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Spagnola: Not So Fast When Writing Off Byron


FRISCO, Texas – What about Byron?

You know, Byron Jones, cornerback, a Pro Bowler at that during the 2018 season.

Former first-rounder. Been here five years. A starter in 73 of the 79 games he's played, including in 14 of the 15 he played in 2019.

Arguably the best Cowboys cornerback since Terence Newman, and he last played here in 2011.

Always seems as if when it comes to free agency, all we hear about is Dak Prescott or Amari Cooper and now even Robert Quinn, the narrative being how the Cowboys just have to get these impending free agents signed or tagged as franchise or transition players to protect their rights of first refusal.

And sure, get it. No arguments about that.

But let's not forget about Byron Jones, only turning 28 in September. Nor should the Cowboys, or simply wave the white flag on either retaining his rights or re-signing him to a long-term deal just because it's presumed there is no way they can pay him enough in what is going to become a tight salary cap situation while trying to manage keeping so many top-notch free agents.

There seems to be this assumption the Cowboys can't afford to keep him.

My question is this:

Can they afford to lose him?

And certainly we understand the financials surrounding this sticky situation. But ask yourself this: Who do the Cowboys have to replace him?

If you look at the roster right now, when it comes to cornerback roster rights for the 2020 season, all the Cowboys have is Chidobe Awuzie for one more year. Jordan Lewis for one more year. That's it with players of note since Anthony Brown and C.J. Goodwin also are heading toward free agency. Plus, on top of that, don't think the Cowboys believe Lewis is capable of being more than a slot corner. Nor should they.

Keep hearing they will draft a guy early to replace Jones. That's pretty cavalier. Can you assure me there will be an available corner they covet in the first or second round capable of starting as a rookie? Won't know that for sure until April 23-24, and by then free agency will be drying up faster than my front lawn. Or hearing they can just sign a ready-made replacement in free agency for less money but as much talent. Guarantee you that ain't right. Probably be far-less less talent, since some other team didn't think enough of the guy to keep him.

And sure tired of hearing most minimize Jones with his lack of interceptions.

So when looking at the NFL interception stats for 2019, see where only 15 guys had at least three interceptions, with Stephon Gilmore and Tre'Davious White leading the pack with six each. The remaining 28 among the top 43 each had two. That's it, two.

And among those with big names, Josh Norman, Chris Harris and Jimmy Smith, each had just one more interception than Jones. Those days of Everson Walls intercepting 11 passes as a rookie and nine more in 1985 are long gone. In fact, you have to go back to 2012 to find the most single-season interceptions by a Cowboys cornerback over the past eight seasons. Those three came complements of Brandon Carr.

But remember this: Covering is important, too, and doing so well enough that quarterbacks are encouraged to throw somewhere else.

Jones ranked fourth this past season when it came to snaps-per-reception at 17.9, charged with giving up 30 catches on 536 snaps. The NFL leader was the Chargers' Casey Hayward at 19.7. Richard Sherman was second at 19.1, but remember the 49ers played him mostly in zone coverage. Jones plays almost exclusively man.

Then there is this: Jones also ranked fourth in the NFL when it comes to his .62 receiving yards per snap against him. The 331 yards he's charged with giving up comes down to a modest 11 yards per catch.

And one more: Jones is one of five cornerbacks in 2019 to allow no more than three touchdowns and less than 120 yards after the catch, his 106 YAC total ranking fifth in the league.

Wonder if there is any correlation between Sherman's coverage numbers and San Francisco finishing tied for third with 48 sacks. The Cowboys' 39 ranked 20th. Just asking.

And someone out there must think Jones is pretty darn good. Walter Camp rates Jones as the top free-agent corner. Bleacher Report has Jones the fifth-ranked overall free agent. The Sporting News has him seventh overall and the top corner. Harris is the next corner at 23rd. They are the only two corners in its top 50, which speaks to the projected corner talent in this year's free agent class.

Now then, this all will come down to money. Always does, doesn't it? The Cowboys in 2019 picked up Jones' fifth-year option, paying him $6.226 million, roughly $2.5 million less than he had totaled over his first four seasons. Jones' agents will be anxious to explore free agency unless the Cowboys somehow tag him or want to buy him out of that free-agency right.

So when analyzing market value, only one cornerback among the top-five paid guys (according to spotrac) earned a guaranteed average of more than $13 million a year. Guaranteed, now. Not the phony total most like to throw around. And that was the Jets' Trumaine Johnson, who signed a five-year, $72.5 million package in 2018 with New York, of which $45 million of it is guaranteed over the first three years.

Top paid corner is Miami's Xavier Howard, and he signed an extension in 2019 with one year left on his deal, five years, $75.25 million, with $39.3 million guaranteed over the first three years. That's $13 million a year guaranteed then, and get this, the Dolphins can cut ties if they want after three seasons for just $2.8 million in dead money if they do not think Howard is worth the non-guaranteed $36 million stuffed into his final two seasons.

Also, when you see Jones' projected market value at $14 million, that doesn't mean under a long-term deal, including a signing bonus prorated evenly over, say, five years with lower base salaries in the early years. His cap hit will be that total this year. That's the beauty of Jerry Jones' cash flow enabling him to pay a hefty signing bonus.

Plus, understand much of this cap-onomics for 2020 will depend on which salary cap rules apply. The existing rules for the final year of the current CBA or the new ones in the proposed CBA being voted on over the next six days, especially the ones pertaining to tags and the restrictive 30-percent rule on increasing base salaries.

As we can see now, presumptions this time of year, particularly this year of CBA uncertainty, are mostly hasty and flimsy.

So when it comes to writing off Byron, not so fast my friends.