NFL News & Analysis

Rookie safety Israel Mukuamu fighting to make Dallas Cowboys 53-man roster

Canton, Ohio, USA; Dallas Cowboys cornerback Israel Mukuamu (38) knocks the ball away from Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Zach Gentry (81) during the first half at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

“I believe Israel Mukuamu is the Kevin Durant of the NFL.”

Those are the words of Dallas Cowboys defensive back Israel Mukuamu’s agent, Selwyn G. Roberts. Anyone who has ever seen Durant — a future NBA Hall of Famer — play basketball over the last decade knows what a powerful statement that is.

“A 6-foot-4 defensive back with tremendous versatility is rare,” Roberts elaborated.

Durant towers over his opponents. At nearly 7-feet tall, the way he seems to leave opponents of all shapes and sizes helpless feels like it should be illegal. Bringing the ball up the court with great control, weaving in and out of tight spaces, attacking defenders from the point, the wing, the elbow, the paint — he’s the ultimate chess piece for any team.

While the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Mukuamu might not be as sky-scraping as Durant, relatively speaking, the sixth-round pick out of South Carolina is certainly standing head-and-shoulders above the rest of his defensive back group, especially with his recent transition to safety. Mukuamu's 71.2 coverage grade ranked fourth among the 16 rookie safeties who played at least 50 snaps in coverage this preseason. His 154 total snaps ranked top-five among rookies.

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At first glance, Mukuamu’s measurables could trigger memories of other super-sized safeties such as Adrian Wilson, Kerry Rhodes and Brandon Browner. But Mukuamu’s success right off the bat was no guarantee, even from his biggest believers. Mukuamu was a Day 3 selection in the 2021 NFL Draft, and even to those who believed he was a steal that late know that Day 3 players — especially ones picked in the sixth round like Mukuamu — don’t have a roster spot set in stone.

If you rewind to draft night, Mukuamu was more than just disappointed he still hadn’t received a call by Saturday afternoon of draft weekend.

“I’m not going to lie, I was pissed,” Mukuamu said. “The whole time I’m just asking my agent why everything is going on, like what’s the knock on me? The whole time I’m thinking ‘I guess it’s because I’m rare, I’m so big,' so a lot of teams they’re scared to take the risk on me and stuff like that. When I got the call, I tell people they see the video and they see me crying they think I’m crying. I was really crying because I was pissed. And then my mom was crying, and I felt embarrassed. At the end of the day, my brother told me growing up only one percent get to go to the NFL, so at the end of the day, with all the work I’ve put in, I’m still blessed to even get drafted. Now, all I can do is just play the cards that I was dealt and just go out there and make the most of it. My brothers and my cousins was telling me the whole time, it’s the Tom Brady round so it’s all good. The cream always rises to the top.”

Mukuamu is rising in a lot of ways. Not only are the early returns on his performance grades very solid, but they’re also coming from different alignments. Across four preseason games, he’s played:

Alignment Snaps Played
Free Safety 30
Slot Cornerback 60
Box Defender 41
Line of Scrimmage 22

Mukuamu hasn’t always been a safety. In fact, while on the phone with the Cowboys on draft night, Mukuamu told them, “just know you got the best corner coming in,” as that was the position Mukuamu primarily played in college. But the position change didn’t stem from poor play on the practice field during the summer, it was calculated by those who made the phone call to him.

“From Day 1 since I got drafted, I talked to Coach Quinn that night and he told me that he was going to start me off at safety,” Mukuamu said. “It’s really been fun playing under him so far. He actually reminds a lot of T-Rob [former South Carolina defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson] and [Will] Muschamp, and then the defense that we run here is really the same. We’ve got the same kind of concepts, so it’s been pretty good getting into the defense and just being comfortable in something I was already used to.”

It’s a crowded defensive back room with plenty of new faces in Dallas, but that’s a good thing. Dallas’ defense posted a 53.0 grade for the 2020 season, which was 28th in the league. The Cowboys' 44.5 run-defense grade was 26th, and their 45.6 coverage grade was 27th. All in all, it was a forgettable year, which was likely the motivating factor for three defensive back selections and eight defensive picks in total this past April.

Though there is a long list of names on the Cowboys defensive back depth chart, specifically at safety, the opportunities are wide open. Whoever stands out the most will likely get those available roster spots. Mukuamu is already finding out the very thing that may have held him back from being drafted higher is what is helping him stand out now in his first training camp — unique size for his position. That’s what Quinn is telling him he’s looking for in his young safety.

“Really, just especially for a big guy like me, it’s just a guy that can come down in the box and be able to set edges as well as covering tight ends. The league is more of a tight end league, so we got a lot of tight ends that are big-body receivers. So he’s just looking for a guy that can set edges, make tackles in the run game and then a guy that can go out there and cover those skilled tight ends.”

In terms of measurables, Mukuamu’s 6-foot-4 height, over 80-inch wingspan and 34-inch arm length are all above the 95th percentile whether you stack him at corner or safety. That length is what makes him a natural chess piece to match up against the league’s athletic pass-catching tight ends. Coincidentally, Mukuamu feels that’s where he plays the fastest right now.

“Where I would say I play fastest is definitely one-on-one with the tight ends just because I come from a corner background and it’s just easy for me to just get on and press tight ends and stuff like that,” Mukuamu said. “But I’m also good at 2-high and 1-high, just trying to learn how to do it all, though.”

For as good as Mukuamu has been in coverage as a box defender and when guarding tight ends, his highlight play in camp came as a free safety, where he nabbed an interception off backup quarterback Ben DiNucci that made its rounds on the internet. Mukuamu remembers it well.

“So pre-snap, the offense was in a 3-by-1,” Mukuamu said. “It was, I believe, third or fourth and long, and it was a competition period where they needed to get the first down. I remember we were in a Cover 2. I remember the original routes weren’t there so the quarterback scrambled out of the pocket, he threw it up, and I went to go get it.”

The Cowboys have until Tuesday to get down to 53 players on their regular-season roster. As a rookie, Mukuamu would be eligible to be a practice squad player, but for as well as he has played, he might not last very long there, as other teams can poach players on practice squads around the league if they sign them to their 53-man roster.

Mukuamu finds himself as a safety in a group of Damontae Kazee, Donovan Wilson, Jayron Kearse, Darian Thompson, Malik Hooker, Tyler Coyle and Steven Parker. But he’s no longer the man who was sitting on the couch on draft weekend wondering why no team wanted him. He’s confident in why he’s in Dallas, and why he deserves a good hard look at one of those coveted 53 regular-season roster spots.

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