If you're familiar with my contributions at CowboysZone.com, then you know I’m not a big believer in these 2014 Cowboys. Let me define “big believer” – I do not believe this team is championship caliber. I’m certainly not willing to write off their potential as a playoff team.
The Cowboys are only one year removed from going 5-6 against their NFC East foes, losing the last one largely because Romo was injured, Orton was Orton, and the defense (decimated by injury) was one of the worst the Cowboys have ever fielded.
Since the tragic end of the last season, the Cowboys have taken several steps to address the woes on defense. However, as a result of a limited cap and a draft that saw their top three defensive targets scratched off the big board in the first round, prior to the Zach Martin pick; arguably their best two defenders last year lost via Free Agency, and the recent loss of Sean Lee to injury, Dallas has had to be simultaneously cost-effective and creative in their rebuild.
This has been particularly the case on the defensive line where we will likely see three new starters, possibly four; depending on George Selvie’s training camp and Anthony Spencer’s recovery.
As a result of personnel turnover, and the various gambles the Cowboys brass have made on an assortment of players with mixed degrees of past success, the defense - on paper - is a huge question mark. But that’s not the same thing as hopeless…more on that later.
For now, let's review who the Cowboys presently have penciled in as significant contributors.
Barry Church -
He tops my list in terms of knowing what you’re going to get. The fact that he's moving to strong safety is a plus, I believe, since he is a very heady player, rarely out of position, can lay the wood, and is ideal for a run-support role. The only knock on Church is his coverage ability, particularly if he has to run with the speedier variety of receivers. As an SS he'll pick up coverage on TEs and RBs out of the backfield more often than not.
Orlando Scandrick -
After what many would call a sophomore slump, he has been pretty solid in pretty much everything the Cowboys have asked him to do, especially manning the slot. He's a fearless hitter, knows his role and assignments, and has the athleticism to stick with just about every receiver in the NFL.
With the loss of Sean Lee, unfortunately, that's the end of certainty. Now for the host of questionable, in no particular order:
Henry Melton -
Were it not for the fact that he's returning from a season-ending injury requiring knee surgery, you could likely slide this guy over to the sure-thing column. He's young, athletic, and while no one expects him to improve on or duplicate Hatcher's contribution last year, he still looks to be a better long-term solution in the 3-tech DT role.
George Selvie -
I really thought long and hard about putting him in the sure-thing column. Trouble is, what he did last year was for the first time in his career and, furthermore, his play started to fall off in the final third of the season, which makes me wonder: Was he running out of gas or were the first several games anomalous, not to be repeated? As a result of last year, I’m hoping one of the youngsters prove to be starter-worthy since it seems his value and the team would benefit from giving him limited snaps throughout the season.
Brandon Carr -
If he was the #2 corner, I would say he is a sure thing. But I don't believe the Cowboys can count on Carr to consistently hold a true #1 receiver to at least modest days. I'm not asking him to be a shutdown corner; I'm not sure there is such a thing in this pass-happy era of football. But I think most would agree he struggled throughout the year in the CB 1 role, and it would seem a lack of athleticism overall was the predominant culprit for his difficulties. He always seemed to be a step too late or behind his responsibilities.
Kyle Wilber –
Quick hat-tip to my fellow DCN Contributor Erod for the following: Which Wilber is going to show up? The Wilber who started in the second Giants game last year, or the Wilber who for the most part had been underwhelming in terms of showing up as a significant contributor? I know Erod is really hoping it's the former, but count me among those who have him projected as a backup behind Durant when the season begins. To be honest, I have an ulterior motive – if Durant is starting in his stead, that would suggest Rolando McClain proves to be a steal for the MLB position. I know, on that, I’m being a tad bit optimistic…but here’s hoping anyway.
Terrell McClain –
Four years in the league and the Cowboys are his fourth stop. On a resume, that typically means the shredder gets fed. But given the Cowboys' cap issues, they have to roll the dice on potential across the board this year. His career stats aren't worth mentioning but to be fair, McClain’s first two stops were in 3-4 defenses, where a DT is more of a blocker-eater than the guy getting after some sacks and tackles. The Panthers were his last stop, where he played predominately in the 4-3 and he had his best statistical year, despite only starting 12 games. Furthermore, not sure exactly how this will translate to the regular season, but several quotes throughout the OTAs pegged him as the most impressive player to watch on the defensive side of the ball.
