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Could Juan Thornhill be the answer at safety that Byron Jones never was for the Cowboys?

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The Cowboys will be testing the safety market in the draft.

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NCAA Football: Virginia at Miami Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys need a safety. Despite interest in both Earl Thomas and Eric Berry, the team chose not to invest the cap resources needed to acquire these savvy veteran safeties. They were able to sign George Iloka to a one-year deal, but he is neither the short-term or long-term answer. The team must make a greater effort to improve at the safety position as this wasn’t accomplished through free agency. So, now what?

The front office could turn to the draft to help find their answer. A couple weeks ago, we pondered if this could be the year the Cowboys finally use a premium draft pick on a safety? It’s not just because the team has a big need at the position, but rather how the layout of talent at safety is arranged in this draft. The Draft Network has six safeties going from pick 27 to pick 55 on their predictive board. These safeties include: Taylor Rapp, Nasir Adderly, Johnathan Abram, Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, Juan Thornhill, and Deionte Thompson. The Cowboys could be thinking along those same lines as they have slowly add these names to the list of pre-draft visitors. Initially, we heard about Rapp and Abram getting visits, but now you can add another one of those safeties to the list.

Many of us here at BTB are pleased to see Thornhill’s name on this list. Back in January, our own David Howman first introduced us to this possible draft prospect. Then, a month ago, Cole Patterson offered up three types of safeties the team should go after and Thornhill was identified as Mr. Instincts. So, if you can’t tell already - Thornhill has our attention.

The interesting thing about Thornhill is - on the surface, he looks like a Byron Jones clone. They have almost identical build. Their traits are very similar - both are extremely smart and instinctive players who have played cornerback in college. Even their combine results are eerily similar, which is good because Jones was a combine freak.

Now, the first thing that might come to your mind is - why would we want to see another Byron Jones-type player at safety when Jones wasn’t a good safety? Well, first of all, Jones wasn’t terrible at safety. He was solid. The difference however, could come from a few of their traits that aren’t similar.

Jones is an All-Pro corner and that’s super fantastic, but it still leaves fans scratching their head why it took the Cowboys coaching staff so long to figure that out. When you look at Jones’ traits, it’s not hard to understand why they felt he would make a good safety. Even UCONN didn’t know what to do with him at first as he started out at corner, then switched him to safety before finally switching again to corner his final two years in college. The Cowboys wanted to capitalize on his football IQ and use his anticipation skills to play center field in the secondary. Unfortunately, playing him at safety didn’t fully utilize his athletic abilities. His sudden closing bursts were wasted if he wasn’t more routinely in a position to make a play on the ball. Sure, he batted down balls while covering tight ends, but he needed to be defending a receiver all the time. The change was huge as Jones had the highest percentage of targets (39.5%) in tight windows of all 119 cornerbacks in the league who had a minimum of 30 targets last season. That’s how you utilize someone like Jones.

Thornhill is a little different. Similar to Jones, he’s not the greatest at changing direction, but Thornhill seems to understand that. He doesn’t take the chances that Jones does. Thornhill is a little more patient with his reads. The trade off here is that sometimes he’ll be softer in coverage, but he’s not giving up the big play. Don’t let this extra bit of timidness fool you though. Thornhill is a playmaker. Both Jones and Thornhill only played one full year at the safety position in college. Jones only had one interception compared to Thornhill’s six in 2018. While Jones has demonstrated more playmaking ability at the corner position, Thornhill has thrived at safety. PFF grades him as one of the top free safeties coming out of college.

Another thing about Thornhill is he diagnoses the run well and takes better angles to make the play. Jones has struggled in this area. We all remember how he looked against C.J. Anderson in the game against the Denver Broncos or how he over-pursued to the outside allowing a big run up the middle from Jay Ajayi in 2017. If you look at Thornhill’s tape, you’ll see a lot of plays in the backfield where he’s quick to make the correct read and then attacks like a missile. Run defense isn’t his strength, but it’s pretty respectable.

There is so much to love about Thornhill and he fits the mold as to the type of player the Cowboys are looking for. He’s athletic, smart, and has progressively gotten better throughout his college career. And as luck would have it - he just so happens to play a position where the team could use a talented starter. It didn’t work out with Byron Jones at safety, but if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.