Three battle for Cowboys starting free safety spot.
The Cowboys have a solid pass defender at free safety. They also have
a good run supporter and even a veteran savvy at the position.
Problem is, the three qualities are split up into three different
players, all competing to become the starting free safety on opening day.
Kenny Wheaton, Omar Stoutmire and George Teague may not be rookies,
but theyre all finding themselves battling just as much as young players on the
Teague, a six-year veteran, is making his second stop in Dallas.
After playing for four teams in the NFL, Teague returns to the team hes been the
most successful with. Despite playing just 10 games in the 1996 season, Teague made
several key plays during the year, including a huge performance in the playoffs.
Wheaton and Stoutmire are in similar situations. Both entering their
second season in a Cowboys uniform, the two are very athletic and have big-play potential.
Wheaton, a converted cornerback, has been praised by coaches as a
great defender against the pass, while Stoutmire impressed last season in his run-stopping
Although they may be at the same level now, the two started at
different rookie seasons. While Wheaton sat out 14 games last season with a separated
shoulder, Stoutmire played in all 16 games on special teams and nickel packages, and even
filled in at both free and strong safety as the starter in two games.
Head coach Chan Gailey said all three players are good enough to play
the spot, but hes using camp and the preseason games to determine the best guy.
Their strengths lie in some different areas and youre
trying to evaluate which ones gonna fit in the system better overall, Gailey
George Teague knows all about highlight films.
In his six seasons in the pros, and even in his four at the
University of Alabama, Teague has always been a guy whos made the big plays in the
Despite playing for four different teams in the NFL, the
6-foot-1-inch, 195-pound safety has always had a knack for the ball.
I think its a little bit of luck and instinct,
Teague said about making big plays. Youve got to have instincts out there as a
defensive back, which comes from studying, preparing, knowing your opponent. But sometimes
it does have a lot to do with luck, being in the right place at the right time.
Teague played three years for the Green Bay Packers, but was released
and signed by the Falcons in the summer of 1996. But Teague was not 100 percent healthy in
Atlanta and was waived again. The Cowboys picked him days later with hopes of getting the
playmaker they saw in Green Bay.
They got that and more.
Designed to play as the nickel back (fifth defensive back on passing
downs), Teague played the first six games in the nickel package before starting free
safety Brock Marion was lost for the season with an injury. Teague stepped in and the
Cowboys defense never lost a step.
I think I had my best playing career here with the Dallas
Cowboys, Teague said. I had some good seasons in Green Bay, but when I came to
Dallas back in 96, that was the best time I had playing-wise.
Teague, who ended the season second on the team in interceptions with
four, had the biggest game of his pro career in a Wild Card Playoff game against
Minnesota. In one half, Teague caused two fumbles, one which saved a definite touchdown,
and the other resulting in an Emmitt Smith score on the following play. If that
wasnt enough, Teague came back on the next series after the Smith touchdown run, and
intercepted a pass and returned it back for a 29-yard touchdown.
That game sort of reminded me back to when I played at
Alabama, he said. Just making plays, making plays. In the Minnesota game,
having a couple of forced fumbles, an interception for a touchdown, those are the kind of
games you live for as a DB. On national television, in front of everybody, to show up and
help the team. Thats what this game is all about.
Teagues big game against the Vikings was not the first time he
had shined under the national spotlight.
In Alabamas 1992 National Championship game with Miami in the
Sugar Bowl, he had two interceptions, one returned for a touchdown and a well-remembered
play in the fourth quarter, where he ran down speedy Miami receiver Lamar Thomas, stripped
the ball from behind, and then took off the other way.
With his playmaking ability, and the good season in Dallas, the free
agent Teague signed a three-year contract with the Miami Dolphins and former Cowboys coach
But Teague said the year in Miami did not turn out for the best.
It was just an up-and-down season, Teague said. We
rotated our safeties a lot. We went through at least three free safeties over the course
of the season. So it made it tougher to establish myself and get into a rhythm and learn
to play with the guys and make some plays.
After making 70 tackles and four picks in Dallas, he had only 43
stops and two interceptions with the Dolphins.
But Teague, who has 15 career interceptions (including playoffs),
returns to Dallas with hopes of possibly starting, or at least getting considerable
I knew I wanted to come to a team that I could get on the field
and play a lot of defensive packages, he said. Coming in here, and having a
chance to compete, is a major factor of why I chose to come back to Dallas.
