This is my third post on the same subject. Before FA, I wrote a long post on what I saw as the Cowboys' biggest needs. Then, after the pre-draft FA period, I updated it.
Here's my latest take after two rounds of the draft, during which they grabbed:
1. Morris Claiborne, CB, LSU. First defensive player taken. Very highly ranked CB who can press cover and take the ball away, and do something with it afterwards.
2. Tyrone Crawford, DE, Boise State. Project player with upside potential. Not clear how much impact he can have his first year. Likely a rotational guy who will see more reps on passing downs.
Here are my priorities and my evaluations so far. With 5 more picks, and UDFAs (where we have done really well), there is still hope for improvement. But we've got to hit on these guys.
1. Interior Oline. Grade D. (Lost Holland/Dockery and Kosier. Added Livings and Bernadeau.)
Thought we needed 3 new starters. So far, we have two new castoffs, Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau. Do you trust these guys, who were happily let go by Cincy and Carolina, to upgrade our guard positions? Montrae Holland and Kyle Kosier filled these slots last year. Livings and Bernadeau are younger, but are they any better? And what about the center position? At this point, we're looking at 4th rounders at best to upgrade our line, and we know from last year's 4th rounder, David Arkin, that guys taken this late might develop, but you can't rely on them having the technique and strength to plug and play their first year. Yesterday I wrote that I loved Morris Claiborne, and I do. But we could have had David DeCastro (even traded down and still gotten him) and Peter Konz instead. Now, we've got a "hope and pray" line, and an extra pro-bowl CB in Mike Jenkins who has nowhere to play. Claiborne is the sexy guy, and if you can fix the line, it's great to have him. But it's hard to win games if you are beaten in the trenches. I trust coach Callahan, but I worry that our great offensive skill guys will continue to go to waste b/c Romo will be harried (or worse, injured) and we won't open the holes that Murray/Jones need to excel.
2. Pass rush. Grade B+. (Franchised Spencer. Drafted Tyrone Chandler at #81.)
We kept Spencer, which is a good thing. This year, he'll be better than all the names floated out there as replacements (Ingram, Upshaw, Mercellus, etc.). We just added Tyrone Chandler. He may turn into something -- but he'll be a rotational guy at best this year. I'm guessing it's unlikely we'll draft anyone else here, given plenty of needs elsewhere.
Why do I give this a B+ when we only added a rotational project player? Because with a year of OTAs and a full training camp, and new CBs who excel in press coverage, plus faster ILBs, Rob Ryan will be able to unleash an unpredictable attack on opposing QBs.
Obviously, this is the greatest area of improvement for the team. In Carr and Claiborne, we've got two top-level CBs for the next 5 years. Scandrick is signed nearly as long to cover the slot. These are A+ moves, but they come at a considerable price. We had to spend $50 million for Carr, when slightly less would have brought us Carl Nicks. Then we gave up two picks who could have been David DeCastro and Peter Konz for Morris Claiborne. So imagine for a moment that we could have had an O line of Smith, Nicks, Konz, DeCastro, Free, and still would have had $30 million to sign free agents in the secondary (by not signing Livings and Bernadeau), and might have drafted a CB or two in day 3 instead of an O lineman or two. Plus, we'd let Mike Jenkins play his butt off for us in his contract year. Would our defense be weaker? Yes, significantly. But we would have an offensive line that could be the strength of the team. And that's almost always been the identity of the Cowboys' Super Bowl teams. Great, dominant, O-line play. Of 8 SB teams, 2 had 3 O-line Pro Bowlers, 2 had 4 O-line Pro Bowlers, and 4 had 5 O-line Pro Bowlers. Right now we've got 1 potential Pro Bowler in Smith.
We can toss this back and forth all day. Given what I've said up till now, I think I'd be happier with the great Oline, because I'm not sure you can dominate in football with great CBs. No CBs can hold up if you don't have a pass rush, or if your line can be run on. And without an Oline you get your QB killed and waste your offensive skills talent.
The wildcard factor here is turnovers. Turnovers win football games. So if Claiborne, Carr, and Pool can generate another 8-10 picks, I won't keep complaining that we should have fixed the Oline.
