The Combine - or at least the made-for-TV part - doesn't begin in earnest until Friday. Nevertheless, the NFL news cycle is all-Combine, all the time this week. So, let's swim with the rest of the school and start there:
NFL Scouting Combine 2015: TV schedule, online streaming, list of participants - Dave Halprin, BTB
We'll begin with this foundational overview of what to expect in the coming days. Any global question you might have will be addressed right here, I promise.
Cowboys NFL Combine primer: A closer look at the skills tests - rabblerousr, BTB
Yes, I'm tooting my own horn here. But this is required reading if you want to get a clearer sense of why the players are asked to do what they do on the Lucas Oil Stadium field.
A Scout's notes on what to expect as the NFL Combine gets underway - Bryan Broaddus, The Mothership
Former scout Broaddus offers a thumbnail sketch of the goings-on in Indy, based on his experience as a scout there. He points out that the important stuff is not what will be televised on NFL Network, but the medical testing and some, er, illicit conversations to which the league might just turn a blind eye:
As I type these words, there are agents meeting with front office personnel discussing not only their own players for extensions, but what it will take money-wise to get a player from another team. The league doesn’t appreciate tampering, but in this setting there is nothing that they can do about it. Deals are struck here every day.
Playing Dallas scout: what questions would you ask a prospect at the NFL Combine? - Tom Ryle, BTB
And last on this list but by no means least in its impact is Sir Thomas' look at the remaining off-field key: the interview. I'll cite the great Pineywoods:
The interview is at least as valuable a tool for evaluation as any of the other three parts. This is where representatives of the teams get to sit down and talk one on one to the prospects. It can be of great importance in deciding if this is a player to put on the team's board, since great talent can be offset by a player who has the wrong attitude or is just not sharp enough to play the game at the NFL level.
Scouting Combine: Brugler's 10 prospects to watch focuses on CBs, D-linemen - Dane Brugler, The Mothership
Superscout Brugler, who has been joining the boys at The Mothership in the past couple of offseasons to share his draft expertise, here offers a look at 10 players that he’ll be intrigued to watch this week at the scouting combine. A taste:
Damarious Randall, FS, Arizona State: A player with cornerback size, but a free safety skill-set, Randall needs technique and discipline work, but he always plays full speed to stick his nose in the fire. He should test as one of the fastest safeties in Indianapolis and is third day target who can make an immediate impact on special teams while also helping in nickel situations.
In a draft with precious few free safety types, this guy stands out as a real possibility.
Of course, the other dominant recent meme concerns Dallas' offensive Pro-Bowlers without contracts. It's Wednesday, so it must be DeMarco Murray...
Stephen Jones: Murray likely to be faced with "business decision" about future - David Helman, The Mothership
Tiny Jim cites Jones the Younger, who suggests that the Cowboys are aware of all the reasons NOT to sign Murray to a long-term deal based on 2014's production:
"Everything comes into play," Jones said. "What backs historically do, what backs go on and play well after they’re 27? Which ones consistently do it from start to finish?"
The takeaway? The Cowboys realize that have to risk losing him in order to stick to their financial plan:
"It’s difficult. He’s a great player. He’s even, in my opinion, a better man off the field in terms of the way he goes about his business," Jones said. "So all of those things are difficult. As we all know, running back is a difficult position in terms of how these running backs are valued."
Countdown to Combine: Dallas Cowboys RBs - Todd Archer, ESPN Dallas
Archer continues his look at the positions the Cowboys could address in the draft with a look at running back, which becomes a position of need if Murray flies the coop in free agency. He names three possible replacements; I'll highlight the least well-known:
Jay Ajayi, RB, Boise State. Murray fumbled too much last year for the Cowboys’ liking, and Ajayi, a Plano, Texas, native, lost seven in his career. But he has the ability to break the long run at any time while also doing a decent enough job at the dirty runs. He set the school record with 1,823 yards and 347 carries and also scored 28 touchdowns. But he is limited as a pass protector and that counts a lot in the Cowboys’ system for runners. The Cowboys have had a pretty good run with Boise State players in Orlando Scandrick, Tyrone Crawford and DeMarcus Lawrence.
Why don't pundits ever look at fourth or fifth rounders in these pieces?
Three things we learned at Combine: Cowboys - Todd Archer, ESPN Dallas
Toddzilla recaps the conversation with Jason Garrett, who took the podium in Indianapolis. The gist of this, however, is all about free agency. Here's a fer-instance:
"We have some real cornerstone players on our football team that we'd like to have back in 2015," Garrett said. "all these guys they make our team better and we have to make some hard choices in regards to what their future is and what their status is and we're in those discussions right now. And hopefully we can work it out where we can bring a lot of those guys back and keep building on the things we've been doing the past couple of years."
Cowboys looking for best returns in free agency - Todd Archer, ESPN Dallas
The team, Archer reports, will focus on keeping their own free agents, like Dez Bryant, DeMarco Murray, Doug Free, Rolando McClain. But, if they do "go outside the building," it'll be to get bargains, as they did with Jeremy Mincey last year. That's because guys have been cut lose by their teams for a reason:
"A lot of times you think it’s the player [to make the difference] and it’s usually not," Jones said. "Usually the ones that are free out there, they’re out there free for a reason, and you end up overpaying for guys that you probably shouldn’t be paying that kind of money. I think that’s the big question: Is the guy really worth what you’re going to step up to pay?"
