FRISCO, Texas - As of today, a list of the NFL's most feared safeties probably wouldn't include Jeff Heath. He's had a relatively limited number of on-field opportunities after all; through his first four seasons, Heath has started just 10 games.
But Cowboy fans might have seen enough of him to notice that Heath has showed a knack for making plays. He has recorded four interceptions (including three in the last two seasons) and two forced fumbles. He even returned a fumble 50 yards for a touchdown during his rookie season. During this year's OTA practices Heath was all over the field, recording numerous interceptions against the Cowboys' offense.
In short, Heath has shown the potential of a defensive playmaker.
Coming into next season there will be a starting safety spot open opposite Byron Jones, and for Heath to seize that opportunity, or even someday join that list of feared safeties, he knows he has to study the other names on that list.
"I like watching all the good ones," Heath said the last week of mini-camp. "I love watching Earl Thomas, Harrison Smith, Eric Berry, any of the ones that make a lot of plays. I just want to try to see what they see."
Film study for a safety is an interesting concept because their job is so often to react. A quarterback, for example, might hope to dictate the development of a play, and film study can sharpen his ability to do that. We might take for granted that the league's best safeties are constantly making plays despite, in some sense, relying on mistakes from the offense. So how do they keep doing it?
"They're making plays, but it's not like the ball is just getting thrown to them," Heath said of the top safeties in the NFL. "They're seeing something. I try to see what they see [when I watch film of them] and put myself in that situation. So when I'm in that situation in a practice or a game I can try to do the same thing."
Having consistently dynamic safeties on a roster can pay enormous dividends for an entire defensive unit. Even offensively, things like time of possession and field position are greatly effected by how many opportunities a team's safeties can capitalize on. Over the past five years you don't have to look farther than Seattle to see how it manifests itself in the win column.
Heath has certainly put in his homework.
"You can pick any player or any team and [the Cowboys' coaching staff] can find tape for you," Heath explained. "I've done that before with Earl [Thomas] and Kam Chancellor. I'll just say 'Give me all the Seahawks plays from a given year,' and I'll just scroll through. I'll just watch."
Still, Heath has had to earn every bit of his playing time as a Cowboy, and he knows that just like the common adage that players need to be able to shake off bad plays, he's learned to apply a similar mentality to good ones.
"You might make a good play on them, but the next play it's not like they're scared," Heath said. "They're coming at you again. You got to be on your stuff or you'll get exposed. When an opportunity presents itself you have to capitalize, but after that you have to try to put it behind you and try to do it again."