Cowboys Draft Prospects: The Safety Valve (Part Two)

In part one of this post, we went over the possible free agent safety prospects for the Dallas Cowboys. Part two will detail the options that Jerry Jones and the Cowboys war room will have in the 2012 NFL Draft. The draft allows the team to upgrade the position for less money. One benefit of drafting a safety over signing one in free agency is that it allows the front office to use that money saved on other areas of need. Money is going to be tight this year, so the team must spend wisely.


Related: Cowboys Free Agent Prospects: The Safety Valve (Part One)

Once again, the Cowboys will be facing a weak safety class in the draft. This has been a problem the team has faced the last couple of drafts. With the safety talent not being what it once was, it forces teams to reach for the position on draft day. The Cowboys haven't reached for a safety, but they also haven't spent high draft picks on the position.

Look at the safeties the Cowboys have drafted since 2002.

  • Roy Williams, the 8th overall selection in the 1st round of the 2002 NFL Draft
  • Justin Beriault, the 208th overall selection in the 6th round of the 2005 NFL Draft
  • Pat Watkins, the 138th overall selection in the 5th round of the 2006 NFL Draft
  • DeAngelo Smith, the 143rd overall selection in the 5th round of the 2009 NFL Draft
  • Michael Hamlin, the 166th overall selection in the 5th round of the 2009 NFL Draft
  • Akwasi Owusu-Ansah, the 126th overall selection in the 4th round of the 2010 NFL Draft

2002 was the last time a high draft pick was spent on the position. Since then, we have watched the Cowboys spend late-round draft picks at safety. That just isn't going to cut it for me, the team needs to start placing a higher emphasis on the safety position in the draft. I know the quality has dropped off significantly over the years, but I would still like to see the team invest some higher draft picks on the position.

This years safety class offers the Cowboys some legitimate options. There are no Eric Berry or Earl Thomas-like talents available in the first round, which is unfortunate considering we have the 14th overall pick this year. The true value this year is from the second round on, that is where you will find value at the safety position.

Mark Barron

The only safety to receive first-round consideration this year is Alabama's Mark Barron. He had a great career for the Crimson Tide, and he was one of the leaders on a very talented defense. Barron racked up 229 tackles and 12 interceptions in his college career. He has plenty of big game experience and the leadership qualities head coach Jason Garrett will be looking for.

Barron has really good ball skills for a traditional strong safety. At 6-1, 213 pounds, he has the size and build to be a durable safety in the NFL. His skill set of athleticism and power is exactly what the Cowboys need in their secondary. Barron has displayed that he can be a ball hawk, but has also shown that he is a physical hitter. He is one of the most physical safeties in the draft, but I like that he also has the range to play in coverage.

Right now we really don't know too much about his double sports hernia injury, which required surgery recently. The hernia injury is keeping him from working out this week in Indianapolis at the NFL Combine. There have been reports detailing the specifics of the injury.

It could get interesting if Barron misses the Alabama Pro Day. He was once considered to be a mid to late first-round pick, and this injury could possibly push him into the second round. If the Cowboys get lucky, they could find themselves with another Sean Lee/Bruce Carter situation, and land themselves a first-round talent in the second round.

Projection: Late first-round to early second-round

Harrison Smith

One of the rising safeties on many draft boards is Notre Dame's Harrison Smith. The quality of prospects coming out of Notre Dame recently has significantly dropped off, but Smith is one of their best defensive prospects in a long time. He had an interesting college career, starting off as a linebacker, then moving to strong safety.

We should pay close attention to his workout this week at the combine. It will be interesting to see what he runs in the 40-yard dash, and how fluid he is in the individual workouts. If he puts on a good performance for the NFL scouts, his draft stock will rise significantly.

There are some questions about his game though. Some scouts have questioned his fluidity and hips. He has had some trouble in man-to-man coverage because of that. There is also the possibility that he may be a "hybrid", a mix of a linebacker and safety. I think that he has enough size (6'2, 213), speed and athleticism to play safety in the NFL.

Mel Kiper's most recent mock draft had Smith going in the first round, 28th overall to the Green Bay Packers. His description held Smith in high regard.

What I like about Smith is his ability to do it all. He's not the world's greatest athlete, but any scout will tell you: At this position, you take the instincts over the athlete 100 out of 100 times. Smith gets great jumps in coverage and will get in passing lanes, but he's also outstanding in run support. You don't lose ground in one are when he's out there.

The Cowboys could definitely use better instincts at the safety position. Harrison Smith has been described as a leader in the secondary, and that is an important area for safeties. If Smith manages to fall to us in the second round, it would be a good value.

Projection: Early to mid second-round

Brandon Taylor

Taylor is a safety prospect that is under the radar, and is one of my preferred targets for the Cowboys. He comes from a great LSU defense that consistently produces quality NFL talent. I would describe him as a blue-collar prospect who doesn't do one thing extremely well, but does a variety of things at a solid level. He played a lot of strong safety in college, but he has the versatility to play both free and strong safety in the NFL. That is a characteristic defensive coordinator Rob Ryan will be looking for in the draft.

