By Mike Crum
Dallas Cowboys Team Analyst and Co-Host of the Across The Cowboys Podcast
photo from Insidethestar.com
Going into the 2020 season, the Dallas Cowboys have one area that could be a glaring weakness: their secondary. The secondary has a lot of unanswered questions. Most of this is due to a defensive scheme and a coaching philosophy from the previous regime that left the defense predictable and easy to decipher by opposing teams. The one constant in that system was terrific cover-cornerback, Byron Jones, but he left in free agency to join the Miami Dolphins. The deal made him the top cornerback in football for less than a week, when the Philadelphia Eagles traded for and extended Darius Slay.
Now with a new defensive coordinator in Mike Nolan and a new philosophy based on creating more turnovers, the Cowboys are trying to figure out how these pieces in the secondary all fit together. Do the below-average statistics of Chidobe Awuzie and Jordan Lewis fall on them for simply being poor cornerbacks? Or was the system itself so bad that it repeatedly failed to give these two-star defensive backs any chance to elevate their play? The Cowboys have brought in a lot of veteran cornerbacks on one-year deals. Likewise, they also used draft capital to bring in two rookie defensive backs, maybe for now, or maybe for the future.
The safety position leaves possibly even more questions. Does Xavier Woods finally breakout now in Nolan’s more aggressive scheme? Can Ha Ha Clinton-Dix slide in and be the Jeff Heath replacement that Cowboy fans are hoping for? Even if both play well in 2020, can the Cowboys really risk needing to pay both safety spots off only one good year, if either or both are able to breakout? Enter Jamal Adams.
Adams is a game-changing defensive player. Not only would he instantly improve the whole defensive secondary, but he'd instantly become the second best player on the entire unit behind Demarcus Lawrence. Adams' nearly unequaled ability to take away half the football field would bring Nolan the piece that would propel the defense from average to excellent. He covers well in man and zone, is excellent playing against the run, and is a great blitzer in passing or running situations.
Former Cowboys receiver Michael Irvin reported that the cost for Adams in a trade would be a first- and a third-round pick. Jamal would also be looking for a big money extension that would likely make him the highest paid safety in NFL. The Cowboys' front office understands this, so let’s go over how they might look at the roster breakdown to decide whether pulling the trigger is even feasible, let alone the right move.
Dallas has built up excellent draft capital for the 2021 draft. The team has amassed nine picks, partly from the addition of four compensatory picks due to losing some free agents to other teams. That would typically give them eleven picks in total, but in last month's NFL Draft the Cowboys used a fifth-round pick in a trade with the Eagles to move up for Wisconsin interior offensive lineman, Tyler Biadasz. They also traded their 2021 seventh-round pick to the New England Patriots for veteran defensive end, Michael Bennett. Assuming that Irvin's assessment of Adams' market value is correct and that the Cowboys pulled the trigger on this trade, they would still be left with seven draft picks, the same amount they had in 2020.
Cowboys 2021 draft picks after Jamal Adams trade:
1st - gone in potential Adams trade
3rd - gone in potential Adams trade
5th - gone in trade for Biadasz
7th - gone in trade for Bennett
Now let’s look at the roster projections for the 2021 season to get an idea of the needs the Cowboys might have and how they could potentially fill those holes with free agents and the left over draft capital.
At the quarterback position, Dak Prescott is obviously the starter. Whether re-signed or still on the franchise tag, Dak will be on the team. Andy Dalton will likely move on, but seventh-round pick, Ben DiNucci, could step in as the back up after a year spent learning behind two excellent veterans, and he would be a cheap option to save money on the cap. Dallas has no real need to go after anything at this position.
The running back room is pretty stacked. Ezekiel Elliott will be 26 years-old going into the 2021 season and is signed long-term. Tony Pollard will be going into year three of his rookie contract and will be a versatile weapon as the backup running back. The fullback, Jamize Olawale, is signed through 2022 while also serving as the emergency third running back. We can assume the Cowboys will bring in unrestricted free agents after the draft and try to hit on one of those to be a guy that might make the roster on special teams.
The wide receivers are possibly the best unit on the team, if not the top set of starters in the entire NFL. Amari Cooper is a new hundred million dollar man, CeeDee Lamb will only be on the second year of his five-year rookie deal, and Michael Gallup will be in his contract year in 2021. Admittedly, while Dallas' wide receiver room is in incredible shape right now, it might be a position of need in the near future. When Gallup's rookie contract is over he is going to get paid an enormous amount of money. In just his second year he compiled 66 receptions for 1,107 yards and six touchdowns, putting him on a short list of 10 wide receivers with those numbers under the age of 24. That list includes notable names like Odell Beckham Jr, Randy Moss, Calvin Johnson, Julio Jones, Chris Goodwin, and Tyreek Hill. Suffice it to say that Gallup's career is off to a robust start.
