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Taking stock: Cowboys should finally look to get better at safety

The Dallas Cowboys are a young team with something to prove which means they still have room to grow at positions of need such as safety.
Credit: AP
Green Bay Packers running back Aaron Jones (33) tries to get past Dallas Cowboys strong safety Jeff Heath (38) during the first half of an NFL football game in Arlington, Texas, Sunday, Oct. 6, 2019. (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)

DALLAS —

Earlier this week we took a look at a glaring area of need at the defensive tackle position and the Cowboys have already responded by trading for veteran defensive lineman Michael Bennett fills a hole in the defensive line rotation at both DE and in the interior left by Tyrone Crawford after Crawford hit the injured reserve list earlier this month.

While Dallas will still need to come up with long term solutions along the interior of the defensive line, another area that should be addressed is the Cowboys’ glaring need at safety. There’s no reason to act surprised. Dallas has been putting off solving the back end of their secondary for years now and, with the team attempting to contend for something more than just an NFC East title and a second round playoff exit, it’s time for the Cowboys to commit to solving their safety woes.

The tide is turning ever so slowly as the Cowboys already have a young safety in Xavier Woods who seems to keep getting better and they need that to continue. The issue is, the team needs to get another good young safety to play opposite of him. Jeff Heath has been a solid contributor to this team as both a starter and as a core special teams player but with the limited play-making on the corners, they need more skill in the middle. 

From a team philosophy point of view, it would appear that acquiring top-tier safeties isn’t one that the Cowboys put a lot of resources or stock into. In fact, the position isn’t one that is extremely valued across the league. So while teams want to fill the safety spot with young, cheap talent, when they don’t have players who can make plays at the position, the absence becomes glaring. 

Things aren’t that dire in Dallas but kicking the can down the road on the position could come back to bite the Cowboys as they thrive for more playoff success. Everyone seems to be aware that this is another need for the team on an annual basis if for no other reason than the months and months of Earl Thomas trade rumors that permeated in Dallas all of last year. 

However, Thomas would have cost Dallas draft picks and the Cowboys don’t use top draft capital to fill the role and haven’t since using the eighth overall pick of the 2002 NFL Draft to select Roy Williams out of Oklahoma. Instead, Dallas likes to find their safeties with late day three selections and undrafted free agents. Much like any position, if you are looking for difference makers they come from the front end of the draft. 

The Cowboys are needing playmakers in all areas of the secondary given that most of their interceptions come from their two safeties. The ability for their corners to catch errant passes is worse than league average, unfortunately. However, given that the amount of big plays given up across the middle almost always come from poor safety play, some talent needs to be injected into the mix and perhaps allow the cornerbacks to take more risks. 

Even with the majority of interceptions coming from their safeties, it’s no secret that the Cowboys don’t create many turnovers overall from the safety position. In fact, since 2015, Heath is the only Cowboys safety in the top 50 in terms of picks with seven. Former Cowboys’ safety Barry Church had five during that time with Dallas. While the jury is still out on Woods, a ball hawking center fielder is just what the team needs. 

The team has a relationship with Alabama coach Nick Saban and they could be looking his way in the draft. A starter who has played the strong safety position with the versatility to play both spots for the top ranked Crimson Tide is Xavier McKinney.

Some might compare parts of his game to another former Alabama safety, Minkah Fitzpatrick who the Cowboys missed out on in a potential trade earlier in the season. 

McKinney could easily be used the same way as Jeff Heath is here. Whether that be in coverage, stopping the run, or blitzing the quarterback, a safety like McKinney would provide the influx of talent that the Cowboys crave in the secondary. McKinney can not only play coverage in the safety role but has done so from the slot for Alabama which is a tough job in the stacked SEC. 

McKinney shows great technique and anticipation while facing off against top talent. Seldom will you see him take bad angles, an area of weakness for the Dallas safeties, and McKinney closes on ball carriers with a quickness which is a habit the Cowboys look for. 

A player like McKinney would do wonders for the Cowboys, who need playmakers and the Alabama Junior has the skills and traits that would make him very attractive to the Dallas Cowboys and defensive passing game coordinator Kris Richard. Even if it’s not McKinney who ends up in Dallas, it’s time for the Cowboys to invest in the position and finally solve the weakness.

Do you think it’s time to move on from a Jeff Heath-based back end of the Cowboys defense? Share your thoughts on the safety position in Dallas with Patrick on Twitter @DraftCowboys.

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