Grading The 2016 Dallas Cowboys: Secondary

Evaluating the 2016 Cowboys Cornerback and Safety play.

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Defense
Washington Redskins wide receiver Pierre Garcon (88) leaps to catch the ball as Dallas Cowboys free safety Byron Jones (31) defends in the second quarter at FedEx Field. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

As we continue to grade the Dallas Cowboys 2016 season position by position, this week we flip to the other side of the ball in order to take a look at the secondary. Both the cornerback and safety groups graded out better than many fans may have anticipated, according to Pro Football Focus, even ranking the secondary as a whole the best in the NFL at different times throughout the season. However, similar to the wide receiver position we discussed last week, the Dallas front office will have several free agent decisions to make. Barry Church, J.J. Wilcox, Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne are all set to be come free agents March 9th.

Safeties

Barry Church

PFF Rank: 11th out of 89 qualifying players (85.3)

85 Combined Tackles

4 Passes Defensed

2 Interceptions

1 Forced Fumble

Church is coming off one of his best seasons as a pro, despite missing four games with a broken arm. He is a team captain and not only the leader of the secondary but also one of the leaders on the team in general. The 8th year man out of Toledo is set to become a free agent and is believed by many to be a top priority for the club to resign. But Church did just turn 29 so there is always a question as to how much is left in the tank post 30.

Final Grade: B+

Byron Jones

PFF Rank: 17th out of 89 qualifying players (83.4)

88 Combined Tackles

10 Passes Defensed

1 Interception

1 Forced Fumble

Byron Jones improved in every major statistical category during his sophomore campaign. Settling in at safety after bouncing around a bit as a rookie seemed to allow him to improve from game to game. If Jones can continue to improve and place himself among the elite deep defenders in the game, it would dramatically improve the Cowboys chances of assembling a championship caliber defense in 2017.

Final Grade: B

J.J. Wilcox

Cowboys
Sep 25, 2016; Arlington, TX, USA; Chicago Bears wide receiver Cameron Meredith (81) fumbles the ball after being hit by Dallas Cowboys free safety J.J. Wilcox (27) in the third quarter at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

PFF Rank: 27th out of 89 qualifying players (81.5)

49 Combined Tackles

6 Passes Defensed

1 Interception

1 Forced Fumble

After starting 29 games during the previous two season, Wilcox was reduced to starting just 4 games in 2016. However, he did manage to see game action in every game he was available for and actually showed marked improvement. Once solely known as a big hitter, J.J. developed a more well rounded game as he continued to learn the position. Wilcox is also set to become a free agent in March and with so many other checks to write in the secondary, the front office may be forced to allow him to walk.

Final Grade: B-


AROUND COVER32

Combine: Three players not invited to the NFL Combine

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Jeff Heath

PFF Rank: Did not qualify but would have ranked 54th (76.4)

23 Combined Tackles

2 Passes Defensed

1 Interception

0 Forced Fumbles

Heath played in all 16 games during the 2016 season and while he never started a game, he definitely made the most of his opportunities. The most notable coming in the Green Bay playoff game where he notched and interception and could have had a second if not for a penalty. Heath is a nice insurance policy to have and a valuable asset on special teams. He could see his role expand in 2017 depending on how the team addresses free agency.

Final Grade: B-

Kavon Frazier

PFF Rank: Did not qualify (58.1)

6 Combined Tackles

0 Passes Defensed

0 Interceptions

0 Forced Fumbles

Frazier should consider his rookie outing a success in my opinion. Making the squad as a late round draft pick is never easy, and sticking around all year is even harder. Kavon was able to see the field in 9 games this year and showed a fierce aggressive nature both from the safety position and on special teams. He is another candidate for an increased role in 2017, again based on the Cowboys activity during free agency/draft.

Final Grade: C

Cornerbacks

Morris Claiborne

Cowboys
Oct 2, 2016; Santa Clara, CA, USA; Dallas Cowboys cornerback Morris Claiborne (24) intercepts the ball during the fourth quarter against the San Francisco 49ers at Levi’s Stadium. The Dallas Cowboys won 24-17. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

PFF Rank: 12th out of 112 qualifying players (84.7)

26 Combined Tackles

5 Passes Defensed

1 Interception

0 Forced Fumbles

Mo was having his best season as pro before, stop me if you’ve heard this story, he got hurt. Claiborne played in just 7 games, and even though he returned for the playoff game against Green Bay, he was not the same. As the famous saying goes, sometimes the best ability is availability and Claiborne has never completed a full season. His career high of 15 games played came in his rookie season and he hasn’t sniffed that number since. He is set to become a free agent and perhaps the Cowboys are best served moving on from the gamble that never panned out the way we all had envisioned.

Final Grade: B

Orlando Scandrick

Dec 18, 2016; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys cornerback Orlando Scandrick (32) celebrates making an interception in the fourth quarter against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at AT&T Stadium. Dallas Cowboys won 26-20. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

PFF Rank: 28 out of 112 qualifying players (80.1)

46 Combined Tackles

8 Passes Defensed

1 Interception

3 Forced Fumbles

Scandrick struggled a bit early as he made his way back from ACL surgery that cost him the entire 2015 season. As if rebounding from a torn ACL isn’t daunting enough, Orlando also dealt with a nagging hamstring injury that caused him to miss multiple games and of course didn’t aid in re-acclimatizing himself to NFL speed. However, Scandrick did seem to regain that 2014 swagger toward the end of this season. With Church, Carr and Claiborne all possibly hitting free agency, Orlando could become the veteran leader of the secondary in 2017.

Final Grade: B-

Anthony Brown

PFF Rank: 48 out of 112 qualifying players (75.7)

55 Combined Tackles

8 Passes Defensed

1 Interception

1 Forced Fumble

The rookie preformed admirably well when pressed into a larger role after injuries to Morris Claiborne and Orlando Scandrick. Brown played in all 16 games and found himself starting 9 of those contests. From 6th round pick to starting corner for the Dallas Cowboys, Brown should be proud of the season he had. Again, depending on how free agency shakes out, there is a very real chance Anthony will be one of the Cowboy’s starters at cornerback yet again in 2017.

Final Grade: B

Brandon Carr

Lions
Jan 4, 2015; Arlington, TX, USA; Detroit Lions running back Theo Riddick (25) runs the ball against Dallas Cowboys cornerback Brandon Carr (39) in the NFC Wild Card Playoff Game at AT&T Stadium. Dallas beat Detroit 24-20. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

PFF Rank: 51 our of 112 qualifying players (75.3)

61 Combined Tackles

9 Passes Defensed

1 Interception

0 Forced Fumbles

Brandon Carr continued his steak of never missing a game, as he played in all 16 contests in 2016. That’s right, Carr has played in ever single game during his 9 year NFL career. While he has been solid but not spectacular since his arrival in Dallas, Brandon was always dependable to be ready on game day. He will be entering free agency for the second time, and Dallas might be best served to resign him to a short term deal while addressing the position in the draft as well. Carr also has not ruled out retirement which would obviously eliminate any chance for a second go around in big D.

Final Grade: B-

Overall, the secondary performed above average in 2016. With no semblance of a pass rush for a majority of the season, many times these deep defenders were left on an island as opposing quarterbacks had all day to throw. Despite this disadvantage, many members of the Cowboy secondary graded out near the top tier of their respective positions. While Dallas would like to keep the band together this off season so to speak, there may not be enough money to keep everyone. This could result in a very different looking back half for the Cowboy defense in 2017.

Final Position Grade: B

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