A couple of days ago a lively discussion ensued here on BTB over the safety position, specifically when my 53-man roster included six safeties and just four cornerbacks. This isn't the number of defensive backs the Cowboys have historically kept on the roster but sometimes certain players make such an impact in training camp and in the preseason they force teams to keep them. That certainly seems to be the case here.
The injury to Gerald Sensabaugh might have facilitated this particular numbers game but I have to believe that Danny McCray and Barry Church would have made the team even if Sensabaugh had remained healthy. They've just proven themselves to be too good on special teams to let go, while also showing ability at the safety position as well.
With the news that Mike Hamlin would be getting the start against Houston on Saturday I decided that I would take a closer look at the defensive backs -- particularly the safeties -- and how it looks like we're going to see the roster shaking out. Like the roster projection, this analysis is based upon reports from training camp and what I've seen in the games so far.
After the jump, I delve into the players and the scenarios surrounding the decisions the Cowboys will have to make over the next few weeks.
Brandon's projected to make the roster:
Safety (6) - Alan Ball, Gerald Sensabaugh, Mike Hamlin, Akwasi Owusu-Ansah, Barry Church, Danny McCray
Why only four cornerbacks?
I'm not the only one who is starting to feel like the Cowboys will roll with just just four cornerbacks. Based on what Alan Ball can provide as a corner if needed, and based upon the fact that the Cowboys have been practicing AOA at times as the slot corner, it appears as if the team is preparing itself for the possibility of having just four cornerbacks on the roster.
The Cowboys are going to have to decide whether a cornerback like Bryan McCann is more valuable than either Church or McCray, and whether they can afford to risk losing McCann to waivers while trying to slip him onto the practice squad. By all accounts, McCann has had a great camp, he's played well in games and it certainly appears as if he has the potential to develop into a good cornerback down the road.
It's a gamble no matter what route the Cowboys take. With the fringe defensive backs on the team it starts to come down to which players will have the greatest impact on the game, even if they aren't getting playing time with the defense. At this point, McCray and Church have the upper hand when it comes to their special teams play with McCray possibly taking over as one of the main gunners for the team. Coach DeCamillis has raved nonstop over McCray and Church has been impressive on special teams as well.
McCann might be a tough player to try and get through waivers but the Cowboys will have to decide which players have more value for not only this season, but in the future as well. We've certainly learned over the past few years that a good safety is just too hard to come by.
Patrick Watkins vs. The World
Out of all this debate about which safeties to keep, Patrick Watkins is continuously left out of the conversation. Drafted in 2006 by Bill Parcells, he was thrown into the fire as a rookie before being unceremoniously benched. While Watkins had the speed and the range to play free safety he didn't have the recognition to apply that during the play and was frequently burned for long passes.
Since then, Watkins has started sparingly due to various injuries and has played both free safety and strong safety. While he never showed the potential we had all hoped he would at becoming the next great safety for the Cowboys, he also learned from his mistakes and was rarely beat as badly as we witnessed that first season. In the meantime, Watkins began to carve out a nice little niche for himself on special teams. Last season, Watkins was one the best special teams player for the Cowboys and had seemingly cemented himself on the roster due primarily to his prowess on punts and kickoffs.
Yet special teams players come and go. As the bottom of the roster is constantly churned, season in and season out, the special teams change as well. It's up to the coach to ensure there is continuity from year to year and unit to unit. No matter how great a player might be on special teams there will always come a time where is value is outweighed by that of a younger, cheaper and more promising player.
Watkins has two things going against him: he's heading into his fifth season and it doesn't look like he's going to be a starter anytime soon and he's been sidelined nearly all preseason with an injury allowing younger players to make an impression. I understand that some think his experience on special teams and at safety are too much to give up on but the reality is that his production can be picked up by other players who still show potential for the future.
Teams churn the roster every season. This year, Watkins appears to be a victim of that seasonal change.
Mike Hamlin is more valuable than you think
For some reason, I was met with some anger and vitriol earlier this week when I hinted that not only is Mike Hamlin a player that will make the roster but he's also a player that will get a shot at starting at some point. The Cowboys love the potential Hamlin brings to the free safety position and this weekend he's finally going to get his chance to really prove himself when he gets the start against Houston.
Last training camp Hamlin was impressive, showing incredible ball skills and range while also possessing the ability to play against the run as well. An injury sidelined him for half of last season and stunted his development, but his potential never changed. Heading into camp this season it was expected that Hamlin might battle Alan Ball for the starting safety position; while Ball basically grabbed onto that starting spot from the start, that hasn't changed the potential the Cowboys see in him.
Hamlin was having a good camp -- and was impressive in the preseason games -- before a concussion and neck sprain sidelined him for a week or so and one game. This allowed Church and McCray to grab the spotlight a bit with some spectacular plays while building up the thought that Hamlin is a player the Cowboys might cut before the season.
Hamlin is a very capable player on special teams, which is where he'll hopefully be used most this season, and proved as much last season when he returned from injury. While everyone was praising Watkins and Sam Hurd, I noticed Hamlin making play after play on special teams the second half of the season. This ability, along with his potential as a safety, is what is going to keep him on this team. Church and McCray are getting all of the attention, but for now it's Hamlin that is going to get the chance to shine on Saturday in Houston.
All of this could change over the next few weeks. Hamlin could get burned against the Texans while Watkins steps in and gets two interceptions. Something may happen elsewhere on the roster that alters the numbers at these positions. For now, however, based upon what we've been seeing in games this is how I believe the Cowboys will go when it comes to the cornerbacks and safeties.
As always, I reserve the right to change my mind after more preseason games are played.