In numero uno of this rambling two-parter we talked about the need to find a successor for Jason Witten first out of all of the Bill Parcells drafted players (keeping in mind the assumptions that Romo keeps playing at a high level through 2015, DeMarcus Ware doesn't have to retire 'early' with his shoulder stinger problems, and Ratliff's replacement may already be on the 2012 roster).
In Part deux we continue the broader BTB discussion, looking to the future. As the title implies, the man who ties these disparate threads together is my favorite pet cat, from Prairie View A&M, undrafted free agent outside linebacker Adrian Hamilton. Mr. Hamilton's development in many ways could shape both our 2013 draft strategy (OLB, or safety or even a DL first?) as well as free agency moves (primarily whom do we keep around).
In short, I was hoovering up many other fine posts here at BTB in part one and challenging fellow BTBers to examine the assumptions made in them (see the poll after the jump).
Next Man Up...That Elusive Ballhawk Safety
The idea of a safety who can cover as well as he can hit has haunted this franchise since Darren Woodson retired. We saw flashes of brilliance during the Oklahoma Roy Williams' rookie year, but his ability to roam and force plays like he did in college (I was there for the famous hit/strip of Longhorns QB Chris Simms in 02' at the Cotton Bowl) withered when Woodson had to hang it up.
Since then, this franchise has had some mediocre hitters but the last safety we had who could do both reasonably well was probably George Teague [or maybe it's just my fond fan memories, not the PFF numbers]. Gerald Sensabaugh certainly had five interceptions and was starting to come on strong in 10', but his effort was largely forgotten due to the horrors of that secondary, which compared to the 11' unit in terms of ineptidue and blowing games (How about Jay Cutler with the smallish receivers he had that year?). Now Sensabaugh isn't getting any younger and as a commenter pointed out in a salary cap doom and gloom thread, Sensei's deal is really only good for this year with him becoming a likely salary cap target in 2013.
Now if the koolaid doesn't lie, we have a potential long term answer in...Matt Johnson. At least at the "strong" or nickel safety spot. The evaluation of Johnson is that he may not have the lateral agility to play deep center field the way a true free safety would. But in Rob Ryan's scheme, the two roles are supposed to be nearly interchangeable. And certainly just as the schedule is brutal this year for the whole B-East (I don't get this koolaid drinking by the national sportswriters about the Eagles at all), you could argue we aren't the only NFC East team with this problem.
The Redskins safety situation remains a mess, Philadelphia has struggled with safety issues even while having good cornerbacks (ok Asante Samuel was always overrated, but think back to their safeties trying in vain to catch Felix Jones in the 09' playoff game, or getting torched by T.O. in 08'). The Giants gave up their share of big pass plays in the first half of last year -- the veteran Deon Grant is well past his prime. Despite having the big and fast Kenny Phillips we tend to forget that the Giants also have Antrel Rolle, who is a converted corner and hence, probably not the best tackler. A few DeMarco Murray bursts into the secondary on September 5th running over Rolle will soon remind the Big Blue fans lurking here of this fact. But all of those Giant deficencies (did anybody watch the 2011 Saints/Giants game? Brees absolutely gave us a blueprint for destroying this secondary) were forgotten in the afterglow of those two Kyle Williams fumbles in the NFC title game...
The Shape of the 2013 Draft - Filling Out the Defense or Finding Witten's Successor with Boys First Pick?
That leaves the 2013 Draft. Having read a fine FanPost I agree with the notion that this draft could be so deep for safeties that an FS of the future may be had in the 2nd round. The depth of the safety class likely dictates a safety with one of our top two picks -- just as pulling the trigger on Morris Claiborne proved a no-brainer in this draft. The Eagles found Nate Allen in the second round of the same 2010 draft where we took 2012-13 Pro Bowler Sean Lee. Although the jury is still out on Allen, it's too early to call him a bust in only his third season.
So if we can trade away our third for the safety we want in the 2nd or bottom of the 1st (those picks no longer being so far apart), where does that leave our first round pick of 2013? I say if there is a Rob Gronkowski type, given the priority stated above, you take him first. Do you take him over one of the young OLB prospects Rabblerouser highlighted in his recent post? I'm not sure about that yet, that again depends on how well Wilber and Hamilton play this season.
But if you think the top two or even three pass rushers are already off the board, as the Boys are likely to be picking around 27 or 28 (11-5 baby!), I'd say you take the top tight end next April and go for that James Harrison or Nate Allen type in the second round. If you have confidence in Adrian Hamilton busting out in his second full season, that is...and you get a lot more pass rush from the 3-4 ends 49ers-style during this 2012 season (here's looking at ya'll, Tyrone Crawford and Clifton Geathers).
But the reader may object, we can find tight ends in the third or fourth round...look where Parcells found Jason Witten in his first Cowboys draft! Ah, but it's a copycat league. Judging by recent drafts, finding Jason Wittens in the third round is getting harder, though we seem to have plenty of luck turning late round college DTs into Jay Ratliff s and Sean Lissemore s at end.
The Need for Two Tight Ends -- Getting Down and Dirty in the Red Zone
The New England Patriots 'model' of a two TE offense to slow down opposing past rushes has started to spread, even if one TE is often not a very distinguished blocker (think Jermichael Finley). And having two TEs also allows us to match up better against our Wide 9 and 3-4 division rivals (at least so long as you're not expecting James Hanna to chip on Jason Babin) and the holy grail of the Cowboys offense...punching it in down on the goal line when the other team knows you're running and can't stop it. Like those Cowboys teams of the 1990s.