We still need a safety, however, as Pool is only a stopgap and played 1/2 time last year. And we need to get some value for Mike Jenkins, who won't be happy riding the pines during his contract push year. I think we'll keep Jenkins until he's healthy and can practice, then flip him for a veteran -- maybe a WR, TE, S, or backup lineman.
4. Other offensive pieces. Grade C+. (Lost Laurent Robinson, Martellus Bennett, Tony Fiammetta, John Kitna. Signed Kyle Orton, Lawrence Vickers.)
Robinson played a huge role in the offense last year, with 54 catches, 858 yards, a team-high 15.9 YPC (other than Jesse Holley), and a team high 11 TDs. Romo knew how to find him on broken plays, and he was good enough to replace Bryant or Austin. Austin and Bryant can cover his production if they stay healthy, but that's a big if. No one on the roster, other than maybe Radway, is likely to develop here, so I look for the Cowboys to keep looking. At tight end, we'll miss Bennett's blocking more than his receiving. I'm sure the Cowboys will add someone here too. So this grade could move to a B, depending on who we add. Fiammetta and Kitna have both been replaced by better players. I LOVE the Vickers move, and like the Orton addition. But I don't give much value to the Orton signing because if we need him for more than a game or two, we're screwed. Orton might beat lesser competition, but I don't see him beating most of the teams on this year's schedule.
I also think we need a 3rd RB, because Tanner couldn't stay healthy even without any carries, and Murray/Jones can't be relied on to stay healthy either. Plus, Jones is likely gone in 2013. Cowboys have picked RBs well in middle rounds. They should do it again.
Steven McGee is another player with little value on our roster. I hope we can trade him for a draft pick, though it will likely be for next year's draft.
5. Interior linebacking. Grade B+. (Lost Bradie James and Keith Brooking. Signed Dan Connor. Allowed Bruce Carter to step up.)
I really like this move. We got much younger and faster at ILB. Connor is great against the run, and Carter can be phased in by playing passing downs. Behind these guys and Lee, I expect the Cowboys to keep churning.
6. Special teams. Grade C. (Don't have a punter at the moment.)
I expect we'll bring McBriar back when the dust settles, which will elevate this to B, and possibly an A if McBriar is back to his booming ways.
Conclusion. Overall Grade B to B-.
We've helped our team defense immensely, but it's come at the price of using resources that could have fixed our underachieving offense. Are we good enough to make the playofffs and win? It depends on whether the Oline can hold up and keep Tony Romo healthy. If the Oline is a seive, the new D will not save us.
Going into day 3 of the draft with 5 picks, plus UDFAs, here's what I hope the Boys still pick up.
1. An Olineman in the 4th round who can compete for a starting spot at C-G this year.
2. A durable RB who can fill if and when Murray and/or Jones get nicked again.
3. A 3rd WR. I hope it's someone tall and fast like Robinson, who can develop into a legit #2, rather than a smurf who we hope might return kicks. We haven't done well with the little guys lately.
4. A blocking TE who can catch a few passes too.
5. A free safety who can spell Pool (as Pool only played half the time last year.)
6. CB depth to cover nickel and dime situations that will allow us to trade Jenkins if we can get some value.
7. A Jay Ratliff or Sean Lissemore clone in the 7th round.
**************** My prior posts are below.
My post below evaluated what I thought should be the Cowboys priorities going into free agency. Here's an update on developments since then. So far, the Cowboys have met some of their needs, but they have left a gaping hole in the middle of the offensive line, and if it's not addressed, the team isn't going to get where it wants to.
Here's their moves so far, and where they fit on my priority scale.
- Priority #2, pass rush. I think the franchise tag on Anthony Spencer was critical. The guy is great against the run, makes tackles, forces fumbles, and gets to the QB a respectable amount. Beefing up the D-line interior is another way to bolster the pass rush, which the Cowboys might be able to do yet in free agency or the draft.
- Priority #3, secondary. I appreciate the signing of Brandon Carr, who's the right CB of those on the market, for reasons Bob Sturm laid out in his blog. Still need to sign a safety.
- Priority #4, other offensive pieces. Lawrence Vickers is bigger and more durable than Tony Fiammettaand thus an upgrade at FB, which is important to our running game.
