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Offseason | 2021

Spagnola: This Corner Might Be Getting Crowded


FRISCO, Texas – Just an OTA. We get it.

Just a minicamp next week. We get it.

No pads. No hitting. Far from real football over this three-week period. Granted.

But from the looks of things, there is some real competition going on with these Dallas Cowboys. Especially on defense. All three levels of the defense – line, linebackers and secondary.

Today, let's look at the cornerback position, and remember over these past two offseasons the Cowboys have lost both starters to free agency: Byron Jones last year and Chidobe Awuzie this year.

The presumptive starter at right corner is Trevon Diggs, last year's second-round draft choice who not only started 11 of the 12 games he played – broken bone in his foot after starting the first nine games of the season cost him four games and one start – but the then 22-year-old also led the team with three interceptions, the first time the Cowboys had a rookie cornerback lead the club in interceptions since Terence Newman did so with four in 2003.

Health willing, he's one starter in the base defense.

But now, the other side. The left side.

There seems to be this assumption that rookie Kelvin Joseph has already been knighted as the Day 1 starter, simply based on his second-round draft status.

Uh, not so fast.

My thinking is sixth-year veteran Anthony Brown might have something to say about that.

And that competition already has started in these OTA workouts, Brown out there at left corner with the presumed first-team defense and Joseph now with the second group.

Again, it's the offseason, and most times coaches will defer to their more veteran players when it comes to these types of rotations. But also, those same coaches rarely want to just anoint a rookie an automatic starter. They want the guy to earn it.

Makes me think back to the 1992 season when the Cowboys used their first-round draft choice on Texas A&M cornerback Kevin Smith, the 17th overall pick. Cowboys head coach Jimmy Johnson wanted to be sure "Pup" was ready for the NFL. Smith did not start until Game 11, Johnson deciding to go with veteran Issiac Holt instead.

And not because Smith was a failure. After all, of the 103 career games he played, those first 10 are the only ones Pup didn't start in his career. Ended up starting every one of the other 93.

So, as for Joseph, let's also remember he hasn't played much football over the past couple of years. Started nine of the nine games he played in 2020 for Kentucky. The previous year, transferring from LSU to Kentucky forced him to sit out the entire season. And in his only year at LSU, he did not start any of the 11 games he played in 2018 as a true freshman, and his 12 total tackles, no interceptions, no passes broken up would suggest limited defensive snaps.

Let's be real. You automatically think a guy who has played all of nine games over the past 32 months would be ready come Sept. 9 against Tom Brady? Lining up in man against Mike Evans?

Who knows? He might. But he had better be awfully talented to compensate for his lack of starting experience. And yes, I know, Diggs was a season-opening starter, but that had a little to do with training camp injuries to Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis, affording him camp snaps he otherwise might not have received.

Then there is the Brown factor. This guy is no chump. A sixth-round pick in 2016, Brown has started 41 of the 66 games he's played the past five years. Started at right corner. Some at left. Some in the slot. Injuries somewhat have derailed his past two seasons, spending three weeks on IR and missing three others due to injury in 2020. And the previous season, Brown played in only nine games, first a hamstring injury and then a season-ending triceps tear costing him the final six games of the schedule.

"AB looks great," head coach Mike McCarthy said at the outset of OTAs of Brown, second on the team last year with two interceptions. "He had two unfortunate injuries (last year). He looks healthy, he looks great out there. But we're just getting started."

Maybe, but here is another thing about Brown, the Cowboys having signed him to a three-year, $15.5 million deal in 2020 with $8 million guaranteed. Let Diggs tell you. Maybe what you might not expect from a veteran player whose snaps are being threatened by young guys.

"That's like my big brother," Diggs says. "We talk all the time. I go over to his house, we talk. He's really been a good influence on my career. Honestly, I ask him questions all the time.

"I love watching him, love talking to him, love asking him questions. He's been here a long time, so it's good to have a good vet in your corner who you can talk to."

Now then, as for Joseph, he hasn't played in a game since Kentucky's Nov. 28 outing against Florida last year. But in his only season in Lexington, Ky., he finished with four interceptions, third most in the SEC, with two of those returned for touchdowns.

And while it's just been the rookie minicamp and an OTA practice, you can see his ability. The speed. The hip turn. Tracking receivers. The competition should be at a high level, adding in Lewis, the assumed nickel corner at this time.

"His limited time and real reps in the game is not as high," defensive coordinator Dan Quinn says of Joseph, "but I would say the good news is, for him in his short time at LSU also getting a chance to guard some really good players to battle in practice, and then over in Kentucky getting a real starting experience in the SEC certainly helps.

"As you know, transitioning to the NFL is not one size fits all. But what I can tell you, I have been impressed by his work. I've seen the speed, the quickness. So the nice part is when you play defense here, you get a chance to guard some pretty good guys on the other side. So he'll be tested here in practice and of course in training camp, and I couldn't think of a stronger group for him to test and try things. … And having a guy like [assistant defensive backs coach] Al Harris in his hip pocket is a great thing."

There is another budding layer to this competition at cornerback. Third, third-round pick Nahshon Wright, the guy many analysts insisted was way over drafted. Hmmm, maybe they hadn't seen this guy. So far during these offseason workouts, Wright seems to have come up with an interception in each of the five practices we've witnessed. Had another diving one on Thursday. Always seems to be around the ball.

And how about this for a Cowboys cornerback? He's 6-foot-4. Long arms. Good hands, because he catches the ball.

Who knows what happens going forward, but from what we've seen so far, maybe Wright wasn't sounding overly cocky during his draft-day conference call when claiming, "I look at myself as a more athletic Richard Sherman.

Go on, young man.

So unlike last year's COVID interrupted offseason, the Cowboys will have time on the corner to unravel this competition.

No assumptions need be made.

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