Cowboys 'red flag': Safety

May, 13, 2013
5/13/13
6:35
PM ET
Football Outsiders is doing a series of posts called "Red Flags," which take a look at the biggest remaining issue facing each team with the draft behind us and minicamps getting underway. Today's post is on the NFC East teams Insider, and I'm breaking it up into four smaller posts to examine the red flags team-by-team. This one's on the Dallas Cowboys, whose red flag is the safety position:

The Cowboys have brought in Monte Kiffin as defensive coordinator to run his patented Tampa 2 defense, a scheme that requires safeties who can hold up in coverage. In light of those facts, not spending an early pick on a safety was a bit of a head-scratcher. The safety Dallas eventually drafted, Georgia Southern's J.J. Wilcox, is a small-school project with minimal experience at the position. As it stands, Barry Church and Matt Johnson will open the season as arguably the league's most undistinguished safety pairing.

I think "undistinguished" is a fair adjective for the Church/Johnson pairing. The Cowboys are undeniably high on both players, but neither has proven anything at the NFL level. Johnson hasn't even played a game since the Cowboys picked him in the fourth round of the 2012 draft, and Church was a stellar offseason performer last year before getting hurt in the third game and missing the rest of the season. The Cowboys brought in veteran Will Allen for depth, and drafted Wilcox for the future, but their success at safety this year is going to come down to whether they're right about Church and Johnson.

Johnson is one of the major wild cards on the Dallas roster. The coaches talk a lot about the playmaking ability he demonstrated in college, and they believe that will translate to the pros. But as Sean McCormick points out in this piece, the safeties in a Kiffin defense have to be able to cover, and there's a difference between being able to make plays on the ball and being able to consistently hold up in coverage.

As we discussed earlier Monday in the Redskins "red flags" post, some coaching staffs believe it's easier to teach consistent coverage discipline than it is to teach the kinds of instincts the Cowboys say they liked when they watched Johnson's college tape. Perhaps he can be the kind of instinctive, playmaking star who helps transform an entire defense -- an all-time steal in the latter half of the draft. But before he or the Cowboys can dream of that kind of success, Johnson has to first show he's healthy and then that he can handle the pace and physicality of the NFL game. He's a long way from being someone on whom the Cowboys know they can count.

Dan Graziano

ESPN New York Giants reporter

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