Amari's guaranteed money runs out after 2021, so he can be cut or traded if the team decides to keep Gallup instead of him. If not, Gallup likely moves on and Cooper and Lamb become the top two wide receivers. I'd love to use the tag on Gallup to get him for one more season, but one way or another the Cowboys will likely need another weapon because behind the top three stars, the Cowboys have unknowns in the receiving core. Cedric Wilson will be a 2021 restricted free agent, and Jon’Vea Johnson is under control through 2022, but right now neither of them can be counted on to be a third wide receiver in the NFL. Dallas could definitely look to a veteran free agent to fill this void with a plethora of available names like Kenny Stills, Mohamed Sanu, Willie Snead, Demarcus Robinson, and Zay Jones, just to name a few. The 2021 draft might also be deeper at wide receiver than the 2020 draft was, so I could see the Cowboys choosing to bolster their roster by bringing in a couple of rookies. And since we know that the Cowboys like to fill some roster holes before the draft each year, we would be smart to assume they might sign a veteran WR just to cover their butts, and then use a day-three pick on a wide receiver as well. In a draft this deep, and the team having two stud starting wide receivers, it makes sense for Dallas to use one of their sixth-round picks on the position. If nothing else they might get Wilson’s replacement, who was also a sixth-round pick.
The Cowboys definitely need a second tight dnd behind Blake Jarwin. Blake Bell is a free agent after this year, and I believe Dallas will try to bring in someone like him again. Dalton Schultz is signed through 2021 and is a fine third tight end. Other names to look at like Bell would be Trey Burton, Jared Cook, Tyler Eifert, Mercedes Lewis, or Adam Shaheen. Whether the Cowboys land a capable second tight end in free agency or not, I do believe they will attack this need in the draft as well. With two fourth-round picks, that feels like the correct cost. You don’t need a top-100 player - you simply need a player that can have an occassional impact. Ideally this young draft pick would sit for a year, then in 2022 would become Jarwin’s main back up as the team moves on from Schultz and whatever veteran was here on a one-year deal.
The Cowboys offensive line group is still pretty stacked. Tyron Smith, Connor Williams, Tyler Biadasz, Zack Martin, La’el Collins, Connor McGovern, Mitch Hyatt and Brandon Knight are all under contract through 2021, while Adam Redmond is a 2021 restricted free agent. That honestly could be the group the Cowboys move forward with. If a good value happens to pop up in an upcoming draft they could definitely try to capitalize on that - especially if it’s a future replacement for Tyron - but for now I see no need to fix what isn’t broken. Think of it like this: would Dallas not pursue a Jamal Adams trade in the hopes that one of the draft picks they save lands them a possible Tyron Smith replacement? I don’t see that as being a smart evaluation when comparing it to missing out on Adams.
Looking over the offense I see no reason not to make this move. But what about the weaker unit of the team: the defense? Would the Jamal Adams trade help them more than a first- and third-round pick going forward?
Starting with the defensive line, a first-round pick certainly could be used here if available. Demarcus Lawerence, a.k.a. Tank, is what Cowboys owner Jerry Jones likes to call a “War Daddy.” He is a stud all-around defensive end that anchors the front seven of a defense. Behind him, however, the edge position is very questionable past 2020. Tyrone Crawford becomes a free agent then. Aldon Smith does, too. Crawford isn’t a quality edge rusher, and if Aldon makes a resurgence and is great in 2020, then he’s going to get paid and be out of the Cowboys price range. We don’t know enough yet about the kids on their rookie deals - Joe Jackson, Dorance Armstrong, Jalen Jelks, Ron’Dell Carter, or Bradlee Anae - which means that we can't count on them as starters opposite Tank at this point. This leaves Randy Gregory. It’s fair to assume that after Aldon Smith got reinstated, we might expect the same treatment for Gregory. Last we saw him he was a starter at defensive end who has the size and ability to shift to a standing 3-4 outside linebacker, giving him the versatility that Nolan craves. And the good news is that he isn't a restricted free agent until 2021. But, even if he comes back and is great I just don’t see it as a smart move for Dallas to count on Gregory. In a perfect world Gregory would be a solid contributor and Anae would be an up-and-coming starter. But if I’m in Dallas' front office I have to assume that I will need to use draft capital on an edge rusher sometime soon.
With Adams taking the first-round option away, the Cowboys might look to go edge in the second round. Is there any value there? Well, in the 2019 draft, Chase Winovich was a third-round pick that racked up over five sacks as a rookie. Maxx Crosby went in the fourth and had ten sacks. In 2020, names like Yetur Gross-Matos, Marlon Davidson, Darrell Taylor, A.J. Epenesa and Josh Uche all went in the second round. Add in a good prospect to Gregory and Anae across from Tank, and with the other young guns they hope to develop, the edge position is solid at the worst heading into 2021.
Defensive tackle has finally been revamped thanks to the emphasis Nolan places on the position. Starters Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe are signed through 2021. Rookie Neville Gallimore is a possible stud rotational pass rusher with two years to build into being a starter. Antwaun Woods is a restricted free agent in 2021, and young Trysten Hill is 22 years-old and still has some good traits that perhaps new defensive line coach, Jim Tomsula, can groom into a better prospect. With the whole gang available this position group may only need a piece or two for the future. Maybe a big nose tackle becomes available with the Cowboys' other sixth-round pick and they bring him in to hopefully replace Woods and Poe after 2021.
