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What's a Blue-Chip Safety Worth?

Here are two elite defenses.  Can you guess who they are?

Team   Pts.   Rank 
Yards. Rank. Rush Rk. Pass Rk. Pass TDs -Rk.
Team A 
  2nd 4056  1st  3rd  1st  18 - 9th
Team B 
  244   3rd 4177  2nd  3rd  2nd  17 - 7th

Their stat lines are very similar.  They were tough against the run and even tougher against the pass.  Neither had a devastating rush.  The sack leader on each squad had eight.

Give up?  Team A is the 2003 Dallas Cowboys, Big Bill Parcells' first.  Team B is this year's Baltimore Ravens,  Both were quarterbacked by blue- chip safeties:  Dallas by the aging but still superb Darren Woodson;  Baltimore by the outstanding Ed Reed. 

What's a player like Woodson or Reed worth?  The Cowboys offer a clear case study.  The defense returned almost intact the following year.  '03 right end Ebenezer Ekuban and his 2.5 sacks were replaced by Marcellus Wiley, who contributed 3.0.  Leonardo Carson replaced Willie Blade at one DT position. In the secondary, Lance Frazier took over for Mario Edwards. 

None of these '03 starters and their '04 replacements are household names, because none were difference makers.  Dallas kept most of those on the field.  Greg Ellis started 16 games both years, as did La'Roi Glover.  Dat Nguyen and Dexter Coakley played full seasons at linebacker and then-youngsters Terence Newman and Roy Williams played every game in the secondary. 

The one major loss came that summer, when SS Darren Woodson suffered a career-ending back injury.  Woodson was 34 at the time.  He had posted just one interception and one sack the year before.  You would think the Cowboys could have maintained a level of performance close to their '03 peak.  Think again:

Team   Pts.   Rank 
Yards. Rank. Rush Rk. Pass Rk. Pass TDs -Rk.
Dallas '03
  2nd 4056  1st  3rd  1st  18 - 9th
Dallas '04
  405   27th 5285  16th  10th  21st  31 - 29th

The pass defense completely collapsed with Tony Dixon subbing for Woodson.  Opponents' pass-per-attempt average jumped from a league-best 5.0 in '03 to 6.6 in '04.  The touchdown passes allowed almost doubled.  Dallas had tied for third in 3rd-down percentage in 2003.  The following year, the Cowboys dropped to 22nd. 

On a team with a weak pass rush, intelligent coverage made the difference.  Woodson was no longer the player who frequently covered slot receivers in his prime, but he knew where to go and he got the rest of his unit in place.  His last defense didn't allow big plays. Dixon's allowed them in bunches. 

Think back to this past year's defense.  Think of the big plays surrendered by poor safety play, of Stephen Jackson's big runs in the Rams loss.  Think of all the yards the Seahawks TE John Carlson racked up on the Dallas safeties in the Thanksgiving Day game.  Think of Dallas using Demarcus Ware in coverage against Baltimore's Todd Heap because the coaches didn't trust Keith Davis to cover him.

And of course, remember the double whiffs times two that Davis and Ken Hamlin had on the Ravens last two drives, which set Willis McGahee and LaRon McClain free for season-crushing TD runs.

Roy Williams probably would have stopped the Ravens runs.  He was second on the '07 squad with 93 tackles.  Davis, by comparison, finished seventh on this year's team with just 39.  Williams only contributed nine when he was healthy. 

Williams is an obvious upgrade, but if topping Keith Davis is the team's only goal, it is not serious about becoming a contender again.  Do you think Roy L. could have covered Carlson or Heap any better?  Or Chris Cooley or Brent Celek?  Neither do I. 

I've focused a lot of my early draft attention on guys like Louis Delmas and Rashard Johnson because I'm convinced that a quality safety can help this team improve more than any other player the Cowboys could obtain.  I don't have to look at Troy Polamalu or Ed Reed for proof, though their examples are clear.  All I have to do is remember the long, long walk in the desert the Cowboys defense has taken since number 28 retired.

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