OXNARD, Calif. — J.J. Wilcox won’t call himself the favorite to win the free safety job. Neither will defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli.
But all signs point to Wilcox lining up alongside Barry Church in the Cowboys’ secondary in the season opener against San Francisco. He’s working exclusively with the first team and has the most potential to become a difference-maker in the secondary.
“I’m not the favorite, but I definitely think I might be in the driver’s seat,” Wilcox said. “I still have a long way to go; we still have a long way to go before the first game, so I have to prove myself. May the best man win.”
That’s the party line this early in camp with several other position battles taking place on both sides of the ball. Nobody is going to declare a winner, and Wilcox has competition behind him.
Jeff Heath started nine games last season, although he looked overmatched much of the time. Matt Johnson, who is sidelined once again with a hamstring injury, is another candidate if he gets healthy. Others include Jakar Hamilton and rookie Ahmad Dixon.
Out of that group, though, Wilcox has the most upside.
“There is no ceiling with him,” Church said. “He’s physical. He’s explosive. He can make all the tackles, and he also can go get the ball. I’m glad to have him on the opposite side of me.”
Wilcox, a 2013 third-round pick out of Georgia Southern, flashed his potential when he played last season. Marinelli still gushes over an open-field tackle Wilcox made on a 5-yard run by Philadelphia running back LeSean McCoy on the third play in Week 7.
“You can really see his explosiveness,” Marinelli said. “He’s a terrific tackler, really good in space, has good ball skills, and he’s physical in the blitz. He can do everything.”
Added coach Jason Garrett: “J.J. has some natural playmaking traits about him. He has a desire to be a real good player. He just needs to be out there and play a lot of snaps and learn from them.”
Last season, Wilcox took the job from veteran Will Allen in Week 3 and started the next five games. But he injured his right knee in practice and missed the next three games.
That allowed Heath to seize the starting job until the end of the season, but Heath’s play didn’t give the Cowboys as much hope for the future as Wilcox’s.
Wilcox has the potential to become a solid safety in the NFL, and the Cowboys fully believe that. Just look at how they approached the draft.
Some mock drafts pegged the Cowboys to take one of the top safety prospects, and each were available at pick No. 16 — Louisville’s Calvin Pryor and Alabama’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. But the Cowboys opted to bolster their offensive line instead, knowing that Wilcox could fill the safety role and take another step in his development this season.
“I think he’s going to be a really good player,” secondary coach Jerome Henderson said. “He’s an unbelievably passionate young man, really explosive hitter. We’re working with him, especially coach Joe Baker, to clean up some of the little detailed things with the transition to the NFL. But he’s doing a heck of a job.”
Henderson went on to say Wilcox is “a really, really young secondary guy” with much room to grow. Wilcox is only going into his third full season as a defensive back, as he spent the first three years of his college career playing receiver before moving to the defensive side of the ball.
The 23-year-old continues to study and learn the intricacies of the position on a daily basis and is more than open to coaching. Wilcox also has an internal drive to prove that he belongs in the NFL.
He didn’t start until his senior season at Cairo High School in Georgia and wasn’t heavily recruited by colleges.
“I’ve always been a hard worker because I got overlooked in high school and then college,” Wilcox said. “I work my tail off every day and I’m here now. But this is only the beginning. I want to be the best at my position, so I’ve got to keep working hard and proving myself.”