Position of need, weakness of the Cowboys’ defense or the team’s top draft priority — Jeff Heath realizes there were persistent pleas for Dallas to upgrade the safety position this offseason. Yet, Heath is not going to let it affect his mindset as he prepares for his seventh year.
Heath was a guest on ESPN Dallas 103.3 [KESN-FM] this week and he discussed his mentality in the midst of calls for his demotion.
“I feel the same that I do every year. Regardless of what other safeties are there “So that’s going to be something that not only myself, but everyone deals with on a yearly basis.”
The Cowboys didn’t break the bank at safety this offseason. Dallas signed George Iloka and drafted Donovan Wilson in the sixth round to compete at strong safety, the position where Heath started all 16 regular season and two postseason games last year.
Xavier Woods is the likely starter at free safety. But strong safety figures to be a position that’s up for grabs with Iloka and Heath as the two leading candidates to top the depth chart.
How does Heath feel about the looming position battle? It is a situation that Heath says he’s grown accustomed to.
“That’s what makes the NFL the NFL. You always have to compete for your spot. I don’t see it as a competition with other players,” Heath said. “I see it as a competition with myself to try to be better than the year I was before. Improve on stuff I need to improve on. It’s just a more enjoyable way to play rather than trying to look over your shoulder at all times.”
The competition at safety is one of the marquee position battles for the Cowboys. A healthy contest to head the depth chart should naturally improve what was a sore spot on the Cowboys defense in 2018.
FRISCO, Texas – Dak Prescott scrambled left for a touchdown in red-zone drills at Cowboys minicamp on Thursday.
On a similar play Wednesday, he was sent out of bounds by safety Jeff Heath. Prescott shoved Heath afterward. Heath shoved back. Then the Cowboys leadership-council members moved on.
“I mean, Dak is one of my best friends on the team,” Heath said Wednesday. “That happens all the time.
“He’s a competitor. He’s got the same mentality that defenders have. I like that he reacted that way.”
Prescott, glancing left at Heath’s locker on Thursday, agreed.
“When you’re playing the same guys over and over again, and you’re getting better, they have good days, we have good days, you’re getting the best of each other, tensions raise,” Prescott said. “But he’s one of my best friends and that was just a heat-of-the-moment deal and just showing that I’m not going to take anything.”
Prescott said he and Heath talked afterward and laughed about it. Neither would expect any less fire, he added. Contact is limited during minicamp practices, which concluded Thursday. Players can’t compete one-on-one until training camp practices begin July 27.
But that level of competition is what coaches want, Jason Garrett said. Garrett lauded Prescott for balancing “great leadership skills” with being a “natural competitor.” Since becoming the Cowboys’ starter as a rookie in 2016, Prescott has claimed 14 regular-season game-winning drives. No NFL quarterback has posted more in his first three seasons. Coaches and teammates look to nurture that competitive spirit.
“Sometimes competition brings out the best in each other and guys burr up and it gets a little contentious,” Garrett said. “It gets a little edgy. All that stuff is good for your team.”
Prescott will continue to work on his mechanics the next six weeks individually and with his receivers. He and members of the receiving corps will travel for a throwing session midway through the break to fine-tune routes and stay fresh on communication. A timeline for Prescott’s looming contract negotiation, however, remains less certain. He said Thursday that “yeah, I’m involved. It’s about me. But [talks] stand where they stand.” Prescott declined to estimate when negotiations might wrap up.
“It happens when it happens,” Prescott said, wearing a Stetson hat just out of the box. “I’ve got my cowboy hat on, so I’m a Cowboy. Let’s say that.”
If nothing else, Jeff Heath is a survivor. From his entry into the NFL as an undrafted free agent to his rise to a starting safety, he has survived all challenges. Now he has to do it again. He formed one half of the Cowboys safety duo last year, but Xavier Woods is the one whose job is safe while Heath will have to fight for his playing time once again. Same as it ever was for Heath.
Heath’s main competition is going to come from George Iloka. Like Heath, he is a versatile safety but would seem to be more comfortable in the box than back as a single-high free safety. Fortunately for Dallas, Woods seems more than comfortable playing the free position, leaving Heath and Iloka to battle for the primary box safety spot. In the Cowboys scheme, though, the safeties often switch roles so they need interchangeable players. They have that, to some extent, in Woods, Heath and Iloka.
Heath is a brilliant athlete who shines on special teams, but his penchant for bad angles and reads have led to him being out of position far too often. Pro Football Focus saddled Heath with the most missed tackles against the run by a safety in the NFL during the 2018 season. That would seem problematic for a player who is in the box as often as Heath is during a season.
On the other hand, Iloka is a solid tackler. We turn to our friend John Owning for this:
This is setting up to be a pretty good camp battle. But competition is nothing new for Heath. It seems every year he’s being talked about in terms of being replaced. Heath does have a penchant for making big plays in key situations, leading to his somewhat derisive nickname as the GOAT. Crucial interceptions and his forced fumble on Derek Carr a couple of years ago are examples of how Heath comes up big at times, but it is the consistency of the every-down play that plagues Heath. The missed tackles and bad angles have led the Cowboys faithful to ask for his benching on more than one occasion.
Sixth-round pick Donovan Wilson could also find himself in this mix. He’s already become a pet cat for some. Training camp and the preseason games will be the test for Wilson to see if he can nudge his way into the competition, but a betting man would put his money on a competition between Heath and Iloka for the starting spot. One thing Heath has in his favor is the backing of the Cowboys front office. They have always believed in Heath more than the fanbase. Still, the fact they brought in Iloka and added Wilson in the draft would lead one to think there is a competition at the position.
Who ya got BTB as the starter opposite Xavier Woods?
FRISCO, Texas – If you think competition concerns Jeff Heath, think again.
The veteran safety’s career has been defined by defiance of the NFL odds, starting in 2013 as a rookie free agent out of tiny Saginaw Valley State.
“People forget how I got into this league. I was an undrafted player. I had one scholarship out of high school – one scholarship offer,” he said at the Cowboys’ annual Reliant Home Run Derby. I’ve never been handed anything in my entire life. And every year I’ve been in the NFL, I’ve had to earn everything I’ve gotten.
“So this year is no different. I kind of answer that question every year the same way, but I’m just going to keep giving you guys the same answer.”
The Cowboys have added depth at the strong safety spot this offseason. In March they signed eighth-year veteran George Iloka, a former starter in Cincinnati who can play either safety position, to a one-year deal. In April they drafted Texas A&M standout Donovan Wilson in the sixth round.
But until further notice, Heath once again projects as a starter beside third-year vet Xavier Woods. Earlier this month, Cowboys chief operating officer Stephen Jones said the team is comfortable with their safety depth.
“I just think we’ve got a good situation,” Jones said.
Indeed, Heath has been a big part of the defense’s improvement the last few years. A core special teams contributor since his rookie year, he emerged as a defensive starter in 2017.
He has led the Cowboys in interceptions (7) the past four seasons, including one against Aaron Rodgers in the 2016 divisional-round playoff loss to Green Bay. He has made winning plays in critical moments, like the forced touchback against Raiders quarterback Derek Carr that kept the Cowboys’ playoff hopes alive two years ago.
The Cowboys value Heath’s toughness and experience. But those outside questions about his role? He’ll continue to use them as fuel.
“When you’re an undrafted player you have a chip on your shoulder no matter what. And if you lose that chip, that’s when you start messing up,” he said. “I’m comfortable in that situation. I understand how this business is. They’re always looking to replace you. So I’m really just going to continue doing what I’ve been doing.”