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Open Market: Spying a worthy DBs group for Dallas


(Note: The content provided is based on opinions and/or perspective of the editorial staff and not the Cowboys football staff or organization.)

FRISCO, TX — For the first time in a long time, the Dallas Cowboys are more than set at defensive back heading into free agency. That doesn't mean they're bulletproof, however, because the future of headline names like Stephon Gilmore take center stage and, as such, create some question marks ahead of the new league year opening on March 13.

Will Gilmore remain in Dallas? Or will he and Jourdan Lewis, who is also set for unrestricted free agency, be lost to other suitors — along with veteran safety Jayron Kearse??

In this year's series finale of "Open Market", I break down the state of the defensive backs and some quality candidates that could keep the Cowboys moving in the right direction on the back end of their defense as Mike Zimmer settles in.

FYI: *Be sure to check out the entire ‘What’s Next?*' series as a primer to this one, and catch up on any positions from the “Open Market” series you might've missed.

What's Here at CB:

Stephon Gilmore: It was unfortunate that the Cowboys didn't get to witness the full force of a Gilmore-Diggs-Bland-Lewis rotation in 2023. Give the former NFL Defensive Player of the Year a massive amount of credit, though, for his stout level of consistent play at the age of 33, a steady and trusted player that helped to salve the wound of losing Diggs in the first place.

His willingness to battle through a torn labrum in his shoulder to take the field against the Packers showed he's also willing to do "whatever it takes" to win, and he's stated he wants to return to the Cowboys — there being little reason he shouldn't be in uniform in 2024, in my opinion, and especially considering Diggs will need time to get back to top form.

Jourdan Lewis: Lest ye forget, it was just a few seasons ago wherein Lewis was a third-round pick out of Michigan that had a difficult time getting onto the field for the Cowboys and not because of lack of talent, but because Kris Richard didn't like his lack of size as a cornerback. Lewis would eventually claw his way up and make Richard (and Rod Marinelli) look foolish for ever doubting him — becoming the team's best (and only) defensive ballhawk/playmaker for a time.

He has gone from being overlooked to being a breakout star at nickel, to suffering a devastating foot injury that nearly ended his career, to battling back and becoming, again, of the Cowboys' top playmakers in 2023. He's a mentor, a member of the team's leadership council and one of the best defenders on the roster, and keeping the soon-to-be free agent in the building — for both impact and insurance — is a no-brainer to me.

Trevon Diggs, DaRon Bland: As of late, the Cowboys have fallen victim to a catastrophic injury of some sort in their cornerbacks room. In 2022, it was Lewis' that thrust DaRon Bland onto the main stage, where he went on to have a breakout season. In 2023, the signing of Gilmore promised a four-headed hydra of talent atop the positional depth chart, only for Diggs to suffer a torn ACL in mid-September and, again, it was Bland being asked to save the day — this time as a boundary corner. He'd do more than that, though. In Year 2, despite playing a "new" position altogether, the former Fresno State late-round pick would go on to break the all-time NFL record for pick-sixes (5) and lead the league in interceptions (9) with a career-high in pass break ups (15).

It would behoove the Cowboys to try and keep this foursome glued together for 2024, in the hopes that they can finally all complete a season together for maximum impact, at best, or that there's enough firepower around in the event of another major injury, at worst. Diggs signed a multi-year extension last summer and Bland has two more years left on his rookie deal, so at least they're both secured for a while.

Noah Igbinoghene: Not secured at all is Igbinoghene, who arrived in Dallas by way of a trade with the Miami Dolphins last season that sent former second-round pick Kelvin Joseph to South Florida in exchange for that team's former first-round pick. The former would be earn defensive game reps early in his stay, along with playing a role on special teams, but the majority of his short stint in Dallas was spent on the inactives list.

A free agent in 2024, time will tell if Igbinoghene has shown the Cowboys he deserves another look in the coming months.

