There aren’t a lot of positives to take away from the Dallas Cowboys’ defense, particularly in the secondary. And rookie safety J.J. Wilcox had a very shaky year. And if you have already started digging into the 2014 draft, you will see many draftniks putting a safety in their first round of their mock drafts to Dallas. And while I wouldn’t necessarily be opposed to that, I want to make a case as to why we shouldn’t count out Wilcox just yet.
Put J.J. Wilcox’s year in perspective. Wilcox basically had no offseason after playing in the Senior Bowl, then preparing for the NFL Combine and private workouts, to jumping right into training camp. On top of that, he was a third round pick coming from a small school (Georgia Southern) and he was also playing a position that he had only played for a few years in his life. But the transition actually got harder for him.
Then just as Wilcox was in the middle of training camp, fighting for a starting role on the team, his mother died on August 14th. The 22 year old from Georgia took a week off from camp and rejoined the team in midst of a battle with Will Allen and Jeff Heath. And somehow, things still managed to get worse for Wilcox. Right before a big game against Detroit in which he was preparing to help cover Calvin Johnson, Wilcox injured his knee in practice after he had finally started to get up to speed. Wilcox proceeded to miss three games during his rookie season and was replaced in the lineup by Jeff Heath who never gave up the starting job. And on top of all that, he is playing for the most scrutinized franchise on the face of the Earth. That’s a lot for any player to go through, let alone a 22 year old rookie from Georgia Southern. But in the limited snaps that I saw Wilcox, I came away impressed.
I tend to be of the mindset that it is important to let these young players grow. For some reason, fans, media and even coaches at times tend to want rookies and young players to reach their full potential halfway through their first year. That just isn’t realistic. These players need time to grow and J.J. Wilcox needs that time more than maybe any other rookie on this team. I really want to see how Wilcox looks after a full offseason with the team.
This will begin my quick scouting report on J.J. Wilcox. As always, let’s take a look at Wilcox’s physical attributes and compare him to other similar safeties around the league:
The Cowboys of late, have valued players with big broad jumps and fast 20 Yard Shuttle’s more so than 40 times. That is something to keep your eye on when the NFL Combine comes around next month. Back to Wilcox. Of this list, his best NFL comparison to me is Tampa Bay Buccaneer Mark Barron, who the Cowboys had interest in back in 2012. Barron is a strong safety, who is athletic enough to play some deep safety and cover tight ends. Wilcox is a fantastic athlete, as you can see and he demonstrates that talent on the field.
When the Cowboys drafted Wilcox, many people weren’t sure how he would fit on this team. Barry Church, who the team had just signed, was the team’s starting strong safety and plays a very similar game to Wilcox. There is still no true deep center fielder on this team and with the league turning into more of a passing league, Is there room on this team to play two strong safety types? Monte Kiffin and Rod Marinelli thought so and I don’t think they were wrong.
From the very start of the season, the Cowboys treated their two strong safeties as extra linebackers who could run. And this explains as to why their run defense was so good to start the year. But the thing here I want you to see is the versatility J.J. Wilcox offers. Below is a goal line play in which the Cowboys use Wilcox as a linebacker:
Wilcox is now expected to make a typical linebacker play. He has two responsibilities on this play: Cover the tight end (who he is lined up over) in case of play action and to fill the massive gap between DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher. Wilcox watches and recognizes it as a run. He is a little hesitant at first, but once he sees the ball carrier, he can fly to that spot. Here’s one more play that demonstrates Wilcox’s physical tools, this time as a single high safety against the Chargers.
J.J. Wilcox will be one of the more interesting players come training camp this August. There are so many times that he flashes great potential on film for me. If he can develop into the player that the Cowboys thought they drafted, he might be the missing cog in the secondary that has hindered this team for years. But more likely, we will see a similar Wilcox in 2014 who provided versatility, athleticism and a nastiness to a secondary that desperately needs it. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Dallas draft a safety in the first round if he is clearly the best player on their board, but that doesn’t mean we have seen the end of Wilcox. After enduring a very tough rookie year on and off the field, I am hopeful for J.J. that his life settles down for him and I also wouldn’t be shocked if that translates to better play on the field. At the end of the day, these guys are human too. Let’s wait a few years before we say anything definitive about whether or not he was another third round bust.