Showing posts with label 2012 NFL free agency. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 2012 NFL free agency. Show all posts

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Cowboys' Makeover At Guard

The Cowboys were certainly active during free agency in the first week in adding a number of pieces to their roster. One player is a premium free agent, Brandon Carr, that anyone in the league would have been thrilled to add. The others consist of a number of bargain basement additions that either did not cause a ripple around the league or in the case of Nate Livings, the guard from Cincinnati baffled many who thought that a 5 year/$19 million deal ($6.2 guaranteed) was way above market value for a player of his performance.

Over the weekend, I looked carefully at the play of Livings and the other guard the Cowboys signed, an even more anonymous Mackenzy Bernadeau from Carolina for 4 years/$11 million (4.25 guaranteed). Here is what we were able to figure out.

First, to properly compare these two replacements with those who came before them, let us look at what the Cowboys did at guard in 2011. At right guard for all 16 games was the old war horse, Kyle Kosier. Kosier, 6'5, 309, has done everything he can to keep his body holding together for the cause, but as he approaches 34 years old, it becomes more and more obvious that his body just cannot withstand the punishment that a 5 month meat grinder in the trenches asks of him.

2011 might have been his roughest as a Cowboy, and although he can play for me any day with his toughness and resolve, it is difficult to make the case that the timing wasn't right for the Cowboys to look in a different direction. I wasn't worried about any cap savings in the move, but the Cowboys tried to prolong his run here for another year and I have no beef with them trying to get a replacement.

Left guard was a mess, as well. When the Cowboys said goodbye to Leonard Davis (also the right call), they moved Kosier from left guard to right guard and tried to replace the LG spot internally with very young and unregarded rookies. First, Bill Nagy was overmatched early, then Derrick Dockery looked finished in his limited action, then Montrae Holland walked right in off the street and played very well for 10 weeks, but was lost to injury on Christmas Eve and finally, Kevin Kowalski tried to plug in at guard in Week 17 at NY and was thrown around like a rag doll.

In total, the interior of the Cowboys line in 2011 was an unmitigated mess. Both guard positions were poor (save for Holland's 10 week span of playing well) and the center position was very poor, too, with Phil Costa trying to withstand players with seemingly gigantic strength advantages.

So, enter the battle plan for the 2012 offseason. A few months back, the name Carl Nicks went quickly to the top of the wish lists for many of us who understand what an elite player could do for this offensive line inside. Tampa Bay paid the man 5 years/$47 million to add to their promising line, and the Cowboys never entered the bidding. Instead, they used their limited cap space to add a cornerback, and any observer of the Cowboys can hardly argue with filling that hole as a top priority. But, that does still leave this considerable issue in front of Tony Romo.

First, Nate Livings. He is 6'4, 310 pounds, and has primarily been a left guard for the Bengals. He has been a starter and has kept himself pretty healthy so the idea of getting a big body that you can count on is worth something. But, beyond that, I am a bit puzzled at what made the Cowboys rush out and put 5 years and a fair amount of cash on this guy at the start of free agency. He has many characteristics of a guard that you might want to replace. He is on the ground a lot, meaning he is losing battles and losing his balance. This is a problem Leonard Davis had because he would often be plugging holes for his own runner by falling in the path. On pulling plays, he does win a reasonable amount, but it is far from a regular event. He is often stood up at the point of attack which is uncommon for a pulling guard who is getting a running start to the collision. Sometimes, he is being stood up by a linebacker with which he severely holds a weight advantage.

Livings plays high, and in football at the line of scrimmage, that is not something that is a plus. Low man wins, and he is often not very low. In pass protection his feet do not look quick enough to deal with stunts, as Jeremy Mincey destroyed him on an inside stunt in Week 5. As most guards, he is as good in pass protection as can be expected as long as he doesn't get exposed in space. If the gaps widen out, he is in trouble, and Antonio Smith of Houston was able to make that happen in the playoffs. With the run, he can be decent, but there are plays where the man across from him shoots a gap to either side of Livings and the guard has no chance and either holds or gets beat badly.

In general, he is just not that impressive. I am hoping the Cowboys know something that we don't, but on the surface, yes, he is younger and yes, he is healthier. But, he is not better than Montrae Holland from what I could tell, and I am a bit puzzled at the signing. Time will tell, but I would keep my bar low on this signing.

Now, Mackenzy Bernadeau (6'4, 308) from Carolina, who will be 26 years old next season. Bernadeau had limited action in 2011, playing as a backup guard for the Panthers behind Travelle Wharton. Ironically enough, Wharton has just signed a 6 year/$35 million deal to replace Livings in Cincinnati. Small world.

Bernadeau is a player that has started in the past and did not look the part. However, in limited action in 2011, he replaced Wharton who had slid out to left tackle and Bernadeau performed quite well. It was just 125 snaps or so, but in watching him, he looked the part of a promising young guard who might be ready to play well.

His run blocking was strong and he was able to hold his blocks better than Livings. His pass protection was hard work, but he held his own pretty well. Again, a very small sample size, but he may be a developmental player who has developed enough to be worth the shot. Of course, the fact that Carolina didn't fight hard to keep him when losing Wharton should make us slow our optimism a bit. But, I like the signing at the price and think he has a good shot to be ok.

Let's not lose focus on the draft as well. This is one of the deepest guard drafts in a while, with many players we think could step right in and start available in the top 100 picks. If the Cowboys decide to go that route, they might have a strong interior. In fact, one source indicated to me that center is a possibility for Bernadeau if they did select a guard in the top few rounds. Or, they could pick one of the few top centers and fix that spot as well.

Make no mistake, this is not fixed. But, it should be improved from 2011.

Unfortunately, that accomplishment alone would not say much.

Plenty more work to be done.

Friday, March 16, 2012

A Cowboys Week of Activity In Review

The NFL offseason is now cruising by at a rapid pace. The news brings new developments on a seemingly daily basis, and I have been scolded by many of my readers for not weighing in each day on the developments. I do, but usually do so on twitter (@sportssturm) and can only break out full-length blogs when time permits. And guess what? Today, time permits. So, let's catch up by starting with the decision to franchise Anthony Spencer and comment on everything that has happened since:

ITEM: Anthony Spencer franchised by Cowboys for $8.8m in 2012.

Take: By now, you know my position on this, I should hope. If not, read this and this. The short conclusion is that the Cowboys had no choice. Unlike those who stop thinking through the issue after they declare Spencer is not worth $8.8 million, the Cowboys had to ponder the idea of finding someone to play the position without using all of their offseason resources to do it. Again, you are over-paying Spencer. But, that is a payment toward the sins of not drafting properly. But, in March of 2012, you either throw him away and hope Victor Butler can handle things, or you pay your penalty and move on. I expect that he will be extended if the price can be seen to drop the 2012 cap hit to $2-3m, but perhaps they are willing to make him play with no security beyond 2012 and look to find his replacement during the season. Although that would require the ability to find and groom his replacement, and if they could do that, then they wouldn't be franchising him in the first place.

ITEM: Cowboys penalized by the NFL $10m for 2010 cap infractions.

Take: This is maddening on a number of levels and I think the league may ultimately issue some level of compromise. In the meantime, the Cowboys cash strapped environment will be tested further by these alleged infractions. Frankly, the assertion that the Cowboys and Redskins were "cheating" is ridiculous and perhaps their only infraction is that they did not participate in an unspoken level of collusion. Regardless, challenging the authority of Roger Goodell is not a successful hobby for very many people in the NFL, and the Cowboys might have been made an example. One really has to wonder about the timing of the ruling. For instance, if the ruling had come down 1 week earlier, I don't think the Cowboys would have made the same decision with the franchise tag. That isn't to say that they would have given up on Spencer, but they might have worked harder to get a 3 or 4 year deal that would have spread out his cap hit. But now, they tied up a ton of money in Spencer and had the NFL take much of the rest. Even if the decision by the NFL is a righteous one, there is little basis for the announcement of an infraction from 2010 being given the day before free agency opens. That almost seems cruel and unusual.

