Brandon Carr has been a revelation thus far.
As I noted in part one of this series, the training camp/ preseason phase in a given campaign is comprised of two distinct phases: the first three weeks, including the first two preseason games (which is an installation and evaluation phase) and the final two week lead-in to the season's opening games. Here, two days removed from the second preseason game, armed with a sufficient body of information on our Beloved Boys in Blue, we are perfectly poised to issue report cards for the first of these two phases. Consider these the defensive edition of Rabble's mid-pre-season grades.
Before going any further, a reminder about the grading rubric, as it caused a bit of consternation when the offensive grades were released: these grades 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.
Defensive line: A lot of offsesason ink was spilled bemoaning the fact that Dallas doesn't have a "pressure 5," a 3-4 defensive end like the 49ers Justin Smith or the Texans' J. J. Watt who can rush the passer. Suddenly, it looks like they might have several. In camp, Jason Hatcher (when healthy) and Tyrone Crawford consistently got penetration, and youngsters Clifton Geathers and Ben Bass showed some nice pass rush moves as well. Perhaps noting this, grizzled vet Marcus Spears began to play like a man possessed, and was seen in the backfield more often against the Raiders than he was the entirety of the 2011 season. Fellow vet Kenyon Coleman is never going to be mistaken for a "pressure five," but he's the consummate professional, always playing with strength, effort and good technique.
At nose tackle, Jay Ratliff's balky foot has been getting a lot of rest, which means we've seen youngsters Josh Brent and Rob Callaway get extensive snaps. The uncertainty surrounding Ratliff's health lowers the grade for this position group, as his backups have played well at times, but need to be more consistent. Given the sudden depth at defensive end, I could envision do-everything D-lineman Sean Lissemore serving as the primary backup NT in order to keep one of the young ends on the roster.
The coaches have a real problem: nine good (or at least very promising) players are competing for six or perhaps seven roster spots. The real question here is: will the Cowboys sacrifice a veteran or two to keep a youngster with a bit more upside? Can they sneak a talented young'un onto the practice squad? Have they already shown too much to clear waivers? Regardless of what they do, the team will have to release one or two good players at these positions - and that's not a terrible problem to have.
Professor Rabble doles out more grades after the jump, so make like Hayden Christensen, people...
Inside Linebacker: The offseason makeover at this position has been nothing less than spectacular. In February, after jettisoning aged warriors Keith Brooking and Bradie James, the team had Sean Lee and a whole lot of unanswered questions. Now, they have three starting-caliber inside 'backers and two others, in Orie Lemon and Alex Albright, who have been playing superbly in both training camp and in preseason games. We have seen how much defensive coordinator Rob Ryan likes Lee, Bruce Carter and Dan Connor, as he's devised ways to get all three on the field at the same time, in a 4-3 alignment wherein DeMarcus Ware moves to defensive end. Lemon and Albright have flashed on both defense and special teams, and both deserve to stick. When was the last time you could say that about the forth and fifth Cowboys ILBs?
Outside Linebacker: Another position where the team has suddenly accumulated terrific depth. It all starts, of course, with DeMarcus Ware, who is arguably the league's best defensive player. Opposite him is Spencer, an under-appreciated player (and, according to Bob Sturm's research, playmaker). Unfortunately, he has been dinged the majority of camp, so we don't really yet know what we'll be getting from him, which lowers this unit's grade. In camp, Spencer's spot has been filled by Victor Butler, who has played well, and first-year Kyle WIlber, who has shown a good initial step and a fairly sophisticated game for a rookie. Behind them are a couple of former college defensive ends who have flashed some pass rush skills, the aforementioned Albright and BTB favorite Adrian Hamilton. Because of these last two, I feel strongly the Cowboys should keep ten linebackers; if they don't, or can't, then they will surely be keeping a lesser player.
Cornerback: At some point this offseason, I expect all of us who follow the Cowboys (including the organization) have seen this as the team's strongest position, one that can help take over games and, potentially, be as dominant as the Giants' defensive line. There are some pieces of evidence that support this: Brandon Carr has been superb; he's like a linebacker playing corner: physical, savvy, tough. Orlando Scandrick has been playing really well; even after his big contract, he still plays (heck, breathes) with a chip on his shoulder. And the fifth corner has solidified, as Mario Butler has demonstrated good coverage skills and the willingness to support the run. Yet, for this dream to become a reality, a couple of things must happen: Mo Claiborne will have to show a better "click and close"; at present, he's not nearly as fast out of his backpedal as Terence Newman was at his rookie camp in 2003. What else must happen? Mike Jenkins needs to be at least the player he was last season, if not the guy we saw in 2009 - and soon. Until these changes take place, the position grade comes in as....
Safety: Due in no small part to new secondary coach Jerome Henderson, the Cowboys safety play has improved considerably since last year. Starters Gerald Sensabaugh and Barry Church were both on the team a year ago; in 2012, both are covering tighter, are in better position, and take better angles. We've seen moments of this from Sensabaugh, but Church has been one of camp's most pleasant surprises; he's been confident, poised, and physical at the point of attack, blowing up ballcarriers in both practices and games. Of course, he's also been abused a few times when locked one-on-one with the likes of Dez Bryant on post routes...but this is true of the vast majority of NFL secondary players. Behind the starters, however, are a lot of questions, which lowers the final mark. Danny McCray looks to be similarly improved, but the other backup, Matt Johnson, played his first significant offseason snaps Monday. Coming from tiny Eastern Washington, he has a lot of ground to make up. Whether or not he can is anybody's guess. Mana Silva backs him up, but I doubt he'll make the team, even after grabbing a key pick late in the Raider game, unless the coaches deem Johnson not ready.
