Cowboys rewarded for cautious behavior as NFL safety market crumbles

The Cowboys have been known to approach the safety position with a degree of trepidation. The team that once used a top-10 pick on a hard-hitting safety named Roy Williams, is now the team that prefers to disperse a smaller investment across multiple players. This polyamorous approach spreads the investment and the risk, and has brought on a fair share of criticism to the team in the process.

But given the state of the safety position in the league today, the Cowboys may actually be ahead of the curve. Across the NFL teams are parting ways with their high-priced safeties.

Names like Justin Simmons, Kevin Byard and Jamal Adams have all been released this offseason. Over $100 million has been shed already, per Nick Korte from Over the Cap. It marks the biggest positional purge this season by a hefty margin and illustrates the changing attitudes and volatile nature of the safety position today.

Just last year the Cowboys re-signed their homegrown safety Donovan Wilson to a three-year, $21 million deal. Modest in comparison to other megadeals across the league, the Cowboys were able to retain a top playmaker without committing too far into the future.

After Wilson, Dallas signed former Colts first-round pick Malik Hooker to an extension. He inked a similarly cap friendly three-year, $21 million deal last August. Their rehab-and-revive plan paid off with Hooker locking down the centerfielder job. They didn’t need a draft pick or big money to make it happen. They just needed patience.

Perhaps the best illustration of all was with the safety before both of them, Jayron Kearse. Kearse, an NFL journeyman, was signed as a depth piece in 2021. He proved to be an invaluable leader almost immediately, carving out an important role as Dan Quinn’s box safety and demanding a new deal in the process. Instead of falling into the same trap so many other teams have fallen into, Dallas handled Kearse conservatively. Signing him to a two-year, $10 million deal, they paid the player modestly without committing too far into the future.

By most accounts Kearse regressed in 2023, struggling in many of the same areas he thrived only two years prior. His regression could have been disastrous to Dallas if he was signed to a long-term deal. But the Cowboys only locked him in for two seasons, reducing the negative impact and giving them a clean out in 2024.

The volatility of Kearse’s play from season to season is not uncommon for the safety position. Players routinely go from Pro Bowlers to roster cuts overnight. For the safety position, the lesser the commitment is often the better commitment. Scheme changes only add to the unstable nature of the position. As coaches change, so change the scheme demands and overall fit.

It’s important to point out it’s not just the volatile performers getting the pink slip these days, but consistent top performing safeties as well. With the NFL playing more split safety schemes there’s less reliance on a single player to hold down the fort and more of a group dynamic in play. With less demanding schemes in play, lower-skilled players can adequately fill many of the needs.

Based on recent moves, the Cowboys appear to value safety play but commit resources cautiously. Since 2016, they’ve only drafted one safety (Israel Mukuamu, sixth round, 2021) and when they sign safeties, they typically keep the commitment at two to three seasons.

Dallas’ approach to the safety position allows them to stay nimble and make adjustments as needed. It’s a blueprint the rest of the NFL seems to be copying and a sign of the times in the secondary.

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Story originally appeared on Cowboys Wire