ITEM: Cowboys cut Newman, Buehler; non-tender Fiammetta, Ogletree, Holley

Take: These moves help the team open up cap room to do deals that we will get to in a moment. The initial cuts of Newman and Buehler are both easy decisions. As much as anyone can love what Newman brought to the table for much of his career, he was always paid to be an elite cornerback. And the fact is for much of his career he was not elite. With annual money near $500k per game, the decision to cut him loose was delayed a year when they could not find his replacement last summer. But, this year, they realized that paying a guy like Brandon Carr $10m hurts, but not nearly as much if you consider he costs only $2m more than Newman. Buehler should have been gone last summer, too, but Jerry Jones seemed to be reluctant to admit that mistake. As for the tenders, it seems extremely curious to cut ties with Fiammetta when you were only talking about a $1.24m tender. After finding his replacement in free agency, they likely only saved about 200k, so I am not too sure the point to that. On the other hand, after the $5m cap penalty in 2012, maybe every 200k matters. Ogletree and Holley are lower level players that should be easily replaced by a warm body in camp.

ITEM: Cowboys get their #1 free agent target, Brandon Carr - 5 year/$50.1m

Take: Brilliant work by the Cowboys to target a player, find him to be their guy, and then pounce at 3pm on the opening day of free agency to get a signature. Yes, it is more than they wanted to pay, but you will not find sales when you shop on the opening day of free agency. Here is my full breakdown of Brandon Carr from last week here and here. He was quite expensive, but he now gives the Cowboys a top corner who is really strong in press coverage. And that is important because your defense is predicated on corners who can press and be physical and that wasn't really the specialty of Newman against big receivers. Now, the Cowboys should be able to get in your face on the edges and send more blitzes to make the defense really click. And, given his age, you can feel really good about his upside for the next 5 seasons. It is a ton of money, but I like the move and more importantly, I like the Cowboys having a plan and accomplishing said plan.

ITEM: Cowboys lose Laurent Robinson to Jacksonville for 5 year/$32.5m

Take: Really, all you need to know here is that somebody wanted Robinson so badly that they made him an offer over $30 million. He was great for the Cowboys in 2011, but let's not get carried away. 850 yards is a great trick, but nothing special. In fact, well over 30 receivers in football had that number last season, and due to the run on receivers in free agency where Pierre Garcon was paid well over value, it bumped everyone up. Robinson won the lottery, but that doesn't mean the Cowboys should get in on this type of over-payment for a 3rd receiver. If you think that he is better than Bryant or Austin, then the problems are actually bigger than we thought. But, I have no problem with the Cowboys offering him a fair price (4 year/$16m) and then seeing the bidding going crazy and moving on. The only losers here are guys like Jordy Nelson who signed an extension early with Green Bay (3 year/$13.5 million) and then lost out on the free agency bonanza. Nelson must think he missed out on $50 million if he would have hit free agency given what Robinson was paid. Good for Laurent who was cut just a few months back and now has hit the jackpot, but the Cowboys - regardless of the cap situation - could not bid in that area for a 3rd WR.

ITEM: Cowboys sign FB Vickers, LB Conner, FS Pool, G Bernadeau, QB Orton in free agency

Take: This is a lot of activity for a team with no cap room. Let's keep in mind that none of these players were clear starters on their own team. Pool played full time due to injury on the Jets. Conner is a guy who can be a full timer if he can stay healthy. And the rest of the players will play part-time roles. Orton is a big price to pay for a back-up, but at the same time, the Cowboys are wise to be fortified behind Tony Romo with quality. I would imagine some of these moves tell us what we need to know about Stephen McGee (gone?), Bruce Carter (not ready) and the interior offensive line. I expect that guard/center becomes a real high priority in the draft now, as Carl Nicks was never in the price range if the Cowboys could only afford one premium free agent.

Summary: Quite a week for the franchise, with plenty of work yet to do. They have done a nice job with little money, but are they better? They have not done anything to the biggest weaknesses on the team - the pass rush and pass protection in the middle of the line - save for the improved corner play that they expect Carr to bring. But, it is just March 16, so they have some time to figure things out.

Interesting items and they have accomplished a fair amount. Now, we begin to ponder what they have ahead of them with plenty of work left ahead.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

The Case for Cortland Finnegan


The following is part 2 of a 2-part series, where we take a look at the two most likely candidates to be the Cowboys top target in free agency as they attempt to fix their cornerback issues. Yesterday, we looked hard at Brandon Carr of Kansas City in the same manner. Today, it is Tennessee's Cortland Finnegan:

Cortland Finnegan - Samford - Born February 2, 1984

If the comparison between Brandon Carr and Cortland Finnegan went by name recognition, we could end the study right now. Finnegan is well-known around the NFL with all of his moments that have been shown over and over again, both showing his excellence and his emotional boiling point which does not seem particularly difficult to achieve. More on that in a moment.

Jeff Fisher and the Tennessee Titans front office may not be thought of as the best developers of Quarterback play after the Vince Young experiment, but if there is one thing that organization understands, it is defense. And the cornerback position in general is something that any team can be jealous of. Last season, they had 3 corners that played the vast majority of their snaps. Finnegan was taken #215 of the 2006 draft. He was joined by Jason McCourty who was #203 in 2009 and Alterraun Verner who was the high pick of the three, taken #104 in 2010. And because they keep finding starting caliber corners deep in the draft, they allow them to replace the older, more expensive models on an annual basis rather than pay them the going rate of strong, veteran corners. And that is how they can elect to allow Finnegan, a team captain in 2011, to take his talents elsewhere next week.

Finnegan at 5'10 (if he is lucky) and weighing 190 (barely) is a smallish-to-average sized corner by many standards and certainly not imposing in the NFL. But, when it comes to a player who is willing to give you every ounce of battle and effort and to sacrifice his body to make a play while fighting for every last inch of real estate, I think you would be hard pressed to find anything better than Finnegan.

Like Carr, he entered the league without any regard to speak of. His size and 4.54 time in the 40-yard dash was rather unremarkable and being another small college guy (Samford), he was a guy who many teams didn't even have on their board. Here is his draft profile from Sports Illustrated:


POSITIVES: Athletic prospect with marginal size. Instinctive and quickly locates the ball. Explodes up the field in run defense, works hard in coverage and has a quick break to the play. Tenacious punt returner who follows blocks throughout the play.

NEGATIVES: Undersized, not strong at the point and has tackles broken. Struggles in man coverage when his back is to the ball.

ANALYSIS: A high-revving defender, Finnegan would be an asset on special teams in the NFL. Undrafted Free Agent


Since joining the league, he has only returned punts rarely, and has stopped altogether in recent years. But, that has more to do with establishing his play as a corner back who never backs down to anyone. As a cover man, he is certainly not a shut-down corner. He is a ball hawk and a battler, but he will be beaten his share, especially when he is going up against the large receivers. In fact, his tactics occasionally resemble Terence Newman on the outside when he is in off-and-soft man coverage, allowing a 8 yard cushion and then in a back pedal that allows the rather easy pitch and catch 20 yard out when the timing is right.

