When it comes to the safety position, let’s face it the Cowboys have been searching for the answer for years now. Drafting a safety in 4 of the last 5 years but little to show for it. Recently, I have noticed several mock drafts have Dallas drafting a safety even in the first round. Is it their biggest need?
I have also noticed some confusion out there when it comes to the difference between a strong safety, and a free safety. Before looking at the Cowboys needs at safety in 2014, let’s get a clear picture of the difference.
Strong Safety– In general the strong safety is expected to be a solid run defender and able to cover a TE in man coverage. They typically line up on the strong side of the formation (dictated by where the TE lines up). Think of them as a lot like a linebacker in that they need to be large enough and physical enough to take on blockers and make tackles. But will be asked to help in coverage at times too. Strong safeties usually make a lot of tackles.
Dallas Cowboys–Barry Church has played strong safety for Dallas and he is a very good fit at that position in my view. He led the defense in tackles in 2013. He has the size and certainly plays physical. Church is decent in coverage, as it isn’t his strength, but he excels in run support.
Draft– Finding a strong safety in this draft, or in about any draft, is not difficult at all. There are many safeties that do a good job in run support however this area is really not a big need for Dallas. Why mocks keep showing Dallas drafting a strong safety is a mystery to me. Ignorance I suppose because trust me, they got it covered.
Free safety– A free safety is the last line of defense and is expected to cover a lot of field in a hurry. Sometimes referred to as a “centerfielder”. They need to be very good in coverage and will be asked to cover WRs at times. Usually their responsibility is keeping all the receivers in front of them and assisting with anything thrown deep.
They need to be a “ball hawk” in the Tampa 2 which Dallas runs, and having good ball instincts is essential. It is beneficial for them to be over 6 feet tall and the longer their arms, the better. Being a good open field tackler is helpful but if they have superior cover skills, then weak tackling can be overlooked. Ed Reed is a good example of an ideal NFL free safety.
Dallas Cowboys FS– This is the type safety that Dallas needs and has been trying to find for a while now. They drafted Matt Johnson in 2012 and JJ Wilcox in 2013. They also brought in undrafted Jeff Heath and Jakar Hamilton last season to fill this position. Johnson has been injury prone and went out for the 2013 season after the preseason HOF game.
Wilcox and Heath saw significant playing time last season with mixed results. There were “growing pains” for the rookies one might say. Free safety is definitely one position where experience is very helpful in recognizing offenses and having familiarity with both NFL level receivers and QBs.
Wilcox had only one year experience at safety in college and that was at Georgia Southern which doesn’t exactly play big time college football. Heath came from Saginaw Valley State and Johnson came from Eastern Washington again, not exactly playing against NFL caliber talent. Just keeping it real.
To expect these rookies to excel playing safety at the NFL level in their first year goes beyond unrealistic, it’s simply delusional. A word that pops up often when talking about GM Jerry Jones, but I digress. I thought Heath had the better performance last season of the Dallas free safeties, with 60 tackles, 1 INT and 1 FF.
Both Heath and Wilcox have the size and speed to succeed in the NFL eventually. Heath displays some instincts needed for free safety while Wilcox appears better suited for a strong safety in my view.
Draft– Finding a NFL ready free safety with solid cover skills in the draft, can be challenging. In last year’s draft, the best ones available were Kenny Vacarro (Saints) and Eric Reid (49ers) but Dallas didn’t get either. They moved out of their 18th spot to allow the 49ers to take Reid. Did I mention that Dallas GM already?
Looking at the 2014 draft, the highest rated FS prospects would be Clinton Dix of Alabama and perhaps Calvin Pryor of Louisville. I have seen both names mentioned as first round picks in some mock drafts for Dallas. But can Dallas really afford to invest a first round pick in a safety? They need to address that defensive line too right?
I don’t think Dallas is quite ready to give up on Wilcox or Heath as possible solutions at free safety. With a year of experience, their play could improve significantly this season. It’s just too soon to come to the conclusion that neither are the answer and drafting another rookie safety means starting all over again with that guy and throwing out the experience of Wilcox and Heath. I look for Dallas to perhaps draft a safety late but I doubt they draft one early.
The Cowboys are in good shape at strong safety with Barry Church but they do need to lock down that important free safety spot. Picking up an experienced NFL safety who is familiar with playing safety in a 4-3, should be an option Dallas considers. With salary cap restrictions, Jerry can’t afford to go out and buy the best safety money can buy, but there should be some affordable free agents available who can help the young guys develop while playing effectively next season too.