- Priority #4, other offensive pieces. Kyle Orton fills another critical need. He was my second choice for backup QB -- I liked Rex Grossman more for reasons spelled out below, but Orton is younger and might still improve. Cowboys should try to trade Steven McGee for a draft pick.
- Priority #4, other offensive pieces. If the Cowboys land Kellen Davis, this will cover the loss of Martellus Bennett to NY, where I think he's going to hurt us, BTW. (Romo never saw Bennett with Witten on the field. Freed up, Bennett is going to surprise a lot of doubters. He won't catch a lot of balls, but he's an upgrade for the Giants and will hurt teams.) Still, I think Davis will do better here than Bennett would because Romo doesn't have a blind spot for him, so perhaps a very small upgrade if he signs.
- Priority #5, interior linebacking. If they land Dan Connor, this will fill the interior LB hole. There are mixed reviews on him, but I would consider this a real plus signing if it gets done.
- What's the obvious problem here? The Cowboys have yet to address what should have been Priority #1 -- interior offensive line. Let's be frank: the Cowboys need 3 new starters on the inside, and they can't expect to get more than one of them in the draft -- David DeCastro. We should not be satisfied with the MacKenzy Bernadeau signing. A backup guard from Carolina isn't going to cut it. I don't mind this deal if Bernadeau remains a backup. He may well be better than Nagy, Arkin, and Kosier, and if this means we can cut Kosier, who is too old and injury prone to be reliable anymore, then it's a small plus. But this isn't good enough to turn this critical unit into a strength of the team, which it was the last time we went to the Super Bowl, or even the last time we finished at the top of the NFC (13-3 in 2007 when we had Flo, Kosier, Gurode, Bigg, and Columbo.) The Cowboys need Pro Bowlers on the offensive line, or we are wasting the talents of Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, Miles Austin, Jason Witten, DeMarco Murray, and Felix Jones. A weak line isn't going to be able to compete in the NFC East, or in a year when we have to play Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Cincy, plus the NFC South.
Aside from fixing the offensive line, the Cowboys still have other needs.
- Is Laurent Robinson gone? He would be foolish to sign with Jacksonville, with no QB to throw to him. But I can't blame him for going elsewhere if someone waves a big signing bonus in front of him. I hope he gives us the chance to come close to matching any deal, but at this point I'd rather put our money in the offensive line. We'll have to find a #3 receiver somewhere else, as the only guy on our roster who might fit the role is Radway, who was hurt last year. With Austin's perennial hamstring issues, and the value of using Bryant for other things, like punt return, third WR is pretty important. Mario Manningham anyone?
- How are we going to upgrade the pass rush? (Priority #2?) We can't draft both Cox out of Mississippi State and David DeCastro. I think DeCastro is the bigger need, esp. since we haven't really addressed the O-line yet, but the quality pass rush guys will mostly be gone after the first round. We've got to fix one or the other in free agency.
- Who's going to sign at safety? Word is that Brodney Pool is visiting. I don't know enough to evaluate whether he's much of an upgrade over Elam. He seems to get his hands on more balls, but played in only 561 plays last year, to Elam's 1024. This sounds like a push.
- Who's our punter going to be? If we have the money, I expect McBriar will be back.
- We will also need a 3rd RB, but this can be filled through the draft.
So, overall, I'd give the Cowboys credit for a decent start. Everyone they have signed is in their 20s. They've landed a primo free agent CB, and kept Anthony Spencer so their pass rush shouldn't be any worse off. They've filled holes at FB and backup QB. They've brought in logical solutions for TE, ILB, and Safety. (Let's hope they sign them or find better options to fill those holes.) They added some young but experienced depth for the O-line, which might allow them to let Kosier go.
But the overall answer to my post question has to be that, until they start really upgrading their offensive line, the team is just treading water. Without an offensive line, and especially if they lose Robinson, the Cowboys will not have the offense to compete with the high-scoring teams like New Orleans, Green Bay, and even the Giants and Philly. The Cowboys aren't going to win games with a dominant defense. They are going to need to protect Romo and open running lanes for Murray/Jones if they want to get to the playoffs and win. Carl Nicks may have been outside our salary cap range, esp. with the BS penalty the other owners imposed, but then we need to spend our money to upgrade the cheaper Center position, draft DeCastro, and find someone better than Nagy/Arkin/Bernadeau for the other guard slot. If we don't see 3 new starters on the O-line this year, it could be another disappointing season.
