When I began to write my next position series of the draft board I toggled back and forth between ILB and S. I really wanted to write about ILB's because it is an area the Cowboys need to focus on. Now hang with me for a second here. Yes we dedicated two high draft picks at the position the previous two drafts, but Bradie James and Keith Brooking may have to be replaced in just one off season. Ultimately I decided to roll with the S position here but the ILB post will be coming real soon and then we can shift over to the offensive side of the football.
Safety is a position the Cowboys clearly haven't focused on in the draft. You could relate that to the safety class being weak the past few years and no clear cut talent available when we were on the clock. But when your only safety drafted recently was fourth round pick Akwasi Owusu Ansah, you have problems there. Akwasi is easily the biggest miss I have had in the draft since I began really following it in the last five years. I saw an emerging small school athlete with amazing highlight reel tape. What we got was a player overwhelmed by the NFL level and was moved to wide receiver, easily one of the worst decisions by the scouting department in a long time.
The troubles date back to 2009 disaster Mike Hamlin (no relation to Ken) and one day I pray this team solves the riddle of the safety. Honestly I don't see the Cowboys using a high draft pick on the position this year either after signing the average but serviceable Gerald Sensabaugh to a new four year deal. Abram Elam is a guy I wanted and have been proud to have him on my team because of his leadership in the secondary. Elam should be brought back for a one or two year deal.
The Cowboys may have their two starters already penciled in for 2012, but they should still look at adding young talent to the fold at safety. If I could morph all of our safeties into one player we would have a great safety, the problem is each one has their pros and cons.
This class isn't awe inspiring in any way shape or form. There are some prospects that would be great fits and would allow the Cowboys to groom a young prospect into a potential starter. I have an obsession with CB's and S', I always have. Maybe it's because I value interceptions and the ball hawk and these type of players aren't produced in a factory somewhere. You can't go out and buy one at the store. If it were that easy the Cowboys would have had a replacement for the great Darren Woodson years ago.
I love CB's and S's more than any other position because I believe if you have good players there your defense is just so much better. One day hopefully we will not have to talk about the need at the position. Until that day comes I will be scouring the college landscape for our savior. Our knight in shining blue and silver is out there somewhere, but will the Cowboys discover him?
Let me first start off by saying that the reason I listed all of these guys into one grouping is because Rob Ryan really doesn't have a traditional free safety and strong safety. For the most part they are interchangeable and rotate throughout the game. There are pros and cons for that philosophy. It's good to have your safeties versatile and each can play the different nuances of the position. The problem I see right now is that both of our safeties are more strong safeties. I really don't see a free safety with the ability to track down the ball and make plays. What I truly want is a free safety that can make plays on the football.
Sensabaugh is a player I fell in love with when we first signed him. In 2009 the guy found a nice cozy section in my heart, moved in and took the looking for safety sign down. After dealing with Ken Hamlin for the past few years I thought we finally found the answer to our safety woes. Then the Vikings game happened and Sensabaugh was flat out awful. 2010 his INT numbers increased from 1 the previous season to 5. Even though Sensabaugh had 5 INT's I didn't like his overall game.
When I look for safeties I look for guys under 6'2 because the taller type safeties are leggier and just don't have the fluid hips to make quick cuts. Also their balance is kinda funky and you will see them stumble around. When Sensabaugh gets caught out of position he looks like a train wreck because he doesn't have the fluidity to make quick cuts and his balance isn't all that good. He is listed at 6'1 on NFL.com, but I think he is taller or his frame appears to be. Sensabaugh looks very leggy and if you know what I mean when I say this then you will understand where I am coming from.
Watch tape on other safeties in the NFL. Most of the premier safeties are smaller guys who are quick and make athletic plays because they are not long striders like Sensabaugh. This isn't meant to be a bash Gerald Sensabaugh breakdown because he does do a lot of things fairly well, I just don't see him as a premier NFL player though. What Sensabaugh does offer is the ability to cover TE's and WR"s, he has the speed to do that. He has immense athletic ability, I just think it's also a technical thing with him.
