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FRISCO, TX — Over the past several days, I've taken you on a ride through each of the positions on the Dallas Cowboys' depth chart to assess not only the current state of affairs, but to also dive into where each unit has come from and where they're likely headed as we look toward the 2024 season and beyond.
Last, but certainly not least, is the secondary.
From Trevon Diggs to DaRon Bland, from Malik Hooker to Donovan Wilson, from Juanyeh Thomas to Markquese Bell — so forth and so on — there's no shortage of items to discuss here, including the looming free agency of guys like Stephon Gilmore and Jayron Kearse.
And in an offseason that's seen the loss of both Dan Quinn and Joe Whitt Jr., no less.
So, let's get to it, and conclude this year's 'What's Next?' series on a strong note.
Past: Unlike their history at certain other positions — defensive line and running back, as two examples — this is one the Cowboys haven't had a lot of consistent success with their defensive back unit.
They have definitely had their share of dominant and/or elite defensive backs though, and that much isn't up for debate. From Mel Renfro to Everson Walls to Deion Sanders, there have been generational talents that have graced the Cowboys uniform; and they've had other talents worthy of being mentioned, such as Barry Church, but the greatness the team has been chasing at the CB and safety position has proven more elusive than they'd like.
Echoes of Morris Clairborne (the gordita at CB that preceded the Taco at DL) still resonate in my mind, though I try to wash that rancid flavor from my tongue with the good times that were had for the majority of Terence Newman's stretch in Dallas.
At safety, you saw J.J. Wilcox never fully developed, and that forced too much onto the plate of Jeff Heath (undrafted), Kavon Frazier and resident starting free safety Xavier Woods.
Furthermore, and more importantly, the Cowboys found themselves needing (at least in their eyes) to move Byron Jones from cornerback to safety, then back to cornerback, then to safety, so forth and so on. The flex arguably siphoned an opportunity to see him form into a shutdown corner sooner, and long before he departed in free agency.
In the midst of all of this, at one point or another, Brandon Carr played solid football but without production that matched his contract at the time, Orlando Scandrick eventually gave way to Chidobe Awuzie and Anthony Brown, and a carousel of depth players who aren't going to immediately come to mind for you came and went — something that proves my point.
The new age of defensive backs, however, is absolute cinema; at least mostly.
Present: This team isn't without its misses at defensive back, namely the failed second-round pick known as Kelvin Joseph, who was traded in 2023 to the Miami Dolphins in exchange for a former first--round pick — Noah Igbinoghene — though the latter served mostly as insurance at the cornerback position this past season.
What occurred (or rather, what didn't) with Joseph is wildly outweighed by the breakout success of a different second-round pick, Trevon Diggs, who is one of the best cornerbacks in the league heading into the 2024 season. Unfortunately for Diggs, though, a torn ACL ended his season and kept him from contributing to the back two-thirds of the campaign after getting off to the best overall start of his young and electric career.
His return to the field will put him in tandem with yet another breakout star, albeit a late-round pick, in DaRon Bland — who went from proving himself to be one of the best nickel corners in the absence of an injured Jourdan Lewis in 2022 to literally a historically superb boundary cornerback following the loss of Diggs in 2023.
Bland was a finalist for NFL Defensive Player of the Year after producing a mind-altering five pick-sixes (an NFL record) and leading the league in interceptions (a designation he and Diggs now share on their resumé).
Diggs and Bland will form what can only be viewed as the best CB tandem in the entire NFL in 2024, and former NFL Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore wants back in as well.
Gilmore is coming off of a very strong inaugural season with the Cowboys after being acquired via trade last offseason, showing no loss of tread on his tires.
Circling back to Lewis, the veteran cornerback regained prime form last season following a career-threatening foot injury suffered in 2022, but depth at cornerback behind the aforementioned four impact guys remains unsettled for the future — but more on that in a moment.
At safety, the new contracts recently awarded to Donovan Wilson and Malik Hooker promise a talent unit that had its ups and downs in 2023, but mostly because of Wilson's calf strain costing him the entirety of training camp and the preseason; and causing him to spend a large chunk of the season trying to find his top form, which he was eventually able to do.
This brings me to Jayron Kearse, one of the most vocal leaders in the locker room, and those behind him on the depth chart, and that means it's time to discuss the outlook on the entire defensive backs room, contracts and all.
Future: You can probably expect some type of a shakeup amongst the defensive backs over the next year or two, and that's largely due to expiring contracts and in how the Cowboys would like to see more from their young talent.
Kearse is set to become an unrestricted free agent in March, the only third of the three-headed hydra that did not land a new deal last offseason, and there's at least a solid chance he follows Dan Quinn to the Washington Commanders (as one example of his potential options).
The emergence of Juanyeh Thomas makes that loss more palatable for the Cowboys, with Thomas establishing himself as a worthy starter in the league in Year 2, having cut his teeth on the team's practice squad as a rookie in 2022, alongside Markquese Bell.
Bell is an interesting one, considering he's a safety converted to linebacker by Quinn, though there's little promise he'll remain there under a new defensive coordinator; and particularly given how Mike Zimmer is on having traditionally-sized impact linebackers.
I presume you'll see Bell moved back to safety, which also lessens the hit of possibly losing Kearse.
There's also a young, developmental safety in Sheldrick Redwine, who got some burn last season before being signed to a futures deal, and I think it would be borderline malpractice to not re-sign CJ Goodwin to a new deal — despite losing him to a torn pectoral muscle in 2023.
He's long been the leader and ace in the special teams unit, and isn't easily replaced, and it's not as if he'd demand a pretty penny, so go ahead and get that done — thanks.
But what of the depth at cornerback?
Diggs (having received a multi-year extension in July) and Bland are both ready to boogie, but Gilmore is an unrestricted free agent unless he lands a new contract before the league year opens in mid-March, and a contract year looms for both Nahshon Wright and Israel Mukuamu in 2024. The latter two have scratched and clawed for playing time since being in 2021, and often against each other.
It's unknown what the future holds for them in 2025 and beyond, especially when you look at Eric Scott, a 2022 sixth-round pick whom the Cowboys traded up to acquire. As a rookie, Scott was relegated to the inactives throughout the season but I'm hard-pressed to believe they'll leave him there in his second year.
They're going to want to test him against Wright and Mukuamu to aid in the decisions that follow next season, which is to say they're going to want to see if Scott can cook as a rotational piece.
Igbinoghene didn't see his fifth-year option exercised by the Dolphins and that means he'll also be an unrestricted free agent this offseason, further opening the door for guys like Scott, Wright and Mukuamu — even if Igbinoghene does return on a one-year deal or the like — to add to the training camp battle that will also possibly include Josh Butler, who exists on a futures deal at the moment.
I have to assume the Cowboys are going to again grab someone at the position in the draft as well, probably a late-round pick and/or undrafted free agency, so keep an eye on how the depth chart shakes out behind Diggs and Bland (and Gilmore?).
The superb news is that Dallas is, for once, overflowing with talent atop their DBs roster.
But remember what I stated about Lewis, because he's also set to hit unrestricted free agency alongside Gilmore. It's uncertain if he'll remain in Dallas under a new regime or test the waters of NFL free agency this time around, and he'll definitely have suitors (his hometown Detroit Lions come to mind here).
Oh, and before I forget, go ahead and promote Al Harris to passing game coordinator and have Zimmer call a favorite of his (and former Pro Bowl cornerback for the Cowboys), Terence Newman, to join the defensive coaching staff as the DBs coach.
You're welcome in advance.