In Part One of our roundtable series, I asked our resident experts, Long Ball and Birddog26, to break down the various position groups on the Cowboys' roster. They were largely in agreement, except on the defensive line, where Birddog was decidedly more optimistic than Long Ball. In this, the second installment, we'll discuss their respective D-line ratings and take a more in-depth look at the Cowboys' various positions of need.
BTB: Okay, you've offered solid thumbnail sketches of the different position groups. Given your assessments, what would you say the Cowboys’ priorities should be in Free Agency?
Birddog: I think Dallas’ should focus, both in free agency and in the draft, on its three weakest areas: O-line, Secondary and ILB.
Long Ball: I agree—mostly. In a perfect world I would target interior OL, Safety and ILB candidates in free agency. Since it has always taken more energy to play defense (reactionary) than offense (who knows where the play is going), my philosophy is to have "young wheels" on defense (at given positions). At the Cowboys’ defensive positions of need, I would prefer to have "an old head" (ability to read offenses and QB the defense) at safety, young wheels (go cover that guy) at CB, and at rushing the passer (whether at OLB or DE) as well. That’s not to say I would forsake other positions from a depth perspective, but that’s the way I would approach it.
More insider goodness and expertise after the jump...Birddog: Here’s why I said they need to upgrade the entire secondary, not just the safety position, in free agency: this year, I think CB is a great opportunity for smart teams to make major upgrades. With the depth at corner in the draft, Free Agent corners are not getting as much interest as they would have in other years, which may keep the cost of signing a FA corner down.
BTB: That’s a great point. The Brandon Carr sweepstakes might not have as many players because teams know they can get a good corner—or corners—in April, on the cheap. Let’s look at specific positions, starting on the other side of the ball. You agreed that Dallas needs to upgrade in the interior of the offensive line.
Long Ball: It normally takes 2-3 years to develop a cohesive O-line. Keep in mind, you are orchestrating a ballet of five 300+ pound ballerinas in extremely close quarters. The Cowboys went overboard in bringing in young OL prospects last year and probably need an "old head" to supplement the youth movement.
BTB: Is that veteran presence somebody already on the roster or a player with whom they are familiar? A Montrae Holland or Kyle Kosier, perhaps?
Birddog: Both Koiser and Holland are on the wrong side of 30 and I feel what they got last year from them will not improve.
Long Ball: Yep. If Kosier could guarantee he’d stay healthy, he would be adequate, but he’s better served as a veteran back-up, as he has played every position on the OL during his career.
BTB: So, that upgrade will have to come from outside of the organization?
Birddog: The O-line has some good free agent prospects. Still, many are 30 or close to it so this may make it more difficult in picking up a strong starting FA Guard.
BTB: Maybe that’s why Long Ball said Dallas should pick up an "old head"! Dispensing with the greybeards, what is your professional take on the younger players currently on the roster, particularly guards Bill Nagy and David Arkin?
Long Ball: If we base the analysis solely on the 2011 season? At center: Costa was overwhelmed and I would like to see more of Kowalski. He has an attitude; I remember a couple of plays during Senior Bowl practices where he battled hard. As for guards: I cannot for the life of me explain why a team would invest a fourth round draft choice on a small school lineman and then determine he was not strong enough to play! Nagy may be a contributor, but keep in mind he’s not even as big as Costa.
Birddog: As I mentioned above, I stated before the season started that I liked the direction and what I saw on the interior O-line but I did not feel they were ready for "prime time" and they would have growing pains. I was right, there were growing pains, and injuries made this even worse.
Long Ball: It will be interesting to see what an off-season weight training program under Woicik will do for the young ‘uns, as well as Callahan’s impact in developing the young talent.
Birddog: I think Dallas has the guys for depth and young guys who will develop into starters (Arkin and Nagy), but will need to find starters (i.e., for 2012) and upgrade here.
BTB: It seems to me that the Cowboys have a delicate negotiation ahead on the O-line: they need to bring in someone experienced and talented enough to start now (to protect their franchise quarterback), but can’t afford to give up on Arkin and Nagy. So, whoever they sign will have to be disposable once those guys emerge—if they do. If the veteran pick-up (and his contract) is disposable, however, can he offer the necessary upgrade? It’s literally a million-dollar question.
Okay, lets move to the defensive side of the ball, starting up front. Here’s an area where the two of you disagree; Longball says defensive line is an area of weakness; Birddog suggest its one of strength. I’d love to give each of you an opportunity to make your case.
