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Cowboys Facing Tough Questions, But Far From Hopeless

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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.

Any takers?



I am 35, married and a father of 2 boys. I have been a Cowboys fan since Jimmy Johnson took over; not because I had anything against Tom Landry, but because it just so happens I was old enough to start following and understanding football right as that new era began. Since then, I haven't missed games if I could help it.

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Star Blog

Could Loaded FA Safety Market Drive Down Earl Thomas’ Value?

Brian Martin

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Could Loaded FA Safety Class Drive Down Earl Thomas' Price Tag?

It's no secret the Dallas Cowboys and Earl Thomas share a mutual interest in one another. Thomas has publicly stated his desire to join America's Team and the Cowboys did their darndest to make that happen last offseason. Nothing ever materialized a year ago, but it's looking as if the stars have finally aligned and a union between the two could merely be just weeks away.

Surprisingly enough, the Dallas Cowboys may have dodged a bullet last year when the Seattle Seahawks refused to part ways with their All-Pro safety. Not only would they have had to surrender a high draft pick, but they would've also had to extend Thomas' contract. Fortunately, timing is everything and now the Cowboys might just have to do the latter.

A potential contract between the Cowboys and Thomas is of course what I want to dive in today. I'm not going to get into numbers right now, because it's nearly impossible to project any kind of contract for any safety this offseason, especially for the former Seahawk, Earl Thomas.

Earl Thomas

Free Agent FS Earl Thomas (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

Right now, it's a little difficult to know who might have the advantage in contract negotiations, Earl Thomas or the Dallas Cowboys. A lot of times the one that has the leverage, however slight, is the one that gets the better of the deal. As surprising as it may be, the Cowboys might just have the advantage here and I'll tell you why.

First off, this year's market for free agent safeties is pretty stacked with starting caliber players. See below:

  • Earl Thomas
  • Landon Collins
  • Lamarcus Joyner
  • Tyrann Mathieu
  • Adrian Amos
  • Clayton Geathers
  • Ha-Ha Clinton Dix
  • Glover Quinn
  • Tre Boston
  • Kenny Vaccaro
  • George Iloka
  • Jimmie Ward
  • Adrian Phillips

Earl Thomas is obviously the headliner here amongst the free agent safeties, but having so many starting caliber players available could drive down Thomas' market value just a bit. This is especially true when you take into consideration the market for FA safeties just a year ago. It was almost a complete standstill last year, with only Kurt Coleman signing a three-year $16.5 million deal with the New Orleans Saints. Not even the "Honey Badger" Tyrann Mathieu could get more than a one-year deal.

With all of these safeties available in free agency, we could be looking at another stingy market. This of course could be good or bad news for the Dallas Cowboys, especially as it pertains to Earl Thomas. Since he is the top FA safety available, everything could once again be at a standstill until he is signed.

Earl Thomas

Free Agent FS Earl Thomas (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Of course, we all know this will ultimately come down to determining Earl Thomas' market value. There is no denying he is still arguably the best free safety in the game today, but there are concerns about his age (30) and the two lower leg injuries he's sustained in the past three years.

Even with the loaded free agent market of starting caliber safeties and Thomas' age and recent injury history, he's still likely to receive a contract that earns him $10 million annually, give or take. It wouldn't surprise me at all if he gets another four-year deal worth $40 million, $25.7 million guaranteed, with a $9.5 million signing bonus like he signed with the Seahawks back in 2014.

The Cowboys of course would probably find a four-year $40 million deal for Earl Thomas acceptable. They would more than likely frontload the contract with a lot of protection in the details. They have the cap space to make this happen and still be able to sign their own, so money shouldn't be a problem.

Now, whether or not Thomas' market value may dip a little due to all of the above mentioned reasons will be something we will have to wait and find out. Regardless, I'd be a little shocked if Earl Thomas doesn't finish his career with the Dallas Cowboys.

Do you think Earl Thomas' market value will take a little hit this offseason?



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Star Blog

Acquiring Brown Will Give Dallas Twin Turbo Terrors

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Acquiring Brown Will Give Dallas Twin Turbo Terrors

What a difference a receiver makes, right? As Dallas fans, we know the impact of a player who can shake coverage, get open, and catch the ball. How was the season going before the Cowboys pulled the trigger for Amari Cooper in the deal with the Raiders? Cooper proved to be the lightning rod and a turning point in a season that was growing increasingly dismal. Dak Prescott and Cooper went together like peanut butter and jelly, while the Cowboys stormed to a division title and a postseason berth.