Cowboys free agency: finding the rush - Joey Ickes, Cowboys HQ
Ickes examines the "handful of players" who he feels could be true difference makers at the defensive end position for the Cowboys in 2015. And by handful, he really means four (assuming, as he does, that Justin Houston and JPP are franchised): Greg Hardy, Jerry Hughes, Brandon Graham and Pernell McPhee. Here's his take on Graham:
In 2014 he served as a designated pass rusher, playing behind both Connor Barwin and Trent Cole, however he was able to notch 5.5 sacks in limited time, and looks to be a guy who could produce double digit sacks as a full time defensive end in a 4-3 front (which the Cowboys happen to deploy). He has stated that he is seeking a 4 year contract for just over $7 million a season, which is something the Cowboys should easily be able to accommodate (if they so choose).
While I'm in agreement with Archer, that the Cowboys will shop for bargains in free agency, I also think the one position where they might make an exception is at edge rusher.
Cowboys free-agent debate: Dez Bryant - Todd Archer, ESPN Dallas
Archer's series on Dallas' own free agents continues with the Big Daddy of them all: Number 88. After weighing all the pros and cons (er, wait, there aren't really any cons; Dez is awesome), Toddzilla concludes:
What it should cost: This is where it gets tricky. The Cowboys are likely to put the franchise tag on Bryant, which should be roughly $13 million, if they are unable to find agreement on a long-term deal. That it hasn't happened yet tells you there is a divide in what Bryant wants and what the Cowboys want to give that goes beyond just the structure of the deal....The Cowboys guaranteed Tyron Smith $40 million in his deal last summer, but that didn't do the trick for Bryant. The Cowboys appear more than comfortable to roll with the franchise tag at this point.
Offseason Digest: how powerless is Dez Bryant in talks with Cowboys - Bob Sturm, DMN
Sturm takes an even look Bryant's limited negotiating options and arrives at the following:
The franchise tag is the trump card unless a player wants to fight it by holding out. If the player wants to fight it, he will ultimately lose if the team digs in and doesn’t mind the headache. But, during that uncomfortable 5-6 weeks of training camp with no Dez, they may reconsider their position. If they do, then he wins. If they don’t, then he slinks back into camp by Week 1, and accepts his fate. But, that, of course, is usually the first step on the off-ramp to a new organization if it goes that far.
Sturm also ranks the players he's reviewed thus far, opining on who he thinks is most likely to be there at the 27th pick.
Cowboys free-agent debate: George Selvie - Todd Archer, ESPN Dallas
Same routine, with Selvie as the object of study. Vastly different conclusion, however:
If the right tackle situation between Doug Free and Jermey Parnell is an either/or deal, so too could be the situation between Selvie and Anthony Spencer. The better play might be for Spencer, despite the fact he has knee concerns to worry about and had just a half sack last season. If Selvie is back, it should be at minimum-level money with a small signing bonus.
I have to say I am in complete agreement here...
Will Cowboys look to restructure Tony Romo's contract? - Todd Archer, ESPN Dallas
Archer cites the fine gents at ESPN Stats & Information, who note that the highest salary-cap figure in the NFL since 2000 has been the $24,752,941 the Washington Redskins paid Haynesworth in 2010. Thus Romo's $27.773 million salary-cap figure for 2015 would not only top the league, but be tops in league history. Here's Todd with some options:
They can gain as much as $12.8 million in room with a full restructure but that would raise Romo's cap figures from 2016-19. They could take smaller bites at the deal throughout the offseason when or if they need to gain cap space.
In some ways, Romo's contract is like an IRA. The Cowboys can make early withdrawals from it if and when they need cash, but that will negatively impact their comfort level down the road.
Cowboys who topped expectations: No. 3 is now a fixture on the defensive line - David Moore, DMN
Moore's series on the five players who exceeded expectations in 2014 continues; coming in third is Tyrone Crawford. Here's Moore's rationale:
Crawford finished with only three sacks — all coming in the final five games of the regular season — but was consistent and persistent in his pursuit of the quarterback. He finished second on the team with 29 quarterback pressure. Crawford has the quickness to excel at the three-technique in Rod Marinelli’s scheme.
NFL concept helmets - Imgur.com
In case you missed it, these were blowing up Twitter on Wednesday. A gallery of alternative helmet designs, created by artist and graphic designer Dylan Young. With the way the college game is going uniform-wise, can we be too far away form seeing helmets like these on Sundays?
One year later - Michael Sam, SI.com
The former Missouri standout authors a long piece in which he details his time in the NFL. In it, he talks about being on the Cowboys' practice squad and discusses the locker room vibe:
Having not had the benefit of spending all training camp with the Cowboys, I thought my arrival might be tough, but once again I found a welcoming locker room full of guys who respected me and treated me as part of the team. I learned a lot in Dallas from some of the best in the NFL, such as All-Pro tight end Jason Witten, who used his years of experience blocking pass rushers to teach me some tips on how to get to the quarterback faster.
Jason Witten? A superlative teammate? I'm shocked...