What's one basic rule of the many variations of the Cover-2? The safeties have a lot of ground to cover. Unfortunately, if you've been paying attention to the Cowboys solutions at safety over the last several years, their safeties have a lot of ground to cover in a different, more disappointing sense.
The defense that Monte Kiffin is expected to bring to town, the Tampa 2, does a great job of reducing the area that the safeties need to patrol by dropping an athletic middle linebacker into the deep middle of the field, . Remember elementary school safety patrols, with the orange sashes? I was one; I never stayed on my post and quit after a couple weeks. In the Tampa 2, having committed, sure-tackling, safeties with plenty of range is an elementary need of the scheme.
A lot of people remember the early 2000 Bucs for the play of John Lynch, a 9-time Pro Bowler at both safety positions that was a fierce hitter and able to cover large chunks of real estate. Lynch stood 6'2" and weighed in at 220 lbs. During the championship run of 2002, Tampa's free safety spot was manned by Dexter Jackson, a solid 10-year player that was at his peak from '02-'04, but a player no one would confuse with an All-Pro talent.
Obviously Lynch's talents allowed the Tampa defense to be elite (along with HOF DT Warren Sapp and All-Pro WLB Derrick Brooks), but is an elite safety necessary for the defense to be above average?
In Indianapolis, Tony Dungy had their own fierce hitting, rangy safety, Bob Sanders, patrolling the middle during their winning days. Sanders was injured for the majority of the 2006 season, playing only one regular season game. Colts' opponents averaged 22.5 points per game during the regular season. Once Sanders returned for the Super Bowl run, that number dropped to 16 a game. Pretty big difference, especially when you consider you are playing only against quality opponents. Chalk one up for needing a top-tier safety.
On the flip side, the Chicago Bears, led by Lovie Smith and Rod Marinelli (two Kiffin disciples) have had top level defenses without a dynamic safety presence. Chicago has had a rotation of safeties man the position over the last 6 years, with Daniel Manning chalking up the most starts in that time.
Regardless, it doesn't much matter what others have done at the safety position; what matters is what Dallas will do there.
The Cowboys have a couple in house candidates that are currently under contract: Gerald Sensabaugh, Barry Church, Matt Johnson and Danny McCray. Sterling Moore is also signed and can play both corner and safety. Sensabaugh is, by far, the most consistent player of the group. He has experience, he plays injured, has decent measurables. The thing is, though, that Sensabaugh has never been a "wow" safety. He's been decent, he doesn't hurt you, but he's never been a top safety in the league. Using PFF's grades, Sensi has only been a Top 20 safety once, in 2010 when he ranked 10th. He also has a contract that if released as a June 1st cut, could save Dallas $3m in cap space.
One can never underestimate what a coaching staff change does to the prospects of young players. Monte Kiffin and his #2 Marinelli have very little tape to judge Barry Church and Matt Johnson on. Church made a quantum leap last offseason to earn the starting SS spot out of camp and Johnson was a small school prospect that never saw the field in 2012 due to a myriad of injuries. Fortunately for both, the club kept secondary coach Jerome Henderson on, so there will be someone that believes in their potential to "vouch" for them during player evaluations.
You basically have to look at Matt Johnson as a redshirt rookie. The Cowboys scouting department was very high on the player from Eastern Washington and his heat-seeking play on collegiate highlight reels tells us why. If I had to wager, the Cowboys staff will consider Johnson for a possible starting role and that will play into their strategy in augmenting the position.
Barry Church is a little different, considering he suffered a severe injury when he went down with a torn Achilles. From what I know of the injury, Achilles are harder to return to full speed from than other setbacks. I found this article speaking to the return capabilities in the NFL circle:
Of the 31 players who sustained an Achilles tendon rupture, 21 (64%) returned to play in the NFL at an average of 11 months after injury. In the three seasons following their return, those 21 players saw significant decreases in games played and power ratings compared to the three seasons preceding the injury.
So 2/3rds of Achilles injuries return within 11 months, but all with decreased athleticism. Yikes. I can't see Dallas planning Church to be much more than what he was prior to 2012. Looking at his contract extension (signed after injury) Church isn't an expensive keep for Dallas. His base salaries for the next two years average less than $1m. If he can still ball out, bonus, but I don't think him in the fold affects Dallas' game planning as much as Johnson does.
Overall though, Dallas would appear to need to at least spend a major resource on the position. The questions are whether that's in free agency, the draft, or both. Whether that's at free safety, strong safety, or both.
I already wrote that my preference is for the team to go the free agent route here. Free agent safeties are some of the cheaper options in the league. This is a double-edged sword. For one, it means that the upper-tier safeties like Jarius Byrd, Dashon Goldson and William Moore will most likely be retained. However, there are still a lot of viable options.
Ed Reed, Ronde Barber and Kenny Phillips are all players that I think Dallas should investigate thoroughly. From hearing Reed's comments this week though, I'd be hard pressed to see him leave Baltimore. Whether or not Barber wants to play again, much less leave Tampa, is it's own enigma. That's why I think the best play is for Kenny Phillips.
Phillips was not happy with how the Giants brought him back from his injury last season; he will most likely want to leave just to leave. What better way to pay back the Giants than to bring his services to a division rival? Evan Silva of Rotoworld even thinks he could be open to a one-year "prove it" deal. If healthy, I'd love to see Dallas start Phillips and Johnson in 2013 and I'd feel more comfortable than I have in the last 10 years for Dallas at safety. Yes, Darren Woodson has been gone for 10 years. Sad face.
Other free agent options include Louis Delmas, Patrick Chung, LaRon Landry and Glover Quin.
That leads us to the draft. Before the offseason got in full swing, I considered SS Matt Elam as the best choice for the Cowboys. I really like the power that he brings to the equation. The consensus #1 safety, Kenny Vaccaro from Texas, I question whether or not he wants to stick his nose in the scrum as much as necessary. Vacarro has the ability to play either safety spot, and was a true leader of the Longhorns secordary.
A recent riser for the "draftniks" is SS Jonathan Cyprien of Florida International. I actually saw a tweet (article?) yesterday that suggested Cyprien has been considered a first-round talent among NFL evaluators but it's just the writers that are slow to come around on him during the Senior Bowl process. You also have guys like Eric Reid of LSU and Bacarri Rambo of Georgia.
What about interesting late-round names? There's a wealth of them. Remember Ray Ray Armstrong from Miami? He was the bees-knees last year and has fallen all the way to a 7th round projection after being embattled over illegal benefits and the Nevin Shapiro scandal. Of course, the NCAA seems to now be most at question over the Shapiro investigation.
A sleeper pick? NFP's Russ Lande seems to really like Nevada's Duke Williams as a convert from CB to S. He currently has Williams as the #1 CB on his board.
Duke Williams, Nevada " "The kid who may end up being the best of all of them other than Kenny Vacarro," Lande said. "He's a violent player. He flies up the field. He also played a bunch of corner. He'll test great on the chalkboard." - via John Kiem
Lande is, by far, the most out-the-box draft guy I've come across this draft season. Maybe he's onto something, as most other pundits put Williams in the 6th round range.
There are plenty of flavors out there for the Cowboys to choose from. Whether they decide to go the route of the proven NFL talent or if they want to get a youngster to add to the mix, they will most likely be doing anything but standing pat with the foursome they currently tout. What's your preferred plan of action? How would you keep things safe?