Cowboys position series: Safeties

The ninth in ESPNDallas.com’s 10-part position series:

Roster locks: Barry Church, J.J. Wilcox, Matt Johnson, Will Allen

On the bubble: Danny McCray, Jakar Hamilton, Eric Frampton

Long shots: Jeff Heath, Micah Pellerin

What’s new?: Gerald Sensabaugh is gone, deciding to go fishing on a daily basis after the Cowboys cut him. Allen, 31, who broke into the league on Monte Kiffin’s Tampa Bay defense, was brought in to be a minimum-wage veteran insurance policy and mentor.

But youth is being served at safety.

Fourth-year veteran Church (torn Achilles tendon) and Johnson (persistent hamstring problems) are healthy after injuries ruined their 2012 seasons. The Cowboys were so confident in Church after he made his first three career starts that they gave him a four-year deal with $3.8 million guaranteed early on in the recovery process from the season-ending injury. Johnson set a Valley Ranch record for most buzz created by a rookie who never played a down.

The Cowboys still made safety a priority in the draft, selecting Wilcox with the 80th overall pick. They love his athleticism, instincts and toughness, but Wilcox has a difficult transition to make from Georgia Southern to the NFL, especially considering that he was a running back and receiver until his senior season.

Undrafted free agent Hamilton isn’t just a camp body. The Cowboys had a fifth-round grade on him.

Camp competition: It’s wide open.

Church, who participated in all of the offseason team workouts, has the best chance to start. Allen is penciled in alongside Church as the Cowboys pack for training camp. But Johnson and Wilcox will be given every opportunity to challenge for starting jobs.

Wilcox, who was picked as a project, put himself in that position by making plays during OTAs and minicamp. The front office and coaches are also intrigued by the playmaking ability of Johnson, a 2012 fourth-round pick who had 17 career interceptions at Eastern Washington.

The competition for the fifth safety spot, assuming the Cowboys keep that many, is just as fierce.

McCray has been the Cowboys’ best special teams player over the last few years, but his $1.3 million salary makes him the most expensive of the candidates for that roster spot. Hamilton is the cheapest and has the most upside, although he could also be stashed on the practice squad if he cleared waivers. Frampton ($715,000) is a better safety than McCray, but not nearly the special teams demon.

2013 hope: The Cowboys need some playmaking out of this group. The Dallas safeties accounted for only two interceptions, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery last season. That’s simply unacceptable.

The hope is that the scheme helps present opportunities for the safeties to create turnovers, but the players need to make the plays. That’s the primary reason Johnson is a decent bet to beat out the veteran Allen, who hasn’t had an interception since 2005, for a starting job.

Future forecast: Ideally, the Cowboys come out of the season confident that they’ve got a strong three-man safety contingent in Church, Johnson and Wilcox.

That would mean they wouldn’t have to target a safety in free agency or early in the draft again.

Church is about to begin a four-year extension worth $9 million plus incentives, a deal that led a lot of folks to criticize Jerry Jones for paying an injured, unproven player. It will be viewed as a bargain if Church is a solid starter throughout the course of the contract.

Johnson (through 2015) and Wilcox (through 2016) will have mid-six-figure salaries for the rest of their rookie contracts.

If the players pan out, this position will be productive at a low price over the next few years. If they don’t, the Cowboys will likely have to spend significant money and/or invest a premium pick or two to acquire upgrades.