When the Cowboys made the decision to release Gerald Sensabaugh, many fans and analysts immediately catapulted the safety position to the top of the Cowboys list of draft needs. Just as quickly they began creating Mock Drafts featuring University of Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro going to the Cowboys in the first round or any one of several others in the second round. They claim that there is no way that Jason Garrett, Jerry Jones, and Monte Kiffin can go into the 2013 season expecting Barry Church & Matt Johnson to be their starting safeties in the new Tampa 2 scheme so they must address the position early in the draft.
I disagree with this notion, I don't think the Cowboys should draft a safety until the 3rd round if at all, & I have a few reasons why.
A) The draft is very deep for safeties
B) It would eliminate true competition for the position
C) Matt Johnson
This draft features a very deep class of safeties
Many respected draftniks around the web, including SB Nation's own Dan Kadar, feature a total of 15 safeties in the top 200 players on their big boards. Since 2006 the most safeties ever taken in a single draft is 14.
Considering the fact that the draft features 254 total picks, we can probably assume that there are a total of around 17-20 draftable safeties. Even a number around 17 means a >20% increase in the number of draftable safeties above the largest draft class at the position in the last 7 years.
The point, of course, is that the quality at the safety position stretches beyond those safeties with the highest grades, and a team can gain more value from their selections by choosing players at other positions early in the draft and selecting a quality safety in the mid-to-late rounds.
Drafting a safety in rounds 1 or 2 eliminates true competition
Jerry Jones very often says that he believes that his first-round picks should be immediate starters and contribute from week one. Based on this belief we know that if they draft a safety like Vaccaro in the first round, or even Eric Reid, or Jonathan Cyprien (who happens to be my favorite defender in the draft) or Matt Elam in the second round they would be expected to immediately step in at one of the two safety spots and start and be contributors.
If you have a position like safety, where your team has a couple of players with potential to be very good, and you draft a 1st or 2nd round safety, there's no guarantee that this player will actually be better players immediately than one of those guys already on your roster. However, due to their draft position, they will play more snaps than the others.
This eliminates true competition.
The third, and to me most important reason the Cowboys shouldn't take a safety early in the draft, is because I believe, as it seems the front office does, that they have a versatile, athletic, play making safety who can play the role in the new defensive scheme effectively. That player is of course Matt Johnson.
Considering he was off the radar for many Cowboy fans before the draft, lets look back at what Pro Football Weekly had to say about him in an article about late risers at the safety position in the 2012 Draft.
"Good-sized with a well-proportioned, toned build, Johnson is a tough, competitive, coachable strong safety with good linear athletic ability. Plays with and trusts his eyes. Drops downhill and supports the run aggressively — gets proper fits, runs the alley and takes effective angles. Effective in halves or thirds, can run with tight ends and has good hands to intercept (17 career interceptions). Smart, experienced four-year starter who made secondary calls. Struggles to man up receivers and shows average range and change of direction. Is not a violent striker and misses some tackles when he isn’t under control. Character player with a professional approach who has an intangible makeup and athletic skill set to make a roster and contribute on special teams."
When you read reports like this it quickly becomes pretty obvious why the Cowboys selected Johnson. Words like tough, competitive, coachable, smart, experienced, and professional, all make up a pretty perfect description of a RKG. But as Jason Garrett always says, they don't take guys just because they have the right intangible traits, they have to be able to play as well. Seventeen collegiate interceptions, along with his abilities in run support, and his pure measurable athletic traits all suggest that Johnson can play at the NFL level.
So why did this scout say he would only be able to contribute on special teams?
I'm so very glad you asked....
When I hear about a player who comes from a small school, who had a season-ending biceps injury early in his senior year, I begin to have concerns about whether that players body will be immediately ready to play at a high level in the NFL. But it's not a deterrent from selecting them in the draft or signing them as UDFA's, because they get to attend Mini Camps, & OTA's and work out at Valley Ranch all the way up to training camp, so they have time to work their bodies into shape to play at the pro level. Unless their school is on the quarters system which pushes the end of the 4th quarter back into the summer, in which case they would only be permitted to attend the Rookie Minicamp, and Mandatory Minicamp (if it falls after the end of the 4th quarter). In this situation, the player would be about 10 weeks behind his teammates in conditioning and preparation for the season. Eastern Washington, where Matt Johnson attended school, happens to be on the quarters system.
I believe that the scout who wrote the summary on Pro Football Weekly, and probably the Cowboys and other teams in the NFL had concerns about Johnson's conditioning, and knew that he would miss the off-season activities and probably spend at least the first half of the season or so getting his conditioning straight. This made him essentially a special teams only player his rookie season, but one who could start at either FS or SS by his second year in the NFL.
But what about his injuries last year?
I believe these injuries came as a result of, not in addition to, the scouts concerns about Johnson's conditioning. I'll explain my reasoning this way.
Now that I am out of shape and much less athletically active, any time I decide I want to get out and play basketball, or play flag football with buddies, I almost always end up with my hamstrings hurting. If I were to multiply the amount of explosion and force exerted by my body in those activities up to the level of an NFL athlete in NFL practices, I imagine my hamstrings would be in a ton of pain.
So if we look at Matt Johnson's perfect storm of a rookie off season we see this:
A) Season ending injury senior year at small school
B) Conditioning concerns leading into draft
C) Missing 10 weeks of off-season work due to school rules
D) Flying in from Washington and jumping on the practice field at Mini Camp
That looks to me like a recipe for a hamstring injury in that first practice. Then once he had that first injury in Mini camp, he was set even farther behind by not having the month before training camp to really train and get himself ready.
I attribute the series of injuries for Johnson all the way back to his senior year at Eastern Washington, and those conditioning concerns that teams had pre-draft. The worry with Johnson was never about his skill, it was about whether he could get in shape to play an NFL season. He never had the opportunity to do that, and the injuries came as a result. A full off-season with the Cowboys strength and conditioning staff should put Johnson in a position to come in fully recovered from the injuries and ready to lay the ground work in OTA's and Mini-camp for a great season.