Who Will Step Up at Cornerback? (Part I)

The Dallas Cowboys have one of the most talented defensive backfields in the National Football League, with one exception- cornerback. Who will step in for the spot vacated by Mario Edwards in 2004?

Dallas head coach Bill Parcells was asked during a mini-camp press briefing specifically what needed to be improved to make the Cowboys a better team than the 2003 version. Parcells said his team needed to score more points, create more turnovers on defense and generate more pressure the quarterback. Nobody can control all three areas in which Parcells said he wants to see improvement, but the secondary can play a significant role in the second and third.

The Cowboys had the No. 1-rated defense in the NFL, and that defense succeeded in part because of the secondary, in which three starters are household names, or at least rapidly approaching that status. Roy Williams is one of the best young safeties in the league; Darren Woodson is one of the best old safeties. Terence Newman is one of the NFL's premier young cornerbacks.

But for the secondary to succeed, more than three players need to play well.

Woodson, Williams and Newman are set as starters in the Dallas secondary. But the other cornerback spot has to be more consistent. Cornerback Pete Hunter is expected to start across from Newman, while Donald Mitchell -- listed as Newman's primary backup -- is basically the team's third starting corner, but to call him a backup is something of a misnomer, because he will play a lot, covering opposing teams' slot receivers.

Hunter was injured for part of his second season with the team before coming back and playing well late in the year. Mitchell was signed last year to be the team's third (slot) corner, and had a good training camp before being sidelined for the year by posterior tibia tendonitis behind his left ankle (between the Achilles tendon and the bone). Both players are now fully recovered and performed well in the team's mini-camp.

As Parcells pointed out, the play of the "other" cornerback -- and of the secondary as a whole -- can be vastly improved if the defensive line can generate such a pass rush that opposing quarterbacks are induced into throwing before they want to, or throwing while getting hit. To that end, defensive end Greg Ellis, defensive tackle La'Roi Glover and new defensive end Marcellus Wiley might be as important to the success of the secondary as any defensive back.

But despite all of the rhetoric about who will start opposite from Newman, Parcells sounds less antsy than some might expect when discussing his secondary.

"Pete Hunter improved a lot since last year," Parcells said. "We have enough athletic ability at that (cornerback) position. We just have to get them playing. Pete's entering his third year now. Either he's going to get playing, or … the circus doesn't stay in town forever."

Hunter said he understands his coach's assessment, but that he plans to play well enough that there's no decision to be made.

"Bill's always Bill -- he's a great coach who's very intense," Hunter said. "But I finished up the year pretty hot, and I trained really hard in the offseason, so I'll be ready. There's a lot of talent in this secondary, and we're going to have a great year."

Mitchell, at the ripe old age of 27, is the oldest cornerback on the roster. As a member of the Tennessee Titans, he developed a reputation as a hard-hitting slot corner and a special teams ace who had a knack for being around the ball and coming up with fumbles.

"He's like a safety playing corner," Newman said, "or maybe a linebacker. He's a lot like Woody (Woodson), but shorter."

Mitchell said he isn't sure if the "linebacker/safety playing corner" comparison is a good one.

Stay tuned for Part II of "Who Will Step Up at Cornerback" tomorrow morning on SilverStarDigest!

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