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The Dallas Cowboys have made few personnel moves this offseason. Of course they added players through the draft, but they stayed away from free agency, and only added one substantial veteran in Alex Barron (via the Bobby Carpenter trade).
We've previously discussed the release of Flozell Adams in this series, now we'll turn our attention to the other "big release" for the Cowboys in 2010, the departure of free safety Ken Hamlin. Three years ago, after Dallas let go of Roy Williams (the safety) when they could no longer tolerate his deficiencies in pass coverage, they needed a veteran to replace him. The Cowboys picked up Ken Hamlin for a minimum one-year contract, and initially it looked like a steal. Hamlin performed well in his first year and was widely praised as being the "quarterback" on defense, especially for the secondary. The improvement was immediately obvious, the Cowboys had spent the previous years getting killed over the top on bombs (Santana Moss anyone?) and getting punished by tight ends running free through the secondary. Hamlin helped to eliminate this problem.
So the Cowboys re-upped Hamlin with a six-year, $39 million contract. Hamlin would only get through two years before the Cowboys decided they need to go in another direction. Because of the low amount of guaranteed money left in the contract, Dallas could release Hamlin with minimal financial impact. Hamlin's play had started to trail off, he no longer was "around the ball" enough to justify the financial investment from Dallas, so the inevitable happened.
Now, the Cowboys are left with some options as his replacement, but none of them are sure things. While the free safety position is not considered as important as the left tackle spot where they also released Flozell, they still have to have some concern. Doug Free was ready to take over for Flozell at tackle, at least in the minds of the Cowboys brain-trust, but just to make sure they went out and got Alex Barron. No such moves have occurred at free safety, the Cowboys are going with what they have in-house (unless something happens over the next month or two).
The big question: Are any of the main candidates to replace Ken Hamlin ready for prime-time?
Alan Ball will get the first crack at it; he'll be running with the 1's in training camp. Ball was drafted in the seventh round out of Illinois way back in 2007 as a cornerback. When he arrived in Dallas he was basically a toothpick with a head attached. As a corner, his slight stature wasn't much of a problem. But as the Cowboys have worked him at safety more and more, they know, and he knows, he's got to get a little bigger to handle the physical rigors of 16 games as a starter at safety. Even though the Cowboys scheme limits the amount of tackling their free safety handles, he's still going to end-up mixing-it-up in heavy traffic occasionally.
What Dallas really wants from its free safety is to be around the ball, to get pass deflections or interceptions, while obviously not letting anybody behind him. Ball's skills as a former corner should favor him in this area, but as of yet, he hasn't shown it in the off-an-on playing time he's received. When Ken Hamlin went down last year for a few games, Ball stepped in and the coaching staff has strongly praised the work he turned in for those games. In fact, this three-game audition in 2009 may have played a big role in the Cowboys determining they could release Hamlin. Ball is working on adding muscle-mass over this offseason in anticipation of being the starting free safety for 2010.
If Ball has serious competition internally, it will probably come from second-year safety Mike Hamlin. In contrast to Ball, Hamlin has size and is a natural safety. Taken in the fifth round out of Clemson in 2009, Hamlin showed a lot of promise early on. The coaches praised his instincts and his ball skills. Then he got hurt in the preseason (fractured wrist), like about half of last year's draft class did, and ended up seeing time on special teams towards the end of the year.
This past April Dallas picked up cornerback Akwasi Owusu-Ansah out of small-school Indiana (PA) in the fourth round of the draft. Like Ball, the Cowboys will move him to safety, but unlike Ball, they'll do this immediately. AOA has the natural size to play free safety, and is widely recognized for his ball skills. Normally, he may have had a fair shot at the competition for the starting spot. But AOA has two things working against him, one major and one minor (or even non-existent). The latter is the notion that he competed against lesser players in Division II. Will his good play translate against better competition? There's only one way to find that out and that's to line up on the field, although plenty of Div II guys have had no problem with NFL-level competition. The significant problem for AOA is he's coming off injury and won't be able to compete until training camp. So he's missing OTAs and mini-camps, and he'll likely be rusty when he does hit the field. All of that means he'll likely be a situational or special teams player in 2010.
Pat Watkins is still on the roster, but we all know he's likely to be released, or if he manages to hold on, it will be for special teams work. There's still plenty of time for the Cowboys to go out and get a veteran before the season begins, but for now, it appears that either Alan Ball or Mike Hamlin will be the starting free safety. The problem for Ball is that he's the team's best fourth corner as of this moment, and he's one injury away from having to move back over to fill in (Orlando Scandrick's recent broken finger should remind us of how easily moving Ball back to corner can occur). Unless Jamar Wall or someone else removes the need for Ball at corner, he's still a guy stuck between two positions.