Cowboys 1st + 10: Defending Jeff Heath, Scooping On The NFL Draft

In this edition of First and 10 I take a look at why Jeff Heath's contract is part of a trend to remain a quality special-teams unit. Plus, who's next for the Ring of Honor? Oh, and Cowboys NFL Draft scoop, of course!

Each Sunday I provide 10 quick hits on the Dallas Cowboys. I find myself mounting a defensive of safety Jeff Heath's contract, and pondering the Cowboys Ring of Honor, in this edition of First and 10.

1. Let's talk about Jeff Heath for a minute. The backup safety signed a four-year contract earlier this week (the exact details are still proving a bit elusive at the moment). As one would expect, Cowboys fans had opinions on the matter and some were questioning the logic of signing a guy like Heath to a long-term deal. We have no clue of the financial terms right now, but I suspect that part of the logic was to mitigate some of the cap hit the Cowboys would have taken from Heath's $1.6 million restricted free-agent tender for 2016.

But there is a reason to keep Heath around a while, assuming the money is reasonable, and that's special teams. You may scoff at the notion of keeping a player around whose primary value is wrapped up in working punts and kickoffs, but I don't. In fact, Heath is part of a trend within the Cowboys the past month.

           

They're amassing a special-teams coverage army.

In 2014 Heath was tied for fourth in special teams tackles for Dallas, and James Hanna was second, according to the Dallas Cowboys media guide. Last year Kyle Wilber led the Cowboys in special teams tackles with nine, according to teamrankings.com.

All three players were signed to new contracts this offseason, with Heath and Hanna getting four years and Wilber getting two years.

All three players fit the model of versatile players that head coach Jason Garrett always preaches. Heath can spot start at safety and play in some nickel and dime coverages. Hanna has emerged as the Cowboys' go-to blocking tight end in two-tight end sets and can catch the football. Wilber was a player I thought would never stick after the team moved to the 4-3. But he's emerged as important depth that can play on the strong side or inside when needed.

Are any of these players someone you want to see start 16 games each season? Probably not. But their value isn't wrapped up in their position on the depth chart. It's wrapped up in what they can do in kickoff and punt coverage, and even though those opportunities are thinning out, thanks to the NFL's rules assault on the kickoff, there is value in keeping Heath, Hanna and Wilber if they can help you in multiple areas.

Just ask Bill Bates and Steve Tasker.

These two guys put special-teams play on the map in the 1980s, to the point where they left the NFL no choice but to add the position to the Pro Bowl roster. Bates made the Cowboys as an undrafted free agent in 1983. Even though he logged three years as a starter at safety, he spent the majority of his long career as a backup and special teams star, earning one Pro Bowl nod, one All-Pro nod and the 1987 Special Teams Player of the Year Award.

Tasker took it to another level. The wide receiver caught just 51 passes in his 12-year career, but by the time the ninth-rounder retired he had seven Pro Bowl nods, seven All-Pro nods and a Special Teams Player of the Year award in 1995.

Bates and Tasker are proof that finding and holding onto players like them, who provide value in multiple places on the field, is worth the money.

The Cowboys believe so. That's why Heath, Hanna and Wilber will be around a while, and that's why there's a good chance that the Cowboys will be one of the better coverage units in the NFL in 2016.

2. The Cowboys' offseason program begins Monday. The workouts are optional, but the Cowboys have a good record of getting their players to show up at Valley Ranch for strength, conditioning and rehab work. So no field work until May.

Of course that won't prevent Tony Romo from tossing the ball around somewhere. In fact, he's been throwing fully for two weeks since Mumford surgery. That's been in the news this week. But, since you read CowboysHQ.com, you knew that more than a week ago, right? Right? You didn't? Hmmm… Now might be a good time to subscribe, then. You'll get everything you need to keep up-to-date on the Dallas Cowboys and the rest of the NFL with a premium subscription.

3. The more I look at the Dallas Cowboys' 2016 schedule the more I find it … manageable. When you know the opponents are and where the games are going to be played, the trick in the NFL is how the games are arranged. The Cowboys don't have to play back-to-back road games until November. The NFL was kind enough to give the Cowboys a home game before the annual Thanksgiving contest. December looks to feature the two true shots at cold weather — Dec. 11 at night in New York against the Giants and Jan. 1 in the afternoon in Philadelphia. Finally, the Cowboys' two NFC fourth-place matchups come in December and at home against Tampa Bay and Detroit.

