FRISCO, Texas – All Jayron Kearse ever wanted was a chance, just the opportunity to prove what he could do.
And when you come into the NFL almost through the backdoor, a seventh-round pick of the Minnesota Vikings in 2016, opportunities come few and far between.
The two-year starter at Clemson, considered a safety and nickel back, would start just five of the 62 games he played for the Vikings those first four seasons in the league. Yes, he was in the league, but he had earned the unfortunate reputation as a special teams guy.
Then he signed a free-agent contract with Detroit in 2020, did get to start seven of the 11 games that season, but again, unfortunately, he was released before the final game of that COVID-19 interrupted season, landing on Baltimore's practice squad before the final regular-season game and remaining there during the playoffs.
So, as you might imagine, when he signed a one-year deal with the Cowboys on March 30, 2021, his arrival didn't move the needle much after the Cowboys had signed safety Damontae Kazee the day before and then Keanu Neal two weeks later.
In fact, judging from the $1.127 million veteran exception deal he signed with Dallas, I remember labeling him but a "special teams player," what he always basically had been.
Not just me. In fact, the first line in his Cowboys media guide bio read: _Jayron Kearse signed with the Cowboys during 2021 free agency, providing the team with a quality special teams player who has come along as a solid strong safety._
Not exactly a glowing endorsement.
But still chasing that elusive opportunity, and by now wondering if he ever would get the chance to prove again the athlete he was out of high school and during those three years at Clemson.
"Those things cross your mind when you feel like you're a good player, so it definitely crossed my mind. But every situation I went in, I went in knowing if I could play ball then it's going to happen," says the 28-year-old Kearse. "So I just came in, being myself, and continued to do the things I knew I could do. The opportunity presented itself being with Coach Q."
There is this a saying out there that, by golly, you had better be prepared when opportunity knocks.
Well, well. Thanks to a combination of the Cowboys' serious safety need and the arrival of new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, having earned the reputation of thinking outside the box, Kearse finally received that opportunity.
And he knocked that blessed door down.
The 15 games Kearse started for the much-improved Cowboys defense during last year's 12-5 season was three more than he had started during his previous five-year NFL career combined when he totaled 42, uh, special teams tackles.
But who knew this hybrid safety was more than that? Why, Kearse led the Cowboys with 92 tackles this past season. The 1,013 snaps in those 16 of 17 games played doubled his previous single-season high of 503 with Detroit in 2020.
The nephew of 11-year NFL Pro Bowl defensive end Jevon Kearse wound up playing 88.1 percent of the defensive snaps, third most for the Cowboys, just one snap fewer than Trevon Diggs (88.2 percent), both behind veteran Anthony Brown's 91 percent.
What in the world?
"You know the opportunities came week in and week out," Kearse says. "And then my time in Minnesota, I had the opportunities to play the same position, the big nickel position, but it was seldom I was given that opportunity week in and week out.
"So, I think the only thing that's changed since I've been here is, you know, the opportunity has presented itself week in and week out. It's given me the opportunity to be on the field all the time."
Credit Quinn for that. DQ came up with this "big nickel" concept, an alteration from the traditional nickel alignment where the Cowboys would replace one linebacker with a third cornerback, usually Jourdan Lewis in the slot the past several years. But assuming Quinn watched video of the Cowboys in previous seasons, he saw opposing offenses having a field day running against Dallas in three-receiver sets.
But, by inserting Kearse onto the defense with so many teams running three-receiver offenses as their standard formation, the Cowboys were lining up a 6-4, 222-pounder near the line of scrimmage, better prepared to not only play the run, but also come out of the slot on blitzes and cover these receiver-like tight ends.
And when incumbent safety Donovan Wilson missed eight of the 17 games and the newly acquired Malik Hooker wasn't quite ready for increased snaps after recovering from his torn Achilles in 2020, the Cowboys certainly needed Kearse on the field, no matter what defense they were playing. Even if that meant he was positioned as the second linebacker at times.
"I think I'm who I am and who I've been throughout my career," Kearse confidently says. "And just playing with Quinn, I give him credit for putting me in the position, and I give me credit for doing what I had to actually do when put in that position.
"I can be put in that position, but if I'm not that player to play at a high level then it's not going to happen."
Oh, it "happened" all right. Happened so well the Cowboys had little choice but to re-sign the free-agent Kearse. They did so on March 21, less than a week into free agency, inking him to a two-year, $10 million deal, with $5 million guaranteed at signing, $3.5 million of that up front as a signing bonus. That guarantee is nearly as much as the $5.5 million Kearse earned during his first six seasons in the league.
Kearse had two good reasons not to peddle his wares elsewhere after finding this unique fit with the Cowboys' Quinn-led defense.
"That played a part, that played a part," Kearse says of continuing to play for Quinn. "But really the main thing was getting back into this system and having more of an understanding than going somewhere else and having to learn a whole other system.
"Being around great (coaches) like Coach (Joe) Whitt, Coach Al (Harris), DQ and also just being around these guys that I grinded with all last year. We're a tight knit group and I wanted to build on that."
For so many years safety has been a position the Cowboys have merely pieced together, not putting a huge draft priority on that spot, nor a salary cap expenditure. Other than moving 2015 first-round cornerback Byron Jones to safety, the other starting safeties since 2015 have been Barry Church and Jeff Heath, both entering the league as rookie free agents, J.J. Wilcox (third round), Xavier Woods (sixth round) and Wilson (sixth round).
And if further evidence is needed, just take a look at last offseason when bringing in four veteran free agent safeties, even though the Cowboys were playing Neal as a nickel linebacker before Kearse started inheriting some of those snaps.
Yeah, you bet the Cowboys re-signed Kearse, and Hooker, too, hoping the sixth-year veteran can regain his starting form while another year removed from tearing his Achilles in 2020, though passing on free agents Kazee and Neal. They hope Wilson can stay healthy, and that last year's sixth-round pick Israel Mukuamu takes the next step. And there also is hope for last year's rookie free agent Tyler Coyle and another undrafted rookie from this year's class, Markquese Bell.
But it's the emergence of Kearse that has the Cowboys sleeping better at nights heading into training camp. And knowing he took full advantage of his 2021 opportunity has Kearse sleeping better, too, realizing, finally, that he belongs, now considered far more than that previously advertised "special teams player."
When looking back and asked what his goal was last year when deciding to sign with the Cowboys, much of that was thanks to Quinn's presence. Knowing he was going to have a role on this defense, Kearse says, "To play more than I ever played in my career.
"And I was able to do that."
Sure did, his preparation meeting that opportunity knocking. Finally.