Phillips: Toughest Free Agent Decisions Are At Most Underrated Roster Spot

FRISCO, Texas – The Cowboys' coaching staff challenged the defensive secondary to be a more physical group in 2016, and the results were good.

Now, one of the biggest offseason questions is how the roster's most underrated unit will look in 2017.

Among the Cowboys' 20 free agents to be, this is the most challenging roster spot to predict come March. We're talking about three starters (two cornerbacks, one safety) and a productive backup safety set to be unrestricted free agents who collectively helped solidify the defensive backfield.

There's Mo Claiborne, who clearly played the best football of his career before a groin injury sidelined him the final nine regular-season games before the playoffs.

There's Brandon Carr, who arguably had his best season as a Cowboy and often accepted the challenge of covering the opponent's best receiver.

There's Barry Church, the co-defensive captain who returned from a four-game absence to spark the defense's stingy December: an average of 16.5 points and only seven pass plays of at least 20 yards allowed in their final four regular-season games until the finale when the starters sat or played limited snaps.

There's J.J. Wilcox, who filled in capably for Church during his time injured.

Together, they helped the defense reduce the number of 20-plus pass plays allowed from 2015 (55 to 45) and reduce opponents' scoring average per game (23.4 to 19.1).

Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli leaned on his secondary quite a bit this past season, at times deploying a three-man pass rush and depending on an extra cover guy to get the defense off the field. Overall, they tackled well and they competed hard.

"If you want to be a physical football team, you've got to physical on all three levels of defense and those guys have really stepped up," head coach Jason Garrett said during the season.

So much outside discussion this offseason centers on the defensive line and the importance of getting more pressure. Can't argue with that, even though the defense did improve its quarterback sack total by five in 2016 (36, ranked 13th).

But stabilizing the secondary might be just as important, despite the uncertainty of free agency.

Consider the quarterbacks the Cowboys will face in 2017, starting with the annual six games against the NFC East. Like Dak Prescott, the Eagles' Carson Wentz should only improve. Eli Manning has been a tough assignment for 13 years. Kirk Cousins and the Redskins were one of their toughest challenges in the passing game last season.

Dallas will also see Aaron Rodgers and the Packers again. New opponents include MVP Matt Ryan and the defending NFC champion Falcons, Seattle's Russell Wilson, Arizona's Carson Palmer and a tough NFC West draw that features Oakland's Derek Carr, Kansas City's Alex Smith and the Chargers' Philip Rivers.

Will all four free agents return? The Cowboys should and probably will strongly consider bringing them all back. The market may determine that, and all four have different circumstances.

Claiborne signed a one-year deal last March, and although he played at a high level with healthy, injuries were a factor once again. Carr is turning 31, but his durability is a plus. Is there a clear in-house replacement for Church, the team's second-leading tackler and interception leader? Is there a younger safety on the roster who could challenge Wilcox, 26, for his role as a backup safety and special teams contributor?

The secondary was as deep and efficient as it's been in years with the rookie cornerback Anthony Brown's emergence, Orlando Scandrick's return and year-to-year improvement from Byron Jones and Jeff Heath.

They need to keep that momentum going in 2017 – though here in mid-February it's uncertain just how many faces will change.

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