Biggest defensive surprise: Tyrone Crawford. When the Cowboys selected Crawford in April, I liked the pick, but thought the best the team could hope for was that he'd begin to work into the defensive line rotation somewhere around game ten and then, after gaining strength and ballast, make a bid for some legitimate playing time next season. My concern was that, at about 275 pounds in college, he was too small to make an immediate impact. What I have realized this week is that Crawford has freakish raw, natural strength to hold the point, but also that his game isn't strength: he's relentless and sneaky-quick, and has a real knack for getting penetration. Thus far in camp, he has been arguably Dallas' best defensive lineman - and, with Sean Lissemore coming on, that's no small feat. Barry Church's ascendancy at safety makes him a noteworthy second on this list.
Biggest disappointment: Mike Jenkins. For a unit that has enjoyed so much good news, there are a surprisingly high number of candidates for this ignominious honor: Anthony Spencer, who, when I saw him in camp, didn't seem to be in any hurry to get back from his tweaked hammy; Claiborne, who has been sidelined by injuries for the better part of the offseason and clearly still has a lot to learn to become an effective NFL corner; Brodney Pool, who...oh, never mind. Trumping all of them is Mike Jenkins, who has the ability and draft pedigree to have kept Claiborne on the bench had he adopted a different mindset. Instead, he pouted and sulked, and stayed away from Dallas. As a result, the rehab on his bad shoulder is way behind schedule, and he might not be ready for the season. Until Claiborne proves otherwise, Jenkins is the team's second best corner; his extended absence may be mitigated by the team's incredible depth at the position, but I fear it will nevertheless be felt acutely in the season's first month, whether number 21 plays or not.
Keep your eye on: Ben Bass. As with the above category, there is a veritable cornucopia of deserving candidates for this award: Clifton Geathers, Rob Callaway, Orie Lemon, Adrian Hamilton. Going into camp, I knew something about each of these players, and thought any of them might make a move (little did I know that, to a degree, all of them would). One of the guys on defense who I thought had no chance to make the roster was Bass, a five-star recruit who got lost in the mess at Texas A&M and consequently has a moribund college career. Bass has impressed in camp practices and in the first preseason game (I didn't see him do much in San Diego; I want to review the defensive line play); although he's the smallest DL in camp, he uses quickness and leverage to great advantage. The coaches clearly like him; they're starting to rotate him in on the D-line and on some of the special teams units. He's earned a real opportunity; in the next two games, we'll see whether he can take full advantage of it.
Assessing the Cowboys offseason, defensive edition: Going into the offseason, the Cowboys had myriad roster holes in a defense that was torched the last six games in 2011. They had to fill holes at SOLB (Spencer's spot), two ILB spots (one starter and one backup), find OLB depth other than Victor Butler, acquire 3-4 cornerbacks (remember that only Scandrick and Jenkins were likely to return), and 1-2 safeties, including one starter. That's a lot for one offseason, but they did a superb job not only finding starters but adding quality depth. Watching camp, I was struck by the fact that the front seven, a real cause for concern late last season, looks to be a real strength, as the above grades suggest.
On the free agent front, the guys in whom they made the most significant investment look to be worth it. Brandon Carr has been a revelation; he's big, long, tough and uses his hands superbly. Dan Connor is going to log a lot of quality snaps, whether or not he wins the starting ILB spot. To add to this, the 2012 rookie class continues to impress me. Claiborne has been dinged and is clearly behind, but when healthy he has flashed the potential that made him a blue-chipper in scouts' eyes. To be truly elite, he needs to flash the ability to plant and go more quickly; he's still a bit slow to react to receivers' cuts. As noted above, third-rounder Crawford has been the surprise of camp. Fourth rounder Kyle WIlber has shown toughness against the run and a surprisingly good first step, as evidenced by his sack in Oakland. Unfortunately, he broke his thumb soon thereafter, delaying his progress.
A couple of later defensive picks have struggled, however. Safety Matt Johnson receives an incomplete - but at least he has returned to practice and is beginning to make up his missed work. The question is: can he catch up enough to be anything other than roster deadweight (a guy on the 53 who never makes it onto the gameday roster) for the first ten weeks? Seventh rounder Caleb McSurdy is out for the season with an Achilles injury, which is actually a lucky break, given that he had no chance to make this roster, with the remarkable depth at ILB. No less an authority than Sean Lee predicts that the kid will compete for a backup inside linebacker role in 2013.
Overall: To my mind, this is the area of the team that has improved most noticeably. In 2011, the defense was a liability; this season, they may well be a strength. The Cowboys braintrust has found promising young players throughout the front seven, guys capable of giving the team depth it hasn't enjoyed since free agency decimated an incredibly deep defense in 1994-95. Moreover, they have remade the team's 2011 O-ring, the defensive secondary, so completely that it now looks to be one of the team's strongest units. Not only is the cornerback group potentially the deepest and most talented in the league, but the safeties have taken a big step forward, and should be significantly better than we imagined back in May.
As you can probably surmise, I'm a big fan of what they've done on "D." On a scale from one to five blue stars, I give the Cowboys defensive makeover four and a half stars.