Imagine being an offensive weapon for a majority of your college career. Averaging seven yards per carry and recording nearly 1,000 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns for your first three seasons. Throw in 45 receptions and nearly another thousand yards receiving and four more scores as slot receiver. That’s a fairly decent start towards a good career on offense.
Then, in your senior year, you are switched to the defensive side of the ball as a strong safety. You play well enough to make the Senior Bowl and get drafted in the third round by the Dallas Cowboys. And after an impressive offseason, you fail to meet lofty expectations in the regular season as a starter. This has been the career, so far, for Cowboys second-year safety J.J. Wilcox. And for the second year in a row, Dallas is doing Wilcox no favors by placing way too much pressure on the 23-year old.
First, let’s consider that entering the 2014 offseason, the safety position was considered by many to be the Cowboys biggest area of need. The exodus of defensive end DeMarcus Ware and defensive tackle Jason Hatcher adjusted the Cowboys focus as the offseason rolled on. Still, the safety position was a major concern. And it’s one that Dallas still refuses to address. It appears no matter what, the team is all-in on Wilcox.
The Cowboys could have found veteran safety help in free agency. They still can with the recent release of troubled New York Giants safety Will Hill. But it appears the team will stand pat. The Cowboys could have drafted a safety high in the first round in last month’s NFL Draft, with players like Louisville’s Calvin Pryor and Alabama’s HaHa Clinton-Dix available with their top pick (16th overall). But Dallas opted to draft a offensive guard instead. In fact, the Cowboys didn’t address their safety position until their third pick in the seventh round! (Ahmad Dixon, Baylor)
No, the Cowboys are stubbornly standing behind Wilcox. And whether the young man can step up in his second year or not is not the point. The point is, by taking little to no action to improve their roster at the safety position, they are doing themselves and Wilcox a major disservice.
The Cowboys inaction this offseason clearly puts undo pressure on Wilcox, a prospect who has spent a total of two seasons playing on the defensive side of the ball. Secondly, there isn’t a fall back plan currently on the roster if this experiment fails. Or really even if a starting safety succumbs to the injury. Behind projected starters Barry Church and Wilcox are Jeff Heath, Matt Johnson, Jakar Hamilton and the rookie Dixon. They have also signed two undrafted rookie free agents in San Jose State safety Keith Smith and Auburn safety Ryan Smith. But I wouldn’t expect either to make it past final cuts.
Heath, an undrafted free agent himself out of Saginaw Valley State University last season, was forced into starting duty prematurely in 2013 due to injuries. Although he showed flashes of potential, Heath was and still is very green. The truth is he had no business being a starter in the NFL last season.
Johnson’s tale is well known amongst Cowboys fans. After being a fourth round pick by Dallas in 2012 out of Eastern Washington, Johnson has yet to see action in the regular season due to various injuries. Many consider this season to be his final chance to make the squad. And things haven’t started out well this offseason as Johnson has recently been sidelined with yet another hamstring injury.
Hamilton has been making a bit of splash this offseason. And a lot of experts and fans alike were fond of him coming out of South Carolina State last year as an undrafted free agent. But the young man failed to make a positive impact in 2013, playing in just three regular season games last year. Hamilton is a definitely someone to watch going into training camp in late July, but still seems far from NFL starting material.
And Dixon…well, he’s a rookie. The safety out of Baylor was seen as more of a special teams player going into the draft. He’ll have the opportunity to showcase his skills in training camp, but he’s more of a Barry Church-clone than the ball hawking, playmaking cover safety the Cowboys desperately need right now.
No, the Cowboys have earmarked Wilcox for that role. And by their inaction, Dallas has placed a huge amount of expectation and pressure on that young man’s shoulders. And by not making the safety position a priority in 2014, Dallas is taking a big risk with their defensive secondary as a whole. And there is no safety net.