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Offseason Headscratcher: Special Teams And The Defensive Backfield

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The Cowboys are likely to be faced with some difficult decisions about players like Barry Church.
The Cowboys are likely to be faced with some difficult decisions about players like Barry Church.

One of the most surprising developments with last year's final cut to 53 players was the Cowboys' curious--and dangerous--decision to keep only three corners on their roster. The word out of Valley Ranch was that Alan Ball could, and would, be moved from safety to corner in a pinch. Thankfully, that was never a necessity, as it would have thrown two positions into confusion--and there was already enough confusion in the defensive backfield in 2010. In week 9, this roster conundrum was rectified, as preseason sensation Bryan McCann was recalled just in time to allow him to settle in before making game changing plays against the Giants and Lions the following two weeks.

This offseason, the Cowboys announced that the Alan Ball experiment at safety has likely, thankfully, ended. Then, in April, the Cowboys drafted cornerback Josh Thomas in the fifth round. Suddenly, a position that was woefully thin heading into the season last year looks comparatively more crowded as we (fingers crossed) head towards training camp. Including practice-squadder Ross Weaver (who is almost certainly just a camp body), Dallas currently has seven corners on the roster. At present, there are four safeties--AOA, Barry Church, Danny McCray and Andrew Sendejo--on the roster. Given that none of these candidates can be counted on to start, Dallas will almost certainly add two more deep men--one of whom could be 2009-10 starter Gerald Sensabaugh. The Cowboys will have more defensive backs than they can keep, unless they were to go light at another position, such as linebacker or offensive line. Given the states of those positions (which we'll talk about in future "headscratchers" posts), that is unlikely. 

How might this resolve itself? Some thoughts after the jump...

If this scenario unfolds, the Cowboys could face some unpleasant decisions as they make final roster cuts. At last year's cutdown, you may recall, they eviscerated their long-standing special teams core--guys like Pat Watkins, Bobby Carpenter, Deon Anderson, Pat McQuistan and Steve Octavian--replacing them with some promising (and cheaper) youngsters, among them Jesse Holley, McCray, Church, and eventually McCann. It took special teams coach Joe DeCamilis an entire season to determine who would start (and where) on his various units. Bob Sturm, writing for The Dallas Morning News, has an excellent series on the biggest special teams plays of the season; in one, he documents the radical changeover in the punt return roster from week two (Bears) to week ten (@ Giants).

The end result of Coach Joe's constant mixing and matching is that the early season returns weren't good. Here's what I wrote in a January post-season assessment:

During the first five games of the season—when the Cowboys went 1-4, with none of the losses by more than seven points—the Dallas kick coverage unit surrendered multiple long returns, repeatedly missed field goals at key moments and found themselves on the short end of the field position battle (this actually ended up being a season-long problem; they finished the 2010 campaign ranked #27 in points relative to field position by FO). Looking back at the frustrating carnage that was 2010, it's clear that entering the season with almost no known quantities on special teams was a significant mistake--one that had a tremendous impact on the tailspin that lead to Wade Phillips' dismissal and the season as a whole.

Heading into 2011, will the coaching staff, surely haunted by visions of Percy Harvin and Marc Mariani dancing in their heads, want to repeat one of the core mistakes of 2010 by rebuilding from scratch again? I think not.

This problem is compounded by the fact that the one stalwart special teams holdover, Sam Hurd, has almost certainly played his last game in a Dallas uniform, so they're certain to begin by having one big pair of shoes to fill. Look at the guys besides Hurd who finished the season as core special teamers: Victor Butler, Sean Lee, Jesse Holley and the aforementioned defensive backs. As is the case with almost all special teams players, the majority of these guys are at the bottom of the roster. Butler and Lee are expected to be the primary backups at their respective positions, so they are probably safe. I'd guess that Holley will take over Hurd's role: special teams standout who can be a receiver in a pinch. Unless Kevin Ogletree suddenly starts blowing up the coverage units, Holley is safe. 

That leaves the defensive backs. The Cowboys can't keep twelve DBs. So, the headscratcher is: what criteria will they use to decide who is kept and who is cut? Every player in question has a question mark attached to his name: Can Terrence Newman stay healthy enough to play at a high level? Will Mike Jenkins rebound from his awful 2010? What are Orlando Scandrick and Alan Ball's roles, both short and long term? Can Thomas manage the transition from the Mid-America Conference to the NFL? Will Church, McCray, Sendejo or McCann be able to give the defense quality snaps, or are they exclusively special-teamers?

I can foresee some difficult decisions in the Dallas coaches meetings. Let's assume the Cowboys will keep Thomas for at least a year because they have invested a draft pick in him. If they keep five corners, the final spot might well come down to Ball and McCann. The Cowboys know that Ball can be a starter (albeit a mediocre one), he's versatile, and he can play special teams. McCann is arguably the fastest player on the roster, has shown playmaking ability, and also plays special teams. In this scenario, will the Cowboys go with McCann's youth and upside, or go with the known quantity, Ball?

In terms of safety: the Cowboys will have to keep whatever player(s) they add in free agency and, unless he's awful, Akwasi Owusu-Ansah will be on the roster, for the same reason that Thomas will be. That's two or three locks. Who from among Church, McCray and Sendejo (who a lot of folks at the Ranch have been raving about) do you let go? Let's say that Dallas elects to keep six corners, with the idea that Ball can also play safety. If Sendejo flashes, can the special teams afford to be without both Church and McCray?

Finally, how much will long-term thinking--which, thankfully, seems to be a resurgent consideration at the Ranch of late--factor into these decisions? How many "progress stoppers" can the Cowboys afford to have in the defensive backfield? Keeping an aging Newman ensures that a young guy hits the streets, as does re-signing a guy like Sensabaugh. Does Dallas keep Scandrick aboard given he'll be coming up on a second contract (his current deal expires after the 2011 campaign)? In the last couple of years, the Cowboys have recycled their defensive backfield. By holding on to merely solid veterans with one or two remaining contract years at the expense of keeping younger guys, it guarantees that they'll have to refurbish the unit again in the next couple of years.

As we have seen on shows like Hard Knocks, coaches spend countless hours at training camp discussing all their players and running through myriad roster permutations. When the Cowboys' staff turns their collective gaze to the defensive backfield, they will be faced with some difficult choices. My hope is that Coach D doesn't end up with the short end of the stick--again.