Cornering the market

One of the positions many feel the Dallas Cowboys need to address this offseason is cornerback.

Veteran Terence Newman remains an exceptional talent, but is 32 years old, which most view as being a little long in the tooth for a player at that position. Mike Jenkins made the Pro Bowl in 2009, but stumbled last year, and opinions vary on Orlando Scandrick and the feel-good story of the Cowboys' 2010 season, free agent Bryan McCann.

The Cowboys entered the 2010 season with just three cornerbacks — Newman, Jenkins and Scandrick — a decision that exposed McCann to waivers and led to him being signed briefly by the Baltimore Ravens. A team source who spoke on the condition of anonymity assured that the move will not be repeated next year.

Newman is three years into a six-year contract worth just over $50 million, so regardless of his age, he is going nowhere. Jenkins has two more years on a five-year contract that is worth nearly $10 million and also will not be leaving. Scandrick is entering the final year of his first contract, and is due to make $1.2 million in 2011 (assuming there is a season). McCann has been told he will be retained, presumably at a low dollar figure, so if a cornerback is replaced, presumably it would be one of those two.

That quartet is an able group, and there is not a glaring need there unless it is deemed that Newman is running out of gas. But has learned that the Cowboys are doing extensive research on cornerbacks. Whether they'll draft any remains to be seen, but here are some of the corners who are under the Cowboys' microscope.

Like every NFL team, the Cowboys have a very high grade on LSU's Patrick Peterson. But the player some project as the No. 1 player in the entire draft likely will be long gone by the time Dallas drafts, assuming the Cowboys hold at the No. 9 selection. Assuming he is not available, the team has studied other candidates:

The player widely regarded as the second-best cornerback in the draft for most of the past year has been Nebraska's Prince Amukamara (6-0, 206, 4.43 at the NFL Combine). He has the size and speed teams seek in cornerbacks, and is an experienced player, having played 49 games for the Cornhuskers, including 41 over his last three years in Lincoln. But there are concerns about his hands — Amukamara had five career interceptions at Nebraska, but all came in his junior year, and the Cowboys are among the teams concerned about the fact that he failed to pick off a single pass in his senior season. To be fair, some teams shied away from throwing toward his side of the field, but not all. There is little question he can play; the debate centers around whether he is worth being taken in the top 10 picks.

Colorado's Jimmy Smith is rising quickly on some teams' boards, but there are others who wonder if he is one of those who excels more in workouts than in games. At 6-2 and 211 pounds, Smith has exceptional size for a cornerback, and he has run consistently in the 4.4s. His raw athletic ability would make him a sure first-round pick, but his inconsistency might drop him toward the end of the round, or even into the second or third. The first-team All-Big 12 honoree has good instincts and works hard. He is aggressive, but sometimes is too aggressive, and he is prone to playing a little too tall at times — some scouts feel that can be coached, while others think it is a result of the way his body is constructed.

Ras-I Dowling of Virginia measured in at 6-1 and 198 at the Combine — a little shorter and lighter than many believed him to be. He entered the 2010 season as one of the nation's top cornerback prospects, but after an ankle injury that cost him all but five games, teams are debating what kind of professional player he can be. He has the size of a safety, so he might end up like Akwasi Owusu-Ansah and slide over from corner to safety in the NFL. When healthy, he was productive for the Cavaliers, averaging almost 48 tackles per season and collecting eight interceptions over his first three seasons in Charlottesville. Dowling is an aggressive hitter who likes to get into the fray on run support and is a capable special teams player.

One of the more divisive names among cornerback candidates is USC's Shareece Wright (5-11, 185, 4.46). He has exceptional quickness, changes direction well, shows fluid hips and footwork coming out of his backpedal, and he has the speed to turn and run downfield with most receivers. But there also are red flags. He missed most of the 2009 season because of academics (although he was elected team captain in 2010) and had a neck injury and was arrested in 2008, playing just three games over those two seasons. Some see his lack of experience as a flaw; others see it as a reason to believe has room for vast improvement.

One sleeper candidate the Cowboys like is Josh Gatlin of North Dakota State. Gatlin didn't get invited to the Combine, but at NDSU's Pro Day, he measured a hair over 6-1, weighed 196 and was credited with a 4.39 in the 40 (including a low of 4.32). He did only eight reps on the NFL-standard 225-pound bench press, so he needs to improve his strength. But he can really run and is an explosive leaper. Gatlin had five interceptions as a senior, and knocked down six more passes. The cousin of former Olympic sprinter Justin Gatlin, he excels most in man-to-man coverage, but also can return kickoffs and punts, and can cover on special teams.

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