Spagnola: Cornering Market On Relevancy

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FRISCO, Texas – The questions hovering over the next edition of the Dallas Cowboys are mushrooming seemingly left and right.

        The answers, they begin unfolding next week in Oxnard, Calif., the Cowboys arriving this Tuesday, July 24th, for their extended-stay training camp, checking out on Aug. 17.

        Meaning the candidates for Mr. Relevant 2018, are plentiful, multiplying at a rapid pace.

        Think about it now.

        Who takes over the tight end position? Dunno.

        Who become the top five, maybe six, receivers? Dunno.

        Can some defensive end provide pressure opposite DeMarcus Lawrence? Dunno.

Is Xavier Woods the answer at free safety? The Cowboys hope, but don't know that for sure.

Can Byron Jones transition successfully back to corner? Dunno.

Will Jihad Ward become the answer at defensive tackle during David Irving's season-opening, four-game suspension? Dunno.

Will the Cowboys get anything from the conditionally-reinstated Randy Gregory? Your guess is good as mine until he resumes practicing and becomes eligible to play in preseason games.

See what I mean?

Now then, just to remind, two years ago we moved away naming Mr. Indispensable, the Cowboys player they just couldn't do without. That sort of became too elementary, and really same for this year. I mean, they certainly can't do without Dak Prescott. Always got to have your starting quarterback. Can't do without Zeke and Sean Lee, that becoming totally obvious last year, and might as well throw Tyron Smith into that pool, too. Their extended absences last year reduced the Cowboys to 9-7, erasing the opportunity to qualify for the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2006-07.

Thus, we now go with Mr. Relevant, and as I've explained over the past two years, someone or somebodies the Cowboys absolutely need to break out if they are to have some success; a player or players with either no or modest resumes the Cowboys desperately need to produce.

        For example, in 2016 my predictions were rookie Ezekiel Elliott and Benson Mayowa since the Cowboys needed a top running back in the worse way and someone, anyone, to produce sacks. Well, certainly hit with Zeke, the rookie turning out to become the NFL's leading rusher. As for Mayowa, sorta. He did lead the Cowboys in sacks, but with a modest six and faded away this past season.

        Last year, knowing the Cowboys desperately needed someone, anyone, to produce sacks at a double-digit rate, my choice was DeMarcus Lawrence. Right on. Lawrence, with just nine sacks over his first three years, produced a Pro Bowl season with 14½ sacks.

        You get the idea.

        This year, candidates galore. Is it Allen Hurns at wide receiver or maybe Terrance Williams? Is it Geoff Swaim at tight end? Maybe Ward at defensive tackle or Taco Charlton at defensive end? Might it be Woods at safety or La'el Collins at right tackle? And the Cowboys have to hope it's not Cam Fleming at swing tackle, meaning, something happened to Tyron.

        Nope, my pick to click, the guy who most needs to have that breakout season affecting the Cowboys' success to earn the distinction of Mr. Relevant, the one with the best chance to arrive is . . . .

        Chidobe Awuzie . . . last year's second-round pick already penciled in as the starting left corner.

Gosh, the Cowboys desperately need him to be the anchor back there, the guy to carry on the No. 24 tradition of the Cowboys set by Everson Walls and Larry Brown.

        Health willing, he might have stolen the show last season as a rookie. But it wasn't nearly willing if you remember. Early in training camp Awuzie suffered hamstring problems. Ended up missing most of the workouts while rehabbing to get back on the field.

        Then, while injury to Orlando Scandrick forced him into the starting slot cornerback role on the nickel defense in Game 2 against Denver, he injured the hamstring again after playing just five defensive snaps.

        Awuzie would miss the next two games, played sparingly against Green Bay (nine defensive snaps), and then missed the next four games, trying to get that hamstring right.

        Finally, after basically playing special teams, and quite sparingly in the next two games, Awuzie started at left corner the final five games of the season. And finally, he began to show why the Cowboys thought enough of him coming out of Colorado to nab him with the 60th pick in the draft.

        First, check out his numbers in those five games: 21 tackles, 1 interception, five passes defensed – giving him seven total – and one forced fumble.

        More than that, Awuzie emerged as a leader back there among all those young corners, especially with Scandrick not playing in the final four games of the season. He played with the aggressiveness you'd expect from a 6-foot, 202-pound corner.

        Just the way his former Colorado defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt predicted last year when coming through during offseason workouts.

Said Leavitt, "He's got it all. He's mentally tough. He's got great explosive speed, good hands, good eyes, very smart, knock your head off, can play the corner, can press, can play off, can play the safety, can play the nickel, very personal, will be great playing special teams. He's real. He's a football player, he's just a football player."

So right.

        Now again, Awuzie last year missed as many games – six and large parts of two others – as he started. We caught just a glimpse, but the Cowboys sure liked what they saw, and for good reason. The glimpse was impressive, and the best part might have been this:

        The more he played during those final five games of the season, the better he played.

        That Awuzie remains healthy will be imperative, obviously, not only for himself, but for a Cowboys defense needing to continue the improvement displayed over the past four seasons, moving up each year in the NFL's total defense, going from bottoming out in 2013 (32nd) to 19 in 2014, to 17 in 2015, to 14 in 2016 and to 8 last season, matching the defensive's highest ranking since finishing eighth in 2008.

        Plus, he needs to become relevant back there for me. too.

        Because as you guys know, I like to be right.

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