Rob Ryan, it's on.
The Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator had a difficult and rather disappointing 2011 season. At least part of the reason was the resources he had at his disposal. He had three very good players in DeMarcus Ware, Jay Ratliff, and the emerging Sean Lee, but the rest of his lineup was full of players that ranged from the adequate to the totally lost. The team could not protect leads, and often was flat out embarrassed, particularly in the secondary. He was not given a lot of help in improving things before the season started, with the focus being on getting some youth into the offensive line and running game, and the one quality defensive pick in the second was used on Bruce Carter, who was not able to play most of the season due to injury. Free agency did not help much either, with the salary cap restricted Cowboys only able to bring in CB Frank Walker and S Abram Elam, basically journeymen players that seemed to fade as the season progressed.
My, my, how things have changed. The number one target in free agency was arguably the best free agent cornerback, and a couple of other defensive upgrades were also added. And then he was given the first four picks of the draft (five, if you count the second round pick used to trade up to the Pick 6), and one last defensive player in the seventh round.
From having a roster that just didn't provide enough firepower, he now has a group of players that, on paper at least, looks to be the equivalent of an M1 Abrams tank, ready to do some very serious damage. Now, he is going to have to prove that Dallas was correct in bringing him in to put some steel in the Cowboys D.
A deeper look at what he has been given after the jump.
The commitment to upgrading the defense this year started with the very first decision in the offseason, to put the franchise tag on Anthony Spencer. Although it remains controversial for some, it was based on the belief that the team had very slim chances of upgrading the production at the OLB position. Anthony does some things very well, and the team is obviously thinking that his performance will rise if the rest of the defense also improves.
Then came free agency, and CB Brandon Carr was the big target for the Cowboys. They did not let a last minute hit to the salary cap stop them form bringing him in to address the most glaring need on the team. The front office also added upgrade players in ILB Dan Connor and S Brodney Pool.
During the draft, the team pretty much turned the keys over to Rob until the fifth round. Take a look, by position, at what he has added to his arsenal.
Cornerback. Brandon Carr already had given the team one of the better players at his position, and then in a move that I think will go down as purely brilliant, the team dealt the #14 and #45 picks to the Rams to move up to #6 and grab the best defensive player in the draft, Morris Claiborne. Suddenly, what was the worst unit on the team has become arguably the best. Although they still have to prove themselves on the field, there is a legitimate case to be made that this is one of, if not the best, group of cornerbacks in the league. What is without question is that it is far improved from the porous bunch that the team had last year. And the team is also signing more CBs as UDFAs, having reportedly added Lionel Smith of Texas A&M, Troy Woolfork of Michigan, and Isaac Madison of Arkansas as of the time I'm writing this.
Safety. Brodney Pool was added in free agency, and the team then drafted Matt Johnson with the second pick in the fourth round. He was someone the team was targeting, according to a report by Jon Machota in the Dallas Morning News.
Entering the final day of the 2012 draft, the Cowboys had two picks in the fourth round and had offers to trade out of one of the spots for additional picks later in the day, according to team owner and general manager Jerry Jones.
However, they passed because of how highly they valued Wake Forest outside linebacker Kyle Wilber and Eastern Washington safety Matt Johnson.
While Pool and Johnson are not the kind of impact players that many saw Mark Barron as being, they do offer a good hope that the rest of the secondary will be be improved to complement the new studs playing corner. UFDA Eddie Whitely from Virginia Tech will also get his chance to earn a spot.
Inside Linebacker. With the team bidding Bradie James and Keith Brooking farewell, it needed to replace one starter and bring in depth. The team already has Bruce Carter, who should be healthy for the season, and Dan Connor is reuniting with college teammate Sean Lee, who said he modeled his play after Connor's. Now the team has picked up Caleb McSurdy as insurance. Perhaps he will get a look at fullback, where he was reportedly worked out during a bit of a stealth visit to Valley Ranch, but his comments indicate he expects to play linebacker.
Outside Linebacker. Anthony Spencer was retained, making this the only position that will definitely see the same starters in 2012 that began 2011. As already mentioned, Kyle Wilber was a target for the team in the fourth round, and he has been told he is slotted to back up Spencer. It leaves a question as to what happens with Victor Butler and Alex Albright, who Wilber would have to beat out for a roster spot, but too many players is the kind of problem you like to have - if they are good.
Defensive Line. Third-round pick Tyrone Crawford is, by many accounts, seen as an immediate contributor. His main strength is considered to be his ability to provide some pressure on the quarterback, something that most felt was a deficiency for this group. He was definitely a "who's that?" kind of pick for me, but the more I read about him, the better I feel about this choice. Insurance policies Aston Whiteside of Abilene-Christian and Adrian Hamilton from Prairie View A&M are UDFAs.
The only thing not addressed was nose tackle, a sore spot for many. But there may be some alternatives included here that we are not aware of that could provide some snaps on the nose, and Rob Ryan is supposed to be able to move his players around to come up with unexpected lines of attack. Plus, there still may be a UDFA to come that might pan out.
Rob is mainly expected to come up with a defense that can stop the high powered attacks in the NFL, particularly in the NFC East. Last year, his failure to do that could be understood given the glaring deficiencies on the team. In 2012, that is no longer true. It was clear from watching the video feed from the Dallas war room that he was large and in charge on these defensive picks, and he felt very good about what he was getting. Now he is going to have to prove that he can make this collection of players into an effective and durable defense. After this offseason, there are no more excuses.