Cowboys must look at drafting a free safety

When the Cowboys released safety Ken Hamlin recently, there became an opening in their defense. A big opening, in my opinion, when we talk about the style of defense that’s played under Wade Phillips down in Dallas.

We often tend to overlook the free safety position when it comes to the pressure teams in the NFL. The wave of defenses that are moving to the 3-4 scheme to generate pressure, use exotic blitz packages and play plenty of Cover 1 in the secondary is growing.

But to do that, you need a safety who not only can tackle in the middle of the field, but also show enough range to get over the top of any vertical route that releases outside the numbers. In an ideal world, every team in need of a free safety would have a shot at Eric Berry from Tennessee, but for Dallas, there’s still talent that could be available later in the first round.

Looking at the Cowboys, there’s no doubt they can play that man-free pressure defense because of their corners. I’m a big fan of Mike Jenkins. Love his technique and his ability to plant and drive on the ball. Terence Newman is also one of the better man corners in the league. They’re two guys who are accountable and can play at top level.

However, that hole at free safety needs to be corrected in the draft. The Cowboys have a championship-level defense when they can pressure. Having that free safety allows them to play some more man-free, use outside leverage and force routes to the safety in the middle of the field.

In his mock draft today, NFP scout Wes Bunting had the Cowboys taking USC’s Taylor Mays off the board at No. 27. We all know about Mays because he turned out to be the combine star of 2010. Has all the measurables, the size of an OLB and can run like a corner. A tough player for an owner like Jerry Jones to pass up because of his star quality and fan appeal. But is he a playmaker?

Earl Thomas from Texas is an option. He doesn’t have Mays’ size, but he does have the speed, lit up his pro day and looks to be the type of player who has the skills to come down hard from the middle of the field and play some man courage over a No. 3 WR in the slot. The chances of Thomas still waiting by the phone at No. 27 are slim, but with every draft, a run on another position could cause Thomas to slip.

However, the sleeper at the free safety position later in the first round could be Morgan Burnett from Georgia Tech. He doesn’t have the big name like Mays or Thomas, but he’s an ideal safety who can use his range to get over the top of vertical routes and locate the football in the air. Bunting calls him the best “center-field” safety in the draft.

I do see the Cowboys as a team that could make a strong postseason push in 2010, but to play their style of defense, they need to address positions of need.

And that’s free safety.

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