Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones held court with some season ticket holders this week and spoke on a variety of topics, from Tim Tebow (no thanks) to the recent NFL draft. Of the highlights found here on ESPNDallas.com, I was most interested in what Jones had to say about the Cowboys' defense in this coming season. First, on the safety position:
"I think we’re in good shape at safety." Jones later added, "I don’t know when I’ve ever seen a player impress our staff without having played in a ballgame any more than Matt Johnson."
What an absolutely fascinating compliment. I can't help but wonder who the previous titleholder was in the category of Most Impressive Player Who Hasn't Played In A Ballgame, and how the night security shift at the NorthPark Center mall is going for him.
In all seriousness, I believe what the Cowboys are saying about how much they like Johnson's potential and ability. But the text of Jones' comment underlines the problem, which is that they haven't yet seen him play in a game and therefore can't possibly know what he brings as a starting safety. They can guess and speculate and hope and imagine, but they can't know, and by definition that makes his spot a question mark. Johnson was a fourth-round draft pick in 2012, and something of a surprise pick at that, so if he does emerge in 2013 as a quality starter at the position, that would be a pretty good story. It would be huge for the Cowboys, but don't be surprised if veteran Will Allen or rookie J.J. Wilcox gets into the mix there.
Later, there was this about the defense in general, and the switch to a 4-3 alignment of the front seven under new coordinator Monte Kiffin:
The defense should be the strength of our team arguably, the defensive line can be the strength of the team." Later Jones said, "Our defense will fit Monte Kiffin's scheme. It actually will be a simpler defense for this group to get. The adjustment from where we were in the 3-4 to the 4-3 will not be as significant as it might appear."
With this I agree. I think the Cowboys' front-seven personnel is well suited for this transition. I think it'll maximize the playmaking abilities of players like Sean Lee, Bruce Carter, Jay Ratliff and Jason Hatcher. I think DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer will do fine as 4-3 defensive ends. The questions are about depth, especially on the line with Ratliff's health a perpetual question now, and even Ware's becoming an issue in recent years. But the Cowboys think some of their younger players, like Tyrone Crawford and Kyle Wilber, are well suited to 4-3 lineman roles and can serve as quality backups. Ideally, they won't have to find out.