Cowboys Offseason Headscratcher: Who Will Emerge At Safety?

Might one of the Cowboys young safeties puch Danny McCray off the roster? - Rob Carr

A cursory look at the Cowboys roster might indicate that a hole exists at safety, especially after Gerald Sensabaugh's release and subsequent retirement. Reports from offseason camps suggest, however, that the team has several young candidates more than capable of stepping in and filling the hole.

In an article that recently appeared in Grantland, former Football Outsiders regular contributor Bill Barnwell conjured up a list of positions where certain NFL teams didn't, as he puts it, finish their offseason shopping. He addresses what he perceives to be the most glaring remaining roster holes across the league; for example, he sees the Bills and Steelers as still needing a tight end, and writes that the Giants haven't found a solution at OLB.

How does this pertain to the Cowboys? Well, Barnwell thinks that safety is the lineup spot that remains on their shopping list. He writes:

...With Sensabaugh released before he eventually retired, I was sure the Cowboys would at least do something to shore up their last line of defense. That big move: sign backup Steelers safety Will Allen, who's started all of nine games over the past five years. Allen's a bit part, and while the Cowboys will hope to get something out of Barry Church, who missed most of 2012 with a torn Achilles, Dallas might be stuck inserting 2013 third-rounder J.J. Wilcox into the lineup long before he's ready to contribute.

Barnwell might very well be correct in his assessment; certainly, when the offseason began, one of the places where the Cowboys had the most questions was at safety. Indeed, in a recent assessment of the various NFC East secondaries, ESPN's Dan Williamson praised Dallas' corners before noting "Safety is another story though," concluding that the last line of defense "remains an immediate weakness for Dallas."

These and other writers are largely responding the fact that the team appears to have so many unanswered questions at the position. As Barnwell notes, Barry Church is coming back from the dreaded torn Achilles, an injury that usually sees players back to full health in the second season back. How will he respond? Other questions abound: Does Will Allen have anything left in his tank? If he does, is he even starting material? Is Matt Johnson an NFL-caliber player? Can J.J. Wilcox, a small-school guy who played safety for only one year, make any meaningful contributions in 2013? Can these unsung guys ensure that Danny McCray plays only special teams? Will McCray make the final roster? And: what about Jakar Hamilton?

As you can see that's a lot of material for offseason headscratching, so much so that I might normally have worked up a sizeable bald spot on the side of my head. What has kept me from worrying, however, are the surprisingly positive reports on the team's young safeties that have come out of OTAs and minicamps. Lets review:

Matt Johnson: Although he lost a full year due to a historic string of nagging injuries, Johnson still excites the Cowboys coaching staff. In offseason camps, we began to see why. Reports were that he ran well, demonstrating excellent acceleration and the ability to be around the ball. In one of his daily "Scouts Notebook" practice reports, Bryan Broaddus noted that Johnson boasted excellent burst, which he showed when Monte Kiffin blitzed him off the edge; "he was on the ball in a hurry," Broaddus noted. Moreover, when aligned deep (something he'll have to do with frequency in a Cover-2 scheme), Johnson's backpedal "looked smooth and relaxed." Asked about which defensive players might make a big impact this season, cornerback Brandon Carr seconded Broaddus' assessment, noting that "I can see [Johnson's] range as a safety," and adding, "I can kind of see what all the hype was about him coming out of college last year."

J. J. Wilcox: Barnwell thinks Wilcox might have to be thrust into the lineup before he is ready; reports from offseason workouts suggest that the Georgia Southern product might be ready sooner rather than we think. In OTAs and minicamps, he showed great confidence in making the necessary checks in the secondary. More importantly, he is one of those players who has a knack for being around the ball. Multiple reports noted that he is always in the right place at the right time, which allows him to be in position to make plays. He made several praiseworthy picks, and ended one particular practice with a pick six, after covering (and undercutting) super-quick slot receiver Cole Beasley as a dime linebacker.

Not only has he shown surprising coverage skills, doing a nice job covering tight ends and demonstrating the ability to carry his man across the field, but he also plays with a physical style that will be worth watching once the pads come on. His size (6'2", 219) will be a red zone asset, both against the run and the pass, where he'll be able to handfight tight ends, slow down their releases and contest jump balls. Finally, he appears to be an emotional player who brings passion to the game.

Jakar Hamilton: As much as Wilcox has impressed, the player who caught people's eyes in the rookie minicamp was priority free agent Jakar Hamilton. In the morning practice, he was notable largely for being the first player to vomit on the sidelines; in the afternoon, however, he started making plays. In the one-on-one drills against the running backs and tight ends, Hamilton was able to rip the ball from Gavin Escobar's hands for an interception as the rookie tight end was trying to bring it to his body. Later, in the team period, Hamilton was positioned in the middle of the field as a "single high" high safety and showed impressive speed getting to the sidelines to just miss a second pick, defending a ball to Jared Green.

The Cowboys have a lot of questions at the position. But, in these three players, they seem to have better long-range answers than they've had in a long while. I think both Johnson and Wilcox are exciting players. Hamilton has talent; you may recall that he began his career at Georgia and beat out Baccari Rambo and Shawn Williams for a starting job before leaving for personal and family reasons. Add to this the fact that Church was on the come this time last year, and the needle is definitely pointing up for the Dallas safeties.

That's not to say that questions don't linger. But, since I feel confident that one of them will emerge by mid-season to secure a role opposite Church, they are of the more comforting variety: Will McCray's special teams prowess suffice to secure a roster spot? Can one of the youngsters make him expendable by excelling on ‘teams'? Is Allen's spot secure, or might he be "Brodney Pool-ed" by one of the kiddies?

From this vantage point, it is likely to boil down to this: the Cowboys keep five safeties. Church, Johnson, and Wilcox are in. Which two of Allen, McCray and Hamilton do they keep? Looking at those three in isolation, the key seems to be whether or not Hamilton shows enough to warrant inclusion in the 53. If not, he's likely destined for the practice squad? If so, they the question becomes what is more valuable: experience in the system or a one-dimensional (albeit All-Pro caliber) special teams player.

This will be a fascinating storyline to track thoughout camp...

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