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Thursday, August 4, 2011
Breaking down the Cowboys' secondary

By Matt Williamson

Even before the draft, there was a very strong argument that the weakest area of the Cowboys’ roster was the secondary. Dallas’ pass defense was among the worst in the league last year -- but it wasn’t from a lack of quality pass-rushers. The draft is ancient history and the first wave (more like a tsunami) of free agency is just about behind us. But is Dallas vastly improved on the back end of its defense? Not even close.

The starting cornerbacks, Terence Newman and Mike Jenkins, were particularly poor in 2010. And the starting free safety, Alan Ball, was miserable in coverage. Gerald Sensabaugh, the starter at strong safety, had the best year of anyone in this secondary. But he really isn’t a great cover man, which shows how bad things were a year ago for the Cowboys. Dallas wisely kept him near the line of scrimmage. It also re-signed Sensabaugh, who was up for free agency. In the draft, the Cowboys only used one selection for secondary help, a fifth-round pick on Josh Thomas from the University of Buffalo. Thomas is considered a project.

Abram Elam
The Cowboys on Wednesday signed safety Abram Elam to a one-year, $2.5 million contract.
Needless to say, this isn’t a good situation for the Cowboys. They are going to move Ball back to cornerback, where he belongs. And I believe Jenkins is a better  player than what he showed last year. Their nickelback, Orlando Scandrick, could be poised to get more playing time. But in the end, I see Scandrick as best suited for his current role. Dallas does have two youngsters who could step up in their second NFL seasons in Bryan McCann and particularly Akwasi Owusu-Ansah. But neither of these two did anything to speak of in Year 1.

Are there free agents available who could help the cause? There are several intriguing safeties who have yet to be signed, and every one of them would be massive upgrades from what Ball did at free safety a year ago. On Wednesday, Dallas signed safety Abram Elam. He is a smart player with decent range. He isn’t afraid to insert himself or throw his body around. He is certainly an upgrade over what the Cowboys were playing with as a last layer of defense in 2010. But I still question if that is enough to really compete in their secondary -- especially with the rigors of the season and once injuries occur. The Cowboys should also look at free agents Dashon Goldson, Donte Whitner and Deon Grant at free safety; all are unsigned as of this morning.

I commend the Cowboys for keeping many of their own free agents and addressing their offensive line situation, especially since they were in a real bind financially. But their secondary is a huge problem.

Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com. Follow Matt Williamson on Twitter @WilliamsonNFL.