*************** Here's my prior post. Priorties, Priorities, Priorities.
There is a lot the Cowboys need to do this offseason to be contenders next year. We have holes in the interior of the offensive line, a pass rush that is not good enough to threaten Eli Manning or other passers who can carve up our defense, and serious weaknesses in the secondary. We also have other issues: interior linebacking, third wide receiver, backup QB, third tight end, fullback, and punter. How do you go about filling all these holes?
The first thing you need to do is prioritize.
To decide how to prioritize, I think you have to look back and see why the Cowboys lost 8 games this year, and barely won several others. Here's the schedule, with a quick estimate whether it was the offense or the defense, or something else that cost us the game.
LOOKING BACK AT 2011 -- Was Offense or Defense the primary culprit in our 8 losses?
Game 1, lost 24-27 @ NY Jets - late turnovers (including blocked punt). Better offense closes this game out.
Game 2, won 27-24 @ San Francisco in OT
Game 3, won 18-16 over Washington - better offense makes this an easier win.
Game 4, lost 30-34 to Detroit - turnovers cost us. Offense looked great in first half, disappeared in second half.
Game 5, lost 16-20 @ New England - better offense wins this game by getting into the end zone or getting a late first down. Don't focus on failed last minute stop.
Game 6, won 34-7 over St. Louis. Easy game.
Game 7, lost 7-34 @ Philadelphia. Defense was shredded. Offense couldn't stay with Eagles.
Game 8, won 23-13 over Seattle. Offense should have put the game away earlier. Missed goal line opptys.
Game 9, won 44-7 over Buffalo. Easiest game of the year.
Game 10, won 27-24 @ Washington. Offense should have put this one away earlier. Defense couldn't stop Rex.
Game 11, won 20-19 over Miami. Offense was outplayed by Miami.
Game 12, lost 13-19 @ Arizona. Offense could have put this away before last second missed FG. Romo sacked too many times.
Game 13, lost 34-37 to Giants. Put this on both the offense and defense. Offense couldn't do anything at the end, allowing the Giants the possessions they needed to take the lead; defense couldn't stop them. Still, a blocked field goal was the difference at the end.
Game 14, won 31-15 @ Tampa Bay. Offense did great in first half, nothing in second half.
Game 15, lost 7-20 against Philly. Game meant nothing and Romo sat after hurting hand. Offense had no chance after that.
Game 16, lost 14-31 @ NY Giants. Romo sacked heavily again. Offense couldn't keep up.
Why do I go through this exercise? Because it's my view that weaknesses in the Cowboys offense, more than itsdefense, was the reason we lost games. In the 8 losses, better offense wins the Jets, Detroit, NE and Arizona games. In the two games against the Giants, better offense or defense could have won the first game, and better offense might have made the second competitive. Nothing would have mattered in the first or second Philly games. First was a blowout, and second was of no consequence.
So, if I am priortizing to improve the Cowboys in 2012, where am I looking first? On the offensive side. And specifically on the offensive line.
PRIORITY #1 -- Offensive line
If the Cowboys do nothing else this offseason, what I would like to see them do is develop a dominant offensive line. A great line would give Romo more time to throw, and it would open running lanes more consistently for Murray and Jones. The line is needed to allow the skill players to maximize their potential. A better Oline wins the Jets game by allowing us to control more 4th quarter clock and finish the win. Same thing for the Lionsgame. When we needed one first down against NE, a better line could have gotten it for us, or put the ball into the end zone instead of settling for FGs. Same thing at the end of the first Giants game. Same for Arizona. A better line would also have made the two Washington and Miami wins much easier.
How do we get a dominant offensive line? First off, we need to keep getting younger. Montrae Holland fought gamely, but got injured at the end of the year. Derrick Dockery played one game and got hurt. Kyle Kosier had a bad foot all year, and missed time in recent years with foot injuries. None of these guys could stop rushers in December, when Tony Romo got killed.
