With the NFL offseason now officially underway, it’s never too early to start focusing on the next order of business, which is free agency. The Cowboys have 20 unrestricted free agents who can sign with other teams starting on March 9, unless they strike a new deal with the Cowboys before then.
Over the next two weeks, DallasCowboys.com staff writers will break down each free agent, analyzing their strengths and weaknesses and the possibilities of a return in 2017.
Today, we’ll continue the series with safety J.J. Wilcox.
What’s The Deal: This would be an excellent opportunity to apologize to Wilcox, who joined the club as a third-round draft pick back in 2013. At the outset of his fourth season, there were plenty of people – this writer included – who argued he wasn’t worth a roster spot. Wilcox was decent enough in his first three seasons, but he had a penchant for lapses in coverage. The Cowboys re-signed Jeff Heath last offseason, and they drafted Kavon Frazier a month later. The numbers just didn’t seem to suggest Wilcox had a future here.
The Cairo, Ga., native proceeded to quiet that noise upon earning a roster spot in September. Wilcox wasn’t a starter, but he saw plenty of action in the Cowboys’ nickel and dime packages, and Barry Church’s arm injury in the middle of the season afforded him plenty of playing time.
Wilcox finished the year with 49 tackles, an interception and an impressive six pass breakups. He was a special teams staple, and he provided the same, impressive physicality that has marked his play throughout his career. Most notably, though, he was vastly improved in pass coverage. Perhaps it was the coaching of Greg Jackson or more familiarity with the position, but it was a surprisingly solid season for a guy who has often been described as a box safety.
Cowboys Highlight: Two moments immediately jump to mind.
Wilcox played arguably the greatest game of his career on Dec. 14, 2014, with the Cowboys visiting the Eagles in a pivotal NFC East matchup. The Cowboys had jumped out to a 21-0 lead but had seen it shrink to just 28-24 with just seconds remaining in the third quarter. That’s when Wilcox intercepted Mark Sanchez (then the Eagles’ starting quarterback), setting Dallas up for another touchdown that would put them in command. Minutes later, with the score now at 35-27, Wilcox forced a fumble of Eagles tight end Brent Celek – which was recovered by Kyle Wilber. The Cowboys wound up with a field goal, and eventually won the game, 38-27. The victory put them in command of the NFC East, which they eventually won just a week later.
The next moment is the epitome of J.J. Wilcox as a player. On the Giants’ first possession of the 2015 season opener, Eli Manning play faked and found Odell Beckham Jr. open over the middle of the field on a shallow post. Beckham had his hands on the ball just long enough to turn upfield – and was absolutely leveled by Wilcox, forcing an incomplete pass.
The hit broke Wilcox’s nose and left Beckham dazed. The Pro Bowl receiver would finish the game – a Cowboys win – with just 44 yards on five catches.
Argument To Keep: There’s a common theme here with regard to Cowboys free agents, and here it is again: given his resume to this point, Wilcox shouldn’t be too expensive to re-sign.
No, he’s not going to dazzle anyone. In all honesty, you’d probably prefer he not be your starter when the season opens. But he provides a solid, experienced insurance policy in the event that Barry Church leaves in free agency. He can play strong safety alongside Byron Jones at an affordable price. And his contract wouldn’t be so big that the Cowboys couldn’t still address the position in the draft.
Argument To Let Go: How much real need is there for Wilcox’s services? The Cowboys have Byron Jones, Jeff Heath and Kavon Frazier on the roster. Barry Church could still potentially return. Wilcox has started 38 career games and has been fine, but is he a gigantic upgrade from Heath? Does he have more upside than Frazier does entering his first full offseason? Rather than sign another veteran, the front office could always draft a safety to help offset the loss. Re-signing Wilcox doesn’t sound like a terrible idea – especially if Church leaves. But it hardly feels like a necessity, either.
Bryan Broaddus’ Scout’s Take: There’s no doubt that Wilcox was one of the most improved players on the squad during the 2016 season. I was on record during training camp saying that I didn’t think that he would be on my 53-man roster. I now admit that I was wrong about him and it would have been a mistake not to have included him. His best trait is his passion/love for the game. His physical toughness makes up for any struggles he might have on the mental side. He showed the ability to play with range and a burst. He was more than just a guy that had to have the ball in front of him in order to make a play. He showed more movement than he had in any of his previous seasons. His lateral quickness and body control improved as well. There were far less crazy angles and missed tackles to his game. When all these areas came together, his consistency improved, which made him a better player. That said, I could see the club moving on from him with Jeff Heath and Kavon Frazier on the roster.
Cowboys 2017 Free Agents