On first blush, it seems that things are going slow for Cowboys safety George Iloka, a veteran free-agent signee charged with the task of unseating Jeff Heath at strong safety.
Heath was second in the league with 22 broken tackles in 2018, according to Pro Football Outsiders. And he had 19 missed tackles, including 13 in the run game - a league-high for safeties, according to Pro Football Focus.
His tackling efficiency was second-worst in the league among those who played at least 535 defensive snaps, 63rd out of 64 eligible players, per PFF.
And this doesn’t even include the missed assignment by Heath in the NFC Divisional playoff loss to the Los Angeles Rams.
So the Cowboys did a lot of homework in the off-season looking to upgrade the position.
They brought in Clayton Geathers and Eric Berry for visits in free agency before signing Iloka to a modest one-year deal for $930,000.
The Cowboys considered taking a safety in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft but opted for defensive tackle Trysten Hill. They eventually took Texas A&M’s Donovan Wilson in the sixth round.
But as far as upgrading from Heath, the arrow points to Iloka, who played his first six seasons in NFL in Cincinnati, where he started for five years. He has 359 career tackles and nine interceptions in both safety spots.
He spent last season with the Vikings, starting just three games but mostly playing in a reserve role behind Pro Bowler Harrison Smith and Andrew Sendejo.
Yet, through the first three weeks of OTAs and heading into minicamp next week, Heath remains in the starting lineup opposite free safety Xavier Woods.
Iloka has gotten mainly second-team reps. But he is preaching patience as he continues to learn the defense.
“The next step for me is taking it from thinking to just now reacting and playing my game using my strengths and things like that, that’s the next step for me in my evolution,” Iloka said. “It’s just a process from where I was at from Day 1. I feel like I’m a lot further than I was then. Obviously, I’ve got to keep progressing and taking those steps to where I want to get to in mid-preseason.
“It can click tomorrow. I know the defense. It’s just getting to the point where you’re not thinking and just reacting, and that just comes with repetition. There’s no set number, no set anything; ‘Oh this is the moment’ and this and that. I’ve played this game long enough it comes with repetition and those amount of reps come about by mid-trading camp and then your just riding a bike. “It’s a process. I like where I am in the process and I know where I want to get in the process.”
Part of the adjustment is playing in a defense that is different than those he’s played in, but is perfect for his skill set and should result in the best season of his career.
“My goal from Day 1 is to have the best year of my career,” Iloka said. “If I go out and have that the rest will speak for itself. I don’t have to put out there my goals. My goal is to have the best year of my career. If that doesn’t happen now, you work towards that now, if that makes sense. I know when that’s supposed to happen, I do what I gotta do and take care of what I have to take care of and those things should happen.
“It’s a different scheme from what I’ve played my first seven years of my career and I just wanted to get into this system, first and foremost cause it was a different way in how they use the strong safety position. I was 20 yards back in the other defenses I’ve been in, this one has you more toward the box and those are things I like to do so that’s really why I came here.”
He was brought here to start and unseat Heath.
That hasn’t happened yet.
But there is no panic among the Cowboys coaches either.
Secondary coach/defensive passing game coordinator Kris Richard said Iloka is a physical player whose skills will show when the pads come on in training camp. He said the Cowboys defense is different and he is pleased with the way Iloka has picked up things so far in terms of concepts and scheme.
Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli is on the same mindset. He smiled when asked about Iloka’s progress, saying his time to show in training camp while calling him “a big man” who is “a thumper”.
The opportunity is there.
If it all doesn’t come together during training camp then Iloka’s spot on the roster could be in jeopardy at final cuts. They have invested little and didn’t sign a veteran free agent to be a backup and core special teams player.