By now you know the news, Dallas Cowboys linebacker Rolando McClain has been suspended 10 games for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. And now a linebacker group which has the talented names of Rolando McClain, Sean Lee, and Jaylon Smith will be lucky if they even get to see one of these players in action for the majority of this season.
It’s starting to look rough for the linebackers, and the defensive line will certainly be no better.
The back end of the Cowboys defense, while not exactly elite, is possibly the strongest unit on this side of the ball right now. Byron Jones is coming off of an excellent rookie year and is expected to make a big jump in a year two; Orlando Scandrick is returning from his season-ending knee injury, and the other corners have shown they can be solid contributors to the defense.
Surprisingly, the secondary is where the Cowboys have their most stability defensively, and this stability may be what pushes former third round pick JJ Wilcox out the door.
There doesn’t seem to be a spot for Wilcox in the safety equation anymore. Jones is going to be the free safety, and Barry Church has certainly proven to be the better option at strong safety. Jeff Heath just signed a four year deal and isn’t going anywhere, and the team drafted Kavon Frazier in the sixth round this season.
At best, JJ Wilcox will be Jones’ backup and will see time on special teams. At worst, his time in Dallas might be over. A former third round pick who could never put it together to be what the Cowboys had envisioned when they drafted him.
But what if the answer to all of JJ Wilcox’s uncertainty was to switch positions and move down in the box full time?
We have always considered Wilcox an “in the box safety,” a guy who is much better when he is coming downhill to make tackles than he is when playing a true safety role. Knowing this, and now knowing that linebacker depth may be in question for much of 2016, maybe the switch would be beneficial to both JJ Wilcox and the team.
“But JJ Wilcox is too small to play linebacker.”
You’re right, he would be undersized as a linebacker, even if he isn’t playing the MIKE. Listed at 6’0″ and 212 pounds, it would be quite the challenge for Wilcox to make his living in the front seven.
But 212 pounds isn’t a final number, he could possibly add weight and add mass in time for the regular season. And, most importantly, it has been done before.
Former Alabama safety Mark Barron is just one of the many success stories involving safeties moving down to play linebacker. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ first round pick saw little success as an NFL safety and was traded to the Rams early in his career. After Rams starting weak-side linebacker Alec Ogletree went down with a season ending injury, Barron stepped up as a linebacker and never looked back.
It’s important to note that while he is 2 inches taller than Wilcox, Barron entered the league at just 213 pounds. Now, he plays at 220 pounds, so some weight gain is certainly possible.
Deone Bucannon of the Arizona Cardinals also made a similar move from safety to linebacker, and is doing just fine.
Wilcox has shown an inability to take proper tackling angles before, and a switch to linebacker may just highlight this problem
Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli’s scheme often calls for one-gap responsibilities for the linebackers. This would keep Wilcox’s job more simple than it has ever been, and would help him to get downhill and make plays. Both the angles and assignments he would have to take would be different.
No, moving JJ Wilcox to linebacker isn’t an ideal situation, but I do feel like it could be beneficial to both parties. Wilcox has shown that he is much better at getting downhill and playing the run than he is in coverage, so why not try to utilize his strengths and hide his weaknesses a bit?
The odds are that even if it is tried, the move for JJ Wilcox wouldn’t work too well, but why not give him the shot to possibly save his roster spot for 2016 and beyond?
This could be the last-ditch effort which saves JJ Wilcox’s NFL future.