Cowboys' safety solution staring them in the face: Earl Thomas

FRISCO, Texas -- A few days ago, Jeron Johnson was getting ready for the upcoming football season as an assistant coach at Eastside Catholic High School in Sammamish, Washington.

On Tuesday, he went through his first practice with the Dallas Cowboys with a real chance to make the 53-man roster for the Sept. 9 season opener against the Carolina Panthers.

Johnson last appeared in a meaningful NFL game in the 2016 playoffs while with the Seattle Seahawks. He is closing in on a year between games, having last appeared in a preseason game with the Jacksonville Jaguars before he was released.

Such is the state of the safety position for the Cowboys.

Johnson was given No. 29.

Everybody thought the Cowboys were waiting to give that number to a former Seahawk. Just not Johnson. Rather Earl Thomas, a six-time Pro Bowl selection and five-time All-Pro.

Since the offseason began, the Cowboys have opted not to address the position. They did not do it in a truly meaningful way in free agency. They did not select a safety in the draft.

They have been content with Jeff Heath, Xavier Woods and Kavon Frazier as their top safeties.

It's why the Thomas talk does not go away.

It started when Thomas walked with Jason Garrett to the Cowboys' locker room at AT&T Stadium and told the coach to "come get me" if he were to be available. It continued when Seattle's former defensive coordinator, Kris Richard, was named the Cowboys' passing-game coordinator. At the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis in February, the Cowboys and Seahawks had some discussions about a deal. They were rekindled at the draft in April.

Those days came and went without a deal as Thomas skipped the Seahawks' offseason program. The stalemate continues now as he threatens to sit out the season unless the Seahawks give him a new deal or trade him.

The Cowboys have the trade capital and the salary-cap space to accommodate Thomas.

Executive vice president Stephen Jones said at the start of camp that the teams have not talked about a trade since the draft and there is no indication the teams have talked recently, given what has happened to the Cowboys at the safety spot.

Last Saturday, Woods suffered a hamstring strain that could keep him out of the Week 1 opener. Heath has been dealing with a low ankle sprain. Frazier has had swelling in his knee throughout camp that has needed to be drained. Backup Jameill Showers was lost for the season against Cincinnati because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

When the Cowboys lined up at practice the past two days, undrafted free agents Tyree Robinson and Kam Kelly worked as the second-team safeties.

When was the last time Richard coached a team that inexperienced at safety? He went back to 2011 and 2012 with Seattle. Johnson was a backup then as an undrafted free agent.

"We call what they know," Richard said. "And it's my responsibility to make sure that they know everything. So that's on me. If we're not executing back there, then I need to make sure we do a better job."

It's not as if Thomas is the only option available. Eric Reid, who started 69 of 70 games in five seasons with the San Francisco 49ers and intercepted 10 passes, is unsigned. On Sunday, the Cincinnati Bengals released George Iloka, a starter the past six seasons. The Cowboys' interest has been tepid at best.

The knock on Iloka is he is more of a box safety and the Cowboys want more of a free safety. Of course, without Woods, they have moved Heath to a center-field role with Frazier playing in the box.

"You'd like to have versatility and you'd like to have guys who can play in the back end as well as play down," Garrett said. "I don't think you want guys who are limited linebacker type, only box safeties. I think you want guys who at least have the ability to be versatile to play in the back end."

Ah, versatility.

When the Cowboys drafted Byron Jones in the first round in 2015, it was made with the idea he could be a safety one day. He started 32 games at safety in 2016-17, but the Cowboys moved him back to cornerback because he is the ideal fit for what Richard wants in corners: tall and long.

"If it comes to that at some point, certainly he's capable of going back to playing safety for us," Garrett said, "but right now we'd like to address it with somebody else and keep Byron at corner."

When the Cowboys selected Chidobe Awuzie in the second round of last year's draft, they mentioned the possibility of him being a safety. He got limited time there, but hamstring injuries bogged down his rookie season.

"Chido is a corner," Richard said.

The regular season is 19 days away.

It's not too late to add Thomas.