Sensabaugh can look great at times and that's the problem I have with him. When Sensabaugh is having a great game he looks like a premier player. He is a good tackler coming down in the box but has trouble in the open field (partly because of his stiff hips). He does appear to have real good hands and when the ball is around him he has a knack for making the play. Sometimes he does get confused and this is where I question his mental capacity as a football player. There are times where he doesn't know if he is going for the big hit stick type hit or if he is going to attempt to intercept the pass. Call it a slight hesitation and hesitating in any sport or life for that matter gets you into trouble.
The Cowboys resigned Sensabaugh after three straight one year deals. When you look at the financial part of the deal it makes sense. When you look at the strategical part of the contract it also makes sense. Like I mentioned previously, good safeties aren't easily available. It makes sense resigning a guy who has been here and know the system. It's just one less area the Cowboys have to focus on when they already have a few other needs on a defense that needs a talent influx badly.
Wow that's a lot of Sensabaugh talk so let's move on to my boy Abram Elam. At the end of the year I am sure some of you will look at the stat sheet and see what each individual defensive player did. Elam will not wow you on the stat sheet folks, that isn't his game. The primary reason I wanted the Cowboys to sign Elam was for his leadership and for most of the season Elam had this secondary in check. Blame part of the secondaries confusion on Elam missing practice and time dealing with the death of his father, by the way shout out to Abe Elam, the guy is going through a lot right now.
Elam is no spring chicken but is a seasoned NFL veteran in the prime of his career. He knows this system and is a guy I want on my football team because of his character on and off the field. Elam isn't a ball hawk but is a good strong safety that can cover and hit. Honestly until recently the opposing offenses haven't really tested our safeties. The safeties really haven't been in position to make interceptions. If you have watched the games, Sens and Elam really haven't had too much work. They are playing the deep half or are blitzing, I haven't seen any of them really in a position to make a interception.
The one area Elam looked real good at was blitzing off the edge. He was timing it just right early on in the season but now his blitzing has taken a hit for whatever reason. I do like that he is aggressive and is able to play that close to the line though. He still looks like he has the speed to play in the NFL and in my eyes still has good speed. The Cowboys would be wise to bring him back on a one or two year deal, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't address or upgrade the position if given the opportunity to do so.
When looking at the young talent at the position one does see talent. UDFA's Barry Church and Danny McCray have been a increasing element of this defense and special teams. I really like Barry Church and sometimes I see a young Darren Woodson in him, just without the athletic ability because Darren was a great athlete. Church is caught between safety and linebacker due to his size and lack of top end speed. He may be the long term solution and strong safety in the wings. I truly wish he was about 20-30 pounds heavier because he would make a great linebacker with his coverage ability. The Cowboys do have long term starter ideas for Church and he could win that job next summer.
Danny McCray has really grown as a football player his two years in Dallas. McCray went from a backup role player on LSU to a special teams demon here. People underestimate the importance of having a Danny McCray on your team. It won't be a lead Sportscenter story and he won't be a feature article, but McCray is a big part of this team. By no means does McCray have the starter potential Church has, but I love him in certain packages. Next year we could see McCray grow more into his sub package role on the defense and that would be kosher with me. Honestly I wish he would get more chances to show his worth on the defense. McCray could be our modern day Bill Bates and that is a special entitlement that I wouldn't just hand out to anyone.
With Church on the IR with a bum shoulder you are going to see more Danny McCray. This is his opportunity to step up and show that he can be used more on the defense.
The Cowboys just signed UDFA Mana Silva off of Buffalo's practice squad. Silva was one of the few safety prospects I highlighted last year during the draft. On tape the kid just flies around the field and patterns his game after Troy Polamalu. He has bounced around NFL practice squads this year so don't expect much from him this year. The idea I am toying with is bringing him back next training camp and giving him a go. His scouting report is all good except it says he may be a liability in coverage, I really don't know because I haven't seen him play on the NFL level. Just keep an eye on this kid and remember his name.