My highest priority would be to sign Carl Nicks to whatever contract is needed to get him. He's a big, mid-20s guy who could be expected to perform for 5 years at a top level. I'd say he'd be worth every penny needed to sign him.
My second priority would be to sign a FA center, and I would target Chris Myers. Even though he's older, he would be the only guy cracking 30 in the new line. This is viable for a center. Jeff Saturday is still doing pretty well at 37.
I would fill the 3rd interior slot with David DeCastro, presuming he falls to #14 in the draft.
That would give the Cowboys 2 linemen in their very early 20s -- Smith and DeCastro, 2 in their mid-20s -- Free and Nicks, and 1 at 30 -- Myers. This line could play together for 4-5 years. The other guys we already have can be groomed as backups. They are cheap and have some playing experience.
With a dominant offensive line, the Cowboys could protect Tony Romo for the remainder of his career, and maximize the value of the Cowboys skill players, who need blocking to open running lanes, or time for Romo to get them the ball. I would go ALL IN here.
We all remember the Triplets. But would those Cowboys teams have won titles without the best offensive line in football? It would have been much harder.
The other thing to consider is how offense now dominates the NFL. New Orleans, with the best O, was probably the best team at the end of the season. Had the Giants been forced to go there, NO, not NY, would be Super Bowl champs. Green Bay lost only 1 game in the regular season despite a terrible defense. New England was within a drive of winning the Super Bowl despite a very weak D.
Plus, the Cowboys are only a few players from being able to build a great offense. It is attainable THIS YEAR. We have skill positions filled. We mostly need linemen. That's doable. So let's do it.
PRIORITY #2 -- Pass rush
Even though I believe our lack of offense is what cost us most of our games, I'm not blind to our defensive challenges. I would try to do as much as possible to fix the D, but not to the point where it keeps us from building a dominant offense.
When it comes to the defense, we had holes at pass rush, linebacking, and secondary. Which should have the highest priority? I would vote for pass rush, for a couple of reasons. First, how has Eli Manning beaten us the last few years? It's because we apply no pressure at all to him. Second, great pass rushes can cover for weak secondaries more easily than the other way around.
There may be more than one way to improve our pass rush. My view is that we should go after the biggest impact player in free agency, who is Mario Williams. You may say that Williams doesn't fit the 3-4. I say he fits perfectly. Under Wade, he was playing OLB and had 5 sacks in 5 games until he got hurt. Yet Williams is also big enough to slide inside and play anything other than nose tackle. This would allow us to play Victor Butlermore on passing downs without taking Mario off the field. There is no one else likely to be available who could have a greater impact. (Calais Campbell and Cliff Avril are likely staying put.) With a rushing front of Ware, Williams, Ratliff, Hatcher, and Butler, we would have 5 guys who could bring some pressure, making it difficult for the offense to win every protection battle. I would also look to spend a 2nd or 3rd round pick here, depending on value, to give us better depth and youth on the line. One or two guys could make a huge difference here.
As a backup plan, if Williams doesn't want to sign with us or is prohibitively expensive, I think we should resignAnthony Spencer and focus on shoring up the interior rush. One reason to keep Spencer over trying to replace him with a draft pick is that we can't count on a draft pick to even be up to Spencer's speed in year one. Spencer didn't take over for Greg Ellis until year 3. Victor Butler would likely be the starter, and he would be okay, but not likely an improvement. One poster recommended signing Jason Jones of Tennessee, which could make sense if Spencer is brought back. And we could still draft here for youth and depth. That would be Plan B.
As with the offensive line, I would try to add IMPACT players because we've seen what a strong pass rush can do.
PRIORITY #3 -- Secondary
Our secondary needs a starting left CB, and starting FS, and better depth. I would try to fill the first two holes with reasonably priced free agents. Good suggestions have been made on this board. Then I would draft in this area starting in either the 2nd or 3rd rounds, depending on value, and come back to these positions again later in the draft. Clearly, Newman will be cut.
