When the curtain closed on the 2017 NFL Draft just a few weeks ago, the Cowboys front-office sent a clear message to the team - let the battle begin. The NFL is an ultra-competitive environment as it is and Will McClay said it best last week when speaking about how he relates to young players:
“I tell them all when they come in that I love them but it’s also my job to replace them. It’s important we get them to reach their potential.”
Creating a high level of competition throughout the team was line one for Jason Garrett since he’s been the head coach, and that goal was executed upon once again in the draft. Not only did the Cowboys have nine draft picks join the roster, they also signed five free agents that will be added to the mix. Four of those nine draft picks were defensive backs and Dallas signed cornerback Nolan Carroll and safety Robert Blanton as free agents.
The secondary was certainly the focal point for the majority of the offseason due to the departures of Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox. The secondary will continue to be a focus for training camp with a lot of young talent to work with. Today, we’re going to focus on one of the more interesting battles that should heat up in camp and that’s the battle of the safeties.
We know that Byron Jones serves as the ultimate chess piece and plays single-high but can also move elsewhere. He’s pretty much entrenched in his role even though he contributes all over. With Barry Church gone, the starting strong safety will be up for grabs for the first time since 2012. Let’s have a look at the field of competitors:
Jeff Heath, 25, 6’1, 212 lbs
Case For: Heath will finally get his opportunity to shine and win the starting job. If the Cowboys had their druthers, it would be Heath stepping into that role and taking over. Stephen Jones has heaped praise upon Heath all offseason and his last impression was watching Heath harass Aaron Rodgers. Not only has he shown to carry the walloping stick but Heath spent ample time on the field last season and played rather well. Over the past two seasons, Heath has done nothing but show up for good reasons.
Case Against: He’s only started one game since his infamous nine-game tryout in 2013 where he was abused by some heavy hitting receivers like Calvin Johnson and Jimmy Graham. You can’t really blame a rookie for struggling there but Heath has also been by far the best special team’s player. If he’s getting more play time, will his absence on teams be missed? Also, Heath has been his best as a role player and there is worry that he’ll get exposed as a starter.
Xavier Woods, 21, 5’11, 197 lbs (6th Round Pick)
Case For: Don’t let the sixth-round label fool you, Woods is a very good football player. He’s most assuredly the favorite of Cowboys’ draftniks like Jeff Cavenaugh, Bryan Broaddus, and Dane Brugler to win the job. His instincts and awareness speak for themselves and he should have heard his name called way before 191st overall. The only concerns folks can come up with is the small-school factor but LA Tech has played some solid competition too. Woods is simply a playmaker and he’s not the type of guy to take poor angles and miss his man. Woods had 14 career interceptions with 211 tackles as a full-time starter.
Case Against: As mentioned earlier, he comes from a small school and his size isn’t ideal. As many tackles as he’s made, he can refine that part of his game a little bit more at the pro level. Woods also always looks to make the play and will need to stay focused not to lose the receiver and be assignment sound.
Kavon Frazier, 22, 6’0, 217 lbs (6th Round Pick 2016)
Case For: Folks want to see what Frazier can offer because his athletic tests were very intriguing. His SPARQ score was 124.3 and he was in the 76.3 percentile. His Combine measurables were quite good too with a 4.52 40 time, 40.5 vertical, 10 ft. 8 in the broad jump, 4.29 short shuttle, and 6.96 three-cone. He’s every bit of his frame too and is another hard-hitting type. His pro comparison was coincidentally Barry Church.
Case Against: He also is a guy that provides a lot of help on special teams. In college, he had 14 tackles on kick coverage in two seasons; he had six tackles last season for the Cowboys. Frazier never seemed to get more playing time last season even when the Cowboys lost Church for four games. There just hasn’t been much excitement around him outside of fans being interested. He wasn’t able to take reps from Wilcox either. There just isn’t a lot to go off of right now and nobody knows what he is right now.
Robert Blanton, 27, 6’1, 200 lbs (Bills)
Case For: He’s a savvy veteran who has played both free and strong safety with position flexibility the Cowboys like. He’s played in 70 games and has 248 tackles in five seasons. He’s been a capable starter and reliable tackler. He simply has the most experience as an NFL safety and could offer up a high football IQ on game day.
Case Against: Though he’s been in the league for five seasons, he’s not much of a playmaker. He’s only had one interception in his career to go with one fumble recovery. The Cowboys put an emphasis on drafting players that make plays on the ball and Blanton doesn’t really fit that definition with only six career passes defended too.
Though these seem like the four guys that will battle it out for a starting roster spot, Dallas also drafted versatile cornerbacks like Chidobe Awuzie, who played safety in college and didn’t disappoint. Who wins the safety battle and why?