J.J. Wilcox, one of the Dallas Cowboys’ two third-round picks Friday night, is a project after starting only one season as a safety at Georgia Southern.
Previously a wide receiver and slot back, Wilcox needs plenty of work coverage-wise. But the 6-foot, 213-pound Georgia native has already earned a reputation as a powerful hitter known for exploding into ball carriers.
“Wilcox is an interesting guy,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “He was a running back and a receiver for most of his career and became a safety this past year. If you watch him play, he leaps off the screen at you. He’s physical, he can run, he loves to hit. He just plays with great explosiveness.”
Garrett said the Cowboys were impressed with how quickly Wilcox adapted to playing safety.
“You could seem him grow through the course of the year,” Garrett said. “We liked his athletic ability, we liked his potential and we liked the demeanor with which he played. He’s a hard-playing guy, a physical guy, and that’s what you want from your safety. He can tackle, but we also feel he can grow into a back-end player.”
Growing up in Cairo, Ga., Wilcox said he was a fan of hard-hitting Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety John Lynch.
“When you talk about hard hitters and guys that play with enthusiasm, you have to mention John Lynch,” Wilcox said. “He just had a great style of play, he was dominant and he put fear in guys’ hearts.
“Every safety wants to have that type of spirit and that type of reputation around the league. I definitely don’t want to leave him off my list because he’s one of the ones I watched growing up in my backyard playing in the woods back there with the guys.”
So did Wilcox lay guys out while “playing in the woods?”
“I laid a couple of guys out,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, I got laid out a couple of times, too. But I was one of the ones that was usually on top often.”
All that sounds great, but after a ho-hum effort in free agency due to salary cap issues, the Cowboys needed to draft walk-in starters in the third round. Wilcox seems more like a project than someone who can compete right away for a starting job with Barry Church, Matt Johnson and Will Allen.
Garrett, though, said that isn’t necessarily the case.
“We certainly feel he’s an outstanding special-teams player,” Garrett said of Wilcox, “but we’d like to think he can compete for one of those safety spots right off the bat.”
Said Jerry Jones, “Third-round pick, by definition, is a starter. Not necessarily the first year, but is a starter and you shouldn’t have drafted him if he is not capable of being a starter.”
RELATED: J.J. Wilcox loves him some Jerry Jones
IRVING, Texas — On his pre-draft visit with the Dallas Cowboys, safety J.J. Wilcox came away enamored with owner and general manager Jerry Jones.
“Mr. Jerry Jones is one of the best general managers and best owners I’ve met,” Wilcox said. “He’s calm, collected and energetic. You don’t see that much from an owner. They’re mostly laid back.”
Thin at safety, the Cowboys are hoping Wilcox can contribute his first year with designs on him starting I the future if not immediately. The team’s other forays into small-school safeties in recent years include Akwaski Owusu-Ansah (Indiana, Pa., fourth round, 2010) and Matt Johnson (Eastern Washington, fourth round, 2012).
Wilcox has played one year of safety but caught attention from the Senior Bowl.
“There’s a lot of household names in the NFL from smaller schools,” Wilcox said.