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Cowboys training camp 2021: Malik Hooker has chance to join heated DB battle alongside other new additions

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A few months ago, the Dallas Cowboys were entering another offseason blanketed in questions about their defense — made worse by a performance in 2020 that turned the stomach like sushi bought from the hot dog cart outside. They’ve since fired Mike Nolan as defensive coordinator, replaced him with a more proven and respected name in Dan Quinn, readjusted their priorities regarding the importance of run defense and even suddenly care more about the safety position than they have in the past decade or more. 

That’s led them to work out former first-round pick Malik Hooker not once, but twice, as they try to push camp battles to a fever pitch.

Hooker is expected to meet with the Cowboys a second time on Tuesday or no later than Wednesday, sources confirm to CBS Sports — having to first allow the five-day COVID-19 waiting period to pass, per league protocol. The team isn’t sitting on its hands while it waits for Hooker’s flight to land, however, having now signed former New York Jets defender Kyron Brown to a two-year deal to bolster competition at the cornerback position as well. 

Brown becomes the 90th man on the roster after the Cowboys dismissed Rashard Robinson ahead of camp, and Quinn likes what the former undrafted free agent (2019) might bring to the roster. His presence will now require a corresponding release if the team makes the expected move to sign Hooker this week, but that’s the only impact the former will have on what happens with the latter.

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If Hooker’s medical evaluation goes well (it did not earlier this offseason in an indirect battle with Damontae Kazee), and the financial talks are palatable to the Cowboys front office, Hooker will be in uniform for Dallas in 2021. Initially, the Cowboys were out on Hooker after seeing the progress Kazee had made in his recovery from a season-ending torn Achilles suffered in 2020, Hooker having suffered the same injury but — in the spring — also being far behind Kazee in his recovery from it. 

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Now, nearly five months later, it’s believed Hooker is either ready to go or very near it, and head coach Mike McCarthy wants a loaded deck.

“There’s definitely interest [in Hooker],” said McCarthy on Sunday. “I think he just gives us another excellent football player. He brings competition. He’s coming off a major injury. 

“We just feel he’ll be a really good fit for us.”

It’s a sentiment shared by owner Jerry Jones.

“Excited over Hooker,” the Hall of Famer said of reported interest. “I’m excited over him. That’s pretty impressive. Every time he’s been healthy he starts.”

The Cowboys do still believe in Kazee going forward, though.

“How much was Damontae have an influence on teaching the defense? I think he probably could decipher my language quickly, to share, ‘Hey what he might mean is this,'” Quinn told media last week. “This could look into this. So much, it’s not the exact same system that he was a part of in Atlanta. There’s quite a few things that are different, I’ve definitely been impressed by the way he’s started. 

“He has been a good resource for me behind the scenes. ‘Hey here’s what Q might mean in this.’ It may not be scheme related but in a situation, in a moment, a style of play, an attitude that we want to play with, he can back me in a lot of ways. Scheme being one of them.

“Just a style — an identity of how we want to play that would be another.”

Potentially adding Hooker would go a long way to possibly achieving that goal, and tossing him a Cowboys jersey has nothing to do with any sort of setback with Kazee (there have been none), and everything to do with the newly-installed defensive coordinator valuing positions that have been long overlooked in North Texas, to expected results. So as Brown gets thrown into a cornerback battle with everyone not named Trevon Diggs, Hooker would be pitted against Kazee (this time on the practice field), breakout star Donovan Wilson, Jayron Kearse (signed after working out in the same timespan as Kazee and Hooker this past spring), and others like rookie sixth-round pick Israel Mukuamu — who is being converted to safety as a rookie.

That could bode well for Mukuamu (although he’ll need to acclimate quickly to avoid being viewed as a practice squad development project), given his style of play and physical frame plus attributes, which couldn’t be said last season for Reggie Robinson, who’s now been moved back to his base position as cornerback by Quinn; and he’s already excelling early in camp because of it, creating that much more competition for Brown. And then there’s the other Brown, namely Anthony, who is trying to make a case for himself to remain a longterm option after seeing Jourdan Lewis land a three-year deal in free agency this year.

But wait, there’s more.

Enter rookie second-round pick Kelvin Joseph, who got off to a bad start in OTAs/minicamp before showing up to camp in shape and grabbing the eye of Quinn in a direct competition with rookie third-round pick Nahshon Wright — who hit the ground running in May and hasn’t let go of Quinn’s attention one iota as camp began in Oxnard. Along with the aforementioned Summerslam of defensive back battles, this one is truly a head-to-head to see who’ll likely get the start opposite Diggs in 2021, and Diggs himself is already praising Wright as the first round of padded practices ready to get underway this week.

“He’s looking good,” said Diggs of Wright. “He likes to learn, ask questions and stuff like that. He’s looking good. I like his improvements. 

“I like where he’s going.”

Speaking of Diggs, who had a breakout year as a rookie but doesn’t view it that way at all, the former second-round pick is looking to level up in a major way in Year 2; and he has a specific plan on how to accomplish it, versus simply yelling it into the ether. Diggs dove deeply into his own film this offseason and began charting his faults — keying in largely on interceptions, or rather a number of pass break ups he feels should’ve been a takeaway.

“I got my hands on 14 balls,” said Diggs of his self-analysis. “I ended up with not 14 interceptions. So, that’s the problem. … I dropped a lot. I dropped a lot of them.”

A receiver turned cornerback whose brother — Stefon Diggs — happens to be an elite wideout in the NFL, the CB1 in Dallas attacks the ball the same way a receiver would, and therefore expects it to be a catch every single time as opposed to simply a PBU.

“I I could get my hands on them, I could catch them, I feel like,” he said. “I feel like all of them could have been an interception opportunities. … All of them [stick out to me]. All of them. 

“This year, I’m focused on making all of them opportunities count anytime it’s a ball, it’s an interception. So, coming out here, just practicing it and just keep going.”

This is all precisely what Quinn and McCarthy were hoping for: an increased focus on takeaways, a battle at both cornerback and safety spicy enough to pour over some chicharrones, and the potential for a robust amount of depth at the defensive back position going into the 2021 season. So when McCarthy sees it all unfolding before him, and even more so when Diggs and electric former first-round pick CeeDee Lamb square off in drills, it’s all he can do to keep himself from doing cartwheels in the sand.

“You can’t have enough of it. That is exactly what you want.”


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