Amobi Okoye –
A mysterious undisclosed injury/illness has thus far prevented us from getting any news on how Amobi fared in the offseason. He joins both Melton and Marinelli from the Bears, though his best year was in 2010 with the Texans. Since then there has been a notable slide in his performance. Whether due to age, declining ability or lack of desire, the hope is that Rod Marinelli can reignite his career.
DeVonte Holloman –
Drafted in the 6th round last year, DeVonte was impressive, all things considered. Against Miami in the Hall of Fame Game, he returned an interception for a 75 yard touchdown. After missing seven games with a spinal contusion, he returned to start the final three games due to a few injuries at middle linebacker. Against Philadelphia in the season finale, the lights seemed to come on for him. He led the team with 11 tackles and 2 sacks. Having played strong safety the majority of his college career, I was more than impressed with his production in his new role as MLB. But the Cowboys have seen flash-in-the-pan prospects before; guys who look like world-beaters one season and completely fall off the next. This will be his year to prove the last game was not a mirage.
Bruce Carter -
In the attacking 4-3 you really need guys with his type of athleticism. However, he is another up and down presence on the field. Sometimes he takes good angles and he sifts through traffic with ease to lay the hit you expect from a physical presence like him. Other times, you're left scratching your head wondering, "what was he thinking?" Many point to a simple lack of confidence. Others to a lack of desire and passion. Confidence can be fixed. I'm not so sure about the latter, though.
Morris Claiborne -
Can he stay healthy? Can he get his mind right? Is he a bust - was he worth the 1st and 2nd round picks? We've seen flashes from Claiborne that make us believe he has all the tools you want in a corner. Nevertheless, for every good play you see, we have witnessed him get completely burned and, possibly as a result of being smaller than today's prototypical corner, his ability to stay healthy is questionable. I hate to point to intangibles, but I think he may have the same affliction that some have ascribed to Bruce Carter - lack of confidence. Whatever the reason, he has to show something this year.
Justin Durant -
Arguably his best year was 2012 with the Lions, where he had 103 combined tackles, but considering I never really watched him before Dallas, that stat could be misleading. Regardless, his production dropped from 103 tackles to just 24 with the Cowboys in 2013. Part of the separation here is a result of him starting the full 16 games in 2012, while he only started 10 games last year because an injury similar to Sean Lee. The other part is he was removed from the field in many nickel situations and, regardless of base, in today’s NFL, defenses are forced to lineup in the nickel the majority of the time. Nevertheless, clearly something was missing last year. And, of course, though he doesn't seem to have many injury red flags, the Cowboys faithful will still find room to ask: Can he stay healthy this year?
Jeremy Mincey -
This guy was the head-scratcher signing of Free Agency - he started two games for a defense that was terrible and only registered 1 tackle. Part of me thinks maybe the Cowboys brought him in to be a veteran presence, someone with experience getting to the Championship game. It's a relatively cheap veteran contract on a team that started 20 different players on the defensive line last year. But whatever the reason, questions certainly abound for this guy.
Tyrone Crawford –
Initially brought in to be a 3-4 DE, his body type gives him some flexibility across the line. Unfortunately, he was injured early last season, so we haven’t the slightest idea what to expect from him in the 4-3, but it’s safe to say he is not the speed-rusher type of DE. Like too many already discussed, staying healthy is a question mark for him, as well.
Anthony Spencer -
He, too, is shrouded in mystery, so-to-speak. We really didn't get that much of an opportunity to see him in the 4-3 DE role last year. He is on the wrong side of 30. He has a history of injuries. Enough said.
Rolando McClain -
Coming out of college, he met all the criteria for being the Right Kind of Guy – Team Captain, gym rat, studied film with Nick Saban, great team player, fantastic physical tools and, at least, seemed to love football. From what I've read, his dismissal from the Raiders had very little to do with performance. Granted, his play may not have warranted an 8th overall selection in the 1st round of the 2010 draft, but for the most part, he played sound assignment football and is likely the best coverage linebacker on the team - next to Sean Lee. On the other hand, there are the off-the-field issues and him recently being quoted as saying, "he doesn’t love football" following three retirements. So the question is which player will show up at training camp?
J.J. Wilcox -
Physically, he looks the part for a free safety. He has speed, he can cover, and having spent significant time as a receiver in college, he can catch, making him a potential ball-hawk. Unfortunately, we must point to intangibles with Wilcox, as well. He lost his mother late in preseason last year and many point to that for why he never seemed to get his mind right. He also suffered injury, though, not of the season-ending variety. For some reason, he was never able to get his job back from Jeff Heath.