There is a lot of information going around the internet these days about Finnegan, including the claim that he is strictly a slot corner in Tennessee. I can tell you after watching much of his season this week that this is just not true. Yes, he does play in the slot a fair amount, but in normal personal packages, he is out on the edge all by himself doing what corners do. He played more than any Tennessee defender, so to compare his 1142 snaps with Orlando Scandrick's 679 as I have seen done this week is just crazy talk. Yes, he will play in the slot a lot. But, he can and will also play out wide and handle himself just fine.

But, I will admit that as an outside corner, he is above average, but not excellent. As a slot corner, he is very good and the type of guy who you can really see as an asset against the likes of Victor Cruz. He also can and will blitz and is equally effective in run blitz situations where he often blows up running plays with his reckless abandon. Where he gets into trouble in the slot is when teams get him to lock up with a tight end. Then, the size disadvantage - especially near the goal-line - can get him into trouble with 6'5 tight ends who weigh over 250 pounds. Joel Dreessen posted him up in Houston for a TD and Matt Willis (who is not terribly big) blocked off Finnegan inside the 5 as well for Denver. But, those were the only two touchdowns he allowed all year.

It certainly must be said that his emotional edge is something that is both attractive and disconcerting. I say that because he might be exactly what the defense needs as an emotional voice with a decorated resume that could not only lead by example but also challenge with his voice and perhaps inspire those who can go either way with their resolve to press forward. On the other hand, his repeated fights and losses of composure look to be both a headache and a bothersome habit that could rob you of one of your best players as he gets himself ejected. He is willing to fight and walking a fine line. His battles with Andre Johnson are legendary, and he has had a handful of other incidents that has made his name a regular at the league offices. Most of those incidents happened in 2010, which also was statistically his worst year. That may not be a coincidence.

He is as amped up as any player you watch, and that helps because he is often playing in games where his team was out of the game quite early. But, there is Finnegan, playing as if each play had the game on the line. Watching him run down plays from behind when he is on the other side of the field as he did against Pittsburgh on a long Jonathan Dwyer run was impressive to show that he was never conceding an inch. His motor is always running and he is not averse to taking on bigger players to make a play. There really are few equals in the NFL where you can find a player of his stature never back down to anything, including a 320 pound pulling guard trying to run him over. He is up for any challenge, and when he is in charge of his emotions, he is a very valuable player. And, he specializes in making his opponent lose their composure in the process.

At the same time, he has had some very good seasons and some very ordinary seasons. In 2011, his statistical year was really good, as he allowed only 456 yards while playing 1,142 plays. You will not see that ratio much. However, he did not spend a lot of time locking down premier receivers. Tennessee had him moving around a lot, almost like Green Bay did with Charles Woodson, and left the close cover match ups to the other capable corners. It is a nice luxury that the Titans had, but in Dallas, they will want him to be able to fix the inability to cover for long swaths of the game.

Here are his 4-year stats from www.profootballfocus.com:



YearSnapsCompAttYardsQB Rating
20081010477959956.9
2009864427252861.6
201012097010579497.1
20111142528245681.1

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Summary: Finnegan would immediately be the Cowboys' best corner, but I do think his cover ability on the edge should not be over-solid as nothing better than solid. However, his versatility to play a dangerous role as a slot/blitzer type where he can be a playmaker is appealing, but to accomplish that fully, you might consider taking a corner in the draft in the 1st or 2nd round as well, while attempting to move Scandrick to the edge (which has been speculated recently anyway as a plan the Cowboys think is reasonable). Finnegan's appeal is largely based on his intangibles, where he can not only play corner for you, but perhaps immediately move into a leadership role and an emotional conscience for many of his mates. This should not be underestimated, but it should also not cost $45 million to fill that role. He has a very talented skill set, but he also has to be used properly.

So, Carr or Finnegan?

In my mind, after watching them both carefully, I give the edge to Carr for 3 reasons. His age (2 years younger), his size, and his superior cover skills in a press cover situation against another team's top wide out. Carr does not tackle or blitz like Finnegan, and he also does not possess those leadership intangibles. Of course, he will never get ejected for punching a player, either, if history is our guide. I love Finnegan's physical play, but I wonder if you can give a guy who plays like "every game is his last" can hold up physically at that size for 5 years at big money, too.

Either player will be a big acquisition that will improve this defense as the team moves on from Newman. I would think the Cowboys will negotiate with both to attempt to keep the prices in check by leveraging each against the other. But, if forced to choose, I would prefer to play even a little more to get the bigger Brandon Carr.

The Case for Brandon Carr


The following is part 1 of a 2-part series, where we take a look at the two most likely candidates to be the Cowboys top target in free agency as they attempt to fix their cornerback issues. Tomorrow, we will break down Cortland Finnegan in the same manner, and attempt to render a decision.

Brandon Carr - Grand Valley State - Born: May 19, 1986

As the 5th round of the 2008 NFL Draft was starting, most football fans had found something else to do with their time. Drafts carry big ratings numbers and intrigue early on, but the late stages are only for the hardest of hard core folks, and the people that make or break their personnel department careers on finding gems when 135 players have already been picked over in the first 4 rounds.

The Cowboys picked 8th in the 5th round, and had already taken a cornerback in the 1st round (Mike Jenkins) and wanted to find some more depth now in the 5th. The fifth pick of the round was Kansas City, who also selected a cornerback earlier in the weekend, when they snagged Brandon Flowers with the 35th pick of the draft. And with pick #140, they found their other starting corner for the next 4 years, another Brandon, Brandon Carr of Grand Valley State. Zack Bowman went to the Bears at #142 and then the Cowboys took Orlando Scandrick at #143. We will never know if the Cowboys were annoyed Carr or Bowman were gone when they went on the clock, but now the possibility exists that the Cowboys top 3 corners in 2012 could all be from the 2008 draft.

Carr was so underwhelming as a small college prospect that he was not invited to the 2008 NFL Combine, nor did he warrant even a mention in the Our Lads Draft Guide for the 2008 season. They did list his 40 time from his pro day as 4.47, his height at 6'0 and his weight at 205. Here is a brief synopsis of his draft scouting report from the league's website:


Positives: Prototypical size for corner, tall with decent build and nice arm span. ... Shows good hands for the interception and can high-point the ball. ... Turns and runs with receivers well, showing good speed and the ability to maintain position. ... Plays in the slot at times, but is best on the outside.

Negatives: A better athlete than football player. ... Does not play as physically or aggressively as you'd like with his size. ... He does not press much and is only adequate coming up in run support or getting off receiver blocks. ... Marginal backpedal, and plays a bit high. ... Rough transition against smaller, quicker receivers.


Since draft day of 2008, he has played 4,242 snaps for the Chiefs as a starting corner who has hardly left the field. He has been healthy, effective, and improving each season. In 2009, league QB's had a 99.7 rating when passing at him. IN 2010, it dropped to below the league average at 80.4, and this year it was way near the bottom at 61.7. Cynics will point out that he has enjoyed a steady diet of QBs from Oakland and Denver recently, including two Tim Tebow starts as well as a chance to play Curtis Painter, Caleb Hanie, and even Donovan McNabb in Minnesota. But, the counter to that is that this season the Chiefs also dealt with Matthew Stafford, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady, and of course, Phil Rivers twice each season.

I will be the first to admit that my NFC leanings have not led me to very much of his work that comes quickly to mind, so I took it upon myself to spend the last few days watching as many of his snaps and moments in 2011 that I could fit in. Easily viewing hundreds of his snaps has allowed me to draw some conclusions from both the television copies and some time with the "full 22" copies so that we can see how he looks when he leaves the screen of the networks. I am certainly no football coach, but I have learned that simply observing a player with your own eyes and ideas of what the position calls for can help anyone figure out their own opinion of a player rather than counting on someone else to do it for them and regurgitate opinions or try to apply meaning to statistics.

