Cowboys pick up O.J. Santiago while trimming roster

Monday, August 28th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

IRVING – It took the Cowboys nearly a month and two draft picks, but they finally found a third tight end.

Dallas traded Atlanta a fourth-round pick in 2001 and a seventh-round pick in 2002 for O.J. Santiago, who caught 15 passes for 174 yards and no touchdowns last season.

The Cowboys also released 18 players Sunday to reach the NFL maximum of 53 players. Offensive lineman Tony Hutson was the only player released who could be deemed a surprise.

Several sources said the Cowboys are negotiating with veteran cornerback Phillippi Sparks, 31, a starter with the Giants the past five years. A source said Sparks, who played with Darren Woodson in college, has been offered a contract.

If the Cowboys sign Sparks, he would probably be given an opportunity to compete with Kareem Larrimore for the starting position at left cornerback.

"We're not through with the roster," owner Jerry Jones said. "We're still going to be working on it for the next four or five days."

Dallas is not sure whether rookies Dwayne Goodrich (second round) or Mario Edwards (sixth round) will be recovered enough from their respective hamstring injuries to play against Philadelphia, which is why it is looking for a cornerback.

The Cowboys, though, would be hard-pressed to offer Sparks much more than the NFL minimum of $440,000. Sparks would probably want more than that if he has a chance to start.

Santiago, a third-round pick in 1997, was scheduled to arrive in Dallas on Sunday night. The Cowboys think he can learn enough plays in the next six days to play in certain packages next week against Philadelphia.

Santiago tore a pectoral muscle in the off-season and still must pass a physical exam, but the Cowboys don't foresee any complications.

While they look for a cornerback, the Cowboys are pleased with their situation at tight end.

Dallas has been searching for a third tight end who can catch and block since Mike Lucky sustained a season-ending knee injury on July 30 against Pittsburgh.

The Cowboys had traded their seventh-round pick in 2002 to New Orleans for tight end Lawrence Hart, but it was returned last week when he was released. Dallas, which sent its first-round pick in the 2001 draft to Seattle for Joey Galloway, has only five picks in next year's draft.

Offensive coordinator Jack Reilly likes schemes that utilize two tight ends because they bring balance to a formation. They also allow him to use one-back formations with the extra tight end as an H-back, which provides more of a run-pass threat.

The Cowboys want to use Jackie Harris, who weighs 247 pounds, more as an H-back than a tight end because he doesn't have the size to consistently win blocking battles at the line of scrimmage.

At 6-7 and 264 pounds, Santiago does.

"O.J. Santiago has such skill in both phases of the game that he gives us the potential to go beyond what we thought we could do with [David] LaFleur, Lucky and Jackie Harris," Jones said. "Ten days ago, we were concerned about the position, and now it's one of the strengths of the team. That's quite a swing."

The Cowboys, who had signed five tight ends in the past month, strongly considered keeping four tight ends, in part, because of questions about LaFleur's health.

LaFleur missed the bulk of training camp with a pelvic bone irritation, a sprain at the joint where the hip and pelvis meet .

It is an extremely painful injury, but the club's medical staff has told LaFleur he can't create further damage by playing. He caught a 14-yard pass and did a good job blocking in 12 plays during Dallas' 24-17 loss to St. Louis on Thursday.

During the regular season, LaFleur will normally participate in 45-55 plays per game.

Jones said representatives from the Falcons called about 2:30 p.m. Saturday looking to trade Santiago. The deal, said Jones, was completed about 11 p.m.

Santiago has speed, size and inconsistent hands.

Two years ago, when Atlanta played in the Super Bowl, Santiago caught 27 passes for 428 yards and five touchdowns.

Santiago, a restricted free agent after last season, was unhappy with the one-year, $472,000 contract Atlanta tendered him in the off-season.

Three rookie free agents – kicker Tim Seder, punter Micah Knorr and guard Al Jackson – made the 53-man roster as did each of the club's five draft picks.

The development of Jackson, the emergence of guard Kelvin Garmon and the versatility of Larry Allen and Solomon Page made Hutson expendable. If the Cowboys have an injury at tackle, they feel comfortable moving Allen or Page to tackle and using Jorge Diaz at guard.

The Cowboys kept seven linebackers, but they're actively trying to trade Chris Bordano, who played at SMU.

"Other people are looking for linebackers," coach Dave Campo said, "and there's always an opportunity for movement at a later date with anyone."

Clint Stoerner, Troy Hambrick, Damon Hodge and Aaron Fields are good candidates to make the practice squad, if they clear waivers.