Helman: Finding A Blessing In A Kearse

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FRISCO, Texas – Few things make me happier than having my priors confirmed by people that are a lot smarter than me.

So imagine my delight when I asked Dan Quinn what he'd learned about Jayron Kearse since training camp began, and his answer was so perfect that it was almost as if I had given him a script.

"J.K., I would say I didn't know he was as versatile as he is," said the Cowboys' defensive coordinator of his veteran safety. "We've played him at nickel, we've played him at safety, he plays down near the box. So, some guys can handle more and you have to give them a little bit more."

There are members of this defense making a bigger splash than Kearse, the sixth-year safety who signed on during the spring. Trevon Diggs is tied for the league lead in interceptions through three weeks, and Micah Parsons might be redefining how many roles a rookie defender is capable of filling.

All due respect and credit to them, it's Kearse who is sneakily piquing my interest about just how much fun Quinn might be able to have with this defensive crew in 2021.

He said the word himself, "versatility," and it completely checks out when you turn on the tape.

Watch that 41-21 rout of the Eagles back again, and you'll see Kearse wear a ton of different hats over the course of the game.

In charting his 54 defensive snaps, I was blown away by everything the Cowboys asked Kearse to do.

His reputation coming in was as a specialist whose 6'4, 215-pound frame helped him cover tight ends. To be sure, he did a lot of that. I counted at least 16 snaps where Kearse was stacked close to the line or lined up in the slot, with the tight end as his primary responsibility – sometimes Zach Ertz and sometimes Dallas Goedert.

The results were positive. Goedert did pick up 28 yards in the third quarter off of what seemed to be a miscommunication on the coverage, but Kearse also managed to get the Dallas defense off the field on a first quarter 3rd-and-3 with wonderful coverage on a throw to Ertz.

"It's actually pretty similar to the same way I was used in Minnesota," Kearse said on Wednesday. "Just now I'm having more opportunities."

Let's talk about those opportunities, because Quinn gave him a lot. In addition to tight end responsibilities, I saw Kearse blitz three times, nearly getting home on one occasion. I saw him play as a big nickel in the box, with an eye on handling the Eagles' running backs coming out of the backfield. I saw him rotate toward the back of the defense to play two-high on a handful of occasions. I even saw him take DeVonta Smith in the slot at least once.

That's not even to mention the most fun part. On a handful of occasions – predominantly on third downs, it seemed – Kearse seemed to function as a sort of big dime back. Given his size, Kearse manned the middle of the field on his own, technically giving the Cowboys six defensive backs – though not exactly giving up a ton of size. That allowed Jaylon Smith to shift down to the line of scrimmage, where he functioned as a fifth pass rusher along with the front four.

The result is a fairly modest statline – five tackles, one pass breakup. But the product on tape looked a lot more impactful – not to mention a heck of a lot more versatile – than those stats suggest.

"The thing about J.K. is he's answered when we've given him more," Quinn said. "And so you don't want to necessarily throw everything on to somebody at one time, but when a player shows they're capable for more than one job, and he has a unique skill set, then he's going to take advantage of that."

At least part of that is due to the loss of Donovan Wilson to a groin injury, but Kearse is making the most of it. He played just 62% of the snaps in Tampa, but those percentages have vaulted up to 97% and 93% the last two weeks. In fact, those 54 snaps against Philadelphia tied for the team lead on defense, along with Diggs and Anthony Brown. The only snaps they missed were the final four snaps of the game, with the outcome well in hand and the reserves getting some playing time.

It might not look like that all the time, especially once Wilson is healthy again. But it's at least encouraging to think Kearse can handle that workload – and look solid doing so.

"That varies week to week based on who we're going against, but it's been a unique situation around here and just giving us the ability to do a lot of different things," Kearse said.

To this point, that feels like a theme for this defense. Again, we're seeing it with Parsons. We're seeing it with some of the alignments Quinn uses in the front. But it's awfully exciting to think what could be in store for a tall, rangy safety who can do a little bit of everything.

It's a wrinkle most of us weren't expecting heading into this season, but – as Kearse pointed out – maybe we should've been.

"Before I even signed here, I knew what I was brought here for and what my role was going to be," he said. "It's just, we had a vision. I guess everybody else is just seeing the vision now."

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