-year option they can exercise on Diggs to buy them one more season of work after 2023, and the projected franchise tag for 2024 lands at an eye-popping $21.6 million (per OverTheCap.com).
And so it goes that the sooner the Cowboys can get a long-term deal done on Diggs, the better, especially if they'd like to avoid the years-long search for another shutdown corner; longer if they're hoping that player is also a generational, franchise record-setting ballhawk. Those don't exactly grow on trees, and Dallas knows this all too well.
Before Diggs became the resident ballhawk in the secondary, a role desperately sought out for years by the Cowboys, it was Lewis getting the job done in that capacity — though it wasn't without adversity. Under the thumb of former passing game coordinator Kris Richard and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, Lewis was deemed suboptimal because his physical traits weren't prototypical and, as such, he was often relegated to backup duty in his first three seasons.
Not so coincidentally, Lewis instantly thrived in the post-Richard era, being named full-time starter in 2020 and delivering a career-best three interceptions in 2021. He was lost for the season after grabbing an INT against the Detroit Lions in 2022, but will be ready to return to the field this summer. His absence gave DaRon Bland a chance to break out, but in no way did the rookie's breakout season make Lewis expendable.
DaRon Bland and Co.:
Speaking of Bland, wow, what a debut. Selected in the fifth-round of the 2022 NFL Draft, the rookie hit the ground running by dominating training camp, so much so that it was all coaches and fellow defensive players could do to not sing his praises on a daily basis. He'd parlay that work into the starting role once Lewis was lost to a Lisfranc injury and go on to lead the team in interceptions — five in only eight starts from the nickel slot.
The needle on Bland's potential is pointed due north, but there is much to figure out with the others in the youth group. Kelvin Joseph, a former second-round pick in 2020, has not panned out to this point and that led the Cowboys to pull him in favor of Nahshon Wright, who played admirably (landing his first career INT as well) only to be pulled for Israel Mukuamu in the playoffs. All of this needs to be sorted over the next five months, including if Isaac Taylor-Stuart will or will not have a role in the defensive rotation.
What's Out There:
Note: These players will be unrestricted on March 15, barring a newly-signed deal with their incumbent team prior to that date.
Yes, please. What if I told you the Cowboys had a shot at getting a durable veteran cornerback who is also still an impact player and, oh by the way, will likely be a first ballot Hall of Famer when he does decide to hang up his cleats for good? If you didn't accidentally make the glee sound usually made by Spongebob Squarepants, you should check your pulse, because any thought of adding Peterson to a Cowboys' rotation that includes Diggs, Bland and Lewis demands a hands-free backflip.
The eight-time Pro Bowler played in every game for the Vikings last season and his five interceptions were second-most of his illustrious 12-year career, as were his 15 pass break ups, with his 66 combined tackles being the most he's ever produced — signs the tread on those tires are just fine for another multi-year deal (two years feels about right, or maybe three with a team option after two) — to solve their CB issue with a momentous splash.
Sutton isn't nearly as decorated as Peterson, but no one in this year's free agency is at the cornerback position, but that doesn't mean he can't get the job done. A former third-round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2017, what Sutton does provide over Peterson is age, considering he's only 27 years old. He's also been a staple in the Steelers defense for head coach Mike Tomlin since entering the league, but mostly as a rotational/depth talent until he truly found his wheels ahead of the 2021 season.
He's been a full-time starter over the past two seasons, producing five interceptions and 21 pass break ups in 31 starts during that time, also one of the better tacklers on the roster in Pittsburgh; and all of that can come in handy for the Cowboys out of the nickel/slot, or anywhere else he might line up at CB (he spent the majority of the 2021 season playing outside the hashes).
Now is a great time for Murphy-Bunting to hit free agency, if you're an organization in need of a cornerback though not necessarily for his pockets. Recently one of the best players on the Buccaneers defense, he's since been surpassed by Jamel Dean, who hits free agency with enough value to drive his price sky-high. Murphy-Bunting played in 12 games for Tampa last season and started in five, but he made the most of his reduced reps by grabbing two interceptions and deflecting seven passes.
More of an outside corner than one you'd drop in the nickel, there's a spot available for the former second-round pick to step in and increase the competition at CB2, at minimum. He's returning from injured reserve after suffering a dislocated elbow that landed him on injured reserve in 2022, but that's not an injury that would preclude him from doing damage in 2022, and at a cost that should be palatable for teams who understand what he brings to the table.
While some others on this list are either closer to a pure nickel corner or have been known to flex in and out of that role, Murphy is more of a true boundary defensive back who, if signed, would be viewed as the/an outside complement to Diggs. Much like Murphy-Bunting, he enters free agency one year removed from a career season, when he played and started in 16 games en route to four interceptions, 12 pass break ups, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery, his 2022 season having seen his value take a bit of a hit.
He'd play (and start) in only nine games last season due to a back injury that forced the Arizona Cardinals to place him on season-ending injured reserve, but the former second-round pick is expected to be a full go for the 2023 season and his youth combines with his potential to make for a tantalizing option at CB.
Circling back to the nickel corners for a moment, Thomas jumps out at me as a quality corner whose price point doesn't stretch what I believe will be the sensibilities of the Cowboys front office. Better still is the fact the 26-year-old is also an ace on special teams, something that increases his value for a team like Dallas, one that has seen is special teams unit become one of the best in the league but could also stand to upgrade a bit (especially in the arena of penalty avoidance).
He's no stranger to hard work, having clawed his way from the ranks of the undrafted to a two-year deal with the Texans in 2021, after spending three seasons with the Browns, and into a premium NCB role following the trade of Bradley Roby. He's since logged 17 starts in 27 games and grabbed two INTs (with a game-deciding pick-six), three forced fumbles and 74 combined tackles. The 26-year-old should definitely be on the Cowboys radar when March 13 arrives.
Honorable mention: Rock Ya-Sin
Another "true" outside cornerback, Ya-Sin had my attention ahead of the 2019 NFL Draft, a First-Team All-AAC talent out of Temple who put a lot of good things on film in his collegiate days. He was mostly solid for a Raiders defense that, on the whole, didn't have a ton of bright spots in its first season under head coach Josh McDaniels; Ya-Sin certainly being underrated in my book as far as coverage ability goes.
He's not proven himself a ballhawk at the NFL level though, and that's where my expectation would be tempered in what my offer would be. I'd present one that's reasonable but not over-the-top, seeing as the Cowboys thrive on takeaways and Ya-Sin feels Byron Jones-ish to me — a very, very good cover corner who gets the job done in coverage but is often overlooked because he's not racking up INTs on a regular basis.
I just don't know that his salary demand will be that: reasonable (but asking him costs nothing).