Could Cowboys Draft Safety Early for 1st Time Since 2002?

    It's been 17 years since the spent an early draft pick at the safety position. In 2002, Dallas used the eighth overall pick to select out of Oklahoma. Since then, the highest a safety has been drafted by the Cowboys is in the third round. Could the 2019 NFL Draft end that streak?

    As the backdrop to our discussion, here's a list of all the safeties that the Cowboys have drafted from 2003-2018. To emphasize the point of how the team has invested draft picks, we'll organize it by the round they were taken in.

    • 3rd Round
      • 2013 – J.J. Wilcox
    • 4th Round
    • 5th Round
      • 2006 – Patrick Watkins
      • 2009 – Michael Hamlin
    • 6th Round
    • 7th Round

    You might be immediately asking, “Wait, what about Byron Jones?” Keep in mind that Jones mostly played his rookie season and then spent just two years at safety before Dallas moved him back to CB.

    Yes, Dallas drafted Jones with thoughts that he might play safety eventually. But they didn't immediately dedicate him to that spot and he has since been moved away from it, so that doesn't really  change the point we're making.

    Context is important over all of these years and picks, so let's do a quick lesson.

    From 2002-2003, Dallas paired Williams with the great . In 2004, Woodson missed the season with an injury and then retired in December. The starting role was split between journeymen Tony Dixon and Lynn Scott.

    Dixon and Scott returned in 2005 to compete for the starting role, but they were bested by ace . Davis started 15 games that year but then was challenged by rookie in 2006. They split time as starters.

    Ken Hamlin
    Former Dallas Cowboys safety

    In 2007, Dallas decided to take a free agency gamble on Ken Hamlin. A second-round pick by Seattle in 2003, Hamlin had two promising years but then began to have major concussion issues stemming from an off-field incident in 2005. He played all 16 games in 2006, but the Seahawks allowed him to become a when his rookie contract ended.

    Hamlin had a season in 2007 for the Cowboys, and his partnership with Roy Williams gave Dallas their most dynamic safety duo since Williams and Darren Woodson. But their glory would be short-lived as Roy became disgruntled with his role in Wade Phillips' , and he was released in 2009.

    The Cowboys looked to free agency again to solve their safety need, away from the Jaguars. But while Sensabaugh would be a four-year starter from 2009-2012, the other safety spot immediately crumbled. Hamlin struggled with injury and declining play in 2009 and was released just two years into a big six-year contract.

    Dallas converted Alan Ball from cornerback to safety in 2010 and he started all 16 games. In 2011, veteran Abram Elam was signed as an upgrade and he started the whole season, but then was signed away as a free agent.

    It's here where you start to see how the Cowboys unfortunate drafting and general bad luck continued to hurt them. Remember being excited by guys like Pat Watkins and Akwasi Owusu-Ansah, who flashed great athletic potential but just didn't have the skills to start?

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    Remember the hype around Justin Beriault and Matt Johnson, who sounded like absolute studs from reports but then never could get on the field due to injuries?

    None of these guys ever emerged to give Dallas a solid long-term player, let alone a couple of decent years. But that's the risk you run when you don't draft high.

    You just might get what you paid for.

    J.J. Wilcox
    Former Dallas Cowboys safety J.J. Wilcox

    Given their history, the Cowboys probably thought they were making a big move when they spent a third-round pick in 2013 on J.J. Wilcox. But again, Wilcox was never more than what most third-round picks turn out to be. He was a decent starter but ideally a primary backup and special teamer.

    Ironically, it was undrafted who gave the Cowboys their best value at safety over all these years. He wound up being a four-year starter from 2013-2016 and leader for the defense despite no draft investment; just the kind of bargain they'd been hoping for over an entire decade.

    The Cowboys enter 2019 with perhaps their best bargain find since Church in Xavier Woods. A sixth-round pick in 2017, Woods moved into a starting role last year when Byron Jones was converted back to corner. And while far from perfect, Xavier flashed some great potential with big hits and two interceptions.

    That hasn't stopped fans from clamoring for Dallas to make a splash signing like or Landon Collins this . Now that that window has closed, focus is turning to the draft and the Cowboys' first pick in the draft; 58th overall (2nd Round) thanks to the Amari Cooper .

    This is largely due to , a starter the last two years, who has been serviceable but flawed. Another undrafted player, Heath has overachieved but there is a general perception that he's not good enough if the Cowboys are serious about trying to win a Super Bowl.

