Going into the 2014 NFL draft, there were many of us that were thinking that the Dallas Cowboys would spend some of their efforts trying to strengthen a position that has plagued the team for a number of years: safety. In fact, early on during the pre-draft period, there were players like HaHa Clinton-Dix and Calvin Pryor who were being kicked around as possible day one selections for Jerry Jones and Company. As things played out, it was not to be.
The team did not address the safety position until the draft's final stanza when they selected Baylor safety Ahmad Dixon. In addition, they also signed a pair of undrafted rookies to bolster the teams depth. Unlike the fans, the Dallas brain-trust did not see safety as a position of significant need for the upcoming season. According to Dallas' second-in-command, Vice President Stephen Jones, the team is confident in what they already have on the team.
"We feel a little bit better than our safeties than our critics in the media" - Stephen Jones
With Stephen's quote in mind, let's turn our attention to the players that head coach Jason Garrett and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli will have to work with as the 2014 season approaches.
|SS||Ahmad Dixon||Rookie||Draft 2014/7th Round|
|S||Barry Church||5th Year||UDFA|
|S||J J Wilcox||2nd Year||Draft 2013/3rd Round|
|DB||Jakar Hamilton||2nd Year||UDFA|
|S||Jeff Heath||2nd Year||UDFA|
|S||Matt Johnson||3rd Year||Draft 2012/4th Round|
The three players whose names appear in italics are the only returning safeties with any significant experience from the 2013 season. Barry Church, who is firmly entrenched as one of the starters, was the Cowboys leading tackler last season. The 2010 UDFA earned his starting role for the 2012 season before suffering a season ending injury. In 2013, he rebounded to start all 16 games for Dallas and proved his value to Monte Kiffen's squad. Beyond the former Toledo Rocket; however, things get rather thin. At the other safety the 2013 Cowboys started three different players, two rookies and a veteran who is no longer with the team.
Rookie draft pick J.J. Wilcox replaced veteran free agent Will Allen shortly after the season started. Although Wilcox experienced significant success during training camp, he experienced the growing pains that should be expected of a rookie who only had one season of collegiate experience at his position. Still his positives outweighed the drawbacks in the minds of the Dallas coaches and soon Allen was released.
The Cowboys decided to bite the bullet and allow the young defensive back out of Georgia Southern to learn by doing. Unfortunately Wilcox soon found his on the job training cut short by a knee injury that was compounded by a personal tragedy that impacted his play. During the off-season the Cowboys have invested significant efforts to get him ready to pair with Church for 2014.
"I’d start with J.J. Wilcox; he was really having a tremendous training camp and he had a real tragedy in his life when he lost his mother. We were naming him the starter that day, and then he had to leave camp, rightfully so, to be with his family. We think J.J., working with him in the offseason, has it all back together again and we think he’s going to seize the opportunity." - Stephen Jones
Beyond the pair who appear to be the designated starters heading in to OTAs, the Cowboys return another undrafted free agent, Jeff Heath, out of Saginaw Valley State. Heath replaced J.J. Wilcox when he was hindered by his 2013 issues. Even when Wilcox returned from his knee injury, Heath remained the starter for the team; all told he started the final six games for the battered Dallas defense.
A former NCAA Division II player who earned a slot on the Cowboys roster the hard way, Heath is more suited to being a role player in the secondary and a key member of special teams units than he is as a starting safety. For the close of the season he was a soft spot that could be exploited in pass coverage. As should be expected of a small school player who earned a place on the roster through grit and determination, Jeff Heath still has a lot to learn.
Next up, and perhaps the player most in jeopardy of losing his job, we find Matt Johnson. The former fourth-round draft pick in 2012, Johnson has yet to play a regular season snap for the team. Injuries have kept him on injured reserve during his first two NFL seasons, so he enters the 2014 camp as a third-year rookie. While Johnson has shown flashes, during his limited availability, of why the Cowboys were so thrilled to secure his services there comes a time when the rubber must meet the pavement.
For the Eastern Washington product, that time is now. The powers that be at Valley Ranch still feel that Johnson can be the play-making ball hawk that they envisioned, if he can finally suit up for a real game.
"Matt Johnson has real injuries, but they’re more unfortunate than chronic. This is probably the year for him to really have it all come together."
Johnson will be pushed for his roster spot by this year's seventh-round draft pick Ahmad Dixon. The rookie out of Baylor, who is more of an in-the-box guy rather than the ball hawk that Johnson is reputed to be, has proven that he can make an impact on a game. Head coach Jason Garrett is impressed with what the rookie brings to the table.
"He’s a really fast, hard-hitting safety. A guy who we think can come in and really contribute on special teams, but also the right kind of guy to develop and compete as a position player as well." - Jason Garrett
Jakar Hamilton, who saw limited experience last season as a rookie will also be attempting to insert himself into the mix. Hamilton spent the early part of his rookie season as a part of the Cowboys practice squad before being elevated to the 53 man roster with the knee injury sustained by J J Wilcox. Listed as a defensive back on the team's roster, and primarily used as a back up and special teams player after his promotion, the UDFA rookie from South Carolina State recorded two tackles for the team in 2013. He will be looking to expand his impact in 2014.
Finally, we move to the guys that the Dallas front office went out and signed after the draft. Marvin Robinson, who like Jeff Heath played in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, will try to repeat what Heath did last season. The product of Ferris State, who spent his first three college seasons as a Michigan Wolverine, will try to progress from being a camp body to earning a slot on an NFL roster. Similarly, his fellow UDFA rookie safety Ryan Smith also has experience in a big time college program, in Smith's case he is a former Auburn Tiger. Both players will be fighting the uphill battle that UDFAs face when they try to make a future at the game's top level. While the climb will be tough, both men can look to their teammates for inspiration. Two of the men they will be paired with took the same route to the NFL.