When I became a Cowboys fan, Darren Woodson played safety. He was easily my favorite player, and he was the reason that I chose to play safety when I played High School football. Even when the team struggled, the Cowboys had a good defense because Woodson led it.
The Cowboys haven't had a great (and have rarely had even a good) safety since Woodson was forced to retire from injury. We all
remember try to forget Roy Williams (both of them actually) who turned out to be either completely dependent on Woodson for good play or just lost his desire to play at all. We all remember try to forget the Alan Ball experiment.
Looking at Pro Football Focus's grades, Dallas hasn't had a top ten safety since Gerald Sensabaugh was the tenth best safety in 2010 with completely positive grades that summed to 10.1. Of course, that was also the year that Alan Ball was ranked 78th out of 85 safeties and the year Romo went down with a broken collarbone. Since then, Sensabaugh has ranked 25th out of 87 (2011) and 73rd out of 88 (2012) as the best safety on the team.
Now, with a switch to the 4-3 and the Tampa 2, safety play may become even more important for the Cowboys. Whether Sensabaugh was injured this past season to cause his poor play or not, he has reached or is approaching the age of diminishing returns. I'm excited for Barry Church, but a torn Achilles is scary stuff, and he was never that rangy to begin with. Matt Johnson could be good, but we don't have anything but hope where he's concerned.
So, the Cowboys need to shore up the position to ensure valuable safety play in 2013. Let's take a look at free agency and, then, the draft.
Possible Free Agents: PFF has a handy Free Agent tracker
Jairus Byrd: Byrd entered the league in 2009. In his first year, he graded out as the 41st best out of 88 safeties. Since then, he has gotten better every year. In 2010, he ranked 20th out of 85. In 2011, he ranked 3rd out of 87 with a 15.3 grade. And in 2012, he ranked 2nd out of 88 with a 23.7 grade. Because of his age, Byrd appears to be a good bet to be the top safety in all of football next year. That possibility, though, makes Byrd a longshot for Dallas to be able to fit under the salary cap.
Kenny Phillips: Kenny Phillips is a G-man. We all know how good he is, because we love it whenever he's scratched from the game when Dallas plays New York. While Phillips has had serious knee trouble, and that should be a concern, he has consistently been graded as a top ten safety. He graded out with a cumulative 7.4 score this past year despite playing only 304 snaps. So, while he finished as the 15th best safety, his play was actually much better than that ranking. Plus, Phillips's injury history could mean that Dallas could sign him to a cap-friendly contract.
Ronde Barber: Somehow, Ronde keeps playing and playing well. Maybe he has Tiki spell him at times to help keep his legs under him. This is an obvious fit for Dallas and Monte Kiffin, as someone already pointed out, but Ronde is very old and would not help the team beyond the next season if even that.
William Moore: Moore has been solid but unspectacular for the Falcons. He seems like a Sensabaugh type of player. Dallas could do worse, but Moore should only be pursued if he would accept a moderate contract. It seems more likely that the Falcons will re-sign him though.
Patrick Chung: I wanted Dallas to draft Chung the year he entered the NFL. He's graded out positively but mediocrely every year, and he's recently lost favor in New England. If his ability is still there (and he's young), the Cowboys should try to get Chung signed to a low deal. In Dallas, even mediocre safety play is improvement, and Chung still has some upside too.
Louis Delmas: I didn't want Dallas to draft Delmas when he entered the NFL, but his career has been similar to Chung's. Delmas didn't play much this past year, but he's shown that he can play solidly. I would expect Detroit to re-sign him though.
Ed Reed: Ed Reed has been so good for so long that it would be silly for Dallas not to entertain the idea of bringing him in to the fold even though he had a rough year.
Possible Draft Pick
Kenny Vaccaro: The University of Texas safety tops most lists of the draft's best safeties. He has good height and weight and appears to be moderately athletic. What stands out most about his game is that he often covered the slot receiver. So, he must have good quickness to go with his size. He does cover fairly well, but he doesn't get interceptions often, cause fumbles, or tackle all that well. He gets blocked easily, takes bad angles, and doesn't play the deep ball well. He didn't line up as the deep safety in the footage I saw of him. He seems overrated, and he shouldn't be listed as the top safety.
Here are his Junior highlights:
Kenny Vaccaro 2011 Junior Highlights (via godzillatron24)
Here are highlights from a 2012 game:
Kenny Vaccaro vs Oklahoma State 2012 (via JmpasqDraftjedi)
Matt Elam: The Florida Gator, Elam is Honest Abe Elam's little brother, and he is little. He's short, but he's built solidly and looks like a running back. He is explosive and fearless. He's a good prospect because of his quickness and hitting ability. His coverage is suspect, and I don't know about him playing deep coverage, but he would bring playmaking ability and toughness.
Here are highlights of Matt Elam:
Ultimate Matt Elam Highlights [HD] (via TheFootballman175)
Bacarri Rambo: The Georgia safety had a monster 2011 with 8 interceptions, but he missed the first four games this past year for marijuana-related discipline. Once he returned, though, Rambo had another good year. Rambo is tall and lean but muscular. He made plays all over the field. He played as the deep safety often and either made plays or kept the receiver from making a play. He lined up in coverage, blitzed, and played the run with good angles. He actively went for the ball while tackling and forced fumbles while still ensuring the tackles. He looks like a perfect fit as a Tampa 2 safety, because he plays the deep ball well and can cause takeaways. He seems more natural at safety than any of the other prospects. I think that it can't be overlooked, too, that Bacarri Rambo is an awesome name. Just like it's been proven that QBs are more likely to get paid more if they are good looking(symetrical), I think it should be proven that NFL players with the best names tend to play better as well. So, while Gerald Sensabaugh is limited by his name, Bacarri Rambo, on the other hand, would have alot of name to live up to (This isn't entirely facetious or entirely serious).
Here are Rambo Highlights:
Exploding Arrow - Rambo: First Blood Part 2 (9/11) Movie CLIP (1985) HD (via movieclips)
Sorry. Here are Bacarri Rambo highlights:
Bacarri Rambo vs Georgia Tech (2012) (via Aaron Aloysius)
Bacarri Rambo vs Alabama 2012 (via JPDraftJedi)
Eric Reid: The LSU safety has prototypical size and athleticism. However, he looks nothing more than an average safety. For a safety to excel, they must be able to cover, and Reid is more of a Laron Landry clone who hits hard but will give up plays in coverage. That type of safety has had its day, and that day has passed.
Here are Eric Reid highlights:
Eric Reid vs 7 teams (via JPDraftJedi)
Phillip Thomas: The Fresno State safety is high on some safety lists, but, having seen some video of him, I am deeply unimpressed. No thanks.
Here are Phillip Thomas's lowlights:
Phillip Thomas vs Oregon 2012 (via JmpasqDraftjedi)
It looks like there are at least a few good options for Dallas to choose from this offseason for safety help. Ultimately, I would like the Cowboys to go after Byrd, Phillips, Delmas, Chung, or Reed in free agency. The younger the player the better. In the draft, should the Cowboys fail to land a free agent or even if they do, I would love for the Cowboys to get Bacarri Rambo. Rambo looks like the best all-around safety. He's rangy, physical, and quick, and he makes plays. Plus, his name is awesome. While the Cowboys should seek O-line and D-line help early in the draft, if Rambo falls to the 2nd or 3rd or (with luck) the 4th round, the Cowboys should not pass him by.