PRIORITY #4 -- Other offensive pieces
The offense will not be complete with just a new offensive line. Laurent Robinson also needs to be brought back. He has great chemistry with Romo, can sub for both Austin and Bryant, and scores TDs. Plus, he can go deep, unlike Patrick Crayton, our last good 3rd receiver. And he wants to stay in Dallas. With lots of other FA WRs for other teams to target, it's not likely the bidding for Robinson will get too high. Given health issues for both Austin and Bryant, I consider this a must sign.
We also need a new backup QB. This is a very important position, and one for which we cannot count on Steven McGee to fill. Indeed, I would trade McGee before the draft if I could get anything for him once I had a veteran signed. (Why don't I like McGee? I don't think he processes his options fast enough to be able to look and throw the ball downfield, and I don't think this is fixable.) I think there are only two names worth considering -- Rex Grossmanand Kyle Orton. (Maybe Jason Campbell.) I would go after Grossman, despite his turnovers, on the view that on a good team, this can be cured, as it was for Jon Kitna. Also, Grossman has played in the NFC East, won playoff games, and been the starter on a Super Bowl team.
We also need a third TE. I'm for bringing back Martellus Bennett because he blocks well, knows the offense, would be modestly priced, and there aren't really any better FA alternatives. Plus, I'd rather use a draft pick we might spend trying to replace him on another area of need. But, if we have to do with Phillips as the #2 guy, we will survive.
And we need a FB. Fiammetta can likely be had cheaply. The question here is his health. If we keep him, we need a better backup than Phillips because we all saw how the running game suffered without a good lead FB.
My other concern is third and fourth RB. We have a great backfield in Murray, Jones, and Tanner. But it's only great if it stays healthy. With an extra fourth round pick this year, I wouldn't be surprised if we added some security at this position, who would also give us insurance in 2013 if Felix Jones moves on. The Cowboys have done very well in drafting RBs.
PRIORITY #5 -- Interior linebacking
We all want Bruce Carter to come on like Sean Lee has, but it is too much to depend on in 2012. Clearly, a stop-gap veteran needs to be signed. And we still might draft here, but likely not very high.
PRIORITY #6 -- Special teams
Bring back Matt Briar? I expect we'll be given the chance to test his health after he heals from surgery before we decide whether to bring Briar back. My concern is cost.
We also could use a much better return game. Let's hope one or more of the DBs we draft can revive our punt and KO returns.
It sounds like a lot, but if you prioritize and break it down, it seems very doable to me.
Impact level 1 -- FA/G Carl Nicks, FA/C Chris Myers, 1st DP/G David DeCastro (DP=Draft Pick)
Impact level 1a - FA/OLB/DE Mario Williams, 2nd DP -- Defensive line/OLB/CB
Impact level 2 - FA/WR Laurent Robinson, FA/ILB To be named, FA/FS To be named, FA/CB To be named
Level 3 -- FA/QB Rex Grossman, FA/P Matt McBriar, 3rd DP -- Defensive line/OLB/CB/S
Level 4 -- FA or DP - 3rd TE (might be Bennett), FA or DP - FB (might be Fiammetta), 4th DPs -- TE, OL, RB, QB, DB
Level 5 -- 5th - 7th round DPs and UDFAs, other FAs.
The wild card here is that we don't know who will sign or how much these contracts will go for. However, with all the dead money in 2012, the Cowboys should be able to structure deals to entice the players with bonuses, yet push most of the contract money into years when the 2012 dead money will be off the books. This should not hamstring the Cowboys at all.
I want to end with a few words on why I keep pushing for adding IMPACT players rather than just searching for bargains. I think we need difference makers if we want to win the Super Bowl. When we last won the Super Bowl, our offensive line was Mark Tuinei, Nate Newton, Ray Donaldson/Derreck Kennard, Larry Allen, Eric Williams. The last time we were close was our 13-3 year of 2007, when we had a strong O-line of Flozell, Kosier, Gurode, Bigg, and Columbo, before they got old and broke down. We need that kind of quality if we want to be a Championship team again.
The Cowboys were in nearly every game this year, but only because we have IMPACT players on our roster already -- Tony Romo, DeMarcus Ware, Jason Witten, Sean Lee, DeMarco Murray, Miles Austin, Tyron Smith, Dez Bryant, Jay Ratliff, Mike Jenkins, and others. We just didn't have enough of them.