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Playoff-chasing Cowboys also eye future with young secondary

(AP Photo/Ron Jenkins, File)

By SCHUYLER DIXON

AP Pro Football Writer

FRISCO, Texas (AP) Jourdan Lewis doesn't recall sitting around at training camp with fellow rookies Chidobe Awuzie and Xavier Woods, plotting their takeover of the secondary for the Dallas Cowboys.

There was this little thing called the depth chart, and they weren't at the top of it.

"We had a lot of guys in front of us at first," said Lewis, a third-round pick out of Michigan. "We were just trying to learn the playbook in training camp and we didn't know that we would have this opportunity coming late in the season."

It's coming because of injuries, attrition and a demotion, leading to the possibility that all three could start Sunday at the New York Giants (2-10) as the Cowboys (6-6) try to keep faint playoff hopes alive.

For Dallas, it could be the best look yet at the future in the secondary after letting four veterans go in free agency and drafting four potential replacements .

Awuzie was the highest draft choice, a second-rounder out of Colorado, so logic had him being the first to get significant playing time before hamstring issues kept him out of six of his first nine games.

Lewis played nearly 90 percent of the snaps in Week 2 at Denver after injuries to Awuzie and free agent pickup Nolan Carroll, who was later released. He's been out there ever since and is tied for the team lead with seven pass breakups.

Woods was the long shot as a sixth-round pick, listed as a safety coming in but now set to play cornerback in the slot with Orlando Scandrick expected to miss at least one game because of a small fracture in his back sustained in last week's 38-14 win over Washington.

Anthony Brown started 10 of the first 11 games after a strong rookie season as a sixth-rounder last year. He's been penalty-prone, though, and the Cowboys decided to shake things up when Philip Rivers of the LA Chargers threw for 434 yards on Thanksgiving in Dallas' third straight loss.

Brown's demotion coincided with Awuzie's return from the hamstring woes. Awuzie's three pass breakups against the Redskins matched Lewis for the most in a game for a Dallas defensive back this season.

"We all have confidence in ourselves and confidence in each other," said Woods, who has played safety and cornerback. "I'm sure they'd say the same thing as well. We study the game. We think we're prepared."

While Lewis and Woods each has had his first career interception, defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli's first concern is young players keeping opposing receivers in front of them.

Still, the longtime coach is undaunted by the prospect of three rookies on the field most of the snaps.

"If they're the roof, they're the ceiling to the whole house, keep it in front of us and make them earn it down the road," Marinelli said . "They've got a lot of confidence, a lot of energy right now."

Byron Jones and Jeff Heath, the starting safeties all season, are the most experienced defensive backs with Scandrick out. But the Cowboys haven't hesitated to juggle their spots when they've struggled.

Second-year safety Kavon Frazier, another late-round pick (sixth), will probably get more snaps after a powerful hit on Washington running back Samaje Perine.

"You can see some of the things we like about them, playmaking ability, hitting ability, ability to make plays on the football," coach Jason Garrett said.

"If you approach it the right way and you have some humility about you in the learning process, that is how you grow and get better."

It appears the young Dallas defensive backs will learn by doing.

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Updated December 7, 2017

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