Before this training camp opened I felt this team had the opportunity to jump on a favorable September schedule and lead the NFC East the rest of the year. I still think this team can win the East given our rivals' issues, but like every other BTBer I've had to temper my expectations thanks to the injuries along the offensive and defensive line. With guards Nate Livings and Ronald Leary perhaps ready to return by the second preseason game, at least there's some hope for developing continuity prior to taking on the New York Giants.
My Optimism about the Offensive Line Prior to Camp
Furthermore, the absence of the likely starters Livings and Leary has given Kevin Kowalski the opportunity to shine in both pass protection AND in the running game where his quickness can overcome lack of bulk. Kowalski's play (as described by Bryan Broaddus) has me thinking that either Ryan Cook or Phil Costa could be traded when the final cutdown to 53 takes place (and Mackenzy Bernadeau better come back to play later this preseason or he's likely to be PUP'd or cut, given the need to go heavier along the DL and his injury history).
Adding to the sense of optimism about this o-line is the return of Doug Free to at least an adequate level of play. While Jeremy Parnell remains a question mark behind him, Edawn Coughman is quietly pushing Darrion Weems off this roster by demonstrating both superior quickness at tackle and the versatility to move inside as the G/T swing man (it remains to be seen whether Weems will stick around on the practice squad, my guess is no and Dallas will have to draft an RT/OG prospect with one of their first three picks in 2014).
To round out the optimism about our improved blocking, the 12 or two TE offense is starting to look like a genuine dual threat attack with rookie Gavin Escobar at least delivering some quality chip blocking on back end rushers while Jason Witten avoids getting blown up on the strong side (even 3rd or 4th string TE Andre Smith has a decent shot at making the practice squad).
A Rough Start to the Year of the Defensive Lineman in Dallas
However, the premonition I felt prior to training camp that this year it would be defensive rather than offensive line injuries holding this team back early on...came true. I expected the injuries to belong to Jay Ratliff though, not the young bucks along our line. When Tyrone Crawford went down Sunday, I thought it shouldn't be such a devastating blow, because this team still has a similar player in Ben Bass. But Bass is a bit lighter than Crawford and may not bring as much power to his game despite his undeniable quick first step. Still I considered Ikponmwosa Igbinosun as a likely candidate to be the next man up at either DT or SAM DE where Crawford would play. Ike had looked solid as a 3-technique in training camp with the Steelers in 2012 and had been picked up by Dallas in late 2012 after getting caught in the numbers game in Pittsburgh.
Unfortunately the "BTB Likes Ike" campaign has been sidetracked by an ankle injury, compounding the absence of Anthony Spencer who's expected to miss most if not all of preseason with his knee surgery this week. Thus we BTBers are left wondering whether RT Doug Free's improvement is dramatic or if he's just not having to deal with the bull rush so much. And what concerns me more is that Sean Lissemore just wasn't the same after suffering a high ankle sprain during the Baltimore game last year.
Let's hope for the sake of any DL depth that Ike's ankle injury is far less serious than Lissy's in 2012, and we can at least keep Ike around on the 53. Judging by the fact that the Cowboys haven't already PUP'd Ike to make him eligible for the six-week injury list, the ankle sprain probably isn't too bad. Assuming Ike comes back strong by the end of preseason and makes the 53, our DE rotation (with both Bass and Igbinosun normally playing inside) would look like this:
*signed since 2012
#signed during training camp
and the DTs (assuming we go heavy with 7 guys who can play inside) would be:
5 DT Hatcher (1t), Ratliff (3t), Lissemore (1t-2), Hayden* (3t-2), A. Okoye# (3t-3) (FA CHI)
Shoulda Woulda Coulda...
I'm still of the opinion that Travis Frederick will prove to be a more successful pro than Sharif Floyd, who didn't impress me and other teams as much as the other top 2013 DT prospects. Certainly you cannot blame the front office for not having a crystal ball to anticipate Brian Price and Rob Callaway's injuries, if they in fact developed during the offseason and not late last year. Like many BTBers I was hoping for those two to fill out our rotation, and at least provide a quality bridge to drafting two stud defensive linemen in 2014. But now Dallas has to improvise along the line and rely more heavily on a journeyman in Nick Hayden and hope Lissemore finally breaks out in this new 4-3 system (after doing his best work in Rob Ryan's nickle 4-3 looks).
Plug the Hole with Youth, or Sign an Aging Playmaker? Or Both?
One difference between this year's unit and last year's defense is that at least the Cowboys won't have to go sign several free agents off the street (and with any luck that's likely to be the case at linebacker and in the secondary) during the regular season. But now I'm convinced the Cowboys need to take a good hard look at former Pro Bowler Richard Seymour and ex-Bears DT Amobi Okoye. Seymour, because he would give us another rusher opposing offenses would fear on second and third downs (yes I'll admit I'd drool at the prospect of Spencer,
Ratliff, Hatcher, Seymour and Ware all wreaking havoc on opposing passers). Okoye, because he knows Marinelli's system and remains just 26 years old -- young enough to be a Marinelli reclamation project, and with enough production earlier in his career to believe he could return to that high level. Okoye also was a bit of a prodigy both on and off the field at Louisville, hence his relative youth despite having played in the NFL since 2007.
Barring further injuries (knock on wood especially to Hatcher) I doubt Dallas signs both free agents. Seymour is likely hoping for a minor bidding war for his services when some NFL team inevitably suffers an injury along their defensive front this preseason. The 49ers, Falcons and Packers still have adequate cap room for a one year deal as Seymour may give a discount to a Super Bowl contender. But I agree with Broaddus that Dallas seems far more likely to bring in a young, cheaper player with upside like Okoye. And that would be the course I would choose, though Dallas seems to be gambling that Okoye will come on a non-guaranteed deal in Week 2, if necessary. Considering that the Bears picked Amobi up during the regular season that may not be a huge gamble, though 3-4 teams in need of bodies again could intervene.
Considering that Crawford's recovery time could extend into the first six weeks of 2014 and that Jason Hatcher has hinted that this could be his last year in Dallas, the Cowboys badly need to find a hidden gem (or two) for their rotation. I certainly think Ben Bass could be that guy. But keeping Igbinosun and signing Okoye in the hope that Marinelli can coach both of them up would give Dallas far more options in the 2014 draft and beyond. It would mean Dallas wouldn't have to reach for the top DT on the board in the 1st round if a quality defensive end or even a right tackle/guard is sitting there.
If there's the one thing I trust about Jason Garrett, it's his preference for developing younger, cheaper talent over signing high priced free agents and aging veterans that led to disaster during the Wade Phillips era. More than two years after Garrett brought in four offensive linemen in 2011, we're finally seeing that tendency pay off with the development of Leary and Kowalski into at least potential starters (ex-7th round pick Bill Nagy was cut by the Lions Thursday and could be brought back at least as a camp body). Let's hope by picking up young veterans like Okoye, the Cowboys can accelerate the transition from thirty-something starting DTs to a younger, healthier unit in 2014 in much less time than it's taken to fix the offensive line.