- Dan Graziano, ESPN Staff Writer
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Cazzi's question was rooted in the work my friends over at ESPNDallas.com have been doing with ridiculously early roster projections. Todd Archer is predicting that the Cowboys carry only four safeties, and that free-agent signee Brodney Pool is not one of them. Tim MacMahon projected five safeties on the final roster, though he did issue a disclaimer about Pool, saying he'd probably have to win a starting spot in order to make the team:
If Pool gets beat out, he might never play a game for the Cowboys. It’d be tough to swallow paying a seven-figure salary to a backup safety.
Pool could theoretically lose the starting strong safety spot to Barry Church or rookie Matt Johnson, who was the No. 135 pick in this year's draft in spite of being ranked as the No. 72 draft-eligible safety by our Scouts, Inc. scouting service. (As someone pointed out to me on Twitter at the time, this would have made him an incredible steal in a safety-only draft.)
Remember, this is the Abram Elam spot, for which the team signed Elam last year in part to help the rest of the defensive players learn Rob Ryan's defense. Elam had played for Ryan in Cleveland, as Pool did, and served a valuable leadership role in training camp and early in the season before his play tailed off in the second half. With the defense entering its second season under Ryan, and having a full offseason to learn and practice it this time, it's not quite as important to have someone with prior Ryan experience on the field as it may have been last August and September. So Pool's experience doesn't assure him of anything.
Church is a guy they obviously know, and Johnson is not. They liked his playmaking ability at Eastern Washington, and if he brings the same kind of game to the pros, he projects as a hard hitter with a nose for the ball. And yeah, they could obviously use that. Tim wrote last week that we shouldn't count Johnson out of the mix as a potential starter this year, and I always listen to Tim.
The problem with these sorts of projections, though, is that safety is an impossible position to analyze at this point. I was talking to Redskins coach Mike Shanahan last week about his safeties (name-dropper alert!), and at one point he said, "Who knows with safeties until you put pads on them and see them play?" And he's right. There's no hitting in these minicamps, and until you see how hard a safety hits somebody, it's pretty tough to evaluate him. You might be able to tell whether he's a decent cover guy, or whether he can make plays on the ball, but even that's no sure thing. The nature of the position naturally makes it likely that they'll play differently in a no-pads, no-contact minicamp than they might in a game.
So I'd say we're a long way off from knowing whether Pool is good enough to start for the Cowboys, or whether Johnson can make an impact this year. That the young man will get a chance at all says a lot about Dallas' need for someone to take charge at that position. The sleeper pick out of Eastern Washington would seem an unlikely candidate to do so, but stranger things have happened. And you never know with safeties.