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.
Should Cowboys Sign This RFA to a Contract Sheet?
Fortune favors the bold. It's a rough translation of an old Latin proverb and the mantra I believe the Dallas Cowboys should indoctrinate this offseason.
I think it's time the Dallas Cowboys start to make a few bold moves. I truly believe they are close to competing for a championship title and one or two offseason moves could increase those odds. One such move would be to sign restricted free agent (RFA) Shaquil Barrett to an offer sheet.
It's expected that the Denver Broncos will place a second-round tender on Barrett and I think the Dallas Cowboys would be wise to explore the possibility of signing him to a contract sheet. If Denver declines to match the offer, the Cowboys would then send them their second round draft pick as compensation.
You on board?
Probably not at this point, but let me try to explain why I believe this is a good move on the Cowboys part, even if it is an uncharacteristic one.
You see, the Cowboys could definitely use someone to play opposite DeMarcus Lawrence and I think Shaquil Barrett could be the solution.
I know it sounds like a lot to give up a second round draft pick, but the Cowboys have been deplorable at drafting players in the second round the past decade. Sean Lee, DeMarcus Lawrence, and possibly Jaylon Smith have really been the only "hits" the Cowboys have found in the second round. That's simply unacceptable!
So, why not use that second rounder to acquire a player who is already a proven commodity in the NFL?
I know the first thing a lot of you are going to do is to look up Shaquil Barrett's stats to see what he has accomplished in the NFL. But, stats don't always show the big picture.
You see, Barrett has been stuck behind some pretty talented pass rushers in Denver, so his statistics aren't going to jump off the paper. But, when given the opportunity he has proven he deserves a larger role. That's where the Dallas Cowboys come in.
The Broncos probably don't have the money to keep Shaquil Barrett if the Cowboys sign him to a contract sheet. It doesn't necessarily even have to be a big money contract offer. The Broncos simply don't have the salary cap to do much, especially considering they are still looking for a starting quarterback.
I honestly like the idea of the Cowboys going after Barrett. You may have forgotten, but he gave a healthy Tyron Smith fits last season.
With an injured Shane Ray, Shaquil Barrett got the start against the Cowboys in 2017 and finished the game with two quarterback hits, six QB pressures, and five stops. No other player found that kind of success against Tyron Smith all season, even when he was banged up.
Unfortunately, when Shane Ray returned, Barrett's usage on defense declined. That's why you can't always judge a players productivity by statistics. You have to judge him more on a per-snap basis, and if you do that you will discover he was very effective as both a pass rusher and run stopper.
I believe Barrett is ready for a full-time role. Yes, he has been used as a standup 3-4 OLB with the Broncos, but he has the required traits to put his hand on the ground and maintain his effectiveness.
The downside to all of this is the Dallas Cowboys would have to give up their second-round draft pick, but draft picks are sometimes overvalued anyways. Shaquil Barrett is probably better than anybody the Cowboys could draft in the second round, so I say pull the trigger.
Should the Cowboys sign Shaquil Barrett to a contract sheet?
Could a Former Division Rival be Cowboys’ LG Solution?
When it comes to prioritizing the Dallas Cowboys offseason needs, offensive guard is definitely near the top of the list. Opinions will certainly vary, but for me, solidifying the offensive line with a new starting left guard is the top priority for the Cowboys.
I know many of you will disagree and believe the Dallas Cowboys need to continue to upgrade their defense. But, this teams success or failure will be determined by how their offensive line performs. That's just the way the Cowboys are built, which is why they have invested so heavily putting this unit together.
Four out of five of the Dallas Cowboys starting offensive line is set in stone, but there is currently no one on the roster to step into the vacant left guard position unless you want to see the coaching staff give Chaz Green another try.
No, I didn't think so.
With the start of the 2018 free agency just a few weeks away, the Dallas Cowboys have certainly narrowed down some of the potential free agents they would be interested in bringing aboard if the price is right. Remember, they have turned into "bargain shoppers".
There are a few intriguing free agent options who I believe could step in to upgrade the LG position for the Cowboys next season, and not break the bank. One such option is a former division rival of the New York Giants, Justin Pugh.
The former 19th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft has spent five years in New York while playing out his rookie contract, but that time has come to an end. The Giants aren't likely to re-sign him, which means he will get his first taste of free agency.
Justin Pugh could step in and be an immediate upgrade over what the Dallas Cowboys employed at the left guard position in 2017. He has exceptional mobility. He reaches the second level with ease and plays with good body control and footwork. He is a perfect fit in a zone blocking scheme like the Cowboys employ.
