2012 Cowboys & Ryan’s Defense: Wishing For Woodson

NFL Draft 1992, the Dallas Cowboys are preparing for their early second-round pick and a heated conversation is taking place. A fiery and enthusiastic secondary coach is trying to convince Jimmy Johnson to talk Jerry Jones into drafting an undersized play as a defensive back!

Many Cowboys fans hold a grudge against this man, but many have forgotten it was this goofy, self-proclaimed teacher that convinced the Cowboys to draft an odd project in the 1992 draft, an undersized but highly productive college linebacker named Darren Woodson (Yes, another of my personal favorites). So, for those that still blame Dave Campo for the collapse of the Cowboys secondary, perhaps his efforts to draft and train Darren Woodson afford him some forgiveness.

If Rob Ryan could create the perfect safety for his defense, I imagine him to be a clone of Darren Woodson. Just a touch under 6' 2" and 220 pounds, Woodson had the physical size and tackling instincts to provide incredible help as a strong safety, but he also had the speed and the ability to cover receivers like a great free safety (or corner). With the intricate schemes and diverse blitz packages, versatile safeties can provide Ryan's defense another dimension to create chaos for opposing offenses.

In 2004, Darren Woodson retired as one of the Cowboys greatest safeties. This converted linebacker (who also played some defensive-end in college) used his football instincts, hard-hitting toughness, impressive physical abilities, and combined them with impeccable character and work ethic to become the ideal NFL safety and team leader. It nears a decade since Dallas fans lost one of their favorite sons, and the safety position has been a mix of fool's gold and mercenaries ever since. However, as I look to the collection of safeties that Jason Garrett and Rob Ryan will be bringing into training camp, I can't help but get excited at the potential that could be found/groomed from this group. None are Darren Woodson (yet), but the candidates combine to provide many of the same qualities. If nothing else, a study of the Cowboys depth chart at safety reveals that there is clearly a plan in place and an archetype for the safeties on the team.

Much more after the jump...


To become a perfect NFL safety, like Darren Woodson, the candidate must possess several vital attributes that must be inherent; they cannot be taught, only improved or compensated by good coaching. The first of these are athletic ability, like size, speed and strength. It's for such reasons that scouts measure and study combine and pro day measurable of NFL prospects. The Cowboys have a considerable collection of athletic safeties on their roster. While it may shock some, it should not surprise them. If Ryan wants guys that can both stack the box like strong safeties and handle coverage duties like a free safety, they will have to be well-rounded athletes.

While I would like to compare the current depth chart to the likes of Darren Woodson, Ed Reed, and Troy Polamalu, I was unfortunately unable to find their measurables. However, we can compare them to the best safeties of the 2011 and 2012 Draft classes, Patrick Peterson and Mark Barron. First, a disclaimer: Patrick Peterson is an athletic marvel, he has the size of a safety but the speed and agility of a great corner. His 40-yard dash time is nearly 4.3 seconds. For those that can't visualize speed in numbers, only a few more than a dozen prospects have ever clocked at or below 4.3 sec. at the NFL combine. Chris Johnson managed a blazing 4.24. For those that don't know who Bo Jackson was (Bo knows)...he is the only rookie above 210lbs (he was actually a 230lb bruising running back) to make the list AND he holds the record with an inhuman 4.12 40-yard dash. Anyway, while I think Peterson will likely end his career as a great safety, he can also play as a corner because of his incredible speed and agility. You will notice his measurables are almost identical to that of Darrell Revis. You will also notice the Cowboys clearly have high athletic parameters in mind for their team safeties.

