OXNARD, Calif. – A year ago, Trevon Diggs lamented the missed opportunities.
The Cowboys cornerback deflected a total of 14 passes as a rookie, three of which he had interceptions. It was down to him.
“I got my hands on 14 balls and I ended up with 14 interceptions,” Diggs said on July 25, 2021 from training camp. “So that’s a problem. … I want to make a significant jump from last year. All the plays I didn’t use last year.”
In the takeaways column, Diggs was awarded an A+ for capitalizing on his sophomore campaign. The All-Pro deflected 21 passes last season and intercepted 11 passes, the most of any NFL player in the last 40 years. Diggs played in 16 of 17 games before missing the season finale due to illness. His instincts and ball-hawking ability boosted a defensive unit that gave up a franchise-record 473 points in 2020. Dallas improved from 29.4 points allowed per game to 21, helped by Diggs’ snapped possessions. The Cowboys also led the league in takeaways.
And yet, they thirst for more. Diggs didn’t want to “settle” for 11.
“Be more than last year,” Diggs said of his goal. “Beat my 11 and continue and improve.”
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Training camp provides prime opportunities to improve the awareness that competitive periods demand. While NFL rules limit the effectiveness of preseason contact and pads time for line-of-scrimmage work, Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy emphasized the opportunity such sessions give to perimeter players and their defenders. Diggs often lines up at times with receiver and fellow 2020 draft classmate CeeDee Lamb, who scored six touchdowns and posted a team-best 1,102 receiving yards last year. Lamb’s advanced ball skills, route-running and versatility command Diggs’ respect.
“When you get two guys like that, who work hard every game and nobody wants to lose, it naturally makes you a better player and prepares you for the season,” Diggs said. “It helps a lot, just that competitiveness. He’s like, ‘You’re not going to beat me.’
“‘And I’m like, ‘You’re not going to beat me.’
That’s the intensity Lamb wants to introduce himself as McCarthy prepares for his role in the Cowboys’ offense to draw more defensive attention.
Diggs and the defense, meanwhile, will try to limit the big plays opponents allowed after going 20-plus yards 62 times (fourth most in the league) and 40-plus yards 14 times (third worst) last season. ) Diggs missed 16.1% of his tackle attempts, the second-highest rate among Cowboys defenders and the most among teammates on the line (defensive tackle Osa Odighizuwa missed 16.3%), according to Pro Football Reference.
He sees areas of growth in his technique and his displayed intensity, eager to set an example for younger defensive backs on how to complete plays.
“I want to run the ball every play, I don’t want somebody to catch the ball on me, I don’t want to give up a touchdown,” Diggs said. “I’m a lot better than last year.”
Does the Cowboys defense as a whole feel better than last year? Diggs believes they can in coordinator Dan Quinn’s second Dallas season. But the opponents are skeptical that they will agree.
“We haven’t gotten the respect we need yet,” he said. “It’s nobody’s fault. It’s really our fault. We have to go out there and show what we can do, we have to hold ourselves to high standards and achieve it. “
Diggs pointed to cornerback Anthony Brown, who caught the first interception of training camp Wednesday, and hybrid safety/linebacker Zyron Kearse as Cowboys defenders flying under the radar.
“We have a lot of guys, but I think we’re pretty underrated,” Diggs said. “I know how we work, I know how we work, I know how we practice, I know what kind of guys I’ve got in my room. So I know what we can do. All we have to do is put it on tape and show it.
“We’re trying to make a statement across the league.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jory Epstein on Twitter @Jori Epstein.