Cowboys: Redefining the roles of safety in the NFL

ARLINGTON, TX - NOVEMBER 23: Tyrell Williams
ARLINGTON, TX - NOVEMBER 23: Tyrell Williams /

NFL safeties are not as interchangeable as they once were, and on the Dallas Cowboys, different safeties play vastly different roles. It’s time to redefine the roles of safety…

Times are changing in the NFL and filling the role of safety has never been harder. The Cowboys, like majority of the NFL, find themselves in the market for one nearly every season. And this year is certainly no different.

But before we start finding solutions, we need to first identify the problems. Today we take a look at the demands of the safety position on the Cowboys. It’s no longer the animal it once was and with the exception of franchise quarterback, it may be the most difficult position to fill with just one do-it-all player. In other words, players like Earl Thomas and Eric Berry don’t grow on trees.

In-the-box thumper

Traditionally thought of as the strong safety, this player is tasked with lining up close to the line of scrimmage and often act as a defacto linebacker. In the single high scheme Kris Richard employs, this player has gap responsibility in the Cowboys 1-gap run-stopping game as well. If he can’t be trusted to fill his gap, he can’t be trusted to play.

For years, Barry Church handled this role, but last season the Cowboys had trouble filling his shoes. Eventually, Kavon Frazier took the role and played it well, but Kavon isn’t as versatile in coverage as Church, and was a liability when a passing play unfolded and he was forced into coverage.

Current Cowboys Example: Kavon Frazier

In-the-box coverage

The other in-the-box role is to be a coverage chess piece, matching up against receiving tight ends and even slot receivers. Byron Jones was strong in this role but didn’t pack the “thump” of Frazier when asked to play in run support. Ideally, the Cowboys’ in-the-box safety would do well in both aspects – much like Kam Chancellor has in Seattle. But since those skills are hard to find, the Cowboys have been picking their poison knowing full-well, both choices come with obvious weaknesses.

Current example: Byron Jones and Xavier Woods

*Note: Even though Byron Jones is moving to cornerback, he’s still strong in this role and could be used in it again situationally (particularly against dominant tight ends).

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Perhaps the hardest position to fill on this Cowboys defense is that of the free safety centerfielder. The deep safety in single high coverage has a ton of area to cover and no time for hesitation. He must be prepared, lightening quick, and precise in his execution. Being the last line of defense, he must also be able to tackle in open space.

This is a rare skillset seen in very few players. Earl Thomas, Eric Barry, and Eric Weddle have been the cream of the crop in recent years – and perhaps the only good examples of a centerfielder without weaknesses.

Current Cowboys example: Jeff Heath

Complete Safety

Obviously finding a complete safety is the optimal solution – Someone who can play deep zone as a centerfielder, man coverage in the slot, and a reliable hitter against the run. The only problem is that combination of skills is about as elusive as Jude Law’s hairline.

Next: How Kris Richard will impact the Cowboys defense

While we all agree the Cowboys need an upgrade at safety this season, we can’t seem to agree what type of safety they need. Next up we’ll look at what type of safety Dallas needs and whether or not that player is available.