He is another experienced safety, with three years of starting experience in the SEC. Taylor was a team captain at LSU, and he has the leadership qualities that Jason Garrett loves. Wearing #18 is a special honor at LSU, and head coach Les Miles handpicked him for the number.

Mike Detillier called him "a great character guy, a great locker room guy." The proof is in his number, 18. National Championship winning quarterback Matt Mauck began the #18 tradition by passing his number down to a player who represents what it means to be a Tiger. For his senior season, Brandon Taylor wore number 18.

Taylor understands the importance of the NFL Combine, and how it will determine his draft stock.

"It's important to me because it's my final shot to show the scouts and NFL general managers what I can do to contribute to their teams," Taylor said. "I have to show them I have a lot of confidence and courage, that's a big thing to me. I want to go out there and do my best."

Right now he is under the radar and underrated. With a strong performance at the combine, Taylor can improve his draft stock. He is an experienced starter from a big time program, and he is a aggressive, physical safety with good athleticism. This is the perfect safety prospect for us to take in the middle rounds of the draft.

Projection: Third to fourth-round

George Iloka

Iloka is a really interesting safety prospect that the Cowboys should be interested in. He is a large safety prospect, with a lean and muscular frame, standing in at 6'4, and 225 pounds. He has extremely long arms, 34 1/2 inches, and his length is an advantage that he can use in coverage. His combination of size and athleticism is what separates him from the other safeties in the draft. Iloka is another versatile prospect who could play either free or strong safety in the NFL, depending on the scheme he goes to.

I will be watching his combine workout very closely, I want to get a better feel for his overall skill set. Iloka is a very large athletic safety, who can roam the secondary and intercept the football. He is more comfortable in zone coverage because of his instincts, and that is when he is at his best. Reading and diagnosing plays is one of his strongest attributes. He is a physical player that will come down and contribute against the run. In the NFL, Iloka will have to learn to take better angles, sometimes he does get beat because he goes the wrong way. This is another experienced safety with leadership qualities, and that should be a theme for the Cowboys with Garrett leading the war room again.

Here is what Wes Bunting said in his scouting report on Iloka.

Impression: Iloka is a tall kid with solid balance for his size and has some natural athleticism and pop. Has experience playing corner and being a physical press coverage man. However, he isn't a guy who can quickly re-direct and close on the football in the deep half. He needs to play with his hands on defenders, but is a more coordinated bigger safety than say Seahawks starter Kam Chancellor and he could start at the next level.

He does struggle sometimes in man-to-man coverage and this is an area he needs to work on. His size is his gift and his curse. He needs to clean up some of his footwork, where at times it will get a little sloppy. Because he is so tall, he can get a little tight in the hips and struggle to change direction. Iloka did play some cornerback at Boise State, so he isn't awful in man-to-man coverage, but there are some noticeable flaws in that area. His skill set is similar to Gerald Sensabaugh's, but I believe that Iloka has the talent to become a better player in the NFL.

Iloka might be a player the Cowboys are interested in because of his athleticism, size and versatility. In the middle rounds of the draft, he would be a good fit for us.

Projection: Third to fourth-round

Markelle Martin

The other safeties I talked about in this post are more traditional strong safeties, but they have the versatility to play both positions. In Martin's case, we are talking about a true free safety prospect. This was a safety that I was really looking forward to see workout at the combine. Unfortunately, Martin will not be participating in any of the drills at the combine.

Martin, who is projected as a middle-to-late round pick, posted that he has a pinched nerve and fluid on his knee and that the injury happened "a few weeks ago." He has been training for the combine at OSU.

I am wondering if that he suffered this injury during the Senior Bowl. Martin didn't have an awful week there, but he didn't perform as well as I thought he would. A pinched nerve is very painful, but it isn't an injury that should require him to miss a lot of time. For the fluid in his knee, usually that is drained out in a minor procedure.

Martin is what I would describe as more of an athlete than a football player right now. What I mean is he has tremendous athletic ability, but he needs to work on the mental part of the game. I saw him out of position and he looked confused too many times when I watched Oklahoma State. Sometimes he will take the wrong angle, and that will get him beat over the top of the field.

His speed and acceleration allow him to make plays in the secondary. Martin has the second gear where he can close in and make a play on the football. His ball skills can wow you one minute, and then leave you desiring for more the next. He needs to get more consistent in that area. When he is in the right position and not being over aggressive, Martin can be a dynamic play making free safety. The skill set and athletic ability is there, he just needs to work on his technique in some areas.

He is a very physical safety that likes to throw his body around, but his tackling needs some work. That is something I think he will improve on with NFL coaching. He needs to learn better technique, and that is why we have highly paid position coaches.

Here is what Wes Bunting said in his scouting report on Martin.

Impression: A gifted athlete with a good burst and range in the deep half. However, wastes motion out of his breaks and isn't a very good open field tackler. Possesses slightly above-average instincts, but will make more plays on the football when he tightens up his footwork. A potential starter only at this stage because of his intriguing athleticism.

I agree with Bunting that he has starter potential. Martin is going to have to be coached up, but his athleticism makes him a interesting prospect. He is another safety that should be a good fit for the Cowboys in the middle rounds of the draft. There is no free safety currently on the Cowboys roster with this type of athleticism, so he would be a great addition to our secondary.

Projection: Third round

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