Linebacker will be a sneaky need going into 2021. Yes, they have two young and possibly great starters in Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith, but both come with injury concerns, and the cupboard is bare behind them. Sean Lee, Joe Thomas and Justin March are all free agents. And while I believe they will try to bring March back, if that falls through they'll be relying heavily on 2019 camp darling, Luke Gifford, or newly-signed unrestricted free agent, Francis Bernard. I definitely don’t like that and I'm sure the Cowboys' brass doesn't either, so it's safe to assume that they'll bring in a veteran and also draft a LB. The Cowboys have done well with fourth-round linebackers like Anthony Hitchens and Damien Wilson as the team's third linebacker in their 4-3 sets. I’d try to replicate that here, but I don’t love the available veterans. I could see taking a flier on a Hassan Reddick, who has played out of position since being drafted by the Arizona Cardinals. But I truly believe that Justin March will be the play here in free agency and then they will use the third-round pick on a future starting linebacker.
Cornerback is interesting because I see it being an absolute overhaul. The only non-rookie cornerbacks under contract beyond 2020 are Anthony Brown and Saivion Smith. I don’t see Chido or Lewis, the presumptive starters in 2020, returning, and here’s my thought process behind that. If they are just okay in the new system next year, why pay them? You have cheap labor available in rookies Trevon Diggs and Reggie Robinson. Anthony Brown can be your starting slot and Saivion Smith is there as well. That group can be okay now and build into a unit together. If Chido and/or Lewis breakout, then other teams will want to pay them and you will have to pay for a player off of one good year. We have all seen that movie before: a player in a contract year balls-out, except that after he gets his new deal he never lives up to that massive payday. You can count me out on that.
I’d like to get a veteran with some experience in the fold. Re-signing Daryl Worley is possible, while other outside names like Ronald Darby (who certainly knows the division), Artie Burns, Mackensie Alexander, Pierre Desir, Kevin Johnson, Desmond King, or William Jackson all make sense. I’m also gonna add a day-three pick to the mix as well.
While we now have a stud back at the safety position in Adams, the team will need a starting safety to play next to him in 2021. Clinton-Dix and Woods are on one-year deals, leaving us with Darian Thompson, Deante Burton, and Donovan Wilson. In my dream scenario, Adams pairs with Wilson, a sixth-round superstar who would get his chance to break out under Nolan. But I just can’t rely on that fantasy becoming a reality. In typical Cowboys fashion they will attempt to bring in a safety before the draft so as not to have a glaring need. I’ll throw one name out on a wish list: Malik Hooker. If his injury-filled past brings down his value, maybe we get him on a prove-it deal. The more likely options include bringing back either Clinton-Dix or Xavier Woods, or an outside free agent like Karl Joseph, or Jayron Kearse. The Cowboys don’t use much draft capital on the position, and giving up all they would in the Jamal Adams trade tells me a top-100 pick is unlikely. They have five day-three picks, so that is where they would look to add another young safety.
Special teams wasn’t so special in 2019, but the choice of coach and the fact that the team allowed kicker Brett Maher to continue to lose games for them by missing kicks from 40-49 yards tells me they didn’t prioritize that unit like the new coaching staff does. Jim Fassel is a different animal and won't allow a bottom-three unit on his watch. Punter Chris Jones and newly signed kicker, Greg Zuerlein, are both signed through 2021 and likely just stay. L.P. Ladouceur will likely be the long snapper until long after my death, but if he does retire, the Cowboys won’t be using any draft picks to replace him.
So, here it is. Let's trust that VP of Player Personnel, Will McClay, will complete a draft to help fill holes like this while also making key “Cowboys-style” value veteran signings, and the Dallas Cowboys' roster might just be set for 2021 and beyond:
1st - Traded for Jamal Adams
2nd - Edge rusher
3rd - Linebacker
3rd - Traded for Jamal Adams
4th - Safety
4th - Tight end
5th - Traded in the move up to get Tyler Biadasz
5th - Cornerback
6th - Wide receiver
6th - Nose tackle
7th - Traded for Michael Bennett
I won’t make the case that two top-100 picks wouldn’t help this team's defense at a cheaper cap hit, but if I’m in Dallas' front office I’m making this move. Adams upgrades an average secondary, he makes the other DBs better, he allows for more blitzing in the front seven and elevates the coverage on the back end. Last season, the Kansas City Chiefs had a great offense & they brought in the “Honey Badger,” Tyrann Mathieu, to help improve the defense to a level high enough to contend. I believe this Jamal Adams trade would make the Cowboys defense easily good enough to be Super Bowl contenders, especially when paired with their high-powered offense.
What do you think? Would you trade for Adams? Or would you keep the first- and third-round picks hoping to land good players at a cheaper rate?
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