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Questions & Answers: Long-Term Future Looks Murky At Safety

IRVING, Texas – If the Cowboys has to play a game this weekend, there prospects at the safety spot would look just fine.

The roster currently boasts three experienced safeties, not to mention an ultra-talented youngster who showed an aptitude for the position.

Things become murkier when the big picture comes into play. Both of the Cowboys' starting safeties from the past two seasons are soon-to-be free agents, and they haven't yet decided where to play last year's first-round draft pick, Byron Jones.

It's a position that could use an upgrade, and the Cowboys could do that this spring during the 2016 NFL Draft. If not, there will be at least a few concerns in the long-term.

As things stand here in mid-April, here's how the position breaks down:

Barry Church

What We Know: It's a forgotten fact amid the wreckage that was the 2015 season, but Church actually ended his season a week early with a broken arm. That was way back on Dec. 27, though, and Church is fully healed for the start of the offseason program. Church has been solid but inconsistent during his three-year stretch as a starter. He's a two-time defensive captain and boasts the intangibles the Cowboys love in their locker room. His performance has been steady, as he's averaged eight tackles per game in his three years as a starter. Having said that, it's fair to say at this point that Church's value comes primarily in the box, given that he's proven limited in pass coverage and boasts just three career interceptions.

Still Need To Know:Is all of that enough to warrant another contract in Dallas? The four-year contract extension Church signed expires after this season. He's good if not great, and he's respected enough in the locker room that he's been named a captain multiple times. He also fits the bill of what Jason Garrett is looking for when he says "right kind of guy." Does that mean the Cowboys will seek to keep Church around, or will they look to upgrade the position when the veteran hits free agency? 

J.J. Wilcox

What We Know: It's been an up-and-down run for Wilcox, none moreso than last season. He has at times flashed genuine playmaking ability, such as the monster hit he laid on Odell Beckham Jr. in last year's season opener. He's also proven he can be quite a liability in coverage – the playoff loss to Green Bay and the overtime loss to Philadelphia last fall come to mind as low points. Wilcox has been good enough to start 29 of his last 32 games, but the three missed starts in that timespan came when he was replaced in the lineup by Byron Jones.

Still Need To Know: Just like Church, Wilcox is out of contract after the 2016 season. Does he have a long-term future with the Cowboys? It's hard to say. He should certainly be in contention for a starting job this season, but that could be quite a competition. It's expected that Jones is going to get a chance to secure a starting safety job, and the defensive backfield could get even more crowded if the Cowboys opt to address the safety position in the draft. Wilcox will want to impress during a contract season, but he'll have to earn the job first.

Jeff Heath

What We Know: It says a lot about the 2016 Dallas Cowboys defense that Heath played sparingly at safety – just 19 percent of defensive snaps – and led the team in interceptions. His two picks against Tampa Bay led all defenders for the year on a unit that just could not force any takeaways. Heath signed a four-year extension just last week, though that's more a product of his abilities as a special teamer. The three-year veteran is a core special teamer and an unofficial captain of the kick teams, and he tied for the team lead in special teams tackles. Heath continues to draw fan criticism for his struggles as a rookie, but the new contract makes sense. He has grown into a valuable asset on special teams, and he's decent depth as a reserve safety.


Still Need To Know:** Does the new contract merit more playing time on defense? The deal reportedly includes playtime incentives, which makes sense gives Heath's snap count. He played just 205 snaps on defense, as opposed to 861 for Church, 870 for Jones and 822 for Wilcox. The coaching staff is obviously comfortable using Heath in the starting lineup, but they'd probably prefer to save his skills for special teams and upgrade the starting spot elsewhere.

Byron Jones

What We Know: More than anything else, we know that Jones is versatile. He started 11 games as a rookie, and only seven of those starts came at safety. He started at left and right cornerback, and he featured as a nickel back on one occasion. That doesn't include the other five games last season – when he was used primarily as a dime back responsible for the opposing tight end. Of all his various assignments, Jones seemed to show the best instincts and potential at safety. He's got the size to play the position, and his off-the-charts athleticism give him intriguing potential to be the ballhawking playmaker the Cowboys have lacked recently. Regardless of where he lines up, Jones is likely the best athlete in the entire Dallas secondary.

Still Need To Know: Whatever we might guess is going to happen, no one in the Cowboys organization has been willing to confirm that Jones will play safety in his second season. He also gained extensive experience at cornerback last year, so his primary position could be determined by injuries or depth at either position. The Cowboys clearly value the fact that appear to have a possible starter at two different positions, and they aren't in a rush to fix his position. Jones' eventual destination could also be influenced by upcoming draft selections – such as the possibility of adding another versatile defensive back in Jalen Ramsey. It's likely that Jones' prospects for 2016 will remain open until training camp gets into gear.


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