The best safety class over the past few years was in 2010. It offered marquee names such as Earl Thomas, Eric Berry and Nate Allen. Many of us wanted Morgan Burnett (myself included) but Sean Lee was the right pick and I fell in love with him at that moment. The problem is the Cowboys didn't land a safety that year and are still looking for young talent.
This class has it's highs and lows. There are two kinds of safeties in this years class in my opinion. There is the athlete who needs to refine his technique and there is the safety who isn't a great athlete but has better technique. What an NFL team has to do is evaluate what type of player fits into their system and if their coaching can increase the potential of that prospect.
With so many holes on defense and the increasing need for guards and a center, it may be hard for the war room to justify using a draft pick on a developmental safety project. I think you can justify it more than taking a small school player and use that draft pick on a safety from a D1 background. That way at least your drafted safety would have more experience with better talent and better technique with real coaching.
Basically it comes down to Rob Ryan or whoever the defensive coordinator is next year ( I want Rob). The defensive coordinator should be given that war room and this upcoming draft needs to be a defensive oriented draft. Last year was a great haul, but we got next to nothing on defense. Rob Ryan inherited Bruce Carter, a studly prospect who will pay off next year. But the bigger picture wasn't a great one for Ryan. Please Jerry I am begging you allow this man to get the war room and draft his players for his system.
First Round Prospects
- Mark Barron Alabama
I troubled myself over this ranking. Barron may be more of a second round talent in another draft class, but with a draft class lacking in talent this year, Barron could find himself in a good position to be selected in the first round. Barron ultimately will transition to the strong safety position in the NFL because of his physicality. He improved his ball hawking and ball skills this year after getting torched in 2010. A safety needy team towards the end of the first round will take him and I think the New York Jets are a real possibility unless a pass rusher is there.
Barron really isn't an option for this team because of the high draft pick one would have to spend on him. Unless he falls to us in the 2nd round I wouldn't hold my breath in Barron being a Cowboy. For that reason I am moving on from him completely as far as the draft talk goes.
Second Round Prospects
- Markelle Martin Oklahoma State
- Brandon Taylor LSU
- *TJ McDonald USC
Markelle Martin has first round talent in my opinion. His athleticism is off the charts and has the size (6'1 200) that I want in my safety. When I read his scouting report it really gives me a great impression. OSU has been a team that I watched quite often this year because of their ranking and increased television time. I will tell you right now Martin is a big game player and shows up in big games, he doesn't disappear when it counts. I think Martin is actually the better prospect over Barron, but with Barron being such a household name and playing in the SEC he will get the first round grade for now. My personal safety pet cats are Martin and Brandon Taylor. If Martin has a great combine, which he will, he will shoot up the board. He is a lock for a top 50 selection off his athleticism alone. This is the type of prospect the Cowboys should look at. One more thing is that Martin has the versatility (which the Cowboys drool over) to play the free and strong safety positions.
Brandon Taylor gets overshadowed on a great LSU football team. Taylor once again has the size I look for (6'0 195) and has the fluid hips that good safeties have. He displays great footwork and is a former high school cornerback with good cover skills. Taylor is a solid tackler and just is an all around good football player. He is a high character individual who came back from a 2010 leg injury and works his tail off off the field. I may have Taylor ranked a bit high but I truly believe that this kid will be a NFL starter. LSU consistently produces quality NFL players and you can credit their excellent coaching staff for having their kids NFL prepared and ready for the next level. Also he plays in the SEC, a conference that I think is the best in all of sports. Taylor has experience and athletic ability, a rare combination in this years draft for a safety prospect. I would jump for joy if the Cowboys drafted this kid because day one he could come in here and produce for us.
