Do the Cowboys Have the Best Cornerback Room in the NFL?

We look at why the Dallas Cowboys' cornerback room has a strong argument for being the best in the NFL entering 2023.

The Dallas Cowboys have put together one of the NFL‘s most dangerous defenses in the last two seasons. With the franchise eyeing a Super Bowl run in 2023, it’s essential the Cowboys’ defense is again an elite unit this year. We’re investigating whether Dallas’ offseason additions have given them the NFL’s best cornerback room.

Do the Cowboys Have the Best Cornerback Room in the NFL?

The Cowboys have accomplished something rare over the last two seasons while under defensive coordinator Dan Quinn — leading the league in defensive takeaways. Turnovers have proven to be one of the most difficult statistics to project because of the fluky and random nature they come by.

Of course, a good scheme that confuses offenses can help encourage turnover opportunities. But fumbles bounce without prejudice, and interceptions can be dropped by defenders who can’t play receiver. Producing a hyperactive defense also brings risk, as defenders often take more aggressive positions in order to chase the ball.

Nevertheless, Quinn has found the right balance with an immensely talented defense. He has two perennial All-Pro candidates to work with, including edge rusher Micah Parsons and cornerback Trevon Diggs.

Diggs contributed 11 interceptions in 2021, earning All-Pro status. Despite posting the most interceptions in one season since 1981, Diggs was maligned for allowing 856 yards on 45 receptions. He adopted a high-risk, high-reward strategy that led to impressive, meaningful turnovers but also big plays as offenses attacked his aggression.

Naturally, Diggs’ interception total came to Earth in 2022. He caught three interceptions and defended 14 passes, still earning a Pro Bowl nod. On the season, Diggs allowed only 713 yards, cutting down his yards per reception allowed by 4.7. Quinn addressed Diggs’ play, noting that his improved discipline beyond just chasing interceptions was a meaningful point of growth for the unit.

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With Diggs establishing himself on one side as a legitimately well-rounded corner who could be a playmaker or a solid coverage threat, Dallas still had issues with their No. 2 outside corner throughout 2022. Quinn hosted an open competition for the job in mid-December after Anthony Brown went down with a torn Achilles injury. Brown, who was allowing only 52.9% of targets to be complete, was a solid starter.

Instead, Quinn had Kelvin Joseph, Nahshon Wright, Mackensie Alexander, Kendall Sheffield, and Trayvon Mullen compete for the job. The latter three failed to make an impact after also flaming out elsewhere, and neither Joseph nor Wright was impressive enough to keep starting.

The slot position was also a disappointment due to a Lisfranc foot injury to Jourdan Lewis. His replacement, DaRon Bland, allowed a whopping 71.4% of targets to be complete for 412 yards and five touchdowns.

In previous seasons, Lewis has been a solid slot presence, ranking second in man coverage success rate in 2021 and allowing 2.5 receptions for 34.8 yards per game in a scheme that doesn’t give his role a ton of support from nearby defenders.

Lewis was a cut candidate this offseason but will at least compete for his role this summer. The Cowboys would surely love to save the $4.7 million of his $5.87 million that would come off their cap sheet if they released Lewis, but they also need a viable replacement. If he’s on the roster this fall, that means Lewis is still capable of contributing at a quality level, and the secondary will be stronger.

Cowboys Trade for Stephon Gilmore

With enough depth to develop behind Diggs and Lewis but no bonafide second starter, the Cowboys wasted little time in adding a star No. 2 corner this offseason, trading a compensatory fifth-round pick to the Indianapolis Colts for Stephon Gilmore.

Turning 33 this fall, Gilmore is coming off a strong season with the Colts. He ranked ninth in Pro Football Focus’ CB grades after allowing three receptions for 33.7 yards per game. He allowed only 56.2% of targets to be completed and still has a playmaker trait.

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In nine of his last 10 seasons, Gilmore has at least two interceptions. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said that Gilmore has “a lot of gas left in his tank,” and it’s hard to disagree. Gilmore still has the physicality and speed that allows him to perform effectively in man coverage, with the ball skills that have helped him dominate in zone alignments. His game has aged well because of his instincts and refined technique.

Gilmore hasn’t functioned as a No. 2 corner throughout his career. His 2020 pairing with J.C. Jackson was the closest thing to that, but Gilmore was used more as a stopper than a playmaker. Now, he’ll be utilized in different ways across from Diggs.

Is Dallas’ Cornerback Room No. 1?

With Diggs, Gilmore, and Lewis, it’s hard to find another CB room that has the playmaking and high level of coverage ability as this unit. The Miami Dolphins jump to mind first after pairing Jalen Ramsey with Xavien Howard, but both players are also vulnerable to being burnt badly in coverage, and slot corner Kader Kohou wasn’t better than Lewis at his peak.

The New York Jets are another viable contender with Sauce Gardner and D.J. Reed. Like Miami, their argument falls short because of their slot corner position, where Michael Carter II was below average.

Cleveland’s trio of Denzel Ward, Greg Newsome II, and Martin Emerson were a sneaky great group last year. Emerson was tied for the 11th-best completion rate of all defenders last year, while Newsome allowed only 406 yards, and Ward gave up 7.7 yards per target. Still, they fall just shy of Dallas in terms of statistics and turnover potential.

That leaves the Philadelphia Eagles as the team with the strongest claim to Dallas’ title of the strongest cornerback room.

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With James Bradberry and Darius Slay back in town and Avonte Maddox expected to be back in the slot after missing eight games last year, the Eagles’ trio is well-rounded and played fantastic football in 2022. Bradberry ranked third in completion rate allowed at 45.3%, while Slay allowed 58.2% with an 83.9 passer rating. Maddox finished at a 64.9% completion rate but only a 77.3 passer rating.

The weakness of the Eagles’ group was the touchdowns allowed. Slay was burned for five touchdowns and produced only three interceptions. While he’s a dangerous threat, Slay’s also slipped in athleticism in recent years, and it’s led to vulnerability in the red zone.

With that in mind, we’re crowning the Cowboys’ CB room as the best unit in the NFL entering 2023. It’ll be fascinating to see how the group evolves and whether they can continue to blend playmaking with effective coverage tactics. If they do, the unit will be as effective as ever.

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