In 2021, Jayron Kearse found his visit and signing with the Dallas Cowboys mostly overlooked, and in large part due to the fact they occurred at a time when the team was visiting with both Damontae Kazee and Malik Hooker as possible headline additions to the safety unit. One year later, the prove-it deal on all three has expired, and while Hooker began coming on strong late in the year (a training camp addition who needed to ramp up after a season-ending injury suffered in 2020), Kearse didn't simply steal the show -- it was effectively an armed robbery.
Kearse's versatility allowed Quinn to play him as either a safety or a TE-deleter, as well as a major contributor on special teams, and he executed all of his roles with military precision en route to producing a career-best NFL season and, subsequently, a new two-year deal with the Cowboys in 2022. A former seventh-round pick of the Minnesota Vikings in 2016 who went on to short stints with the Detroit Lions and on the Baltimore Ravens practice squad in 2020, Kearse has now found a home with the Cowboys, but he's not releasing the starved mindset that drove him to eat hearty in 2021.
He's thrilled, yes, but that sound you hear is him readying to once again scrape the plate in 2022.
"It's very exciting for me considering the trajectory of my career," Kearse said of his recent re-signing in Dallas, speaking from Cowboys OTAs. "To be at this point that I'm at now, it's a huge accomplishment for me, but I'm still with the same mindset. It's more out there for me, and I'm working to go get that."
Those are the type of Kearse words the Cowboys deem as anything but profane.
The 28-year-old became the most important player at the safety position last season and, arguably, the most important addition in free agency last year -- outlasting both Kazee and safety-turned-linebacker Keanu Neal (Hooker has also re-signed to a new two-year deal). Not initially signed to be a starter, it was an injury to then-breakout safety Donovan Wilson that caused the Cowboys to thrust Kearse into the fire under defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, who himself was in his first year with the organization, and the two immediately struck enough chemistry to make Dexter blush in his laboratory.
He'd go on to log 15 regular-season starts and deliver 101 combined tackles (67 solo), 10 pass break-ups, two interceptions, six quarterback hits, one sack and one fumble recovery, and film shows just how close Kearse often was to adding more takeaways for a unit that led the league in the category last season.
Keeping him in the building going forward was paramount for the Cowboys' defense, after seeing him help the unit launch from worst to first in several major categories, and in the span of just one year under Quinn, Kearse now finding himself also operating as a seasoned veteran in the safety room; and that's something that takes a bit of getting used to for any still-young player.
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"Yeah, it's very different than it was last year, especially around this time," said Kearse. "Around this time last year I was coming in and competing and trying to get my feet wet and learning my way here. Now being here around this time, it's established that I'm a leader and guys look at me to lead and the play has to be there along with me encouraging guys, and just that type of thing. So, it's definitely different, and it's something that I put myself in that position and something that I love doing.
"I love being the guy that everybody looks at to [like], 'Okay, he's doing this, so, we have to do that' -- being the example because I know I can do it. You're following me, then the sky's the limit."
And with Hooker back in the mix alongside a now-healthy Donovan Wilson, upstart talent in second-year safety Israel Mukuamu and Tyler Coyle, and rookie undrafted free agent safety Juanyeh Thomas (Georgia Tech), Kearse believes there's a lot to smile about as it relates to the potential of the group.
"I'm definitely looking forward to everything that we have in front of us -- our goals, whether it's individual or team goals, just the things that we can go out and do as a group."
The safety position was, perennially, one of (if not the) biggest weakness of the Cowboys' entire roster heading into last season. One year later, that is no longer true, and it's thanks in large part to the once-overlooked addition turned headliner.