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Heath Showed Flashes, But Plenty Of Rookie Struggles

Posted Feb 10, 2014


Editor's Note: Throughout the off-season, DallasCowboys.com staff writers will take a closer look at the roster, analyzing players’ impact last season and how each fits into the team's 2014 plans. Today's Roster Rundown entry features safety Jeff Heath.)

Name: Jeff Heath
Position: Cornerback
Height/Weight: 6-1 / 209
Experience: 1 season
College: Saginaw Valley State

Key stat:

Contract Status: Signed through 2015

2013 Impact:Jeff Heath was one of those players who was an afterthought when training camp opened in Oxnard, Calif., before the season. He was a guy who, when he signed after the draft, the scouts spoke of as a “tough guy that would rarely be in the wrong spot.”

As camp wore on, you could see with each practice and game that the coaches grew more and more confident with his game. Where he was able to make his early mark was with Rich Bisaccia and the special teams.

Bisaccia had him on all the cover teams and trusted him with the all-important role as the personal protector on the punt team. By season’s end, Heath led the team in special teams tackles with 13. As far as his role as a safety, it was the week of the practices leading up to a road game in Philadelphia that we began to see Heath start to work in more with JJ Wilcox as a starter.

Wilcox was injured in that game, and the following week against the Lions, Heath got the start and made eight more after that. For Heath, it was a season of up and down play. There was never a doubt of his ability to play with a physical edge, but there were limitations in his overall play when it came to pass coverage.

As long as plays were in front of him, there were times where he looked outstanding and you saw where he had six passes defended. But when the ball went up and down the field, he didn’t play with that same confidence.

There were plays in the Lions game, then later against the Saints where he defended the pass like he had no route or ball awareness. Heath finished the season with 60 tackles, which was sixth best on the team, but all people can remember are the missed ones against the Vikings and Adrian Peterson where he was in poor position or he was physically overmatched.     

Where He Fits: There are different directions this club can go when it comes to how to determine who starts at safety in 2014.

I know that Barry Church will be the starter on one side and maybe JJ Wilcox or Matt Johnson opposite him. The club could also try and upgrade with a draft pick such as Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix or Calvin Pryor -- or maybe even Jimmie Ward -- to play as that true free safety.

Where does that leave Heath? I tend to believe that his role on the team fits that of a core special teamer and backup to the starter at free safety. In talking to Heath’s teammates, they were impressed with his ability to not only play all the snaps that he did play on defense but those on special teams, as well.

There were times where you could see that by never coming off the field, it affected his play on the defense. If Heath is solely allowed to just focus on special teams only, then in the long run, the club is much better off.

Despite what you might feel about him as a player overall, when you do take him to the game, like Dwayne Harris, there are plenty of roles that he can fill on game day and for coaches, that is important.    

Writers' Analysis

David Helman: It was one thing to praise Jeff Heath for his ability to tackle during training camp and preseason – which I clearly remember doing. But I don’t think anyone expected the rookie to spend significant time as a starting safety in 2013.

In retrospect, it seems like a questionable decision to release Will Allen so early in the season – especially when JJ Wilcox hurt his knee and moved Heath into a starting decision. The Michigan native had moments where he excelled, particularly on special teams. But I don’t think anyone was surprised to see him struggle.

I think ideally the Cowboys would hope that Wilcox, a third round pick, seizes the starting job opposite Barry Church this year. It doesn’t seem likely that Heath will give that fight up easily, though. At the very least it seems that the Cowboys have found a solid backup and a good special teamer – if not a potential starter with some improvement.

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