The Wulf Den: Moving On
Every year that the Cowboys don’t make it to the Super Bowl, I find that it takes me a month or so of distance before I have the ability to look back rationally at the season. What I might write in a moment of anger, frustration, or disappointment simply wouldn’t be a good read…no matter how accurate it might be. Once I’ve been able to let some time pass, however, I find I can go back and review the season to get a better feel for what the Cowboys should do in the upcoming offseason. Now there’s no guarantee that they’ll do what I believe they should…but then, they don’t ask my opinion. So without further ado, here we go.
– Considering the complete lack of proper protection across the offensive line for the majority of the season, and the near complete lack of a proper running game, it’s amazing that Tony Romo even survived the season…much less played well. And yet, he is the primary reason that they even won 8 games and were within reach of a division win. While he had a few games that were really bad, most of the worst episodes were games where the receivers were at fault or when he was throwing it up trying to come back from a big deficit. He made some bone-headed throws, to be certain. But the Cowboys would have finished with a worse record than the Eagles and brought up the rear in the division had it not been for him.
Speaking of Romo, expect him to get a new contract in the near future. He’s getting older, but he sat the bench for several years early in his career, and has plenty of life left in him. A new contract will not only secure the position for the next little while, but give some much needed cap relief as well. Orton didn’t have to do anything this year, but he’s an insurance policy that is very nice to have. He’s under contract for another couple of years, so there’s no need in my opinion to address this position in the draft unless a highly rated QB slides to you in the mid-late rounds…and I’m talking someone you think you can take in the 6th round who will sit and learn for a couple of years and then come on and play like Tom Brady did.
– There is no excuse for a team with DeMarco Murray as the ball-carrier following a Lawrence Vickers lead block not to exceed 1,000 yards in a season. Yes, I know the O-line play was inconsistent—and outright BAD, at times—and that Murray was injured in the middle of the season. That’s still no excuse. The team abandoned the run far too frequently, even when the passing game wasn’t working well either. Murray did well with the chances he had. Hell, even Felix Jones showed some flashes that he hasn’t shown…well…since Arkansas. But it seemed that the coaching staff was too ready to abandon the running game in the first half without ever revisiting it later when the opposing defenses were worn down a bit.
Going forward, there’s no problem with Murray. He does, however, seem to have a tendency to get injured, and with Felix likely to depart as a free agent, the Cowboys will have to find a new primary back-up. And no, I don’t expect it to be Phillip Tanner. I had high hopes for him as a rookie, but I think he took a step back this year, and didn’t seem to pick up the nuances of the position as he should. Lance Dunbar looks to be exciting, but he’s too under-sized to be a legitimate back-up. Expect the Cowboys to look in the middle rounds of the draft for the next Alfred Morris to come in and spell Murray next year. Vickers is still under contract, and I don’t really expect them to do much at that position…especially considering they didn’t use him nearly as much as I thought they might last season.
– Jason Witten started the season by coming back for the season opener even while still injured, and gave the Cowboys a spark of leadership that allowed them to beat the defending Super Bowl champions in front of the whole world. It wasn’t his production that made the difference…but if you ask anyone on that team, they’ll tell you that Witten being there and “gutting” it out was an inspiration that caused them to push harder. In my mind, that one action sent a giant middle finger to all of the talking head shows who are always asking where the leadership is on this team.
I know there are some folks who think we missed Martellus Bennett this season…but I’m not one of them. He looked like the same lazy-eyed guy with stone hands playing for the Giants that he did for the Cowboys in his first few years—but with more opportunities. Nope, don’t miss that head case at all. I did like what Rodney Hanna was able to add towards the end of the season, and a year in the offseason program may do him a world of good. It will be interesting to me to see if the Cowboys target a TE again in the draft. They may if someone slides to them, but I think it more like that they bring in some undrafted guy to battle with Colin Cochart and Andre Smith for the third TE position. Going in, I’d have to say I think Smith has the edge, as he has the size to be a significant in-line blocker in the running game—something neither Cochart nor Hanna possess.
– If that’s what Dez Bryant is going to be from here on out, we got ourselves a good one, folks. To have that kind of stretch with a TD reception in each game—and the last few with a broken finger, for crying out loud—is just crazy good. As long as he continues to stay out of trouble, he’ll be the #1 WR in Dallas for the next 8-10 years. Miles, on the other hand, was injured for much of the year, and as inconsistent as I’ve seen him when he was healthy. I have no problem with him as the #2 WR next season, but he’s got to figure out the hamstring issues and work on being more consistent with his hands. I think the Cowboys will use his salary as one to re-structure for cap relief.
