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Cowboys safeties underachieved, but should rebound in 2024

The Cowboys went into the 2023 season with what appeared to be their best safety group in over a decade. Donovan Wilson, Malik Hooker and Jayron Kease formed a versatile and proven trio in Dallas the season prior. It seemed after years of neglect the Cowboys finally had assets on the backend and not liabilities.

But like what has happened many times before in Dallas, performance at the position proved unstable, and the Cowboys trio fell short of their expectations. It’s something the franchise has seen before and likely a big reason why they’ve made such a half-hearted effort in filling it over the years.

In the past they saw players like Ken Hamlin and Gerald Sensabaugh follow up good years with bad years. Both played well enough to earn new contracts in Dallas (Hamlin even went to the Pro Bowl in 2007) and both, soon after, fell flat. It cultivated a distrust in the position and as a result cursed it to a revolving door of personnel.

Kearse, a free agent in March, is not expected to be back with the club in 2024. 2023 was his worst season in Dallas as he struggled in both phases of the game, frequently committing back-breaking penalties along the way. It was the polar opposite of his 2021 season when he established himself as one of Dan Quinn’s most versatile weapons on the defense.

Wilson was already known as a high variance player. He takes big swings and often gets big-swing results. He has good games and bad games but last season there appeared to be a little more bad than good.

Hooker was the toughest evaluation. As the Cowboys’ primary free safety, Hooker plays on the backend most of the day. His evaluation requires All-22 copy since he’s not even on the screen in a typical broadcast.

Hooker’s value was as a deterrent. The All-22 showed he was often in good position to make passers look elsewhere and the numbers back it up. In 16 games, he was only targeted 23 times. That’s the lowest number of targets since he joined the Cowboys. The completion percentage against was just 56.5% which is also his lowest since joining Dallas.

Yet Hooker’s yards/target and passer rating allowed, both went up and became his worst since joining the Cowboys.  Hooker was the only Dallas safety to grade in PFF’s top-50, but he wasn’t as impactful as he’d been the season before.

This high variance play isn’t unique to the Cowboys. Since defensive coordinators change, coverage schemes change. And since coverages change, players change. It’s not uncommon to see a one-time Pro Bowl safety bounce around the league year after year. The position itself is volatile and the demands are ever-changing.

Trends

Mandatory Credit: Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL is a league of trends. Coverages bounce from scheme to scheme almost overnight. A safety who thrives in one brand of coverage may not be fluent in another brand. Not all safeties are cut out for these changes in job responsibilities. In other words, Darren Woodsons don’t grow on trees.

The NFL is currently in a 2-high trend. While the Cowboys may be locked into Cover 1 under Quinn, other teams are adopting a style in the mold of Vic Fangio. This movement has sparked a rebuttal in offensive personnel that fields more 12 groupings (two TEs). Dallas saw this firsthand in 2023 and struggled to match personnel.

Without viable LBs on the roster, Dallas had to lean on the safeties far too often. 2-high with more players in coverage brings bigger offensive personnel packages to combat it. Bigger offensive personnel packages should be met with more linebackers and less safeties, but since DAL can’t, their safety-heavy defense gets victimized.  It’s almost understandable this overworked trio faded in 2023.

Bounce-back in 2024

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Given the up-and-down nature of the position it’s reasonable to think Wilson and Hooker will bounce back in 2024. A few highlights against Hooker likely skewed public perception since the All-22 appears to show solid consistency.

Wilson, being naturally volatile, should bounce back in 2024 or the same reason he appeared to decline in 2023. Things tend to even out as they regress to the mean.

If Quinn remains at the helm in 2024 then the demands are pretty clear. The Cowboys will be a predominant single-high coverage defense with Hooker manning center field. Wilson will be the box guy who plays both phases and rushes the passer.

If the Cowboys coverage switches, then there’s no telling what the demands will be or how these two will fit. Wilson may not be the ideal Cover-2 safety given his nature. Consistency in scheme is key with this duo’s ability to bounce back in 2024.

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Big investments remain risky

Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The long-term takeaway in this is how much risk one assumes by making long-term investments. Big multiyear deals have to be seen as high-risk even if the coordinator is expected to stay in place. Trends change on both sides of the ball making performance at the position unstable.

The Cowboys experienced a down season from their safeties in 2023 but there’s reason to believe they’ll rebound. Adding LBs to the roster will allow the safeties to get off the field against 12 and 21 personnel groups. That alone should be huge for the Dallas defense.

Safety play is unstable year-to-year so the Cowboys recent strategy of diversifying their investments in the position and re-signing them to relatively short-term deals is proving to be a good one.

Story originally appeared on Cowboys Wire