Pugh is also versatile. He has played both right tackle and offensive guard for the Giants. He of course would be asked to play between Travis Frederick and Tyron Smith at LG with the Cowboys, but versatility to play another position is never a bad thing.
Unfortunately, Pugh doesn't come without baggage. He has missed a total of 13 games over the last two seasons with the Giants, including eight last season due to a back injury. This is definitely a huge red flag, especially for the Cowboys after dealing with the same issue with Tyron Smith.
But, this is why Justin Pugh will likely be in the Cowboys price range. Sportrac currently estimates his contract at 4 years at $23,983,847, which equates to $5,995,968 annually. I personally think that's a little low for someone of Pugh's caliber and versatility, but it certainly understandable when you take into account his recent injury history.
I personally think this is a longshot to happen because the Cowboys would prefer to go younger and cheaper, but it wouldn't surprise me.
Do you think Justin Pugh makes sense for the Cowboys?
Dallas Cowboys Wishlist: 2018 Free Agency Edition
Sadly, we can't wake up on Sundays to NFL football. The Dallas Cowboys are not on TV every week for us to watch them play. To make matters worse, we'll have to wait until September to get real football from our favorite team.
But that doesn't mean there's nothing to talk about until then! For the die-hard Cowboys fan, the offseason should be quite entertaining. Free agency will begin in March, and it should be an intense one for Dallas.
They need to handle a tight salary cap while trying to add a bit of help for this football team. Recently, Inside The Star Contributor John Williams wrote an in-depth piece about the Cowboys' cap situation and how they can manage to get things done, despite having little cap space right now.
Last season, I wrote a weekly Cowboys Wishlist about things I wanted to see for each game. Now there are no games, but I decided to write a special edition for this upcoming free agency.
Wish #1: Keep The Rushmen
The front office will have one hell of a challenge trying to retain all of its free agents. The two most important ones may be their two defensive linemen. If they can keep them, DL won't be a top need heading to the Draft.
Lawrence is one of the biggest names in free agency this 2018, but the Cowboys should find a way to keep him from ever being available.
If they're able to franchise tag him, that'd be the way to go since he's only had one elite season in his four-year career and they may not want to sign him to a huge long-term deal and risk not seeing the same guy next season.
David Irving is a more polarizing player, with off-the-field issues. However, he's been a very disruptive guy and he has the chance to be a unique player. His talent is really out of this world. Keeping him and Irving would give this franchise a top defensive line for the first time in many years.
Wish #2: Pay Anthony Hitchens
When healthy, Sean Lee is one of the NFL's top linebackers. He is simply an outstanding player who's always around the ball and seems to know where the ball is going before the opposing coach even calls the play.
The problem is, he has a lot of trouble remaining available. Anthony Hitchens is a guy who's found the way to step up every time the General is out, and he's shown a great progression as a player year after year.
Lee will be 32 by the time the season starts, giving Dallas something to think about. Hitchens is a guy capable of starting and competing in the NFL. If the front office finds a way to keep him, they'll be getting closer to being less "Sean Lee-dependent."
Wish #3: Get Seattle Seahawks' Earl Thomas
When we talk about a potential big name addition to the Dallas Cowboys, we're usually a bit pessimistic. This team isn't one that makes splashes like this, but Earl Thomas to Dallas makes a ton of sense. Former Seahawks' defensive coordinator is now the Cowboys' defensive backs' coach.
With Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis (and maybe Byron Jones moving to CB), this team will have a promising secondary. Add Earl Thomas, and it will go from "promising" to "great" in a heartbeat.
The Cowboys could not only have a top DL, but a top secondary if they're able to get this veteran.
Let's hope the Cowboys listen to Thomas and they go get him.
Wish #4: Get Dez Bryant to Take a Pay Cut
When I started writing this, I wanted to add a "get this wide receiver in FA"... but I won't. A few weeks ago, I wrote a case in favor and one against Dez Bryant remaining a Cowboy in 2018. Personally, I would be fine with him parting ways with the team.
However, I'm aware of how hard it can be finding a replacement for a guy like #88. The biggest issue with Dez is definitely his cap hit. He hasn't justified the money he's being paid on the field as he should be.
If they can get him to take a pay cut, it may end up being the ideal scenario for the Dallas Cowboys.
It'll be a very interesting offseason, and here at Inside The Star we'll continue to provide you with content about it all.
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