Dallas Cowboys: 5 Questions for secondary pre-training camp

There have been many changes in the Dallas Cowboys defensive backfield, but questions are on the table before the start of 2017 training camp.

Much can be said about the newly minted secondary of the Dallas Cowboys before the start of the 2017 training camp in Oxnard, CA. The Cowboys have a very good all-around football team and are back in the national spotlight following their 13 wins last season.

The problem is, that was last season. And with this new year, if we want to look back on the good of that 13-win campaign, we must also look at the bad. Part of the bad consisted of a defensive backfield that didn’t show up at times, including in the final minutes of the Divisional Playoffs.

Many veterans and leaders left via free agency, or the Cowboys had no more interest in others and they decided to part with them. Even with a new vision for the Cowboys in letting go of their past, the Cowboys still haven’t completely sold the fan base on what is to come this upcoming season with the secondary.

There will be a lot of youth, which means new faces and excitement. Plus, there will be players continuing to progress their game, like Byron Jones as he might just be the new leader of not just the defensive backfield, but possibly sharing the responsibilities with veteran Sean Lee as being in charge of the defense on the field.

A lot can and will happen over the next couple months as we wait for the start of training camp and the regular season. However, these five questions for the Cowboys defensive backfield remain heading into training camp.

Oct 30, 2016; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys receiver Terrance Williams (83) makes a catch against Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Nolan Carroll (22) at AT&T Stadium. The Cowboys beat the Eagles 29-23 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

5. Who will be the leader of the defensive backfield?

No longer will the Cowboys have veterans such as Morris Claiborne (New York Jets), Barry Church (Jacksonville Jaguars), Brandon Carr (Baltimore Ravens) or even J.J. Wilcox (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) in the secondary to be looked upon in tough situations. Depending on the way some look at it, that could be a positive or a negative. But in reality, Dallas must hope a player or two in the defensive backfield steps up and takes over as the bonafide leader of the unit.

That player will most likely be third-year safety Byron Jones, as he’s developing into more than just an average defensive player, one has put himself on everyone’s radar by now — or will by the end of 2017.

Jones has improved each season while in the NFL Now with the former first-round selection basically being handed the keys to the secondary, he along with Orlando Scandrick, Jeff Heath and Nolan Carroll will most likely be the top veterans of this rebuilding unit.

According to what Jones has been quoted as saying this offseason, the leadership role is something he’ll take seriously. Jonathan Auping of DallasCowboys.com quoted Jones this offseason on being a leader in 2017:

“You’ve got older guys that are gone. What am I going to do to respond? For me, it’s stepping up and leading the young guys and steering them in the right direction so we can win some games.”

What this team does have going for them is a youth movement that could really pay dividends for the Cowboys defense once they are all developed. However, watch for Jones to be the leader of the Cowboys’ defensive backfield, because they’ll only go as far as he can lead them.

Dallas Cowboys

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4. Which rookies will impress the most?

If looking for rookies who could impress this season, look no further than Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis. Of all the defensive back draft choices, the pair of cornerbacks could be game-ready the fastest for the franchise.

Awuzie could be in direct competition with Nolan Carroll. Even though Carroll will be a veteran on the Cowboys depth chart, he’s had some off-the-field issues since signing with the Cowboys that might hamper things. Also, the Cowboys drafted Awuzie with their second-round pick, so sometime this season, Dallas will want to see a return on that investment in some capacity.

If Awuzie and Lewis can play up to their potential and athletic abilities, the Cowboys could have a surprisingly deep defensive backfield. Mike Mayock of NFL.com noted Awuzie’s abilities to be a nickel blitzer and a possible safety too, and Lewis has been compared to Adam “Pacman” Jones for his on-field abilities by Lance Zierlein of NFL.com.

Back to the original question of which rookies can impress the most in the defensive backfield in 2017, Awuzie and Lewis have the best chance of doing so. They could eventually overtake the two veterans who currently have the No. 1 roster spots ahead of them.

Nov 24, 2016; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys cornerback Anthony Brown (30) tackles Washington Redskins tight end Jordan Reed (86) during the game at AT&T Stadium. The Cowboys defeat the Redskins 31-26. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

3. Can Anthony Brown continue to make a name for himself?

One of the more overlooked players of the 2016 NFL Draft was cornerback Anthony Brown of Purdue. Now the Cowboys will look for him to add to his 55-tackle season, the same rookie year in which he had one interception. Looking at Brown’s numbers from 2016, he not only had the lone interception, but he also defensed eight passes and made 11 tackles in one game (vs. Green Bay in the regular season).

Though he made four tackles combined in the final four games (including playoffs), the overall season of the sixth-round pick really stood out. Brown has a good chance of being a starter this season, and with his spot on the roster likely safe, it will be nice to see how he adds to his overall game in Year 2.

What is great about Brown is the fact he knows he has worked his way from the bottom on the depth chart, especially since he has a “chip on his shoulder” tattoo to serve as a reminder. Jon Machota of SportsDay Dallas News quoted Brown on the tattoo this past May:

“Just something I came up with in my head,” Brown said last week. “I’m going to always feel like that.”

Tattoo or not, the Cowboys have the real-deal in Brown as he can help this defense take a positive step forward in 2017. Brown will be very interesting to watch to see just how much he adds to his game in his second season.


2. Will Jeff Heath produce as a full-time starter?

Cowboys strong safety Jeff Heath has an important role to fill in replacing Barry Church in a full-time role at the position. This is Heath’s time to shine, and the Cowboys seem confident in his abilities to take over in a more active role in 2017. Heath has improved on his game and standing with the Cowboys in each of his first four seasons, and this upcoming season could be his best yet with an increased role.

The past two seasons for Heath have seen him combine for 48 total tackles and three interceptions, including 23 tackles and one interception in 2016. Heath will be needed greatly to help provide the Cowboys with more intensity and give the new defensive backfield an edge with the energy he brings to the team.

Heath has his backers as well, including teammate Byron Jones. Jon Machota of SportsDay Dallas News quoted Jones about Heath:

“All of this stuff we saw last year. He wasn’t getting a lot of playing time earlier in the season but he was coming in at critical situations and making good plays. That’s what Jeff Heath’s main thing is.”

The Cowboys and their fans should feel good about having Heath in the lineup at safety. He might not be the best safety in the league, or even on the team, but Heath gives max effort, plays hard and will make plays for the Cowboys.

Jan 15, 2017; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys cornerback Orlando Scandrick (32) reacts after a play during the second quarter against the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Divisional playoff game at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

1. Can Orlando Scandrick return to form?

After completing a season following his ACL and MCL injury in 2015 when he missed the entire season, cornerback Orlando Scandrick battled issues last season as well. All in all, though,before being hit with the injury issues, he was one of the better defensive players on the roster.

Scandrick played in 12 games last season. The last time Scandrick played in all 16 regular-season games came back in 2013, a season where he had a career-high in tackles (64), one sack, two forced fumbles and two interceptions.

In 2016, following the ACL/MCL surgery, Scandrick totaled 46 tackles with two sacks, three forced fumbles and one interception in 12 games. If not for missing four games, Scandrick was getting back on the correct path to being the player he once was.

Remember the rumors during the NFL Draft this past April where the Cowboys were trying to trade him? Maybe something like that will motivate a player like Scandrick. This might be Scandrick’s make-or-break season with the Cowboys drafting youth at cornerback in Lewis, a player Dallas seem to have high hopes for as they used a third-round pick on him.

If Scandrick stays on the field, he has a good chance to be the player he once was and will provide for a secondary that will need him to succeed. If he’s unable to stay on the field, his time with the Cowboys could come to an end.

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