Free safety questions looming

One reason many predict the Dallas Cowboys will end the season as the first team to play in a Super Bowl in their home stadium is because of the glut of talent on their roster.

At many positions, starters are clear-cut, and in many cases, the pecking order of backups is clearly defined.

That's not the case everywhere, however. One of the key position battles is at free safety, where veteran Ken Hamlin was released after three seasons as the team's starter, where the former Pro Bowler had just one interception over his last two seasons in Dallas.

In his place, the Cowboys appear ready to go with either Alan Ball or Mike Hamlin (who is not related to Ken). The 6-foot-1, 188-pound Ball is a converted cornerback who has superior coverage skill for a safety, and the theory is that playing him at free safety should help increase the team's ability to generate takeaways in the secondary.

Mike Hamlin is the bigger of the two at 6-2 and 213 pounds. He also is known as a playmaker, although he earned that reputation in college. The Cowboys drafted him in the fifth round of the 2009 draft out of Clemson University, where he recorded 14 career interceptions, the third-highest total in school history. Hamlin entered the 2009 season after having shown considerable promise over the offseason, but his rookie season got derailed before it started when he fractured a wrist in the Cowboys' preseason game against the San Francisco 49ers. Hamlin's once-promising season concluded with the rookie defender collecting just three tackles — one in the regular season, and two against Philadelphia in the Cowboys' victory in the NFC Wild Card game. (He clearly isn't afraid of contact, however; Hamlin averaged 81.5 tackles per year during his college career.)

Ball likely will be the starter when the Cowboys head to San Antonio this week for the start of training camp; he ran with the first-team defense during the mini-camps and Organized Team Activities (OTAs), but his grip on the starting role is anything but assured. He has more experience playing alongside starting strong safety Gerald Sensabaugh after he stepped in at the position for four games when Ken Hamlin sprained an ankle.

But most of his training is at cornerback, where he played collegiately at Illinois, and he intercepted just two passes in college. Ball spent most of his rookie season in 2007 on the practice squad, before playing in 10 games in 2008; most of his action that year was on special teams, but on defense, he played cornerback, not safety.

Ball probably has a slight edge in the race to begin the 2010 as the Cowboys' starting free safety, but don't be surprised to see Mike Hamlin eventually unseat him for the top spot. This isn't merely a case of "bigger is better," which often is the formula some observers use when determining a starter. Hamlin is bigger, but he also is a more physical player and a more proven ballhawk (at least at the college level).

Not to be overlooked is rookie Akwasi Owusu-Ansah, another former college cornerback who will move to free safety with the Cowboys. He did only conditioning work in mini-camp while recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, but he has good size (6-0, 207) and excellent speed, and is thought to have a bright future once he makes the adjustment to the NFL and to his new position.

Regardless of which player ends up with the starting role, the Cowboys appear to have more depth at the position than they have had in years.

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