It's been 17 years since the Dallas Cowboys spent an early draft pick at the safety position. In 2002, Dallas used the eighth overall pick to select Roy Williams 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
- 2010 - Akwasi Owusu-Ansah
- 2012 - Matt Johnson
- 5th Round
- 2006 - Patrick Watkins
- 2009 - Michael Hamlin
- 6th Round
- 2005 - Justin Beriault
- 2009 - Stephen Hodge
- 2016 - Kavon Frazier
- 2017 - Xavier Woods
- 7th Round
- 2014 - Ahmad Dixon
You might be immediately asking, "Wait, what about Byron Jones?" Keep in mind that Jones mostly played cornerback 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 history lesson.
From 2002-2003, Dallas paired Williams with the great Darren Woodson. 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 special teams ace Keith Davis. Davis started 15 games that year but then was challenged by rookie Pat Watkins in 2006. They split time as starters.
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 free agent when his rookie contract ended.
Hamlin had a Pro Bowl 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' defense, and he was released in 2009.
The Cowboys looked to free agency again to solve their safety need, signing Gerald Sensabaugh 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?
Remember the hype around Justin Beriault and Matt Johnson, who sounded like absolute studs from training camp 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.
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 Barry Church 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 Earl Thomas or Landon Collins this offseason. 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 trade.
This is largely due to Jeff Heath, 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.
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 tight end to learn from Jason Witten and take over the role full-time in 2020. Or perhaps they want to find a second running back to taken some burden off Ezekiel Elliott and improve the team's negotiating position with Zeke in the coming years.
Maybe they want a potential upgrade at defensive tackle, 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.
Dallas Cowboys 2019 Draft Needs: Special Teams
Some have argued that the words "kicker" and "punter" don't belong in the same sentence as "NFL Draft." But just last year, six special teams players were drafted by NFL teams. Could the Dallas Cowboys consider such a player with one of their 2019 draft picks?
From 2009-2018, various teams have drafted 19 kickers and 18 punters. The highest pick was a second-rounder; Tampa Bay's selection of Roberto Aguayo in 2016. Outside of one pick in the third round and another in the fourth, the other 34 picks have all been in rounds 5-7.
The Dallas Cowboys have only contributed on pick to this total. In 2009 they selected David Buehler in the fifth round, two years after using a sixth-round pick on Nick Folk.
Ten years later, could Dallas finally use another draft pick on special teams?
There are a few of factors that make this possible. For one, the Cowboys are already fairly loaded with talent across the roster. A late-round pick spent at any number of positions would have a hard time surviving final cuts.
Second, in terms of the quality of player versus the round, there's no better value than on special teams. You can possibly get the best kicker in the country in the fifth or sixth round; no other position offers that.
Lastly, and most importantly, the Cowboys have a pretty clear opportunity to upgrade at kicker. They also could use the draft to save some cap space by making a change at punter.
As I've written about before, Brett Maher was a Jekyll & Hyde kicker in 2018. He was brilliant from long range but a major liability closer in, and his 80.6% total field-goal accuracy was near the bottom of the league.
While Maher's distance is a true asset, does it outweigh the risk of him missing a game-winning FG from 35 yards? And what about extra-point kicks, for that matter?
Dallas should certainly bring Brett back in 2019 to compete for the job. Remember, he was still Dan Bailey's backup until close the start of the regular season. Perhaps a full offseason as the primary kicker would help him stabilize his game.
But given the uncertainty, the Cowboys could easily justify spending a late-round pick at kicker. They could potentially land LSU's Cole Tracy or Utah's Matt Gay, two of the top prospects in this draft class.
The worst-case scenario is that Maher beats one of these guys and you cut them. But there was a high probability that you'd have cut whoever you drafted at another position anyway. Essentially, you'd have spent a late draft pick as an insurance policy against Maher's development.
That's not bad business. In fact, maybe you'd be able to trade that kicker at final cuts to a team who suffers a preseason injury or is otherwise dissatisfied at the position. There's a chance you could even recoup your draft pick.
