Continuing our series of looking at positional groups. Today, we look at a positional unit that is surrounded with some question marks for the Dallas Cowboys.
The Dallas Cowboys have one of the better rosters across the National Football League. A young backfield with Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, a weapon at wide receiver in Amari Cooper, an above average offensive line, and a defense that was among the best in the league in 2018.
In fact, the highly-respected Gil Brandt believes that the Dallas Cowboys have the second most talented roster across the entire league.
One of the bigger concerns surrounding this talented roster is in the secondary. More specifically: the safety position. Bringing in Kris Richard saw immediate results — especially at corner — but the safeties were still lacking.
Xavier Woods has shown growth and potential and Jeff Heath has had some moments; however, there is no denying that the Cowboys would like to see better production from its two safeties moving forward.
Many believed that safety was near the top — if not at the very top — of the Cowboys’ priorities entering the NFL Draft, but Dallas opted to go in different directions: taking defensive tackle Trysten Hill, offensive guard Connor McGovern, and offensive weapon Tony Pollard with its first three selections this past April, leaving some scratching their heads.
The Cowboys passed on the big finances given to Earl Thomas, while the team determined that there were better options than the aging, oft-injured Eric Berry. Dallas did ink former Bengals safety Georgia Iloka to a one-year deal, providing a band aid at the position for a season. Kavon Frazier also provides some depth in the secondary. They also finally dipped into the position during the draft with Donovan Wilson.
A sixth-round draft pick in 2017, Woods has shown signs of making the next jump in his young career. Woods had a productive campaign in 2018 — 56 tackles, a pair of interceptions, and nine pass deflections — which has Cowboys fans excited what 2019 has in store for the Louisiana Tech product.
In fact, Gil Brandt is buying into the Xavier Woods hype, labeling number 25 as one of his nine defensive backs ready to breakout during the upcoming season:
Though safety was considered the biggest weakness on the Cowboys’ roster entering this offseason, Dallas did not go all out to land a big-money player like Earl Thomas. I expect Woods to justify that strategy by taking a big step forward in 2019. Secondary coach Kris Richard expects him to generate more turnovers (he had two picks last season) while remaining physical in coverage with receivers and tight ends, and it’s safe to say Richard knows what he’s talking about, given the success he had grooming Thomas and Kam Chancellor in Seattle. Woods will be a key contributor this season to a defense that ranked seventh overall and sixth in scoring in 2018.
Brandt does ask an interesting question: is Dallas sold on Woods to the point that they did not feel too desperate to add a big name safety through free agency or the draft? Maybe that is a stretch, but it is easy to see why Richard and Co. are excited about 25’s future.
The 4th & 1 stuff for the Cowboys doesn't happen if Xavier Woods on 3rd & 1 doesn't break up the pass to Golden Tate. Kudos @its_hollyWOODS. pic.twitter.com/gFMDEQkHbY— Jeff Cavanaugh (@JC1053) November 13, 2018
The hard-hitting Woods will look to prove the team right and make the next jump in his career in 2019.
Eric Ebron, meet Xavier Woods pic.twitter.com/DvSno4PEiI— Adam Collins ✭ (@AdamCollinsCN) December 16, 2018
Jeff Heath is one of the more interesting players on the Cowboys roster because for all of the good plays he can make, he is also prone to making some head-scratching mistakes (like the season-ending first down run by Jared Goff in the Divisional Round).
There really is not much to debate when it comes to the Cowboys needing better from what it has got from Heath. The veteran defensive back produced 85 tackles, six TFLs, and added a pick in 2018, but it always felt that the Cowboys needed better. Heath, though, is a valuable special teams performer — something that we know this staff values.
Entering his seventh season in Dallas, Heath is expected to once again start in the secondary for the Cowboys. What can Richard get out of 38 in 2019?
While Dallas passed on top guys like Thomas and Tyrann Mathieu, the Cowboys were at least successful in bringing in a safety during the free-agent period: former Vikings and Bengals DB George Iloka.
The 29-year-old Texas native is coming off of his least productive season of his seven-season career: 16 tackles, no interceptions, and no recorded pass deflections. After starting at least 12 games in every season since 2013 (16 starts in all but one), Iloka found himself in a reserve role, starting only three games in 2018.
Iloka brings both experience and versatility as a five-year starter and the ability to play both free and strong safety. SportsDay’s John Owning wrote a breakdown of what the veteran can bring to Dallas:
Even if Iloka doesn’t beat Heath outright for the starting strong safety position, his presence will deepen the depth chart at safety, which enables the Cowboys to limit Heath’s snaps on defense, thus keeping him fresh for his most effective role as a special teams ace.
Best case scenario, Iloka beats out Heath for the starting strong safety role, providing the Cowboys with a solid box presence who can be effective in split-safety coverages as well. Worst case, Iloka is a reserve safety whose positional flexibility allows him to back up both the free and strong safety positions. Either way, the Cowboys benefit.
Best care, Iloka is a productive player that helps the Cowboys secondary. Worst case, he is a veteran presence that can help Xavier Woods grow and provide needed depth.
Entering his fourth season with the Cowboys, Kavon Frazier has been a solid player in Dallas, known for laying big hits and contributing on special teams.
Without the signing (or drafting) of a marquee safety, one would think that would mean good news for Frazier; however, the former Central Michigan defensive back has suffered with knee injuries that have prevented him from having a healthy offseason.
Furthermore, the Cowboys seemingly have a clear top-3 at the position: Woods, Heath, and Iloka. With the possibilities of going deeper at other positions, Frazier’s future in Dallas could be in some jeopardy entering training camp.
Donovan Wilson is another name to know when talking about safeties on the Cowboys roster. The former Texas A&M defensive back has a chance to turn some heads. In fact, our own David Howman made a bold claim about the rookie just a couple of weeks ago:
While this is admittedly dependent on a lot of different things happening - hence it being called a bold prediction - the reality is that Richard is looking to find his Kam Chancellor in this secondary; that is, a hard-hitting safety who can manage coverage responsibilities in shallow zones and Cover 2 or Cover 3 shells. Based on what we’ve seen from Wilson thus far, he has the potential to be just that. And if given the opportunity in 2019, Wilson will capitalize on it in a big way.
It remains to be seen if the sixth-round draft pick will get the opportunity, but Howman believes the A&M product has the potential to be a starter in the Dallas secondary. If he keeps stuff like this up, who knows what will happen:
Wilson’s pick to end practice was easily the play of the day for me.— David Helman (@HelmanDC) June 11, 2019
The rookie darted from the numbers to the sideline after reading Rush’s throw. Dove at the sideline to come down with the INT, which the ref ruled a catch.