It's manageable. It's not a difficult division to win. I could see this group doing good things with that schedule.

Cami Griffin spent some time with the schedule and filed this story earlier this week. (And may have done so faster than any reporter in the country!)

4. I'd like to thank the Los Angeles Rams for completing their trade in time for me to take it into account for my First-Round Mock Draft 4.0 on Friday. The only thing it really changed, though, was the first pick. Check out the new version at Cowboyshq.com.

Food for thought. What if Laremy Tunsil does fall to No. 4 overall? If you're the Cowboys do you take the player everyone says is No. 1 on the overall board, take the best defensive player on the board or try and parlay that bounty into a trade and an extra pick? Discuss. In fact, discuss it on the CowboysHQ Boards today.

5. This week CowboysCast is all about draft prep. Bobby Belt sits with our Mike Fisher and RJ Ochoa of Inside the Star to talk about the Cowboys' draft tendencies the past few years and how that might inform what player the Cowboys take at No. 4 this year. It's enlightening stuff and worth a listen.   

               

Check out CowboysCast today and download the Cowboys Sports Radio app today for IOS and Google. That way you can listen to CowboysCast whenever you want.

6. Our Mark Lane put on a suit and cornered Jerry Jones at a party. Well, maybe it wasn't a suit. But while at the Nancy Lieberman Dream Gala earlier this week Lane caught up with the Cowboys owner and peppered him with questions a full two weeks before the draft (Jones' official, far-ranging pre-draft Q&A is coming soon, which is always chock full of grammatical Jerry goodness. Trust me.).

Pay attention to Jerry's words on the offensive line and the quarterback positions in this draft. Interesting stuff.

false7. Tony Romo will finally get his fantasy football party. The National Fantasy Football Convention (NFFC) is set for July 15-17 in Pasadena, Calif. After reading about what the event will contain — and Mark Lane, breaking the story along with Fish on 105.3 The Fan, filed this report earlier this week — I have a hard time understanding what the NFL's objections were last year, even WITH the event being held in Las Vegas. I mean, they're not even drafting teams, from what I can tell. The event will even honor veterans with a "keys for life" celebration in which wounded vets will be awarded mortgage-free homes.

Yeah, the NFL pretty much blew this one by nixing it last year. 

8. This week's Great Moments in Headline Porn? "Tom Arnold offers to mentor Johnny Manziel … 'Let's have lunch'" from tmzsports.com. Yep that's where we're at. Roseanne's ex is trying to save Johnny Football.

9. Jason Hatcher retires. The former Cowboys defensive tackle leaves the game with 147 games, 34.5 sacks, 10 seasons and one Pro Bowl nod. His consistency and steadiness as a player was always a bit underappreciated, in my opinion.

10. For some reason I started thinking about the next Cowboys player to enter the Ring of Honor. And it actually turned into an interesting question. I gave the Cowboys' 50th anniversary team a look and found two players that jumped out at me right away — Jay Novacek and Deion Sanders. But do you penalize either for only playing for the Cowboys for five or six years?

But there are other good choices. Harvey Martin isn't in the Ring, and most of the Cowboys' Super Bowl MVPs are (sorry Larry Brown). Martin isn't a Pro Football Hall of Famer, but anyone who saw those Doomsday defenses knows his value. Unofficially he had 114 sacks. Same goes for Ed "Too Tall" Jones, who unofficially had 106 sacks in his career. Both have been devalued in pro football history because they played at a time when the sack wasn't an official statistic. But they were every bit as impactful in their time as Charles Haley was in his (who, by the way, is in the Ring after spending just five years with the Cowboys).

Besides those two, here's one more name to consider — Ralph Neely. The "other" tackle opposite Rayfield Wright was a four-time All-Pro, a two-time Super Bowl champion and a member of the NFL's All-Decade team in the 1960s. His accomplishments are similar to Wright's (though Wright admittedly has more Pro Bowl and All-Pro nods combined than Neely). But Wright is in both the Ring and the Pro Football Hall of Fame and Neely is not. That seems odd, if not wrong, to me.

           

Feel free to discuss. To me, Martin, Jones and Neely are all worthy of the honor. But if Jones doesn't think so, well, frankly, it could be a while before there's another Ring of Honor Ceremony at AT&T Stadium.

Want to talk more about the Cowboys? Hit the CowboysHQ.com Boards or hit Postins up on Twitter at @PostinsPostcard and Mike Fisher at @FishSports.


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