Faith in Free allows Boys to think safety

When the Dallas Cowboys released left tackle Flozell Adams this offseason, it meant Doug Free, a man with just seven career starts, was in line to protect quarterback Tony Romo's blind side in 2010.

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones reinforced his commitment to Free on Tuesday afternoon.

And with that, Jones erased the possibility he will select an offensive tackle in the first round of the NFL draft, which starts Thursday night.

After letting Ken Hamlin go, Jones most likely will go for a safety, and the Cowboys have first-round grades on Tennessee's Eric Berry, Texas' Earl Thomas and USC's Taylor Mays.

Jones said the replacement at free safety could be Alan Ball, who started four games while Hamlin was injured last season. Mike Hamlin (no relation to Ken) also could move in at safety, but the team didn't see him play enough after he suffered a broken wrist.

But there are no guarantees the Cowboys draft a safety in the first round. They pick so low -- 27th overall -- that Berry, Thomas and Mays could already be off the board.

"We aren't hostage to any position in this draft," Jones said. "If you look at our numbers, then just something as simplistic as the number of safeties you take to camp or the number of [cornerbacks], then you'd say we need to draft a safety."

As of today, the Cowboys have four safeties -- Gerald Sensabaugh, Patrick Watkins, Mike Hamlin and Ball -- on the roster, one fewer than last year.

"Ball is a key ingredient there, and obviously Sensabaugh is being counted on when I say we feel good about our safety," Jones said. "Mike Hamlin is someone that we think that's got a chance to help us. He's a year farther along."

If the Cowboys can't get one of their top three at safety, there are other options that would be available in the lower stages of the first round -- Georgia Tech's Morgan Burnett, who worked out with Sensabaugh this spring, and South Florida's Nate Allen.

Jones will tell you it's difficult to replace Ken Hamlin with a rookie. After all, Hamlin made the defensive calls in the secondary.

"Certainly we will miss Ken Hamlin's quarterbacking and so that adds a dimension to it," Jones said.

While with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Sensabaugh made the defensive calls under former secondary coach Dave Campo, who is now with the Cowboys. In 2008, after the Cowboys cut Roy Williams, Campo told the team he had the man for the job.

Sensabaugh, whom Jones on Tuesday said he wanted to lock up to a long-term deal, had 66 tackles and eight pass breakups last season.

So if one answer in the secondary is Sensabaugh, the other answer should be taken care of Thursday night.

Calvin Watkins covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.