James Hanna has been Dallas' most surprising offensive player thus far
After almost three full weeks of training camp (as well as one underwhelming preseason tilt), I think we have accumulated sufficient information to render some informed assessments about the state of our Beloved 'Boys, in the form of grades for the various position groups and a handful of training camp "best ofs." I believe this to be a fitting juncture for a report card. The training camp/ preseason phase in a given season campaign is comprised of two distinct phases: the first three weeks, including the first two preseason games, and the final two week lead-in to the season's opening games. With that in mind, consider these mid-pre-season grades.
Before we move on to the actual grades, a few words on the rubric I'm using. The grades you see below are for the entire unit, not just the starters. So, to receive an "A," a unit needs to have both Pro-Bowl-caliber quality at the top and good depth, such that the backups are all (or soon will be) capable of making plays. To ascertain that both of these are present, therefore, we must know exactly who we are assessing. In other words, to receive top marks, the position must be settled from top to bottom, and can't be plagued by question marks.
Quarterback: This may be the most settled position on the team. Tony Romo is the clear starter, and one of the very best signal callers in the league. Moreover, he's assumed a more forceful and vocal leadership role in recent months. Behind him may well be the NFL's best backup QB; Kyle Orton has looked very good in camp: he's confident, poised and, unlike recent (and aged) backups, has a live arm. He's capable of winning games should number nine go down.
What marks does Professor Rabble give the other offensive positions? Make the jump to see the full report card...
Running Back: The starting twosome appears to be set; DeMarco Murray is the clear lead back. He's been a catalyst in Oxnard, practicing with a fiery demeanor. In short, he's done everything you'd hope for from a 25-carry-a-game lead dog. His running mate, fullback Lawrence Vickers is a nasty blocker, catches the ball well and does a terrific job in blitz pickup. Felix Jones, on the other hand, has been an enigma, looking slow and somewhat uninspired. I haven't seen that elite playmaking burst from him yet, which lowers the position grade. It's further lowered by the uncertainty surrounding the third (and/ or fourth) back(s). Phillip Tanner's injury has opened the door for the likes of Lance Dunbar (who then suffered an injury of his own) and Jamize Olawale, who seemed unready for the big stage against the Raiders. So, we can be confident with the top end, but increasingly concerned the deeper down the depth chart we go.
Wide Receiver: The final assessment of the running backs also applies to the receiving corps. In camp, Dez Bryant has often looked like the best player on the team: he's extraordinarily athletic, and capable of doing things with his body while in the air that other players can barely contemplate. When healthy, Miles Austin is an elite wideout; he runs terrific patterns, cuts at full speed, and uses strength and balance to make big plays. If both the starters play sixteen games, the Cowboys will have one of the league's best aerial attacks, and the question of who the third receiver is might well be rendered moot. That's not a realistic expectation, however, and the position is beset with myriad questions after the tremendous twosome. I have no idea who receivers three through six will be, and am not convinced that the WR3 is currently on the roster. Because there are so many unknowns after the starters - and because we've seen exactly nothing from Miles thus far - the solid "A" that Bryant has earned drops precipitously.
Tight End: Before Witten's injury, I would have said this position was the most settled on the roster. Now, when thinking about tight end, we cannot help but hold our collective breath. It wouldn't surprise me for his injury situation to linger, and for him to miss the first couple of regular season games. Given the extraordinary chemistry he shares with Romo, this will put added pressure on an already discombobulated offense. The good news is that John Phillips is back from his dinged ankle, and has looked very good in camp, looking more and more like the guy who was the best player on the field in the 2010 Hall of Fame Game, just before he suffered a season-ending knee injury. That said, Phillips isn't capable of assuming Witten's place in the offense, so the position will be operating at a deficit until number 82 returns. On the bright side, James Hanna has shown terrific hands, solid in-line blocking and a little special teams sauce. When Witten returns, this unit receives a solid "A." Until that time, however...
Offensive Tackle: Another position that's settled - in terms of personnel. But, the two starters, Tyron Smith and Doug Free, have spent camp acclimating to the offseason positional switcheroo. I think they'll eventually be fine (and that they are playing in the spots where they belong), but both suffered from technique lapses in camp and must therefore be seen as works in progress. Backing them up is Jermey Parnell, who has developed nicely under Bill Callahan, who will get his technique to match his athleticism. He may be the game day swing tackle, or they might keep him as Smith's backup and slot pat McQuistan behind Free. McQ also plays special teams, and has been backing up at center (a combination that would likely earn him a spot on the game day roster as well). Since this is yet to be determined (and because both Smith and Free haven't yet fully acclimated), the grade is lowered a bit.
Offensive Guard: Sometimes, a student show promise but circumstances prevent her or him from completing the full semester's worth or work. In this case, I will give this student an opportunity to finish the work after the semester ends, in the form of an incomplete. This is exactly what we'll have to give the Cowboys guards, who have shown brief glimpses of ability and competence, but simply haven't completed the necessary work to earn a grade. Nate Livings has been injured, and was joined on the sideline by Mackenzie Bernadeau. Thankfully, once Bernie came back, he immediately upgraded the team's play in the middle. 2011 draftee David Arkin and 2012 UDFA Ronald Leary logged a lot of early snaps at guard, but Arkin had to be shuttled to center when injuries piled up there and Leary began to get beat consistently by quickness, and was replaced by street FA Derrick Dockery, who is not likely to make the final roster. How can I possibly grade these guys?