Carr is a very impressive player, and as anyone who follows the Cowboys can imagine, his 6'0 frame while weighing almost 210 is a welcome change from the normally 5'9 corners the Cowboys seem to routinely run out over the last few seasons. Size matters in this league and although the Eagles employ midget receivers, the Giants do not, and Hakeem Nicks is just 10 months older than Dez Bryant, so he is not going anywhere for a while. It might make a lot of sense to get a corner who has a nice combination of size and speed.

Carr has real good wheels for a player his size and was only beaten over the top one time all season from what I saw. Devin Aromashodu did beat him for a perfectly executed "go" route in Week 4 as McNabb laid a great pass over the top, but that was it. Otherwise, most completions against Carr were either quick outs when the Chiefs were in a soft zone or comebacks as Carr cheats to the over-the-top moves (which is always a reasonable plan when you have no safety help). The other thing that teams seemed to use against him were simple drag routes and the Patriots ran plenty of tight ends at him on the Monday Night in Foxboro.

He had just one game all season where at team found over 60 yards at his expense. Detroit completed 4 of 6 passes at Carr for 70 yards, but otherwise, he held everyone to very little. Brandon Marshall gave Carr issues with his underneath work due to Marshall's strength, but Carr can overpower just about everyone who was thrown at him.

As the season went along (perhaps the coaching change influenced this, but I do not pretend to know all the nuances of the Chiefs' 2011 season), Kansas City switched their coverages from plenty of zone to a ton of press coverage man-to-man. Brandon Flowers and Brandon Carr both look better in the press situations, and maybe his best game was against the Jets where he was pressing Santonio Holmes and Plaxico Burress all day and held the Jets to no completions at him the entire game. Then, the next week, Aaron Rodgers threw 6 balls at Carr, completing just 1 for 8 yards. His final 5 weeks totaled the following incredible stat-line: 5 completions surrendered on 21 attempts at his man, for just 51 yards total and 2 Interceptions for a QB rating of 0. That's right, 0, against Caleb Hanie, Mark Sanchez, Aaron Rodgers, Carson Palmer, and Tim Tebow.

Carr is a strong cover man, but we should be clear that he is not a blitzing player on any level. He rushed the passer 1 time in 2011 in 1,030 snaps. The Chiefs just left their two outside corners out to cover (Flowers never blitzed).

Another thing, I have heard many people bring up Brandon Flowers as the Chiefs true #1 corner. And that is clear when they paid him last September with a 6-year, $49.3 million deal. But, on the field, Flowers wasn't always taking the best receiver. The Chiefs lined up Flowers to the left side and Carr to the right side on virtually every snap I watched. There was no straight match-ups, it was purely based on the side of the field, so I don't buy that Flowers always took the #1 receiver. I saw Carr against everyone.

Carr is just 25 years old, and he will turn 26 in May. He is not completely perfect, as his interest in being a big contributor in stopping the run seems to be modest at best. He will tackle when called upon, but he is certainly not pushing people out of the way to get a running back to the ground. But, he is a press corner who seems to enjoy turning and running with a receiver as a shadow.

I am a little concerned about his 4 year trend (see below) as it speaks of either a contract year performance or the natural progression of a corner figuring things out as he becomes a veteran. Unfortunately, you will need to pay between $40 and $50 million to find out which it is. Stats courtesy of www.profootballfocus.com



YearSnapsCompAttYardsQB Rating
20081041639575488.7
20091088488572099.1
201010835011076780.4
20111030397951161.7

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So, is he as good as he was in 2011 at the age of 25? And can we consider those numbers relevant in the NFC East?

Summary: He is not Darrell Revis. The idea that signing him would instantly make the Cowboys a team that has Deion Sanders in his prime shutting down one side of the field is silly. But, he would be a great addition as a big corner who loves press coverage and that won't back down to physical receivers, but also doesn't seem to get beat over the top. He is not going to shut them down, but he will hold his own. He is going to be very expensive as he has everything going for him, including position scarcity, size, and age. It seems the going rate for strong corners in free agency is about 5 years/$50 million, and I believe he will get close to that. if the Cowboys get him in here, I think they will be very pleased.

But, is he the perfect and ideal fit? Let's look at Cortland Finnegan tomorrow, before we answer that last question.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Free Agency Shopping List

Free Agency is an expensive place to shop. And contrary to the popular belief around the league about the "crazy spending Jerry Jones", since the ground was broken on his new stadium in Arlington, the Cowboys have spent the bulk of their cash on re-signing their own free agents and the art work at the new palace (as well as tv repairs for the most expensive and over the top television in history).

A quick review of the last 5 seasons of free agency will show that the Cowboys have not stolen headlines since the purchase of "Bigg", Leonard Davis from Arizona, 5 years ago this week:

2007:
Leonard Davis - 3/4/2007 signed a 7-year, $49m contract
Ken Hamlin - 3/24/2007 signed a 1-year, $2.5m contract

2008:
None

2009:
Keith Brooking - 2/28/2009 signed a 3-year, $6m contract
Igor Olshansky - 3/6/2009 signed a 4-year, $18m contract
Gerald Sensabaugh - 3/9/2009 signed a 1-year, $1.75m contract

2010:
None

2011:
Kenyon Coleman - 7/30/2011 signed a 2-year, $3.75m contract
Abram Elam - 8/3/2011 signed a 1-year, $2.5m contract


When the signing of Igor Olshansky is the single biggest piece of free agency business that Jones has completed in 5 years, you know that he is itching to do something splashy in about a week when the window goes up for crazy spending around the league.

The Cowboys are not near the top of the league in available cap room, but they are among the short list of teams that think they are not too far from being able to compete. This logic could very well be faulty, but if you consider that the primes of Tony Romo, DeMarcus Ware, Jay Ratliff, and Jason Witten is not going to last forever, you can understand an urgency to get this thing figured out in a very short period of time. The Cowboys cannot afford the patient approach without turning over the top of their roster. They will not and should not do that, so pushing some chips toward the middle of the table for the short term seems like a reasonable strategy.

As free agency and the draft arrive, it seems obvious to target the gigantic holes on the roster. This team desperately needs help at cornerback, as Terence Newman needs to be replaced, and next year at this time the Cowboys will have to make a decision on the future of Mike Jenkins (if you think the Anthony Spencer dilemma is a difficult one, just wait until we get to the Jenkins debate). They also really need to add interior offensive line and I would always love to upgrade both of the players who surround Jay Ratliff on the defensive line. In a perfect world, I would add a prototypical nose tackle to allow Ratliff freedom to be moved up and down the line on early downs against the run, but I don't think I want to pay someone near the age of 30 to do that, so I would prefer to find that speed bump in the draft where he has his whole career ahead of him (and reasonable paychecks in the short-term, too).

But, free agency is where I need to plug at least one of my major needs: Cornerback and/or Guard/Center. If the Cowboys can find a plan where they can get both, then I will absolutely be impressed (assuming they get quality).

Back in January, I pledged my regard for Carl Nicks of New Orleans. If you want a breakdown of his skills, make sure you give that a read when you get the chance. Beyond Nicks, who will require around $50 million when it is all said and done, there are a few other options (like Ben Grubbs, Baltimore), but Nicks is about it for elite play at guard.

The Cowboys could also look at center, as Green Bay's Scott Wells and Houston's Chris Myers, and both would make a fair amount of sense. But, both are on the wrong side of 30 years old, and therefore I would like to avoid large free agent purchases where you are not considering the long-term future of the core of this team if it can be avoided.

