J.J. Wilcox began his collegiate career on offense, spending his first three seasons on that side of the ball, primarily as a slot receiver. During that time, he caught 45 passes for 898 yards and four scores and added another 137 carries for 964 yards (for those of you who don't have internal calculators - in other words, everybody but O.C.C. - that's a healthy 7.0 YPC), scoring thirteen touchdowns. In 2012, however, the Georgia Southern coaches switched Wilcox to the defensive secondary, where he acquitted himself splendidly, starting 13 of 14 games and logging 84 tackles, with two picks. Wilcox also returned kicks, taking back 31 boots for 780 yards (25.2 yards per return) and a score.
Since Wilcox is less familiar to us than the other safeties in whom the Cowboys have expressed interest, perhaps the first thing we should do is go to the tape. Thanks again to the excellent men at Draft Breakdown, we have footage of him against Samford and in action versus Old Dominion. In addition, here's a highlight reel that shows him doing work against a variety of opponents.
As the tape shows, Wilcox has NFL size (6-0, 213 pounds), moves fluidly and shows excellent lateral quickness. Despite little experience at safety, he's a good tackler, attacking the line of scrimmage and efficiently breaking down in space. Although the Georgia Southern scheme didn't often have him playing deep, Wilcox was put on an island by the Senior Bowl coaches, and performed surprisingly well, showing good range and impressive ball skills. According to Phil Savage, the Senior Bowl's executive director (and former Browns GM), Wilcox was the best South team safety during the week in Mobile.
Wilcox followed this up with a strong Combine showing, registering a solid 4.51 second 40-yard dash, marking 17 bench press reps and demonstrating good explosion with 35-inch vertical and 10'4" broad jumps. His 7.02 second three-cone drill was good; his remarkable 4.09 short shuttle mark led all safeties in Indy. NFL.com scout Daniel Jeremiah named him one of the Combine's "winners," due to his workout and overall demeanor when seen alongside the big conference boys.
What do our scouts think of Wilcox and his small-conference game? Does he have what it takes to play with the big boys? Check out what they have to say:
ESPN/ Scouts, Inc. (Gary Horton): 11th-rated S; not in top 150
Instincts/ Recognition: Can make sound reads in deep coverage but room for improvement when it comes to discipline and gets caught out of position at times. Reads quarterback better than recognizes routes and doesn't always get a great break on the ball. Can take too long to locate the ball in run support
Cover Skills: Enough range to cover deep half and possibly play centerfield once he gets more experience at the position. Physical, times hits well and can separate receiver from ball. Average hips and shows good balance in off man coverage. Still limited when it comes to matching up with slot receivers. Average burst transitioning in and out of beaks. He can hold receivers that start to separate from him. Height and length limits ability to match up with tight ends.
Ball Skills: Experience on offense and the lack of experience diagnosing plays are reason for optimism when it comes to upside but still has small hands and short arms. Lacks the aggressive nature of a ball hawk as it stands now and doesn't get hands on enough passes.
Run Support: Not afraid to get downhill and mix it up. Willing to sacrifice body to make the play. Good effort in pursuit. Not a reliable last line of defense. Inexperience at position shows up in sub-par angles and gets caught out of position too much. Inconsistent tackler that fails to wrap up at times. Tough and flashes good pop taking on blockers but height raises concerns about ability to track the ball at linebacker depth.
Intangibles: Team first player. Moved from receiver to slot back in 2010 and moved from slot back to safety in 2012. Played wide receiver and safety in high school.
CBSSports.com (Rob Rang): 5th-rated SS; 117th overall
Strengths: Athletic frame with a thick lower half. Stands out at this level due to his athleticism and proved he deserved to be on the same field with the top prospects in Mobile. Good lateral agility. Surprisingly adept as an open field tackler. Attacks the line of scrimmage when he reads run but while fast to the action, breaks down pretty well, showing enough balance, patience and strength for the effective stop... Showed some instincts and range operating as a single-high safety during Senior Bowl drills. Good leaping ability and body control. Timed his leaps well and has good hand-eye coordination, perhaps due to time on offense. Obvious upside.
Weaknesses: Questionable straight-line speed. Looks like a one-speed player who glides with normal acceleration rather than showing the suddenness to run with NFL wideouts. A work in progress regarding his technique, though in all fairness, this is to be expected... Tends to bend at the waist rather than the knees. Attacks the line of scrimmage as a run defender, slipping by most blocks but too often is tied up when he they do get to him. Tools worthy of developing but isn't ready for prime time yet.
Compares To: Atari Bigby, SS, San Diego Chargers
Pro Football Weekly (Nolan Nawrocki): 5th-rated FS; not in top 150
Positives: Very good size and athletic ability. Linear fluidity. Closes fast. Aggressive and physical. Flashes the ability to tackle in space. Good hands. Has kickoff-return experience and a special-teams mentality. Helped himself at the Senior Bowl. Has upside.
Negatives: Short arms and small hands. Green positional instincts. Raw technique, eye discipline and route recognition. Lets receivers behind him. Will require patience absorbing complex assignments. Man-coverage limitations. Takes some bad angles and arrives out of control. Shoddy tackling fundamentals. Combine numbers were average and he struggled to unlock hips during drills.
Summary: Inexperienced, inconsistent defender who bounced from receiver to running back to safety, and it shows in his uneven play. Flashes enough athletic talent to warrant consideration as a developmental project, but requires patience and might never get it. Still very much a developmental prospect.
Ourlads (Dan Shonka): 9th-rated SS; 189th overall
One-year starter at strong safety. Started as a running back and wide receiver prior to his position move in 2012. A tough and physical strong safety who will contribute on special teams' coverage and returns. Also played on the goal-line offense. Wrap tackler. Plays with confidence. Good ball reactions and hands for a safety who was a former receiver. Returns kickoffs, averaging 25.5 yards per return. Was invited to the Senior Bowl on strong showing his senior year. Just learning to play the position.
As these grades suggest, Wilcox appears destined to be a third day pick; our scouts have him going anywhere from the mid fourth to the mid sixth round. My first inclination is to split the difference and slot him in round five, but I can't help noticing how many positive reviews he's received from people in the know, who have been quick to remind us that, while raw, Wilcox is likely to offer a higher ceiling than just about any safety after the second round. With this in mind, I'll place him in the fourth round on my 2013 "little board."
What impact might he make should he be drafted by the Cowboys? Clearly, he's a project, and could take a year or two until he learns the intricacies of the position, even in as simple a scheme as Monte Kiffin's. That said, I think he'd be worth the wait, due to his tremendous upside and seeming versatility. He was successful as a running back and receiver, so he clearly knows how to track the ball when its in the air and, with patient coaching could develop into a defensive playmaker capable of making plays both near the line of scrimmage and deep in coverage. If the Cowboys pick him, I'll be pleased - so long as its not before the fourth round. If they can get him in, say, the sixth? That would result in a happy dance at Chez Rabble.
Next up: Fresno State safety Phillip Thomas