Coming out of the 2011 season, the Dallas Cowboys were faced with the realization that the most obvious weakness on the team was the defensive secondary. Down the stretch, the team saw inept play and personnel that were obviously no longer up to the task. Fixing this would be a top priority for the off-season.
Although the regular season is still a ways off, the general belief is that the mission has been accomplished. The two biggest acquisitions of the year, free agent Brandon Carr and the sixth pick overall in the draft, Morris Claiborne, were brought in to fix the cornerback situation.
Carr has been one of the unqualified standouts of training camp. His battles with Dez Bryant have been the most exciting match-ups in practice, and the two have pushed one another, both having standout plays and also getting beaten by one another. It is the kind of play that is likely to make each player better. Against all the other receivers he faces, Carr has simply been superb. He jams his man on the line, a key for Rob Ryan, and can cover well all over the field.
Claiborne is full of promise, but has been limited due to injury. He is not up to the level of Carr, but when he has been on the field, he has worked against Bryant on occasion, and has not backed down. While he is likely to have his struggles at times as a rookie, he is also almost certain to be more effective than Frank Walker, the player he will replace on the field.
There was a great deal of drama surrounding Mike Jenkins, the best returning player in the secondary. He was understandably concerned about the team making his position the top priority not once but twice in the offseason. Things seem to have settled down, with Jenkins now stating that he is comfortable with his role as a backup. He might have been the starter at the beginning of the season to allow Claiborne some time to grow into his role, but Jenkins' shoulder has not healed enough for him to be cleared to practice, and his availability for the first game is in doubt. But when he is ready to play, he is going to have a large part to fulfill, and the fact he is also likely playing to showcase himself for a new team will help to motivate him.
The fourth or slot cornerback is Orlando Scandrick. He is more limited in his capabilities, but has been showing some good play lately in practice. The top four cornerbacks for Dallas, once all are healthy, should leave the team vastly improved.
At this point it is not certain how many corners the team will carry, but it is almost certain at least one more will make it onto the final 53. At this point, Mario Butler may be the leader. He has practiced well and is familiar with the system from his time on the practice squad. Akwasi Owusu-Ansah is listed as the third man at left cornerback on the depth chart released by the team for the Oakland pre-season game, but he has certainly been up and down in camp.
More intriguing are C.J. Wilson and Lionel Smith, both of whom have gotten some nice reviews. Teddy Williams, while blazingly fast, remains very much a long shot to break through.
Safety is not as settled, but the emergence of Barry Church in camp does offer a bit of comfort. He seized the opportunity afforded when Brodney Pool failed the conditioning test at the beginning of camp, and was good enough to convince the team to release Pool. He joins Gerald Sensabaugh as the two starters.
In the Rob Ryan system, the strong and free safety designations are not hard and fast. At this point Church seems more the player to cover deep while Sensabaugh is a hard hitter and very effective blitzer, but both will likely be used in all roles at times. Danny McCray, special teams ace, has all but locked down a roster slot and has taken steps to prove himself to be a legitimate safety in camp.
Behind those three, it is expected that fourth-round pick Matt Johnson, with his seventeen career interceptions in college, will certainly make the team. If the Cowboys go with an additional safety, the contenders are Mana Silva, Justin Taplin-Ross and Eddie Whitley. In the practices at camp, all have had good and bad days, so it is hard to say if anyone is leading. Also, the team may opt to use any additional roster spots to go deep at cornerback and just stick with four safeties.
But it is clear that the secondary questions for the Cowboys are strictly about who the backups are, not who will start. This is undoubtedly an improved bunch from last year. The only thing to be answered is how much improvement they represent.
All indications are that the answer is a lot.