Birddog: I did see the pass rush as a problem, but thought the Cowboys’ D-line was strong against the run last year.
Long Ball: With all due respect to Birddog, although the Cowboys were ranked in the top ten in opponent number of rushes per game and rushing yardage, two telling statistics illustrate how they cannot stop the run to get off the field: opponent yards per rush attempt (4.3; NFL Rank: 12) and opponent rushing yards percentage (30.8%, NFL Rank: 27). I define strength as 1) quality in the starters and 2) depth in numbers. The Cowboys DL is deep, but outside of Jay Ratliff (a magnificent warrior, but undersized for NT) who are your quality starters?
Birddog: Allow me to answer this from the perspective of a guy who studies coverages and secondary play. The biggest defensive problems last year boil down to this: Brooking and James were liabilities in coverage at ILB and Newman was not able to play press coverage or lockup man on man. What I saw on the field was the safeties and Sean Lee working hard to cover those weaknesses. Typically, Newman was giving an 8 to 10 yard cushion on his receiver. Lee was forced to read run or pass, and then try and cover underneath while either Sensabaugh or Elam took over-the-top responsibilities. At times, this was pretty much the same as not having a corner on the field! This opened up the underneath routes and slants to Newman’s side. While Brooking did okay on short coverage, he could not cover a TE or RB more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage. Many times they would try and bring Scandrick in to cover a TE, but he was usually out-muscled at the point of the catch.
So, while the Cowboys can upgrade along the line, it makes more sense to me for them to fix the next two levels this year, which will improve their pass rush now, then go hunting for D-line and OLB next year.
Long Ball: To quote Dandy Don Meredith, "I never remember completing a pass after I was knocked on my butt!" They’ve got to fix the defensive line as soon as possible. Think about it from this perspective: there’s a question as to which position (NT or DE) the best defensive lineman (Ratliff) on your team should playing!
If Dallas was running a four-man line, Ratliff could play the 3-technique DT, any number of candidates could play the strong side DT (Spears, Lissemore, Brent, Calloway), Ware as your pass-rushing DE and Hatcher on the strong side. But their personnel doesn’t fit a three-man line; with all those candidates, they have "neither fish nor fowl" to play a three-man line.
Birddog: I love Meredith, but it is a much different game than 45 years ago. The Cowboys have been struggling on the O-line, at inside linebacker and in the secondary for awhile now. This year, they have the perfect opportunity to fix these areas and make them a strength. It does not matter how good Dallas’ D-line and OLBs are if opposing quarterbacks can sit back and hit their hot routes all day without being challenged.
BTB: As Drew Carey might say on "Whose Line is it Anyway": one thousand points for each, for keeping it Old School. Seriously, as you don’t see eye-to-eye here, I’ve got a question just for Long Ball: If you think they must address the D-line this offseason, we want to know where the upgrades are needed. Who on the DL is a keeper? A liability? What do they do well? Where must they improve?
Long Ball: Okay, keepers: Ratliff (penetrates well, does not hold up against double teams), Brent (holds down the fort, limited pressure), Lissemore (constant motor and pressure, danger of wearing down like Ratliff), Hatcher (holds up well and provides pressure, injury-prone). Liabilities: Spears (wrong position, strong against run, limited pass pressure), Coleman (old, stop-gap, JAG), Calloway and Atkins (JAG). Undecided: I want to see more of Geathers.
BTB: I agree re: Geathers. I wouldn’t be surprised to see them jettison Coleman, thus promoting Lissemore to his spot and giving Lissemore’s snaps to Geathers. As you said earlier, its good to have youth along the defensive line. Alright, we’ve saved the worst for last: the Cowboys’ defensive backfield. What happened last year?
Birddog: The problems here started before the lockout even began. Jason Garrett and Rob Ryan wanted to replace the secondary coaches, Dave Campo and Brett Maxie, last year but were unable to. Neither Campo nor Maxie bought into Ryan's need for press coverage or the DB heavy schemes he used. It went downhill from there. The Cowboys were never able to get good communication in the secondary or the proper coaching for the scheme. With the multiple DB packages Ryan uses, Dallas needs to find better personnel back there who can matchup better.
Long Ball: With the number of multiple receiver sets teams run, CB’s are like closets in a house—you can never have too many of them!
BTB: About that personnel: I think we can agree that this is the position group that needs the most help, and where they need that help. But just to be clear: who were the liabilities? Which guys must they upgrade?
Long Ball: Terence Newman’s age has finally caught up with him—remember, he was a 24-year-old rookie. Alan Ball and Frank Walker should be gone as well.
