From James Murphy: "I have heard a lot about our defense lacking a true ''center fielder" safety to go opposite of Barry Church. My question is since JJ Wilcox picked up safety in general in a relatively short time, could he be taught to be this "center fielder," or is that a trait you have to be born with?"
I am happy to answer this BTB mailbag question, but feel obliged to make it clear this is only one man's opinion. The question is inherently open to debate and I know for a fact at least one other front-page writer will disagree with parts of my assessment. But this is far too relevant to the success of the Dallas Cowboys defense in 2014 for me not to jump at the chance to express what I think the future holds for J.J. Wilcox.
First, let me make something clear. The NFL continues to evolve and the importance and utilization of particular positions change as coaches adapt. With offenses continuing to increase their aggressive passing attacks and attempts, defenses are responding accordingly. Defensive tackles are becoming more involved in pass-rush schemes, coverage skills for linebackers are becoming more vital, and the value of dual-threat safeties is sky rocketing.
So while James Murphy asks about the Cowboys need for a true "center fielder," I feel that the Cowboys, and other NFL teams, have shifted their thinking and are concentrating more on finding true dual-threat safeties, blurring the lines between strong and free safeties. Teams are trying harder to find these dual-threat safeties in an attempt to avoid the liability of depending on an "in the box" safety (Roy Williams) in coverage and making their coverage schemes more flexible. As a result, teams are also spending greater resources on safeties, and for the first time in recent history (over 20 years) four safeties were even picked in the first round of the 2014 draft.
Barry Church is another undrafted rookie success story for the Cowboys and has improved his ability to cover deep (still his greatest weakness), but he isn't a true dual-threat safety. I think this is the reason why many fans and pundits have discussed the Cowboys need for a "center fielder" safety, but in my opinion, they managed to find a true dual-threat safety instead. While Wilcox is known for his love and ability to make big hits, I think he also has everything required to be that center fielder in single-high safety coverages. Is it "a trait you have to be born with?" Partly, but it also requires something that can be taught. A good thing too, because it is that aspect particularly that Wilcox will have to improve before he proves himself a true dual-threat safety. Wilcox hasn't been in the league very long, but if you watch the highlights he has been able to amass thus far, you will see that he has the traits required.
Last Line of Defense
A dual-threat safety must be a sound tackler. While they may not be able to blow up running backs like the old-school strong safeties, they will often find themselves as the last guy between the ball-carrier and the end zone. If they miss the tackle, the offense will score. It is this ability that I think often gets fans to pigeonhole Wilcox as a "strong" safety. Though he still hasn't played a full NFL season due to injuries, his highlight reel is littered with tackles against fast receivers and sturdy running backs that, if missed, would give up touchdowns or tons of extra yards. As you can see in the video clip, whether stacking the box or in deep coverage, Wilcox was reliable when it came to making a tackle.
Ball-Hawks and Reading Route Combinations
While instincts certainly play a huge role in transforming safeties into ball-hawks, they are also greatly reliant on things that can be taught. This is where Wilcox will have to make the greatest improvements in 2014. His experience playing on offense is certainly something that helps Wilcox catch the ball for interceptions instead of deflections, a big part of becoming a ball-hawk, but it also means he lacks the experience of reading route combinations and quickly reacting to what the offense is trying to do in the passing game. And yet, Wilcox has already shown some flashes. While playing as the single-high safety, you can see at the 1:10 mark of the video Wilcox reacting to the route before the QB has released the ball. It allows him to make a big hit on the receiver as the ball arrives and break up the play. You may notice that this route combination was intended to take advantage of the corner in man coverage chasing his receiver deep and leaving an area open, but Wilcox reads and reacts very well and ruins the play. Also, though not in deep coverage, his interception against Oakland (1:53 mark) also displays Wilcox's ability to read the QB and make a tough catch for an interception in the end zone.
Athletic Ability and Range
This is one god-given talent required for a center fielder that cannot be taught, one with which he must be born. Six-foot tall with 4.5 speed and a 35-inch vertical, Wilcox possesses the athletic ability and range to be effective. He also has the agility and ability to turn his hips and run that separates corners from most safeties, with impressive times in the 20-yard shuttle and three-cone drills (better than many first-round safeties, and even some corners). If defenses routinely use coverages with a single-high safety, he will have to be able to play sideline-to-sideline while in deep coverage and make it over-top even the fastest receivers in the league. But speed alone is not enough. The greats also have the vertical and timing to contest jump-balls, or to rob receivers who wait to make over the shoulder catches.
To become a great center fielder, or true dual-threat safety, Wilcox will have to continue to learn to read offenses, but he seems to have all the traits to become successful. There are finer details that he will still have to prove, like knowing when to make the hit instead of making a failed attempt at an interception, or not getting looked off by QBs, or failing to read route progressions. But it seems to me that he has all the traits required, plus the RKG mentality and work ethic to continue to develop. I am really excited to see how well Wilcox plays this season after overcoming injuries and a loss of a parent his rookie season. If he progresses like I expect, Wilcox will prove he is the new breed of NFL safety, the dual-threat that can be relied upon to either stack the box or play center field.