Now that the Cowboys 2018 training camp is in full swing, “the Ballers” series is back and better than ever! I love watching and talking about NFL football. If you are reading this, you probably do too. I am not, however, a big draft watcher so, unlike most NFL fans, I am not big on the 365 day/year cycle that has become the NFL. That being said, to kick off the 2018 season, “the Ballers” are back with a look at the top defensive breakout candidates for 2018.

After dominating the league in a truncated 2017 season, David Irving was at the top of most people’s mind thinking about breakout candidates for the Cowboys defense. While his talent is unquestioned, we are seeing again why the team was willing to risk losing him in the offseason with only a second-round qualifying offer.

Likewise, Maliek Collins had a lot of people believing that he would have a rebound to the promise he showed in 2016, albeit for very different reasons. As we sit today, I feel like Irving (personal/dependability) and Collins (injury/lack of opportunity at 3 technique) won’t reach the levels that would have them included here.

Jourdan Lewis is another name that I thought about but his immense talent appears to be valued less under new defensive passing game coordinator Kris Richard. Richard’s preference for bigger players seems to outweigh Lewis’s top-notch coverage potential to the point that Anthony Brown has possibly moved ahead of him on the depth chart. Nothing against Brown. He was a God-send as a rookie in 2016 but his performance as a primary corner left a lot to be desired in 2017. Brown improved with lower usage as the year went along but few team observers would have anticipated that being enough to push him over Lewis coming into 2018. So, until Lewis starts to break out of fourth corner purgatory, he won’t be a legitimate candidate for this group.

With those thoughts coloring the conversation, my picks for defensive breakout ballers are Byron Jones, Leighton Vander Esch, and Xavier Woods.

Byron Jones

Photo Credit: (James D. Smith via AP)

Byron Jones has been a Swiss-army knife for the Dallas Cowboys over his years with the team. He has played on the outside and slot corner, as well as primarily safety duties for the past two seasons. His ability to mirror bigger receiving targets (especially tight ends) has been his most productive skillset in how he has been deployed to this point, but his perceived lack of physicality led the team to reduce his snaps at safety in favor of Kavon Frazier. All of that changed with the hiring of former Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator, Kris Richard. As mentioned above, Richard is a true believer in size in his cornerbacks. Jones’ length and athleticism fit ideally into what Richard wants to see when he looks out on the field at his corners. The Richard hype train is in full effect in the DFW area, and I have to admit, I am drinking small sips of the Kool-Aid. I believe that Richard will unlock the potential that Dallas saw in their former first-round pick and Byron Jones will begin to get some Pro Bowl consideration. If he can mold his physical gifts at the corner under Richard’s tutelage, I’ll gladly sign up to name a flavor after both of them!

Leighton Vander Esch

Leighton Vander Esch has barely seen the field with the first team in his short time with the Cowboys. He is a rookie that only had one year of real dominant production in college. During the 2018 draft, he was many observers’ third or fourth choice for best pick when Dallas was on the clock in the first round. All of this is true and, yet, I believe he is in the perfect position to have an outstanding year in Rod Marinelli’s defense. Vander Esch is a very large human with the size to plug up opposing run games and the athletic ability to be excellent in coverage. There has been a ton of talk about prototypes in reference to new defensive backs coach Kris Richard but Rod Marinelli definitely has a “type” when it comes to his linebackers. He wants guys that can run and hit with the major emphasis on the run. While some observers see the continued recovery of Jaylon Smith as a threat to his opportunities, it is more likely that having the ability to share the load will make LVE more productive not less. Smith himself was a perfect example of this last year as he was far more productive when the team could manage his reps versus when they had to just roll with him full time. LVE will flourish between and with Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith and his natural ability will make him a star wearing the Star.

Xavier Woods

Xavier Woods is a former sixth-round draft pick that is settling in as a starting safety for the Dallas Cowboys. He has been trying on this position since the beginning of OTAs and by all accounts, it looks good on him. Woods earned this shot by thriving when thrown into the fire last season as a slot corner. He replaced the departed Orlando Scandrick due to injury and Anthony Brown due to performance. He showed the ability to stick to quick receivers and body up with bigger ones. More importantly to his progress this year is that he is impressing the coaches with his ability to read and react in single high coverage. Woods has all the tools to be very good for a long time. The biggest impediment to Woods’ emergence is the lingering shadow of All-Pro Seahawks safety, Earl Thomas. Jeff Heath is a coach’s favorite and a likely candidate for defensive captain, so Thomas would not likely move him out of the starting lineup. That leaves Woods with the unenviable task of competing with the ghost of a Texas legend and hoping that personnel decisions totally out of his control don’t take away his opportunity to start. I believe he is up to the task of being one the breakout players on the Dallas defense. Only the specter of a Texas college legends stands in his way.

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