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The role that Jayron Kearse should fill for the Cowboys in 2021

Roster building is about a lot more than finding starters.

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

For many NFL teams, free agency creates a lot of buzz and excitement; the Dallas Cowboys have long been content to just create wave after wave of “meh” with the players they sign. Largely, that is because they eschew paying big dollars for big names to make big upgrades, and that combination is what gets fans and media alike pumped up. While there are some hints that things may go a bit differently this year, it is more a matter of moving from less than mediocre acquisitions to some that seem at least acceptable for many.

The signing earlier this week of Jayron Kearse strikes many as more akin to the recent desultory moves, however. He is not expected to be a starter. It leaves many asking, just what was the point?

The answer: Free agency is also about building your depth. The earlier signing of veteran Ty Nsekhe as a contender for the swing tackle position is proof. Given the way losses at that position played such a role in the train wreck that was the 2020 season for Dallas, most observers felt it was probably a wise move. Depth in the secondary may not be as obvious a need as at offensive tackle, given that Cowboys were just middle of the pack in how injuries affected them there. Kearse also may seem like getting the cart before the horse since, unlike at tackle, the team doesn’t have a clear answer already at free safety. Both Kearse and their other safety signing, Keanu Neal, are much more box or strong safety types, as is Donovan Wilson. And in his Thursday press conference, Mike McCarthy confirmed the reports that plans for Neal are to use him more as a linebacker than a safety.

There are still expectations that the team will fill the FS spot soon, with Demontae Kazee currently seen as having an edge over Malik Hooker after both visited the Star for visits that included important physical exams. What this leads to is the likely real role for Kearse.

He is a special teams hire first, and also provides depth on defense. According to John Owning’s video review of Kearse:

Kearse could have some utility on defense covering tight ends and providing run support in the box, but his biggest impact could come on special teams, where he totaled at least 200 snaps in every season except for 2020. Kearse has spent time on every special teams unit through his NFL career, and in 2018, he finished 12th in the NFL in special teams tackles.

At times, special teams can be an afterthought for many, but coaches know how important they can be. McCarthy brought John Fassel in to improve a truly dismal unit, and he was quite successful in that last season. But just like with all phases of the game, you have to have the players to make things work. Special teams are mostly made up of your backups, since it is not prudent to risk starters unless you are forced to. Just as the staff should always be looking to upgrade the offense and defense, they need to be looking for players that Fassel can use. It makes sense to get ones who are an improvement over the existing backups as well.

In Kearse’s case, that means he should be competing directly with Darian Thompson. Thompson was one of Fassel’s core players last year, playing 56.52% of all ST plays. Only C.J. Goodwin and Dorance Armstrong had more. With the injuries in the secondary, Thompson was also forced into playing on over 43% of the defensive snaps, so Kearse’s quality as a backup is also an important consideration. He is a big, physical player at 6-4, 215, giving him two more inches of height and similar bulk when compared with Thompson. Both are 27, so neither has an advantage there. And Owing saw him as having some flashes when he was filling the safety role.

More interesting is that Kearse projects to be a good backup in the hybrid role that McCarthy confirmed for Neal. Thompson will probably get a look at doing the same. If Kearse wins, it will upgrade both roles for the team. As a low cost addition, he does not make the roster older, and neither he nor Thompson could be seen as a lock to hold off any rookies that Dallas might draft with an eye to a longer term solution for the roles.

We understandably focus on the more significant jobs on the team, but it takes the full 46-man active roster to field a team. An upgrade at the bottom of the roster is beneficial as well, and with the way injuries plagued the Cowboys last year, they are likely very mindful of the quality of their backups.

The timing of his signing is not an indication that the team was more interested in Kearse than a free safety candidate. He was just easier to get done when the team turned to safeties in the market. There’s no guarantee that he will make it out of camp, but early indications are that he has an excellent chance. His experience is an edge over a rookie, while Thompson has the advantage of the staff being very familiar with him, especially as a special teams asset. This may not be the big battle to watch in camp, but it is one that is still of interest.

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