Dallas Cowboys starting safety: Jeff Heath, George Iloka or Eric Berry?

ARLINGTON, TX - NOVEMBER 05: Jeff Heath #38 of the Dallas Cowboys celebrates his fourht quarter interception against the Kansas City Chiefs at AT&T Stadium on November 5, 2017 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, TX - NOVEMBER 05: Jeff Heath #38 of the Dallas Cowboys celebrates his fourht quarter interception against the Kansas City Chiefs at AT&T Stadium on November 5, 2017 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images) /

The battle for a starting safety role for the Dallas Cowboys is one of the biggest to watch this summer. Especially if the team looks to free agency.

It’s nearly been 19 months since the Dallas Cowboys lost to the Seattle Seahawks 21-12 in a Week 16 defeat during the 2017 regular season. After that fateful game, All-Pro safety Earl Thomas entered the Cowboys’ locker room uttering the infamous words: “Come get me.

And after flirting with the six-time Pro Bowler for months, Thomas’ bid to call America’s Team home ended in March when the 30-year old signed a four-year, $55 million deal to join the Baltimore Ravens. Yet, the Cowboys didn’t flinch losing out on a future Hall of Famer.

Dallas remains supremely confident in their starting duo from last season, Xavier Woods and Jeff Heath. Both played well enough to help propel the Cowboys’ defense to a top-ten ranking, with Dallas limiting opposing offenses to 329.3 yards per game in 2018. That was the seventh-lowest average in the NFL last year. And their allowed 20.3 points per contest was good enough for sixth.

The one area the Dallas defense continues to suffer is in takeaways. More specifically, interceptions. The Cowboys defense only had nine picks last season, which was tied for 26th lowest in the NFL.

Out of those nine interceptions, linebacker Leighton Vander Esch (2) and defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence (1) recorded three. Woods (2) and Heath (1) also combined for three picks. Interestingly, cornerback Byron Jones was nominated to his first Pro Bowl last year despite not recording a single interception.

It is in the area of takeaways where adding a playmaker at the safety position figures to have the most impact. But both Woods and Heath have earned the trust of the Cowboys’ coaching staff, which will likely be the biggest determining factor as to who starts Week One in September against the New York Giants.

Although it appears that Woods is a lock to start at free safety, Dallas did bring in some possible competition for Heath. Seven-year veteran George Iloka was signed to a one-year deal in March and should challenge for a starting role.

A 2012 fifth-rounder out of Boise State, Iloka was a consistent starter for the Cincinnati Bengals for the majority of his NFL career. The 29-year old is coming off a down season with the Minnesota Vikings and undoubtedly looking to earn himself a much longer contract.

At an impressive 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, Iloka would appear to possess the size Cowboys’ passing coordinator and defensive backs coach Kris Richard covets. Richard had a similar-sized safety in Kam Chancellor (6-3, 225) during his time with the Seattle Seahawks. Chancellor would go on to earn four Pro Bowl bids and win a Super Bowl.

But the depth chart at safety could expand this summer. Speculation is the Cowboys may decide to add former Kansas City Chiefs star and current free agent Eric Berry to the mix. Here’s what Around the NFL Writer Jeremy Bergman wrote on the league’s official website about the building battle at safety in Dallas.

"” … at strong safety, longtime Cowboy Jeff Heath and free-agent acquisition George Iloka are vying for starting snaps. Heath has been with Dallas for the entirety of his career and started 33 total games over the last two seasons, but Iloka could provide different plusses than Heath, like tackling. The Cowboys vet missed 19 tackles in 2018, per Pro Football Focus, the second-most among all safeties. And then there’s the specter of a safety who isn’t even on the roster: free-agent veteran Eric Berry.”"

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A five-time Pro Bowler himself, Berry has struggled to stay healthy in recent years, playing just three games since 2016. The Cowboys reportedly met with the 30-year old free agent in March, but he left Dallas without a deal. Now that the team is approaching the start of training camp, perhaps both sides will be willing to work out a deal that’s fair. If not, the Cowboys seem more than happy to go into the 2019 regular season with the safeties currently on their roster.