Upgrading the safety position was one of the most-discussed offseason needs for the Dallas Cowboys in 2019. But with just a few weeks to go until the real games begin, nobody has emerged to push Jeff Heath out of his starting role.
Heath is set to enter his seventh season with the Cowboys and third as a starting safety. While he’s been the team’s best at getting those elusive interceptions, his general defensive play in coverage and run support has been less than ideal.
Dallas has been able to win with Heath as a starter, but consensus opinion was that the Cowboys needed to upgrade if they wanted to make a championship push in 2019. With Xavier Woods looking poised for a breakout season, a stronger player beside him could have made for a league-leading duo.
But despite opportunities to add Earl Thomas and many other superior safeties in free agency, the Cowboys didn’t spend big. They added veteran George Iloka, a 29 year old with plenty of starting experience but not a standout talent.
Dallas also didn’t utilize the 2019 NFL Draft to improve their talent pool. They waited until the 6th Round to add Donovan Wilson, who may take a job away from Kavon Frazier but isn’t going to push for a starting role in his rookie year.
Darian Thompson, a 3rd-round pick in 2016 by the Giants, has been showing up in the spring practices and training camp. He may wind up as the team’s primary backup, perhaps knocking Iloka off the roster completely, but there’s no indication that the Cowboys see him as a starter.
Indeed, nobody has stepped up to challenge Jeff Heath.
As Ric Flair famously said, “To be the man, you gotta’ beat the man.”
Sadly, there are no Stings or Dusty Rhodes among the other safety options. Jeff Heath is still running full-time with the starting defense and it doesn’t appear any other current players are even being considered.
But before you write Heath’s name in permanent marker, there is one other option still on the table.
A few weeks ago, Cowboys’ executive (and unofficial general manager) Will McClay stated in a radio interview that they were still monitoring the status of veteran free agent Eric Berry. While he turns 31 in December, Berry has only played in three regular season games the last two years dealing with different injuries.
Even if Dallas were to bring in Berry now he may need some time to get football ready and acclimated to the system. Jeff Heath would likely still be your starter for the first few weeks, especially given his familiarity with opponents like the Giants and Redskins.
Barring that big move, the best hope for 2019 improvement is in the young defensive backs surrounding Heath. With Xavier Woods, Chidobe Awuzie, and Jourdan Lewis all poised for third-year growth and development, perhaps the overall talent in the secondary will help mask Heath’s weaknesses.
Plus, it’s worth noting that this is just Jeff’s second year with new DB Coach Kris Richard. Maybe he has some room to grow as well, with a proven guru showing him things that past coaches did not.
But that is where we are now in this process, hoping for Heath to improve rather than for a fresh face to replace him. The Cowboys are gambling at safety, and only time will tell if they made the right bet.