Is Dallas Cowboy’s Safety J.J. Wilcox Good Enough?


Aug 29, 2013; Arlington, TX, USA; Houston Texans running back Dennis Johnson (28) scores a first quarter touchdown against Dallas Cowboys safety J.J. Wilcox (27) at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The short answer to this is, no. The longer answer isn’t so cut and dry because the story isn’t yet written for the young safety and things may be soon looking up…

J.J Wilcox was asked a lot of this season. The second year pro from Georgia Southern, with only 2 years of cumulative experience at the safety position, was asked to step right into the safety starting role alongside Barry Church.

The Cowboys pinned nearly all hopes on the 3rd round pick and decided to largely ignore the position in free agency and the draft this past offseason. It seemed it was Wilcox or bust for these rebuilding Dallas Cowboys.

Now that the Cowboys are finding a little more success this season than expected, the success of the young safety is even more important than originally thought. Even admitting Wilcox had some unrealistic expectations placed at his feet this 2014 season, he has disappointed in both tackling reliability and in all things coverage.

Sep 14, 2014; Nashville, TN, USA; Tennessee Titans tight end Delanie Walker (82) catches a pass against Dallas Cowboys strong safety J.J. Wilcox (27) in an attempt to score a touchdown during the second half at LP Field. Dallas won 26-10. Mandatory Credit: Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Watch college and pro film on Wilcox and it’s the same old story – he will both deliver bone-jarring hits in the backfield, and whiff entirely in the open field. Think of a less consistent Roy Williams with some coverage upside.

He has coverage upside because he understands angles (an all-important and underrated trait as a deep safety) and has the ability to play the ball in the air (two things Roy Williams couldn’t do).

The Cowboys prefer to play fellow safety, Barry Church, in the box more often than not. The idea was to develop J.J. Wilcox to serve as more of the deep safety of the two and play single high safety when called upon.

Wilcox has logged 303 snaps for the Dallas Cowboys. Only Brandon Carr has played more with 305. This is good news since the best way to learn, is to stay on the field – just ask Morris Claiborne. Wilcox is flashing big plays but needs to become a reliable tackler in the open field.

So far Wilcox leads the team with 7 missed tackles and has done poorly in both run-stopping and pass coverage.

According to Pro Football Focus, Wilcox ranks as the worst graded defender on the Cowboys defense not named Morris Claiborne. Wilcox stacks up against the rest of the league in much the same way. When comparing all NFL safeties logging at least 25% of their team’s snaps, J.J.Wilcox ranks #73 of 78. Don’t worry, two players the Cowboys passed over in recent drafts are worse: Matt Elam is #74 and Kenny Vaccaro is dead last at #78.

The big hits are neat but they only mask all the other bigger issues. Five weeks into the 2014 season and the Cowboys may be calling an audible on their plan.

Recently we’ve seen more of Wilcox in the box and more of Church playing centerfield. Church is nothing more than average in coverage, but compared to Wilcox, he’s a Pro Bowler. Wilcox was too slow to react and seemed unsure of technique. He struggled in man coverage against TEs and in deep zone. The assignment change was inevitable.

Sep 21, 2014; Seattle, WA, USA; Seattle Seahawks strong safety Kam Chancellor (31) and defensive back Marcus Burley (28) break up a pass intended for Denver Broncos wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders (10) during the fourth quarter at CenturyLink Field. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Now J.J. has a chance to thrive. It’s up to him. Watch Seattle play defense this Sunday and you’ll see a lot of what the Cowboys want from their safeties. Kam Chancellor serves as the big hitting in-the-box safety while Earl Thomas is the ballhawk on the back end.

Barry Church will never be a ballhawk but he’s by no means a liability either. Wilcox has the skill to be every bit as good as Kam Chancellor is – and maybe more. It’s a fun time in Cowboys Land as we finally get to see young players reach for their potential. If Wilcox can find and embrace his spot the Cowboys will be tough to beat.

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