When veteran cornerback Orlando Scandrick went down with a torn ACL and MCL on Aug. 25 there was some understandable fear of the Dallas Cowboys’ pass defense repeating its No. 26-ranked output from 2014. However, with roster cuts looming, it appears the tougher decisions for head coach Jason Garrett and his staff actually won’t be in the secondary after positive reviews during training camp and preseason.
At the very top of the depth chart, the starters figure to be Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne at corner, and J.J. Wilcox and Barry Church at safety. The Dallas Morning-News projects Corey White, 25, a versatile corner who can also play safety, to make the team after his three-year stint with New Orleans Saints. It almost seems like a given that White sticks around given his excellent performance in the Cowboys' final preseason game.
The defensive backs on the bubble include safeties Danny McCray, Jeff Heath, and rookie Tim Scott, along with cornerbacks Rod Sweeting and rookie Joel Ross -- all of whom might have had a stronger chance of making the final 53-man roster if not for the quality depth.
Secondary depth remains important for Dallas, since they are expected to sometimes have six defensive backs on the field at the same time in a dime defensive package. The unit has come a long way since 2014 seventh-round draft picks Ahmad Dixon and Terrance Mitchell failed to pan out. It helps that two young players appear ready to step up in 2015.
Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli may have a gem in first-round pick Byron Jones, an athletic safety who proved during the preseason he’s capable of filling in for Carr or Claiborne. Jones, the only defensive back drafted by Dallas in 2015, was at first considered a project, but his hard work in OTAs, training camp, and the preseason appears to have elevated his status.
When the Cowboys open the season against the New York Giants at AT&T Stadium on Sept. 13, it would not be surprising if Jones plays more than a typical rookie defensive back. He was fourth on the team with 11 tackles, including nine solo, during Dallas’ preseason and he seems to have a firm grasp of Marinelli’s schemes.
Then there's Tyler Patmon. The 24-year-old made the roster in 2014 despite being an undrafted rookie, impressing the coaching staff with his intelligence and grit. Secondary coach Jerome Henderson remains high on Patmon, who is expected to be the nickleback and pick up the slack in Scandrick's absence.
"He’s done a good job for us," Henderson said of Patmon following a preseason game against the San Francisco 49ers. "And, like [Scandrick], has those unique awareness instincts inside – that he feels the game, that he sees the game from a different perspective. Now he’ll get an opportunity to go out and see how he holds up in there."
Playing in 11 games last season and returning one interception for a touchdown, Patmon began training camp with a significant edge over Ross and Sweeting but he said in a recent interview on Dallas’ KESN-FM that he’s more focused on being prepared and improving.
"I would have to say that I'm a student of the game and I go hard all the time," Patmon said. "So, when my talent can't make up for it, I see stuff and I have awareness that can help me out when I'm thrown in a situation I can just be more ready and not rely only on my talent."
Defensive backs have become critical to teams' success in the current pass-heavy NFL. The Cowboys may not be able to afford their secondary to underachieve when they match up against the Giants' Odell Beckham Jr. and Victor Cruz, the Washington Redskins' DeSean Jackson, and the Philadelphia Eagles' Jordan Matthews.
In 2015, the Cowboys will also face the Atlanta Falcons' duo of Julio Jones and Roddy White, along with the strong passing attacks of the Saints, Green Bay Packers, Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots.