Remember Bryan McCann? Snatched away from Baltimore’s practice squad, he almost singlehandedly won two games as a rookie in 2010.
Who can forget the play against the New York Giants? Two Cowboy cornerbacks get carried off the field, and McCann suddenly finds himself thrust into the game with the Giants knocking on the door, right at the goal line. On the first play Manning goes right at the rookie, only to have McCann snatch the ball away and dash 101 yards, coast to coast, for a score. It was the turning point, a monumental play that stole the momentum away from the Giants and placed it firmly in favor of the Cowboys.
And while we are travelling down memory lane, who can forget Anthony Spencer racing up the field to block for McCann and actually gaining on him before peeling off to supply a return sealing block? Was that the reason McCann was eventually cut? Here’s to hoping that Spencer’s post surgery speed remains better than McCann’s.
So my question is: Which of our newcomers is going to be this year’s Bryan McCann? Who is going to be that rookie that comes from nowhere to add pizzazz, that spark, that youthful exuberance that makes a difference on the field?
In the old days I would watch the preseason with bated breath, looking for which of the rookies would be the surprise player, the one that had very little chance to play, but yet made a difference. Nowadays, with all the scouting reports, the daily reports from practice, etc., it is harder to find the unexpected. So instead of watching preseason games, let’s try to determine which newbies have the best chance for making the team and making a difference, based on the information already at hand.
First, let’s consider Rabblerouser’s article on which positions rookies tend to do best at (Recalibrating Draft Expectations: Position Success). Considering only the defense, Roublerouser’s analysis showed that rookie linebackers tend to have more success than safeties or corners (who are about even), followed by defensive linemen.
Next we will define 2 or 3 key characteristics that are required for each position, and then look for matches in the scouting reports. For this part I mostly used the CBS reports, though I consulted other sources on some of the less well known candidates.
Finally we will factor in the Cowboys’ most glaring needs, based upon personal observation. This was actually the easy part—there are lots of needs.
Now the characteristics required for each position are not unanimous and subject to debate. A college football coach was once asked which characteristic he preferred: speed or quickness? His response was to ask why he couldn’t have both. The answer, of course, was that all the players with both were already enrolled at USC.
As you can tell, the story is somewhat dated. Today we would say that all the players with both were already in the SEC. But nonetheless, I think you get the point. Not every player has the talent to be a #1 draft pick, and someone must decide which characteristics are most important. For this article, that someone is me.
For cornerback I chose: quickness, coordination, and recklessness. The last word may need a bit of explanation. Bryan McCann had recklessness—that ability to just react brashly and go. The ability to not be intimidated, but to just go and play like it was street ball. He showed it in his interception return, and he showed it in his kickoff returns. On the other hand, Terrence Newman was a very good corner for Dallas. He had athleticism, speed, quickness, size, and a host of other talents that helped him be good. However, he didn’t have recklessness, and as a result he was good, but not the difference maker than he otherwise could have been.
Safeties need to read formations, predict what the offence is going to run, and respond quickly. I chose smartness, speed, and toughness as the key characteristics. By smartness I mean the ability to read offences and understand where the ball is likely to go and where they need to be. Some would call this instinct, but whatever you call it, it is very important. As an example, I think Jeff Heath had smarts. He was fairly good at knowing where the ball was going to go. His physical limitations, (such as lack of speed and overall athleticism) however made it difficult for him to make the plays that he wanted to. He didn’t get on the field last year because he was the best athlete; he got on the field because he knew the defense better than the alternative candidates. This year, with the alternative candidates having another year to learn the system, his athleticism (or lack thereof) may certainly limit his chances of making the team.
So, what is my point in all of this? I am trying to say that just one of the critical characteristics isn’t sufficient. The best candidates need a certain level of all three. A lot of other things may count, such as size, strength, etc., but we need to understand that some things are more critical than others, and since real people have weaknesses we need to match people to the positions where their weaknesses are not critical.
Linebackers need to react and react quickly to what the offence is doing. They also are expected to make a lot of tackles. The critical attributes are therefore smarts, toughness, and quickness. For defensive line (particularly in this defense) I chose initial quickness, motor, and strength.
Let’s start with linebacker. This is the defensive position where, historically, it is easiest for rookies to do well. The scouting report on Hitchens, our fourth round pick, has words like: flows fast to the ball, plays bigger than his size, mentally and physically tough. These seem close enough to my critical characteristics that he makes the team, even though he gets docked a few points for his coverage instincts. His plusses combined with the need carry the day.
Will Smith, the 7th round linebacker gets kudos for his speed and range, but gets a few knocks for his strength. I’m not seeing the scouts praise his instincts or his toughness. Even though this is a position of need and even though it is easier for rookies to make it at linebacker than it is at other defensive positions, I’m not seeing it for Will. Looks like practice squad material to me.
For cornerback, the Cowboys have Terrence Mitchell. Quick feet, good coordination, gambler mentality. Lacks speed, and has short arms. He has all the right characteristics to make it, but given the lack of need I’m predicting practice squad.
At safety we have Ahmad Dixon. His scouting report reads like he is a thumper, not a thinker. Sorry, Ahmad--undrafted Ryan Smith takes your place. His nice speed and ability to put himself in position to make the play overcomes his poor tackling technique and puts him on the practice squad, rather than you.
I debated whether to consider Matt Johnson as a newbie. He has not played a down for the ‘Boys, so in that sense he is new. In terms of smartness and speed, he is best of the newbie safeties. In terms of toughness.... hmmmm. There’s a problem here. Matt likes contact, and he can hit; but, if his hits hurt him more than his opponent it won’t help the team for long. If he had the toughness, he and Wilcox would be the starters. As it is, I don’t see his career as getting too far. Be careful, Matt. Take care of yourself! Prove me wrong. Please!
The defensive line is a position of need, and as a result a few more newbies could make the team at this position than otherwise would. Lawrence has quickness, strength, and a good motor. He’s in. Ben Gardner has strength and motor and is a classic overachiever. Though he lacks initial quickness will he still make it? I will give it to him simply on the basis that he will demonstrate more health than some of the more experienced and frequently injured D linemen. Ken Bishop is similar in some ways in that he is very strong and not a speed rusher. I’d say practice squad, with the potential to make the team at DT if there are further health issues with the other candidates.
So who has the best chance to overachieve and make a splash? My candidate is Terrence. He has the recklessness to make a few highlight plays at corner. If there’s an injury and he gets moved to the active squad, he has the potential to surprise.
Oh, and in case anyone is wondering, Bryan McCann is now with Arizona after spending time with Baltimore, Dallas, Baltimore (again), Oakland, and Miami. Again, coast to coast.