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Safety: Majority of Position in “Contract Year”
The Cowboys have some major changes at the safety position, from players lost to new coaches to the addition of a former first-round pick that could make an immediate impact. 
By Jonny Auping By Nick Eatman Jul 17, 2020

With training camp now right around the corner, it's time to dissect each position as we get closer to the season. Each day, we dissect a different aspect of each position, ranging from position battles to under-the-radar players to simply answering questions that have yet to be resolved. 

Today, we'll conclude the series with the safety position.

Need to Figure Out

Majority of Position in “Contract Year”

Need To Figure Out

The Cowboys may have two presumed starters at safety, but what they don't currently have is a long-term plan. Both HaHa Clinton-Dix and Xavier Woods will both be free agents next offseason. While Dallas will tell you they have high expectations for both players, their looming free agency is at least partially a product of the fact that no one, including the Cowboys, know exactly what they'll become over the next few years. 

Woods is entering the final year of his rookie contract. He took a big leap forward as a player last season, earning the starting safety spot opposite Jeff Heath and recording two interceptions. In another world, he might have already been offered a savvy contract extension, but with so many other contracts to address and a new coaching staff that would probably like to evaluate him, Woods will have this season to prove what he's really worth. He's certainly a candidate to become a Pro Bowl-caliber player. 

Mike McCarthy drafted Clinton-Dix in Green Bay and coached him for four seasons, so the 27-year-old's acquisition was surely a result of McCarthy feeling comfortable with his former player playing a big role in the Cowboys' defense. But it's been three years since McCarthy coached Clinton-Dix, and it's no mistake that the deal is only for one season. 

These questions are not unrelated to why Jamal Adams, the Jets' disgruntled All Pro safety who is currently seeking a trade, keeps being tied to Dallas. The Cowboys are hoping that Woods and Clinton-Dix are good enough for 2020, and those two will be given every opportunity to prove they're worth keeping around for longer than that. But ultimately we won't begin to know that until at least a handful of games have been played.

Ready to Compete

Where Donovan Wilson Fits Into Plans

Ready To Compete

If the preseason games were a true indication of what to expect, then Donovan Wilson might be headed for great things.

And who knows, perhaps the former Texas A&M standout will become a great player for the Cowboys. He certainly shined when given the chance last preseason – picking off three passes, easily the most of anyone else on the defense.

Wilson, a sixth-round pick in 2019, did enough to make the 53-man roster. But once the games started to count for real, he didn't have a huge role at all. In fact, he was inactive five times last year and in the game he did suit out, Wilson didn't record a tackle on defense and just two on special teams.

But then again, all Wilson can do is thrive when he gets the chance to play. Maybe he showed the former coaching staff that he wasn't ready by the way he practiced or prepared during the week. Or maybe players like Woods, Jeff Heath and Darian Thompson were all better options.

But as Wilson enters his second pro season, there aren't a lot of other obstacles standing in his way. The Cowboys didn't draft a safety and only signed one rookie free agent for the position.

If Wilson makes the usual progress of a second-year pro, look for him to compete for playing time, if not a starting job.

Don't Forget About

Will Darian Thompson’s Role Increase?

Don't Forget About

Sure, it's not exactly controversial to say that Xavier Woods and HaHa Clinton-Dix are firmly penciled in as the Week 1 starters at safety for the Dallas Cowboys. One has exciting potential to keep building on and the other has a proven track record in the NFL.

But neither is currently presumed to have a Pro Bowl season, so neither is above the possibility of facing a little competition in training camp, and regardless, the Cowboys want to be confident in their ability to withstand an injury to either. It's certainly possible that Darian Thompson provides the coaching staff with a little bit of that insurance. After two years with the New York Giants, Thompson spent the last two seasons in Dallas. In that time he appeared in 25 games, including four starts last season. Starting for an injured Jeff Heath in a Week 14 matchup with the Chicago Bears last season, Thompson led the Cowboys with nine tackles, including a sack.

Over those two years he's made himself a valuable special teams player and in March the Cowboys signed him to a two-year extension, clearly satisfied with his ability to help the team. He is a smart, physical player who was drafted in the third round out of Boise State for his high interception numbers in college.

In all likelihood, Thompson will serve as a special teams player ready to fill in for short stretches at safety. But McCarthy hasn't coached HaHa Clinton-Dix in three years, and if he's not quite the player that the former Green Bay coach remembers, McCarthy, defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, and secondary coach Al Harris will likely give Thompson a shot to prove he can handle a bigger role.

What We Know

Cowboys Need Big Season From Woods

What We Know

This one isn't easy because there isn't a ton of clarity at this position. There have been free agent losses, new coaches and new additions. But we know that Xavier Woods will somehow fit into the plans this year.

Woods has been a serviceable to good player that continues to develop. Last year, he finished fifth on the defense with 81 tackles and tied for the team lead with two interceptions – a figure that obviously needs to be increased for the team leader.

Woods has good ball skills and he's more versatile than people realize, evident by his ability to play the slot corner as a rookie in 2017. Woods' coverage skills are better than most safeties and look for that to be utilized even more with this new coaching staff.

He's an interchangeable player who can play both free and strong safety so he should fit in well with newly-signed Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.

And let's not forget this fact that seems to be a huge difference-maker in terms of production every year, but Woods is entering a contract year as he begins his fourth season. That typically raises the level of play even more and we'll see what that does for Woods

What's New?

HaHa Brings New Veteran Presence

What's New?

When Jeff Heath signed with the Raiders in March, the Cowboys lost a veteran leader who had seemingly earned the unilateral respect of the Jason Garrett coaching staff. In short time, Mike McCarthy replaced him with a safety who had previously earned his trust. 

HaHa Clinton-Dix, who signed a one-year deal in Dallas, will bring his own veteran presence to the Cowboys' locker room. The 27-year-old spent four of his six seasons in Green Bay with McCarthy, who drafted him out of Alabama. Last season, he signed a one-year deal in Chicago where he started 16 games. Over his career, Clinton-Dix has 522 tackles and 16 interceptions. 

The expectations for the Cowboys' offense will be high, and the defense will need to hold up its end of the bargain. In a secondary with a number of intriguing young players, McCarthy clearly felt that Clinton-Dix can be depended on to start at safety without being considered a weak link. Clinton-Dix has given up some big plays over the course of his career, but he's also shown pretty tremendous ball skills over that span, and the Cowboys have at times seemed starved for turnovers over the past few seasons. 

McCarthy also brought on another former member of his Packers' secondary to lead the unit. Former Pro Bowl cornerback Al Harris will serve as secondary coach under defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. With the challenges faced due to various COVID-19 restrictions, it's set to be a particularly tough year to implement new faces. It's certainly helpful when some of those new faces in the coaching staff and even players are familiar with the man in charge and how he conducts his team.

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