Yesterday, I explained why the Cowboys should rotate their interior defensive linemen pretty heavily. Today, I’ll jump to the back end of the defense to examine the safety position. In theory, four players are competing for starting jobs at safety: Barry Church, Matt Johnson, Will Allen, and rookie J.J. Wilcox. The Cowboys also have Eric Frampton, Danny McCray, and undrafted free agent Jakar Hamilton on the roster, but we’ll consider them longshots for a starting job right now.
Church and Johnson are considered the favorites to win the job, and for good reason. Church has shown glimpses of greatness in his limited work, totaling the highest tackle rate on the Cowboys over the past three seasons. He’s a big 6-2, 218-pound safety, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be a poor fit in Monte Kiffin’s scheme. Kiffin has said he wants to mimic what Seattle did last year, which was play a whole lot of Cover 3. In that defense, Church would play the “Kam Chancellor” role in the box—something he could potentially do quite well.
Johnson is a player without NFL experience, but one whom the numbers suggest is ready to start. Take a look at this comparison:
Johnson: 6-1, 215 pounds, 4.52 40-yard dash, 10-1 broad jump, 4.07 short shuttle, 6.84 three-cone drill, 38-inch vertical, 18 reps
Player X: 6-0, 214 pounds, 4.63 40-yard dash, 10-1 broad jump, 4.06 short shuttle, 6.78 three-cone drill, 38-inch vertical, 15 reps
Player X is 2013 first-round pick Kenny Vaccaro. Sometimes we think differently of players because of where they went to school, but Johnson has early-round athleticism. We’ll see if his play matches up.
The Cowboys signed soon-to-be 31-year old safety Will Allen in the offseason, but I don’t think there’s a great chance that Allen starts. The free safety allowed just four receptions on 10 targets last season, including only 5.4 YPA. If he makes his way into the starting lineup, it would be for Johnson. Church’s starting spot appears safe.
The Cowboys might seem like they’re living dangerously at the safety position, but I think they’re making the right move. Teams too often start veterans because they “know what they have,” fearing the unknown that comes with a rookie or inexperienced player. In terms of pure athleticism and projecting success, though, there’s no doubt that Church and Johnson offer the Cowboys the best chance to win in the back end of their secondary.
Jonathan Bales is the founder of The DC Times. He writes for DallasCowboys.com and the New York Times. He's also the author of Fantasy Football for Smart People: How to Dominate Your Draft.