Cowboys show confidence in Ball

IRVING, Texas -- Alan Ball convinced the Cowboys' coaches that he could be the solution at free safety during his four games as a fill-in last season.

It apparently took owner and general manager Jerry Jones a little longer to warm up to the idea of counting on a converted cornerback to replace Ken Hamlin.

Jones publicly reserved the right to pursue a free-agent safety for most of the spring. However, when the St. Louis Rams made turnover machine O.J. Atogwe an unrestricted free agent at the beginning of the month, Jones declared that the Cowboys were set at the position.

Why are the Cowboys so confident in an undersized former seventh-round pick?

"I know he's a football player," said secondary coach Dave Campo, referring to Ball's toughness and savvy. "That's 90 percent of it in my mind. I know the guy loves to play the game. He's smart; he's going to be where he's supposed to be; he's picking up everything; he's very physical; he's kind of a ballhawk; and he's handling everything mentally.

"As far as I'm concerned, I feel very good about him."

Head coach and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips shares that opinion, which ought to ease the concerns. For all the criticism Phillips has taken during his tenure, nobody with a rational mind has questioned his defensive expertise. That applies as much to personnel evaluation as it does to X's and O's.

After all, the Cowboys raised eyebrows when they cut two defensive starters last offseason. They got rid of Greg Ellis to make room for Anthony Spencer at outside linebacker and traded Anthony Henry because they had confidence in young cornerbacks Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick.

Any arguments against those decisions after Spencer and Jenkins blossomed into stars on the NFC's stingiest scoring defense? Didn't think so.

"I think we're right in this case also," Phillips said.

The Cowboys believe Ball is a good fit in large part because of his coverage ability. They're comfortable putting him in man coverage against slot receivers, freeing Phillips to be as creative as he wishes with his blitz packages.

That wouldn't have been the case with Atogwe. Although the free agent would have addressed Dallas' need for another playmaker in the secondary, the Cowboys consider Atogwe a strong safety, not necessarily a good complement to Gerald Sensabaugh.

(The fact that Atogwe wants a lucrative long-term contract probably had a large influence in the Cowboys' lack of interest in him, considering they've been burned recently by giving big-dollar deals to Hamlin and Roy Williams. Ball, who was an exclusive-rights free agent, should be a bargain with a $545,000 salary this season.)

Ball answered the biggest questions about him when Hamlin missed four games with a high ankle sprain last season.

"I don't know exactly how much I proved," said Ball, the heavy favorite to start at free safety, with second-year player Mike Hamlin serving as the challenger. "I know one thing I did show is that I can prepare myself for a game."

He also showed that he improves with experience at safety. The coaches didn't consider Ball a downgrade from Hamlin, and they believe Ball has just scratched the surface of his potential as a safety, a position he began playing a year ago.

Campo cites Ball's progress as a tackler as the prime example, saying Ball got in better position as he got more playing time. That's especially important considering the 6-foot-1 Ball weighs 190 pounds after bulking up the last few months.

Phillips acknowledges that Ball's size remains somewhat of a concern but mentions in the next breath that Ball has proved his toughness as a key part of special teams coverage. Phillips points out that the Cowboys free safety doesn't need to play a major role in run support because of the front seven's dominance.

"Now, he's going to have to drag-down tackle sometimes," Phillips said. "But really, our safety, we just want him to get the guy down."

The Cowboys believe Ball can do that and everything else they need from their free safety.

Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.