Going into the 2017 offseason, the safety position was uncertain from top to bottom.
First and foremost, the two players who began the 2016 season as the top safeties, both free and strong, were unrestricted free agents in Chris Conte and Bradley McDougald. But adding on to that, when those two were the starting safeties during the first half of the year, they had their struggles as a unit. As the year went on, both players started improve until a chest injury forced Conte to miss some time. His absence left the door open for fourth-year player Keith Tandy to step up, a opportunity that he made the most of. So much so that he continued to command the starting free safety role, even when Conte was healthy again.
So, going into the 2017 offseason, with limited solid ground to stand on, both in depth and in starting spots, the Bucs knew something had to be done.
In comes former Cowboys safety J.J. Wilcox.
WHERE IT ALL BEGAN
For Wilcox, his football journey is still molding at its early stages – or maybe the tail end of the early stage. As an all-around athlete at Cairo (Ga.) High School, Wilcox didn’t even start at safety until his senior year. The reason for this was because he was playing quarterback for the JV squad two years prior. On top of all that, in his lone year on varsity, he also split time going both ways as a wide receiver.
Coming out of high school, Wilcox had four offers: Georgia Southern, Sanford, Western Kentucky and Valdosta State. He eventually settled on Georgia Southern as an ATH (athlete). In his first year there, he played receiver. Then, after the coach that recruited him was fired, their new coach decided to switch Wilcox to running back for his sophomore and junior seasons. In his sophomore year, Wilcox rushed for 482 yards and six touchdowns on 85 carries (5.69 YPC average), and in his junior year he rushed for 480 yards and seven touchdowns on just 52 carries (9.2 YPC average).
Following two good years at running back, he again was asked to make a position change. Near the end of training camp going into his final season, his coach asked if he wanted to give playing safety a shot due to a team need. Wilcox accepted, noting that Miami’s Sean Taylor was always one of his favorite players growing up. Wilcox played well in his lone year at the position. So well he attracted the interest of many NFL scouts.
“I had always dreamed about [playing in the NFL], but I never really thought about it until midway through my senior year. Then scouts started calling me and agents started calling me, and I thought I might have a shot.”
FROM GEORGIA PEACHES TO THE STARS OF TEXAS
Wilcox was drafted by the Cowboys in the 3rd round of the 2013 NFL Draft, despite playing safety for only one season. In his rookie year, Wilcox was set to be the starter from day one, but before the season began, Wilcox’s mother passed away. Due to the time he took away from football to deal with his personal life, Will Allen was named the starter over him. Wilcox played in a reserve role in that first year recording 38 tackles.
In 2014 he was, in fact, named the starter and started all 16 games for the Cowboys. In that season, he recorded 69 tackles and three interceptions. With the addition of Barry Church and Byron Jones, Wilcox was an on-and-off starter for the past two seasons.
NEW BEGINNING IN THE BAY
Wilcox’s interest in Tampa Bay started with the Buccaneers recognizing their own need to upgrade that position, and according to Wilcox, there was no hesitation about the desire to make him a Buc.
“Free agency is always wild,” said Wilcox. “I came to meet the coaching staff. I felt love when I walked in. It’s close to home. It’s only five hours away from my hometown. So it’s just good to be home, good to be back on my side of the turf, good to come to a team that’s on the rise and actually want players and I just wanted to come in, fit in and do my part the best way I can.”
General Manager Jason Licht has reiterated, not just this offseason, but in offseasons of the past, that bringing in guys who can compete better than before is ideal when building a good football team – that’s what breeds the best results. He said that’s exactly what Wilcox was brought in to do for the Bucs going forward.
“Wilcox is going to compete for a starting role with Chris [Conte] and Keith [Tandy],” said Licht. “He’s a really hard-hitting physical player that’s really still got an upside. He played running back for most of his career in college – only played one year at safety. That’s a position that’s tough to get to know. He’s still coming into that position.”
Wilcox was the third big addition of the 2017 free agency period, joining both Washington transfers DeSean Jackson ad Chris Baker. Though this will be the first time Wilcox and Jackson will be on the same team, they are very familiar with each other. Jackson even said he “hated” Wilcox when the two were NFC East rivals (Cowboys and Redskins).
“I think the competitive nature for us as receivers and them as DBs on this team is going to be crazy,” Jackson said. “I think you see Wilcox here, and I’ve played against him. I hated him for a couple years. He was a Cowboy and I was a Redskin. We didn’t really like each other, but now we’re on the same team so I don’t have to worry about him hitting me. I remember last year he smacked Maurice Harris. He came across the middle and smacked him and I said, ‘Oh, I’m glad that wasn’t me.’ He’s a pretty good hitter. He’s a physical guy. He’ll come up and get his nose in there. I like to see guys like that come and team up with you because you’ve played against him for years. We’re moving in the right direction and I’m happy about it.”
A theme of the Bucs 2017 offseason seems to be what Jason Licht is calling a “change of culture.” It’s been about continuing to make Tampa Bay a destination, not just a team that has to offer more money to get guys to want to play for them. For Wilcox, that desire to be a part of the Bucs came quickly. All it took was a few hours of in-person conversations to know this is where he wanted to be.
It’s hard to find a coaching staff that you can really gel with and bond with outside of football,” said Wilcox. That’s the main concern that I was worried about. I want to be with guys who know me off the field so I can want to run through a brick wall for them when I’m on it. So coach John (Hoke) did a great job; coach (Mike) Smith did a great job making me feel like family, and that’s what I enjoy the most about football is the bonds you get to have outside of football.”
Now he comes to Tampa Bay, a place that is welcoming not only safety talent, but also players with a desire to win for their team and win for each other.