Spagnola: Not Sure Safety First Applies To Draft

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FRISCO, Texas – Blame it on Earl Thomas.

That he came running over after the game in 2017 to tell Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett to “come and get me.”

Raising the perception of the Cowboys being in dire need of a safety.

Suddenly this safety-need perception grew when the Cowboys did try to make a draft-day trade with Seattle a year ago for Thomas, looking for a bargain deal, but when the Seahawks’ asking price became too rich for the Cowboys’ blood, especially knowing the veteran safety was in the last year of his contract, the Cowboys passed.

And we are way too familiar around here of how quickly perception becomes reality.

Because here we are two weeks from the Cowboys being on the clock with their first pick in the 2019 draft, a second-rounder this year, the 58th pick on Day 2 of the NFL Draft, and there is this swelling notion the Cowboys just have to take a safety, no matter what, with that pick.

Maybe they will. But me, I just don’t think they have to take a safety with that pick, especially if a safety isn’t the best player available when they’re on the clock. Like, do you really think this coaching staff will turn over the starting strong safety spot to a mere rookie?

Let’s remember, with Xavier Woods and Jeff Heath starting last year this unit became the league’s seventh-ranked defense, and I’ll repeat, the highest ranking by a Cowboys defense since finishing No. 1 in 2003. The Cowboys, with the arrival of Amari Cooper, did go 7-1 the final half of the season. They did win the NFC East and a first-round playoff game before falling to the NFC champion Los Angeles Rams on the road.

Even the previous year, the Cowboys defense finished the season ranked eighth in the NFL and with a 9-7 record. And we know exactly why they missed the playoffs by a game, going just 3-3 during Ezekiel Elliott’s six-game suspension. And that year the starting safeties were Byron Jones and Jeff Heath.

Now look, I know the idea is to get better, and by golly if the next Darren Woodson is available at No. 58, by all means run up to the podium in Nashville, Tenn., as fast as you can with Woody 2.0 on the card. But my guess is the next Woody will not be. Not even close.

So my point is, don’t get overly hung up on this safety position. Hey, there might be a defensive tackle available who could fill a much more prominent need. There might be a versatile receiver with return ability who could battle Randall Cobb or Tavon Austin for that job. Or a defensive end. Or an offensive lineman capable of becoming a swing tackle with starting ability down the line.

Or just the best darn player available within reason, meaning probably not a quarterback. But other than that, we can certainly make an argument the Cowboys could use that second-round pick on just about any position to strengthen this team.

Telling you, don’t get hung up on the safety position. Because the starting safeties weren’t the reason the Cowboys lost to the Rams; not the reason the Rams ran for 273 yards in that playoff game. Why, Rams quarterback Jared Goff only threw for 186 yards, 80 less than Dak Prescott.

Now I realize the Cowboys have brought in a bunch of defensive players for pre-draft visits and workouts, and that includes safeties. And I do realize the Cowboys need depth at that position, because after starters Woods and Heath, the only other safeties with any amount of experience are Kavon Frazier and Darian Thompson, and those guys are considered more of special team players.

Plus, if you look at the Cowboys’ 58-year draft history, they never have seemed to prioritize selecting safeties high, by my count drafting only six in the first two rounds. Ever. Of the six, only three have been first-round picks: Mel Renfro (1964), Roy Williams (2002) and Byron Jones (2015), and at the time those three were considered free safeties.

In the second round is where they found three strong safeties: Victor Scott (1984), Woodson (1992) and Tony Dixon (2001).

But that’s it, certainly not setting much of a precedent for taking a safety as high as the second round in 2019.

Here is further evidence safeties haven’t been much of a draft priority for the Cowboys. Since Woodson retired after the 2003 season this is the list of starting safeties in the past 15 seasons: Dixon, Lynn Scott, Williams, Patrick Watkins, Ken Hamlin, Keith Davis, Gerald Sensabaugh, Alan Ball, Abram Elam, Barry Church, Danny McCray, J.J. Wilcox, Jones, Heath and Woods.

Of the bunch, the only Pro Bowlers during that period of time have been Williams (4 of his 5) and Hamlin (1), and probably no need to point out that Jones didn’t become a Pro Bowler until moving to cornerback this past season.

In fact, how about this: Since Ring of Honor safety Cliff Harris went to the Pro Bowl in 1979, the only Pro Bowl safeties between 1980 and 2003 were Woodson (5), Williams (1) and Thomas Everett (1).

There have been some nice players in that bunch. Good players. But when it came to spending money – and then salary cap money – really the only guys to get paid were Woodson, Williams and then the overpaid Hamlin following his Pro Bowl season in 2007, lasting only two years of the six-year deal after he was franchised in 2008.

So, safety?

History would make one hesitant to suggest the Cowboys will definitely take a safety in the second round. The argument to take one would center around Heath and Frazier heading into the final year of their contracts. Nothing wrong with taking one in the third round or on the third day of the draft. That’s where the Cowboys have historically found their safeties Or as undrafted free agents, like Heath, Church, Elam, Davis, Scott, McCray, and if we want to go way back, Bill Bates, Michael Downs, Vince Albritton and, uh, if you can believe this, Cliff Harris.

My point is, don’t get hung up on the Cowboys just having to draft a safety with the 58th pick. It’s not like it is safety or bust. It’s not like they are so desperate for a safety they have to reach for one. That the position will put them over the top.

They would be wise to short-arm this draft.

Just pick the best player, so much more safety in that approach.

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