By the end of the season, both Dwayne Harris and Cole Beasley had passed Kevin Ogletree on the depth chart, in my opinion, and I see no chance for him to return next season. Harris really came on as both a receiver and return man, and I liked Beasley’s work in the slot. Add in a healthy Danny Coale, and a speedy Anthony Armstrong, and you may not see a draft pick used on a receiver at all. I’d love to see Terrence Williams of Baylor or Quinton Patton of Louisiana Tech picked up in the draft (would likely take a 2nd for Williams or a 3rd for Patton), but the Cowboys simply have too many other needs at positions where there should be some good depth in those rounds. Now if one of them is available in the 4th round, all bets are off.
Okay, I guess I have to say more than that. To say that the offensive line play was…well…offensive would be putting it mildly. There were stretches where they simply stunk up the place. But in all fairness, I will also say that injuries played a significant role, and that they played better at the end of the year. But that doesn’t excuse what turned out to be the worst position group on the team.
Tyron Smith struggled at times, but he’s still so good that he’ll be a starter for the next 10 years. Doug Free, on the other hands, didn’t really play well at all until he was forced to share reps with Jermey Parnell…and even then, he didn’t play great. I don’t know if something happened to him that he can’t play the way he flashed a couple of years ago, but his feet just seem so much slower in their transition at the snap that he is a walking liability. Unfortunately, he also has a bad contract that will severely penalize the team if they simply release him. As such, I think they’ll try to re-structure it in some way for cap relief, and he’ll either have to compete for the starting job with Parnell (or a draft pick) or shift inside to guard…something I’m not sure he can do effectively. Keep an eye on Darrion Weems as well. He has some potential and passes the initial eye test.
On the inside, I can’t rave enough about the last minute acquisition of Ryan Cook. He wasn’t playing at a Pro Bowl level, of course, but I shudder to think where the Cowboys would have been without him. As for the Center position, I expect there will be a three-way battle in camp next year between Cook, Kevin Kowalski, and Phil Costa. The Cowboys may grab a center in the draft, but if they do, I think it will be someone who has the position flexibility to also play guard (Barrett Jones, anyone?)
Speaking of guards, can we get some please? Mackenzy Bernadeau and Nate Livings were inconsistent and, at times, just outright bad. Of the two, Bernadeau was better, and has some position flexibility. I’d say just cut Livings, but who’s going to take his place? Ronald Leary was the talk of the after-draft signings, but he faded rather quickly at the end of camp and spent the season on the practice squad. I’m excited to see how he develops in the offseason program. As for David Arkin, why is he still on the team? At this point, he very likely is what he is, and that ain’t much. Barring an amazing turnaround, I doubt he leaves another training camp with his name still on the roster. If Jones, Chance Warmack, or Jonathan Cooper were taken in the first round, it would not hurt my feelings in the least. But we all know the Cowboys don’t like to take first rounders that aren’t “impact players”...and they haven't viewed interior O-linemen that way. As such, I think it's much more likely for them to target someone in rounds 2 or 3. Fortunately for the Cowboys, there is some decent depth at the position this year, and a road-grader like massive Larry Warford from Kentucky could still be on the board in the third round.
– I stated in one of my previous articles this season that I believed the Cowboys have the personnel to switch to the 4-3 without having to do much in the way of an overhaul. Now that we know that is where we are headed, the expectations of the defensive front change quite a bit. In the 3-4, the defensive line’s primary responsibility is to occupy blockers so that the linebackers can get penetration and make the play. In the 4-3, the primary responsibility is to get upfield and be as disruptive as you can be as quickly as you can be, allowing the speedier LBs to get to the ball. Many of the players on the roster should be able to effectively transition without a lot of issues. But that won’t be the case across the board, and the staff will have to be on the lookout in both free agency and the draft for players that will be able to fill those gaps in this new look.
Demarcus Ware would move to DE, of course, and that could be good or bad. On the bad side, he’s potentially going to get more contact against offensive tackles on a play-to-play basis, as he should be rushing upfield on nearly every snap, and he’s starting to show the wear and tear as his injuries mount. The good side, though, is that he’s going to be teeing off and flying into the backfield on nearly every play, rather than dropping into coverage as he did FAR too frequently in Rob Ryan’s scheme. Behind him, it will be interesting to see if Alex Albright is moved to DE as well or left to compete for the SLB position. Personally, I think he’ll drop a few pounds and win a camp battle with Kyle Wilber to start at that LB position. But we’ll see.
