IRVING, Texas – For quite a while now, it’s been a yearly source of consternation for the Cowboys and their fans: the lack of a top-notch, dependable safety in the Dallas secondary.
Playmakers have come and gone at nearly every spot on the Cowboys defense, but not so much for the safety spot. It’s been seven years since a Dallas safety earned a spot in the Pro Bowl – all the way back to the duo of Roy Williams and Ken Hamlin in 2007.
It’s been more than a decade since Williams earned the Cowboys’ last All-Pro designation at the position. And of course, the shadow of Dallas Cowboys great Darren Woodson looms large over the position since he retired in 2004.
There have been flashes of potential at the position in the past two years, but it hasn’t stopped some from calling for a new influx of talent.
With three weeks left until the draft, here’s a look at what the Cowboys currently have on the roster.
Barry Church | Church has been in the conversation to earn that elusive Pro Bowl bid, at the very least. He’s proven himself as a quality box safety, with 222 total tackles in his two seasons as a starter. He’s a valuable asset against the run and a quality locker room guy.
Still Need To Know If: He can bring anything more to the back end of the defense. Church is definitely a guy you want coming toward the line to make a tackle. He’s not exactly a liability in coverage, but he isn’t spectacular, either.
J.J. Wilcox | Wilcox absolutely has the demeanor you want from your all-star safety. He made headlines last summer when he scuffled with Dez Bryant, and he has shown a willingness to fly around and put a helmet on anyone, anywhere.
Still Need To Know If: He can actually harness his talent and his tenacity into top-tier safety play. Wilcox was decent in his second season, but he showed lapses in tackling and in coverage. He had five takeaways last fall, which is a good start, but you’d also like to see more game-changing plays. Last season was just his third playing the position, so it’s fair to say his arrow is pointing up. But the Cowboys will want to see his potential produce results.
Jeff Heath | The coaching staff loves him, primarily because of his ability to shine on multiple special teams units. Heath was one of the standout players in kick and punt coverage, and he added another 27 tackles as a reserve – though the safety position as a whole was much more stable than in his rookie campaign.
Still Need To Know If: We don’t know how much more Heath has to offer as an actual safety, rather than just a special teamer. He caught unfair flak as a rookie for struggling when he was thrust into the spotlight, but it’s still doubtful the Cowboys would want him to provide anything more than occasional depth.
Keelan Johnson | We know Johnson spent the 2014 season out of football after Philadelphia released him in August. He played two games for the Eagles as a rookie in 2014 and made one tackle. Other than that, there’s not much to know aside from the fact that the Cowboys signed him in January, roughly a week after the end of their season.
Still Need To Know If: Is he anything more than a camp body? The timing of the Cowboys’ signing him could indicate that they think something of him, but he’s far down on the depth chart and there’s a good chance he’ll be competing with some rookies – be they draft picks or undrafted free agents.
Promising Prospects – Dallas Depth, Cowboy Competition | NFL Draft: SS/FS
IRVING, Texas – The Dallas Cowboys haven’t drafted a safety in the first round in 13 years and it’s not likely to change this year.
The club has a pair of young starters in Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox and picking a player in the first round, even at No. 27 overall, likely won’t help the Dallas Cowboys much this year, considering this draft class is considered weaker than most years.
However, there could be some possible fits at safety for the Cowboys. Let’s look at five:
James Sample | Louisville – He’s considered by most draft analysts as a second-day player who could sneak in the second round but possibly the third. Often overshadowed last year at Louisville by teammate Gerod Holliman who tied an NCAA record with 14 picks, Sample seems to be the more polished, NFL-ready of the two. He’s not afraid to tackle and would likely help the Cowboys as a good-sized, physical player.
Damarious Randall | Arizona State – He’s in the same draft range as Sample, although he’s more of a coverage safety. His 5-10, 196-pound frame is a bit undersized for a safety, Randall is a good tackler, which could give any team an immediate boost on special teams. Playing him in the slot could even be a possibility.
