Safety is not priority number one in this Draft.


Four Tuesdays ago I wrote this article , where I articulated my reasons why the Dallas Cowboys and newly promoted defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli should make fixing the defensive line the top priority in the 2014 draft. I am still convinced that following the old 90’s Cowboys Super Bowl team’s blueprints of a solid 8-9 man defensive front rotation is the key to getting the Dallas defense back to its winning ways.

I have seen a number of mock drafts come out, and I’m surprised that many of those drafts have the Cowboys grabbing a safety in the first round. In my opinion, picking a safety in the first round would be a disaster. To qualify that statement, I’m naming my personal Cowboys runner-up defensive MVP for the season, safety Barry Church.

Church had a stellar year with little to no fanfare. He led the team with 135 total tackles, tied for third with six passes defended, forced the most fumbles (3), had one fumble recovery which he ran in for a touchdown, and finally, in what may be the most important stat for the entire year, started all sixteen games. His 135 tackles also led the entire league as the most tackles by a defensive back. Church was the defensive anchor when linebacker Sean Lean went down with an injury making up for Lee’s lost tackles.

In addition to leading the defense, Church also took rookie safeties Jeff Heath, J.J. Wilcox, and Jakar Hamilton under his wing, guiding and advising all three players throughout the course of the season. Church played unselfishly and while the Cowboys secondary certainly struggled, I point back to poor defensive line play as exhibit A for reasons why Dallas’ secondary struggled so much.
Church was named to USA Today’s All-Joe team  for unsung heroes who have never been named to the Pro Bowl, but did yeoman’s work throughout the season. The bottom line is that Barry Church had an outstanding year and as much grief as General Manager Jerry Jones gets for making poor player personnel decisions, he needs to be praised for seeing the upside in Church and re-signing him after his knee injury.

On the aforementioned rookies, all three certainly struggled at times, but each had flashes of brilliance too. It is crucial to remember that Heath, Wilcox, and Hamilton were all rookies. They will more than likely each improve in their second year, and I believe that we have a solid starter in at least one of them. Again, they were not great last season, but they were serviceable, and don’t forget too that J.J. Wilcox was a converted wide receiver until his last year in college. One other wild card is that the Cowboys doggedly remain optimistic about fourth round pick Matt Johnson’s potential as a starter, although that story has become tired.

So, what the Cowboys have today is one very good safety in Barry Church, and three (perhaps four) up-and-coming second year safeties in Heath/Wilcox/Hamilton/Johnson. But, my primary reason why Dallas should avoid a safety with their top pick in the draft is because of the role of the safety in the Tampa 2 defensive scheme.

I’ve written previously that because Tampa Two safeties play very high, each covering half the field, they must have great speed and must cover significant amounts of real estate. Safeties have to read the play from distance and break on the ball at the right time. The luxury Rod Marinelli has with the Tampa Two is that it allows the Safeties that time to read and react.  In my opinion, the Cowboys do not need All Pro safety play in order to have a solid defensive secondary next year. What Dallas needs is a nasty front seven rotation which employs “rushmen” (Marinelli’s description) who can wreak havoc and create destruction in opposing team’s backfields.

The best NFL defenses, year in and year out, apply consistent pressure on the quarterback. The way a team beats a Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, or Drew Brees is by forcing him to throw the ball earlier than desired or into an unfavorable direction.

If the Cowboys can stick to drafting and rebuilding their defensive front, and avoid the shiny penny that may be a safety with a high draft grade falling to them in the late teens, then I believe the defense can get back on track and drive to a playoff caliber season in 2014.

Follow Matt Thornton on Twitter: @MattsCowboys
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