The Dallas Cowboys had the 26th-ranked pass defense and were one of only six teams without double-digit interceptions a season ago.
They also saw four significant secondary contributors depart in free agency.
That unit was getting overhauled and the Cowboys completed it by drafting four defensive backs over the weekend. Time will tell whether they truly improved the back end, but the Cowboys are optimistic.
They got younger and more physical players who fit what defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli wants to do. As owner Jerry Jones put it, “The bullets fit the pistol.”
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“We all agreed when the bell rung to end the draft in there that we are better and we’ve got a chance to really improve our secondary from where we’ve been,” Jones said. “Everybody is in agreement in the room right there on that case. Now these guys have got to come in here and play.
“But we’ve got a younger, healthier, young legs out here in that secondary. I think this is going to be positive.”
Three of the secondary pieces the Cowboys selected were among their top-70 prospects going into the draft. They got Colorado cornerback Chidobe Awuzie in the second round, Michigan cornerback Jourdan Lewis in the third round and traded up in the sixth round to get safety Xavier Woods — a player they considered drafting in the fourth round.
The Cowboys also used a sixth-round pick on Florida State cornerback Marquez White.
Awuzie, Lewis and Woods all have flexibility and are expected to compete for starting jobs in training camp. The only surefire starter seems to be free safety Byron Jones, a 2015 first-round pick.
They have a really good feel for playing; very good football intelligence, instinctive, and really just smart guys with the skill set athletically to play a couple spots.
Cowboys coach Jason Garrett, on the new players added to the overhauled secondary
The Cowboys put cornerback Orlando Scandrick on the trading block during the draft, and second-year corner Anthony Brown flashed promise as a rookie but won’t be handed a job. The Cowboys brought in veteran depth via free agency, too, signing corner Nolan Carroll and safety Robert Blanton.
“It is a really good thing for our team,” coach Jason Garrett said of the competition. “We talked about bringing guys in who are the right kind of guys who play the way we want to play who are at specific positions we want them to play. Again, the flexibility and the versatility is something that can really benefit us.
“If you look at all those guys, you see them playing inside, you see them playing outside, you see them playing back. All those guys, they have a really good feel for playing; very good football intelligence, instinctive, and really just smart guys with the skill set athletically to play a couple spots.
“You create competition by bringing them in, but you also create competition because of the flexibility they have to play a few different areas.”
All of the rookies have plenty of experience.
These guys are alphas. It’s easy to picture these guys playing in the league.
Cowboys secondary coach Joe Baker
Awuzie averaged 750 plays in each of his four seasons at Colorado; Lewis started 30 games in four years at Michigan; and Woods started all four years at Louisiana Tech.
More important, they make plays. Awuzie broke up 13 passes and had 19 third-down stops in leading a Colorado secondary that ranked No. 3 in the country in pass efficiency defense.
Lewis had two interceptions and 13 pass breakups as a senior, and Woods led Conference USA with five interceptions. Woods finished his career at Louisiana Tech with 14 interceptions and six forced fumbles.
“These guys are alphas,” secondary coach Joe Baker said. “They’re going to come in and do what they do. They’ll find a way to contribute.
“A lot of these guys are big school guys who have played big-time competition, so that makes your evaluations real easy. It’s easy to picture these guys playing in the league.”
Garrett and the Cowboys brass had nothing but good things to say about the players who bolted in free agency. They would’ve been interested in bringing back safeties Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox, as well as cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne, for the right price.
But the market dictated a much higher price and the Cowboys knew this year’s draft had secondary depth. So they’re excited about the youth and potential of what they’ll take to camp.
“I feel like we’re different,” Baker said. “I mean, we lost a lot of experience, so only time will tell if we’re better. But I’m excited about the group that’s coming in.”