However, where I want to spend a lot of time focusing over the next week is figuring out which way the Cowboys should be steering in free agency when it comes to fixing the cornerback position. Here is the current group with ages based on opening day, 2012:


NameAgeHt/Wt2011 Snaps
T Newman345'10/193829
O Scandrick255'10/192679
M Jenkins275'10/190608
A Ball276'2/197498

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This group did not have a very good year by just about any measurement. It should be argued that their job would be significantly easier if the Cowboys had more of a pass rush than Ware and hope, but, that is the job in Dallas for now so the Cowboys have to either figure out how to find pass rushers or better cover guys (or both). The only corner they are married to is Orlando Scandrick on a 5-year, $27m deal that was signed last fall. That is approaching starter money, but since you need 3 corners in this league who will all play a ton of snaps, the Scandrick deal is not terrible.

Newman is very likely to be cut loose, but the cap savings will not be substantial given his 3 years left of bonus money, although the Cowboys can spread it out into 2013 if they cut him after June 1. Ball is an unrestricted free agent is who is not likely to be kept, either. Jenkins expires next season, and the Cowboys cannot be sure he is a guy to spend large amounts of cash on, given his inconsistent play, aversion to contact, and durability issues.

That is why addressing this spot cannot be over-stated. It must happen. In fact, if the Cowboys signed a free agent AND used a top draft pick on a corner as well, I would not complain. We will cover the draft more in weeks to come, but let's look at the top CB free agents according to most experts' lists:


NameAgeHt/Wt2011 Snaps
B Carr266'0/2071,030
C Finnegan285'10/1881,142
C Rogers316'0/1921,024
L Webb265'10/182993

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Given familiarity of the NFC East, I have seen enough of Carlos Rogers over the years to scratch him off my list, despite a fantastic year in San Francisco. His age also is something I don't want to continue to concern myself with in the secondary, so that cuts this list to 3.

Lardarius Webb of Baltimore is another interesting player, but he is simply a restricted free agent and thus comes with some level of matching rights and compensation, so I would prefer to steer clear of a player like that as well, despite his very impressive resume in 2011.

That leaves Brandon Carr of Kansas City and Cortland Finnegan of the Tennessee Titans as the two most attractive and obvious choices for the Cowboys. In the remaining days this week, I want to break down both players by watching a few hundred snaps of each from 2011 and see if we can arrive at a consensus on which player is more worth the huge chunk of cash that will be required to get either. You can believe they are both eyeing the $50 million barrier, so the Cowboys need to get this choice right. Let's see if we can do the same in our study of Carr and Finnegan for Thursday and Friday here on the blog.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Franchise Tag Day Is Here

Just hours remain now before the 3pm deadline for the franchise tag to be applied to impending free agents around the national football league. This blog has been a place that has written plenty about the Cowboy's options, and the wisest decision was concluded here long ago that the Cowboys should apply the tag to outside linebacker Anthony Spencer.

There is no question that this is being considered about as insane as the last two times the Cowboys arrived at such a decision - with Flozell Adams (2002) and Ken Hamlin (2008). Because in each case, the player was certainly not an elite player at his position, nor the very definition of the words "Franchise Player". However, it is merely a label that explains the original intent of the rule, not the present way it is used around the league as the annual safe-guard for making sure teams don't lose their best free agent without some resistance.

It should also be noted that the Cowboys with Adams and Hamlin used the tag simply to obtain leverage against a player in a negotiation. Let's look at that with Spencer.

Say they have offered Spencer 5 years, $30 million, with $15 guaranteed for a long term extension (it should be noted that I am absolutely picking those numbers out of mid-air and have no insight as to whether this is actually being discussed. Just an educated guess). He is right to wonder if there is a better offer out there among the 31 other teams, given that now that a few other players have been taken off the market. If he squints really hard, he can see how his agent could make the case he is one of the very best free agents at the position to hit the streets on March 13th.

So, when Spencer compares 5/$30m with whatever his agent considers is the going rate (let's say 6/$40m), you can see how that camp would not be happy with the offer and hold tight to their demands that the Cowboys slide more money over to his side. But, he needs those imagined offers from other camps to build his case. Otherwise, once the tag is slapped on him, he realizes (whether he wants to or not) that his leverage has completely disappeared and now he must compare his two offers: 5/$30m or 1/$8.8m, both from the offices of Jerry and Stephen Jones.

And, like Flozell and Hamlin before him, he will likely be annoyed by that change in leverage (no mystery team with a large bid coming) but will come to his senses once he ponders the possibility of an injury or a down season in 2012. Usually, after his agent has tried every trick in the book to get the Jones family to bid against itself in the name of "doing the right thing", the player will take the offer by the mid-July deadline that had been on the table since mid-February. Again, I may have to dollars wrong, but this story is repeated every year around the league with few exceptions.

Hamlin and Adams then signed their deals for multi-years and the franchise tag had accomplished its goal and gone back in the cupboard. The players ultimately got their money, but not as much as they had originally dreamed. And the fans who gasped at the idea of terming Ken Hamlin as a "franchise player" went back to doing something else with their time.

If Spencer doesn't like the insult of 1 year/$8.8 million, then players need to remember to fight harder against that in the next CBA. But, they never agree on that sort of thing that applies to such a small percentage of players. In fact, most players would look at that one-year pay day as much more than they made in their entire careers. This is not something that gathers enough at the grass roots to get it to change. Of course, players can make much more if they have 32 bidders at the auction, but nobody is going to cry for a player like Spencer that has frankly disappointed during his career to this juncture.

His options remain, such as signing the 1-year tender with the condition that the Cowboys can not franchise him again next season. He can bet on himself and hit free agency next year with a lot of cash in his account and hope to hit it big next year. He can also choose to not sign the tender altogether and hope to force a trade with a hold-out, but it doesn't appear that Spencer is willing to do that. Players who have that amount of nerve better also have a playing resume that is unquestioned. Spencer is not in that class.

So, expect the tag today and an announcement of a 5-year deal in a few months. This allows the Cowboys to focus on a number of players who are of greater priority than Spencer.

Allow me to address one further argument against the franchise tag for Spencer. Many emailers will say that "this consumes a majority of the Cowboys' money to spend in this offseason". The idea is that the Cowboys have $17m in cap room, and if they spend $9m on Spencer, then they are pretty much done.

This is just not the case. The Cowboys have a number of deals that are easy to restructure. One phone call to Tony Romo's people can generate enough cap room to consume the entire Spencer deal by converting salary into bonus money with just his deal. DeMarcus Ware and Doug Free can also be used to find cash with great ease. The $17m in cap room is actually a lot closer to $30m plus if the Cowboys wish to use all of their resources to get things accomplished. And then, once Spencer does the inevitable, the ability to convert his $9m back into cap room would not be difficult (although not a cinch until he agrees) by training camp. It is simply the way to massage your money to make it work through the offseason.

The real way to blow through your money is to pay someone else for their OLB. That is not available for 1-year and would require a massive amount of cash outlay to make happen. It just isn't practical with so many other spots on your field that are real sore thumbs.

So, again, the money doesn't kill you. The player is in the upper half of your defensive starters (5th best at the very worst) and he is the right age. It doesn't prevent you from addressing the other spots that need addressing on the OL, DL, and secondary. I am not saying it is the move to build your season around, but, to me, it is a simple brick in the wall and many moves need to follow it.