Another consideration is at punter. Chris Jones has been a very solid one for a while now, but he turns 30 in July and counts $2.3 million against the salary cap. Could the draft give Dallas a chance to get someone younger and cheaper?
Let's say Dallas drafted one of the nation's top punters like Jack Fox out of Rice or Stanford's Jack Bailey. They'd have that player on a four-year rookie deal costing roughly 20% of what Jones' does.
Dallas could trade or release Chris Jones for $800k in 2019 cap relief, or $1.8 million if he's cut after June 1st. That would push $1 million of dead money onto the 2020 cap.
Those aren't big numbers, so the real gain here is if you think one of the top rookie punters could match or even exceed Jones' play. Then you've got that player on the cheap for the next four seasons.
I would not predict that the Cowboys will spend a draft pick at either kicker or punter, but the point of all this is that you can't entirely dismiss it. 2019 presents the right mix of circumstances for Dallas to consider it more than they have in the past, especially considering how long Dan Bailey was a fixture on the roster.
Brett Maher doesn't enjoy that same status. Dallas could easily look at some of the top kickers available and think that an upgrade is possible.
Will that lead to the Cowboys spending a draft pick on special teams for the first time in a decade?
Draft Likelihood: 10%
Projected Round: *6th-7th
* The Cowboys don't currently have a 6th-round pick, but could acquire one in a potential trade.
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Other Draft Needs Articles
Potential CB Prospects Dallas Cowboys Could Target in Each Round
It has somewhat flown a little bit under the radar, but Dallas Cowboys Passing Game Coordinator and Defensive Backs Coach Kris Richard has been touring around the country working out several cornerbacks in this year's draft class. With Byron Jones and Anthony Brown entering into the last year of their contracts, it wouldn't be all that surprising if the Cowboys draft a CB at some point in the 2019 NFL Draft.
With that in mind, I thought it would be a good idea to share with you some of the cornerbacks the Dallas Cowboys could target in each round in which they hold a draft pick. In order to keep it as realistic as possible I tried to narrow it down to the potential CB prospects that fit Richard's parameters. We all know he likes those tall, lengthy defensive backs and that's what I tried to focus on.
Let's take a look…
Justin Layne, Michigan State
Justin Layne was a four-star wide receiver recruit coming at a high school, but ended up becoming a three-year starter on the other side of the ball at cornerback during his time at Michigan State. He has tremendous ball skills due to his background at receiver and has the size and length (6'1", 192) Kris Richard covets in his defensive backs. He needs to continue to improve is overall technique, but he has Day 1 starting potential.
Joejuan Williams, Vanderbilt
Joejuan Williams was a two-year starter during his time at Vanderbilt and primarily played press and off-man coverage. At just a smidge under 6'4", Williams typically towers over the wide receivers he faces, which has allowed him to find success at this point because of his mere size and length. He has the skill set and athleticism to become an eventual starter in the NFL, but really needs to develop his mechanics and the mental side of his game a little more.
Jamel Dean, Auburn
After overcoming three major knee injuries earlier in his career, Jamel Dean eventually became a two-year starter to finish his career at Auburn. He has elite size (6'1", 202), length (31 3/4" arms), and speed (4.3 40-yard dash), but his durability is a red flag moving forward. He also needs to play with a little better mean streak, especially in press man coverage. The talent is there though and he has a chance to develop into a really good starting CB if he can stay healthy.
Isaiah Johnson, Houston
Isaiah Johnson is another player with elite size (6'2", 208), length (33" arms), and speed (4.4 40-yard dash) at the cornerback position and is someone Kris Richard has met with and worked out on a number of occasions. Johnson was a former three-star wide receiver recruit coming out high school before making the switch to CB his final year in Houston. He played mostly bail technique for the Cougars and is still really raw as a CB prospect, but he has immense upside. He will likely need a year or two to further develop his craft before he can be relied upon.
Lonnie Johnson Jr., Kentucky
There are actually three Kentucky defensive backs the Dallas Cowboys could target, but Lonnie Johnson Jr. is the top-ranked prospect so far. He has the size, length the Cowboys are looking for, but he really needs to refine just about every aspect of his game before he's ready to compete at the next level. He has tremendous instincts which has gotten him to this point, but he's going to have to develop both technically and mentally if he wants to find any kind of success in the NFL. All of the tools are there though.
