(Editor's Note: This is the sixth of an 11-part series analyzing every position on the Cowboys roster, providing a quick look back before addressing the needs of each spot on the field and how it can be improved heading into the 2016 season. Today we examine the safeties.)
Pressing Matters:The Cowboys have plenty of bodies at the safety spot, but there seem to be two important questions to answer: what should they do with them, and how dramatic is the need for an upgrade? They appear to have a rising star in the defensive backfield in Byron Jones, who enjoyed a solid rookie season. Before injuries forced him into a stint at cornerback, he appeared well-suited at safety and even took a starting role from J.J. Wilcox. Thanks to Jones' own versatility, though, it's hard to say what his job will be in 2016. Will he team up with Barry Church to form the starting safety duo, or will he shift elsewhere, allowing Wilcox one last chance to establish himself? Of course, there's always the possibility of adding from the outside. The Cowboys will no doubt be linked to several free agent safeties this spring, and there are talents like Jalen Ramsey to consider in the draft. This is a position that needs a definitive pecking order, as it didn't seem to have one last fall.
2015 Evaluation: On one hand, it's hard to come up with too many compliments about the safeties on this team – but it's safe to say it could be worse. Barry Church is easily the most accomplished player at the position, but he struggled through the most frustrating season of his time as a starter. He posted a solid 136 tackles, but his pass coverage was inconsistent, as was his penchant for takeaways. After a second-straight disappointing stint as a starter, it's harder to defend J.J. Wilcox's struggles in coverage and tackling this time around. It's telling that the third-year safety was replaced midway through the season by a rookie in Byron Jones. Speaking of Jones, it's hard to give a good evaluation of his play at safety, given how much time he spent playing as both a corner and a nickel and dime back – but it's certainly safe to say that his athleticism and instincts are intriguing. Behind that trio sits the duo of Jeff Heath and Danny McCray. Both players are free agents this spring, and both are on the roster primarily for their abilities on special teams. Since a tough rookie season, Heath has proven he can be relied on in spot duty – as evidenced by his two right-place, right-time interceptions against Tampa Bay. He'll be a restricted free agent, which should make it easy for the Cowboys to retain him should they want to. Speaking of interceptions, it's worth noting that this team's safeties combined for a mere three picks on the year. All in all, it was a performance that could have been worse – but it could have been much better.
Need More From: You can take your pick from any of the top trio of this team's safeties – but the real answer is probably Byron Jones. Church has the largest contract of any Cowboys safety. He's also a team captain and a six-year veteran. He has been a decent player for much of his stint as a starter, but he needs to be better than he showed in 2015 – especially since this coming season is a contract year. Wilcox is also entering a contract year and is coming off the most disappointing of his three seasons. It stands to reason the Cowboys will give him an opportunity to re-establish his status in the pecking order, but that might be a tall task. Why? Because of the promise showed during Jones' first year on defense. The first-round pick is heading into his second season, and his arrow is undoubtedly trending upward. If he solidifies himself as a starter, he has the athleticism and instincts to be the ballhawk safety the Cowboys have lacked for so long. Because of that potential, the spotlight will be bright on Byron in 2016.
By The Numbers:
- Further emphasizing Byron Jones' versatility as a rookie, consider this: he started 11 total games in his debut season – at four different positions. He started at both cornerback spots, free safety and he started at dime in Week 5 when the Cowboys opened the game with six defensive backs.
- The Cowboys' eight interceptions is a horribly low number. But for whatever it's worth, their safeties came away with more picks than any other position group – three.
- With 357 stops logged since he took over as a starter, Church has more tackles than any other Dallas defender over the past three years.