New safety becomes newest Dallas pick

During the months leading up to the NFL Draft, one of the positions almost universally viewed as a major need for the Cowboys was safety, where veteran Gerald Sensabaugh was released over the offseason.

The Cowboys finally addressed that need with the 18th pick in the third round (80th overall) with the selection of J.J. Wilcox of Georgia Southern … who has played safety for just one season.

"No doubt about it," Wilcox said when asked if he thinks he can compete for a starting spot with the Cowboys after just one year at the position. "Coming in one year as a starter at safety, it was the same question that my coaches asked me in college. ‘Will you be able to come up here and be a leader for us in the secondary, or just be stuck on offense?'

"So it's a chip on my shoulder, it's a challenge for me and I'm going to hit it full speed running, full throttle running — just like I did my first year at safety back there then going to the Senior Bowl, the NFL Combine and then the beginning of this draft. I'm very accountable, I'm dependable and very much a team player. So when you've got all three of those combined together, you have a great athlete and a great player."

What the Cowboys have gotten in Wilcox remains to be seen, but this much is known: he's a very athletic (his first three college were spent on offense, at wide receiver and slot back), has good size (he measured 6-0 and weighed 213 pounds at the Combine) and punishes offensive players with his physical tackling style.

Wilcox has good but not great speed, having clocked a 4.57 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine, but he has very good quickness and ability to change direction, as he finished fifth among all safeties at the Combine in the 20-yard shuttle (in which a player starts straddling a line, runs five yards in one direction, puts his hand down, turns and runs 10 yards in the other direction and touches the line, before eventually turning back and finishing by crossing the line where he started). He gets much of his tackling power from his thick, powerful lower body; he jumped 35 inches in the vertical jump, and 10-4 in the broad jump.

Switching positions twice speaks to Wilcox's athletic ability, but also to his work ethic and his willingness and ability to learn. Originally a receiver, he moved to slot back when Georgia Southern switched to the option and the coaches wanted to get the ball in his hands. Once he moved to defense, he proved a quick study, earning an invitation to the Senior Bowl after just one season at his new position. As a senior, he started 13 of GSU's 14 games, and initially showed a better knack for playing against the run than against the pass, piling up 88 tackles and breaking up three passes. He also returned kicks, taking back 31 for 780 yards and a touchdown. He might be inexperienced at the position, but Wilcox is productive, and for his efforts on defense, he earned first-team All-Southern Conference honors as a senior.

Wilcox likely will join the Cowboys as something of a developmental player, despite the team's relative lack of depth at the safety positions. The decision to cut Sensabaugh was largely a financial move, but it is clear the team intended to upgrade the position. In addition to drafting Wilcox, Dallas recenty signed veteran Will Allen, formerly of the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, in an effort to shore up the back end of the defense, where the only holdovers from the 2012 roster are Barry Church, Danny McCray and Matt Johnson. Wilcox has the athletic ability to play the position, and the IQ, but has such minimal experience that his initial likely will be on special teams and as a backup in the secondary.

When he gets the ball in his hands, Wilcox does know what to do with it. As a freshman, he caught 16 passes for 179 yards. As a sophomore, after switching to the slot back position in Georgia Southern's new option offense, he rushed 85 times for 484 yards (5.7 yards per carry) and six touchdowns, and caught 22 passes for 551 yards (25 yards per catch) and three more scores. As a junior in 2011, he carried the ball 52 times for 480 yards (9.2 yards per carry) for 480 rushing yards and caught seven passes for 168 yards and another score.

"It doesn't make you limited," Wilcox said about his history of moving from one position to another.

"You come in and the team can use you anywhere. I think it helps out a lot with ball skills, foot work, hips and dictation that you need to be a good safety such as good route running and understanding how the receivers run their routes and how they come out and what their stems are, and stuff like that. Playing offense for three years helped me out back at safety this year and hopefully this will transfer over to the NFL and I'll become one of the best safeties in the NFL."

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