At Valley Ranch, the Dallas Cowboys are in the same boat as everyone else. The Cowboys have signed all but two of their own free agents: wide receiver Miles Austin and safety Gerald Sensabaugh. Owner Jerry Jones has said Austin will not leave. Sources have told RanchReport.com that the team would like to retain Sensabaugh, as well, but there has been little talk so far about an extension, and the free agent market for Sensabaugh has been relatively quiet, as well.
So going into the draft, which positions should be at the top of the Cowboys' priority list?
On a team as talented as Dallas is, it's hard to say there's a position the team absolutely must address, but if there is one, tackle is it. When Marc Colombo got hurt last year, reserve Doug Free showed he is an adequate fill-in … on the right side. But he also struggled in the playoffs when he played on the left side (admittedly, a lot of tackles struggle against Minnesota defensive end Jared Allen), underscoring the need for a more athletic left tackle to protect quarterback Tony Romo's blind side.
Even if Sensabaugh stays — and he should be after a solid debut season with the Cowboys — Dallas must add a safety. The position was one of need even before Jones shed the weight of Ken Hamlin's contract. Now, with Sensabaugh's situation unresolved, the team is left with safeties who present potential and question marks. Patrick Watkins recently signed his tender offer, but never has been a starter. Neither has Mike Hamlin, although he has just one professional season on his résumé. Alan Ball filled in when called upon last year, but is small for the position and is better-suited to play cornerback, the position at which he was drafted.
Jones has implied that the team is not really focused on receivers, but given the time and money and energy spent studying and working out guys like Oklahoma State's Dez Bryant, Georgia Tech's Demaryius Thomas, Notre Dame's Golden Tate, Illinois' Arrelious Benn, LSU's Brandon LaFell, SMU's Emmanuel Sanders, The Citadel's Andre Roberts, Kansas' Dezmon Briscoe, Ohio's Taylor Alexander, Tulane's Jeremy Williams, Appalachian State's Armanti Edwards, it's safe to say Jones' claims of disinterest are a poorly played smoke screen. Even if Austin stays, as must assume he will, the position still is not a strength on the Dallas offense. Roy Williams has talent, but has yet to produce at a level anywhere near what is expected for a player who cost the team three draft picks and a $54 million contract. Patrick Crayton has been a solid No. 3 receiver for years. Sam Hurd, at least thus far, has contributed mostly on special teams. Kevin Ogletree showed flashes in 2009, but so far, that's what they were — flashes. Another deep threat to complement Austin would make the Dallas offense far more potent, both in the passing game and in the running game by forcing opposing defenses to play their safeties a little deeper.
Starters Terence Newman and Mike Jenkins are as solid a tandem as there is this side of the New York Jets. Third cornerback Orlando Scandrick could start for some teams. But after that? The Cowboys are thin at the position, and considering the fact that all NFL teams utilize three-receiver sets pretty regularly, three cornerbacks is not enough. One injury at the position could greatly change the effectiveness of the defense. Remember, the Cowboys drafted a pair of cornerbacks last year — DeAngelo Smith and Mike Mickens, both from the University of Cincinnati — and neither made the team. If the old axiom about team never having enough defensive backs who can cover is valid, then cornerback is a position at which Dallas needs to improve its depth.
The position has been in a state of flux for a year. Incumbent Nick Folk struggled last year, eventually leading to his release, and his replacement, Shaun Suisham, inspired so much confidence he isn't even among the candidates for the job. Kickoff specialist David Buehler will get a long throughout training camp, and the team brought in free agent Connor Hughes to push Buehler. But Buehler was considered when Folk got cut, and was erratic with his accuracy. With an entire offseason to work on field goals as well as his kickoffs, maybe his accuracy will improve. But kickers are an underappreciated bunch. Teams never know how good a kicker was until they can't find a suitable replacement.
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