(At long last, the NFL season is in sight. After a long offseason, the Cowboys are set to depart for training camp on July 24. During this final month before they begin practice in Oxnard, Calif., the staff of DallasCowboys.com is going to preview the 20 biggest questions facing the Cowboys heading into 2018.)
FRISCO, Texas – It might be the biggest question surrounding the Cowboys' defense as training camp nears.
What happens at the free safety spot?
Byron Jones is moving to cornerback, which leaves a job open next to Jeff Heath. So far it's Xavier Woods, last year's sixth-round pick, taking first-team reps there. The Cowboys like Woods' potential, and he appears to be the leader over Kavon Frazier and some other young defensive backs for the job.
That's the next item in our preseason preview:
12) How can Xavier Woods hang on to the safety job?
Mickey Spagnola: Of the many questions the Cowboys must answer during training camp, this one is in the Top 5, and the starting free safety job going in is Woods' to lose. They want him to win this job. They want him to convince them they don't need to go find an available veteran free safety to play the position or be forced to return Byron Jones back there. Always thought last year he had a chance to actually grab snaps back there until hamstring issues arose in training camp. The key to convince the Cowboys he's their starter will be how well he plays in single-safety high formations. New secondary coach Kris Richard says Woods has the speed and awareness to be that sideline-to-sideline safety he was at Louisiana Tech, and why the Cowboys almost drafted him in the fourth round last year. Remember, the rookie played well as a down cover guy in nickel and dime schemes. Just needs to prove early in camp he can be trusted back there.
Rob Phillips: Like any young player, I just think Woods needs to continue rounding out his game. Though originally listed as a safety last year, he essentially became the Cowboys' third cornerback by the end of the season and did a nice job covering from the slot. If he's indeed the starting free safety this year, tackling and playing physical near the line of scrimmage will also be part of his responsibility. If he can continue developing that part of his game, he's got a bright future as a starter. Right now, it looks like Frazier is his main competition for the job.
Lindsay Draper: If you read the site at all, you saw an article from Nick about a month ago with some pretty high praise for Woods. By who, you ask? The guy he plays alongside – six-year veteran Jeff Heath. Woods is intriguing, because he's so quiet, a hard worker, and has made some big plays with the small amount of opportunities he's been given. I remember asking him during his rookie season at training camp, 'What sets you apart? Why do you think these coaches like you and drafted you?' And his answer was, 'Because I'm such a hard hitting safety.' I think you give Woods the chance to consistently play, he impresses you with his undying effort and seals the deal at safety.
David Helman: For the time being, it seems pretty straightforward for Woods – simply be "good enough." We've all discussed the possibility of the Cowboys bringing in a safety from outside the roster, and we know the team has mentioned possibly moving a cornerback over to compete for the job. If Woods is solid at training camp, though, those options might fall by the wayside. The young safety is in a rare situation where there isn't a ton of competition facing him down for the starting job. The coaching staff would clearly prefer that he grab it. The only way to do that is not to give them any reasons to second-guess themselves. Play well in August, and no one will be looking for your replacement in September.