Trevon Diggs is an irreplaceable talent. Long, strong and agile, he can thrive in all coverages. This very much includes man-to-man, which the Dallas Cowboys have played on 49 percent of passes — far and away the most in the NFL. (The next highest is the New England Patriots at 40 percent.)
That’s part of the reason why the Cowboys will miss having their star cornerback on the field after Diggs tore his ACL in practice Thursday and is out for the remainder of the season.
Diggs will always be a bit of a boom-or-bust player, but he has matured significantly since a head-spinning 2021 season that saw him intercept 11 passes but give up over 800 yards in single-high coverages (44 percent more than any other corner that year). After becoming steadier, quarterbacks still feared Diggs just as much as before, while Dallas’ coaches presumably feared him much less.
(Not that those coaches didn’t still love Diggs in 2021 — 11 interceptions for 800-plus yards allowed in single-high coverage is a trade-off many defensive coaches would take.)
Fortunately, being an irreplaceable talent does not necessarily make you an irreplaceable player — especially on a Cowboys defense that boasts the game’s best specimen (Micah Parsons) and possibly the deepest, most dynamic front four.
But how will Dallas replace Diggs? In past years, the Cowboys often (though not always) traveled him with opposing No. 1 receivers — including into the slot in man coverage or disguised Cover 2. But this season, with another top-10 corner in Dallas in Stephon Gilmore, Diggs was playing exclusively on the right side (and Gilmore on the left).
The knee-jerk reaction to Diggs’ injury might now be to use Gilmore as the No. 1 corner and travel him with the opposing No. 1 receiver. The star journeyman, with his rich history in a variety of man and zone-based schemes, is equipped for that. You could travel Gilmore anywhere outside (and maybe even inside) and feel comfortable calling every coverage.
But if Gilmore travels, so does someone else. And that’s where things might get complicated.
In recent years, Bland (73 percent) and Lewis (77 percent) have both played the majority of their snaps in the slot. Lewis played right corner as a rookie in 2017, but moving him there now could mean abandoning the ostensible plan of bringing him along slowly following October’s knee injury.
There’s an inherent unknown with Scott, a sixth-round rookie. And what is known about 2020 first-round pick Igbinoghene is unappealing, which is why he’s now in Dallas instead of with the Miami Dolphins.
Regardless of whoever lands at the corner spot opposite Gilmore, there will be a certain amount of discomfort and uncertainty for play caller Dan Quinn, at least early on.
Minimizing that discomfort and uncertainty could dictate how the Cowboys deploy Gilmore. In other words, what’s the better way to make the new No. 2 corner comfortable: playing him in the same position every snap (which would leave Gilmore at either left or right corner) or traveling him with the opponent’s second-best outside receiver?
Or on third downs, traveling him with the best receiver and giving the cornerback constant safety help, leaving Gilmore in true 1-on-1 coverage (like he was in certain games with the Indianapolis Colts last season).
These are the questions Dallas’ coaches are currently sorting out.
It wouldn’t be a shock if whatever answer they land on results in an eventual trade for a veteran outside cornerback. But it also wouldn’t be a shock if the Cowboys roll the dice with one of their in-house guys, betting that their borderline unbelievable pass rush can hide any corner’s flaws. They might play a little less man coverage, but there’ll be no major changes.
We’ll find out soon enough.
Andy Benoit worked for Sean McVay and the Los Angeles Rams coaching staff from 2020 through 2022. Before that, he was a football analyst, writer and content producer for Peter King’s MMQB at Sports Illustrated, as well as at CBS Sports and The New York Times. You can follow him on Twitter @Andy_Benoit.