The first place to look if you are thinking about Cowboys’ roster battles is our own 2017 Dallas Cowboys Interactive Roster Builder. This handy tool is kept up to date by OCC, and is well worth the visit because it shows that roster battles aren’t always within position groups, but across groups. For example, keeping a third quarterback or a tenth or eleventh defensive lineman means going light somewhere else. We also know that roster churn is a year round business, so there are likely to be some new names by training camp, and potentially even after final cut down day. With that caveat, let’s begin.
Part IX - Safety
These are the players currently on the roster. We’ll lead with the locks, followed by the probables, then get to the fight for the last spot.
As with cornerback, the Cowboys lost a lot of snaps at safety to free agency. Barry Church played 676 snaps, while J.J. Wilcox played 557. Church was also one of five team captains. The team signed one free agent, Robert Blanton, a former player with Minnesota and Buffalo, as pre-draft insurance.
- Byron Jones. Jones led the safeties with 986 snaps, or 93%, second only to Brandon Carr in the secondary. He’s been a decent to good player, with an Approximate Value of four as a rookie and six last year. But he’s also been a disappointment. The Giants drafted Landon Collins six slots lower in the 2015 draft. And Collins scored AVs of five as a rookie and 13 last year, which tied him for 31st in the NFL with Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, and others. Jones was also the player in coverage on the fateful penultimate play against Green Bay, not sticking with Jared Cook long enough to prevent the completion that set the Packers up for the winning field goal. See the play here. (Ironically, Jones had broken up the previous pass by Rodgers, also in coverage of Cook.) The Cowboys defense also struggled with tight ends — see Football Outsiders — ranking 30th in the NFL, while ranking 11th against #1 WRs, 18th against #2 WRs, and 8th against other WRs. There is still time for Jones to elevate his game, now that he’s locked in as a safety. The Cowboys need him to.
- Jeff Heath. Heath has been a lifetime backup and special teams ace. He received 243 snaps last year, which meant he was unable to unseat J.J. Wilcox’s role as third safety, much less Barry Church’s lead role. Yet the Cowboys are projecting him as a starter this year. He does seem to be one of the few safeties who can track the ball in the air and arrive in time to pick it off or break it up. He picked off Aaron Rodgers in last year’s playoff game, and would have had another but for a penalty. He also sacked Rodgers late in the game.
- Xavier Woods. Woods had a high ranking on the Cowboys board. Post-draft, the Cowboys said they drafted five players in their top 68, even though Woods was picked in the sixth round at #191. Given how much the Cowboys wanted him, trading up by using a fifth-rounder from next year to get him, Woods may be close to being a lock. But he’ll still have to show something, and he was noticeably absent from shout outs during OTAs and mini-camp.
- Kavon Frazier. Frazier was the one draft pick for Dallas last year who was healthy, and got into some games, but didn’t play much. (Darius Jackson was never active before he was cut late in the year.) Even so, it was a total of 37 plays, 21 of them in the last game. He should be ahead of Xavier Woods because he has a year in the system on him. He also showed up as a B quadrant player in OCC’s charts, from a high-SPARQ score, while Woods was a C quadrant guy - lower SPARQ but higher production. With very little to go on regarding actual NFL play, it may be a tossup as to which player is likely to be better.
Fighting For That Last Spot
- Robert Blanton. Blanton was signed before the draft as cheap veteran insurance. His pay is only $850,000, and his dead cap hit only $80,000 if he doesn’t make the team. He’s played 70 games in his five-year career, and in 2014 scored five Approximate Value with Minnesota. Yet that was his only “good” year. He’s otherwise been a depth guy and special teams player. He gives the Cowboys an experience third safety, which may be enough to stick if Woods and Frazier don’t give the Cowboys enough confidence to play right away.
Jamiell Showers is also listed as a safety, but seems like a real long shot.
The Cowboys kept five safeties last year, and 2013, with four in each of the intervening years. With a rookie, and second-year player who received almost no snaps as the primary backups to a veteran looking to dramatically increase his role this year, the Cowboys may want the experience of Robert Blanton on the team. He’s cheap either way - kept or cut. It’s going to come down to training camp, preseason, and how the roster shakes out in other areas.
Part IX - Safety
Part X - Special Teams