The Dallas Cowboys are weird when it comes to the safety position. They have shown time and time again that it’s not high on their priority list as they never throw any meaningful resources at it. Even when it’s a glaring need and some nice talent is available (like say, the second round of the 2019 NFL draft), they balk at the notion and go a different direction.
Not only does this position take a back seat in the draft, but the team tends to go cheap in free agency. Last year, they signed three different safeties to super-cheap one-year deals hoping to find some degree of contribution from someone. Well, it worked. All three of their signings, Jayron Kearse, Damontae Kazee, and Malik Hooker ended up holding down the position as they logged the three-most snaps on the team at safety. Things went so well that the team brought back both Kearse and Hooker on two-year deals. Based on their play last year, both players deserve the pay raise. These two guys cost the Cowboys a total of $2 million last season and are now costing them roughly $6 million collectively in 2022.
The Cowboys' choice to re-up on these veteran safeties is a smart one for a couple of reasons. First off, they are good football players. Kearse played at a borderline Pro Bowl level last season and Hooker stayed healthy and was solid in coverage. This tandem provides a nice floor for the safety group.
The next reason is the layout of safeties in this draft class doesn’t align very well where the Cowboys are picking. They’ll likely miss out on one of the better ones, leaving them to sift through some late-rounders hoping to land a high-upside development guy. This second reason is our focus today as we examine where the team might go after a safety and which players could be targeted.
There are two safeties that could be selected on Day 1 of the draft, but they are far apart. Notre Dame’s Kyle Hamilton is a special player as his unique build and “do it all” traits make him a top-five pick this year. The Cowboys have absolutely no shot at getting him, so they will have to look at the next tier of safeties. And while there are some good players in this group, none of them warrant spending that coveted 24th overall pick on them as there is sure to be better talent at more critical positions available. So, what can the Cowboys find on Day 2?
Pull the trigger at 56?
The next group of safeties on my board consists of Michigan’s Daxton Hill (SAFETY#2, 31st overall), Baylor’s Jalen Pitre (SAFETY#3, 36th), and Penn State’s Jaquan Brisker (SAFETY#4, 44th). All of them offer starting-caliber traits and are worthy of a second-round pick. In fact, any one of these guys could go late-first/early-second.
Hill is my favorite coverage guy from this tier as he’s a fearless player who moves well and covers a lot of ground. Brisker, on the other hand, is an aggressive tackler with great closing speed but isn’t much of a ball-hawk. And then there is Pitre. He might be the most well-rounded of the three as he has great instincts to jump routes but is also physical against the run.
Any of them would be fine in the second round, but only desire Hill or Pitre should be the pick at 56 simply due to the other talent that is likely to still be available at that spot in the draft. And considering the Cowboys have demonstrated that same willingness to pass on a safety early, we should continue to look further down this draft for some potential prospects.
Georgia’s Lewis Cine (SAFETY#5, 55th overall) is a hitter. Cine is a great strong safety as he diagnoses things well and plays downhill; however, he leaves something to be desired in coverage. For this reason, he’s not grouped with the previous tier and is a little too reachy in round two, but he’s definitely a player worth considering in round three if he’s still there.
After Cine, there’s a gap in talent and the team should then wait until Day 3 to consider drafting a safety, but that’s okay because there are some interesting prospects. Maryland’s Nick Cross (SAFETY#6, 98th overall) shows some explosiveness and physicality to be a playmaker in both run and pass defense. His change of direction is not great (which you can almost say about every safety from this point on), but he has great long speed which can help him recover. Cincinnati’s Bryan Cook and Illinois’ Kerby Joseph aren’t too far behind Cross as they do well lurking in the secondary anticipating throws, but their loose footwork can put them in precarious situations at times.
Find a sleeper late
Any player taken outside the top 100 is going to be a work in progress. There are plenty of players who have quality traits, but they also come with flaws that would make them a liability early. Baylor’s J.T. Woods (SAFETY#9, 117th overall) possesses nice length to shed blockers. He’s a long-strider with decent straight-line speed. He can anticipate routes and he’s a downhill pursuer so he offers something both in coverage and against the run. He reminds me of the safety version of Byron Jones, which wasn’t great, but also not terrible.
Auburn’s Smoke Monday is another player that looks impressive on tape. He’s an attacker, both in coverage and against the run. He’s neither fast nor quick, so there are some physical limitations to his game, but he possesses enough qualities to be a rotational guy with special teams appeal.
For me, Pitre, Cross, and Woods are the favorites in terms of possible value of when they’re projected to go. But to recap, here is a good safety selection strategy based on where the talent lies in this draft class:
ROUND 1 (Pick 24): Do not take a safety here
ROUND 2 (Pick 56): Jalen Pitre or Jaquan Brisker
ROUND 3 (Pick 88): Lewis Cine
ROUND 4 (Pick 129): Nick Cross
ROUND 5 (Pick 155): Bryan Cook or Kerby Joseph
ROUND 5 (Pick 176): J.T. Woods
ROUND 6 (Pick 193): Smoke Monday
What are your favorite safeties in this draft class and where would you be willing to select them?