Remember, it is a team game. You cannot change out 16 starters every year. You upgrade your weak links until the ensemble forms a workable unit. That is the goal for the Cowboys this spring. And Spencer can be part of that plan.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Think Like a General Manager

Today, we need distinguish the difference between fantasy football and real football from the standpoint of a general manager of one of 32 franchises. I believe a lot of the rhetoric that surrounds the offseason plans of the Dallas Cowboys is generally fun for fans and media to throw onto a wall and see if it sticks, but not practical to a real team that has to have every position fortified when the season begins or it will get a 5 month reminder that they made a really poor decision.

We can sit at a table over a beverage and a pizza and say that Terence Newman must go and that we don't care who replaces him in February. But, when the Cowboys have lost 3 out of 4 next September because they have no cornerbacks, we might care who is replacing him, right?

For instance, somewhere inside Valley Ranch, there were discussions last spring and summertime about the performance and future of long-time Dallas Cowboys center Andre Gurode. His play had been dropping from one of the better centers in the sport down to a guy who was sliding by on reputation. Poor shotgun snaps and occasionally being beaten on pass protection were reasonable critiques about a player that was in decline and commanded a pretty salty salary.

So, the decision was made that along with Marc Colombo and Leonard Davis, the Cowboys were going to jump into the deep end of the pool without a life preserver and release Gurode at the end of training camp. Surely, they thought that he could be replaced by "anyone" and that he was a guy that we will not miss.

In 2011, Gurode was picked up by Baltimore and did not play well. His decline did continue and he spent the end of the season watching the Ravens offense play from his spot in the sideline. Their evaluation of the direction of his career was not off at all. What was off was the players they had behind him who would snap the ball and center the Cowboys OL for 1,000+ plays in 2011. Phil Costa represented the "anyone" that they thought could replace Gurode, and they were badly mistaken. As declined as Gurode's play was in 2010, the drop off to Costa in 2011 was gigantic. Costa was over-matched in many games and made the middle of the Cowboys line a constant target for stunting and collapsing on run and pass plays alike.

The lesson learned there was simply this: If a player is only a "5 or 6" on the scale of 1-10, you can certainly get better if you replace him with an "8 or 9", but you will also really miss him if you replace him with a "2 or 3". In other words, you better have a plan in place when you want to get rid of one of your veterans, or you may find out that you actually could do worse than the guy you have at that position right now.

Which brings us to both the case of Newman (who I am certain will not be back) and the far more controversial discussion of what to do with Anthony Spencer.

I spent Saturday tweeting a bit about Spencer and here were some of my thoughts:

* I like Alabama's Courtney Upshaw to play OLB. However, he kinda reminds one of Anthony Spencer.

* And to be clear, I think Spencer is a good to pretty good LB and average pass rusher. Not bad, but not dynamite for sure.

* Look, we all want a bookend at OLB for Ware. Nobody is arguing that. But, you better have a plan for that spot, beyond "anybody".

I am certainly not sure that Twitter and 140 characters is the best way to discuss the play of a football player in proper detail, but I hope my point is clear from those tweets and this previous essay on Spencer; You better understand what he is and that what he is will not be replaced "with a warm body".

He is the 2nd OLB in a 3-4 defense and therefore should be compared to those in that same category. To compare him to other #1's like Brian Orakpo, Tamba Hali, or Cameron Wake is not practical. That is DeMarcus Ware's job. He matches up against the other guy, and let's see how that works. Let's look at the "2nd Best" in terms of sack totals that outperformed Spencer of the 3-4s in the NFL in 2011:


Player, TeamSacksTackles
Kerrigan, Wash940
Harrison, Pitt938
Taylor, Mia711
Spencer, Dal653

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That is your entire list of OLBs in 3-4 defenses (11 teams in NFL ran true 3-4s in 2011) that had more productive sack seasons than Anthony Spencer did in 2011. So, if you can get Ryan Kerrigan in here to replace Spencer, I would do that (of course, he is under contract in Washington for 4 more seasons). Jason Taylor is strictly a pass rusher and James Harrison is usually Pittsburgh's #1 but had a banged up season (LaMarr Woodley had 10 sacks). However, the 3-4s in San Francisco, Kansas City, Houston, San Diego, Green Bay, Arizona, and New York all had 2nd LBs that were either at Spencer's 6 or well below.

Obviously, this is not an apples to apples comparison. Some have dominant defensive lines (Arizona, San Francisco) and some have ensemble casts that use a strength in numbers attack.

But, the idea that a warm body can outperform every other 2nd LB in the scheme with the exception of those 3 teams seems worth noting. Next, look at the same category in 2010:


Player, TeamSacksTackles
Woodley, Pitt930
Spencer, Dal553

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So, again, if you can get Woodley to replace Spencer (like they did on draft day, 2007) then I recommend the Cowboys pull the trigger. Trouble is, Woodley has been signed in Pittsburgh for $60 million dollars. Below that, there are a number of #2 LBs who had between 3-5 sacks, but drastically fewer tackles and assists than Anthony Spencer.

The point of this exercise is to readily admit that you can do better than Anthony Spencer by acquiring a true #1 Linebacker opposite DeMarcus Ware. Of course, the costs will be substantial and we must remember that this is not fantasy football. In fantasy football, you acquire "pass rush specialists" at every spot an think you will get 100 sacks. But, in real football, if you don't have a player setting the edge and shutting down strong side rushing plays, then you get beat. Spencer, of all outside linebackers in the 3-4 in the last two seasons has more tackles than anyone. 53 in 2010 (ranked 2nd behind James Harrison) and 53 in 2011 (ranked 2nd behind Calvin Pace).

Is Pace available? No. Is Harrison available? No. Is Kerrigan? No. Is Orakpo? No.

And yet, I have people telling me that Victor Butler, Alex Albright, or "anyone" can do what Spencer has done?

That is just an unreasonable way to summarize his play in the last few years for the Cowboys. Sacks are important and vital for a 3-4 to get sacks from that spot (of course, it wouldn't hurt if he was standing next to a Defensive end or tackle that could occasionally get home, too) but it is not the entire position.

Spencer's sacks, pressures, QB hits, and tackles combine to show you a much more balanced view of his performance and while it is easy for a reader or fan to simply marginalize everything he does for this team, it is imperative for the brains in the Cowboys war-room to either upgrade him or remember what he brings to the table and keep him in the stable.

Now, I do not say all of this to say that he has been a great pick, or a suitable stud, or even someone who is not replaceable. But as I look at the draft and free agency, I do not see someone who is clearly better than him at the all-around game at his position. The only 3-4 outside linebackers that are on the market are Ahmad Brooks (a player that San Francisco is happy to replace), Eric Walden (discarded by Green Bay), and Clark Haggans (35 years old). Further, if I use pick #14 on another outside linebacker, then I cannot use that pick on a defensive lineman, defensive back, or offensive lineman - where I clearly still have holes.

So, do I take Courtney Upshaw or Melvin Ingram at #14 to fill a hole I just made? I don't think you make any progress letting a solid linebacker go if there is another alternative.

With that in mind, here is my proposal to keep from having to either let him walk or sign him to an extension that makes everyone uncomfortable.

I slap the franchise tag on him. The tag this year is $8.8 million and keeps him in a Cowboys uniform for another season so the franchise can fill their other holes and find his replacement.

Therefore, I am not married to him, and yet I do not open up another major hole. If he performs well in 2012, we talk extension. If I think he is holding me back, we move along.

But, I cannot fix this defense by subtracting a reasonable piece while adding another. That is called running in place while the clock continues to tick on the primes of Ware, Jay Ratliff, Tony Romo, Jason Witten, and Miles Austin. I need to figure out which places are well below average (both defensive ends, cornerback) and address those while allowing players in their prime to stay in the mix so the Cowboys can try to win now.