On the other side of the defensive line, Anthony Spencer would be lining up. But he’s a free agent, and although his agent says his first choice is to stay in Dallas, I’m not sure the Cowboys will be willing and able to work the cap enough to keep him at a figure that he’ll accept. I’d take him in a heartbeat. But I think it more likely that he walks with a more lucrative contract elsewhere. If that happens, don’t be surprised to see Jason Hatcher starting opposite Ware. I know a lot of people are thinking of shifting Hatcher inside, but I think he can drop a few pounds and be explosive on the strong side of the defensive line. Tyrone Crawford may also get a look at that position, with both Hatcher and Crawford being on the field in obvious passing situations. And don’t forget about Ben Bass. The new defensive front should fit his build and skillset better than the 3-4 did, and his explosiveness could give him some playing time.
On the inside, Ratliff will likely still be a starter despite his extremely poor judgment that lead to his arrest for a DWI. The Cowboys could choose to designate him a June 1st roster cut and free up $5 mil in cap space, of course, but they wouldn’t actually get the relief until then, and that would be too late to directly affect free agency. And with Josh Brent likely done for good, pending legal action, the Cowboys honestly can’t afford to let Ratliff go right now, whether or not people believe it’s the right thing to do. Beside him, Lissemore or a high draft pick will likely be starting. Also, if he doesn’t get released, I could see Marcus Spears sliding inside in this new scheme. His best feature since he was drafted has been clogging the hole and stopping the run, and he could do that as well inside of a 4-3 as he did on the outside in a 3-4 front. Not saying it will happen, mind you…but it wouldn’t surprise me. Also, late-season acquisition Bryan Schaefering is still on the roster, and Robert Calloway will get an offseason to see what he can do for Kiffin. Having said this, if the Cowboys can get a versatile DT when the draft comes around, I think they’ll do so—perhaps even in the 1st round. I don’t expect Star Lotulelei or Sheldon Richardson to be available at #18. But a guy like Jesse Williams from Alabama, Sylvester Williams from North Carolina, or Kawann Short from Purdue may be good picks if they’re on the board in round 2.
– A number of people are concerned about the SLB in Kiffen’s new defense. Quite honestly, they point to that position because there’s no need to wonder about the others. Sean Lee will be back and starting in the middle. Likewise, Bruce Carter should be ready to go at the WLB. So the question comes back to the other side. From what I’ve heard, the Cowboys believe that last year’s draft pick, Kyle Wilber, can transition to the SLB position in this defense. For my money, let him compete with Albright for the job…and then he can back Albright up. Assuming Conner is still around, he’d back up Lee in the middle. But quite frankly, I thought he was average at best, so I won’t be surprised to see him sent packing. Caleb McSurdy and Orie Lemon will get their shots at the back-up jobs, of course, and expect to see a versatile LB to be taken in the middle rounds of the draft. Incidentally, if the Cowboys decide to play Albright at DE instead of OLB, they will either be picking up a 4-3 SLB in free agency or drafting one...or both. As for me, I’d be looking to re-sign Ernie Sims, as I like what I saw of his effort, and I think he’d be an even better fit in the 4-3 where his speed would be valued. Also, Sims has a connection with Marinelli, having been selected by Detroit in his first year as the Lions’ head coach, and was once compared by Marinelli with Derrick Brooks, whom he had coached in his previous stint with Tampa Bay.
– Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne showed flashes of what we were hoping to see…just not enough of them. Morris clearly had some growing pains, but that was to be expected. As for Carr, I think Ryan’s play-calling was abysmal. He talked so much about getting press corners so he could disrupt opposing receivers, then backed the corners off 10 yards and only rushed 3 guys. It was a recipe for disaster…and he cooked it up FAR too often. The Tampa 2 system should allow these guys to use their physicality to funnel receivers inside. Scandrick was so-so before getting injured, so he’ll need to pick it up. I liked what I saw of Sterling Moore, and think he could be on the roster next year as a back-up. With Mike Jenkins’ likely departure via free agency, I expect the Cowboys to be on the lookout for either a veteran who has some experience in the Tampa 2 or a draft prospect that they think would be a good fit in the scheme. For the record, I liked what I saw at the Senior Bowl practices from both Desmond Trufant from Washington and Robert Alford of Southeastern Louisiana (As an aside, is it just me, or does saying that school’s name make you look for the "Waterboy" too?).
