Since Barry Church’s departure after the 2016 season, the Dallas Cowboys have not replaced his production and tight ends have made them pay.
Letting safety Barry Church go in free agency following the 2016 season would have seemed like a genius move if the Dallas Cowboys hadn’t failed at every attempt to replace him. After signing a four-year, $26 million contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars, the former undrafted free agent failed to perform as well in 2017 and 2018 as he had in his previous four years in Dallas. The Jags released Church in December of 2018.
As a Cowboy, Church was a tackling machine, averaging 7.34 tackles per game from 2013 through 2016. Since then, Dallas safeties Kavon Frazier (1.62), Byron Jones (4.12), Xavier Woods (3.91), and Jeff Heath (4.86) have averaged 3.63 tackles per game together. Byron Jones grabbed 5.12 tackles per game in 2017 before Kris Richard joined America’s Team as defensive backs coach and realized Jones was a Pro Bowl-caliber cornerback, which Jones proved with his first Pro Bowl appearance this season.
Ty Schalter and Cameron DaSilva have placed safety in the top-six when ranking NFL positions. Both have credited the evolution of tight ends that demand defenses to field a hybrid of a linebacker and a cornerback. Great safeties have the quickness to beat linebackers to a running back and the speed to drop effectively into coverage. Church showed flashes of being great while in Dallas, recording five interceptions in four years to go along with 424 tackles.
After letting him walk, the Cowboys haven’t drafted a safety above the sixth round and have failed to replace Church’s productivity. The signings of Darian Thompson and Josh Jones have resulted in little more than Thompson’s contributions to special teams. Donovan Wilson, Xavier Woods, and Jeff Heath (all sixth-round picks) have done little more than keep the position from appearing as a total liability. And Kris Richard ended an embarrassing experiment that was keeping Byron Jones from performing at his best.
The Cowboys allowed opposing tight ends 110 receptions for 1057 yards and seven touchdowns in 2019. Tight ends hauled in double-digit receptions in three games and gained more than one hundred yards in four. In the last four games of the season, tight ends had 47 receptions for 458 yards in two touchdowns, including 13 receptions among Philadelphia Eagles Zach Ertz and Joshua Perkins for 119 yards and a touchdown in a contest that would ultimately determine the NFC East winner.
In the past three years, America’s Team has remained at the bottom of NFL teams in interceptions (30th in 2019, 26th in 2018, 24th in 2017). In fact, Cowboys linebackers and defensive ends have recorded as many interceptions the past two seasons as safeties have.
The bottom line is the Dallas Cowboys have seemingly belittled the significance of the safety position for far too long. In 2019, only two NFL teams surrendered more yards to tight ends than Dallas and safeties Woods and Heath combined for merely 140 tackles. Arizona Cardinals safety Budda Baker had 147 tackles alone. Whether in free agency or the draft, safety must be a high priority this offseason. And if it is in the draft, is it possible to break the pattern of sixth-round safeties?