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Position Series: Plenty Of Unanswered Questions Surrounding Safety Spot

(Editor's Note: April is here, which means the first wave of free agency has passed and the NFL Draft is just around the corner.'s 11-part series analyzes every position on the Cowboys' roster at this point in the offseason: free-agent additions and subtractions, draft possibilities, returning players and question marks. The series concludes with safeties.)

Roster Holdovers: Well, that happens to be one of the defining storylines of this entire offseason.

Barry Church was a four-year starter and a defensive captain, having spent seven years with the club since signing as undrafted free agent back in 2010. J.J. Wilcox was drafted in 2013 and started roughly 40 games over the last four years.

Both are gone, having signed free agent contracts elsewhere back in March, and one of the biggest talking points of the offseason has been the Cowboys' lack of depth in their absence.

Byron Jones remains as the primary option, having enjoyed a solid season at safety last year. The 2015 first-round draft pick is the top player on the depth chart, and the Cowboys will be hoping he can continue to progress in his second full season at the position.

With Church and Wilcox out the door, Jeff Heath is the prohibitive favorite to be the Cowboys' starting strong safety – the guy responsible for playing closer to the line and being reliable in run support.

"We feel like he's able to compete for that spot," said Cowboys coach Jason Garrett on Monday.

Heath is the most experienced option available, having appeared in 62 games with 10 starts since 2013. He was steady playing in nickel and dime packages last year, and he was fantastic in the playoff loss to Green Bay. Whether he uses that as a springboard for a full-time starting job will be one of the most interesting aspects of training camp.

There's not much in the way of experienced options behind Heath. The Cowboys spent a sixth-round draft pick on Kavon Frazier, and they're optimistic about his development. Of course, it's worth pointing out that Frazier played just 37 defensive snaps during his rookie season – 21 of which came in Week 17 against Philadelphia.

It's also worth remembering that Jameill Showers is still on this roster. The Cowboys moved Showers to safety last season after signing him to the practice squad for a second-straight season. All the reports about Showers' usefulness in practice are encouraging, but he hasn't appeared in a regular season game since initially signing with the Cowboys back in 2015.

Free Agency Overview: There's actually some late news on this front, given that the Cowboys just signed veteran safety Robert Blanton last week.

Blanton comes to Dallas after stints in Minnesota and Buffalo. The Vikings originally drafted him in the fifth round of the 2012 NFL Draft, and he played the 2016 season with the Bills.

The signing is exactly the type of move the Cowboys prefer to make in free agency. It was an inexpensive pickup, and it gives them a bit of added depth at a position of need.

It seems doubtful that Blanton will nab a starting job, but he does give them a veteran who can feature on defense. He's also a special teams standout and should be able to contribute in a variety of ways in coverage.

Draft Outlook: Safety looms large as one of the three biggest needs on this entire roster – Cowboys officials are even willing to acknowledge that.

"You can throw safety in there too and still give us some good things to improve our team with," said Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones on Monday.

There's no guarantee that the Cowboys will draft a safety, but it certainly wouldn't be a surprise. They have been tied to plenty of players at the position, such as Connecticut's Obi Melifonwu and Louisiana Tech's Xavier Woods.

The question is whether they can find a draft prospect who is a clear upgrade from the talent on hand. If the Cowboys draft a safety at No. 28 or No. 60, it's a decent bet he could be a starting safety by Week 1. Otherwise, it might be wise to find some more depth in the later rounds.

Time To Shine: There are several guys who fit this bill – especially at a position with so many question marks.

Byron Jones has been solid in his first few seasons, but 2017 could be telling in his development. With the loss of Church and Wilcox, it could put greater stress on the former first-round pick to prove his chops as a quality starting safety.

The spotlight will also be bright on the strong safety job, vacated by Church. If Heath wins the gig, there'll obviously be a lot of pressure on him to deliver on the front office's confidence in him. If the job goes to a draft pick, then there will obviously be high expectations on the rookie to deliver on his potential.

Regardless of what happens, safety will assuredly be one of the most scrutinized positions on the roster this season.


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