Of the Cowboys' projected 22 starters for Week 1, you can find several All-Pros, first-round picks, and at least four players included on the NFL's list for most jerseys sold. You can find guys who are adored and feared throughout the land and the focal point of why the Cowboys will be great this year.
You will also find Jeff Heath.
Heath, 26, is entering his fifth year with the Cowboys and appears to be the Cowboys' main plan to start alongside Byron Jones at safety (primarily free safety) this season. This after playing the fourth most snaps of any safeties last year, behind Jones, Barry Church, and even J.J. Wilcox. In fact, Wilcox played 2,864 snaps on this defense over his four years before signing with Tampa Bay this spring (Church signed with Jacksonville), while Heath was given the nod on 1,171 snaps in those same four years. This seems to be the biggest knock against Heath, although they are definitely different types of players who can do different things well -- if the Cowboys repeatedly preferred Wilcox over Heath, and most of think that Wilcox had too many issues to be a starter in the NFL (good luck, Tampa), then what could Heath realistically offer?
In other words, when season projections come out this summer and your friend at work who can't stand the Cowboys starts looking for potential weak spots in the Dallas armor, many of them have cited that this team has no players in the secondary and "has a bunch of rookies and somehow are planning on starting Jeff Heath back there, too!"
So, that is our exercise today. I wanted to sort through the tape we do have of Jeff Heath and ask the question, "are the Cowboys really starting him in center field this year?" They had the chance to do something about their issues there and stood pat as if they are confident in the young man from Saginaw Valley State who wasn't invited to the combine. The short answer to the question above is, yes, they are. But, let's dive a little deeper.
Heath has been one of the core special teams guys on this squad since he arrived and made the team in 2013. While playing 18 defensive snaps a game over the course of his career isn't very impressive, he has played 20 special teams snaps per game during that same stretch (which, essentially, is about all of them besides field goal and extra point teams). As I have said a hundred times in this space, for any NFL player who is not a Top 100 draft pick or a QB, your way onto the team is to be a special teams standout first. If you can handle that responsibility, the coaching staff will start to believe in you and give you more. For most players coming from college football, they often aren't forced to run special teams because they are star players at their school and then are ill-equipped to jump right in at the NFL level. But, you can tell those who are up for it. They excel and the team depends upon them.
So, on the NFL conveyor belt, by year three or four, if you are a special teams pillar, you will need a veteran contract soon or they replace you in the draft. In most cases for those who don't get on the field in any other way, that means a number of one-year deals on a "play for pay" basis. So, when we saw the Cowboys signed him to a four-year contract in the spring of 2016 (4 years, $7.67 million), we should have known they thought he had the chance to get in the mix on their defense if things went right for him.
When the Cowboys played nickel (or dime) last year, which happened over 807 snaps of the 1,014 plays last year, they did so with three safeties or more on many occasions. They also played with four safeties in many spots. They never played with four corners, though. That was a function of personnel issues that may have been addressed in the offseason, but the overriding point is that Heath and Jones are not the only plans. They have many uses to get the best five or six DBs on the field, and they love their guys who can do both. I invite you to read this summary from fellow Cowboys writer, KD Drummond, about the way they did things last season that I used data from. He cites properly that like Byron Jones before him, Chidobe Awuzie is thought of as a guy who can play corner or safety. And both Kevon Frazier and Xavier Woods were drafted as potential "center field" types, so we should not assume Heath has a really long leash on his spot, but they realize there are plenty of snaps to fill.
If you are playing 80 percent of your snaps in nickel, and of those, almost one-third are played in dime (six defensive backs), then we have to stop with our traditional thinking that our favorite football team needs two corners and two safeties to play. That time is gone, grandpa. In the new NFL, there are no fullbacks, two starting linebackers, and lots and lots of wide receivers and defensive backs.
