A Little Safety Lesson

days, it was nothing for the Cowboys to bring 100 rookies and free agents to training camp. That's right, 100. No roster limits. 

Well, when Downs arrived as an undrafted free agent in Thousand Oaks, Calif., for what was the start of what was then known as rookie training camp, he was one of 105 rookies checking in. You want to talk about odds? Worse, he was one of 20 defensive backs invited. Good gosh. 

In fact, he did not even make the media guide that year, since it would have been impossible for all those rookie free agents to get listed. But heck, in some pre-camp stories, no one even mentioned his name as one of the top defensive back additions with the likes of Ron Fellows, Vince Skillings, Greg Grim and Lester Ward. Only Fellows, a seventh-round pick, made the team from that bunch. 

Now you guys should know the rest of the story, the home-town kid makes good. Not only did Downs make the Cowboys' roster, he started the season opener against Washington, and even pulled down his first NFL interception in the 26-10 victory. Downs would go on to start 15 of 16 games that year, finishing third on the team with seven interceptions - four behind team-leader Everson Walls, who, if you believe in fairytales, was another home-town kid to not only make the team that year as a rookie free agent, but earn a starting job at cornerback. 

Imagine that, two kids who grew up in the Dallas area, not only making the team, not only earning starting jobs, but combining for 18 of the team's 37 interceptions that 12-4 season. 

Downs was an unknown, who eight years later, became well-known. 

Watkins at least starts his Cowboys' career known. I mean, check out this pre-draft analysis: 

Watkins is one of the better free safety prospects in the draft because of his talent and the untapped potential he still has. There are a few underclassmen that could push Watkins down the safety board a bit, but he is a fine talent no matter who is in the draft. There is a very good possibility he hears his name called in the third round somewhere. If he goes any lower than that, he has the ability to be a major steal for whoever drafts him. 

And he has the same opportunity as did Downs, who was facing veteran competition for the job from the likes of Charlie Waters, Randy Hughes, Bennie Barnes, Dennis Thurman and Dextor Clinkscale. There is a starting job open. 

Sure, the Cowboys come with some veterans, including last year's 15-game starter Keith Davis and recently-acquired 11th-year veteran Marcus Coleman. There's also last year's sixth-round pick Justin Beriault, returning from knee surgery, and nickel safety and special teams guy Willie Pile. Plus, keep an eye on rookie free agents Darrell Brooks (Arizona) and the speedy Abram Elam (Kent State). 

Still, that's a lot less than Downs faced back 25 years ago. 

So let's not make too much out of Watkins being a 6-5 safety or that's he's a tad thin for his size. Downs was comparatively the same, and I'm guessing back in that day, there weren't too many 6-3 safeties running around the NFL. 

As Watkins said, "I rarely miss tackles or get beat deep." 

That would be a good start. And then add special teams - gunner on the punt team, hold-up guy on the punt-return team, cover kick offs and at 6-5, line up in the middle to block kicks. The Cowboys might just be on to something here. 

We'll see. 

Now starting a rookie at free safety, and a fifth-rounder at that, and a tall, skinny one on top of all that, might be a leap of faith. But you know what, it's been done around these parts before. 

Go talk to Michael Downs.   

MICK SHOTS

   
  With the exception of possibly Kerry Collins, have you seen the list of top veteran free-agent quarterbacks out there? Try Tony Banks, Jeff Blake, Ty Detmer, Jay Fiedler, Craig Krenzel, Tommy Maddox and Shane Matthews. That's some slim pickin's. 
  Oh, and no more need asking about

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