Safety first for Dallas?

For months, the common perception has been that the Dallas Cowboys will use the draft, including their first pick (27th overall), to bolster their aging offensive line.

If they draft the best available blocker to back up one of the thirty-somethings who start up front, it will be hard for fans or media to complain.

But now there is talk swirling that Dallas might go in another direction. With strong safety Gerald Sensabaugh a free agent, and owner Jerry Jones acknowledging that the team could release free safety Ken Hamlin, the Cowboys reportedly are pushing safety toward the top of their wish list.

With that in mind, which safeties should the Cowboys consider?

First of all, forget Eric Berry. Unless Dallas trades up into the top end of the first round, which would cost a heavy price, the Tennessee star will be gone — long gone — when Dallas has its first chance to select a player.

Taylor Mays of USC is the highest-rated safety who might have a chance to be there when Dallas picks. Mays is a physical freak for a safety; at 6-3, 230, he looks more like an outside linebacker (and not a undersized linebacker "playing up," either). He is extremely fast and explosive for a player of his size, and is a violent hitter; he tied for second among safeties at the Combine with 24 reps on the 225-pound bench press. His fundamentals — particularly the angles he takes and his tackling — can be inconsistent, but those are two things that can be coached. What Dallas (and other teams) will have to decide is whether is too stiff to play safety. With his size and rare athletic ability, there are some scouts out there who believe his future lies at outside linebacker. He'll start out, however, at safety, where his otherworldly athletic ability should get him taken before the end of the first round.

Just as there are few safeties who are as tall as Mays, there are just as few in the NFL who are as short as Earl Thomas (5-10, 208) of Texas. He has added 11 pounds since the end of the season, which should help his already-strong tackling ability. He runs well and has good ball skills, which allowed him to play a center field-style role at Texas. His ability to make plays on the ball, and his overall athleticism, have many believing he will be able to overcome his relative lack of bulk and should get him picked in the late first or early- to mid-second round.

LSU's Chad Jones is another big, über-athletic safety who can fill a number of roles, including that of baseball star (Jones won national titles in both sports with the Tigers). Jones, measured in at the Combine at 6-2, 221, crashes the line well in run support, and has a knack (also known as 4.45 speed and explosive leaping ability) for making plays on balls in the air when he's in position to do so. He's not a blanket coverage guy, but he is extremely effective when he comes forward into the box to take on ball carriers or blitz off the edge. His athleticism and versatility should prevent him from sliding past the second or third round.

If the Cowboys choose to wait until the middle rounds, an intriguing prospect is Virginia Tech's Kam Chancellor (6.3, 231). Another big player, he also is at his best when he creeps forward into the box, almost like an extra linebacker. He's extremely strong (his 22 reps on the 225-pound bench press at the Combine were the fifth-highest total among safeties), and plays with excellent power and leverage. He doesn't have elite speed (4.6), but should be gone by the end of the fourth round.

One late-round possibility who offers a nice combination of size and speed is Indiana's Nick Polk (5-11, 211), a productive player for four years, including at wide receiver as a freshman. He is not overly fast, but pretty strong, and has good ball skills; he has soft hands and catches the ball away from his body, and will have to play special teams at the next level to stick.

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