How secure do YOU feel about the Cowboys in 2012?
2011 was a disappointment for Dallas fans. With any luck, though, it may prove to be a step forward for the franchise if it marked the death knell for Jerry’s ‘stars and scrubs’ approach to roster construction. The Cowboys didn’t lose because their stars didn’t shine quite bright enough – they lost because they were held hostage on both sides of the ball by non-NFL caliber play at spots like center and cornerback, abetted by an anemic late-game/late-season pass rush. The Cowboys’ off-season moves thus far (outside of the high-dollar but highly necessary signing of Brandon Carr) seem to have been designed to bring in an array of at least competent, mid-range players to fill in for the guys who had no business whatsoever setting foot on a field in 2011. Now, can the guys they’ve chosen ACHIEVE a competent, mid-range level of play in line with their contracts?
Brandon Carr (CB, KC – 5 years, $50.1 million) – There was no question as to Dallas’ #1 free-agent target, and I think they made the right call. Carr, a former 5th-round pick by the Chiefs, got better every year in Kansas City and was probably just a notch below the league’s truly elite corners in 2011. He brings size, speed and playmaking ability to the table, and at 26 is a reasonable bet to provide quality play through the life of his contract. As to the big numbers attached to that contract…well, ideally you never get yourself into a spot where you have to fill a gaping need at a premium position through free agency, because it ain’t cheap. But if you ARE in that spot you’d best pony up and act decisively, and it looks the Dallas at least made a good decision on who to bury under a mountain of Jerry’s cash.
Nate Livings (G, CIN – 5 years, $19 million) – OK, here’s a move I wasn’t wild about. Livings is the kind of big and (relatively) athletic body that the Cowboys covet on the OL, but he hasn’t put together much in the way of consistency during his last few seasons in Cincinnati. ProFootballFocus.com certainly didn’t think much of Livings’ last couple of seasons, and in some limited film review he showed an alarming tendency to lunge and miss his blocks both in-line and on the second level. Maybe he’ll step it up in Dallas, but I’m not terribly optimistic. The real disappointment is that for just $1 million more a season, Dallas could have made a run at a vastly superior player in the Eagles’ Evan Mathis and delivered a groin punch to a division rival at the same time.
Dan Connor (LB, CAR – 2 years, $6.5 million) – The positive spin on this move – it’s a non-exorbitant price to pay to bring in a player of reasonable quality with good tread on his tires to establish a 3-man rotation at the high-contact position of middle linebacker. The negative spin – it’s an admission that Dallas bricked the second-round selection of another high athlete/no instinct ILB in Bruce Carter a mere two seasons after squandering a third-rounder on a similarly-profiled Jason Williams. I’m gonna cling to hope here, but if we’re not seeing a lot of Carter in nickel situations by Week 5 or so then it’s time to get very nervous about his future.
MacKenzy Bernadeau (G, CAR – 4 years, $11 million) – Bernadeau has shown some good things on tape in the league, but Carolina sent him to the bench late in 2010 when the offense was struggling and he never made it back into the staff’s good graces. He’s a reasonable dice-roll for depth at that price, and he could give the Cowboys some flexibility if they decide to go in a non-DeCastro direction on Thursday night. If he could morph into a competent center, that’d be even better.
Brodney Pool (S, NYJ – 1 year, $1.2 million) – After the Carr signing (and of course the cutting of Terence Newman) this is my favorite move of the off-season. Pool is a guy that has demonstrated good range and the ability to be a capable centerfield guy – just the kind of guy that Dallas has been lacking at the back of the defense for a looooooong damn time. He’s not going to bring Ed Reed-style playmaking to the party, but he’ll keep havoc from breaking out in the deep middle – he allowed no TDs and no catches of over 30 yards during the course of 1100+ snaps the last two seasons. It may be a bad sign that he didn’t get more run last year while the Jets’ Eric Smith was busy ruining things for white DBs everywhere, but I’m going to assume he just failed to smack a 260-lb fullback/fully appreciate the antics of Curly Howard/curse with sufficient frequency or anything else that would land you in Rex Ryan’s doghouse.
Kyle Orton (QB, KC – 3 years, $10.5 million) – I had hoped the Cowboys could land the competent Shaun Hill of the Lions as their backup after the ancient Jon Kitna hung ‘em up this offseason. They look to have done even better in landing Orton, a guy who is probably better than at least 5 guys who’ll be taking snaps in Week One. He’ll give the Cowboys a chance to go .500-ish should Romo miss a 3-4 game stretch, and that’s all you can ask from a backup. Too bad Stephen McGee didn’t mature to at least lock down this role, but unfortunately he is just as goddamn awful as every single game tape from his A&M career would suggest.
Lawrence Vickers (FB, HOU – 2 years, $2.4 million) – The going rate for a fullback, I guess. You’d think any blocking surface from a run game as accomplished as Houston’s would be a good add, but I can’t find too many Texans fans who seem to be lamenting his departure.
With all those moves in the books, here’s my read on the Cowboys’ remaining holes, in order of their ability to keep us out of the playoffs:
1) Interior OL – Center is an absolute crying need if no one currently on the roster can take the job from Costa, but I’m not terribly sanguine on our guard prospects if Livings and Bernadeau are currently penciled in as starters.
2) Pass Rush – I’m agnostic as to whether it comes from end, nose tackle, linebacker, safety blitzes or a sneak attack from the damned parabolic mike guy, but Dallas MUST bring the heat harder than they were able in the second half of last season. Maybe a full offseason plus a more competent secondary will let Dallas manufacture more pressure through some madcap Rob Ryan blitzitude, but the Cowboys HAVE to get more guys consistently beating one on one blocks.
