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.
NFL to Study Marijuana Use, Will It Impact Randy Gregory’s Status?
The NFLPA and the NFL have reached an agreement to research alternative pain-management tools for the players. They'll form joint medical committees to study different strategies, among which will be the use of marijuana. It's important to make it clear that said committees will not be exclusively about marijuana, but a lot of different issues related to pain-management in the league. However, it'll likely be one of the most important aspects of their work.
Marijuana continues to be a highly debated topic and it's no different when discussing the NFL. Dallas Cowboys fans should be very familiar with the situation. Earlier this year, David Irving "quit" on football during an Instagram live stream while smoking weed. In the video, Irving talks about how he thinks it's better to be addicted to marijuana rather than certain medications used by NFL teams to treat their players.
Although David Irving is not an authority on substances, that is where all of this debate centers around. Throughout the league, players are given strong medication to deal with injuries and the physical pain of playing pro football. I'm not an expert either, but it's more than fair to say there's a strong argument here. Specially in a country where marijuana has already been legalized in 10 states and the trend points toward legalization continuing.
The current CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement) between the NFL and NFLPA will expire after the 2020 season and how the league's drug policy looks like in the new agreement will be a huge factor for reaching a satisfactory CBA for both sides.
Of course, the fact that the NFLPA and the league are working together on such an important task doesn't mean we will see any immediate changes or that the NFL's ban on marijuana will be lifted anytime soon. Many big question marks will have to be answered before we hear about teams implementing this substance as a pain management tool.
For the Dallas Cowboys, this will be a relevant narrative down the line. Pass rusher Randy Gregory was reinstated after serving an indefinite suspension due to substance abuse prior to the 2018 season. After a dominant year, Gregory was suspended again by the NFL and it all points toward him sitting out this upcoming season and perhaps even more.
Even still, the Cowboys are still standing behind their 2015 second round pick. If the league ends up lifting its ban on marijuana, they'll have to decide what they will do with players already serving a suspension for this reason. Guys like Randy Gregory, for instance. If it's decided they'll be reinstated to the NFL, the Cowboys will sure be glad to have supported Gregory all throughout the process.
Last year, the pass rusher proved how effective he could be even with a short period of time training. Hopefully, the Cowboys are able to get him back on the field eventually, where's been consistently dominant. In the meantime, we'll see how recently acquired Robert Quinn does in Dallas.
The NFL won't be lifting its ban anytime soon, but it's good to know they're at least open minded to changing the league's policy and consider alternatives that could benefit the players' health. We'll see how these new medical committees work and keep you updated here at Inside The Star.
Should Cowboys Consider Trading for Disgruntled Packers S Josh Jones?
Despite their insistence that upgrading the safety position was a top offseason priority, the Dallas Cowboys haven't really done much to improve the backend of their secondary. They did sign former Minnesota Vikings and Cincinnati Bengals Safety George Iloka as a free agent and drafted Donovan Wilson in the sixth-round in this year's NFL Draft, but neither player looks like a clear-cut upgrade at this point. Fortunately, there's still time to find Xavier Woods' counterpart for 2019.
Xavier Woods is the only clear-cut starter at safety currently on the Dallas Cowboys roster. Other than that, your guess is as good as mine as to who starts opposite him this season. With that in mind, the Cowboys should be keeping all of their options open, including acquiring players who get released or even making a trade for someone they like. The latter is what I want to talk about today.
A potential safety who could be put on the trade block that I'm kind of intrigued with is Josh Jones, who has reportedly requested a trade from the Green Bay Packers.
Packers safety Josh Jones is skipping the voluntary OTAs and working out in Florida because he's hoping to be traded, a source told ESPN. The source said the 2017 second-round pick believes it would be best for both parties if they parted ways. Story coming on ESPN shortly.
Josh Jones clearly sees where he stands with the Green Bay Packers after they signed Adrian Amos in free agency and drafted Darnell Savage Jr. 21st overall in the 2019 NFL Draft, thus his absence from OTA's and trade request. He understands the business and knows he's not going to see the field much behind those two, meaning his best chance for playing time would be in a different uniform.
