IRVING, Texas — The Dallas Cowboys think so highly of J.J. Wilcox that they passed on drafting a safety in the first round earlier this month.
Louisville’s Calvin Pryor, Alabama’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Northern Illinois’ Jimmie Ward were all on the board when the Cowboys were on the clock at No. 16. But they didn’t see a pressing need at safety.
"I feel pretty comfortable there," Cowboys chief operating officer Stephen Jones said after the draft. "More comfortable than probably people from the outside looking in."
And Dallas didn’t view the safeties remaining after those three as being an upgrade.
"It tells me that I have to be on my game," Wilcox said Tuesday. "To know that they have the respect for me to put [me with the first team], I want to show them that it’s going to pay off."
Wilcox was working with the first-team defense during Tuesday’s organized team activities. Veteran Barry Church, the team’s leading tackler in 2013, was lined up at strong safety with Wilcox at free.
"He’s making leaps and bounds," Church said. "I feel like he’ll make a big leap in his second year. He’s moving to free safety this year and I feel like he’s going to do a great job at it."
Wilcox, a third-round pick a year ago, started five games and played in 13 for the Cowboys after making the jump from Georgia Southern. He flashed at times during training camp, on several occasions demonstrating his ability to deliver the big hit.
But after experiencing the death of his mother in August, Wilcox needed time to recover.
"It’s tough losing someone you grew up with," Wilcox said. "I was a momma’s boy. The reason I got here and grinded my tail off to get here was for her, to see her in a better place and see her happy. But she’s still there for me and she saw where I am now and saw that I was happy, so God needed an angel."
Wilcox, who said losing his mother helped him grow physically and mentally, is ready to take advantage of a starting opportunity.
With some off-season help from teammates like Church and Sean Lee, Wilcox said the game is slowing down for him.
"It makes a big difference, coming from college to the NFL, the speed is a lot faster," Wilcox said. "Knowing that I have a year under my belt, understanding the scheme, understanding the defense and how the offense tries to attack, that makes it a lot easier for you."