(Editor's Note: This is the fourth 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 2014 season. Today we examine the safeties.)
Pressing Matters:The carousel ride that was the spot next to Barry Church at safety will continue on. That player was initially supposed to be veteran Will Allen, who was cut during the 2013 season as the Cowboys attempted to train their rookies on the job and make them play immediately with very mixed reviews. Dallas will need to decide by next season who the guy next to Church – their leading tackler from the 2013 season – will be. They had to expect growing pains from J.J. Wilcox when they drafted him, as he'd only played once college season at the position. They liked Jeff Heath, who became a starter toward the end of the year, but the undrafted safety had his fair share of struggles. It's also easy to forget about Matt Johnson, who was hurt again and would have competed for a starting spot. It wouldn't be surprising to see the Cowboys burn one of their top three draft picks on a safety again. If not, expect a competition between Wilcox, Heath and Johnson.
2013 Evaluation: Barry Church was the team's most consistent tackler, particularly after Sean Lee went out at the end of the season, but the entire safety group had more than a few hiccups in coverage. It's probably not what the Cowboys expected that Danny McCray, who's set to be a free agent and wasn't much of a contributor at safety in 2013, still has the most career interceptions among the safety group with two. Wilcox had two picks taken away on plays that were called back. Heath and Church each had one interception. There was a major emphasis on takeaways when the Cowboys brought in the new defensive coaches and system, and that was one of the lone bright spots of the defense in 2013, but it didn't translate in the form of interceptions by safeties. Church led the team with three forced fumbles and his play garnered Pro Bowl attention, but more was expected from the safeties as a whole group.
Need More From … : This could be up for interpretation, but they definitely need more from Johnson, a 2012 fourth-round pick who's never played because of injuries. Every time anyone saw him make a step and look like he could be a solid contributor, an injury would set him back and eventually end his season. The unfulfilled expectations could still be met if he can stay healthy through an offseason and preseason, and the fact he's still around demonstrates what the coaches think of his ability. The Cowboys also need more from Wilcox, who's got the physical attributes to become a starter and may just need more experience to harness the talent.
Upgrades Needed:The Cowboys may decide to draft another safety with range that'll allow Church to play closer to the box more often. This group was overmatched at times, mostly because of the inexperience throughout. After Allen was released, the safety contributors consisted mainly of Church, Wilcox and Heath. Church was the veteran of that group and he had only started three games the season prior before an injury. Mistakes are sure to follow in such a scenario. The Cowboys' coaches will have to be as honest as possible about the potential of their young group, and if they feel it's too much of a risk to slot Wilcox, Heath or Johnson in as a solid starter next year, they'll need to make an offseason move to put another player next to Church or to add depth and insurance. [embedded_ad]
By The Numbers:
- Church and Heath both recorded their first career interceptions.
- Sean Lee's injury meant another player would lead the team in tackles, and Church answered that call in 2013. Different outlets provide different tackle totals for the safety, but all of them credit Church with at least 133 tackles – some as high as 147 – and leading the team.
- Wilcox, Heath and Jakar Hamilton, all rookies, ended up taking snaps at safety.
- Church led the team with three forced fumbles. It also marked the first time he played in all 16 games in a season.
Bryan Broaddus on the Cowboys' safeties:
What I have learned over the years studying this scheme is that if you have poor safety play, it affects how well the defense functions. The idea is to funnel the ball to the inside and allow the linebackers and safeties to make the plays. But if those players are out of position… (Read more here)