As the Cowboys head into the offseason, Dan Quinn will bring his own style of defense to Dallas. This defense is not to unlike the defense the Cowboys ran previous to Mike Nolan, especially under Kris Richard. As has been laid out a few times on these pages, the Cowboys will be going to a Cover 3/Cover 1, single-high safety as their predominate coverage in the secondary. Obviously they will use other coverage schemes, but a single-high safety will be seen a lot in Dallas in 2021.
If your run a lot of single-high, then your other safety is going to see a lot of time in the box either supporting the run defense, or playing zone coverage underneath. That role seems custom-made for Donovan Wilson. We already know he is a fierce hitter who can make plays on the ball, but open field coverage is not his strong suit. The Cowboys will need a true centerfield safety who can patrol the deep middle and make plays to either side. Currently, they don't have anybody under contract to play that role.
Xavier Woods is a free agent, and would be the logical in-house choice if he was still under contract. Even then, there hasn’t been a lot to recommend Woods for this role on a defense that needs a lot of improvement. Woods was once though of as a potential rising star, but his game has sputtered and he has not shown himself to be a playmaker from the safety position.
Bucky Brooks from the Mothership lays out the scenario facing the Cowboys.
If the Cowboys are planning to succeed with Quinn’s scheme, the front office needs to find a five-star free safety to make it work. The free safety position is critical in a single-high safety scheme and the player occupying the role must be a centerfielder-type with an exceptional set of skills. From instincts and awareness to numbers to numbers range to ball skills and hands, the free safety in this defense must be more than the ornament on the top of the Christmas tree. He must be able to discourage quarterbacks from attacking down the field with his range and playmaking ability. In addition, the Cowboys’ prospective free safety should be a dependable tackler with the capacity to get big-bodied runners or shifty pass catchers to the ground in the open field. After ignoring the position for years, the Cowboys will need to make free safety a marquee position on the defensive priority list.
That last sentence is the key. The Cowboys have tried to get by with late-round draft picks and UDFAs at the safety position for a while now. If they want this new defense to work, they have to invest the resources. There isn’t anybody in the draft that is worthy of the number 10 pick who plays safety, but in the second and third rounds of the draft, they need to consider pulling the trigger.
They will also need to scour the free agent pool for a veteran they can use there in case the draft doesn’t pan out. Woods is always an option, but he shouldn’t be their first option, or their only option. The team needs numbers. With Trevon Diggs and Donovan Wilson, they have two of the four/five they need in the secondary. Anthony Brown is a nice piece for the slot, but the Cowboys will need another starting-caliber corner.
And they will need their Earl Thomas to play centerfield. Guys like Justin Simmons and Anthony Harris are free agents, but they are likely to command top dollar. With the Cowboys needing to sign Dak Prescott, it’s unclear how much space they will have leftover for any other high-profile signings.
The draft, plus a mid-level free agent, might be the best they can do.