Player HeightWeight 40Dash Vertical BroadJump 20Shuttle 3Cone
G. Sensabaugh 6' 1" - 214 4.44 46 11' 1" 3.98 6.8
B. Pool 6' 1" - 207 4.52 39 10' 0" 4.49 7.24
B. Church 6' 2" - 222 4.64 36 10' 1" 4.17 6.65
D. McCray 6' 1" - 214 4.45 34 9' 9 " 4.36 6.7
AOA 6' 0" - 207 4.32 35.5 10' 0" 4.19 6.84
M. Johnson 6' 1" - 212 4.52 38 10' 1" 4.07 6.84
Dallas Avg. 6' 1" - 212.66 4.48.16 38 10' 1.6" 4.21 6.845
M. Barron 6' 1" - 213 4.54 34.5 10' 2" NA NA
P. Peterson 6' 0" - 219 4.31 38 10' 6" 4.07 6.58
D. Revis 6' 0" - 204 4.38 38 10' 5" 4.08 6.56
*M. Silva 6' 1" - 206 4.43 40 10' 3" 4.16 6.97

All stats the best combo of combine and pro day results from

*Thanks to Hermit, recently updated with Mana Silva

It's actually quite impressive. Virtually every Cowboys safety is a remarkable athlete. Mark Barron was the #7 overall pick in the 2012 draft, and only two Cowboys safeties are slightly smaller, only one is slower, and only one has a shorter vertical jump (not a typo, Sensabaugh has serious ups). In fact, the average measurables for all the Cowboys safeties are not far off Patrick Peterson's incredible results.

Just about every Cowboys safety has the size to play strong safety and the speed to play as a free safety. To have a group 40-yard dash average below 4.5 is no easy feat. Those kinds of times represent legitimate speed in the NFL. Felix Jones ran a 4.44 as a rookie. Judging by rookie weight, only Brodney Pool and Akwasi Owusu-Ansah could be considered slightly small to tackle in run support like a strong safety, and only Barry Church could be considered slow for a free safety - though his agility (20-shuttle and 3-cone) show he has impressive acceleration and agility for his size and he may be faster than his 40-dash result suggests. Only Brondey Pool and Danny McCray seem slightly subpar in acceleration and agility results.

Athletically, this is a rather inspiring collection of prospects.


While different kinds of skill sets and athleticism are required to earn titles such as ball-hawking or hard-hitting safety, they both require the player to have one essential commonality, good instincts. When judging the potential of college prospects collecting measurables is not enough, and one place they fall short in predicting future greatness is their ability to identify intangibles, like instincts.

Football smarts can go a long way in masking a lack of instincts, relying on the mind to perceive what the offense is trying to do rather than feeling the flow on the field and reflexively reacting to it. A great player will have a combination of both. With the ability to read plays and the intuition to be at the "right place" the player's reaction time is drastically cut and they can make big plays behind the line of scrimmage or in coverage. It's this kind of combination that helped propel Sean Lee so quickly to NFL success. One statistical way of predicting the player's level of football instincts is to see how often they made a big play in college. Sacks, tackles for a loss, interceptions, these are all likely events of a player with great instincts utilizing them to get a beat on the offense before they can stop him. Even total tackles can help provide some insight on how often the player was around the action on the field.

Gerald Sensabaugh does appear to have good instincts. It is one reason he has averaged around 70 tackles each season with the Cowboys and managed eight interceptions in those three seasons. While it isn't his best quality, it certainly is one of his assets. However, I believe that the most instinctual players among the Cowboys safeties are Barry Church and rookie Matt Johnson. Both players come from "small" schools, so on some level their ability to get drafted is a testament to them showing how much better they were than their competition, and this was partly due to their instincts. In college, Church managed over 200 solo tackles, twenty-six for a loss, six forced fumbles, nine interceptions, and two touchdowns. As a third safety in Ryan's 2011 defense, Church showed promise reacting to plays and making tackles in run support, but still needs to improve in coverage. Matt Johnson was simply marvelous at his level of competition. Here are a few of his collegiate accomplishments:

17 career interceptions (Ranked 7th All-time in BCS, and one away from school all-time record)

210 interception yards (2nd best school history, 9 yards short of school all-time record)

341 tackles (six tackles away from 3rd best in school history)

6 forced fumbles (tied for school all-time record)

This was also playing injured for much of his senior year and missing the last four games.

