Cowboys Draft '09: Linebackers, Special Teams Get an Overhaul

The Cowboys have taken a carpet-bombing approach to certain positions in recent drafts.  In '07, Dallas targeted offensive line, picking James Marten in the 3rd and Doug Free in the 4th.

Last year, the team went after cornerbacks and running backs, taking Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick for the secondary and Felix Jones and Tashard Choice for the backfield. 

This year, Dallas lived up to Jerry Jones' pre-draft predictions and spend multiple picks to rebuild the linebacking corps.  It then spent heavily in the later rounds to give new special teams coach Joe DeCamillis a complete overhaul of special teams coverage units which have underachieved for the last several years, for Bruce DeHaven and Bruce Read

Building Up the 'Backers

The Cowboys entered the '09 season with a thin linebacking corps.  Three of last year's starters returned, in Demarcus Ware, Bradie James and Anthony Spencer.  Aging vet Keith Brooking was signed to replace departing vet Zach Thomas at WILB. 

Beyond that, the team had little depth.  Greg Ellis declined badly on run downs last year and was replaced by the much stouter Spencer after the Giants loss.   He's still an effective situational rusher, but his health is a constant question at this point in his career.

Dallas had no young rushers to replace Ellis and to challenge Spencer, who had a stellar rushing game in that Giants loss, but did little else the rest of the year. 

Inside, the lack of depth was even more acute.  Kevin Burnett, a key nickel linebacker, joined the Chargers.  Bobby Carpenter has yet to ignite and may never do so.  Justin Rogers offered solid special teams play but showed no rush skills and looked confused when the team tried moving him inside during training camp.

Dallas needed at least two young linebackers, one inside and one outside, to bolster the squad. 

The team hopes it got Burnett's replacement, and Brookings' heir, with 3rd round pick Jason Williams.  The 6'1", 241 lb. Western Illinois product has excellent coverage skills and outstanding speed.  He ran a 4.49 40 at his pro day.  He's got the bulk the 228 lb. Burnett lacked, so the team is hopeful that he can become a three down linebacker down the line.  This year, he'll be groomed to play in the nickel.

In the 4th, Dallas took two pass rushers back-to-back, nabbing Oregon State's Victor Butler and Texas Tech's Brandon Williams.  Both were productive 4-3 DEs who fit the "tweener" profile and are projected as 3-4 OLBs.   Projecting this change is hard, but the team hopes for one hit, to keep the sacks coming once Ellis moves on.

Rip It Up and Start Over

Looking for a consistent thread to the three 9-7s in '05, '06 and '08, consider the special teams meltdowns.  The bungled field goal at the end of the Redskins' away game in '06; the two special team's scores allowed against Arizona last year; the botched punts in Pittsburgh that jump started the Steelers' comeback.  The list is long and painful. 

New special teams coach Joe DeCamillis may have urged a scorched-earth approach to rebuilding these units.  Consider the core of Dallas special teams two years ago.  Here are the players who participated in all the team's packages:

  • Keith Davis
  • Bobby Carpenter
  • Justin Rogers
  • Pat Watkins
  • Kevin Burnett

How many can count on being on Dallas' opening day roster in Tampa Bay?  Davis and Burnett are gone.  Rogers and Carpenter just saw three linebackers drafted today and 6th round pick Stephen Hodge looks like a Davis clone.  He's a hard-hitting college strong safety who may lack the coverage skills to crack that starting lineup.  He does have the makeup to be a punt and kickoff coverage demon, as this writeup suggests.

Dallas also drafted a blocking tight end in VIrginia's John Phillips who looks like an upgrade over Tony Curtis.  5th round SS prospect Michael Hamlin should also see extensive time on coverage units, while making a run at the starting strong safety role.

The team's selection of USC kicker David Buehler shows that no special teams player is safe, even a standout like K Nick Folk.   Folk has been a clutch field goal kicker, but has been dreadfully short on kickoffs.  Dallas was the only team in the NFL last year which didn't have a touchback.  Every other team had at least four. 

Folk also had the second worst kickoff average -- opponents caught the ball on their eight yard line, and while the kickoff unit's coverage average was solid, opponents on average started their drives just beyond their 29, the fifth-best field position in the league.  Folk also developed an annoying late-season habit of knocking kickoffs out of bounds.

Buehler is the top-rated kicker this year, in part because of his long kickoff leg.  55% of his kickoffs last year went for touchbacks.