Franchising Spencer might hurt to write that big of a check, but since this alternative is available, I think the Cowboys should strongly consider it to buy them some time in an effort to turn this thing around quickly. Cap room is available and this is a great way to put the decision off for 12 months.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Considering Mario Williams in Dallas

As we continue to prepare for the Cowboys offseason and free agency which is right around the corner, there are a number of plates spinning in the air in the Valley Ranch war-room.

For instance, how does the draft in April and the free agency season of March fit together? Which of the priorities for this squad move to the top of the list? And how quickly can the Cowboys declare and address their biggest needs?

That really is the biggest question, isn't it? What do they see as their biggest issue? Because, you could make a case for 3 different departments on this team being the most vital issue to address. Despite the fact that they were playing for their divisional title on the final night of the season, it would seem that the Cowboys must do something about their offensive line (interior), their defensive front, and their secondary. If any of those spots go untouched, then in late July when the team reconvenes in Oxnard, California, there will still be some substantial warts that must be addressed.

If you have read my material over the last several months, you know that my priorities sit directly at the line of scrimmage.

Priority #1 is an interior stud on the OL like Carl Nicks or perhaps drafting a Peter Konz type.

Priority #2 is to find a DE or NT that can finally help Ratliff and Ware construct the type of defensive front that could take over a game like the Giants have routinely found.

Then, Priority #3 is to improve my secondary.

The reasoning for this order is simply understanding that the better teams in this league are doing things from the inside-out, and they always have. Know you are in the NFC East and must play and deal with the Giants and Eagles and their dominant defensive fronts on a regular basis. You better be able to block Trent Cole and Jason Babin. You better have a plan for dealing with the Giants front all day with their deep rotation as they will have pretty much everyone back. This is why I need another piece on the inside of my OL.

But, priority #2 (or 1a) is to figure out how to make my defensive front way more difficult to deal with. So, that #14 pick in the 1st round is ear-marked for a difference maker there, if I can find a match. And let's also not forget that my biggest internal decision is what to do with Anthony Spencer and his contract situation. We simply must understand the ramifications of keeping him or letting him go and the dominoes that a decision like that would set into motion. If Spencer must go, then your priorities might shift to making sure you find his replacement first and foremost.

Which brings many of you in my email box to Houston's Mario Williams. I have been asked on countless occasions about his availability and his fit in the Cowboys scheme. Houston will have a very difficult time keeping Williams unless he really wants to go out of his way to stay. And I would imagine that the man who just had his 27th birthday is going to enjoy being the belle of the ball in the NFL 2012 Free Agency season.

Williams has been a dominant defensive end in Houston for several years. Among the very best pass rushers in the league at times and a real double-team target. It is clear that when you look for that perfect pass-rushing bookend to DeMarcus Ware, I can see how many would assume that Williams would solve everything that ails a team.

But, there are several reasons why I don't think this is a fit at all, assuming the Cowboys really do believe in the 3-4 defensive scheme that they are running - and if they don't really believe in it, then we might have bigger issues.

1) - Mario Williams is in a position where he can demand just about any contract he wants. In March of 2010, the Chicago Bears signed then-30 year old Julius Peppers to a 6-year, $91.5 million deal. Peppers was thought to be an elite 4-3 defensive end with dominant pass rushing ability and anyone who studied him knew he was a game changing DE. Which is exactly what Williams was from 2007-2010 when they played in the 4-3 defense and he had nearly as many sacks as anyone in the game not named Ware or Jared Allen. Williams was hurt in week 5 last year and missed the rest of the season, when he tore a chest muscle on his 5th sack in 5 games. Fully healed, he would hit free agency at the age of 27, and Houston cannot franchise him without spending over $22 million dollars on 2012 alone. This is because the franchise number is either the average of the top 5 players at a position or 120% of a player's last season's salary, whichever is greater. Williams would get the latter, and since his number last year was over $18m, he is almost assured to not be brought back by a team that is A) cash strapped with the salary cap and B) not sure they need him after playing spectacular defense in their new 3-4 defense without him in 2011. So, all in all, understand that Williams could see a contract that takes him well over the $100 million barrier, with at least a check that gets him a million dollars a game for 6 or 7 seasons.

All of those points would generally not scare off the Cowboys, given the belief that Jerry Jones is always ready to wheel and deal for the right guy, but here is the even bigger issue for Dallas when it comes to Mario.

2) - Mario Williams likely does not fit into the Cowboys scheme. If you are running a 3-4, as Pat Kirwan told us last week in the Super Bowl, the entire point to the scheme is to have some element of fear about linebackers intent on each play for the opposition. If they know Ware is rushing every play and not a threat to ever drop into coverage, then you are running a 4-3 defense because the OL is simply going to treat him as a 4-3 DE. That means that the other LB (Spencer) is going to be dropping with the Tight End on most occasions and there is no element of confusion in pass protection at all. In Houston, the Texans tried to experiment with Mario as an outside linebacker in the 3-4, too, despite the fact that he weighs over 290 (Ware is 265). But, you guessed it, the Texans did not drop him into coverage hardly at all. He was a DE playing OLB, and rushing the passer. So, if you played Ware on one side and Williams on the other, then you are trying to play what amounts to 5 defensive linemen. Nobody would ever be dropping into the flats and offenses would bleed you to death with quick passes and only a chance of 6-man secondaries against 5 receivers. There is not a coach alive that thinks this is a sound strategy in today's NFL. Basically, what I am saying is that Ware and Williams are birds of a feather. You cannot have both and still have a sound 3-4.

Then the counter might be, "Bob, can't we just switch back to a 4-3, then?"

Sure. But then, I need to change all sorts of things that I have already done to this defense. I will need to release a bunch of DEs like Marcus Spears and Kenyon Coleman, as they don't fit my new scheme. I need to find linebackers. Spencer is gone, Bradie James and Keith Brooking don't run well enough anymore, and I am not sure what Bruce Carter can do, but I do know he was drafted with the 3-4 in mind. Chicago has a great 4-3 front, but it works because they have two exceptional linebackers who can do wonderful things from the "Mic" and the "Will" positions. Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs have been running sideline to sideline for years at All-Pro levels in that scheme. I think Sean Lee could handle Briggs' role on a reasonable level, but I am not sure who my 260-pound beast like Urlacher would be in the middle. So, to accommodate Mario Williams, I need to open up several new holes that might make this counterproductive on top of a $100 million deal for your new 4-3 end opposite Ware. Oh, and I am not sure my coaching staff believes in a 4-3 at all.

I love the player and I realize this off-season should be about finding guys who can get to the QB. But, in this case, one should understand that if the Cowboys have up to $20 million or so in cap space, spending it all on a guy who may not even fit your scheme or your plans doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

He will be able to go anywhere he wants - most likely to a 4-3 that wants to make him the focus of their entire defense - and be paid as well as any defender in the league. His timing is perfect, but not for Dallas.

Keep shopping.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Eyeing Calais Campbell

On draft day 2011, the Dallas Cowboys had a choice on their hands when they selected #9 overall. High on their board was a player they believed could play tackle for them for the next 10 years at a very high level, Tyron Smith from USC. But, just as high according to at least one source, was a DE from Wisconsin that they felt could fill a real position of need for them in their scheme as a disruptive, all-situations DE in the 3-4, JJ Watt.

Picking that high in the draft is not something that a team wants to do very often, as it is usually the direct result of a disappointing season, but when you do find yourself in the Top 10, it is crucial that decisions like these are made carefully and properly.