Nothing is more annoying as a Cowboys fan than having to watch Romo scramble around the pocket and dodge rushers for seven seconds until he can find an open receiver in the back of the end zone when we're on the one or two yard line. Sure it's a great play, but it's far more work than Troy Aikman had to do when his team was in the same position and he could just hand it off to Emmitt Smith. If nothing else he should be able to find a big, physical tight end open if the Boys can't run on the opposition's mammoth nose tackles.
Plus, I don't know about you, but I like having two big men pass catchers that can take advantage of the fact that our division rivals (particularly the Philadelphia Eagles, but also the Giants to a lesser degree) often go cheap at the linebacker position to lavish cap money on defensive linemen. I get tired of hearing about how physical they are and like seeing some of their linebackers get pushed around by pulling guards and the tight ends. The Bears certainly did some of that with Matt Forte in in 2011, while the Boys fell behind so quickly we were never able to run it down the throats of the wide 9 ends (as this fine game plan post urges).
Finding Romo's Successor in the First Round of 2013? More Likely, 2014
Given the indispensability of the TE to the Don Coryell 2012/Jason Garrett offense and the low probability that we'd be able to successfully copy the Packers near-spread offense with Andre Holmes as a split-tweener TE...don't be surprised if the Boys first pick in 13' is the top tight end on the board after the top safeties/pass rushers get snatched up well before our 28th overall selection. Believe me, if this team performs up to my expectations and finishes 11-5 with a playoff win or two, the only way the no. 1 or no. 2 safety or pass rushing prospect falls to us is if there's a run on quarterbacks, or alternatively we again trade our 2nd rounder to move up for that stud in the first round like Mo Claiborne.
The QB Variables
The teams that seem to most need a QB in 2013 are the Arizona Cardinals, Kansas City Chiefs (the only Chiefs fan I know is not a Matt Cassel fan), Oakland Raiders, and possibly the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (possibly moving on from Josh Freeman) or Jacksonville Jaguars (I'm not sure they're ready to give up on Blaine Gabbert quite yet, but if they're moving to LA...). Beyond those five teams, I don't see that many front offices desperate for a franchise QB even in a reportedly rich 2013 QB Draft class. But there are teams like the Philadelphia Eagles that could surprise me if a QB falls into their lap after another injury-riddled season from Michael Vick. (Sorry Jerry Jones but I think Razorbacks Senior QB Tyler Wilson is a future Chief or Cardinal).
While it is truly ridiculous to project actual picks as opposed to vague needs this far in advance, if the draft follows where the experts say the talent is we're going to have to trade up or hope somebody inexplicably falls to us in the bottom of the first this draft. And a tight end is more likely to be that player who slips far than a stud safety or pass rusher. Hence my case for finding Witten's successor who can be complimented by a John Phillips or James Hanna type tight end.
D-Ware...Trying to Replace the Irreplacable with Lesser Mortals and Scheme
I'll wrap this up by saying I really don't have a clue what the team could do to try to replace Ware's production. I think even more than Romo going down (since this group of receivers could soldier on and make Kyle Orton look a lot better than he ever did as a Bronco or Bear) is DWare going down this year. Rabblerouser's post on the top pass rushing/3-4 OLB prospects in the 2013 NFL draft is a decent place to start in contemplating the long term options. Ware remains the player this team can least afford to lose even for one game, more so even than Romo, Tyron Smith or Brandon Carr.
Call it the offseason koolaid, but I think Adrian Hamilton is going to show flashes of having a very bright future this season and of possibly being the bookend to DWare's drafted (in 2013) successor. Hamilton may already start to surpass Victor Butler (assuming the Boys keep five OLBs, something Brian Broaddus suggests they'll do just this season) for passing down snaps by October. I see Kyle Wilber as a slightly more athletic version of Alex Albright -- a special teamer and solid rotation guy. Although I didn't consider it in my 53 plus PS projection, the possibility of bumping McSurdy to the practice squad and keeping Albright around as a backup INSIDE linebacker intrigues me. Certainly at 6"4 1/2 and about 260 Albright has the height and size to bat down passes, even when he can't get to the QB on an A-gap blitz. [In Rob Ryan's scheme Albright can put his hand on the ground like a college Defensive Tackle or blitz from the standing up position].
Keeping so many pass rushers (five OLBs on the roster) may require sacrificing some of our tackling/coverage abilities in the flats (from guys like Wilber). But it's worth doing if our opponents passing efficiency can be substantially lowered. At any rate, it's about time the Boys had their own rotation of three or four edge rushers like the New York Giants, even if they all play in the 3-4 which requires more tackling support in the flats.
Conclusion: Adrian Hamilton is my Pet Cat -- But You Already Knew That!
I hope this FanPost gives fellow BTBers plenty to chew over as we approach training camp. Personally, the only player I'll have my eye on more than Andre Holmes is one Adrian Hamilton.
[Sorry for the length guys, I broke this up into two posts and suspect the novel-writing will end come training camp and preseason as we have some actual performance with the pads on to chew on]
[P.S. Can't believe I forgot to put TE as an option in the reader poll -- that is now fixed]
For more on this topic and Rob Ryan's scheming to get lotsa pass rush-capable linebackers on the field at once, see the Fan Post "Anthony Spencer's Replacement is Already on the Roster"