The special teams lost the Cardinals game last year and had a hand in a few other losses.  The kickoff and punt coverage units have been dreadful under the last  two unit coaches.  Don't assume that any of the guys taken late on Sunday are camp fodder.  Every one of them may displace the special teams guys we've seen the past four years.  Given the results, I can't complain.  One more win would have put Dallas in the playoffs last year.

Other Names of Interest

Quite a few people on site said, "huh" when Dallas took Ball State G Robert Brewster. He was one of the quieter top tier players, as guard isn't a sexy spot, but he had a solid spot in the one ranking that incorporates NFL draft data. 

The intriguing futures pick, by far, is Texas A&M quarterback Stephen McGee.  He bounced around in an Aggies program that hit some potholes in recent years, but gets high marks for his toughness and athleticism.  I heard weeks ago the Cowboys loved the guy and it wasn't smoke.  I heard in the last two weeks that McGee was battling Pat White for the 4th spot on many NFL boards, behind the 1st round trio of Stafford, Sanchez and Freeman. 

Why the fuss over a guy who ran a lot of option?  Let's go back to Martellus Bennett's draft a year ago.  I heard after the team's initial minicamp that Bennett had to overcome a lot of bad habits acquired in a program which recruited great athletes but which had not recently developed them. 

McGee falls in that category.  He was recruited as a passer and then spent time in shifting schemes.  This writeup makes a case among McGee's advocates.  If the forecast is right, Dallas will have somebody to watch in 2011.  In the meantime, McGee will pull a Tony Romo, and begin his old school NFL apprenticeship.

The Anatomy of a Disappointment:  Seattle Scuttles the Surprise Scenario

I'm disappointed by the team's failure to attempt a trade up once Oregon center Max Unger fell through the 2nd round. 

48 picks into the draft, it appeared the Cowboys were on the verge of completing the first leg of the "Surprise Option" mock draft I proposed earlier this week.  A source had told me earlier that Dallas liked the trio of top-tier centers and would not hesitate if one of them, Unger in particular, dropped to 51. 

As Jerry Jones explained this evening, the team saw Unger as an immediate challenger for a starting role, and that he was the last player in that round who the team forecast as a possible rookie starter.  Unger played center and tackle for the Ducks and was capable of playing all five line positions.  You could imagine the 6'5", 309 lb. Unger supplanting Cory Proctor as the backup center/guard and challenging Kyle Kosier for the left guard spot. 

But a series of coincidences, all put in motion by Denver's series of draft trades, beginning with the Jay Cutler-to-Chicago deal, worked to scuttle Dallas' plans.

First, understand the Denver's machinations made Unger's drop possible in the first place.  Seattle, which originally picked 37th, seriously considered taking Unger there, especially after Alex Mack and Eric Wood were taken late in the first round.

Seattle passed when Denver offered them next year's 1st rounder for this year's 2nd.  Denver had already selected Knowshon Moreno and Robert Ayers in the first and had a 2nd round pick at 48, which they used to take Dallas FS target Darcel McBath.  The Broncos swung a deal to add CB Alphonso Smith, adding talent to their ailing defense.

The Seahawks moved back into the 2nd by giving the Bears a nearly identical package to the one Buffalo gave Dallas for the 51st -- they gave their 3rd (the 68th) and their 4th (the 105th) to move up to the 49th spot. (Buffalo gave Dallas the 75th and 110th picks to move up to the 51st slot.)

In another parallel, Cutler's acquistion left Chicago, like the Cowboys, with only a 2nd round pick. They, like the Cowboys, targeted Ohio State wideout Brian Robiske and decided to bail when he was picked by Cleveland early in the 2nd. 

Thus ended a bizarre series of parallel moves that saw the Cowboys and the Bears leave day one without making a pick.  If there's one move I wish the team could re-play, this is it.

Overall:  I'm looking for four keepers.  I see the Williams boys, Brewster and McGee as the strongest bets.  Anybody else who can upgrade the woeful special teams, and start doing so this year, will be welcome. 

The lack of top free safety is another disappointment, but I cautioned that some positions would go unfilled.  For a position considered thin, the top safeties flew off the board earlier than expected.  Dallas never came close to Louis Delmas and Darcel McBath, a guy they hoped would be on the board at 69, was gone before 51.  The Cowboys didn't force the picks and went where they saw value.

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