At safety, the Cowboys were hurt by injury, specifically to starter Barry Church. I think he has it in him to play the position that John Lynch played for Kiffen in Tampa Bay…assuming he completely recovers from his torn Achilles tendon. Not everyone recovers completely from that injury, though, so banking on him doing so would be foolish. Gerald Sensabaugh played okay, for the most part, but there’s room for improvement at that spot as well. Danny McCray had spurts as the starter where he played well, but he was wildly inconsistent. He has no business being a starter in the NFL, but can still be valuable in some packages and on special teams. As for last year’s rookie choice, Matt Johnson, he was never healthy. A full offseason in the Cowboys’ camp should do wonders for him, and he could be the guy to step up to replace Church, if needed. But the Cowboys can’t count on that either, so expect them to target at safety in the middle rounds of the draft. A guy to watch is T. J. McDonald, who played at USC under Kiffen. He already knows the defense, so it will largely come down to whether or not Kiffen thought he was a good player for him.
– Dan Bailey had two misses this year, and they were both from beyond 50 yards. Not only does that solidify his position, but it should solidify Assistant Special Teams/Kicking Coach Chris Boniol’s position as well, even with a change at the Special Teams Coordinator position. At punter, I’ll be glad to see Chris Jones back. Moorman was a decent pick-up when they needed one, but he shanked too many punts in crucial situations for me to want to see him back in Dallas. At LS, L. P. Ladouceur is a free agent, and he needs to be re-signed. The Cowboys have played around with getting a younger, cheaper guy for several years now, but you can’t put a price tag on never having to worry about where the snap is headed. Sign. Him. Now.
The Coaching Staff
– I’ve heard entirely too much about how Jerry Jones is doing all of the hiring to prepare the team for a Head Coaching change, but I just don’t see it…at least not this year. And I’m sick to death of all of the conspiracy theorists. Don't get me wrong...there were plenty of times when Garrett looked like he wasn't sure what was going on, and he MUST manage the games better. But the kind of complaints that have been leveled at him have been, at times, ridiculous, and to objectively look at what has been done with the coaching changes thus far this offseason and think Jones is trying to "run Garrett off" or get him to quit is just stupid. Look at what's actually been done:
People complained that the special teams weren’t setting the Cowboys up with good field position, and blamed Garrett. JJ let DeCamillis go, and will see if Rich Bisaccia can do a better job.
People complained that the defense wasn’t able to stop opposing teams when it counted, didn’t get enough turnovers, etc…and blamed Garrett. JJ fired Ryan and hired one of the best defensive minds of our time to replace him.
People complained the Cowboys couldn’t run the ball, and blamed Garrett. JJ fired Skip Peete, and will bring in someone that he hopes will improve what was one of the worst running performances in Cowboys’ history.
People complained about Garrett’s play-calling in crucial situations, and his time management skills in others. JJ is handing the play-calling off to someone else—presumably Bill Callahan—giving Garrett the opportunity to focus exclusively on his responsibilities as the Head Coach.
In each case, people wanted to lay the blame on Garrett, and in each situation, JJ diverted it elsewhere and stuck by Garrett’s side. Jason Garrett is being put in a position to succeed, not fail. And I think the moves have all been positive ones thus far.
Now, having said that, I’ll tell you this: if, after all of these changes, the Cowboys still don’t win or are struggling with the same kinds of problems next season that they’ve had in recent years, Garrett will be gone. And the conspiracy theorists will be back in full force.
The Rest of the Story
So what do the Cowboys need to do to take a step forward next year from a personnel perspective? A lot will depend on who they retain, and what kind of cap space they can free up by re-structuring contracts. Assuming that Stephen Jones was telling the truth, and that “room under the cap” is somewhat of a joke, here’s what I’m looking for in free agency and/or the draft, in no particular order:
*An all-around RB that can spell Murray from time to time
*At least one interior offensive lineman, up to, and including, a first-round pick, as well as a solid offensive tackle (either mid-ranged vet or a rookie who could start quickly)
*At least one defensive lineman who can get some explosive push, whether inside or outside…preferably one for the inside AND the outside (I'd love to have Melton from Chicago for the inside, but I expect him to get franchised)
*Another quick OLB that can challenge for playing time in this new scheme (I’m still signing Sims here)
*Get a safety who can compete for the starting job that has some range—this guy may be on the roster already, but another one won’t hurt.
*Another CB that fits the Tampa 2 scheme
They obviously can’t do all of that in the draft. And, quite honestly, they’ve not tried to do so in recent years. Instead, they’ve addressed any holes they perceived with reasonably priced veterans, allowing them to go into the draft with a “best player available” mindset. I think they’ll attempt to do the same this year, if not for all of the holes listed. They’ll do enough, though, that they’ll be pretty wide open about what they can do in the draft.