First off let me say, I'm a fan of J.J. Wilcox. I think he's got the potential to be a very good safety in this league, for a very long time. And potential is great! It's why we love draft season so much. Draft picks are all about potential; there is no limit to how good a soon to be rookie might be. But Wilcox is no longer a rookie. And once that rookie shine wears off, potential no longer cuts it, and players have to start producing. So while Wilcox might be a good player in the future, the more important question is; is he a good player now?
Earlier this season I did a film study on Wilcox and came away fairly impressed. You could see his athleticism on display and he made some highlight plays. But you could also see him struggling in recognition, which lead to him taking some bad angles in run support. Of course one game does not a season make. So now that the season is over, what do advanced stats say about Wilcox's play?
One thing that really stood out when I was studying the numbers, (all numbers courtesy of Pro Football Focus!) confirms what I saw on film, namely that Wilcox rarely plays near the line of scrimmage. Of the 54 safeties that played at least half of their teams run snaps, Wilcox ranked 47th in run play snaps within eight yards of the line of scrimmage. On plays where Dallas's opponent ran the ball, Wilcox was in the box on 16.5% of the time. To put this another way, J.J. Wilcox played 363 snaps against the run. He was in the box on 60 of those snaps. For whatever reason, Dallas just did not use their safeties against the run. Barry Church wasn't much better, ranking 41st in the league at 30.9%. There were 23 safeties in the league who beat Wilcox and Church's combined time in the box.
Against the Run
When I was watching film I thought all that open field really hurt Wilcox in run support. While it means Wilcox doesn't have to navigate blockers, it also means that the running back has a lot of space to work as well. This plays against one of Wilcox's greatest strengths; (he has a knack for splitting blocks and navigating traffic), and into one of his biggest weaknesses. Wilcox still struggles in play recognition, and will often take bad angles when coming up in run support.
The numbers don't support that hypothesis though. In the 60 running plays that Wilcox played in the box, he only recorded two tackles and one assist, meaning he contributed to a tackle every 20 plays. On the 303 run snaps Wilcox played deep he recorded 26 tackles and eight assists, meaning he contributed to a tackle every 8.9 plays. Put another way, when Wilcox played in the box he made a tackle on 5% of running plays. When he played deep that number more than doubled to 11.2%.
We see the same pattern in regards to missed tackles. When Wilcox plays deep he had eight missed tackles on 303 rush attempts, for a missed tackle percentage of 2.6%. When he played in the box he missed three tackles on 60 attempts for a missed tackle percentage of 5%. Tackling is an area that Wilcox really needs to improve on. PFF measures something called tackle efficiency, which measures how attempted tackles a player makes per each missed tackle. J.J. Wilcox attempted 42 tackles against the run, (26 successful tackles, eight assists, and eight missed tackles). He missed eight of those tackles, giving him a tackle efficiency number of 5.25, (42 tackle attempts divided by eight missed tackles). That 5.25 tackle efficiency against the run ranks 47 out of 63 qualifying safeties. It's not so much that Wilcox is missing a lot of tackles; there are 18 safeties who missed the same amount or more, including former BTB favorites as Kenny Vaccaro, John Cyprien, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Kam Chancellor. But Wilcox does need to step up his tackling production.
Against the Pass
Wilcox has a similar problem tackling in the passing game. His tackling efficiency is actually higher at 6.0, but his rank overall is lower, coming in at 50 of 63 qualifying safeties. Tackling is about the only place that Wilcox struggled in the passing game however.
When talking about pass defense there are three main things to look at; targets, receptions given up, and yards given up. The total amount of times a player is targeted gives you an idea of how good they do in coverage; the better the coverage the less times a QB is going to throw their way. Receptions given up gives some idea of ball skills and recovery. Every DB gets beat, or gives a QB a good look. Can they recover and stop the completion? Yards tells us something about how the DB is getting beat. Is he giving a cushion to keep things underneath, or is he giving up big plays? In all three cases of course, a lower number is better.
And J.J. Wilcox does pretty good in all three areas. He was only targeted 29 times last season. More impressively those 29 targets came over the course of a full 560 snaps, giving him a snaps/target ratio of 19.3. That's good for the 15th best mark out of 60 qualifying safeties. By comparison, Barry Church was targeted every 14.1 snaps. Dallas averaged just above 61 plays a game, meaning J.J. Wilcox was only targeted about 3 times a game.
The negative to having a low number of targets is that you will have less opportunity to make a play on the ball. But Wilcox made the most of the opportunities he had. With three interceptions on just 29 targets, Wilcox had an interception percentage of 10.3%. Only twelve safeties had a higher interception percentage.
On the year Wilcox only gave up 20 receptions, or about 1.25 a game, (to be fair PFF doesn't always know who was responsible for blown coverages). That mark is good for 23rd out of 60 qualifying safeties.
Not only did Wilcox not give up many receptions, he didn't give up many big plays. On the year he only allowed 223 yards passing as the primary defender, good for 20th out of 60. Even more impressive he only gave up 63 yards after the catch...all year. That's the 15th best mark among safeties. And that also means that receivers only averaged 3.1 YAC when throwing towards Wilcox. That number needs a little perspective. Last year 218 wide receivers caught at least one pass in the NFL. 139 of those receivers averaged more than 3.1 YAC. Among the 78 wide receivers who played at least 50% of their teams snaps only 11 averaged fewer than 3.1 YAC.
What's it All Mean?
Basically what these numbers are telling us is that yes, despite popular belief, J.J. Wilcox is a free safety. And as far as coverage goes, he's a pretty good one already. Where Wilcox struggles is in run support. My guess is, he still struggles reading his keys, which leads him to attacking the wrong lane, which leads to bad angles. The positive there is those are correctable issues. If Wilcox can learn his keys, (and there's been no indication that he can't), he has the athletic ability to be a top flight safety. He's already showing good coverage skills, and a knack for making plays, (only 15 safeties had more interceptions, and 11 of them only beat Wilcox by one). For a player that has only been playing safety for three years, what we're seeing is remarkable. We knew that Wilcox had potential. The stats are saying he's already showing the productivity.