Who will replace Gerald Sensabaugh?

OXNARD, Calif. -- The Cowboys might have to start a backup strong safety in the Sept. 12 season opener. There’s a strong possibility the Cowboys aren’t certain yet who that player would be.

It’s something they’ll need to figure out over the next weeks while they hope starter Gerald Sensabaugh can come back on the short end of the timeframe expected to recover from a subluxation of his left shoulder suffered Saturday night. Sensabaugh is optimistic, tweeting Monday that he should be ready for Washington. But the Cowboys need a backup plan.

Undrafted rookie Barry Church replaced Sensabaugh in the preseason win over the San Diego Chargers and performed pretty well. He was active in run support and returned a fumble 80 yards to set up the starters’ lone score. Church gave up a catch to Antonio Gates on fourth down to extend a touchdown drive, but there’s no way Wade Phillips would put a rookie one-on-one against a Pro Bowl tight end in that situation in a regular-season game.

But the Cowboys didn’t have much choice other than to play Church. The other two strong safety candidates – Michael Hamlin (concussion) and Pat Watkins (knee) – didn’t play due to injuries.

Watkins is the only one of the trio that’s ever played an NFL snap in the regular season. He’s a four-year veteran with 10 career starts, including one last season when Sensabaugh missed a game after breaking his thumb. But he’s in danger of being pushed off the roster by the rookie safeties. He’ll be fighting for his job as he returns to practice in a full capacity after being sidelined or limited by a sprained knee since early in camp.

Hamlin, a 2009 fifth-round pick who is expected to return to practice this week, has focused on free safety during the offseason and camp. But a battle with Alan Ball for a starting job didn’t materialize. The 6-foot-2, 213-pound Hamlin has the size to play strong safety.

It’s possible that one of the three potential replacements for Sensabaugh will start against the Redskins – and likely at least one won’t be on the roster.