(Editor's Note: In conjunction with the DallasCowboys.com position series, here's a look back at how each player performed last season. The final piece features the safeties.)
Barry Church:Church was the one constant at safety last season, coming off a serious Achilles injury to start in all 16 games for the first time in his career and lead the team with 147 total tackles. Church also added an interception and led the team with three forced fumbles. The Cowboys had to move Church around and get him inside the box at times almost as another linebacker, but he didn't struggle much with the adjustments. He was one of the surest tacklers on the team.
J.J. Wilcox: It was a memorable rookie year for Wilcox for both good and bad reasons. Despite playing just one season of college safety, the Cowboys were set on Wilcox to become their starting safety immediately after moving on from Will Allen early in the season, showing just how much they believe in the young safety. But Wilcox also dealt with obstacles both on and off the field, losing his mother and injuring his knee his rookie year. Wilcox did start five games and displayed flashes of his potential.
Jeff Heath:Heath was a longshot to make the team as an undrafted rookie, but he ended up starting more games at safety opposite Barry Church than any player on the team. The rookie had his struggles, as most would against the Saints and the Lions' Calvin Johnson, but he also had some notable moments, including a forced fumble on Reggie Bush and a touchdown. He finished sixth on the team in total tackles and was the leading tackler on special teams.
Jakar Hamilton:Hamilton was one of the prized undrafted rookies from last year's class that the Cowboys really coveted. They got their guy, though 2013 was almost a redshirt year for Hamilton, a one-time Georgia Bulldog turned South Carolina State safety. Hamilton suited up for three games and got most of his action late against the Lions after injuries in the secondary.
Matt Johnson:There should be a giant "incomplete" on this category for Johnson. It's been a couple years since the Cowboys selected Johnson in the fourth round in 2012, but because of injuries there's more known about the safeties from the 2013 class than him. His hamstrings held him back his rookie year and a foot injury kept him out last season, when many expected him to compete for a starting safety spot. Johnson's yet to play in a regular season game.
Ahmad Dixon:Dixon was a three-year starter and All-American at safety for Baylor, starting 12 of 13 games last year for the Bears. He was ejected for targeting once, which led to him not starting against Texas. This goes to show how physically Dixon plays the game. He's the type of safety who can lay the wood at any moment and doesn't shy away from contact, as evidenced by his 288 career tackles. He was a consensus first-team All-Big 12 selection last season.
Ryan Smith:Smith didn't have a lengthy starting career for Auburn prior to his senior year, but he started eight games last season and finished third on the team with 68 tackles while adding three interceptions. He came up big against some of the best teams in the nation, with a forced fumble against LSU, a pick and fourth-down stop against Ole Miss and picks against Texas A&M and Georgia, while adding six tackles against Florida State in the national title game. [embedded_ad]
Scout's Take – Bryan Broaddus on what he's looking for in 2014:There is really no question that Barry Church will line up at one of the safeties in this defense for Rod Marinelli. The bigger question is who will be playing next to him? The physically remade J.J. Wilcox has that responsibility as we open camp here in California but there is clearly competition waiting to take the field that could knock him out of that spot. The focus of my attention will be on several players that are basically in the same boat as Wilcox when it comes to experience and ability. Jeff Heath was the starter for the last half of the season and it was no secret that he had his moments where he did not play well but if you watch what he did down after down on special teams, you were glad he was on the team. Jakar Hamilton wasn't ready to step on the field against the Lions that day but if you study him playing in these OTAs and minicamps, he appears to be a different player. Rookies Ahmad Dixon and Ryan Smith on college tape appeared to have enough skill to compete for a spot in this secondary. The wildcard in all of this mix still in my opinion is Matt Johnson. He, Hamilton and Smith all have the ability to play in this single high look out of the middle of the field which is a look I believe that we will see quite a bit from Rod Marinelli this season.