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COWBOYS' BRAIN TRUST OPTS FOR BRAWNY DEFENDERS

The Dallas Cowboys may not have their quarterback of the future, but it looks like their draft-day trade with the Buffalo Bills in 2004 has helped them secure their defense for the future.

After watching his defense fall from No. 1 to No. 31 in the NFL ranking last season, Dallas coach Bill Parcells invested six of his eight draft choices -- including his top three -- on defensive players.

It looks like the best Dallas draft since the Jimmy Johnson era. The Cowboys will be much improved on defense and have a much better shot to make the playoffs.

The Cowboys got the best speed rusher in the draft with the 11th overall pick when they took Troy State's Demarcus Ware. He's a 251-pounder who will be a stand-up linebacker in the 3-4 defense. With the 20th overall choice they got from Buffalo in the J.P. Losman deal, the Cowboys took 307-pound defensive end Marcus Spears of Louisiana State. He should be a perfect run-force end with pass rush ability in the 3-4. Then in the second round, Dallas got outside linebacker Kevin Burnett of Tennessee.

The Cowboys will have six new starters on defense. They're counting on free-agent help from nose tackle Jason Ferguson of the Jets and cornerback Anthony Henry of Cleveland. They will start, and free agent Aaron Glenn will help as the third cornerback.

The net effect will be a bigger, more physical defense, which is what Parcells historically has preferred. Dallas thinks the improved pass rush will allow safety Roy Williams to play in the box more often, as he did as a rookie when he was an intimidating impact player. The inability to create pressure forced Williams to play back in coverage too often last year, and his coverage deficiencies were exploited. Dallas gave up 31 TD passes last year, second most in franchise history.

Dallas could have a steal down the road in Virginia defensive end Chris Canty. It traded up in the fourth round to select him. Canty is a 6-foot-7, 279-pound run-stopping defensive end who played the 3-4 for Parcells' buddy, Al Groh, in college.

Canty comes with risks the Cowboys were willing to overlook. He suffered a detached retina in his left eye Jan. 30 after being hit with a beer bottle during a fight in a Scottsdale, Ariz., nightclub. He might not play as a rookie, although Dallas owner Jerry Jones said his vision is good enough for him to take the field this season.

Parcells likes to say he is too old to lose. If he's going to go down in Dallas it will be with big, Giants-style defenders he had in the past.

"We gave up 406 points last year, 31 touchdown passes -- that is the highest of my career," Parcells said. "I knew for a fact if that didn't change, the fortunes of the Cowboys wouldn't change."

Taylor health watch

It's apparent the health of running back Fred Taylor is going to be every bit as much of a worry this season as in the past. Once again, his ability to stay on the field will make or break the Jags.

Jags coach Jack Del Rio admitted Taylor still hasn't recovered from his January arthroscopic surgery. He should be ready for the start of training camp. Taylor missed three games last year. Jacksonville averaged only 16.3 points per game and had just 19 total without Taylor.

Droughns moans

Newly acquired running back Reuben Droughns walked out of the Browns' "voluntary" offseason conditioning program to protest his contract. He said "we're prepared to hold out" if the Browns don't redo the deal they inherited from Denver. Droughns is due to make $950,000 in 2005 and $1 million in 2006. Droughns hired agent Drew Rosenhaus during his 1,240-yard breakout season last year in anticipation of asking for a trade and a new contract.

"What the Browns are telling me is that what I did last year doesn't mean diddly squat to them," Droughns said.

Droughns was acquired from Denver for defensive linemen Ebenezer Ekuban and Michael Myers. He's favored to beat out Lee Suggs for the starting job.

Punter an air apparent

Last year, the Kansas City Chiefs wanted to take kicker Nate Kaeding of Iowa in the fourth round, but San Diego beat them to him. This year, the Chiefs took no chances and filled a glaring need at punter by taking Dustin Colquitt of Tennessee in the third round.

Dick Vermeil has gone through a slew of punters during his four seasons in Kansas City, including four last year, and the Chiefs ranked 31st in the NFL in net punting.

Colquitt comes from the first family of NFL punters. His father, Craig Colquitt, was a standout punter at Tennessee and earned Super Bowl rings in the first two of his six seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Dustin's cousin, Jimmy Colquitt, is Tennessee's all-time punting leader and spent one season with the Seattle Seahawks. Dustin's younger brother, Britton, will replace him next year as the Volunteers' punter.

Onside kicks

Any team with two first-round picks should come out of the draft looking like a winner. The Vikings got receiver Troy Williamson, this year's Lee Evans, then drafted defensive end Erasmus James 18th overall. In drafting guard Marcus Johnson, corner Dustin Fox, running back Ciatrick Fason and defensive tackle C.J. Mosley, they got four players who dropped much lower than expected.

Another team with health concerns at running back is Carolina. The Panthers took 246-pound Eric Shelton of Louisville in the second round because they are uncertain how Stephen Davis will bounce back from microfracture knee surgery. "It's going to be quite awhile before we get a read on Stephen," General Manager Marty Hurney said.

Hard to see why the Broncos needed Maurice Clarett when they have better backs in the fold and other needs. The Bills would not have drafted the former Ohio State Buckeye.

San Francisco has drafted six quarterbacks since 2000, most in the NFL. They are Alex Smith, Cody Pickett, Ken Dorsey, Brandon Doman, Giovanni Carmazzi and Tim Rattay. The only teams that have not drafted a QB in that time span are the Vikings, Chiefs and Titans. In fact, the Chiefs have not drafted a QB since selecting Cal's Pat Barnes in the fourth round in 1997.

Since 1996, few quarterbacks have entered the NFL more "battle-tested" than Georgia's David Greene, according to Stats Inc. Greene, taken by Seattle in the third round, played 20 games in his career against teams ranked in the Associated Press Top 25. QBs with most games played versus AP-ranked teams, since 1996, are Michigan's John Navarre (21), Greene (20), Southern California's Carson Palmer (20) and Florida's Rex Grossman (19).

Akron QB Charlie Frye, taken in the third round by Cleveland, was a Browns fan growing up about 1 1/2 hours from Cleveland in little Willard, Ohio. Frye still has a framed picture of Bernie Kosar hanging over the dresser in his bedroom. Frye once got Kosar's autograph on a napkin at kids restaurant Chuck E. Cheese when he was 7 -- and he still has it.

Cleveland's sixth-round pick, nose tackle Andrew Hoffman, was redshirted his sophomore year at Virginia after he suffered a compound dislocation of his left big toe when he dropped a keg of beer on it.

Titans left tackle Brad Hopkins received probation for a domestic violence charge stemming from a fight with his wife in a restaurant parking lot. Under the league's personal conduct policy, he's likely to get suspended, probably a game, maybe two. That means the Titans -- who are talking a ton about keeping Steve McNair upright -- could open in Pittsburgh with two rookie tackles.

Chicago took a worthwhile shot on Kyle Orton, the big quarterback from Purdue, in the fourth round. Tennessee probably would have taken him two picks later as a developmental guy behind McNair.

Ex-Chief Jerrel Wilson, the punter on the all-time AFL team, recently died of cancer. Ex-Jets defensive back Johnny Sample, who played on the winning side in the 1958 NFL Championship Game and in Super Bowl III, died at age 67 last week.

e-mail: mgaughan@buffnews.com