January 3, 2004. To most Cowboy fans this date signifies the Cowboys 29-10 playoff loss to the eventual NFC champion Carolina Panthers. If you skim through the starting lineups from that game, you will find another significant footnote. In that game the Cowboys (#1 in total defense that season) started an aging yet still effective Darren Woodson, next to a young and dynamic Roy Williams at the safety positions. That game, five full seasons ago, was the last time the Cowboys have been able to line up with a capable safety tandem.
In the five seasons that have elapsed since the last time Williams and Woodson lined up together, the Cowboys have started 7 players at the two safety positions. Tony Dixon, Lynn Scott, Keith Davis, Pat Watkins, Willie Pile, and Ken Hamlin have all gotten a shot at lining up next to Williams. Of that group, Hamlin is the only player whose play could even be described as adequate. Unfortunately for the Cowboys, by the time Hamlin arrived in 2007, Williams had eroded and become a walking bullseye for opposing offensive coordinators.
In the years since Woodson’s departure, the Cowboys have on average ranked 15th in the NFL in pass defense. In that same time span, the Cowboys’ defense has surrendered an annual average of 39.4 plays of 20 or more yards, and 11.6 plays of more than 40. In recent years, the Cowboy defense has been terrorized by tight ends, and been particularly vulnerable in the deep middle portion of the secondary.
The scariest part of this whole thing is the fact as crippling as poor safety play has been to the Cowboys, the team has not exhausted many draft picks or free agent dollars in addressing this longstanding deficiency. The Cowboys have spent only two draft picks on safeties in the post-Woodson era. In 2005, the team spent a 6th round selection on Ball State’s Justin Beriault. The following year, the team took Pat Watkins of Florida State in the 5th round. Five drafts, and only a 5th and a 6th spent on safeties. The Cowboys have not seriously addressed the issue via free agency either. In 2006 the team brought in 33-year old Marcus Coleman, who did not stick due to off-the-field issues. Ken Hamlin has a big contract now, but in 2007 he was originally only signed to a 1-year "show me" deal, coming off of a major head injury.
My point is as follows: The Cowboys have been hamstrung by mediocre safety play for a very long time. The team has other needs, but let’s get this thing solved once and for all. If Western Michigan safety Louis Delmas really is the guy the Cowboys love, then the team has got to make it happen. Don’t wait, don’t screw around, just go get him. If all indications point to Delmas coming off the board before the Cowboys first selection, then move up and get this dude to Valley Ranch. The Cowboys most certainly have the ammunition to move up and secure their guy. And if round 4 or 5 rolls around, and the Cowboys see another safety they like still on the board, I say take him too.
If there has been one factor in recent years that has kept the Cowboys’ defense from reaching it’s full potential, it has been safety play. The acquisition of Gerald Sensabaugh was a good start, but the Cowboys can not stop there. Of course the Cowboys have to get proper value for their picks, but they have got to bring home a safety or two regardless. Recent history considered, the Cowboys’ chief priority in this year’s draft should be finding a way to stop the bleeding in the secondary.