Center: One of the things I admired about Bill Parcells was that he was always developing contingency plans; whenever a guy went down, he always already knew what we wanted to do. Occasionally, situations arise so extreme that they exceed the scope of any contingency plan, no matter how carefully formulated. The Cowboys' stunning attrition at center is one of those situations. Going into camp, they had a nominal starter - Phil Costa - and three candidates who could compete with Costa for a starting guard spot - or at least for the all-important game day interior swing position: the aforementioned Bernadeau, as well as Bill Nagy and Kevin Kowalski. Failing these, they also had Arkin, a guard capable of making the transition to the pivot. Callahan might not have had any prospective All-Pros to work with, but he had a long list of options, which promised a heated summer-long competition at the position. As if they had practiced snaps on an Indian burial ground, however, they all went down in rapid succession: Bernadeau and Kowalski, then Nagy and, finally, Costa. In the first ten days of camp, a deep depth chart had become an empty table. With Costa as the starter, the highest possible grade was in the B-/ C+ range. Now, it has fallen lower. Much lower.
Grade: D/ D-
Biggest offensive surprise: Hanna. During the draft, as you'll recall, the Mothership streamed live coverage of the Cowboys' war room. Most of the time, there's nothing much to watch; for the better part of the draft, all was quiet on the war room front, but as we wound our way through the sixth round, the war room was suddenly in a tizzy. Apparently, the Cowboys were preparing to select Texas A&M running back Cyrus Grey with pick 185, only to have the Chiefs snatch him up three picks before they were on the board. After a quick review of the possible candidates, they opted for the Oklahoma tight end, who demonstrated not only top-end speed and athleticism but also inconsistent hands and insufficient bulk to succeed as an in-line blocker.
In OTAs, he showed nothing to dispel this report; in training camp, however, the draft afterthought (drafterthought?) has become a revelation, catching everything thrown at him, blocking surprisingly well, and using his speed and athleticism to his advantage on several special teams units. With further time in the weight room, it's looking like Hanna, with his length and 4.49 speed, could become a legitimate mismatch tight end.
Biggest disappointment: Offensive line continuity, hands down. Coming into training camp, the Cowboys were returning exactly one player who would be lining up at the same position he played in 2011 - and that was center Phil Costa, the man many fans felt was the unit's weak link. As we have all read numerous times, continuity on the O-line is paramount; more than any other position, these guys play by "feel," especially when picking up stunts or passing a defensive lineman to the guy next to them. Thus the onus in training camp was to develop as much continuity as possible in a short period. Sadly, this has proved impossible; Bill Callahan hasn't had a single practice wherein his projected starters have all been on the field at the same time. Now, with Phil Costa out for a bit, that unenviable streak will continue.
The most maddening aspect of the preseason is that, at the position that received the largest slice in the offseason concern pie chart, we simply don't know anything more than we did in early April.
Keep your eye on: Olawale, a rookie minicamp invitee who played well enough to earn a training camp invite, and then continued to catch the coaches' eyes in Oxnard. In third string back Phillip Tanner, the Cowboys have a lesser version of starter DeMarco Murray; a tough, hard-running player with a little speed and wiggle. Olawale gives them an entirely different dimension. In college, at North Texas, he played a kind of WR-TE hybrid position (which you can see in these highlights), so he's a surprisingly fluid runner and adept receiver for a man his size (6'2", 231). I think the coaches would love for him to develop into a big, third-down back, capable of running, pass blocking, and flexing out in motion. He was given a chance at Oakland and, for the first time, didn't rise to the occasion. I suspect the coaches will give him further opportunities, so keep your eyes peeled whenever # 49 is in the game.
Assessing the Cowboys offseason, offensive edition: Clearly, offseason priority one was to upgrade the defensive personnel, and the splashiest acquisitions were all on that side of the ball. That's not to say that Dallas didn't upgrade its offensive personnel; in free agency, the Cowboys filled a hole at backup quarterback and upgraded at fullback and both guard positions (they also brought back Kevin Ogletree to compete for the third receiver position). Two of these players have been as advertised (and more): Vickers has looked surprisingly athletic and smooth; Orton is poised, savvy, and in command (even when the players around him aren't up top the task). Any enthusiasm generated by these two must be tempered by the incompletes earned by Bernadeau and Livings, probably the two most important offseason pickups on that side of the ball.
After the free agent flurry, evident roster holes remained at backup tight end and third receiver, which the Cowboys filled by drafting Hanna and Danny Coale. Together with John Phillips, Hanna has dispelled any concerns about Witten's backups; Coale, on the other hand, has been injured for the majority of the offseason, to the point where he's losing sight of a roster spot. In the post-draft UDFA period, they found a handful of players who just might stick: OG Ronald Leary, who needs technique work; offseason phenom, WR Cole Beasley, who is going to have to prove he can do more than settle into holes in shallow zones; and the aforementioned Olawale.
Overall: Vickers and Hanna are definite pluses, as is Orton (although we hope he never takes a meaningful snap in a Cowboys uniform). Three weeks into training camp, with persistent questions still lingering at receiver and in the interior of the offensive line, Dallas' offseason work on offense merits little more than a "meh."
On a scale from one to five blue stars, I give the Cowboys offensive makeover two stars.