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What are Dallas' Free Agency Needs? Part Three, the Secondary

Whatever problems the Cowboys faced on their defensive line and linebacking corps were small compared to those in the secondary. In 2003 the Cowboys had a consistent quartet of Mario Edwards and rookie Terrence Newman at the corners and Roy Williams and Darren Woodson at the safety position. Coordinator Mike Zimmer used an aggressive scheme that put Edwards and Newman in man-to-man coverage and used Woodson and Williams close to the line of scrimmage, where they could aid a pedestrian rush with blitzes.

The consistency the Cowboys enjoyed began to unravel in the Spring of 2004 when Edwards left for Tampa Bay in free agency. The Cowboys considered signing a veteran cornerback like Antonie Winfield or Shawn Springs, but were scared away by the exorbitant prices being paid in last year's free agency. In the Cowboys' defense, not only were the prices outside their anticipated range, but the players getting these deals were old by NFL standards; of the top ranked CBs in 2004, only Winfield, at age 28, was under 30. And he received a seven year deal from Minnesota, a length the Cowboys were unwilling to match.

Parcells rolled the dice, hoping nickel corner Pete Hunter could approximate Edwards' 2003 level of play. And the Cowboys drafted three corners on the second day of the draft to fill in Hunter's position of nickel corner. What he could not anticipate was the effect of losing Darren Woodson for the entire season to a back injury. Woodson was the leader of the defense and his absense made two positions weaker; not wanting to trust the free safety position to inexperienced players like Lynn Scott, the Cowboys moved Williams to FS from his preferred SS position for the first half of the year. This diminished Williams' effectiveness as a rusher and run supporter, as it took him away from the line of scrimmage. And it played to Williams' weakness, which is pass coverage on receivers.

The experiment was torpedoed two more times when Pete Hunter and nickel back Bruce Thornton were lost to season-ending ACL tears. By game six, the Cowboys were down to two of the five starters they had anticipated at the start of camp. The results were ugly; a secondary that helped the defense get a #1 ranking in yardage in 2003 was forced to play passively. In the rare instances when the offense could gain a fourth quarter lead the defense was unable to make the crucial game-saving stop. The final insult came in the season-ender against the Giants when the Cowboys scored a touchdown with less than two minutes left, only to watch the Giants march the length of the field and score a game-winning touchdown in the final seconds.

It is clear entering free agency that Dallas needs at least two starters; one at corner and another at free safety, since Woodson has retired. The Cowboys might also need to invest in a nickel corner though Lance Frazier, a free agent pickup from Baltimore, showed some promise in that role.

The team has made no secret of its intentions to be aggressive this year. In separate interviews both Jerry Jones and Parcells have made it clear that the team intends to get a cornerback. And the roster of prospective players fits their modest "red chip" philosopy of getting solid players at prices that won't break their budget. What's more, most of the better corners this year are young. Ken Lucas and Fred Smoot, the two corners who top their wish list , are both four-year veterans. Neither is older than 26. Other option is the Ravens' Gary Baxter, a former Baylor Bear, though recent reports out of Baltimore suggest that he and the Ravens are close to a new deal.

The free safety position is less clear. The veteran pool is not as distingushed as the cornerbacks. Parcells hinted at the end of the year that NFL Europe alum Keith Davis could see more time there. Don't rule out the Cowboys using their second #1 pick on Oklahoma FS Brodney Pool. Pool has the size (6'2", 208 lbs.) and the range to man the deep center.

Whatever the plan, expect the Cowboys to move quickly in the first days of free agency to fill the right cornerback spot. Don't be at all surprised if they add a veteran safety as well.

-- Rafael Vela

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