The Cowboys went all out this offseason and upgraded a leaky secondary unit that has been abused for the past two seasons. The makeover started when the front office wined and dined Kansas City Chief cornerback Brandon Carr, making sure he didn't leave the city of Dallas without signing a contract. This was the beginning of clearing out the old (Terence Newman, Frank Walker and Alan Ball) and bringing in new talent for defensive coordinator Rob Ryan so he could run his system the way he couldn't operate it last year.
In the 2012 NFL Draft, the Cowboys traded up for a prospect labeled "the best defensive player" in the entire draft. To this day I am still shocked that we landed LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne. In just one offseason the Cowboys turned a dismal secondary into one of the most talented units in football. Of course they haven't even played a single down together, but one look at the new secondary roster on paper and you can't help but think that this is one of the best units the Cowboys have had in a very long time.
One area that isn't being talked about too much is the safety position. After the jump, let's take a closer look at who will be in play for the starting safety jobs in 2012.
During the 2011 season, the Cowboys surprised some with the decision to extend Gerald Sensabaugh. After a couple of one-year contracts, Sensabaugh finally cashed in with a five-year, $22.5 million dollar deal. At times last year Sensabaugh looked pretty solid on the field. When he left with a injury during the Lions game, Calvin Johnson basically took over the game.
The problem with Sensabaugh has been consistency and mental mistakes. There are too many times where he was out of position and made the wrong read on a play. This signing probably was due to the fact that the Cowboys looked at who was going to be available on the market in 2012 and didn't feel blown away by the potential free agent prospects that were out there.
Sensabaugh is probably best suited to play strong safety due to his size (6'1, 208) and skill set. He isn't a classic ballhawk, but he can come away with interceptions. I just can't see him as the starting free safety because he has trouble tracking the ball in the air. He can be physical and come up in the box for run support.
His ability to play both positions is helpful to Rob Ryan, but I would prefer to see him kept at the strong safety position. Sensabaugh will be entering his eighth NFL season and is a solid player, but just don't expect him to be an elite safety at any point in 2012. The Cowboys played it safe by re-signing him and retained a player who is familiar with the organization.
Pool was a signing that really shouldn't come as a surprise due to his familiarity with Rob Ryan. Pool began his career with the Cleveland Browns and spent the 2009 season under Ryan and his 3-4 defense. In 2010 Pool signed with the New York Jets where he teamed up with Rob's brother Rex Ryan. Pool was a very good safety during his college days at Oklahoma and had a productive career for the Browns.
Jason Garrett admitted that he tried to sign Pool in 2010, but the two sides never came to an agreement. Last offseason the Cowboys played the wait-and-see approach until they signed Abe Elam late into free agency. Perhaps they were attempting to land Pool first and Elam was their fallback plan.
"He's a very athletic safety," Cowboys coach Jason Garret said of Pool in March. "He's a guy we targeted last year and a guy we think has very good ball skills and very good on the back end who can also be a guy who can come down and do all the jobs that a safety in our defensive scheme has to do."
Ryan likes his safeties to be interchangeable, so we will most likely see the free safety and strong safety rotate depending on the situation. Pool can play both positions and could become the starting free safety next to Sensabaugh. Once again this was a low key signing that the Cowboys took a conservative approach towards. If Pool performs well, they could re-sign him in 2013. If not, they simply let him walk. All he has to do is be serviceable like Elam was, and it would not surprise me if he ends up giving us more production than Elam provided in 2011.
I really believe that the Cowboys have suffered in the draft because of the lack of talent that we are now seeing at the safety position entering the NFL. Mark Barron was a name linked to the Cowboys during the draft process. Barron was a touchy subject on BTB, but I was a big supporter of his because he was the type of safety that could have brought an instant upgrade to our secondary.
Johnson was a ballhawk in college as evident by his 17 career interceptions. He looks like a good free safety prospect who has the range to be a good cover safety. Bryan Broaddus had some very positive things to say about him in his breakdown of Johnson.
Good reactions....fight off the block...physical tackler...flies to the ball...steps up to make the tackle...down hill player...drives well on the ball in coverage...takes good angles to the ball...can beat the block to the point of attack...wrap up tackler...aware to read routes up the field...can carry slot up the field...not just a strong safety type...has some flexibility to his game....works to try and create turnovers.
The Cowboys may not be expecting Johnson to become a starter during his rookie season, but he will have every opportunity to win playing time in training camp. Matt Johnson may not have been a very well known name during the draft, but he looks like a solid option to have at the safety position and he could potentially develop into a starting player for us.
Church made the roster as an undrafted free agent in 2010 and has always intrigued the coaching staff. The reason he is still around is because the Cowboys value his versatility as a linebacker/safety hybrid who can play in certain packages, but also because of his ability to play special teams.
In Rainer Sabin's ongoing player profile series for the Dallas Morning News, he points out that Church could play an important role for the team in 2012.
Consequently, Church's responsibilities could shift depending on how the Cowboys choose to deploy their players. But because he has a diverse skill-set, he will be used in some capacity in the team's multiple defensive packages. And Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan certainly seems eager to give Church an expanded opportunity.
Church isn't a great athlete and he isn't very fast, but he can cover tight ends. His physicality and tackling ability make him more of a prototypical strong safety, but the Cowboys' roster is heavy on these types and light on typical free safeties. Church is a very solid player with some upside, but he may never develop into a starting player for the Cowboys.
Rob Ryan and Jason Garrett are big supporters of having competition throughout the roster, and the safety position will be one of the best training camp battles this summer. Ryan weighed in on his safeties recently and talked about the open competition that will take place this summer.
"I think that's going to be a hell of a competition," Ryan said. "Both of them are kind of coming off being banged up, but both of them have got a lot of talent, so I think it'll be a good thing. I think Gerald is clearly establishing himself as a leader back there."
"Brodney Pool has had a lot of success for me in the past, and Barry Church is one of our better players from last year, the way I evaluated it," Ryan said. "It ought to be a great competition."
The best players are going to play, well, that is what the Cowboys have been selling us since Garrett took over as head coach. We currently don't have any elite safeties on the roster, and it's been a long time since Darren Woodson was wearing #28 for us. Next year in free agency or in the draft the Cowboys could finally solve the rotating door at safety, but until then, these are the men that we have for the job. They aren't elite by any means, but they are safe options.