Often times the top free agents on the market agree to terms with their new teams on Day 1 of free agency. Such was the case for safety Jeff Heath.
The 29-year-old has spent his entire career with the Dallas Cowboys, the past three of which as a full time starting strong safety. The thing is, the Raiders already have their starting strong safety in 2019 first-round pick Johnathan Abram. They also have Erik Harris who started 15 games last season in relief of Abram and later added free safety Damarious Randall.
That begs the question of where exactly Heath fits in, why the Raiders made his addition a priority, and what made him want to join the team.
This week he spoke with Raiders employees on their in-house podcast and shed some light on his decision to join the team.
First, why were the Raiders so interested and what will his role be?
As of now, he’s pretty much buried on the depth chart at safety. In those instances, versatility and special teams are crucial. It’s how Erik Harris has carved out a career and eventually found his way into the starting lineup.
“That’s kind of something that started when I played in college. I played the strong safety role, free safety role, kind of a nickel, outside linebacker type player, which is becoming a lot more popular in the NFL now. I think having that versatility is what has even allowed me to make a career in the NFL. Obviously on defense, but maybe more importantly on special teams. My first few years whether it’s running down covering kicks or trying to block guys on returns or blocking kicks or whatever it is. Just trying to be versatile and giving teams a reason to keep you on the roster. That’s really my goal in the NFL is to stay around as long as possible and win as much as possible. Versatility is super important for that.”
Is being a depth player and special teams guy enough to be seen as a priority free agent signing? Apparently so.
“Special teams you have one play to get it right and if you get it’s wrong everyone’s gonna know,” Heath added. “And if it’s right, most of the time, unless it’s like a spectacular play, if you just do your job it kind of goes unnoticed. It goes unnoticed for your fans, but the people who are involved in the game like myself and coaches and people who have played obviously know how important it is.”
As of now, Heath comes into this as the fourth safety on the roster. Should the safeties ahead of him remain healthy, he would likely only see the field on special teams. Last season that didn’t happen. Abram was lost in the season opener and Karl Joseph was lost at midseason. If such a thing happened again, Heath would be a much better option than the Raiders had last year.
Heath just turned 29 last week. As a starter for the past three years, he probably had other opportunities, perhaps some that offered him a better chance to start. But the Raiders carried several distinct advantages in his decision-making process.
First of all, he would be one of several Cowboys players coming over simultaneously, including Maliek Collins, Daniel Ross, and Jason Witten.
“Maliek in Dallas his locker was right across from mine, so we were always talking and hanging out,” Heath said. “It’s funny when coach [Jon] Gruden was talking to me during free agency, he was like ‘I’m going to try to get Witten and Maliek Collins too’ and before I even made my decision, I saw the scroll on ESPN ‘Maliek Collins is signing with the Raiders’ and that was my sign I needed to go ahead and do this too. I’m really excited to have those guys out here too.”
Why so many former Cowboys on the Raiders? Well, because there are a couple former Cowboys coaches. Both of whom are very familiar with Heath’s work; special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia and defensive line coach Rod Marinelli who was the DC in Dallas.
“There was a lot that went into it. Mainly some familiarity with some of the coaches, like coach Bisaccia who was my special teams coach. He coached me my first five seasons in Dallas, he was at my wedding, he’s just one of the best coaches I’ve had, best guys I know. So, that was a big part of it. Also coach Marinelli from Dallas also this year.”
An added bonus for Heath, as he told it, is starting something fresh in Las Vegas. Everyone on the team is in the same situation and it excites him to be a part of it.