Gailey said Teagues experience should help the entire
George is a veteran guy whos been around a while, played
a lot of football and made a lot of plays, Gailey said. Hes made a lot
of plays here. He brings that veteran savvy to the table.
A year ago, Kenny Wheaton was trying to prove himself as an NFL
player. Now hes just having to prove he can play the free safety spot, and do it
better than Teague and Omar Stoutmire.
I feel good about this year, Wheaton said. Last
year was tough because I wasnt proven yet, and then I got hurt. And thats not
a good spot to be in, especially as a rookie. Im confident that this year Im
in the top five, six defensive backs.
Before the first preseason game last season, Wheatons separated
shoulder forced him to miss the first three exhibition contests. He returned three weeks
later, and played some against Tennessee, but was hurt again, and then missed the first 14
games of the regular season.
He returned for the last two, and had four tackles against the Giants
in the season finale, playing as a cornerback.
But with the loss of Marion, and the talented corners ahead of him,
Wheaton asked the coaching staff to move him to safety.
It doesnt take Einstein to figure out whos going to
play at corner. Those guys (Deion Sanders and Kevin Smith) are great, Wheaton said.
I wanted to play more, so I asked if I could go to free safety. Now Im sort of
out to prove that I can play this position.
After two weeks of training camp, Wheaton, who has played some in the
first-team defense, said hes not sure where he stands in the coaches eyes.
I dont know about how things are going with the three of
us, he said. Its up in the air right now. I consider the three of us
good players. So I dont know where I stand on the depth chart.
Defensive back coach Mike Zimmer said Wheatons cornerback
knowledge makes him dangerous in the secondary for opposing quarterbacks.
Kenny is more instinctive as far as making plays, Zimmer
said. I dont know Kenny well enough in the running game to say hes this
or hes not. But hes good against the pass.
Although he was a third-round draft pick, Wheaton certainly has a
long way before making himself one of the teams better defensive backs. He even has
a long way to becoming one of the best players out of the University of Oregon.
Wheaton will try to follow in the shoes of Hall of Famer Mel Renfro,
who starred at Oregon before playing 14 seasons in the NFL. Renfro is a member of both the
Pro Football Hall of Fame and the Cowboys Ring of Honor.
Like Wheaton, Omar Stoutmire isnt worrying whether hell
have a roster spot on opening day. But hes certainly not taking this camp easily.
Last year was totally different. I was coming in just looking
to make the team, Stoutmire said. I wanted to be a contributor on special teams and
just make sure I was going to be around here. But now I have an opportunity to start and I
have just a different attitude coming here.
Although he knows hes the only one of the three safeties to
actually play significantly last year, Stoutmire said he cant even think about his
I felt good about what I did last year, said Stoutmire,
who was sixth on the team and 12th for NFL rookies in tackles with 76. I think
Im a lot more confident. But now I have to act like last year didnt exist
because its over. Its a whole new camp. Thats what the NFL is all about:
proving yourself all over again.
Stoutmire, who was drafted in the seventh round out of Fresno State,
started two games last year, subbing for the injured Darren Woodson and Marion. In a
Thanksgiving Day loss to the Oilers, Stoutmire posted a career-high 16 tackles. He also
had two of the teams seven interceptions all of last year.
Zimmer said Stoutmire can do all the needed things well, but is
especially tough in the running game.
Omar is a very good run supporter, Zimmer said.
Hes also a good cover guy. He gives you a lot in both areas.
Although being tagged for just one aspect, Stoutmire believes he and
Wheaton can play both the run and pass just as well.
All of us cover pretty good. Kenny was a corner before he was a
safety, he said. So he has more corner instincts. But he plays the run well.
And I think I can play the pass well. Its not that we do either or. Its just
that we do one thing better than the other. But it will balance and the best man will get
Regardless of who starts, Stoutmire said all three will play, and
focus on their main goal.
Were all going to be on the field. Weve got to get
back to the Super Bowl, Stoutmire said. As far as the team aspect, weve
got to do whatever it is the coaches want us to do to get back to where we need to
The final decision on who will be the starter will fall to Gailey and
defensive coordinator Dave Campo. But Gailey said not to expect his decision until
possibly the end of the preseason.
It could go to the very end, Gailey said. It could
go to the last preseason game up until the first ball game.
Sports writer Nick Eatman can be reached at (940) 720-3470 or