Today we’ll essentially ask, do the Dallas Cowboys need to use a premium pick to find a top safety?
The Dallas Cowboys are in need at the safety position. If your inner self just muttered, “what else is new”, you’re not alone. Dallas has long neglected the position of safety, both in free agency and in the draft. Which is exactly why they find themselves in the situation they’re in today– in the market for two starting safeties.
This 2020 season, the safety spot next to Xavier Woods has been a revolving door. No one has been able to fill the shoes of the departed Jeff Heath and only by default have the Dallas Cowboys found a little consistency with Donovan Wilson playing.
Next season the problem gets worse at safety since the disgruntled Xavier Woods is likely to leave in free agency. With no clear option developing in the ranks, the Dallas Cowboys are in the market for not one starting safety, but two.
So what does it take to find a good safety in the NFL? Do the Cowboys need to use two of their top-50 picks in the 2021 NFL Draft or can they wait a little later? Today we’ll look at the five best starting safeties over the past two seasons, and see where exactly they were found in the draft.
For the purposes of grading we’ll turn to Pro Football Focus since they unbiasedly grade film and crunch numbers for their grades. While not perfect, it gives us a good view of how players stack up.
Top-5 safeties THIS season
Jessie Bates III – Bates has elite coverage grades combined with modest run-stopping scores. He was drafted in the second round of the 2018 draft (54th overall).
Budda Baker – Cowboys fans saw him first hand when he tormented Dallas this season. Baker is one of the best all-around playmakers in the NFL and he was drafted in the second round of the 2017 draft (36th overall).
Jeff Heath – yeah, this one hurts. Heath has been great for the silver and black this season, even pulling in two opportunistic interceptions last week. He was undrafted.
Justin Simmons – Simmons is a run-stopping beast with strong coverage skills. He was drafted in 2016 in the third round (98 overall).
Ronnie Harrison – rounding out the top-5 is another third round pick with an all-around game. Harrison was drafted in 2018 93rd overall.
What can we take from all of this? Good safeties are generally young. With the exception of Heath, all were drafted within the last four years. Good safeties were drafted in the top-100. In other words, you get what you pay for. But is there something else we can take away from this?
Let’s look at the top-5 safeties from 2019…
The top safety in 2019 was none other than Jamal Adams. He was followed by other familiar names like Anthony Harris, Derwin James, Harrison Smith, and Kevin Byard. Byrd was drafted 64th overall, Smith 29th overall, James 17th overall, Harris was undrafted, and Adams was 6th overall. Like the group this year, all the players, but one, were drafted with premium picks.
Do you notice anything else about these two lists?
There are no repeat appearances
Jamal Adams is ranked 57th this season. His coverage with Seattle has been atrocious. Harrison Smith is 14th. Harris is 31st. Byard is 46th and Derwin is injured and unranked. Consistency, folks.
Studies have shown us that coverage is unstable year to year and inconsistent safety rankings are a great indicator of that. That’s why some teams like the Dallas Cowboys have been hesitant to dole out the dough for the position.
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Look at the last few guys they paid big bucks to: Ken Hamlin and Gerald Sensabaugh. Both earned huge mega deals from Dallas after standout seasons. Both backed it up with poor play that eventually led to their early departure. Even before that, Roy Williams was a disappointment after his big deal was signed (but in all fairness his decline was because the NFL went through a culture change that didn’t fit his style of play).
Those Ed Reed types of safeties don’t come around very often. Most are pretty inconsistent year to year. Jamal Adams and Earl Thomas are good examples as to why you don’t pay big money to a safety that’s getting dropped into a new system. They don’t always fit the best.
What can we take away from all of this?
- If you want a good safety you probably have to use a good draft pick. You don’t need to use a first rounder but the chances of finding a starter outside the top 100 is pretty darn slim.
- It’s also a young man’s position. Most of the top performers are playing on their first contract.
- Results vary year to year – One good year does not beget another good year. Re-sign safeties with caution.
- Beware of new systems – just because you invest big money in good veteran does not mean you’re going to get what you pay for. Just like you would be hesitant to use a possession receiver as a deep threat, or a zone running back in a man scheme, or a spread QB in a pro offense, you should be wary of a new system for a safety.
The point I’m getting at is filling the safety position is tough, and keeping it filled properly is even tougher. It takes a draft investment but should probably get the revolving door treatment (much like LB and RB). Let’s take this information and apply it in the offseason as we assess free agency and the draft because allocation of resources will be critical to turning this whole thing around.
- Published on 11/18/2020 at 12:01 PM
- Last updated at 11/18/2020 at 11:01 AM