The Dallas Cowboys are getting to be as infamous for their lack of playmakers at safety since the departure of Darren Woodson after the 2003 season as they are for the Hall-of-Famers who have played in their defensive backfield.
The Cowboys have a budding strong safety in Donovan Wilson, who collected 71 combined tackles, 3.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, three pass breakups, and two interceptions through 14 games in 2020, 10 of which he started.
The Cowboys now need a free safety who can similarly make plays on the ball playing centerfield. Dallas experimented with 2017 sixth-round pick Xavier Woods, but the Louisiana Tech product never manifested as the solution and now is a pending free agent.
If the Cowboys are to move on from Woods and look to the draft, a target worth considering is former Texas Longhorns safety Caden Sterns. The Cibolo Steele High School product told reporters following his pro day on March 11 that he has no preference as either the single-high safety or the one underneath in a Cover-1 scheme that the Cowboys will return to in 2021 under new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn.
"Really, I feel like if you put me over top it definitely can help a lot of other players out because I do have range," Sterns said. "So, it allows me to play a little bit more aggressive and to cover and help cover them up some. So, I feel like not only do I want to make everybody else around me better too. So, I think by putting me on the top allows other people to make plays as well because I can cover sideline to sideline if need be. Hey, I'll still make plays on the ball. If you want me to go get the ball as well, I can be a robber. Like I said, I can [do] everything."
Sterns provided 52 combined tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, three pass breakups, and an interception in his seven games with the Longhorns last year. The 6-foot 1-inch, 207-pound defensive back perceives that his ability to get after the football has been underrated.
"I think my ball-hawking skills have been overlooked," said Sterns. "That's one of my best traits. But then again I'm not just a one-scheme defensive safety. I can do it all. I think also with the numbers that I put up today shows that I can do it all. Yeah, my best trait is finding the ball and going to get the ball as I proved in position drills. That's what I do best. But you put me anywhere on that field, I can do it."
Sterns ran a 4.40 in the 40-yard dash and also impressed with a 42-inch vertical. Although Sterns has attractive measurables, his statistics with the Longhorns over three seasons create a discrepancy that has to be rectified with scouts in the pre-draft process.
Said Sterns: "Definitely have some things on the field that I have to clean up. But I've been playing on raw talent. I haven't reached the peak that — the player that I know I am. So, again, to each his own. I know the player that I am. So, I know that I will still be coming up in this draft. So, we'll see. I hope they come and get me and the rest will be history."
One area where Sterns sought to improve and considers himself "second to none" is football IQ. Throughout the 2020 season, former Longhorns defensive coordinator and safeties coach Chris Ash, now the safeties coach for the Jacksonville Jaguars, helped Sterns address the finer details of his game.
"I love him," said Sterns. "I'm really thankful for him. I feel like he did come in and clean up some of my areas in the game that still kind of goes unnoticed. But I really do appreciate him, the way he coaches, the way he teaches, how detail oriented he is. I feel like I learned a lot from him and improved in the mental aspect of the game that I feel like, for me, is second to none."
Injuries have been an issue for Sterns throughout his career at Texas. In 2019, he sustained a knee injury against Oklahoma in their annual series at the Cotton Bowl. Sterns also suffered a turf toe injury a year later against Baylor. The reality is any team that takes Sterns will have to accept he has availability issues that could compromise his ability to provide a true playmaker or eraser in the secondary.
The Cowboys were fortunate with Wilson, who was a fifth-round pick in 2019 and was recovering from a sports hernia surgery during his pre-draft process. The Texas A&M product had a forgettable rookie season with 11 games and two combined tackles, but took off in his second season.
Similarly, Dallas ought to consider Sterns as a player who can grow into the role, but they may need to find a "hold down the fort" player, as Bill Parcells called them, for 2021.
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