Over the next two months, Pittsburgh’s brass must face and address significant depth issues at positions such as Outside Linebacker, Inside Linebacker, Wide Receiver, Quarterback, Defensive End, Running Back, Free Safety, and Strong Safety. As much as I would love to see every need filled early on Draft Weekend, the Steelers must make some tough choices when they go “on the clock” in the early Rounds. Thus, if the Steelers have an outstanding pass-rusher fall to them on Day 1, or a talented Wide Receiver or Running Back fall to them early on Day 2, the Free and Strong Safety positions could very well be put on the “back-burner” until late on Day 2 or early on Day 3. If a situation like the one above unfolds on Draft Weekend, I believe that a player like Georgia Southern’s J.J. Wilcox would be an intriguing prospect for Pittsburgh to draft and develop as a future starter at either Free or Strong Safety.
Wilcox’s Journey to the Safety Position
If you readers are not familiar with the Georgia Southern Safety, his journey to the Safety position throughout his college career is somewhat unique. In fact, Wilcox did not even play in the Defensive Backfield until his Senior year of college! From 2009-2011, Wilcox actually played Slotback and Wide Receiver on Offense as a key-cog in G.S.U.’s Triple-Option attack.
During his first three years, the 6′ 215 lb. Wilcox played in 36 Games, started 26 of them, and helped the Eagles in a “Swiss-Army knife” manner as a pass-catcher and runner who could make big plays with the ball in his hands. Overall, J.J. found success on the ground to the tune of 985 Yards on 137 Carries with 13 TD’s. In addition to his prowess as a runner, Wilcox proved to be just as dangerous as a pass catcher as he hauled in 45 balls for 898 Yards and 4 TD’s during that time frame too.
Before last season began though, the Eagles were hurting for depth and leadership in the Secondary, and G.S.U. Head Coach Jeff Monken turned to his Senior Slotback for help. In a completely “team-player” move, J.J. accepted his new role and switched from Slotback to Strong Safety to help the Eagles’ Defense in their time of need. Well, it did not take J.J. long to find success in the Defensive Backfield, and the Senior burst out in a big way during the 2012 season.
Overall, Wilcox started 13 of G.S.U.’s 14 games, finished with 88 Tackles, 5 Passes Defended, and 2 Interceptions during his first season ever Defensive Back! Of course the Eagles weren’t going to just take a play-maker out of situations in which he could handle the football. So when the versatile Wilcox was asked to return Kickoffs, he shined in that capacity too (31 Returns, 780 Yards, 25.2 YPR).
After his successful season, scouts finally began to take notice of Wilcox, and he was given an invitation to The Senior Bowl. It was in Mobile, AL where J.J. used his chance to his advantage as he showed off his versatile and athletic skill-set to pro scouts around the League. Since late January, Wilcox has also performed at The Combine, and is currently drawing buzz from Safety-needy teams League-wide.
Wilcox’s Transition to the Professional Level
Although Wilcox’s move to the Defensive side of the ball came late during his college career, the former Eagle sees it as more of a blessing in disguise. In a recent article by Mike Jones of The Washington Post, Wilcox was quoted as saying the following:
Having played offense is a plus,…Route-running, route-stemming and ball skills, playing receiver and running back, you have to have great ball skills. Playing running back and receiver, you have to have that. And so, I know how to read defenses, I know how to read offenses. That definitely helps me.
Wilcox also appears to be quite the driven and knowledge-hungry player as well, and states his thoughts on staying at the Safety position below in a quote from the same article:
It would make my game better. But at the same time, when you’re playing from behind like I am, it motivates you and challenges you more to work to show that you can play no matter what scheme you put up, no matter where you put me at, that gives me my drive.
J.J.’s thirst for knowledge to better himself at the Safety position and as a student of the game is also evident too:
You can never know too much about the game. Every day I learn something new. I just want to learn how to be the best safety there is in the NFL,…I study all the safeties in the NFL. I was a big Sean Taylor fan, just always around the ball. Ed Reed. I love Ed Reed, just because he’s a ball hawk. Ryan Clark, I could go on. I love NFL, I sleep NFL. My TV stays on NFL Network. I can talk your ear off all day about NFL.
It certainly seems that Wilcox is not only a smart player, but a dedicated and driven one to boot. I am sure that he also understands full well that he is likely to fall down draft boards because he is a bit “behind the game” in terms of the competition he faced at the collegiate level. Heck, he probably knows more than anybody that his skill-set as a Defensive Back is raw and he will need to fine-tune all aspects of his game from tackling to turning his hips. I also would not doubt that he knows that the questions surrounding his lack of experience on the Defensive side of the ball are probably going to come up in future interviews with N.F.L. teams too.
Nevertheless, I am positive that Wilcox also knows he possesses the type of frame (6′, 215 lbs., 31″ arms), athletic ability, and speed (4.57 40 Yard Dash) to compete at football’s highest level at the Safety position with a year or two of development. From what he said above, he understands the type of work and work-ethic that must go into making him a better player, and appears to welcome the challenge of professional football. Overall, Wilcox appears to be mature and hungry Safety prospect who wants to contribute to a team’s success by helping them in any sort of capacity. You know, a player that a team like Pittsburgh could definitely stand to have on their roster.
Wilcox could be a Day 2 “sleeper prospect,” and do not be surprised if the Steelers bring him in for an interview at some point over the next two months. Although Wilcox will probably need a year or two of development before he can assume a starting role, he will not need to chip in heavily at either Safety spot if Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu are able to stay healthy. A big “if,” I know. Yet both veterans should still have another season or two of productive football left in each of their tanks’, and this should allow for young prospects to be groomed behind them as the future at the Free and Strong Safety positions.
Health of the veterans aside, the former Eagle Safety could immediately contribute to the team’s success as a Kick Returner now that Chris Rainey is out of town. Moreover, I am sure that he would be utilized to his fullest extent on Pittsburgh’s Kickoff and Punt Coverage units early in his career while he learns the Steelers’ Defensive scheme from some of the best in the business.
I should also mention that if Wilcox is as thirsty for knowledge about playing Defense and the Safety position as he appears to be, him coming to Pittsburgh would be a perfect fit. As far as the players that J.J. would get to be around, I would say that working with a future Hall of Famer in Polamalu, and a soon to be 12 year veteran in Ryan Clark would be an amazing opportunity. In addition, Wilcox would also receive the chance to learn from Defensive Backs Coach and successful N.F.L. Safety Carnell Lake, and Hall of Fame Cornerback/”Best Defensive Coordinator Ever” Dick LeBeau.
Although this year’s Safety Class has numerous talented players, I really hope that the Steelers are interested in Wilcox as a potential Day 2 selection if they do not make a move for Kenny Vaccaro or Matt Elam on Day 1. Granted, the former G.S.U. star might not possess the type of experience at the Safety position, or at the FBS level, as some of the players I alluded to at the beginning of this post. But Wilcox does possess the type athletic ability and work-ethic to be a fantastic developmental prospect for a team in need of one at both Free and Strong Safety.
Readers: Should the Steelers consider taking J.J. Wilcox on Day 2? Do you believe that he would be a good fit in Pittsburgh? Why or why not?
Stats Courtesy of: Georgia Southern
Measurements Courtesy of: NFL Combine Page