Now, in an effort to avoid this becoming so long that no one gives it a second glance...
Rookies, Jags, and No-names: Behind the above are a host of players who have to answer the following questions: Can they make the switch from college to the pros? Can they stay healthy? Can they improve on 2013 with more experience in the 4-3 defense? Do they belong in the NFL? Were they worthy of moving up in the 2nd round using a very valuable 3rd round pick (Yes, I am talking to you Mr. Lawrence)?
At this point you may be wondering, why rehash the things most of us already know? See the title - the point is that there is a difference between having "questions" and being "hopeless." Sprinkle a little Marinelli magic over the defense, combined with avoiding the injury bug and who knows? This team could overachieve and prove to be a contender.
You simply never know in the NFL. Do I expect it? Not really...nor would I place money on it. However, I would be willing to wager that this defense will at least be in the Top 20 by seasons end.
Are the Dallas Cowboys Distancing Themselves from HC Jason Garrett?
Training camp is always an exciting time for the Dallas Cowboys, with 2018's proceedings being no exception. A major difference this year is the hype carrying over to the Cowboys coaching staff, featuring newcomers at the positional level everywhere but running back, safety, and defensive tackle.
Experienced coaches like Kris Richard, Paul Alexander, and Sanjay Lal will have a big impact on the Cowboys development as a 9-7 team that's only gotten younger this offseason. Still likely in need of a playoff appearance to save the job of Head Coach Jason Garrett and his coordinators, one can't help but question Garrett's effectiveness with this year's team.
The Cowboys appearance on NFL Films' latest All or Nothing series offered Cowboys Nation a rare look inside this team's day-to-day activities, including Garrett's role as a motivator and leader to many coaches no longer with the team.
Garrett's walk through a proverbial hall of mirrors at The Star reflects much deeper though. Ultimately, it's the players that decide games on Sundays, and the Cowboys didn't have enough of their blue chip ones on the field together for 2017. Whether or not this changes in 2018, the Cowboys can do little to shake the truth that conditions must be perfect for Garrett to captain this team to success.
If having a future Hall of Fame tight end like Jason Witten around wasn't enough for Garrett, going all in on this team in their first year without not only Witten but Dez Bryant feels foolish.
This underdog status and youthful nature may very well bring the Cowboys back to their 2016 form. I've already mentioned mirrors however, and how about the smoke? Garrett's best year out of eight full seasons, that 13-3 campaign was surely not all 'smoke and mirrors', but it is now far enough in the past to expect improvement from the Cowboys head coach.
Garrett must overcome massive changes on the offense he once coordinated to see third-year Quarterback Dak Prescott put this team back in the playoff picture, or the Cowboys will only continue to change face even more dramatically for 2019.
Long gone are the innocent days of Garrett playing catch under the California sun with a rookie Prescott, who had no idea the impact he'd make on the entirety of this franchise so quickly. Now, the Cowboys may have to quickly separate this duo if looking to preserve a window of contention under Dak's rookie contract.
It truly will be fascinating to see the new points of emphasis this revamped Cowboys coaching staff brings to the team not only on the field in Oxnard but through their team meetings and into the regular season. As Garrett allows the likes of Richard and Lal to oversee important changes at CB/S and WR respectively, his overarching message of character, competition, and respect will still echo throughout the team.
Whether or not the slew of new players Garrett has to coach can inspire him to implement this message effectively, or if his days are numbered given the slack the Cowboys have already provided, is the most important story line for the Cowboys in 2018.
By most team's standards, a 9-7 season given the circumstances around the Cowboys a year ago is acceptable -- which it ultimately was for Dallas as they kept Garrett, Scott Linehan, and Rod Marinelli.
This team's shortcomings through a disappointing season was enough for the Cowboys to begin reevaluating the coaches below this trio though, leaving only their ninth year head coach to fall victim to the level of turnover NFL teams are experiencing on the fly right now.
The Cowboys roster has received this message loud and clear. Will Garrett's carry the same impetus, and will it truly matter for the 2018 season?
Is WR Cedrick Wilson the Player With Most to Gain in Training Camp?
Within the Dallas Cowboys' uncertain wide receiver core, is sixth-round pick Cedrick Wilson. Considered a draft steal by many, Wilson's name is often lost in the mix among Allen Hurns, Cole Beasley and third round rookie Michael Gallup. Just days away from the start of the 2018 training camp, Cedrick Wilson might be the player with the most to gain on the team.