TJ McDonald is a prospect that I cannot wrap my mind around. The athletic ability is there, nobody should question whether the kid has NFL athleticism, because he does. The problem I have with him is consistency and technique. He is in the bigger mold (6'2 205) but appears to have the fluid hips I constantly hammer home to you folks. His ball skills are almost top notch and should be a play maker in that area. The part of his game I like is that he can be violent at times and unleashes the hit stick on the opposition. He has the speed to cover a lot of ground and will be good in zone coverage. So you are probably wondering why I have him ranked so low right? Well this is the exception where I think another year of college would benefit his stock. Another year of fine tuning the mental aspects and cleaning up some technique would make him a lock for the first round. I usually hold judgement on USC players, but TJ could break the trend of bad USC safeties over the years. If the Cowboys could land this kid in the 2nd I would do it off his talent and upside alone. There aren't too many play making safeties in this class but TJ is one of the rare exceptions.
Third Round Prospects
- *Robert Lester Alabama
- Aaron Henry Wisconsin
- Trenton Robinson Michigan State
As we approach the third round we will see a steep drop off in safety talent after. Robert Lester is an impressive prospect who offers you a player who is in the mold of a ball hawk. I don't have him higher because he is the leggy (6'2) type prospect I talked about earlier. He made huge strides this year at Alabama and was a force next to Mark Barron. I think he may be better off going back to school another year to improve his stock.
Aaron Henry is a safety that stood out to me when watching Wisconsin the past two years. Henry is a former cornerback and made the transition to safety fairly smooth. I like that he is a former cornerback and would offer you good coverage skills from that standpoint. He is still learning the position after moving there a few years ago and with increased coaching on the next level could develop into a solid starter. I happen to like Wisconsin guys and totally respect that football program because of the quality of players it churns out. Henry would be a good mid round option for us.
Trenton Robinson looks like a cornerback but plays like a safety. Robinson won't blow the combine away but teams should overlook that because this kid can play at a high level. I don't know where Robinson fits in with us because he may be like Alan Ball (in a good way). He has the size to play safety but teams may try him out at cornerback. I hope he doesn't get shifted back and forth at S and CB, that would mess him up. Whoever drafts him needs to put him at one position and just let him go. He is a hard hitter and decent in coverage. Robinson is a legit mid round prospect who may have trouble finding a home in the NFL at a position. If he focuses on one area you may have something there.
Fourth Round Prospects
- Corey Mosley Virginia
- Matt Daniels Duke
- Harrison Smith Notre Dame
Fifth Round Prospects
- Tramain Thomas Arkansas
- Antonio Allen South Carolina
- George Iloka Boise State
- Lance Mitchell Oregon State
- Neiko Thorpe Auburn
Sixth Round Prospects
- Sean Catthouse California
- Blake Gideon Texas
This safety class offers some nice talent in the first three rounds but after that it takes a huge drop off in talent. With the Cowboys locking up Sensabaugh long term and having so many needs, I don't know if they invest a pick at the position this year. That doesn't mean I don't want them to invest a pick there, I just have to be realistic and temper my expectations.
It does come down to who is on the clock and how the Cowboys draft board is set up. Rob Ryan or whoever is the defensive coordinator (hopefully Rob) will also need to evaluate what they have at the position. One area I think we may forget is that free agency will take place before the draft this year and this allows teams to fill some holes prior to the draft. I doubt the Cowboys go out and spend money on a safety, it's a touchy subject with our owner but he needs to move on from Ken Hamlin and Roy Williams. You cannot be scared to go out and spend money on that position just because you were burned before.
All I know is that some of these prospects are good fits. It is a relatively weak safety class again and I know the Cowboys understand that. They have been burned by these weak safety classes and if they want premier talent it's going to take a reasonably high draft pick. If you want talent you have to spend, it doesn't come cheap anymore especially at this position with so many safety needy teams.
The Cowboys may have settled over the years with average safety play, but it's time to attempt to upgrade what we have.