The offseason practices are in the rearview mirror as the Cowboys are heading towards training camp, which begins on July 24 in Oxnard, Calif.
That's usually the place where many of the questions regarding this team start to get answered.
The staff writers at DallasCowboys.com – Rob Phillips, David Helman, Nick Eatman and Bryan Broaddus – are attempting to answer 20 pressing questions as the team gets ready for camp and the 2017 season.
Today, we continue the series discussing Jeff Heath's chance to step into the starting lineup for the first time in his five-year career.
11) Is Jeff Heath Ready To Fill Church's Shoes And Win Safety Job?
Eatman: My previous question (No. 12) suggests that Awuzie will end up playing a lot at safety. But not necessarily over Heath. I think the Cowboys will be careful with his snaps because of how valuable he's been on special teams. I bet that doesn't change too much. But to answer this question, yes I think Heath is ready. And it's taken me some time to come around on this. But I did say last week in a question that Heath will make his first Pro Bowl – either at safety or special teams. So yes, he's ready to step up his game. I think he's been waiting for this opportunity. And the fact that both Dez and Brice say he's one of the fastest players on the team, that's good enough for me.
Phillips:The Cowboys certainly think so, because Heath (along with a deep secondary draft class) was the primary reason the team set a financial ceiling for free agent Barry Church, who signed with Jacksonville. I understand why the coaches believe in Heath. He's gotten better each year: more reliable in coverage, better as a tackler, and now he's making game-changing plays. He's the most experienced safety left on the roster, so it makes sense that he's the frontrunner to start alongside Byron Jones. I have two questions, though. Who would replace Heath on special teams, because he's been among the best players for Rich Bisaccia in the kicking game? And, can Kavon Frazier, Xavier Woods and possibly Chidobe Awuzie push him for snaps? Remember, Church was a defensive captain, but the Cowboys still rotated in J.J. Wilcox for 20-plus snaps per game last year. It's possible that Heath starts and the Cowboys create playing time at safety for one of those younger players.
Helman:Only time will tell if Heath will be as good as Church. Let's be clear: for whatever shortcomings he might have, Church was a quality starter at strong safety. He was routinely one of this team's leading tacklers, a team captain and an important figure in the locker room. I don't know if Heath can be those things, but I do think he's going to be a starter in 2017. I know the Cowboys have Frazier, Robert Blanton and Woods, but I really do think Heath is up to the task of beating them out for the starting job. Much like last year, I expect them to use as many as four safeties routinely – but Heath will be the guy in the starting lineup. I have no doubts that he can be an adequate box safety, given his skills as a tackler. What will be interesting to see is how he handles his duties in coverage, because this season I imagine he'll be handling far more responsibility in that aspect of his game. If I had to guess, he'll probably be better than many fans seem to expect – but he also won't be quite as fantastic as the coaching staff seems to believe. The truth usually lies somewhere in the middle, and it suggests that Jeff Heath will be a solid if unspectacular starter at safety.
Broaddus:As much as I hate losing Church, his replacement, Heath, has me interested in what could happen there. If you've followed me for any length of time here on DallasCowboys.com I have been accused of being a Heath Apologist. When things weren't going well for him, I was more than willing to take a wait and see approach in order to fully evaluate the player. With Heath you get every bit of the physical play that you got with Church and similar ball skills. What Heath can do that Church can't is play with deep range. Having Heath in the lineup will allow Byron Jones to play down more in the box and in tighter coverage which is his strength. The defensive adjustments will be better and the scheme more flexible.