Nahshon Wright, Israel Mukuamu: It's always felt as if these two have been joined at the hip, in both their arc and in the locker room as the closest of friends. Wright and Mukuamu both entered the league as Cowboys' draft picks, a third- and sixth-round pick in 2021, respectively, and have also battled each other on the field ever since for the right to play backup to Diggs and Co.; and it's often been Wright getting that nod, although it was Mukuamu who saved the day in that role against Tom Brady in the playoffs one year ago.

With both entering their contract year, who can stand out the most and earn a second deal??

Eric Scott: This is who both Wright and Mukuamu will find themselves up against, although you could argue that it's mostly Wright, seeing as the Cowboys like to softly commit Mukuamu to the role of safety (despite being a former cornerback who can still cook there). Scott is a sixth-round pick himself (2023), but one the Cowboys traded up to acquire last April, and that indicates they really believe he can be the next iteration of late-round pick at cornerback turned impact player.

He was held at bay by Wright in Year 1, however, but don't think for a second that the scrappy Scott will allow that to happen again in Year 2.

C.J. Goodwin, Josh Butler: Goodwin is listed as a defensive back, but his actual role is the special teams ace for the Cowboys. A torn pectoral muscle ended his latest one-year deal in Dallas, a perennial reup at this point, but nothing indicates the team is looking to do anything but re-sign him and, for his part, that's exactly what Goodwin is hoping for. Butler is on the other end of the DBs spectrum, still trying to fight his way from the practice squad after the Texas native signed in 2023 training camp, and now to a futures deal in January, to earn a spot on the final roster later this summer.

What's Here at Safety:

Jayron Kearse: What is to be made of the future of Kearse, one of the most vocal locker room leaders who is also heading into free agency because, unlike the other two players in the three-headed hydra at safety, he was not awarded an extension last summer? That answer will inevitably arrive soon, but it's been an up-and-down season for the fiery veteran, though more up than down.

It goes without saying that there is value in keeping him on the roster, from all angles, but the emergence of one young player in particular threatens Kearse's future in Dallas, and he now has familiar faces in both Washington and Seattle that might give him a call.

Juanyeh Thomas, Markquese Bell, Sheldrick Redwine: That young player is Thomas, in case you were wondering (and I know you were), because it was the former Georgia Tech standout who went from earning his stripes on the Cowboys' practice squad as a rookie to stepping in for Dan Quinn as a second-year player and opening everybody's eyes to his coverage and tackling ability — often in Kearse's established role but also as a true safety.

Bell, like Thomas, emerged from the practice squad in Year 2 to make major waves, but as a linebacker for Quinn, though his lack of size at that position ultimately bruised an otherwise impressive campaign. With Zimmer in the building, I expect Bell will return to safety, and that simply adds to the questions on Kearse's future.

And then there's Redwine, a sneakily-solid depth piece who has begun to slowly earn the trust of McCarthy and the coaching staff, and could be considered a bit of a dark horse to make a wave or two in training camp.

Malik Hooker, Donovan Wilson: The two impact safety who were awarded new deals last summer were Hooker and Wilson, so no worries about them departing anytime soon. Hooker was consistently one of the better players on the field for the Cowboys as the former first-round pick lost little tread in 2023. Wilson had a much more challenging year, however, having taken a while to regain stride after missing the entirety of training camp with a calf strain.

He found it in the end, though, and was right back to being the heat-seeking missile the Cowboys have come to know and love. If he can enter the 2024 season healthy and pick up where he left off this past December, it will mark another year in which the usually safety-starved Cowboys are not only sitting pretty atop their safety depth chart, but throughout it.

Call it Quinn's parting gift.

What's Out There at Defensive Back:

Note: These players will be unrestricted on March 13, barring a newly-signed deal with their incumbent team prior to that date.

