Dallas Cowboys Have No Choice but to Roll Dice on Matt Johnson, Kyle Wilber

Brad Gagnon NFL National ColumnistMarch 19, 2013

IRVING, TX - MAY 5:  Kyle Wilber #51 of the Dallas Cowboys works out during rookie minicamp on May 5, 2012 at the Valley Ranch Complex in Irving, Texas. (Photo by Layne Murdoch/Getty Images)
Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

It came straight from the horse's mouth at the NFL owners meetings in Phoenix on Monday. Or at least the horse's son's mouth. I'm referring to Dallas Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones and "it" was this: (h/t ESPN.com)

We think our two starters [at safety] probably are on our team. We may get some insurance there, just like we did with Ernie (Sims), and then of course we're going to draft. We've got some players to draft and college free agents to get, but we do think our two young guys could start for us.

The news there, aside from the fact that Jones admits they're going to draft, is that the Cowboys think 2012 fourth-round pick Matt Johnson is ready to and capable of replacing Gerald Sensabaugh in the starting lineup. 

"It" was also this: (h/t DallasCowboys.com)

I think it's time for Kyle Wilber to step up. There's a lot of things we liked about him last year, and we're hoping that he can step up and take that challenge.

Jones went on to state that Wilber currently has the edge to start alongside Sean Lee and Bruce Carter in the linebacking corps. Wilber was chosen 22 picks ahead of Johnson in the same round of the same draft.

Johnson, you might have heard, has never been on the field for a regular-season NFL game. Wilber was in for a grand total of 16 snaps in 2012. That means that the Cowboys are, for all intents and purposes, on the verge of throwing two rookies into the starting lineup in 2013. 

Danny McCray had a miserable season and is now a restricted free agent. Beyond Barry Church and him, there are no safeties with NFL experience on the roster. That isn't likely to change between now and training camp because the Cowboys can't afford to do anything on the open market. 

It's a bit of a different situation in terms of that Sam linebacker spot that Wilber currently has the edge at. They re-signed veteran Ernie Sims on Monday, but Sims was rated by Pro Football Focus as the worst defensive player on the team last year. Another candidate is 2011 undrafted free agent Alex Albright, who has just 230 career snaps under his belt but has shown glimpses. 

The whole thing is a little bit scary. Johnson's health has been an issue from the get-go, and it's why he missed his entire rookie year. A lot of people thought Dallas got a steal when it drafted him at the end of the fourth round last April, but there's no evidence that he's ready to start for a contender or that he can stay healthy anyway.

At least they have options with Wilber, Albright and Sims, but all three represent small gambles, too. Ordinarily, these would be obvious spots to address in free agency but a $5 million cap sanction and huge cap numbers for Tony Romo and Anthony Spencer have made it impossible for the Joneses to break from a proverbial straitjacket.

David Moore of the Dallas Morning News did report Monday that the 'Boys would like to sign at least a single free agent before draft season moves into full swing in April, but clearly management isn't getting its hopes up. 

Really, though, this is how things should be. You have to be able to build through the draft in order to become a contender in this league. If the Cowboys were wrong about both Johnson and Wilber in the fourth round last year, then they deserve to take a hit when one or both fail to deliver in 2013. 

They picked up Lee and Carter with second-round picks in 2010 and 2011. DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer were first-round picks in the preceding decade. Jay Ratliff was a seventh-rounder and Jason Hatcher was a third-rounder. Consider Morris Claiborne, too, and you realize that this very talented D has been built almost entirely through the draft. 

That's why rolling the dice on your own mid-round picks is the way to go here, financial pinch or otherwise.