Here is a position that has been ignored for a long, long time.
And it wasn’t long ago that a fan of the Dallas Cowboys could likely recall several great players that have played the safety position for America’s Team.
Every era of Dallas dominance included some kind of difference-making player camping the middle of the field and always willing to play run support and also protect against the big play. The Cowboys have had versatility at this position like few other franchises have enjoyed.
Mel Renfro started his career at safety, but then became an elite corner.
Charlie Waters started his career at corner, but then became an elite safety.
And Cliff Harris essentially invented the free safety position the way it is being played today. He was one of the original big-hitters that eventual Dallas safeties Darren Woodson and Roy L. Williams would have their positions crafted by.
The latter on that list was essentially wiped out by the switch to the 3-4 defense eight years ago.
Since that schematic switch under then-head coach Bill Parcells, the safety position has really been an area of weakness more so than strength. For that scheme anyway, Dallas never had a guy like Ed Reed in Baltimore or Troy Polamalu in Pittsburgh.
But the 4-3 scheme has brought the opposite result, at least historically speaking.
You don’t have to have been watching the Cowboys for too long to remember the unbelievable impact that Williams made on opposing receivers, tight ends and running backs. Williams is the one who knocked ex-Cowboys great Emmitt Smith out of his only contest against his former team—broke Smith’s shoulder.
So here’s a question: Do starting safeties Gerald Sensabaugh and Barry Church give you confidence?
Now more than ever, the Cowboys will be asking themselves the same question.
Decisions on extending the contracts of both Sensabaugh and Church were made well before owner and general manager Jerry Jones decided to blow up the defensive coaching staff and playbook this offseason.
I have always believed that your team is never one safety away from the Super Bowl.
On the contrary, having a great safety can easily help you get there and win.
This is why I believe that Fresno State safety Phillip Thomas could be on the Cowboys radar, especially if Dallas trades down and ends up with another second-round pick in the 2013 NFL Draft.
I say this prior to the NFL Scouting Combine, which is quickly approaching. It looks like Thomas might not make jaws drop with his physique, but his production with the Bulldogs has not gone unnoticed in 2012.
Recently hired defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin recently spoke from Mobile, Alabama as he was getting set for last weekend’s Senior Bowl. He mentions getting the right guys for the right positions and this is where some different plans could surprise many come draft day.
Thomas looks to have the combination of size and speed with which to either play free or strong safety. This is a known desire of Kiffin’s "Tampa 2" and names like Bob Sanders and John Lynch offer shining examples of the kind of size and speed combination that really works in this scheme.
Run support is going to be critical, but defending the deep pass is a hallmark of the "Tampa 2" and so the safeties will often be asked to cover a lot of ground.
See the numbers for yourselves, but Dallas does not get a whole lot from its safeties where big plays are concerned. It really has been since Williams was left after Woodson retired that the Cowboys have had a true difference-maker in the secondary.
Thomas is all about production, and what’s not to like about a safety that led the nation in interceptions last season?
Thomas does not shy away from contact even when the target is bigger than he is. He’s faster than he times and he obviously has good hands. His eight interceptions in 2012 attest to that and he also recovered a fumble for nine total takeaways.
Since the Cowboys are not likely to draft a safety in the first round, and rightly so, Thomas would be a nice pick as early as the second round or, better yet the third, if he lasts that long.
Sensabaugh will never play out his current contract so plans might as well be made sooner than later to lock the franchise up at safety for several years ahead, unless you believe that Danny McCray is the answer.
I do not.
I think that Church, if he’s healthy, is the strong safety for the Cowboys come next season. This leaves the possibility of drafting a younger upgrade over Sensabaugh, who’s only getting older and definitely not better. I think Dallas can win with Sensabaugh, but I don’t see him as a guy who changes football games.
It’s time for Dallas to return to its culture of big plays in the secondary and to do this you need a guy who’s at least capable of it.
Thomas clearly is and he fits the mold of a fee safety prospect that could team with Church in stripping Dallas opponents of the cascade of big plays given up for most of the last eight seasons.