The seventh in a series looking at each of the Dallas Cowboys’ position groups:
Players: FS Ken Hamlin (signed through 2013), SS Gerald Sensabaugh (restricted free agent), FS Alan Ball (exclusive rights free agent), SS Pat Watkins (restricted free agent), SS Michael Hamlin (signed through 2012)
What went right: The addition of Sensabaugh solidified the secondary. His coverage skills were a major upgrade over Roy Williams and the rest of the strong safeties the Cowboys used in 2008.
Sensabaugh’s playmaking ability was limited because he played most of the season with a cast protecting his broken right thumb, which caused him to miss only one game. He had only one interception but deflected 10 passes. The coaches felt comfortable putting Sensabaugh in man coverage against most tight ends and some receivers, allowing Wade Phillips freedom with his defensive play-calling.
Ball, a converted cornerback, proved that he can be a reliable free safety during his four-game stint as the starter when Ken Hamlin was injured. Ball is good in coverage, and he wasn’t a liability against the run despite weighing only 188 pounds.
What went wrong: The Cowboys simply need their safeties to make more plays.
That was Jerry Jones’ top concern at midseason. Nothing happened down the stretch to change that.
Sensabaugh was the only safety with an interception. Ken Hamlin, two seasons into a six-year, $39 million deal, didn’t create any turnovers and deflected only four passes.
A lack of turnovers is the only thing keeping the Dallas defense from being dominant. The safeties must be more opportunistic.
That was a major reason why the Cowboys drafted Michael Hamlin, who holds Clemson’s career interception record with 14, in the fifth round. But he broke his wrist in the final preseason game and spent most of the season on the inactive list.
What’s next: The Cowboys have a decision to make with Ken Hamlin. Less than a fifth of his $5.6 million salary is guaranteed, so there is a strong possibility that he could be released.
The odds increase if a free safety the Cowboys like is available in the first or second round. Their emphasis at the position is on coverage, so USC’s Taylor Mays might not be a good fit even if he slides to the 27th overall pick. Texas’ Earl Thomas would be a great fit if other teams shy away from him in the first round due to concern about his size (5-10, 197).
Ball will be back and has earned the right to compete for a starting job, whether Hamlin is on the roster or not. There are some at Valley Ranch who thought Ball performed better than Hamlin last season, but Phillips values Hamlin’s communication ability.
Watkins, a restricted free agent, has value because of his work on special teams. He’s had trouble staying healthy, but he consistently ranks among the team’s top tacklers on punt and kickoff coverage.