Derron Smith | Fresno State – Not the biggest of safeties at 5-10, 200 pounds, Smith is a physical player who isn’t afraid to step up in the box and take on blockers. Smith is one of those sideline-to-sideline players who tends to play faster than his clock speed, which was still 4.59 at his FSU Pro Day. In the later rounds, if the Cowboys haven’t drafted a safety yet, a player like Smith could be a good fit to add defensive depth.
Kurtis Drummond | Michigan State – A first-team All-American and winner of the Tatum-Woodson Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year, his lean body type has him listed too high on draft boards. But the game won’t be too big for him and could be late-round steal for a team like the Cowboys, who don’t have much depth behind the starters.
Collin Brence | Baylor – More of a priority free agent who is a tweener between linebacker and safety, Brence had a good Pro Day at Baylor, running in the 4.6 range. Several scouts were pleasantly surprised by his workout and considering his body type, he’s got “special teams contributor” written all over him. Every year, it seems as if the Cowboys are finding a safety such as Danny McCray or Jeff Heath, or even Barry Church, that make this team from the undrafted status. Here’s another longshot that could be next in line.
COWBOYS CORNERED BY QUESTIONS – Answers may come from NFL Draft
IRVING, Texas – The cornerback position’s highest-paid player, Brandon Carr, may or may not be on the team by training camp.
The 2012 sixth overall draft pick, Morris Claiborne, is coming off two knee surgeries since October.
The solid nickel guy from last season, Sterling Moore, is no longer here.
As things stand in mid-April, just over two weeks from opening draft night, there’s no question about it: The Dallas Cowboys cornerback situation has far more questions than answers.
Let’s take a look at what we know and what we expect to learn by the time the club heads west for training camp in late July:
Orlando Scandrick | Scandrick played his best football in 2014 and established himself as the most consistent corner on the roster. Once viewed as a potential mid-round draft steal in 2008, he’s now the longest-tenured player on defense following Anthony Spencer’s departure to the Saints last week. Scandrick has made himself into a Pro Bowl-caliber player with excellent technique, study habits and work ethic — and he makes defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli’s job much easier because he can cover outside as well as the slot in sub-packages.
Still Need To Know: If Scandrick will be playing alongside his trusted veteran teammate, Brandon Carr, or working with a much younger crop of corners next season. Regardless, Scandrick will gain even more national attention if he can build on last year’s career-high tying two interceptions. Because he reads and reacts to routes so well, most of the time he’s in the right position for the deflection or the pick.
Brandon Carr | Although he has two years left on the whopping five-year, $50.1 million free agent contract he signed in 2012, Carr’s future in Dallas appears to be in flux. This much is certain: As presently constructed, the Dallas Cowboys could use an experienced starter like Carr playing opposite fellow seven-year veteran Scandrick. On the other hand, Carr’s $12.7 million salary cap figure for 2015 is steep. Carr performed much better over the final month, going toe-to-toe with Calvin Johnson and Jordy Nelson in the playoffs, but the Cowboys need more throughout a full season. He has six interceptions in three years, including none in 2014.
Still Need To Know: What will the Cowboys do with Carr? His agent has reportedly said that his client won’t take a pay cut. If the Cowboys released Carr now, they wouldn’t save much while creating roughly $12 million in dead money on this year’s cap. If they designated him a post-June 1 cut, they’d save his $8 million base salary but create nearly $13 million in dead money over the next two years. The longer the offseason goes, the fewer opportunities Carr will have to find a deal better than any pay cut he might take from the Cowboys. We’ll see.
Morris Claiborne | The Cowboys still have hopes for their embattled 2012 sixth overall pick, but roadblocks remain: Claiborne hasn’t played consistently when he’s been healthy, and now he’s working his way back from surgery last fall to repair a season-ending torn patellar tendon in his left knee, as well as a scope to his right knee. He has appeared in only 29 of 50 possible games including the postseason, tallying 88 tackles and three interceptions.
