Countdown to Training Camp

In this first of a summer-long series previewing the 2002 Dallas Cowboys, we take a detailed look at the secondary. Rookie Roy Williams figures to make an immediate impact at stong safety, while newcomer Byrant Westbrook will start on the left side at cornerback.

While the Cowboys may have had a splendid overall defensive ranking last year (#4 in the NFL), it was obvious to anyone who has a clue about football that there were glaring weaknesses. One of those weaknesses was in the secondary.

One year, three draft picks, and a free agent acquisition later, the Cowboys all of a sudden find themselves loaded with talent and potential playmakers. A secondary that used to feature the likes of Kareem Larrimore, Duane Hawthorne, and George Teague, now boasts Roy Williams and Bryant Westbrook.

Williams personifies the word playmaker. His career at Oklahoma is unmatched by any other defensive player to come of major college football outside of Charles Woodson in the last 10 years.

"Roy Williams is certainly an impact-type of player, a guy that makes plays," said head coach Dave Campo. "You can make a highlight tape of Roy by putting any tape on. He's a highlight in himself."

Without a doubt, he'll be the starter at free safety against the Houston Texans on September 8th. Beside him will be SS Darren Woodson, a seasoned Super Bowl veteran entering the latter part of his career.

"To have Darren Woodson as a mentor, I feel he will help me elevate my game," Williams said. "I'm a team player, can tackle in the open field and I'm a quick learner. I like to hit, I'm physical and like to be in the mix."

Woodson, who will is now 33, could very well become the team's career leading tackler next season, a goal he said was among the reasons he didn't seriously test free agency.

"This is a team that's going to do something good. I see that in the near future, and that makes me not want to leave. We are going in the right direction. I'm made to have a star on my helmet," said Woodson.

The Williams-Woodson combination in the secondary gives Dallas the benefit of having two tough defensive backs with blazing speed. Both guys like to hit, and both guys can cover. In a way, it could be considered to be the perfect combination of youth and experience.

Backing up Williams and Woodson will be Tony Dixon. Dixon, perhaps a forgotten man after missing 7 games last year with a high ankle sprain, has his sights set on some playing time this season. "I'm hungrier than I was last season," Dixon said. "I just want to prove some things that I didn't have an opportunity to get on the field and prove last year."

Undoubtedly, Dixon has some work to do before defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer feels comfortable enough to leave him in the game for extensive periods of time. Zimmer has let it be known that he expects more out of Dixon this season, and it all starts with becoming more of a focused football player, as well as a vocal leader.

"I learned a lot mentally last year, and that's going to help me," Dixon said. "I'm excited about what we're doing in the secondary, and it inspires me because it improves us."

At the corners, it looks as though Bryant Westbrook will take command on the left side, and Mario Edwards should lock up the same position on the right.

Westbrook, a former pro-bowler with the Detroit Lions who has been bitten with the injury bug the last two seasons, signed with the Cowboys this past March. Fortunately, he appears to have fully recovered from an Achilles injury that ultimately led to his departure from Detroit.

"I'm feeling a lot better right now," said the former Texas Longhorn. "I'm moving around real good without any problems and I'm not showing any effects anymore from that injury. I'd say I'm above 90% now."

"We've been looking at Westbrook as the starting cornerback on the left side," said defensive coordinator Mike Zimmmer. "He'll have to battle it out in training camp, but right now he's looking pretty good."

Westbrook has shown great mobility during the course of the first couple of QB schools, which should help ease the mind of Jerry Jones after deciding to take a chance on the former pro bowler.

Opposite Bryant Westbrook at cornerback will be Mario Edwards, a third year pro out of Florida State. Edwards was a solid contributor last season, recording 42 tackles and returning one interception for a score. And while most people who follow the Cowboys note that Edwards is a consistent cornerback, he'll have to improve his consistency in covering the deep ball next season if he expects to keep his job.

After having surgery on his right shoulder in early February to fix damaged tissue, he recovered quickly enough to return for two mini-camps. "Guys have been out here looking good, and the competition is going to only make us better in the long run," said Edwards.

"Competition" is right, and it just may be Edwards who has to battle it out with Pat Dennis for the starting right cornerback spot. The coaching staff has been intrigued by Dennis since his performance in the 49er game late last season, and he'll once again get a good hard look in training camp.

Dennis, a third year pro out of Louisiana-Monroe, looked outstanding covering the likes of Joey Galloway and Antonio Bryant during one the QB schools back in May, and he'll likely command more playing time this season if he continues to show improvement.

And then there is Duane Hawthorne. The undersized cornerback has seemingly made it through another year with the Cowboys' organization, and once again, he's out to make the best of it.

Hawthorne was a respectable performer last season, as he registered 63 tackles in his 11 starts, the fourth-highest total on the team during that stretch.

"I was happy with the consistency he played with and the way he picked up his game," said secondary coach Clancy Pendergast. "He's a very competitive guy that I have a lot of confidence in."

Hawthorne is just happy to be with the team another year. "I just tell myself that I can play at this level, and that I'm not bad," said the 4th year pro of out Northern Illinois. "I'm just willing to do whatever it takes to get on the field. Just put me out there and I'll show what I can do."

Hawthorne and Dennis are two very respectable backups at cornerback, and don't forget about Dwayne Goodrich either.

Goodrich has been going through intense rehab since last August, trying to overcome an Achilles' injury, and he is only just now returning close to full speed. "I know I can still play football and contribute to this team," said Goodrich.

As the 49th overall selection in the 1999 Draft, the talent level is obviously there, he just hasn't been able to stay injury free during the course of his first two seasons. As a cornerback, Goodrich very well could be the odd man out, but look for him to also get a look at safety in San Antonio.

3rd round draft pick Derek Ross also figures to get a good look in training camp. Ross was thought to be a first rounder in this year's draft, but for whatever reason, he slipped all the way to the fourth round, where the Cowboys promptly picked him up.

The bad news for Ross is that he has yet to attend any of the mini-camps at Valley Ranch, due to his continuing enrollment at Ohio State. He'll have some work to do to catch up, but he's too much of an athlete to be ignored.

The Cowboys also added CB Pete Hunter to the mix by drafting him in the 5th round of Virginia Union. Hunter has good size and great speed, but he'll have to improve his overall knowledge of the game if he's going to make it in the NFL.

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