Cornerback Still a Priority

The Cowboys shored up their depleted ranks at cornerback, and possibly wrapped up their free-agent focus for now, by signing former SMU player Donald Mitchell to a three-year deal on March 20th. However, there is still much work to be done in the secondary- especially at cornerback.

Mitchell, who spent the past four seasons with the Titans, received a total package of about $2.6 million, including a $675,000 signing bonus. With incentives, Mitchell's deal could average $1 million per season. His first-year salary cap figure will be $1.2 million.

Mitchell chose the Cowboys over Tennessee, Minnesota and Washington. The Beaumont native saw the Cowboys as an opportunity to play close to home and compete for a starting job. Though he started nine games last season, Mitchell played mostly as a nickel back for the Titans.

"I talked to some other teams, but when Dallas came into the picture, I just leaned toward Dallas more than anyone else," Mitchell said. "I could have gotten more money in Minnesota, probably. But I think this is the best place for me.

"I think it's an opportunity to compete for a starting job. I don't really know who started last year. But the opportunity is there to start. If not, I believe I can step in, in the nickel package."

Mitchell was expected to compete with Denard Walker for the Titans starting job in 2000 before tearing an anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. The knee injury wiped out his 2000 season, and Mitchell said it took him nearly two seasons to return to full speed. Mitchell said most of Tennessee's opponents lined up with three receivers last season, giving him the opportunity to start nine games. He said he is fully recovered and ready to reach his full potential.

"A lot of times, teams will line up their No. 1 receiver in the slot," he said. "With these offenses going with three and four receivers now, you need three or four good, quality corners who can come play. The slot, it's a totally different ball game than playing outside. You have to be quick, stop and start on a dime."

While Mitchell said he was impressed with the defensive scheme, he said Parcells played a big factor in his decision.

"He was great," Mitchell said of the Cowboys' new coach. "You can tell he has a lot of wisdom and why he gets so much attention. I think he would be a great coach to have."

Last week, the Cowboys brought in four-year veteran Tod McBride, a free agent with the Packers. McBride was looking for a starting job and more money than the Cowboys were willing to pay.

Mitchell fills a huge need for the Cowboys, who have only three other cornerbacks under contract -- second-year players Derek Ross and Pete Hunter, and first-year player Markese Fitzgerald.

Ross broke into the starting lineup as a rookie last season after being picked in the third round out of Ohio State. Hunter, a sixth-round pick, is still considered a project, and Fitzgerald was a practice squad player last season.

The situation is even more urgent because Mario Edwards, who started opposite Ross in 2002, is a restricted free agent and is beginning to draw interest from other teams. Still, the Cowboys are looking for more players at cornerback regardless of whether Edwards stays.

The Cowboys would get a sixth-round pick as compensation if Edwards signs elsewhere.

According to a source, the team almost certainly will address the position in next month's NFL draft.

Getting Mitchell signed was a priority for the Cowboys because it completes their work in the first phase of free agency and allows them to focus on the draft.

According to a source, the Cowboys will resume their free-agent work after the draft, likely after June 1, when a host of veterans are expected to be released for salary-cap reasons -- unless, that is, the Cowboys get an opportunity at a good bargain before that.

The team could look at another guard and will continue negotiations with two of their own free agents, defensive tackle Michael Myers and tight end Mike Lucky.

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