The Dallas Cowboys defense was nothing short of atrocious last fall. No team allowed more total yards and only six clubs surrendered more points. Despite the media’s attempt to pin all of Dallas’ shortcomings on quarterback Tony Romo, it was unmistakably a Swiss cheese defense that prevented the Cowboys from a return to the postseason.
And all of those aforementioned struggles were before the loss of star defensive end DeMarcus Ware and the suddenly dominant defensive tackle Jason Hatcher in free agency, as well as the recent loss of Sean Lee, a middle linebacker who notched 99 tackles, four interceptions and one touchdown in only 11 games last year, for the season due to the ACL tear he suffered during OTAs.
Without those three, there’s frankly no question that the Cowboys own the league’s worst defense on paper. But the emergence of the team’s young defensive talent would go a long way in rebuilding the unit and preventing a catastrophe in 2014.
One of those young talents is second-year safety J.J. Wilcox. As a 2013 third-round pick out of Georgia Southern, Wilcox entered the league incredibly raw last summer. In fact, 2012, his senior season in college, was his first year at safety after previously playing running back and receiver.
With only one year of experience at the position under his belt, at the FCS level no less, Wilcox earned a starting spot in Dallas’ secondary last September, keeping it until a knee injury sidelined him for three games halfway through the year. Perhaps that was a testament to how porous the Cowboys’ roster was (and still is) on defense, but becoming an instant starter as a rookie with so little experience was a remarkable feat by Wilcox. It proved he’s a rapidly ascending player, capable of surfacing as a building block in the secondary.
A reliable tackler with plus ball skills, Wilcox is the front-runner to start alongside Barry Church in 2014 for good reason. While Matt Johnson and Jeff Health will be given opportunities to win the job as well, it would be quite the surprise and would likely require quite the fall off by Wilcox if either opened Week 1 in the starting lineup.
“My thoughts are that he’s really got a chance, if he goes back to playing like he had been in training camp and how he was playing toward the end of the year, to really be the guy opposite [Barry Church],” Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones recently said of Wilcox to The Dallas Morning News.
Just winning the starting job won’t be good enough, though. With how leaky the Cowboys’ front seven projects to be, especially with the losses of seemingly every piece that was holding it together, near flawless safety play might be required. Taking the correct angle virtually every time, not blowing coverage assignments and making sure open-field tackles as the last line of defense will all be in order for Wilcox if he’s named the starter.
Of the safeties lobbying for the opening opposite Church, Wilcox is almost unanimously thought to have the most upside. With ideal size and athletic ability, Wilcox is capable of becoming the all-around defensive back that prevents big plays in addition to making them for his defense.
Wilcox’s performance as a rookie, interchangeably splitting time at free and strong safety, was moderately impressive. He graded out positively by Pro Football Focus’ estimate against the run, making eight defensive stops (solo tackles that lead to an offensive failure) while missing only three tackles, but negatively defending the pass, conceding 14 receptions on 20 targets for 182 yards.
But it’s not realistic to draw any concrete conclusions about Wilcox’s ability when evaluating his 2013 grades. He was a rookie. A rookie who was still new to the safety position and the defensive side of the ball. Vast improvement could be on the horizon, both in defending the run and the pass.
If Wilcox can make the significant strides another year of experience at safety and one year of experience at the pro level should yield, the Cowboys defense will likely become a slightly more respectable unit, if not a unit that fares much better on the field this fall than it currently does on paper.
Cody Strahm is an NFL Senior Writer for Rant Sports. Follow him on Twitter.