IRVING, Texas - When 75 percent of the starters at one position are playing in the Pro Bowl, you might a.ssume that spot is seemingly in good shape heading into the off-season.
But that's not the case at all for the Cowboys secondary.
In fact, it's quite the opposite.
Is there any other position on the team with more question marks as we approach the free-agent signing period at the end of the month and then the draft in late April?
Think about it, not one player in the defensive backfield is without some kind of question mark. Whether it's his future with the club, his starting role or if he's even at the right position, every guy has something that probably needs to be figured out, either immediately or in the near future.
And that's why secondary has to be a huge priority for the Cowboys at some point this off-season.
I say some point, because it doesn't have to be the draft. It doesn't have to be free agency. It might not even get addressed from the outside, although it's unlikely the Cowboys will just stick to status quo. They don't have to look elsewhere if they choose to make changes, either.
But sooner or later, questions need to start getting answered.
Sure, the Cowboys will have three defensive backs playing in Sunday's Pro Bowl - with both safeties Roy Williams and Ken Hamlin suiting up for the NFC, along with Terence Newman at cornerback. Even Anthony Henry had a rather solid season, leading the team with six interceptions, despite missing three games and parts of three others because of a high ankle sprain he suffered in mid-season.
But all of the starters have some uncertainty surrounding them.
Let's start with probably the biggest one of all, and some could argue it's the Cowboys' top priority of the entire off-season.
Without a doubt, Hamlin needs to be re-signed. And he's going to probably warrant a rather hefty contract. To me, this is one where you just nod your head and say good job, here's your money.
Like every team in the league, the Cowboys had a chance to lock up Hamlin to a long-term deal last March. He was an unrestricted free agent, but previous injury concerns and questions about his consistency were too much for teams to shell out the big dollars.
The Cowboys opted for a one-year deal. Hamlin didn't have much of a choice, but he took it, gambling on himself that he could play his way into a big-time contract.
And he did just that. Hamlin was a steady force at safety, a.ssuming a leadership role that position hasn't had since Darren Woodson retired.
With so many other doubts at the safety position, Hamlin will get re-signed. The Cowboys will do what they need to do to get him under contract for years to come.
The Cowboys have to figure out what to do with Williams. Forget the game he's playing in Sunday. We all know he's not playing like the player the Cowboys hoped for when they signed him to a six-year deal back in 2006. He still has four years left on that contract and the Cowboys must to decide if they want to keep things as is and hope he gets better. Or they can always take drastic measures, but it's unlikely they would flat-out cut Williams.
If that happened before June 1, the Cowboys would save his $3.72 million base salary but would take an immediate hit of $4.44 million in pro-rated signing bonus. So in essence, it would cost the team about $720,000 not to have him. That doesn't seem worth it to me.
Now if they released him after June 1, that $4.44 million would go to next year's salary cap. Either way, that's a lot of dough to hit the cap - either this year or next year. The bottom line is they need to be able to play with him, at least for another year.
But they can at least look for some other options at safety without simply giving Williams the starting job without competition.
He's changing back to No. 38 next season - the number he wore in college. Let's see if he can become the player he was back then again.
But Williams' backup all season at strong safety was Keith Davis, another one of the team's unrestricted free agents.
Davis clearly is the most valuable special teams player on the squad. That was evident in the two games he missed early in the season with a torn pectoral muscle, when the Cowboys allowed a kickoff and punt return for a touchdown in consecutive games.
But while Davis is the special teams captain, he wants to be a safety. He knows the window is closing on his chances to be an every-down player. While strong safety seems to be his best position, Davis knows it's unlikely he would get that opportunity as long as Williams is ahead of him.
It seems like we're at the point now where the Cowboys could try a few options at safety. Maybe Williams is still the best candidate. Maybe Davis should get a chance. Maybe Hamlin is more of a strong safety and Pat Watkins can battle for the free safety spot.
Unlike the last few years, it seems the Cowboys have some pieces at safety, but they're going to have to be creative to figure out just how they will fit.
One option that always seems to be mentioned is the idea of moving Henry to free safety. While he's usually a good tackler for a cornerback and would have ideal size at safety, not to mention some early-career experience at the position, that's never been a good idea to me.
Talk about robbing Peter to pay Paul. You've been trying for years to find some quality cornerbacks. Now you've got two in Henry and Newman and will probably look to find some help from another third cornerback. I'm not a big fan of moving Henry to a position with the hope that he can make the transition. Now what at cornerback? You still need to find two, instead of one.
Speaking of the corners, Newman is entering the last year of his contract. He's coming off a Pro Bowl season - finally, we can say that and be accurate - but while I once thought he would demand ridiculous dollars, not so sure anymore.
And that has nothing to do with his actual play on the field. I would call Newman one of the best cover cornerbacks in the NFL and you rarely see him giving up any big plays, especially touchdowns.
But he does have one thing going against him - age. Although he's played just five seasons, Newman will turn 30 when the regular season begins in September.
Now, he still might have five or so really good seasons ahead of him - maybe more than that. But it's unlikely he's going to see the $80 million contract range that Nate Clements got from San Francisco last year or probably not what New England's Asante Samuel could get this off-season.
The Cowboys are loyal to their superstars. And they consider Newman in that category. But it will be very interesting to see how his next contract will be handled.
But that's a decision for down the road. The Cowboys have two other cornerbacks that are unrestricted free agents in Jacques Reeves and Nate Jones.
Raise your hand if anyone actually thought both of those seventh-round picks in 2004 would make it four years with the team? Not me, I know that.
I think both of them will get the chance to test the free-agent market. Jones is a solid special teams player, but the more years he keeps playing, the harder it is to justify keeping a veteran role player and possibly stunt the progress of a young defensive back.
As for Reeves, his market value might be surprising to some. While he gave up a few big plays late in the season, he was better than you think. And teams will take a chance on a guy who can run. Speed still sells in this league and Reeves has it.
Look for him to get a deal somewhere, and it may end up being here in Dallas.
And if the Cowboys are going to get a free-agent cornerback, that's the type of player I would expect them to sign. Someone in the category of Reeves, which means maybe it would just make sense to re-sign him.
But to add another high-priced cornerback in the mix, when you already have the contracts to Newman and Henry, doesn't make a lot of sense.
Draft one? Possibly. Doesn't have to be in the first round, but probably on the first day.
The Cowboys will probably give Alan Ball, last year's seventh-round pick, a chance to show his development. Evan Oglesby, who was claimed off waivers early in the season from Baltimore, never got much of a chance.
Another question mark with the defensive backs is just what former head coach Dave Campo can bring to the position.
When most fans think Campo, they think three straight 5-11 seasons as head coach. But few people can argue his credentials as an a.ssistant. He should be a nice addition.
But before he can start coaching them up, the Cowboys are going to have to make some tough decisions with their secondary.
Probably more decisions there than another position.
Things that need to happen:
1. Roy needs to spend the offseason seriously getting into shape. He has the ability to be great, but he's slow and out of shape. If they can't get his a.ss to boss up and put in serious work, trade him. He is changing his number back to 38 so maybe that's a sign he knows he needs to change something.
2(If 1 doesn't happen). Move Hamlin to SS and Henry to FS and go after Samuels or Trufant.
3. Let Jones go, he's a waste of a roster spot.
4. Resign Reeves. He's not a starter, but he can at least be a 3rd or 4th CB.
5. Draft a DB EARLY.