Breakout: Cowboys safety Jayron Kearse saw his potential even when no one else did

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According to some, Jayron Kearse wasn’t supposed to be here. The veteran safety was named by ESPN as the Cowboys player most on the bubble going in to training camp back in July.

But Kearse made the final roster, and then promptly logged double-digit tackles in the season opener against Tampa Bay. After Darian Thompson sustained a hamstring injury on the final play of that Week 1 game and Donovan Wilson hurt his groin, Kearse was suddenly thrust into a major role moving forward. He was on the field for 97% of the defensive snaps against the Chargers, and then saw 93% of the unit’s snaps versus Philadelphia.

He’s quickly turned into a force on the new-look Cowboys defense; his special teams usage has plummeted as his reps with the defense have skyrocketed. And his coaches have taken notice of the impact he’s made.

“I didn’t know he was as versatile as he is,” said defensive coordinator Dan Quinn this week. “We’ve played him at nickel, we’ve played him at safety, he plays down near the box. Some guys can handle more, and you have to give them a little bit more: ‘Yep, I got that.’ [Then you give them] A little bit more. And the thing about JK is he’s answered when we’ve given him more. And so you don’t want to necessarily throw everything onto somebody at one time, but when a player shows they’re capable of more than one job, and he has a unique skill set, then he’s going to take advantage of that.”

The 27-year-old Clemson product isn’t just taking advantage of his new opportunity in a Dallas uniform. He’s also loving every minute of it.

“Yeah, I’m enjoying it a lot,” Kearse told reporters. “It gives our defense a unique something that we can show the offense that they don’t see from everybody. It’s actually pretty similar to the same way I was used in Minnesota. Just now, I’m having more opportunities. I’m definitely loving it and just trying to keep it going.”

After being drafted by the Vikings in the seventh round of 2016, Kearse made just five starts in four seasons wearing the purple and gold. By 2020, he was with Detroit; on the Lions active roster for 11 games, he was in on 59 tackles and made one interception. He spent a month of the postseason in Baltimore, but never left the practice squad.

His stat line now as a Cowboy: 20 tackles and a should’ve-been pick against Los Angeles that was negated by penalty. That’s in just three outings.

“I thought he was all over the field,” head coach Mike McCarthy commented after the Week 2 win. “I loved his play style, his intensity, his production. He had the interception- in my view, that was a tough call to see go against him… The utilization of him in matchups has been a real asset for us. Just love the way he played both in the run and the pass.”

Having a role in different defensive packages- even if it’s been out of necessity- has only created more chances for the nephew of longtime Titans star Jevon Kearse.

“I’m having more opportunities,” Kearse explained, “and that varies week to week based on who we’re going against. But it’s been a unique situation around here, just giving us the ability to do a lot of different things.”

Quinn says he saw some of that ability from afar before the team signed him, but other facets of Kearse’s game have come as a pleasant surprise.

“I’ve always had a sense about JK and his ability to guard tight ends and be down and be physical,” Quinn confirmed. “But I would say I didn’t have tons of experience of him blitzing. I think that’s one part of his game that I recognized, to say he’s an excellent blitzer as well.”

Versatility has become the watchword when it comes to the Dallas defense. Thanks to injuries and COVID-19 absences, several players have had to do some moonlighting in other jobs. Micah Parsons, it turns out, isn’t the only Cowboys defender showing out in new spots.

But while the first-round rookie’s place on the roster has been locked in since April, a guy like Kearse demonstrating newfound value in multiple capacities could well be the thing keeps him around.

“I was proud of some of the guys who went into new roles at defensive tackle, defensive end, and at linebacker and safety,” Quinn said. “There is a good thing when you have prove-it moments as a player and you get to step into a role that shows not only are you ready to do it, but you can thrive. I think that’s a big deal. I thought the coaches did a good job of making sure- I’ve always felt this way of players- let’s not talk about what they can’t do, but about what they can do. Find roles for people who have unique stuff. That’s what’s fun about this defense: as we’re going, finding guys and putting them in different spots. You saw it with Micah the last couple of weeks playing a leading role at defensive end. I saw it with JK.”

And now, even when Thompson’s hamstring allows him to come off the practice squad’s injured reserve and Wilson’s groin heals, Kearse is going to be hard to put back on the sideline.

Nobody saw it coming back in July. Except Kearse.

“Yeah, before I even signed here, I knew what I was brought here for and what my role was going to be. It’s just we had a vision. I guess everybody else is just seeing the vision now. But we had a plan from Day One.”

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