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Cowboys draft 2023: A trio of Day 3 safeties to keep an eye on during this year’s draft

Even with the return of Donovan Wilson, the Cowboys need to think about the future of the safety position.

Big 12 Championship - Kansas State v TCU Photo by Tim Heitman/Getty Images

As the new league year begins, there will be once again a lot of familiar faces in new places with free agency opening up. There was one player that many pundits weren’t sure would be back in Dallas for the 2023 season, and that player was Donovan Wilson. Since entering the league as a sixth round pick in 2019, he has certainly outplayed his initial draft status and was due for a sizeable raise. That raise recently occurred as the Cowboys have locked him in for the next three seasons.

With the way that Dan Quinn deploys his safeties, re-signing Donovan Wilson was the right way to go because his style of play fits into exactly what the Cowboys defensive coordinator wants out of that particular position. With players like Jayron Kearse, and Malik Hooker also back in the mix this upcoming season, the franchise has kept its trio of safeties together for at least one more year. At the conclusion of the 2023 season however, both Kearse and Hooker will be free agents which will leave just Wilson as the only player at safety who has played meaningful reps in an NFL game ahead of the 2024 season.

The safety position looks good for the 2023 season, but it would be wise for America’s Team to look into acquiring some depth via the draft ahead of possible departures from Kearse and Hooker after the upcoming season. With how well Wilson has fared coming into the league as a sixth-rounder, maybe the organization can strike gold once again by drafting another day three prospect to provide initial help with depth that potentially turns into a future starter on defense.

Here are a trio Day 3 options for the Cowboys to consider in the upcoming draft:

Ronnie Hickman, Ohio State

Age: 21

Height: 6-0.5

Weight: 203

COLLEGE FOOTBALL NOV 26 Michigan at Ohio State Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Due to an ACL injury that occurred while still in high school, Hickman would redshirt his freshman season in 2019 at Ohio State. In his second season on campus, Covid happened, but so did the injury bug which limited him to just five games. With only five games played in two years, the 2021 season was a crucial one and he broke out as he led the team in tackles with 100. Heading into his fourth and final season in 2022, expectations for Hickman were high and although that stats took a dip, he still had a quality season. By the time he finished his college career with the Buckeyes, he totaled 158 tackles and three interceptions.

Hickman possesses plenty of athleticism to cover both tight ends and wide receivers. His athleticism is on full display as he has good closing ability in both coverage and against the run. Hickman can be deployed as a blitzer and is very effective in this area because he is very aggressive and also possesses great tackling ability. Having a good feel for the game is a good attribute to have, and Hickman showcases this as he reads the quarterback well, and processes route combinations. Hickman also has decent size for the position, while also having good straight line speed which is a good combination to have.

Although Hickman has tremendous athleticism and overall upside at the next level, sometimes his over aggressiveness can get him in trouble and take him out of a play. He’s a strong tackler, but has a tendency of going for the hit-stick type play on the ball carrier instead of making a fundamental tackle. Staying healthy will also be important at the professional level as the injury bug has followed him through both high school and college.

There is plenty to like about Hickman’s ability to be a quality NFL player. His rare athletic gifts are something teams will take a chance on and see what they can do with him. His technical game isn’t perfect, but while he is getting coached up, there is plenty of athleticism from him to get back into plays that his technique took him out of. Due to his proficiency as a blitzer, along with being a good tackler and athlete, he should be deployed as a big nickel from the get go. This type of role would be what suits him best and would be a nice scheme fit for the Cowboys.

Ji’ayir Brown, Penn State

Age: 23

Height: 5-11

Weight: 203

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 02 Rose Bowl Game Photo by Ric Tapia/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Brown would commit to Penn State after a JUCO stint to start his Division 1 journey. He would appear in nine games during his first year at State College logging six total tackles. In his second season on campus, Brown would start all 13 games for the Nittany Lions and put together a tremendous season by tallying six interceptions along with 73 tackles. He would follow up in his final season on campus in 2022 catching four interceptions as well as having 74 total tackles. Combining his final two seasons at Penn State, he would total 147 tackles, and 10 interceptions.

On the field, Brown lays the wood on ball carriers and is solid in run support as he closes on his opponents in a hurry. His coverage skills are adequate enough to not be considered a deficiency. A good combination of decent foot speed and pure effort results in him making plays on the ball carrier from behind. He possesses a solid frame and knows how to use it because he has good strength. In college, his efforts were rewarded as he stuffed the stat sheet quite well.

Although Brown was stat-stuffer in college, there are technical flaws in his game that he needs to be work on. When he comes to make contact on the ball carrier, he is more so looking to lay the wood instead of wrapping up and making a sound fundamental play. His aggressiveness sometimes will lead to biting on play-action or mis-directions much more often than you would like. The aggressive nature of his game will sometimes not make the officials all too pleased with him which will result in penalties from time to time. His combine performance suggests not having him go one-on-one against a teams speedy pass catcher either.

Even though his combine performance was disappointing, there is no denying his impact on a football game as his stats would back this claim up. His aggressiveness can get him in trouble at times, but most teams would rather have a guy be overzealous then be lackadaisical on the field. Proper coaching and scheming him as another big nickel type player is where Brown will flourish in the NFL until some of his deficiencies can be cleaned up. The potential is very much there for him to have a quality career in the pros.

Julius Brents, Kansas State

Age: 23

Height: 6-3

Weight: 198

Oklahoma State v Kansas State Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

Brents decided to take his talents out of high school to Iowa and play for the Iowa Hawkeyes. During his true freshman campaign in Iowa, he would appear in 11 games and would start in five of those contests. After a promising freshman season, hopes were high for Brents to build off of a solid year one in Iowa City, until a knee injury would have other plans for him. He would return for his third season with the Hawkeyes and play in seven games. After the season, he would enter the transfer portal and head over to Manhattan to play for Kansas State. His final two seasons in college were very productive as he played in 27 games. In those 27 games for the Wildcats, he would total 94 tackles and five interceptions. He would be rewarded in both seasons by being named All-Big 12.

Although Brents is listed as a cornerback, he checks more boxes as a safety, compared to the corner position. Many pundits in the scouting realm see him more as a safety at the next level and part of that is because of size and how he was deployed while in college. For as tall of a player that Brents is, he pairs his excellent size with adequate straight-line speed while in coverage. It also doesn’t hurt to have good hands and to catch the ball like a wide receiver would. Not only does he have good hands, but he tracks the ball tremendously well and uses his size to high point the ball. In contested catch situations, chances are that Brent is going to be making the play on the ball, not the offensive player he is guarding. In the run game, Brents shows a nastiness about his game which leads him to making big hits on the ball carrier.

Even though he is tremendous at high pointing and tracking down the ball, his understanding of route combinations is lacking. From the technical side, his play can be a tad sloppy on occasion which leads to a delay in making plays on the ball carrier. Back pedaling is certainly a big deficiency in his game, as he seems uncomfortable and unnatural while trying to do it. In addition to the back pedaling issue, his hands will get him in trouble sometimes as he likes to grab a hold of the offensive player when he feels that he is beaten which then leads to penalties. He is much better and more comfortable coming forward than he is going backwards.

His size and athletic profile gives him flexibility as a traditional safety or as a big nickel because of his tackling and coverage skills. From the coverage side of things, Brents is much more effective when he plays 10-plus yards off the line of scrimmage which makes more him suited to play safety. The lack of top end speed also suggests a transition to safety in the NFL would help get the most out of his natural talent, and size. The potential is certainly there for Brents to be a good pro player, but it will all come down to coaching and using his skill set in the right way.

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