In fairness, Jerry Jones began by expressing sympathy for Trevon Diggs’ season-ending ACL tear. The Cowboys team owner lauded his Pro Bowl cornerback’s “outstanding” ability to create turnovers, noting such a unique player is irreplaceable.
“You can’t do that. That’s just not real,” Jones said Friday morning on Dallas radio station 105.3 The Fan. “That’s like saying I want to be Tom Cruise. The point is you don’t replace these irreplaceable players.”
But before Jones' interview wrapped, he said the quiet part out loud: that while Diggs tearing his ACL during a one-on-one drill in Thursday's practice is a "setback for everyone," there's a case for this elite defensive group seeing improvement without Diggs. No, they can't replicate his rare athleticism and ball-tracking skills. So what can they do?
“The people we have replacing him will have probably less risk,” Jones said. “Again, that was his challenge and boy has he gained on it tremendously. That’s what makes him such a great player.
“But (DaRon) Bland and people we have come in here may not have as much of a concern about the bad play. So we could have a plus here. Not a real plus, but we could mitigate how bad this loss is.”
Cowboys’ defensive depth a strength
Diggs’ 11 interceptions in 2021 were the most the league had seen in 40 years. The 2020 second-round pick also took some risks while pursuing them and missed plays as a result. Let’s compare Diggs’ last year to that of 2022 fifth-round selection DaRon Bland, who will now move from nickel to outside corner to replace Diggs.
Statistics lack situational context and the targets that Diggs’ man or area of the field received last year changed after he’d displayed his threat. But they suggest Bland is stronger in some areas than Diggs.
With five interceptions in his rookie year, Bland held opposing quarterbacks to an 82.2 passer rating compared to Diggs’ 86.1, per Pro Football Reference. Pro Football Focus similarly graded Bland as a better overall corner — 71.9 to 66.9 — specifically because of his pass coverage, which graded at 74.9 to Diggs’ 66.1 (Diggs was 6.1 points better against the run).
So as the Cowboys move Bland from nickel — where they believe he’s most natural and ready — to outside corner opposite five-time Pro Bowler Stephon Gilmore, they understand what could keep them from experiencing a significant falloff. Cowboys veteran Jourdan Lewis, who returned to action last week after a foot injury, will replace Bland in the slot.
To Diggs' credit, he played his first two games this season with more physicality and less play-chasing than the reputation he'd developed. Diggs hit New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley sufficiently hard to jar loose a ball, which Bland then caught and returned for a touchdown. Diggs forced a fumble in the 40-0 road win, too. He nabbed an interception of Zach Wilson the following game in a 30-10 win over the New York Jets. With a five-year, $97 million contract in hand, Diggs was playing the best football of his pro career.
He contributed to a nasty rush-and-cover combination.
And yet the difference between losing Diggs now and losing him two years ago when he wowed the league with his receiver-background ball skills is how many other playmakers the Cowboys now have. Trading for Gilmore this season was a drastic upgrade. Edge rusher Micah Parsons is so dominant that he's not only the frontrunner in the Defensive Player of the Year, he's even getting attention for the rare MVP bid on the defensive side of the ball.
Diggs had two takeaways in two games and a third de facto assist. But Gilmore, Bland, and safeties Jayron Kearse and Malik Hooker have also each tallied an interception. Parsons, safety Markquese Bell and defensive end Chauncey Golston had joined Parsons in forcing fumbles. Parsons and safety Israel Mukuamu have recovered fumbles. Diggs’ loss jeopardizes the Cowboys’ defense of the takeaway crown — their 2021-22 repeat was the NFL’s first since the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1974 — but may not need to crush their Super Bowl hopes. The Cowboys’ hope stems from more than just their personnel.
Mastermind Dan Quinn will help Cowboys respond
There’s a reason Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn has received head-coaching interest each of the last two years. The former Atlanta Falcons head coach transformed the Cowboys from the 28th-best scoring defense to seventh in one year, and then sustained success with a bump to fifth in 2022.
Quinn’s scheme will help the Cowboys recover from Diggs’ loss.
Because while his rush-and-cover principles may not be groundbreaking, Quinn’s usage of player versatility is progressive. He’s not afraid to scheme his safeties as linebackers and his linebackers as edge rushers. Parsons’ dominance stems in large part from that confidence in versatility. The Cowboys are constantly redefining each player’s role and each position’s role, Quinn is intent on finding his players’ “superpowers” and creating responsibilities that best align with them.
Don’t expect Quinn to ask Bland (who, again, had five interceptions last year) to be Diggs, or to ask any member of the roster to replace the player Jones noted cannot be replaced. As the risk of Diggs’ ball-tracking became apparent, Cowboys players and coaches adjusted to let him play free the same way they adjust to unleash Parsons' rushing.
"Give credit to Dan Quinn, give credit to the secondary, his teammates," Jones said. "They've played to his abilities to make those turnovers and played to what you give up when you try to make some of those, [which is] a big play by the offense."
Now, the Cowboys defense pivots. They have a well-timed visit to the Arizona Cardinals this week to establish their plan before games against the New England Patriots and San Francisco 49ers follow. That plan won’t be to replace Diggs.
“No one has the impact that he has,” Jones said. “The facts are that we do have depth. We don’t have depth with someone [of] his very unique qualities. But we have depth relative to playing the position and good depth.”