It's not all that shocking Jones has requested a trade. Even before the Packers added Amos and Savage he wasn't receiving a lot of playing time. He's just never seemed to fit into what Green Bay was trying to do on the backend of their defense. It may be in the best interest of both parties to mutually part ways. This is where the Dallas Cowboys come in.
I believe Josh Jones is exactly the type of safety Kris Richard would like to pair Xavier Woods with on the backend of the Cowboys defense. He fits the criteria Richard likes in his defensive backs as far as size, length, and speed are concerned. And, he also has the kind of skill set/mindset to become that Kam Chancellor "enforcer" type of strong safety.
Josh Jones is at his best when he can play around the line of scrimmage, much like Chancellor was during his time with the Seahawks. But, Jones also has the ability to be a factor in coverage as well. The only real question here is whether or not he's an upgrade over the likes of Jeff Heath, George Iloka, and maybe even rookie Donovan Wilson?
In all honesty, I don't have the answer to that question. Josh Jones really hasn't received a fair opportunity to prove himself in his first two years in the NFL. I believe the skill set is there to start in the league, but there's not much there to back up that belief.
Personally, I'd be willing to part way with a late round pick if I were the Cowboys to acquire Josh Jones. I like the idea of bringing him in to work with Kris Richard and allowing him to compete for the starting job next to Xavier Woods. This is exactly the kind of low risk/high reward move Dallas likes to gamble on, and it could potentially pay off in a big way.
Where do you stand? Should the Cowboys consider trading for Josh Jones?
How Can The Cowboys Force More Turnovers In 2019?
2018 seemed like the beginning of a new era. A defensive era. For the first time in years the Cowboys were able to consistently lean on their defense during games, staying alive even as their offense sputtered and limped through stretches early in the season.
The defense was downright prolific some weeks. They carried the Cowboys to an inspiring home victory over the New Orleans Saints to put them in prime position to make the playoffs. They dominated the Wild Card game in key moments, making key stops and holding the Seahawks to just 22 points in the win. They featured one of the league's best individual pass rushers in DeMarcus Lawrence, an All Pro cornerback in Byron Jones, and one of the league's most exciting young linebacker duos.
For all of this success, this defense still lacked one thing. Takeaways.
The Cowboys forced only 9 interceptions in 2018, ranking 26th across the league. In fact, linebacker Leighton Vander Esch was actually tied with Xavier Woods for the team lead in interceptions with just 2. When it comes to total takeaways the Cowboys' defense was a little better off, though, finishing 16th in the NFL.
Part of the "problem" seems to be their philosophy. The Cowboys have finished 26th, 24th, 27th, and 31st in interceptions dating back to 2015. They've also finished 9th, 25th, 18th, and 19th in team defense DVOA over that same stretch. Clearly there was an improvement in total defense in 2018, but neither their team defense nor ability to take the ball away has been strong since 2015.
The bigger problem, really, is a lack of luck. While this sounds like a cop-out, takeaways often do come down to just that. Of course putting yourself in the right place at the right time to benefit from a batted pass or overthrown ball matters, but those bounces finding the right hands is usually a matter of luck.
Turnovers are incredibly volatile year to year, and as much as you'd like your players to "make their own luck," randomness does play a part here.
You can certainly argue the Cowboys have done their best this offseason to increase their chances at takeaways, however. By trading for defensive end Robert Quinn, re-signing DeMarcus Lawrence, and adding talented players to the middle of their defensive line as well, Dallas has put an emphasis on getting after the quarterback and corralling the opposing running game. Putting pressure on quarterbacks can force them into quick decision making or bad throws, which could in turn breed interceptions.
This is far from guaranteed, though. Plus the Cowboys play against some of the league's top quarterbacks this year, which hurts their chances of taking the ball away further.
In the end the Cowboys will need both the skill of their pass rushers and defensive backs to put them in good positions, and luck to smile down on them, if they'd like to turn around their takeaway numbers in 2019. And after all, this demoralizing trend has to reverse itself at some point, doesn't it?
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