Still Need To Know: Claiborne’s progress by the time camp gets underway this summer. Given his injury rehab and Carr’s contract uncertainty, the Cowboys could be looking at corner relatively early on draft weekend. The club also has until May 3 to officially decide whether or not to pick up the fifth-year option on Claiborne’s rookie deal; he’s currently under contract through 2015.
Corey White | Unwilling to give Sterling Moore a significant salary bump in 2015, the Cowboys instead claimed White off waivers from the Saints in mid-March. White, a three-year veteran, started 19 games in New Orleans with four interceptions.
Still Need To Know: If White can fill Moore’s spot in sub-packages. His experience in the slot could add some versatility for Marinelli’s scheme, and he also has experience at safety.
Tyler Patmon | From his preseason pick-six to his regular-season pick-six in a Nov. 2 win over Arizona, Patmon emerged from obscurity to become a surprise playmaker in the Dallas Cowboys secondary. Undrafted out of Oklahoma State, Patmon caught the coaches’ attention as an invite to rookie minicamp, made the 53-man roster and became a solid contributor in sub-packages after Claiborne went down.
Still Need To Know: If Patmon can win a camp battle and earn a spot in the rotation again. He’s a natural ballhawk who isn’t afraid to take chances, but polishing up his fundamentals will help him establish more consistency going forward.
Roster Watch – –
Robert Steeples | The Dallas Cowboys signed Steeples to the practice squad in November after he spent training camp with the Chiefs and appeared in two games for the Vikings the previous season. Steeples has good size for the position (6-1) but will likely have to contribute on multiple special teams to win a job this summer.
Promising Prospects – Dallas Depth, Cowboy Competition | NFL Draft: CB
IRVING, Texas – The Dallas Cowboys certainly have plenty of question marks at the cornerback position. In fact, some will say it’s the most pressing need heading into the draft at the end of the month.
While Orlando Scandrick has emerged as one of the top cover corners in the league, Brandon Carr’s contract situation remains up in the air. Morris Claiborne is a question mark on both the injury front and his ability to contribute as a reliable starter.
So the Cowboys will likely address the position once or maybe twice in the draft.
Here’s a look at five players in the early, middle and late rounds:
Kevin Johnson | Wake Forest – He’s considered by many as the second-best cornerback in the draft behind Michigan State’s Trae Waynes, who should go in the Top 15 picks. Johnson is a smooth, lanky cornerback with great coverage skills but also has the awareness that will lead to big plays and interceptions. Being there at No. 27 is iffy as the Cowboys might have to move up a little to land him.
Marcus Peters | Washington – After Waynes, Peters might be the most talented of this year’s cornerback class and even that might be debatable. Peters had some character concerns after being kicked off Washington’s team last year. But ability-wise, he’s more than worthy of a first-round pick. The Cowboys have done their homework on Peters, who had at least three interceptions in all three seasons for the Huskies, totaling 11 picks. If he’s around at No. 27, Peters would offer great value for the pick.
Byron Jones | UConn – If he’s drafted to the Cowboys, Jones immediately becomes one of the team’s best pure athletes, if not the best. The NFL Combine phenom is a great example how amazing workouts alone can skyrocket a player’s value. Jones set a combine record with a 12’3 broad jump and out-jumped all other defenders with a 44-inch vertical leap. His 4.4 time in the 40 at his Pro Day didn’t hurt his stock at all, and neither does his ability to play both safety and corner. Jones is not only versatile but extremely athletic and could sneak his way into the first round.
Alex Carter | Stanford – A solid starter for the Cardinal, Carter could be a candidate for the Cowboys at No. 60 in the second round if they don’t grab one in the first. He might even slide into the third as well. Carter is a physical corner who likes to jam receivers at the line and also shows great awareness skills to play different schemes. His speed isn’t elite, which is one reason he’s not considered a first-day pick but good enough to have his name called on Day 2.
Damian Swann | Georgia – Even if the Cowboys draft a corner in the first or second round, don’t be surprise if they land a couple of corners. A late-round option would be Swann, who is much more physical than his 180-pound frame suggests. He started three years for Georgia who isn’t afraid to mix it up. Should be a good special teams player right away.