OK, let's look at some Heath tape and discuss his game a bit. But even that requires a moment more of set-up. On Thursday's preseason game, Cris Collinsworth said something that I struggled with on the broadcast:
My issue with that is based on watching the Cowboys and studying their coverages. I don't believe what he is saying is true, but there are two issues with my challenge. 1) I don't have numbers to verify my claim relative to the rest of the league. He owns Pro Football Focus, so I assume he does. That is why I would love to see his data, but I should figure he knows. 2) We don't know how they label things at PFF. Are they just going with 2-deep in presnap (Cover 2 shell)? Because, I will happily concede the Cowboys show 2-deep constantly in presnap. But, without fail, they are always dropping one safety down and going to a single-high safety once the ball is snapped on the majority of snaps. It would seem meaningless to log the number of times they show Cover-2 if they are not actually using that coverage, but that is the only way I would agree that the Cowboys play those coverages "more than any team in the league."
Regardless, Heath allows Jones to play closer to the line of scrimmage and trust Heath to do things they could not trust Church or Wilcox to ever do, and that is to play safety as it was meant to be played -- safely. They drop Heath in center field and ask him to read coverages, address the deepest threats, and then clean up other people's messes and keep big plays from becoming huge plays. Take good angles and for crying out loud, if the QB throws you something, pick it off.
Do you know who leads the Cowboys secondary in interceptions since 2013? It is sort of a trick question, because there is a four-way tie with five each. This stat, that in four years, it only takes five interceptions to lead the team in 67 games is pretty disappointing. But, there are four DBs who have done it: Church, Wilcox, Orlando Scandrick and Heath. Church played 3,443 snaps to get those picks, Wilcox 2,864, with Scandrick using 2,593. Heath with 1,171 shows the lone ability to get his five with a mark of less than 500 snaps per pick. He picks off a pass every 234 plays. Nobody else is close.
The odd caveat is that three of his picks have come off Jameis Winston in two games against Tampa Bay, unless you know that Winston loves to throw balls up for grabs in the middle of the field quite a bit.
This one was from Week 15 when David Irving hit Winston's elbow and that helped Heath play some CF and have a pick hit him in the bread basket.
But, he also had the game of his life in the playoffs vs. Green Bay. He had three substantial moments that put confidence in the Cowboys front office. He was so close to being a hero that day against Aaron Rodgers.
First, his ability to get wide on long passes and close those windows quickly. Rodgers thought he could pick on Heath a few times, and Heath stood pretty tall. The first one was when Anthony Brown was beaten badly on a deep route.
He had that pick, which counted, and another pick which did not due to Anthony Brown's hold on Ty Montgomery.
That play could have turned the game, as Rodgers made a very risky throw. It didn't count, but Heath's range was on full display again. That is where we should focus for this study.
Also, this moment where defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli sent him on a blitz. Rodgers was holding the ball loose and Heath did not get it out. But, again, so close to turning the game with a stop. Heath showed in the big game he could handle things, and became just the third Cowboy ever with a sack and an interception in the same playoff game.
The other game he played the most was Thanksgiving when Washington was trying to use two tight ends to pick on a Cowboys secondary that was pretty banged up. Church was out with his broken arm. Here we saw Heath show up a few different times, although, they play him very deep, so most of the action does happen in front of him.
On this play, he is playing a deep center in the red zone and has to come back to Jordan Reed. His hit ends up damaging Reed for the rest of the season. The play should have been a touchdown, but he will hit you and you will often feel it.
This view shows Heath on Pierre Garcon and swinging over to try to assist with Reed. Reed was never the same in 2016.
They went at Heath out of zone look with DeSean Jackson later. Heath is deep, but takes a good angle to make sure Jackson stops there at the catch. This is a good zone beater route combination that caught the Cowboys with a big hole in the zone.
We don't have a ton of run support moments, but this one shows one of his best attributes, that he is usually centered up and strong at tackling. Every safety is going to miss a few, but your safety should play as his position indicates ... with safety in mind. Stop plays.
Here he is rolling downhill to get Vernon Davis in the open field.
Look, I am not here to tell you this is Darren Woodson. But, I am here to tell you that, yes, they are starting him here and yes, they think he can do it. I think he can play a little bit and am anxious to see how well in the bright lights. It will be up to him to prove his value to the organization, but even if he is ultimately not good enough, they will still ask him to remain a special teams pillar.
Opponents will challenge him and see if he is a weak spot. This is a league that finds those weaknesses with great ease after a while. But, make no mistake, he believes he is ready for this, and so does his front office.
Even if the Cowboys fan base doesn't buy it, for now.