This information was made available from his college's website which also had some other pertinent information:

At the time of his injury Johnson was the team's second-leading tackler with 52, including a team-high eight tackles for loss. He had 1 1/2 sacks, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and a quarterback hurry.

When Matt Johnson was asked about being drafted by the Cowboys...

"It's awesome," he said of being picked in the fourth round. "My dad grew up as a Cowboys fan, so I did too and we watched a lot of their games. I even had an Emmitt Smith jersey - it was the first one received."

I have high hopes for this young man. With great instincts and athletic ability to match, there is a lot of talent and potential that could be tapped. Of course, transitioning from his small-school competition to the playbooks and opponents in the NFL will be a big leap for him, but he seems very capable of making it.

As an added bonus, I have linked a video of some of Matt Johnson's college highlights.

Even if you don't recognize him or his jersey number, don't worry, he really stands out. He will either be the player that reacts first and takes a straight-line to where the play will eventually end, or he will be the patient one that doesn't waste steps as he reads the play and then reacts better and quicker than any other defender.


The greatest of intangibles and a place Jason Garrett clearly places emphasis, a player's ability to be a leader for his team is paramount to achieve greatness. Above all else, Darren Woodson was a leader. Not only could he inspire better play from his teammates by leading by example and revving them up emotionally, he could also improve the team's performance by teaching and coaching teammates during practice (and perhaps most importantly) during a game. Providing the rest of the secondary confidence, masking their lack of instincts or ability to read offenses, Woodson could use his knowledge to make sure the secondary was lined-up properly and make them aware of places the offense seems likely to attack. Unfortunately, this is where the Cowboys safeties appear to be lacking.

In any defense, the safety is the natural position for a leader to line up the secondary. His pre-snap position allows him to communicate with and read the entire field while corners might struggle to see what is happening near the opposite sideline. Especially in a defensive scheme as complex and intricate as Ryan's, not to mention dependent on pre-snap reads, having a safety to make sure the entire secondary is reading the offense properly and correctly judging assignments is vital.

While Gerald Sensabaugh has incredible physical talent and good instincts, he doesn't appear to have the drive to be a leader. He and Dave Campo have gone on record explaining Sensabaugh's unwillingness (if not inability) to lead the defense. As Campo stated, "I think he [Sensabaugh] is a better player when he doesn't have to do it [be a leader and line up teammates]." For more of my feelings about Sensabaugh's lack of leadership skills, you can go back to an old post of mine.

Perhaps more time in Ryan's system can get Sensabaugh to be comfortable enough to where he can still be a good player and help out his teammates. If not, then someone else will need to pick up that slack for the Cowboys secondary. One interesting possibility is Brondey Pool. While he isn't an athletic marvel, in 2009 Pool had the best season of his career playing for Rob Ryan in Cleveland. In Ryan's system, Pool managed a career-high four interceptions and had double-digit pass deflections. He did so well in Rob Ryan's system that his brother Rex stole Pool away in 2010 to play with the NY Jets. Familiar with Ryan defenses, Pool could become that glue that helps the secondary play as a cohesive unit (much like he did in college as a leader at Oklahoma).

Of course, when discussing leadership I must again point out rookie Matt Johnson who was a team leader and coach favorite in college. He clearly has a long road ahead of him before he can become a leader on an NFL defense, but one can't help but wonder about the future of his career.

There will be some serious competition at Dallas Cowboys training camp 2012, and the depth chart at safety will be a serious battleground in my opinion. While Sensabaugh will clearly be one of the starters, it appears the rest of the positions are up for grabs. Currently, I think Pool, Church, and Johnson will finish out the collection of four safeties on the roster. But if Church, McCray and AOA show in their third NFL season that they have learned and progressed admirably, we could all be surprised with five safeties on the Cowboys 53-man 2012 depth chart. And while the Cowboys are still searching to find the next Darren Woodson, they currently have some interesting prospects that could finally help make the safety position a team strength again.

What do you think of the Cowboys safeties?

Another user-created commentary provided by a BTB reader.

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