The first phase of the Cowboys’ offseason program is complete, with the team off until July 22nd for the start of training camp. Once there in Oxnard, Dallas’ new-look defense will get a chance to shine as the pads come on – particularly this uncertain group of safeties.
A microcosm for Rod Marinelli’s defense as a whole, the Cowboys’ current depth chart at safety features a ton of names but little certainty outside of Byron Jones. Ever since drafting Jones in 2015, the Cowboys have seen the immediate impact that adding athleticism and length to their secondary can have – coming out of this year’s draft with three rookie corners and safety Xavier Woods.
Along with Woods, the Cowboys have options at safety including Jeff Heath – who’s been impossible to take off the field so far through OTAs – veteran Robert Blanton, second-year player Kavon Frazier, and converted QB Jameill Showers.
A player that should be in this mix as well is rookie “cornerback” Chidobe Awuzie, the 60th overall pick out of Colorado that brings outstanding versatility and ball skills to America’s Team. Awuzie played free safety as a sophomore in the PAC 12 before transitioning back to CB while continuing to excel in both press and off coverage.
I think the best trait Awuzie can immediately bring to the Cowboys in his first season is his play making ability on the football when plays develop in front of him. Chidobe is a fluid player that is more than comfortable flipping his hips and playing with his back to the ball, but posesses a “my ball” mentality when driving downhill at safety with sideline-to-sideline range.
What Awuzie can also bring to this group of safeties is an identity, not only for himself but for the players below him should he start alongside Byron Jones.
The Cowboys aren’t shy when it comes to rotating third and fourth safeties on the field to constantly change the back end looks opposing offenses will see (a necessity with an inconsistent pass rush), which is a needed role that I believe both Heath and Woods are best suited for.
Leaving Awuzie at cornerback, where the Cowboys already have solid starters in Nolan Carroll, Orlando Scandrick, and Anthony Brown along with expected contributors Jourdan Lewis and Marquez White could easily expose Dallas’ depth at safety.
A safety rotation of Barry Church, J.J. Wilcox, Heath, and Jones was very effective in 2016 because each safety brought something new to the defense on every snap. With Byron Jones as the only Dallas safety that currently brings every-down capability, expecting Heath or Woods to progress in the same role would be unfair.
Dallas could presumably put three safeties on the field at times in 2017 as well, in need of a box or enforcer player, but their best two safety look right now is Jones and Awuzie.
Not only is this pairing the best combination of coverage skills deep in the secondary, but it is best for the cornerbacks – another position that will be sorted out in training camp with fiery battles throughout – that will eventually play in front of these safeties in a suddenly hyper-athletic and young Cowboys secondary.