It was a common refrain heard about the Dallas Cowboys heading into the draft. Safety was a top need. We posed a question about the Cowboys top need for the draft to fans of the team and 71% said safety was the top need (21% went with defensive tackle). When the Cowboys invited four safeties for pre-draft visits who were all projected to go early in the draft, that was thought to be a sure tip-off about the direction the front-office was headed.
Not so fast, my friend.
The Cowboys had their pick of three of those pre-draft visitors (Juan Thornhill, Taylor Rapp and Chauncey Gardner-Johnson), plus Nasir Adderley had also fallen to that spot in the draft. We’ve since learned that the real decision was between Thornhill and the guy they eventually took, defensive tackle Trysten Hill. That at least says that safety was on their mind, but they really didn’t address the position until the sixth round when they took Donovan Wilson. Yes, they took Xavier Woods in the sixth round a few drafts ago and that has worked out pretty well, but Woods was considered a steal who had fallen. Wilson comes with no such accolades and is a typical sixth-rounder meaning his path to even making the 53-man roster is dicey.
So as it stands, it would seem that safety is still the biggest hole on the roster.
Do the Cowboys still need help at safety? They considered Juan Thornhill in the second round but went with defensive tackle Trysten Hill instead. They were considering Will Harris in the third, but he was plucked before the 90th pick. They added Donovan Wilson in the sixth round. At present, the Cowboys have Xavier Woods and Jeff Heath as their starters, just like last year, although George Iloka will have a chance to compete for a starting spot. The Cowboys continue to follow Rod Marinelli’s belief that a safety is not one of the most important pieces to the defense.
Here is where public perception and front-office internal belief do not exactly lineup. Or, is it just that once the Cowboys passed on Thornhill, the front office is stating their belief in Heath and Iloka in hindsight?
“We felt better than people from the outside looking in feel about our safety position,” executive vice president Stephen Jones said. “I’ve mentioned time and time again that we don’t have as much resources allocated to that position, and it is probably not by accident.”
Now, if the Cowboys had gone the other way and selected Thornhill, then it would be hard for Jones to say they felt good about their safety position and that they don’t spend resources on the position. In truth, they came close to taking Thornhill so we can fairly interpret they have some trepidation about how good they are at that spot on the roster.
The Cowboys are subscribing to the theory that a strong pass rush makes any secondary better. One of the reasons they loved Trysten Hill so much is that he is an upfield player who can disrupt the pocket, a guy who can push a quarterback off his spot and into the arms of DeMarcus Lawrence and Robert Quinn. This helps a secondary that is trying to cover receivers.
“If you’ve got the greatest defensive backs on the planet and linebackers in the National Football League, if we get controlled up front and the defensive line can’t hold up, then you’re not going to have a chance to win the game.” — Jason Garrett
“That’s where you want to be strong on the fronts. At the end of the day with the offensive line and the defensive line, that’s where you want to be physical,” executive vice president Stephen Jones said. “That’s where we want to dominate. And if you can dominate those fronts, then good things happen.” — Stephen Jones
There is truth to that idea. If Hill can turn into a player that is consistently causing havoc in the pass rush, and that’s the key to protecting the secondary, then the gamble will pay off. To make that happen, Dallas had to target a defensive tackle who was not a space-eater, not a run-stuffer who can absorb blockers. They needed a guy who can shoot the gap and take away the option of the quarterback stepping up in the pocket and can occasionally get his own sack.
That’s the scouting report on Hill - a gap-shooter with an explosive first-step. In the Cowboys case, safety starts up front.