There's no position on the roster for the Dallas Cowboys that has frustrated fans over the last several years more than the safety spot. For reasons no one can explain, it hasn't been a huge priority when it comes to the NFL Draft. However, 2019 sixth-round pick Donovan Wilson has emerged as the team's top player at strong safety after a good 2020 campaign, but who will play opposite him?
The Cowboys took the free agency approach to solve that part of their defensive puzzle this offseason. Veteran Damontae Kazee, who spent his first four seasons with the Atlanta Falcons, was signed in March on a one-year deal. This move would reunite him with the Cowboy's new Defensive Coordinator Dan Quinn, and the versatile defender who has lined up at single-high safety, box safety, and slot corner wants to go all out for his former coach.
“As you know, I did come from the same team as Coach Quinn, so I know he's a player coach,” Kazee said, via the team's website. “And I know he looks for dogs. He wants people running to the ball every play, everything. And that's one reason why I came here, you know – a coach that I can fight for like that, I'm going to give him my all.”
Kazee was only on the field for 16 percent of the Falcons defensive plays (163 snaps) as a rookie in 2017 and logged just one start. Oddly enough, he would get his chance to show what he could do as a regular starter a year later, and it was due to an injury suffered by an old teammate who also came to Dallas this offseason.
When Keanu Neal tore his ACL in Week 1 of the 2018 season, Kazee would start the final 15 games and log nearly 1,000 snaps, and he didn't disappoint. He amassed 82 tackles (career-high), 10 passes defended, and was tied for the league lead with seven interceptions. His production dipped slightly in 2019 but he still managed to record 74 tackles and three interceptions.
Unfortunately for Kazee, his 2020 season only lasted a month. In Week 4 against the Green Bay Packers, he tore his Achilles tendon and missed the rest of the season. He finished with just 20 tackles and a forced fumble.
As the Cowboys began their preparation for the 2021 season, the question when it came to Kazee was whether or not he would be eased into the flow of things seeing as Achilles injuries take a long time to heal. To the Cowboy's pleasure, he was moving around well when OTAs picked up in mid-May.
“I jumped right into it when I got up here – running and jumping, doing every DB drill with all of them, since the day I got out here,” Kazee said last month.
Kazee played in all 16 games in each of his first three seasons and logged 30 starts, so missing 12 games in 2020 was unknown territory for him. His injury came at the worst time as he was in the final year of his rookie deal, and it led to some internal conflict for the former fifth-round pick.
“Let me just tell you about the offseason: I saw the real side,” Kazee said. “Not having football — and I've been playing this for over 20 years now – I didn't know what to do. I did so much film watching and doing everything and knowing my contract was up, getting injured. I was battling a lot of things, but I could only control the controllable.”
Quinn's Cover 3 scheme uses a lot of single-high coverage which Kazee got plenty of experience playing during his days with the Falcons. That familiarity gives him the edge to be the starter opposite the aforementioned Wilson at free safety, making him an important piece of what the Cowboys do defensively in 2021.
If Kazee can stay healthy the Cowboys may have their best starting duo at safety in quite some time.