Birddog: Newman’s age and injuries only made the secondary problems worse and that Ball and Walker just do not have the skills needed.
BTB: Okay, then: who is worth keeping? Are there any parts in the secondary that they can build around?
Birddog: All things considered, I thought Jenkins played hard this year. His injuries started before the first regular season game, when he injured his knee in practice. He came back from that and played in that game but sustained his first shoulder injury during that Jets game when Burress came in and hit him from his blindside. Jenkins’ shoulder only got worse as the season went on, but he managed to play pretty strong.
Long Ball: Mike Jenkins displayed a toughness last year that I had not seen before, playing through some injuries and eliminating the matador tackling technique. He is a solid number two CB. Unfortunately, that’s about it; the Cowboys don’t have a true number one cornerback on the roster. There’s limited quality for starters and absolutely no depth. That’s kind of like that insulting expression: "He may be small but he sure is slow!" LOL!
Birddog: In today’s NFL, you really do not have the difference between the number one and two corners that existed 10 years ago. Jenkins is a solid starting caliber cornerback, but the Cowboys do need a second starter.
BTB: How about Orlando Scandrick? I don’t think he’s a starter outside—and neither, it seems, do the Cowboys—but he seems solid in the slot—or "star"—position, where he’s a nominal starter.
Long Ball: To me, Scandrick’s contract extension is a head-scratcher; he is not starting material and only marginally effective in the slot.
Birddog: Actually, I think Scandrick plays the slot position as good as or better than any cornerback in the league. Take a look back at his coverage of Wes Welker this past year. Where Scandrick struggles is matching up with TEs, where he is outsized at the point of the catch. This is really where bigger ILBs or safeties should be covering, but both Brooking and James were liabilities.
Long Ball: Other than Scandrick, Mario Butler may have a role—in the dime. This is an important off-season for him, because if 3 CB’s go out the door, 3 more have to come in!
BTB: I’m glad you brought him up. As I look at offseason needs in the secondary, Butler’s one of the guys I wonder about most. Do the Cowboys think he can become the fourth or fifth corner? If so, it saves them from having to find three CBs this offseason.
Birddog: I think the key word when we start talking about the young corners the Cowboys have is "maybe": maybe they can do the job, but maybe they can’t. There is too much talent in the draft to try and roll the dice on the young guys. Let them fight it out in training camp.
Long Ball: I still think they need to bring in 3 CB’s, one starter and two more for depth, no matter what. Even if Butler makes the roster they will need to fill his slot on the practice squad. The Cowboys will probably have to bring in a veteran CB, but that doesn’t mean he will be the starter.
Birddog: Roby Ryan loves his defensive backs. Even with the young guys the Cowboys have on the practice squad I would expect to see six or seven new names going into training camp between free agency, the draft and UDFA's. Ryan has done this almost every year he has been a defensive coordinator.
BTB: I like that conceptually, and it seems to be a key tenet of Garrett’s philosophy: create competition throughout the roster. I assume some of those "six or seven new names" will be safeties, yes? Let’s take a look at the guys they’ll be competing with; can any of the young safeties currently on the roster make a bid for a starting role?
Long Ball: The safeties on the roster all seem to fit the strong-side profile: Sensabaugh played the position, Barry Church and Danny McCray are similar "box types," and who knows what they have in Mana Silva. It’s time to find out if Church can start or will be limited to "specialization." This naturally assumes Sensabaugh can play FS. He’s not a classic free, however; Justin Taplin-Ross, a first year CB out of Utah, may be the only center-fielder option currently on the roster.
Birddog: I would agree that Church is more of the strong safety type player. McCray is more of a FS, however. When injuries hit Dallas’ corners last season, McCray did a solid job as the dime corner and can fill in there whenever needed. Church also did a great job having to fill in ILB on two occasions: when Lee was injured and when the coaches limited James snaps this past season. I like both of their versatility, but I think Taplin-Ross will give them some competition in training camp. I’m not sure any are ready to push for a starting job this season but will give us depth and versatility the Cowboys need.
BTB: Maybe the Cowboys have a couple of young guys capable of earning a starting nod. Given the dearth of possibilities at safety in free agency and the draft, they really need one of those guys to step up.
Okay, we’ve covered the roster as it currently stands. Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at who might be available in free agency, and look at possible options at Dallas’ positions of need. Thanks to both of you.
If you liked what you read, or have questions for Birddog and Long Ball, go to the comments section and fire away!