    But like any other year, the 2019 draft is about more than just the team's need at one position. Debates about biggest needs and priorities go on for months, and elements such as the depth and strength of a draft class or the belief that a player can have immediate impact, versus needing time to develop, all factor into the final decisions.

    Jeff Heath, George Iloka, Xavier Woods, Safety
    Cowboys safeties Jeff Heath, , and Xavier Woods

    Also, you have to remember that Dallas did just sign veteran George Iloka to a one-year deal. They may very well be looking at a three-way competition for the two starting roles, content with whoever emerges between Iloka, Heath, and Woods for those spots.

    A big reason they signed Iloka was to avoid feeling handcuffed by position need in the draft. The Cowboys love feeling free to draft based on talent.

    What's more, the team certainly has other potential uses for that 2nd-round pick.

    They could take a to learn from and take over the role full-time in 2020. Or perhaps they want to find a second to taken some burden off and improve the team's negotiating position with Zeke in the coming years.

    Maybe they want a potential upgrade at , having similarly not made any big draft picks there for many years. Dallas could not only use some better talent at DT but they have several guys with expiring contracts and need some security for the future.

    If we've learned anything from all this history at safety, it's that the Dallas Cowboys seem to give higher priority to most of their other positions. They've been content to try to get things done with mid-round picks, undrafted gems, and bargain free agents and focus on other roster spots with the higher picks and big contracts.

    And let's be honest; a safety taken with the 58th pick in the draft probably isn't going to give us the next Darren Woodson. Even though Woodson himself was a second-round pick, you can only hope for those kind of outcomes. Even guys taken in the Top 10 can easily become busts, let alone guys taken on Day Two of the draft.

    So yes, you can make a great case that the Cowboys will take a safety earlier than they have since 2002. The need is there and the talent across the rest of the roster allows for it.

    But given their history and the Iloka signing, don't be surprised if Dallas stays true to form.

    Jess Haynie
    Jess Haynie
    Cowboys fan since 1992, blogger since 2011. Bringing you the objectivity of an outside perspective with the passion of a die-hard fan. I love to talk to my readers, so please comment on any article and I'll be sure to respond!


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    Ahad, Holy Dabir of Aleppo

    I’d be happy with Savage or Thornhill, NOT Rapp, and I’d be happier with a TE at 58

    Craig V.

    We don’t need another TE- we have plenty-4 I believe. S or DT is a need, even an OL before another TE. If we can’t solidify that position between Jarwin, Shultz & Rico then we have a much bigger problem. I’d be very happy with either Savage of Thornhill- is prefer Savage. Love to see Jerry move up to get a shot at a really good DT or Edge but we’ll have to wait & see.

    Ahad, Holy Dabir of Aleppo

    Jarwin is a receiver only, and unproven at that. I’m TIRED of hearing about Rico. He may as well be Uncle Rico, he’s never going to help us. Witten should’ve stayed behind the mic, he’s a part timer and mentor at best. TE who can actually fill Witten’s old role is the glaring hole

    Craig V.

    Although I do agree with you as far as Rico is concerned you are dead wrong about Jarwin & Shultz. Jarwin was only asked to catch because they had Swaim on hand. Shultz is a blocker & can catch the call well. Given the fact that Witt is back in the fold he will be the mentor that all 3 of them need. They’ve invested too much time & a roster spot to just give up on Rico. I believe that with Witts help Jarwin & Shultz are our TEs of the future. If need be we can always get a TE thru FA. We did pretty good with a guy named Novachek a while back – so I wouldn’t waste #58 on a TE. If 1 falls later in the draft, we should nab em’- but not #58.

    Jess Haynie

    Xavier Woods is already a better safety than any of our current TE prospects, and Iloka or Heath will probably be better in 2019 than Witten at this point in his career.

    I know Jarwin has flashed some things, but having a lot of confidence in him right now as the long-term answer is silly.


    I’d like to see them take a S or if the talent isn’t there, then a DT. Of course it all depends on how they have players rated. I won’t be upset with any position if the guy ends up being a starter. I think we’re ok at TE for now. A ball hawking S, as this article demonstrates, has been a glaring need for years. I really hope we get lucky and a stud falls to us.

    Travis Diggs

    This draft for dallas should be called “project replace Jeff Heath”. I really dont care where we draft a safety, as long as we draft Heaths replacement .Had the chance last year, with that draft class heavy at safety but they chose to waste picks on Mike White and others(who i wont name until i see another season). I know Jeff Heath is the biggest hole/weakness position on this defense, Time to draft his replacement NOW!!!