After letting Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox leave in free agency the Dallas Cowboys will let a training camp battle pick the starter as the open strong safety position
The defensive backfield has been a sour spot for pretty much the entire tenure of current Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett. While the cornerback position has been a source of suffering for years, the safety spot hasn’t been much better.
The past few years the spot has been manned by Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox for the most part. By the 2016 season, Wilcox had been relegated to bench duties in favor of 2015 first-round pick Byron Jones — although he did see a lot of time behind Jones the previous year as well, despite Jones playing both corner and safety.
This year, things will be different. Jones is heading into Year 2 as the unquestioned free safety for Dallas, but he needs someone to start opposite him. One thing that’s guaranteed is it won’t be Church or Wilcox as they have left in free agency in favor of the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, respectively.
Without using a high draft pick on a true safety, or going the free agency route, Dallas has opted instead to let there be a camp battle in which a new starter will be decided. But who are the options?
Jan 15, 2017; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys strong safety Jeff Heath (38) makes an interception on a pass intended for Green Bay Packers wide receiver Davante Adams (17) during the third quarter in the NFC Divisional playoff game at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
The favorite for the job: Jeff Heath
Veteran safety Jeff Heath often has a sigh of frustration follow the mention of his name. This is thanks to a rough stretch of his career where he struggled to make plays. Thrown into starting action as an undrafted rookie out of Saginaw Valley State, Heath was often picked on by opposing quarterbacks and fans became frustrated. That aggravation from fans appears to have followed the safety to this day who are worried about him starting at the position in 2017.
Height: 6-1 Weight: 212 pounds Years Experience: Four
This isn’t the same rookie who was in over his head though. After coming into the league from a small-school, Heath needed time to adjust to the speed of the NFL game. He wasn’t afforded that time, and it hurt his reputation. It never hurt his confidence though as Heath became a stud on special teams and also has been a big player in sub packages. Heath’s even recorded several interceptions in his career — including one in the previous playoff game and one that was negated by a penalty away from him.
Should Heath win the starting job, not all is lost in Dallas. He’s a savvy veteran now that’s a sure tackler and is no liability in coverage. Even if he isn’t the top guy, expect to see No. 38 on the field a lot this season for the Dallas Cowboys.
Sep 10, 2015; Bowling Green, KY, USA; Western Kentucky Hilltoppers running back Leon Allen (33) is brought down by Louisiana Tech Bulldogs safety Xavier Woods (7) down the field during the first half at Houchens Industries-L.T. Smith Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joshua Lindsey-USA TODAY Sports
The late-round rookie: Xavier Woods
Many were shocked to see Dallas steer clear of drafting a safety — especially after not bringing one over in free agency. Then they took Louisiana Tech safety Xavier Woods in the sixth round and it seemed like they may have gotten lucky. He was a true playmaker for the Bulldogs and has some serious upside at the next level.
Height: 5-11 Weight: 197 pounds Years Experience: Rookie
It’s not often a sixth-round rookie looks the part of a starter, but Woods came to minicamps with that possibility. The problem is, he didn’t do a ton to help his case so far as he was rather quiet during the practices the team did have according to the team’s official website — where he didn’t even rank as a top-10 rookie to this point. Per DallasCowboys.com:
Honorable Mention Xavier Woods – It wasn’t a bad summer for Woods, but he just didn’t make any true standout plays. He’s in the right position and if he gets another interception or two, he’s probably five spots higher.
Woods still has time to make a name for himself, and perhaps he can when the pads come on. During his time in college he proved to be a willing hitter and was a ballhawk that always found himself in the right spot. He does, however, have an uphill climb to be a regular contributor as a rookie.
May 24, 2017; Frisco, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys cornerback Chidobe Awuzie (33) defends against wide receiver Dez Bryant (88) in practice at the Star in Frisco. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
Outside the box option — Chidobe Awuzie
Like Byron Jones a couple of seasons ago, the Dallas Cowboys were high on Chidobe Awuzie out of Colorado because of his versatility. He played outside and slot corner for the Buffaloes, but also has the smarts and tackling ability to move to safety.
Height: 6-0 Weight: 202 pounds Years Experience: Rookie
With the team signing veteran Nolan Carroll away from the Philadelphia Eagles and drafting Jourdan Lewis out of Michigan and Marquez White from Florida State as well, there’s suddenly a log jam at corner. It looks more crowded when you consider Orlando Scandrick is still there as is 2016 sixth-round pick Anthony Brown — who played really well as a rookie.
Awuzie would be the kind of player that can make sure there’s no coverage weaknesses in the back end. The question becomes whether or not he’s a fit as a strong safety. Sure, he’s no J.J. Wilcox who could knock people out with his hits, but Dallas’ defense doesn’t need that as much as they need to stop high powered passing games. Awuzie makes a lot of sense at safety, but the problem is he may be their best corner as well, which makes moving him from where he is now a pretty hard sell.
Aug 13, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Rams runningback Malcolm Brown (39) runs against Dallas Cowboys player Kavon Frazier (35) and cornerback Josh Thomas (26) during the third quarter at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports
The Forgotten Long Shot: Kavon Frazier
It seems like one name keeps getting left out of the mix, and that would be second-year pro Kavon Frazier. Like Woods this season, Frazier was a sixth-round choice for the Dallas Cowboys last year. The Central Michigan star came in with a lot of positive reviews from the Dallas coaching staff, but spent his rookie season mainly as a special teams contributor in the nine games he was active.
Height: 6-0 Weight: 217 pounds Years Experience: 1
It’s hard to get much of a read on Frazier since his main experience playing safety came in the preseason last year. As a special teamer he recorded just six tackles, but proved he’s not shy when it comes to contact. That hard-nosed style was the main focus of just about every scout’s take on Frazier coming into the 2016 NFL Draft. Mark Dulgerian of NFL.com had this to say in his Draft Profile:
Frazier is a big-time hitter and box safety. His overall skill set doesn’t suit today’s NFL so he’ll need to earn his stripes on special teams.
With a year under his belt it will be interesting to see how much progress Frazier has made. If anything, he has a chance to be featured in some sub-packages as the only true old school style of strong safety.