OXNARD, Calif. – Yes, yes, I know, the anticipation has just been too much, and for that, my sincerest apologies. Amazingly, this is our ninth go-around choosing a breakout player for the season to come. That guy who is going to exceed even the highest of expectations, go from a role player, maybe a special teams performer, to the big time.
Based on my previous selections, Jeff Heath could be headed to the Pro Bowl, could win an NFC Defensive Player of the Week award or, well, let’s just say I’ve missed on a few also. Know what, though, I’m not missing on this one. This is a slam-dunk on those little Nerf hoops.
My previous eight picks were Miles Austin, Sam Hurd, Orlando Scandrick, Sean Lissemore, Jason Hatcher, Tyrone Crawford, Gavin Escobar, and last season, David Irving. Coming off the Escobar call, Irving somewhat redeemed me, although he certainly could have been more consistent. Still, few on the team have a higher ceiling.
As for Heath, if someone asked me here and now, which I guess I’m going to ask myself, Give me a defensive player on this team besides Sean Lee headed to the Pro Bowl, honestly I’d take Heath. I have never been more confident in making one of these breakout selections.
“Well, I have a lot of confidence in myself, and I have high aspirations for myself. Any player in this league who tells you they don’t want to start on offense or defense, they’re lying to you,” Heath said when informed he was my breakout pick for 2017. “I can’t start thinking about the Pro Bowl, or the season, or even Week 1, though. That’s just going to give me unneeded pressure and stress. I know it’s the cliché answer, but I’m being honest when I say it’s just about Saturday’s game against the Rams.”
Jason Garrett would be proud.
Still, I think Heath can be the playmaker the secondary has been lacking in terms of jarring hits and takeaways. Barry Church could lay the wood, as they say, but he had five interceptions in his last 61 starts with Dallas.
Make no mistake, though, it’s been a collective effort. The last time any member of the secondary had more than three picks was Terence Newman in 2011. The Cowboys as a team have 17 combined the last two seasons, just one more than the Bears and the Jaguars for fewest in the NFL.
Since he came into the league as an undrafted free agent in 2013, no Cowboys player has more than Heath’s five interceptions, including the one against Green Bay in the playoffs last season. And each of those picks has come against Pro Bowl quarterbacks. He also has a pair of forced fumbles. And that’s with just one start the last three years, although he has seen plenty of snaps in nickel and dime situations.
Also, Heath has been the team’s leading special teams tackler the last four seasons as well. He just seemingly always finds a way toward the football.
This year, though, while he’s still going to be on special teams, Heath is going to be the starting free safety, the center fielder. That’s going to allow Byron Jones to play down more, closer to the ball, in the slot, maybe take the tight end, allow him to showcase his freakish athleticism more. This, in turn, allows Heath to do what he does best: see the ball; react to the ball. He should have had two picks of Aaron Rodgers in that playoff loss, which no one does.
Part of that is prep. Heath watches as much film as anybody on the team not named Sean Lee, and he’s been watching football from a young age, as his father was a coach following his playing days at the semi-pro level.
Know what else I love about Heath? He loves the game. I’ve written this before, and I’m not sure fans entirely understand this, but not all NFL and collegiate players love the game. Some are playing because they can and it pays well. Heath is from another time and place when they were playing for beer money and a free meal.
Coming out of high school in Lake Orion, Mich., Heath had several Division I full scholarship offers to play soccer. As in pay no money and not be hit much. As for football, no one was interested, outside of Saginaw Valley State, a Division II program that offered a partial scholarship and planned on redshirting him as a freshman.
“I never was invited to any football showcase camps or anything like that in high school, but I always loved football more than soccer,” Heath says. “The only way I was taking one of those soccer scholarships was if there were absolutely no opportunities to play football, and luckily one school gave me an opportunity. However small it was at first, it was a chance.”
After a stellar four-year career at Saginaw, Heath wasn’t expecting to hear his name called in the 2013 NFL Draft, although multiple teams said they might take him in the later rounds.
“I didn’t have any expectations. I was realistic,” Heath says. “And if the chance didn’t come as an undrafted free agent, I just wanted to stay involved with football, maybe coaching, find a real job on the side.”
Heath wasn’t drafted, but immediately signed on with the Cowboys, although he was considered the longest of shots to crack the 53-man roster out of camp. Truth be told, he was hoping for a practice squad spot.
Instead, after multiple injuries, he ended up starting nine games at safety. There were a few high-profile plays that went against him, and those tend to stand out with fans and the media, but vice president of player personnel Will McClay said multiple times that season that no player was grading higher with coaches and front office types in comparison to perception.
“All of that came so fast, it’s really a blur looking back,” Heath says. “I was preparing myself to know the assignments and work as hard as I could on special teams, and then two injuries and I’m like, ‘Holy crap, I’m starting.’ I wasn’t expecting that.”
He is expecting to start this season. And he will. Jeff Heath is also going to make the Pro Bowl, he’s going to rank among the league leaders in takeaways, let’s say six interceptions and two forced fumbles, maybe 80 tackles.
“I’m feeling really comfortable in this bigger role, and it’s my fifth year in the same defensive system. That doesn’t happen in the NFL often, so that’s a huge advantage,” Heath says. “I’ve always been one of those guys that plays better the more reps I’m getting, so I’m ready.”
Follow Jeff Sullivan on Twitter, @SullyBaldHead, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.