3) Safety – I think we’re reasonably competent back there with Sensi, Pool and Church, but the nature of the NFL’s spread-out passing attacks demand more than mere competence. Dallas has also suffered from a dire paucity of turnovers, and a real playmaker here could help turn things around in that regard.
Most every other spot on the roster could use at least some degree of upgrade or enhanced depth, but if the first 3-4 rounds yield three players who can contribute meaningfully at those spots then the Cowboys will have done very well for themselves.
With that out of the way, let’s take a look at what Jerry and company might get up to in the 2012 Draft:
I think the Cowboys’ realistic targets at #14 are, in order of preference:
David DeCastro (G, Stanford)
Dre Kirkpatrick (CB, Alabama)
Mark Barron (S, Alabama)
Melvin Ingram (OLB, South Carolina)
Quinton Coples (DE, North Carolina)
Michael Brockers (DT, LSU)
Dontari Poe (DT, Memphis)
There’s an argument to be made for each. DeCastro – a can’t miss guard prospect that could provide a hellacious tandem next to wunderkind LT Tyron Smith for the next decade. Ingram – the draft’s best pass rushing 3-4 OLB who could finally provide a true bookend for DeMarcus Ware. Kirkpatrick – a big-time (and just plain big) corner to further solidify the secondary and provide free-agency insurance for Mike Jenkins. Coples – a potential pass-rushing terror from a 3-4 end spot. Brockers – a possible two-way terror in the mold of future Hall of Famer Richard Seymour (who absconded with Bill Belichick’s defensive ‘genius’ when he departed for Oakland). Barron – a heady and hard-hitting safety that could help put the clamps on the league’s new generation of terrifying tight ends. Poe – the unheard-of physical specimen who could become an unblockable force should his game catch up to his size/speed/strength numbers.
So, what to do? Draftniks and pundits never fail to chant the ‘best player available’ mantra at this time of year, but most every team is looking to land the best player available at a position of need. Everyone listed above would help fill a moderate-to-severe deficiency for Dallas (and the fact that only one of the seven plays on the offensive side of the ball speaks loudly to where this team’s problems lie). Projections, ceilings and risk/reward all come into play, but another factor is often the depth of the draft at a whole at certain positions. If your board contains five quality defensive tackles and only one quality cornerback when your spot rolls around, it can make a lot of sense to grab the scarce position right away and trust to depth to ensure the availability of a solid tackle in the next round.
With all that said, I’m calling DeCastro to Dallas. I like the pick because I have great faith in their ability to screw up just about any other OL selection (even in a relatively guard-rich draft) and because DeCastro feels like the safest choice the ‘Boys could make.
Assuming the Cowboys grab DeCastro in Round 1, it’s time to give the defense some attention. Their biggest areas of need are pass rush (either from a down lineman or outside backer), a centerfield free safety and an edge rusher at OLB to complement and eventually succeed ‘Almost’ Anthony Spencer. Some names I’d like to see the Cowboys consider in this range include:
Billy Winn (DT/DE, Boise St.) – A 6’4", 295 pound Engergizer Bunny with a relentless motor and the ability to use his hands well to shock blockers as well as shed and penetrate into the backfield.
Bruce Irvin (3-4 OLB, West Virginia) – A potential terror off the edge who normally played with his hand on the ground at WVU. Concerns about his ability to drop/play in space and some character issues have made some folks talk about him as a third rounder, but his ability to bring the heat will mean someone calling his name in Round Two.
Alameda Ta’Amu (NT, Washington) – Acquire a penetrating 3-4 end another way by grabbing a classic NT and sliding Ratliff over a spot. Ta’Amu is carved from granite and can stand strong against the double team in the middle, something Ratliff has struggled to accomplish over the last couple of years.
Trumaine Johnson (CB, Montana) - A tall corner with great leaping ability who’s good at both pressing/re-routing receivers and making breaks in zone coverage. The level of competition is a bit of a question mark, but in theory the Cowboys could bring him along slowly and have some insurance should Mike Jenkins command too rich a deal in the 2013 offseason.
This may be the last chance to grab a starting-caliber player who could potentially upgrade the center or safety positions for 2012. I’m thinking about LSU’s Brandon Taylor or Boise State’s George Iloka at safety or Baylor’s Philip Blake at the center spot.
A couple of guys that intrigue me on the offensive side of the ball here are Temple’s Evan Rodriguez and OU’s Ryan Broyles. Rodriguez is a Swiss Army Knife TE/H-Back/FB combo who would really seem to fit the way that Jason Garrett likes to be multiple in his alignments with guys like Witten and John Phillips. Broyles needs no introduction to most on this board, and the fact that he was able to rip off some 40 times in the low 4.6 range less than 6 months out from ACL surgery tells me he’s progressing nicely and could be productive in a slot role as soon as the second half of this season. If Kheeston Randall is on the board in the fourth, the Cowboys could do a lot worse than adding him for depth at 3-4 end.
Let’s be honest – we’re throwing darts at this stage. My biggest hope for these selections is for the Cowboys to land some guys who can make an immediate impact on special teams. A legit return man would be nice, but even some willing tacklers would make a nice departure from the sub-standard efforts we’ve seen too much of in the coverage and return games.
That’s a glimpse at what may be in store for the Silver and Blue over the next few days. Work, real estate and an array of other issues have beset me like a malevolent street gang, so it’ll be tomorrow before I can put up some quick Texans thoughts and the official mock. Look for it tomorrow, and make sure to stop by for some live blog hijinks as the draft kicks off tomorrow night.