The Dallas Cowboys reshuffled the deck in the secondary this season. Bidding farewell to defensive starters like cornerback Chidobe Awuzie and safety Xavier Woods, Dallas made a concentrated effort to both save money AND improve.
At safety, Dallas brought in Damontae Kazee. The converted cornerback thrived in Dan Quinn’s system in Atlanta and hopes to pick up where he left off here in Dallas. Joining him at safety is rotational man, Jayron Kearse from Minnesota, by way of Detroit.
Cornerback saw a similar churn. Chido walked away but veteran Maurice Canady, and rookies Kelvin Joseph and Nahshon Wright walked in. It’s another situation of multiple players coming in to replace the departed.
The Dallas Cowboys made changes at cornerback and safety but which improved the most?
What the new cornerbacks bring
The replacements at cornerback appear to have the most untapped skill and unrealized potential. Joseph is uber-raw but also uber-skilled. He’s fast, athletic, and confident. He can shadow receivers following them inside and out.
Canady is insurance. The part-time player from the Jets was one of the highest graded CBs in the NFL in 2019 and brings a reliable skillset to the position. He’s not the ideal replacement for Chido but if it all hits the fan, he’s a nice option to have waiting in the wings. Let’s keep in mind, while Chido was a fine player, he didn’t exactly set a high bar.
The wild card is Nahshon Wright, the highly criticized pick from Oregon State. Wright is a scheme specific player who can play the boundary and deep third – but that might be it. The question is, does this trio look like an upgrade to Chido?
If everyone stays healthy and plays up to expectations then the answer is probably yes. Even if the Cowboys only use the maligned Wright situationally, Joseph’s high-end skillset mixed with Canady’s (or Anthony Brown’s) veteran stability should make up for the loss of Chido.
What the new safeties bring
Safety is a little less projection and a little more health dependent and opportunity driven. His public comments notwithstanding, Xavier Woods was a fine safety for Dallas and an absolute steal in the sixth round. As such, I’d rank him as a better NFL safety than I’d rank Chido as a cornerback.
But even with the taller hill to climb, I think the Dallas Cowboys safeties have the clear edge in offering the biggest upgrade this season. All indications are Kazee is well on track to be 100 percent healed from his Achilles injury. Last seen as a starting FS, Kazee led the NFL in interception (2018).
Kazee is still young (turns 28 this week) and looks unhampered and unaffected from his season-ending injury from last year. It looks like he’ll log the bulk of the snaps at safety in 2021, but in case he can’t, we have Kearse standing by. Jayron Kearse is well versed in 2-deep looks and serves as a great rotational piece when Dallas plays middle of the field open coverage. Standing 6-foot-4, 215lbs, he’s a nice alternative to Kazee and his sub-6ft/sub-200 lbs. status.
Perhaps most important of all is Cowboys Nation’s favorite carryover safety, Donovan Wilson. Wilson didn’t start early in the season but once he did, he made the most of it. Rated by Pro Football Focus as the 18th graded safety in the NFL last season, Wilson should thrive in 2021 when he gets his first full season as a starter.
Like Kazee, Wilson has a nose for the ball. The pair brings something Dallas hasn’t had in ions – defensive backs with plus-turnover skills. Wilson is also a useful weapon rushing the passer and is a bit of a swiss army knife; able to run-stop, pass-rush, and play in coverage (220 snaps in the box and 379 at FS).
The verdict: As things stand today, it’s not even close. The Dallas Cowboys appeared to upgrade at safety considerably this offseason. Cornerback remains a major concern heading into training camp and Dallas may struggle to replace even the pedestrian Awuzie.