Dallas Cowboys: Cornerback could be a disaster in 2021

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports /

The Dallas Cowboys reshuffled the deck across their defensive ranks this offseason. After what amounted to a complete disaster, wholesale changes were certainly in order. From the defensive line, to the linebacker corps, to the secondary, the roster was churned.

While some areas look significantly upgraded, others look downright frightening.  For the latter, look no further than outside cornerback.

The way things look, cornerback could be a disaster for the Dallas Cowboys in 2021

The Dallas Cowboys were terrible against the pass last season. For as bad as they were against the run, they were twice as bad against the pass. Don’t take my word for it, look at the numbers:

The best way to rank the success or failure of a given play is to look at the expected points added, or EPA. EPA tells us A) if the play was successful or not, and B) to what degree was the play successful (or unsuccessful).

The whole idea of EPA is to add context to a play. If a team ran the ball for six yards on a 3rd-and-10 play, it was neither successful nor did it add to the expected points.  A six yard run like that looks good out of context, but put into context we learn it was a win for the defense. That’s what EPA and success rate do for us.

the Dallas Cowboys were last in DVOA against WR2s last year. They can’t just tread water at CB2, or hope to get marginally better – they need to get markedly better.

So looking at the numbers (all numbers courtesy of rbsdm.com) we can see in games where the win probability was between 30-70% (non-blowouts), the Dallas Cowboys gave up a success rate of 51.7 percent through the air and only 44.5 percent on the ground. That tells us more often than not the Dallas run D won over their opponent while more often than not the Dallas pass defense lost to their opponent.

The EPA breakdown makes it even clearer. The Dallas run-D gave up an average of -0.015 EPA (a negative number indicating the defense won more than they lost) and the pass-D gave up+0.204 (indicating opponents feasted through the air).

So the numbers here clearly paint a different picture than the popular narrative tries to tell. And it’s an understandable mistake for those just looking at traditional unit rankings and yardage totals, but we’re better than that, right?. Now let’s drill down even more. Let’s look at the weak link in the secondary…

According to Football Outsiders, the Dallas Cowboys finished dead last in DVOA (defensive adjusted value over average) against No. 2 WRs. Because of injuries, the blame doesn’t just fall on one player here, but a variety of players who helped man that CB2 spot.

Initially, the blame went to the rookie Travon Diggs. Before turning it on and performing like a star down the stretch, Diggs struggled mightily. And when Chido got hurt, things got worse. Anthony Brown (who we now know was playing injured) didn’t fare any better. Jourdan Lewis was terrible when he faced off against WR2s as well. In all, the unit finished dead last in the NFL. There’s no way to sugarcoat this thing.

So the weakest link on the team (the one guarding the WR2) was the weakest unit on the Dallas Cowboys (coverage). That’s extremely concerning for a team that has yet to find a clear answer at CB2 in 2021.

We expect Trevon Diggs to take that next step and become a legit CB1. And it stands to reason a healthy Anthony Brown will be better than last year, so he’s a decent option. But how much improvement can we really expect from CB2 this season?

It’s rare when even a first round CB can hit the ground running and make a big impact as a rookie. It’s even rarer when a second rounder with very little college experience does so. In fact, Nahshon Wright, Dallas’ last third round pick is the rookie who’s been turning heads in mini-camp.

While I still think Kelvin Joseph will ultimately be an upgrade to Chido, I understand the NFL learning curve and don’t expect that to happen in Year 1. And while I think Wright is going to pleasantly surprise folks, I think he’s going to be more scheme/match-up specific early in his career.

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Keep in mind; the Dallas Cowboys were last in DVOA against WR2s last year. They can’t just tread water at CB2, or hope to get marginally better – they need to get markedly better. That’s why CB2 is a frightening situation heading into training camp.

We don’t expect the Cowboys to run more 2-deep looks this season, meaning the boundary CBs are going to have to handle business on their own. Help won’t always be there. This may be Kool-Aid season, a time when fans are excited to be unrealistically optimistic about their respective team’s chances, but Cowboys fans have been down that road. We like to face our problems head on.

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The Dallas Cowboys could very well thrive at CB and even improve in coverage this year. They have the raw talent to do so. But we need to consider how much exactly we’re asking them to improve and how high of a hill CB is to climb for rookies. Let’s be prepared for anything.