Wilson comes from the Boise State Broncos, where he set the school record for receiving yards in a season with 1,511 last year. As a sixth-round rookie, the young 22-year old receiver has an uphill battle ahead of him to earn a spot on the Cowboys' 53-man roster.
It shouldn't come as a surprise if he emerges victorious in this battle, though.
You see, the lack of a #1 receiver has been one of the main story lines for the Cowboys and for good reason. Heading into the preseason, there is no clear-cut "#1." But even though there isn't a big name such as Dez Bryant, I'm sure we'll feel way better about the wide receivers once the season starts and the offense manages to sustain a good passing attack led by Dak Prescott.
Allen Hurns and Michael Gallup seem like the two front-runners for being the "X" receivers on offense, the position in which Wilson lined up at Boise State during his last year in college football. It's tough to imagine a sixth round rookie being the starting "X" receiver in his rookie season, but that doesn't mean he can't earn an important role at some point of the year.
In 2017, the offense struggled due to the receivers failing to create separation downfield. Wilson, although a raw route-runner, was a very dangerous vertical threat in Boise State and could be just that for the Cowboys down the road.
He needs to improve as a player, but with Sanjay Lal focusing hard at route-running with his receivers, Cedrick could become an important target for Dak earlier than expected.
In order to do so, the young wide receiver will have to find success in training camp. Wide receiver will undoubtedly be one of the most intriguing position battles on the team, with many young yet unproven talent.
There's too many receivers that will be fighting for a roster spot over the following weeks, so Cowboys Nation is bound to be disappointed with so many so-called "pet cats." One or two of these guys will be released and I bet it'll hurt, just as it happens every year.
In all seriousness, though, with his ability to stretch the field and be a vertical threat plus his experience as an "X" receiver, Cedrick Wilson might not only make the roster, but become a significant piece for this new-look offense in Dallas during his rookie season.
Will DeMarcus Lawrence Be Franchise Tagged Again in 2019?
The deadline for extending players under the franchise tag has come and gone last Monday, in a day in which none of the remaining tagged players reached an agreement with their respective teams. That includes Dallas Cowboy Defensive End DeMarcus Lawrence, who's set to earn $17M in 2018.
The front office and the 26-year old defensive end failed to agree to a new contract before the season's start, but we saw that coming. After all, there was never a point in which we had the classic "X player and his team are close to a new deal" headline.
All of this makes the future of the Cowboys' promising "War Daddy" very uncertain. What lies a head of the player that put on an impressive show in 2018?
Since 2017 was Lawrence's breakout year, racking up 14.5 sacks trough the season, we have leaned towards the narrative of last season being his only good one. His performance last season was impressive and clearly his best one yet, but we tend to overlook 2015.
In his sophomore season, the only other year in which he has played 16 games, he finished the campaign with eight sacks and 35 tackles (55 combined). Really, the idea of 2017 being his only good year is not as accurate as we might think.
That being said, I think it's more likely that we see another great year from him this upcoming season than seeing a disappointing one. This, of course, will end up being the main thing that determines his future in Dallas.
The Dallas Cowboys front office really took a risk by tagging Lawrence this offseason. #90 was reportedly asking for an average of $17M per year in his long-term contract, which is Olivier Vernon kind of money.
So what if he puts a similar season or an even better one? Lawrence and his agent could end up asking for even more money. Perhaps in the 18 or 20 million dollars per year range. If that ends up being the case, the team will find itself in a tough position when trying to reach an agreement with its promising pass rusher.
Which leads us to the possibility of seeing the Cowboys franchise tagging Lawrence for the second consecutive season. Dallas will already be negotiating a contract extension with QB Dak Prescott, and things will get complicated. Even more if they decide to pursue a big-time free agent in March, such as Earl Thomas.
It would make sense, from a financial perspective, to hand the tag twice in consecutive years to D-Law. However, it shouldn't be the priority. If he plays like he did in 2017, the front office will be more than wise to extend him for good.
According to OverTheCap.com, the Cowboys will have approximately $50.6M. Seemingly, the team's cap woes will be over soon.
Fortunately, Lawrence didn't become a headache by threatening to holdout for offseason programs and even training camp. However, don't expect that to happen if he finds himself under the tag next year.
Careers in the NFL are short, so DeMarcus will surely want to get paid. If he keeps it up, he'll deserve it. As much as he deserves it, though, football is a cold business. If the Jones need to tag him, they will.
Do you think the Cowboys will franchise tag Lawrence in 2019?
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