Dallas Cowboys: How Xavier Woods locked down a starting safety spot

Xavier Woods #25 of the Dallas Cowboys (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)
Xavier Woods #25 of the Dallas Cowboys (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images) /

A look at how Xavier Woods carved out his place on the Dallas Cowboys defense and how he made the possible signing of a certain free agent safety not quite so imminent

Free agency is littered with safeties this year. Earl Thomas, LaMarcus Joyner, Tyrann Mathieu, Landon Collins, and Tre Boston are just a few of the names that could garner interest from the Dallas Cowboys this offseason.

At this time last season, upgrading the safety position seemed like a forgone conclusion. Xavier Woods was an unproven sixth round draft choice entering his second season. And let’s just say, Jeff Heath was less than “goat”. But the Dallas Cowboys did nothing last year and rolled with what they had. And this year, they may just do nothing in free agency again – a strategy that’s only feasible because of the development of safety Xavier Woods.

Xavier Woods, a sixth round steal in the 2017 NFL Draft, was one of the many bright spots on the Dallas Cowboys’ defense last season. Forced into the starting free safety role, Woods quickly established himself as Dallas’ top safety and arguably the most promising young member of the secondary (excluding Byron Jones because he’s 26 and in his prime)

Kris Richard and the Dallas Cowboys defense like to play single high coverage. Popularized by Pete Carroll in Seattle, the single high scheme was something Rod Marinelli started using on Day 1 of his arrival in Dallas (both Carroll and Marinelli fall under the same coaching tree of Monte Kiffin). The only problem has been Dallas has always lacked a true free safety to roam the middle of the field…until last season.

The “need” isn’t quite so urgent

Heading into last year, the Cowboys were actively pursuing a trade that would bring Earl Thomas to Dallas. That’s because he was the best in the business playing the scheme they wanted to lean on. Amid the constant speculation, Xavier Woods took the opportunity and ran with it.

For the season, Xavier Woods collected two interceptions (tied for most on the team) and nine pass breakups (third on the team). Best of all, he manned the secondary’s most difficult to man position – the single high safety.

Earl Who?

With all due respect to Earl Thomas, the Dallas Cowboys just don’t need him quite as much as they once did. With Xavier Woods’ emergence, separation in talent between him and Earl Thomas isn’t what it once was.

But don’t be mistaken – Earl Thomas is still light years ahead of Woods, and at only 29-years-old, he still has multiple years of elite play in his future. His injury history isn’t as scary as it seems either.

Note: I’ll be profiling Earl Thomas in a couple days and explain why age and injury are a little overblown. I’ll also dive into his fit vs Landon Collins’ fit so be sure to check back!

For as attractive as Earl is on this defense and for as much as he’d upgrade the secondary, the money may be better spent elsewhere. Could the Dallas Cowboys sign a pass-rushing under tackle to help man the middle of the defensive line instead? Could they use this money to re-sign their own players like DeMarcus Lawrence and Cole Beasley? Could it go to long term investments like Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Amari Cooper, and Jaylon Smith?

Yes, to all of those.

I’ll admittedly jump up and down with glee if the Dallas Cowboys are able to sign Earl Thomas next month in free agency. That’s because the impact and upgrade he’d make on this team is obvious. But the obviousness isn’t what it once was and a lot of that has to do with Xavier Woods’ play.

What Woods’ versatility means for upgrades at safety

As a rookie, Xavier Woods logged multiple snaps in man coverage over the slot and tight end. He even rated as one of Pro Football Focus’ best in inside man coverage.

Despite being only 5’11” 202lbs, Woods can be quite the thunderous hitter. He didn’t always play deep safety last season and was often used close to the line of scrimmage either in man coverage or run support. Two roles he shinned in.

More from Dallas Cowboys

As I broke down last offseason, there may only be two safety positions, but there are really three safety roles in today’s NFL:

  1. Free safety center fielder
  2. Strong safety thumper,
  3. Coverage man over tight end or slot receiver

Woods proved he can be a pretty decent center fielder. He also proved he’s damn good inside the box and in man coverage. And his tackling efficiency (only nine missed tackles) says he’s not too bad at being a thumper. Woods is the rare talent that can play any safety role.

Someone like Tre Boston is optimal in roles 1 and 3. Someone like Landon Collins is only good in in role #2 (seriously, he’s terrible in coverage – don’t let the INTs fool you). Cam Chancellor was great at 2 and 3 (people forget, he was so good in man coverage).

Xavier Woods can literally play any of the safety roles well, meaning the Dallas Cowboys don’t need a free agent safety to fit one specific profile. It also means they don’t need to break the bank here and can rely on bargain hunting and the draft to upgrade the safety corps.

Next. How much will Earl Thomas and Landon Collins demand in free agency?. dark

At the end of the day, I still consider safety to be a position of need this offseason. It’s just much less of a need than it once was and we have Xavier Woods’ stellar play to thank for it.

  • Published on 02/08/2019 at 13:00 PM
  • Last updated at 02/08/2019 at 16:18 PM