As you can readily see from the internal outlook above, the Cowboys are doing very, very well at both cornerback and safety entering this year's free agency, and especially if they can retain Stephon Gilmore and/or Jourdan Lewis. If they were to lose one or both, they'd still not be in dire straits — thanks to DIggs and Bland — but they would indeed need to then add an impactful veteran back into the mix to compete with Scott and Wright/Mukuamu at corner.

One look at the safety unit and, even without Kearse, there's no need to address the position in free agency whatsoever. I can't believe I just said that. Look at us. Who would've thought? Not me!

That said, let's keep our focus on some realistic cornerback options instead.

The Priced Out Club: Yeah, I'm going to blow right past those expected to command upwards of $15 million per season going forward, e.g., Jaylon Johnson and Kendall Fuller, because it's simply not that type of party right now in Dallas, and thankfully so. Do I feel Johnson and Fuller could contribute? I absolutely do, but the financial resources to acquire them would be wasteful when considering major need at other positions and the fact the need at cornerback is manageable, assuming it exists at all.

Xavien Howard: If reports are true and the Miami Dolphins are intending to release Howard into the marketplace ahead of free agency (again, if), I would love to see what his price tag would look like. Granted, Howard isn't the same version of himself that once grabbed 10 interceptions in a season with 20 pass break ups (2020), but he's also not far removed from that entering the 2024 season, and is still one of the better cover corners in the NFL.

The 30-year-old Howard is a former All-Pro and four-time Pro Bowler, and two-time NFL interceptions leader; and potentially losing Gilmore but landing Howard wouldn't be the worst swap in the world.

Steven Nelson: A more reasonably priced, but still worthy, candidate would be Nelson, and it would be a short drive up I-45 North from his current digs with the Houston Texans. The 31-year-old is more on the seasoned end of this spectrum, But he's played in a variety of schemes in his NFL career and continues to show versatility in both defending the run and in coverage, and the latter is evidenced by his four interceptions in 2023.

He's still playing at a high level and has a ton of experience, making him a worthy successor to the Gilmore Project in the event that deal doesn't get done.

Kenny Moore II: If Lewis departs in 2024, I'd look to someone like Moore to try and step in at nickel for the Cowboys. A full-time starter in the NFL for the Indianapolis Colts, like Nelson, Moore also had one of his best years as a pro in 2023. He grabbed three interceptions and amassed 93 combined tackles in 16 regular season starts last year, and could fit very nicely into what Zimmer has planned for the secondary.

Moore climbed from the ranks of the undrafted in 2017 to earn a Pro Bowl nod in 2021, and isn't slowing down — though I'd keep an eye on his price.

Ronald Darby: It feels to me as if Darby has been slept on, for some reason. The Ravens' defense does feature some headliners in their front seven, no doubt, but the veteran cornerback was able to step in from the backup role as needed when the Ravens suffered injury at the position and he played mostly well when doing so.

He allowed only one touchdown and 353 receiving yards on 60 targets (31 receptions allowed) and forced 10 incompletions — so what's not to like here?

Adoree Jackson: A former first-round pick of the Tennessee Titans in 2017, Jackson enters the 2024 season with a lot to prove. He's shown flashes of what he could be in the NFL for both the Titans and, at times, for the New York Giants in 2023, but bouts with injury have slowed his progress. This signing would be a low-risk, high-potential one for me, because there's no way Jackson can command the money some others on this list can, but he could potentially outplay several of them if he stays healthy and finds the right fit.

It's worth kicking the tires on this speedy, 27-year-old boundary corner (who now has an ability to play slot as well) who torched the collegiate world in his days at USC, and that still has just enough youth to warrant wondering if this coming season would be the one in which he finally finds his NFL legs, consistently.

Honorable mention: Chidobe Awuzie - Oh to be a fly on the wall and see your face when you read this name. Don't worry, because while Awuzie did graduate from being maligned in Dallas to being praised in Cinci, I don't foresee a path for him back to North Texas, but never say never in this league. So maybe don't put away the Flaming Hot Chido's quite yet.

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