Starting every Wednesday, we at Dallas Cowboys Nation are going to take a look at how each positional group did this past season. Additionally, we will also take a look at who is available to help this team moving forward. If you want a specific group discussed, you just need to contact Dallas Cowboys Nation or myself on twitter (@CowboysNation or @PatSportsGuy).
Without further ado I will start with the safety and offensive line this week, which was the request of a faithful follower Brian Fortenberry. There was no group on the field that performed any worse than the offensive line. Tyron Smith was by far the best of the group; it is hard to get a gauge on the center position with Ryan Cook and Phil Costa splitting time this past season.
The guard tandem of Mackenzie Bernadeau and Nate Livings were liabilities when it comes to protecting Tony Romo. As far as the run game, they were brought in to open holes and push the defense back. Both seemed to fail in that regard. Of course the worst on the line was Doug Free. He led the league in pre-snap penalties and holding calls. His play has many fans questioning the four year $32 million deal that Jerry Jones gave him.
My rankings for the 2012 offensive line look like this (best to worst): Smith, Cook/Costa, Livings, Bernadeau and Free. With no money under the cap I do not foresee that changing much. Pro Football Focus recently came out with their offensive line grades, showing us how the Cowboys stack up against the rest of the league individually.
With the current situation for America’s team, could help be on the way? There are moves that should be made in order to give this team a competitive chance coming into next season. Free should be removed from this team, as he has issues with pre-snap penalties, footwork and leverage. By cutting Free, it would free up $7 million in cap space (pun intended). This could allow Jerry and company to take a look at Donald Thomas, formerly of the New England Patriots. Thomas not only has the ability to start but his contract demands are much less than that of Free. As most will see, Thomas plays guard and not the tackle position.
Jason Garrett could slide Bernadeau over to the center position to open up room for Thomas, creating a need at the tackle position. I would address that need in the upcoming NFL Draft. The Cowboys are unlikely to draft a player like Eric Fisher of Central Michigan or Luke Joekel of Texas A&M, however they may very well land a player the likes of Lane Johnson of Oklahoma or D.J. Fluker of Alabama. When it comes to building for the future at the guard position, Larry Warford of Kentucky should be available when the Cowboys step to the podium in the second round. This draft is very deep at the offensive line position.
The second worst position group in my estimation is the safety position. The Cowboys took an early season hit with the loss of Barry Church to an Achilles injury, which meant they would need to special team specialist Danny McCray. McCray wasn’t even a starter during his time at LSU, which most fans now know why. In passing situations McCray was either played close to the line much like a linebacker or was replaced by a list of cornerbacks. If McCray wasn’t such a big part of special teams, I would imagine he would have received his walking papers alongside Gerald Sensabaugh.
Sensabaugh did perform better than McCray and wasn’t as much of a liability in coverage. Not to say that he was good, he played decently. However with no elite speed or the ability to be that center fielder for this defense, he became a salary cap casualty as the Cowboys needed to cut $20 million by Tuesday at 3 p.m. CST. During his four year tenure in Dallas, he had a total of eight interceptions none of which happened this past season. What didn’t help his case was only having three forced fumbles during that same time, one coming this past season but no recoveries. For a team that had trouble creating turnovers it made the decision easier, not to mention Monte Kiffin may have felt he didn’t fit his scheme.
One good quality of the upcoming draft is that safety is another deep position. The biggest name that has been thrown around is University of Texas product Kenny Vaccaro. He is the most complete safety product and a player that most Cowboys’ fans are very aware of. He is great at coming up to stop the run and defending the pass. He will take bad angles occasionally but this is very coachable. If the Cowboys don’t select offensive line in the first round expect Vaccaro’s name to be thrown about the war room.
As previously stated the Cowboys have no cap room, so the recent list of possible safety targets isn’t going to be an option. What remains to be seen is the possibility of the Free release and the Romo extension to give this team some leeway. Either way you look at it, Jerry will need to do some maneuvering as they only have $175,000. Which isn’t even enough to sign their upcoming draft picks or undrafted free agents; it just might be time to part with some cornerstones and build this team for the future.