Jordan Brown, South Dakota State
Jordan Brown was a three-year starter at South Dakota State, playing primarily press and off-man coverage. He has the size, length to play as a boundary corner in the NFL, but only has average top end speed. He is a competitor with a scrappy mentality that unfortunately runs a little hot and cold at times. He plays with good balance when making his transitions, which allows him to stick with receivers. Overall, he is a solid developmental mid-round pick with starting upside.
Michael Jackson, Miami
Michael Jackson was a two-year starter at Miami on the right side, playing mostly press man. He is a good-sized athlete with the kind of length and athleticism Kris Richard is looking for in his cornerbacks, but he has shown a tendency to struggle against savvy route runners. He's not the most fluid of athletes and will struggle in his transitions, so he might fit best in a defensive scheme that plays a lot of zone or cover 2.
Kris Boyd, Texas
Kris Boyd was a three-your starter during his time in Texas and played on both the right and left side, often times shadowing the opposing team's best wide receiver. He plays with the desired competitive nature and checks all the boxes as far as size, speed, and athleticism are concerned for a starting caliber cornerback. But, he plays undisciplined and doesn't trust his eyes, often times causing him to arrive late with his reads. If he can become more disciplined he could be a steal this late in the draft.
Chris Westry, Kentucky
Chris Westry was a three-year starter at Kentucky, but gradually started to see his playing time decrease with the emergence of Lonnie Johnson Jr. and Derrick Baity Jr.. At 6'4", 199 pounds and legitimate 4.35 speed, Westry has extremely rare size and speed for the cornerback position. Unfortunately, he is a better athlete than he is a football player right now and might be nothing more than a developmental project.
Derrick Baity Jr., Kentucky
Derrick Baity Jr. worked his way into the starting lineup at Kentucky as a freshman and ended up becoming a four-year starter. He has excellent size for the position (6'2", 197) and is light footed with good ball skills, but he doesn't play with the kind of physicality you'd think from my player his size. He is an untrustworthy tackler and undisciplined with his fundamentals. His size and ball skills should get him drafted, but he might be nothing more than a developmental project.
Cowboys Draft: Will A Quarterback Be Considered?
Dak Prescott is the current and future starting quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys. Let's make that clear.
Prescott has done more than enough over the first three years of his career to earn this "franchise quarterback" title, and the contract he will eventually receive from the Cowboys' front office.
But that doesn't mean the Cowboys shouldn't consider drafting a quarterback this year. Or next year. Or the year after that.
Quarterback is the game's most important, and highest paid, position. It's the position where a player can most greatly effect a game individually, both positively and negatively.
And it's the position you must make sure is accounted for heading into any new season. Yes, the Cowboys clearly trust now fourth-year quarterback Dak Prescott, but adding talent to your QB room is never a bad thing. In fact, it's typically a great thing.
Behind Prescott are Cooper Rush and Mike White. Rush beat out now-offensive coordinator Kellen Moore for the backup job during the 2017 preseason, and then held off rookie Mike White in 2018 to maintain the job.
When the Cowboys drafted White, however, they had dreams of a new backup quarterback in mind. White didn't perform as well, or progress as quickly, as some had hoped leaving Cooper Rush as the unquestioned QB2, however.
Is Cooper Rush good enough, though?
This is a question which really is yet to be answered. And if the Cowboys have it their way, it will never be truly answered. He was excellent during the 2017 preseason, no doubt about it. But he was, well, bad last year. Rush and the offense struggled mightily during the preseason, and while lack of offensive line depth didn't help him, Rush's play didn't spark much optimism or excitement either.
The Cowboys would be wise to consider drafting a quarterback later in the 2019 NFL Draft, but they shouldn't spend too much time worrying about it either way. The backup quarterback, especially behind Dak Prescott, will bring his value in terms of game-planning and aiding Prescott, rather than with his actual arm talent.
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