The following is the 4th in a series of draft profiles for the Dallas Cowboys’ selected players from April’s draft. These profiles are put together after watching significant amounts of game tape from each player, and is an attempt to examine their resumes and play to get an idea of how they might fit in best with Dallas come training camp in Oxnard this summer.
I think we have all heard multiple times over the years that drafting is surely not an “exact science”, right?
There are more than a few variables that make judging one football player against the next a very difficult process that makes most arrive at the conclusion that “they will have to wait and see” whether the Cowboys made the right decision.
And the 2013 version of that cliche will most likely center on the selection of JJ Wilcox, the man with several interesting tools in his bag, but the question of whether he is ready for his next set of challenges at the unforgiving position in the NFL that veteran QBs target to exploit. He plays safety in a passing league, and the Cowboys will be asking him to do as a starter, sooner rather than later.
He was the #80 selection in the draft and the #7 safety taken. He was taken before names that were closely linked with the Cowboys – like Phillip Thomas from Fresno State, a guy who led the NCAA in interceptions in 2012 (#119 to Washington) and Shamarko Thomas of Syracuse (#111 to Pittsburgh). Another safety who had promising ability for this type of scheme was thought to be Bacarri Rambo from Georgia (#191 to Washington) was taken off the boards of many teams for all sorts of off field issues that made him less than desirable.
But the Cowboys made 2 choices that may seem unconventional when they selected Wilcox, but might really pay off for them if they get this decision correct. First, they went to a FCS School that plays against an awful lot of running offenses in the Southern Conference for Wilcox’s Georgia Southern. And then, they took a safety who was not exactly accomplished there. In fact, he was switched to safety from offense in 2012 spring practice, because they had depth issues to deal with in the secondary.
So, in some ways, he is just the opposite of Matt Johnson, the FCS safety they took in 2012 in the 4th Round who is actually listed as the starter despite essentially “red shirting” last season. Johnson had been regarded as one of the more accomplished safeties at his level in the land and was thought of as a safe projection of quality (when he gets on the field) but may be near his finish line of potential. Wilcox, having played just 1 season, has progressed quite a bit in that one year. But, when the scouts were discussing him during draft season, it seemed that most agreed that he is an eventual starter who will need to be brought along slowly and under the proper tutelage.
I had a chance to view quite a bit of Wilcox’s work from 2012 on his coaches film and feel that I have a relative handle on his game at the FCS level after looking at him for a while.
He is going to be a force moving downhill. He played against a number of opponents who had no interest in passing the ball, and I feel confident in instances where he smells run and is correct, he will be a very impressive strong safety. His in the box strength is bull in a china shop, and he certainly can pack the force of a linebacker into his tackling. He is strong and confident and ready to break up a running play and fly to the ball. He actually might be too aggressive (this can be said regarding just about every safety in the draft) and is caught over-running plays at the college level. Safeties at a certain level of production actually get going too fast when they are sure they aren’t going to get burnt by the opposition. Often, when they get to the NFL, they have to slow down for a while as they get acclimated to a level where the QB is waiting for one false step to throw over their head for a long pass. And that is where the swagger and self-assured style is truly tested.
His hips and mid-section are wide and stout, allowing him to have plenty of force for his position, but making many wonder about the dreaded “tight hips”. I would say at this age that is not a concern as he moves very well, and maybe the tape that makes you salivate the most is his sideline to sideline pursuit of a wide running play. In that, he seems to be a heat-seeking missile Also, he returned kicks in college, so he has the skill set to be elusive and I would not get him confused with the safety Roy Williams for a lack of flexibility.
Now, all of this is nice, but the question that really matters in the NFL where you see Eli Manning, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, and Aaron Rodgers all on your schedule this season, is “can he cover”?
And for that answer, I offer a definite “maybe”. You see, with 1 season under his belt and with a number of games against Western Carolina, Wofford, and the Citadel (who all attempted fewer than 8 passes for the entire games), it is not exactly easy to feel like you have a handle on his pass defense.
Now, he did get plenty of work against passing offenses that included the Georgia Bulldogs, Old Dominion (see below) and Appalachian State, but we are talking about a half dozen games against passing defenses in his entire career to rate his ability to understand all of the numerous concepts thrown at NFL safeties.
He was able to run with receivers in man coverage from the slot with ease, but to compare that to what waits for him at the next level is clear apples and oranges. His safety instincts were tested on rare occasions of play-action over the top, but generally seemed to sniff out the ball and close hard. He made a big interception to seal a game late in the season in the FCS playoffs and does find the ball and jump routes across the middle. It is just such a small sample of work.
But, he played in college with a step towards the line almost on every occasion, whereas the NFL safety is getting into his drop at the snap. And that is the major difference from a run-first conference at 1-AA, versus the pass-first offenses in the NFC. It is the same position, but barely.
Here is some video to look at, if you haven’t already seen it:
Wilcox #19 vs Old Dominion
Summary: I think safety is one of the most interesting races to watch in the next several months. It is certainly not something that gets the newspapers going crazy, because it is a bunch of names that the average fan may not have a lot of information on, but make no mistake – in the Tampa 2 defense, there is plenty of responsibility on the safeties. Now, JJ Wilcox, Matt Johnson, Barry Church, and even Will Allen (with an outside chance of Sterling Moore being converted) will compete with a chance to emerge as the 2 that are asked to play as starters. I assume that is Church and Johnson at first, but Johnson will have an extremely short leash until he wins the job with his play. But, Wilcox might be enough to push him as early as July and August.
Wilcox could really use time to simply learn the position because Georgia Southern was not asking him to do much other than react. That is fine at that level, but the NFL is based on showing you something to get that same reaction and then to seize the door you just opened with your reaction.
I know that there is plenty of preconceived notions about project safeties around here (Hello 2010 4th Round pick, Akwasi Owusu-Ansah), but we should assume that this would be the specialty of the defensive masterminds that have been hired here. They have specific tastes in the safeties they seek, and clearly, with a number of “big school” safeties on the board, they liked Wilcox more. And now, their judgement will be tested in the next 24 months as they attempt to get him ready to contribute.
At first, expect him to be a big contributor to special teams (they will likely need him on all 4 specialty teams) and to be brought along slowly to learn the game at a level where he can play with confidence on Sundays. That might take more work than can be reasonably thrown at him in just one summer. They are playing the long-game here, taking a guy that will not emerge right away, but let’s see how well they can bring along a guy who looks the part from a physical-standpoint already.
If they can turn Church, Johnson, and ultimately, JJ Wilcox into reasonable NFL starters, then that will go a long way towards making this defense work.