Now, imagine all of that times two… maybe even two and a half if Antonio Brown could be had from the Steelers. Scary right? We understand there’s only one ball to go around but that didn’t stop Kevin Durant from joining the Warriors, did it?

As of this writing, the best online sportsbooks like Intertops, are dealing Dallas as the seventh of 16 choices to win the NFC championship at odds of 12-1. Imagine how those odds would shrink if Brown wore a Cowboys uniform next season, giving Prescott the luxury of not one upper echelon wideout but that plus an elite receiver. Hut, hut, hut and a few clouds of smoke later the Cowboys would be moving the chains or celebrating in the endzone.

Brown and Cooper would be a devastating combination with Ezekiel Elliott coming out of the backfield. Brown was made for Dallas, it gives him an even grander stage than the one he shared with Ben Roethlisberger and Le’Veon Bell in Pittsburgh.

Despite the fact that the 'Boys haven’t won a Super Bowl since Barry Switzer was roaming the sidelines in the mid-90s, America’s Team still resides in Dallas. But we need a game-changer and Brown is just such an athlete. But what do we give in return and will that cost be worth whatever productive years Brown has left after this one? Let’s not forget that the mercurial Miami native will be 31 when the season begins and men who make a living with their legs don’t get better at that age. But Brown is so good and so unique that, even if he drops half a click, he's still amongst the best in the game.

That level of talent is hard to replicate and it could be the missing piece which allows Dallas to be a legitimate Super Bowl contender next season and the year after.

However, up to this point, we’ve been very good at dreaming of a Brown to Dallas trade but haven’t quite worked out the details. It takes two to tango and if we expect to get the Steelers’ attention we need to give them something valuable in return. Dallas surrendered their first-round pick (27th) this season when they traded for Cooper so that’s no longer an asset.

Pittsburgh would be vying for a first-round pick (and likely more) for Brown's services but some have speculated Dallas would consider dealing rookie-standout Leighton Vander Esch.

Wait... what? We know, you’re clutching your pearls, and the words are stuck in your gasp. We get it. The kid was a home run this past season, leading the Dallas defense in tackles and earning a Pro Bowl invitation in his inaugural NFL season. But this would be a Faustian deal.

The Cowboys give up a player who is poised to be a stud for years to come for a playmaker in Brown that could render a Super Bowl in the immediate future. Brown's expiration date will surely turn his milk sour sooner rather than later, but in the here and now, Antonio Brown could be the bell cow who leads the Cowboys to the promised land before he’s put out to pasture.

Just something to think about...



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Star Blog

2018 In Review: CB Anthony Brown Bounces Back

Kevin Brady

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Anthony Brown's Resurgence A Great Sign for Cowboys Defense
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

To say it's been an up-and-down start to the career of young cornerback Anthony Brown would be an understatement.

As a sixth round pick in 2016, everything Brown contributed during his rookie season was a plus. Due to injury he was asked to step into a greater role as the season went on, and he performed well enough to make the front office comfortable allowing multiple veterans to walk for nothing in free agency the following Spring. Brown looked like a legitimate starting cornerback in the league, and when Dallas brought in Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis during the next draft, the young secondary seemed set.

Then 2017 happened. And Anthony Brown struggled. Really struggled.

These struggles, coupled with the emergence of both Lewis and Awuzie during their own rookie seasons, made Brown's status heading into 2018 rather uncertain. Some wondered if they would trade him for a day three pick, others thought Brown could even end up being cut. Jourdan Lewis and Anthony Brown were slated to compete for the nickel cornerback job in training camp, and as it turned out, all Brown needed was that one extra chance to compete.

Brown won the job outright during the preseason, and began 2018 as the starting nickel. A fan favorite, most thought Lewis would reclaim his rightful spot on the depth chart sooner or later, but Anthony Brown's play (and Kris Richard's preferences) kept Lewis on the bench for much of the season.

Simply put, Anthony Brown balled in 2018, and was the Cowboys' second best corner for most of the year. By the end of the season Chidobe Awuzie had regained form, but Brown and Byron Jones were the most consistently reliable corners on the roster all of 2018.

Brown tallied 44 tackles, 2 sacks, and an interception in 2018, and finished third on the team in pass breakups with 8. As the slot corner Brown had an excellent season, especially for a former sixth round pick.

Now he enters a contract year, and with the Cowboys having so many guys to pay over the next two offseasons, he could find himself as an unrestricted free agent in 2020. And if he can keep up his play from last year moving forward, he could be in for a nice payday that Spring.



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