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Science Lab: Finally, An Open Competition for CB2

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Patrik [No C] Walker joined the Dallas Cowboys digital media group as a staff writer and media personality in July 2022, having professionally covered the NFL and, more specifically, the Cowboys since 2007.

He most recently did so for CBS Sports by way of 247Sports, where he also spent time delving into collegiate recruiting as well – ultimately becoming well-known for his level of unapologetic objectivity labeled by many as his own unique brand of football "science".

Welcome to "The Science Lab", a place where football facts and in-depth analysis always triumph over feelings.

FRISCO, TX — There's an inherent beauty in seeing change happening before crossing the event horizon into an area where said change would fail to matter. The problem in the past for the Dallas Cowboys was that the previous coaching regime was apprehensive about making moves when they needed to be made, but Mike McCarthy's version of the team is anything but.

That said, let's talk about this cornerback situation, please and thank you.

With roughly one minute, thirty seconds remaining in the third quarter against the Jacksonville Jaguars, I wrote the following in my game notes: "Who can step up and be CB2 in Dallas?!".

There was also an expletive in the original iteration of that sentence that I omitted here.

I was so thrown aback at the sequence of defensive events that saw a struggling Kelvin Joseph take the bait on a double move to allow a 59-yard touchdown from Zay Jones (with a 17-point lead at the time) and then a 10-yard touchdown by Marvin Jones on an inside-out move in the end zone that I needed answers; and I needed them in real-time — no longer post-game.

In one fell swoop, the Cowboys went from a 27-10 lead to nursing a slight 27-24 advantage before going on to lose 40-34 in overtime but, you know what? I saw something happen in the early fourth quarter that [again] showed me my faith in defensive coordinator Dan Quinn is well-founded: he swapped out Joseph for Nahshon Wright.

Hey, it's a start, and tells me this coaching regime will give players a fighting chance to prove what they can do but, which is entirely fair, but in the event they don't, it's about seeing if the next man will.

That next man in the CB2 equation isn't simply Wright, however, and that brings me to the next part of Quinn's plan — one I was all set to passionately request this week before he took to the podium on Monday to proclaim would happen:

AN OPEN COMPETITION TO REPLACE ANTHONY BROWN.

*insert my ear-to-ear grin here*

Sidebar: It's interesting to see many come to finally understand that while Brown wasn't perfect, he's most definitely a deserving starter in this league and replacing him isn't as simple as saying "next man up". Now, back to your regularly scheduled programming.

I first want to be clear in stating I believe Joseph does have NFL ability, and I don't believe that's a subjective statement, his struggles noted above being just as objective as my belief in his potential down the road. That said, he also requires further development and, unfortunately for him, the Cowboys don't have time for that right now.

They have only three games remaining in the regular season to find their definitive answer at CB2, or their postseason run may be anything but. This team isn't lacking for options either, by design, as their CB cupboard also includes Kendall Sheffield, Mackensie Alexander, Trayvon Mullen and, in case of emergency, Israel Mukuamu.

Mukuamu, quiet as it's kept, was Second-Team All-SEC at cornerback for South Carolina, opposite former first-round pick Jaycee Horn, before being moved to full-time safety in Dallas (he split time at both positions for the Gamecocks).

Sheffield, a former Falcon under Quinn, joined the Cowboys practice squad in October and has yet to be elevated, but do the math here. That means they can now elevate him for each of the final three regular season games to determine if he has what they're looking for before either signing him to the active roster for the playoffs or parting ways with him entirely.

This same math applies to Alexander, also on the practice squad with three elevations remaining heading into the matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 16. For Mullen, claimed off of waivers ahead of the loss to the Jaguars (he was made inactive), this week is about ramping up further to become an option for Quinn's defense and not simply for John Fassel's special teams unit.

That's three more experienced NFL veteran cornerbacks, two of which are former second-round picks (like Joseph) with a lot of combined starts (unlike Joseph) as you can readily see below.

  • Kendall Sheffield: 38 games, 20 starts
  • Mackensie Alexander: 84 games, 25 starts
  • Trayvon Mullen: 45 games, 31 starts

For comparison, here are the numbers in those categories for the youthful incumbents:

  • Kelvin Joseph: 23 games, 3 starts
  • Israel Mukuamu: 17 games, 3 starts
  • Nahshon Wright: 17 games, 1 start

It's not difficult to see the difference in experience between the two groups and, based upon the importance of every single game to come (assuming Week 18 against the Washington Commanders will matter to the standings, though each game thereafter is win-or-go-home), experience will be priceless.

This is why it's important to have the open competition before it's too late, so kudos to Quinn for being unafraid to pull the trigger on it in what's become a true meritocracy in Dallas and not simply a pounding of the table for any player based solely upon draft status.

You love to see it.

But, what you'd love to see more is any one (or two) of the aforementioned players step up and become "Him" opposite Trevon Diggs and DaRon Bland, two ball-hawking cover corners who have forced quarterbacks to throw away from them on a weekly basis — seven interceptions between the two through 14 games this season.

And what the Cowboys don't want to do, nor should you want them to, is to move Bland to the outside versus playing him at nickel. That's because Bland is already replacing an impact player in Jourdan Lewis and, while Bland can be effective on the outside as well (he took reps there in training camp), doing so opens up a void at nickel that isn't as easily worked around, be it coverage-wise against shiftier receivers and/or in run support.

Spoiler: The Cowboys can't afford to lose assistance in run support.

An open competition gives everyone, including Joseph, equal footing to show why they should be the guy going forward and, as such, stokes the competitive flames inside of all involved. This is the pure essence of sport and it's how every player made their way to the NFL in the first place, so there's no reason to stop now.

Bottom line?

May the best man win so that, in the end, hopefully the Cowboys can continue to do so as well.

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