FRISCO, Texas—Trevon Diggs took issue with the question.
“What possibilities?” the Cowboys All-Pro cornerback said Tuesday night. “I don’t know what ‘risking’ means. I play football.”
Coach Mike McCarthy wanted to clarify the doubt.
“Chances or play aggressive?” he said when asked Thursday after the team’s final OTA practice. “I think there’s a fine line of play between that.”
The Cowboys’ defense improved dramatically last season fueled in large part by second-year cornerback Trevon Diggs’ 11 interceptions. But as the offseason wears on, and NFL fans consider what to do with their time off, some wonder: Was Diggs’ production more like the skill set of a player with poor ball skills, or the inclinations of a defender willing to compromise? Make big plays to make even bigger ones?
The tenuous balance is one that Diggs hopes to achieve even more precisely as he enters his third pro season and sixth season at cornerback, something Diggs acknowledges by saying, “I’m still new to playing corner, so there’s a lot of things to do.” I have to work.”
McCarthy understands the philosophical dilemma, while also encouraging Diggs to channel the instincts that fueled his success in 2021.
“You don’t get to be that way by playing it safe,” McCarthy said. “It’s a balance. He is young. Big play production, you have to have it to score points and stop points in this league.”
‘Meat left on the bone’
Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn praised Diggs’ ability to track the ball and Diggs’ education as a receiver that fueled Dallas with a league-high 34 take-offs. And yet, Pro Football Reference’s advanced stats credit him with missing 16.1% of his tackle attempts and allowing 411 receiving yards (25.68 per game) on top of 496 through the air. First-team All Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey, by comparison, missed just 6.1% of tackles and allowed 303 yards after receiving. (Second-team All-Pro cornerbacks Jackson and AJ Terrell allowed 253 and 199 yards after receiving, respectively. Jackson swung into Diggs’ big-play territory and missed 15.9% of tackles, while Terrell limited his shots to just 6.9%).
Diggs wasn’t alone among the Dallas defenders who allowed big plays.
The Cowboys ranked seventh in points allowed, 11th in running defense and 20th against the pass. But only two teams were burned for more 40-yarder pass plays than the Cowboys with 14. Only three teams produced more 20-yarder receptions than the Cowboys’ 62. career: Only the Steelers and Jets gave up more rushing plays over 20 yards than the Cowboys’ 14.
Safety Jayron Kearse, who had a team-high 101 tackles last season, emphasized the importance of discipline in reversing the trend. Kearse missed just 3.8% of tackles, according to Pro Football Reference.
“A lot of the things that happened were guys being too greedy,” Kearse, who led the Cowboys with 101 tackles in 2021, said Thursday from his locker after practice. “You see something and you want to jump over it to go make a play but it’s not that. Or maybe you caved in too soon and should have continued closing the ground before you caved in and tackled.
“There was a lot of meat left on that bone.”
As with a series of skipped and intercepted routes last season, Diggs focuses on looking forward. He will develop the skill sets and understanding of the defensive system that he gained last year. But he knows that the slate has been wiped clean of his, his past performance does not necessarily predict future productivity.
“I want to try to stack my success,” Diggs said. “Keep grinding. Work on the little things and focus on the next season.”
He’s job hunting as much as possible, even resorting to verbally goading Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott to work his way into practice more in what All-Pro defenseman Micah Parsons described as “taking the dog out a shortly before.” Diggs said that he intercepted Prescott twice during the first two weeks of OTA.
McCarthy said Thursday that the Cowboys’ defense has worked at OTA to improve their disguises in hopes of gaining both a physical and mental advantage in playing time rather than settling for a “bend, don’t break” philosophy.
Diggs hopes opposing quarterbacks will continue to throw in his direction in 2022, embracing any test and game-changing play opportunity. McCarthy, by contrast, said evasion would indicate respect.
“I’m clearly on board with some of the plays that were made against him,” McCarthy said. “But hey: the guy gets his hands on the ball and it’s a dangerous weapon.
“The ultimate compliment is when they stop shooting around. That will be the goal.”