Look at the list of Cowboys invitees which began to emerge yesterday and you'll notice a trend. The usual suspect safeties are there, but so are an abundance of cornerbacks. This year's draft lacks truly high-end corners, in the Deion Sanders, Charles Woodson mold (Joe Haden might not make the top ten, whereas guys like those were top-5 picks). The class nonetheless shows depth. A source told me the Cowboys think the position will certainly offer quality at the 1st/2nd round turn, depending on which player(s) remain. It's therefore possible that corner could be the first pick, though it's not the position most Cowboys fans would choose first.
We've discussed the reasons for replenishing corner before. The NFL continues to privilege passing over running, with the spread attacks so prevalent in the college game seeping more and more into pro playbooks. Three quality corners is the minimum for a team which wants to compete. With the inconsistency and injuries at the position, four corners is a luxury all teams desire, but which few, if any, can claim.
Dallas has three solid corners in Terence Newman, Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick, but understands that Newman is past 30 and the clock could be winding down on his days as a top man-to-man cover corner. If he were to decline, the lack of depth could hurt the Cowboys playoff designs.
The key to the Dallas' secondary plans may be reserve defensive back Alan Ball. The 7th-round pick currently occupies two key secondary spots. He's the 4th corner behind Scandrick and doubles as Ken Hamlin's backup at free safety. The team has expressed some interest in letting Ball battle Hamlin for the starting spot, but Ball seems stuck in between; playing inside and outside is retarding his ability to master one of them.
With Dallas having needs on the offensive line, inside linebacker, receiver and nose tackle, it seems unlikely that it would pick a safety and a corner in the early rounds. I think Ball's flexibility means the team does not have to force a safety pick. If the best option in the 1st or 2nd is a corner, the Cowboys will take him and make Ball a safety full time. If one of the better frees is there, a Nate Allen or Morgan Burnett in the 2nd, say, the Cowboys will pick him and keep Ball on the outside.
If the board breaks corner, what will the Cowboys' want? They like big, athletic corners. The Cowboys like their corners to excel in man-to-man and zone coverage, but Wade Phillips is all pressuring the quarterback. He'll blitz as much as his secondary lets him.
When you look at corner prospects, look for these qualities:
- Can the player excel in man coverage? Does he have the speed and quick-reaction skills to mirror quality receivers?
- Can he be physical? Good press coverage requires that corners jam their man at the LOS.
- Does he possess a short memory? All corners, even the best ones, get beaten from time to time. Does the prospect linger on his miscues, and invite more big plays, or does he shake them off and make the remainder of the game hard for his opponents?
- Can he tackle effectively? Poor tackling corners will give as much yards ole-ing a toss play as they will on a deep out. Whiffing on a catch downfield is the difference between a big play and a big score.
- Can he play special teams, as a returner or in coverage? Corners and linebackers form the backbone of special teams and any prospect has to offer value here in addition to plays from scrimmage.
Dallas wants size. They don't need huge corners, but you won't see them take guys under 5'10" unless those mighty mites possess exceptional speed. The Cowboys starters are not the tallest guys (Newman is 5'11" and Jenkins and Scandrick both 5'10" but they're not shrimps either. Short corners who lack warp speed become targets, and Dallas tends to steer clear of guys like this.
All of the Dallas corners of interest, the Wilsons, the Ghees, the Owusu-Ansahs, fits these profiles. This means Dallas should have maximum flexibility on draft weekend. Barring a trade down which brings an extra pick or two, they'll go corner OR safety. Which one? We won't know until the Cowboys come on the clock.