During an off-season chock-full of notable rookie and free-agent pickups, the best personnel decision the Cowboys made might have been the one last March when they did not sign a player. Desperate for a cornerback, they had their eyes on free agent Duane Starks, an appealing cover corner formerly with the Ravens. Dallas coaches and scouts liked Starks but figured—correctly—that he was a good corner, not a premier one. In the past, owner Jerry Jones would have brought Starks to town on his private jet, whipped out his checkbook and signed him for far too much money. But when Jones's son Stephen, the club's vice president and chief negotiator, told his dad the Cardinals were ready to hand Starks a $5 million signing bonus, Jones announced in a staff meeting, "We need a corner, but he's not worth it."
Instead, Dallas spent its money on four free agents whose performance will go a long way in determining whether the team is a playoff contender this year. The Cowboys are relying on linebacker Kevin Hardy, defensive tackle La'Roi Glover, cornerback Bryant Westbrook and tight end Tony McGee to fill big holes. Each carries a risk, but in not overpaying at key need positions, the club improved itself and kept its once-bloated salary cap in line. The combined cap cost this year to sign Hardy, Glover, Westbrook and McGee: $6.2 million.
Dallas is gambling that Westbrook, the fifth pick in the 1997 draft by the Lions, can be the physical left corner the defense has lacked. He tore his left Achilles tendon in November 2000 and was still struggling to regain his form in training camp. "I can definitely be the player I was two years ago," Westbrook says. Expectations are moderate for McGee, too, but he's a low-cost pickup who averaged 33 receptions and 12.7 yards per catch in nine seasons with the Bengals. When he was surprisingly hired last Jan. 31 to be the team's offensive coordinator, former Cincinnati coach Bruce Coslet immediately pushed to sign the 31-year-old McGee, whose presence should help keep defenses from loading up to stop the run as Emmitt Smith pursues the NFL career rushing record.
The Cowboys had a total of only 49 sacks in the past two years and haven't had a player with double-digit sacks in six years. "We need a pass rush if our defense is going to take that next step to greatness," coach Dave Campo says of a unit that ranked fourth in the league last year. He's hoping Hardy and Glover can be the catalysts. Dallas invested $2.5 million for a one-year deal with Hardy, who had microfracture surgery on his left knee last December. "The procedure has a pretty good success rate," Hardy said in camp, "and I'm confident the knee will hold up. But it might be midseason before I'm 100 percent." At his best in 1999 Hardy was an inside linebacker in size (6'4", 259 pounds) and an outside backer in quickness (10� sacks). Now, at 29, his job is to anchor a group of undersized linebackers.
A cap casualty of the Saints, Glover had 25 sacks over the past two years thanks to his inside pass-rush savvy and the brute strength of fellow tackle Norman Hand. Glover should benefit similarly by playing next to one of the most underrated linemen in the game, relentless 312-pound Brandon Noble, an NFL Europe refugee who was a full-time starter last season.
The wild card on defense is rookie safety Roy Williams, the 228-pound first-round draft pick who has drawn comparisons with Ronnie Lott. He'll make Glover and Hardy's jobs easier by forcing offenses to account for him as a blitzer—and make no mistake, Williams will blitz as much as any safety in football.
"There's no question we're better on paper, both in our starting 22 and the full roster," says Campo. "We obviously have an awful lot of what-ifs, but I see tremendous similarities between the Cowboys of the early '90s and these Cowboys. In the early '90s we had two good drafts and picked up some quality free agents in [tight end] Jay Novacek, [safety] James Washington and [linebacker] Vinson Smith. In the last two years we've had two good drafts and picked up four starters in free agency."
Campo pauses. "Of course," he adds, "the difference is, 10 years ago we had Troy Aikman."
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