The 2011 Dallas Cowboys lost games in which they had a 4th-quarter lead, exposing their secondary and their pass-rush for what they were – completely average at best. The organization went into the 2012 draft eyeing Alabama SS Mark Barron and in fact traded up to get help. Here’s how their draft came out:
1 6 Morris Claiborne CB LSU
3 81 Tyrone Crawford DE Boise State
4 113 Kyle Wilber DE Wake Forest
4 135 Matt Johnson SS Eastern Washington
5 152 Danny Coale WR Virginia Tech
6 186 James Hanna TE Oklahoma
7 222 Caleb McSurdy LB Montana
As you can see, instead of taking Barron at #6 overall, they went with the best cover corner in the draft – LSU’s Morris Claiborne. LSU is getting a reputation for being “Defensive Back U” with Patrick Peterson coming off the board in the top 5 in the 2011 draft. Claiborne wasn’t the only LSU DB to be taken in the top few rounds either, so that should give you an idea of their pass defense last season that led them to the BCS title game.
The Cowboys now have the deepest group of cornerbacks in the entire NFL. With Claiborne, they have Mike Jenkins, Orlando Scandrick, and Brandon Carr. Their biggest worry at the position is who plays inside and who plays outside. Most franchises would kill to have that worry.
Instead of landing Barron, they settled for Matt Johnson from Eastern Michigan in round 4. With DeMarcus Ware being their only real pass-rush threat, they drafted rookies Tyrone Crawford and Kyle Wilber to try to bolster that part of the defense. Marcus Spears is a solid end against the run but never has been a threat to consistently pressure the quarterback and to be successful these days you really need at least two and you can never have enough of them.
With that in mind, the Cowboys have another issue: protecting Tony Romo.
In two of the past four seasons, Romo has missed significant playing time due to injury – the most recent being a broken collar bone in 2010. When he’s upright and protected, he puts up gawdy statistics but the knock on him has been his play in the 4th quarter. Overall last season, he had 31 TD passes vs. only 10 INTs and has greater than a 2:1 TD:INT ratio over his career.
Those numbers are outstanding but they’ve not translated into postseason success for the franchise.
Playing in the NFC East, they have to improve their own team or be left behind. Washington has just added RG3, a dynamic and cerebral athlete to call the signals. Physically, he’s like Michael Vick when he was 21 or so. Mentally, I’d compare him to a rookie Peyton Manning.
That’s the GOOD news for the Cowboys.
The bad? Well, the REAL Michael Vick plays in the division with the Eagles, and two-time Super Bowl champion Eli Manning runs the offense for the Giants. The Cowboys are going to need that “Four Corner Defense” against these guys, but at least they’ve apparently really beefed up their pass defense.
On the other side of the ball, they still have issues. They’ve got a good young tackle in Tyron Smith, who is probably their best offensive lineman and can be penciled in to start at LT while 2011 LT Doug Free moves to the right side. That gives them a solid if unspectacular duo to protect against the outside rush.
The inside is another matter. I had Stanford guard David DeCastro go to the ‘boys in round one of my 2012 Mock Draft since Claiborne and Barron would have been gone by then, but ALL offensive linemen slid down the charts. Dallas’ loss became the OL-needy Pittsburgh Steelers‘ gain.
However, it’s very difficult to mock drafts now that the rookie wage scale is in place. Teams feel much freer to move up and down the board for a particular player or to get more bodies depending on their overall roster situation.
The inside trio is going to be much harder to project, but suffice it to say they have no big talent there. Names like Phil Costa, Kevin Kowalski aren’t exactly household names, and they added free agents Mackenzy Bernadeau and Nate Livings in the offseason. They’re going to need to find 3 guys with good chemistry with the tackles to solidify things and that takes time. They don’t have the depth to afford any injuries, and that’s a problem.
Another problem with depth they have is at wide receiver. Since they let Laurent Robinson walk via free agency to the Jags, they’re left with only 3 players that caught a pass in 2011 – Miles Austin and Dez Bryant are the 2 starters on the outside, and you can write that in granite.
What about the slot or their 3rd WR? That’ll fall to Kevin Ogletree with his blistering 2011 season of 15 catches for 164 yards an no TDs.
After that? The cupboard is completely bare.
They do still have the most reliable and dependable TE in the NFL over the past 5 seasons in Jason Witten. He’s had 900+ yards receiving in each of his last 5 years and has only missed a single game his entire career. As long as they don’t have any injuries AT ALL on offense, they should be okay.
History says differently. Players do get injured in the NFL all the time and the Cowboys’ backfield is no exception. RB Felix Jones hasn’t been able to stay healthy in any of his first few seasons and last year’s rookie surprise, Demarco Murray, had several monster games before he got injured as well. They have talent at the skill positions, just no depth.
Considering the fact they play in the toughest division in the NFL and did do a lot for the pass defense over the offseason as well as attempt to shore up their interior OL, they’ve done about all they could reasonably do to improve their team. They just have too many holes to fill at once but took care of some of that. The defense should be the strength of their squad this season.
DeMarcus Ware is an All-Pro at the weakside linebacker spot and they signed Dan Connor, a very good but injury-prone ILB, during the offseason from the Carolina Panthers. Sean Lee joins him inside and Anthony Spencer, the strongside OLB/DE, returns under the franchise tag. Very solid group, but again – if they stay healthy, but have a little depth.
The defensive tackles include Jay Ratliff, Kenyon Coleman, and a 3rd-year pro with immense physical skills in Sean Lissemore. Marcus Spears is a good run anchor as I’ve mentioned, and Jason Hatcher, Anthony Spencer, and Bruce Carter round out a deep rotation between the DL and OLB sub-packages. This team has a very good defensive front seven with a lot of depth and with good, versatile players for their 3-4 set.
With that in mind, I think they….
are standing still. I would say they took a step forward if they played in the AFC East, West or NFC West but they don’t. I think they’ll lack the offensive firepower to push past teams in the division and may actually wind up winning a game or two with their defense, unlike last season. However, they’ve not improved their offense much. If they can keep Romo upright, healthy, and get SOMETHING out of some of those WRs on the depth chart, that’ll be the best they can hope for.
Better in the secondary and pass rush, but less talent to work with on the offense. It’s a wash, but keep eyes on those receivers in the preseason. If someone breaks out, that could make the difference. They’re close, but likely another year away from the playoffs. Jason Garrett’s seat will feel a lot warmer after this season in which they should finish around .500, plus or minus a game in the murderous NFC East.
Next up: the Denver Broncos.