Dallas Cowboys' Biggest Question Heading into Camp: Safeties
The Dallas Cowboys possess a roster full of young talent and reliable veterans. With the recent influx of talent through the draft and Jason Garrett's fingerprints firmly planted on this team, it's time to get excited about what training camp will bring.
Many are waiting to see how the transition to the 4-3 unfolds, and others, like myself, will be anxious to see some of the younger players like Travis Frederick, Gavin Escobar and the rest of the 2013 draft class. But what I'm most interested in are the annual camp battles and the overall aspect of competition.
As the Cowboys draw closer to departing for Oxnard in less than a month, so do the positional battles. There will be scenarios to watch at the receiver position, backup running back and offensive guard, but there is usually one position that captivates us every year.
As exciting as these battles become each year, the sole intention is to find the best players that give this team the best chance to win every week. So sometimes it's about building depth, sometimes it's about player progression and sometimes it's about finding answers to the questions.
In this offseason, the Cowboys will be looking for the answers at the safety position. Let's look.
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Before Barry Church fell victim to an Achilles injury in 2012, his arrow was definitely pointing up. He had finally stepped up last offseason, beat out his competition and showed why his future looked bright. Church has great size at 6'1" and 218 pounds, he's solid in coverage and he's athletic enough to fit in any scheme.
While early indications suggest he is fully recovered from his injury, it's not enough to judge just off of OTAs, mini camp and virtually zero contact. It's not to say he won't pick up where he left off, but Church needs that psychological boost that only live game action can bring. Quite frankly, the fans need to see it too.
But as long as Church shows no lingering effects from the injury, then he is a no-brainer to start at strong safety. The Cowboys showed their commitment to Church last season by signing him to a four-year contract and 2013 will be pivotal in his growth.
The Cowboys are looking for leaders in the back end of their defense, they're looking for an instinctive, aggressive player that can execute the scheme and be opportunistic in the turnover department.
Church fits the bill and answers a major question on this team.
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Allen, a 31-year old veteran, brings that tough Pittsburgh Steelers mentality to this defense in 2013. Initially, his signing wasn't the most exciting transaction, but he brings a stabilizing force to a very young unit. Sometimes it's not always about the sizzle in free agency, it's about the steak.
Allen, who played in Monte Kiffin's scheme while in Tampa, could easily be penciled in to start alongside Church simply due to his familiarity with the defense. But nothing will be handed to him and he will have to earn his keep on this team while beating out some younger opponents.
For veterans like Allen, the key to their longevity is that they play smarter as they get older. There are very few scenarios they haven't seen and they appreciate the value of preparation and film study. Those are the attributes he needs to instill in the younger players.
At the very least, Allen will be a significant contributor for the Cowboys in the secondary this season. The Cowboys are committed to youth, but you can never have enough experience on an NFL roster as long as it makes sense.
In the case of Will Allen, his role, whether it be starter or backup, makes sense for this football team.
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The NFL, like most sports, is a "what have you done for me lately?" league. Call it cut-throat or call it something else, but Matt Johnson and his abilities must stay healthy in 2013 in order to stake his claim in the safety competition.
Kiffin's 4-3 scheme requires the free safety to play a very important role visually and act as the last line of defense. When you watch game footage of Johnson at Eastern Washington, it's really fascinating how his eyes constantly follow the ball. He recognizes the play and breaks downhill to make tackles.
Johnson posted 17 interceptions in college and that did not come by accident. The Cowboys need him to demonstrate that same ability, act as a ball-hawking safety, be a sure-handed tackler and play center field for this team.
Johnson will be right in the mix for a starting job in 2013 and the Cowboys will give him every chance to do so. In analyzing this battle, this is the player that I want to see the most in game action. The Cowboys didn't give up on him last season despite his injuries and that's what makes him intriguing.
If he can stay healthy and play to his potential, then he will have to be dealt with.
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Wilcox was the Cowboys third-round pick in 2013, and there is a lot of excitement surrounding his game. He played three positions in college with safety being the most recent. Does the inexperience worry you? While it might worry some people, others see a player with huge upside.
The likelihood is that Wilcox starts the season as a special teams player and backup safety, but he made steady progress in the offseason activities and he's learning fast. So while he may not start the season on the first unit, he may not be too far off.
If Wilcox can demonstrate an advanced ability to learn the position in camp, gain the trust of his coaches and not be a major liability in coverage, then he has an outside chance to start. I still see starting off as a backup but I also envision a scenario where he's starting by Week 6.
He is still new to the position and he's somewhat raw, but he has outstanding size and athletic ability. Wilcox may not be the immediate answer to the questions at safety, but he will definitely be one of the solutions.
Danny McCray / Jakar Hamilton
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Danny McCray is the type of player you root for and Jakar Hamilton is the ultimate training camp underdog. The Dallas Cowboys do have question marks at safety, and they do have an intriguing camp battle on their hands, but these two players have a stacked deck against them.
McCray is a dependable and outstanding special teams player, but his skills at safety just don't match his ability to be a gunner. His weakness lies in coverage, he has trouble carrying tight ends up and across the field and he struggles with angles in tackling.
But give him credit when he was called into duty last year as the Cowboys suffered through injuries. One thing McCray will do is battle, and for that, he should have a role on this team. It would take an outstanding performance or a series of injuries to make his chances at starting viable.
Hamilton, a former Georgia Bulldog, does have some pop to his game, he has good size and athleticism, but he really needs to perform consistently in camp and the preseason to have any chance at all to make this team.
He should be viewed more as a special teams player, a developmental safety, and ultimately someone who can battle McCray for a roster spot. Depending on how many safeties the Cowboys keep and how well he performs will determine his fate.