Both Smith and Watt were strongly supported with great tape in college and a solid spring pre-draft season where questions would be answered about their abilities. The brass had a choice to make, and the simple discussion of position premiums easily helped make the decision. The chance to have a left tackle who should be elite for years to come was too much to pass on. The Cowboys happily rushed to make the choice. Tyron Smith was a Cowboy and the war-room was thrilled with the result.

It was the right choice. Tackles are so vital to the game of football and the overall protection of the Quarterback. To have one with all of the skills of Tyron Smith seems like a choice that cannot bring regret. His development this season alone is enough to excite any fan of the team, and it seems reasonable to assume that he will be at left tackle by start of business 2012 and remain there for a long, long time.

But, when you are a team that has multiple needs at multiple spots, the choice you make is often at the expense of a number of other spots. If the Cowboys would have taken JJ Watt, they would have also addressed another major need. And frankly, it remains a spot where they simply must get better for the Cowboys to have that defensive front that they so desire. A front that makes plays in the backfield, disrupt plays, and batters opponents.

We are a long way down the road since the false narrative was offered by so many about how "defensive ends don't make plays in the 3-4". This was used to explain the largely anonymous seasons that the Cowboys DE's would turn in after the Cowboys flipped schemes in 2005. The explanation was that the DE is there to simply tie up the OL and stand their ground, 2-gapping and allowing the LBs to run free and make plays.

But, that didn't explain what was going on around the league, where we would watch each post-season and see many 3-4 teams having great success in the playoffs. And each time, it seemed like they had defensive ends that could play in every situation and that could make plays of great importance. This year, Justin Smith and Ray McDonald were substantial forces in San Francisco. JJ Watt and Antonio Smith in Houston were disruptive all year, too. It was just that the Cowboys didn't seem to possess any of that breed.

In the last 4 seasons, only one Cowboys defensive end has played more than 600 snaps in a single season. Given that each season has roughly 1,000 to 1,100 defensive snaps, the fact that only Chris Canty played 677 in 2008, you can see what the Cowboys biggest problem is and was. They just don't have any full-time, any-situation defensive ends.

So, instead, they try to get by with 2 sets of part-timers and patch them together. Marcus Spears would handle the run snaps from RDE this past season, then Jason Hatcher would come on to the field in passing downs at the same spot. On the other side, Kenyon Coleman would start each set of downs, and then Jay Ratliff and Hatcher would be joined by DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer in 3rd Downs scenarios.

What that amounted to was this: Ratliff played 750 snaps, Hatcher 429, Coleman 426, Spears 400, and reserve Sean Lissemore 284. They used a crew of players to patch together different situations and did the best they could. But, from the defensive end position, for another season of many, the Cowboys had no DE's who could do what a full-time DE must do. Stand up well against the run while possessing the ability to beat his man and get to the passer on a pass.

Heading into 2012, that allows us to look at options for the Cowboys in this offseason.

I was asked last week to write about my free agent priority, and I detailed at great length my feelings about Saints guard, Carl Nicks . I think the offensive line could greatly benefit from adding Nicks, and going into free agency, if I am going to break the bank, it has to be for a player who is both young and elite.

But, in discussing the defense, the answer to my free agent priority is more of an outside possibility. Word from Arizona seems to indicate that the target for this defensive end need will never make it to March 13, but if the Cardinals do not get a deal done with Calais Campbell, and do not slap the franchise tag on him, then the Cowboys should pounce.

Let's look at him for a moment:

Calais Campbell - DE
6'8, 310
9/1/86 (Age 25)


At 6'8, 310, Campbell is a rare specimen, but out of college was thought of as lacking both strength and quickness. Neither has proven to be a fair assessment, but the Cardinals were thrilled that he slipped to them in the 2nd round in '08.

Because of the new CBA, we are seeing players getting to free agency from the 2008 draft (those who did not sign 5-year rookie deals) in full force. That means that players who have not signed extensions from the 2nd round on are up for bid in March. Jordy Nelson and Lamarr Woodley are examples of players who have been extended this year, but many have not come to an agreement with their clubs and therefore, WR Desean Jackson and Calais Campbell are two of the premium players who could hit the market.

To see Campbell's skills on full display, pop in the tape of the Cardinals match-up with the Cowboys from early December. Playing over Doug Free and Montrae Holland for most of the day, he terrorized both the run and pass game of the Cowboys by demonstrating quickness that was too much for the Cowboys to handle. He would shoot gaps on pass plays and get to Romo for a sack and several other pressures. Then, we would blow past Free and run down DeMarco Murray before a play could get started in the Cowboys backfield. Darnell Dockett and Campbell make a very formidable DE duo in Arizona, and both had big days as the Cardinals totaled 5 sacks of Romo.

Looking at Campbell's stats will impress you, especially if you compare them to anything you have seen at DE for the Cowboys in years, but I am more impressed from the overall effect of having a DE that causes so much disruption. Before long, he is demanding a double team and freeing up a team-mate for a match-up that can be won. He blocks kicks, bats down passes, never stops running to the ball, and best of all, is only 25 years old.

To prepare for this project, I watched several more of his games this week to see how he performs from week to week. Both 49ers games were more of the same as he competes hard all of the time. In Week 3, he destroyed Russell Okung for 3 sacks in Seattle. He played 1,033 snaps this season and seldom leaves the field. Dockett, his more noted mate, signed a 6-year, $56 million deal in 2010, but is also 30. Together, they show that the 3-4 is run in different ways, but a smart coaching staff tailors the scheme to fit the play-makers. And clearly, the Cardinals love to tailor what they do around Dockett and Campbell.

Again, chances are that he never gets to the open market. But, if the Cardinals mess around and make him open to bidders, I fully believe that the Cowboys would make him a very top priority and make that JJ Watt regret disappear. It isn't likely, but keep that name front and center on your off-season radar.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Free Agent Target: Carl Nicks

As we move into the offseason, it is time to get serious about the ways to improve the Dallas Cowboys roster. Contrary to popular belief, the Cowboys have not been major players in free agency in a number of years. We would define that by looking at the players and prices in which they get involved on the early days of free agency where the dollars are the highest and auctions can break out. This can get very expensive and very dangerous to make mistakes. A quick look at page 225 of the Dallas Cowboys 2011 Media Guide confirms that the big spending the Cowboys have done in the last 5 seasons has been mainly on their own players before they hit free agency:

2007:
Leonard Davis - 3/4/2007 signed a 7-year, $49m contract
Ken Hamlin - 3/24/2007 signed a 1-year, $2.5m contract

2008:
None

2009:
Keith Brooking - 2/28/2009 signed a 3-year, $6m contract
Igor Olshansky - 3/6/2009 signed a 4-year, $18m contract
Gerald Sensabaugh - 3/9/2009 signed a 1-year, $1.75m contract

2010:
None

2011:
Kenyon Coleman - 7/30/2011 signed a 2-year, $3.75m contract
Abram Elam - 8/3/2011 signed a 1-year, $2.5m contract

This demonstrates that Leonard Davis was the last of the big ticket items (with all due respect to the Igor Olshansky deal that was more of a "paper" contract that would never come close to the value in the headlines). Davis was obviously cut early, too, but he did see a large sum of his money.

So, five years since the last bold strike in free agency lends credence to the idea that Jerry Jones is not the free-wheeling spender he once was, or if he still is, he has been using most of his petty cash on the new stadium construction and re-signing his own players.

Nevertheless, this season, we see that the Cowboys appear eager to strike in free agency. With about $17m in cap space, and the ability to create much more room with restructures and future releases of players under contract, they have to deal with their own free agents (Anthony Spencer, Laurent Robinson, Mat McBriar), their rookie draft class, and then they can also dip into free agency for a bold strike or two.

Which leads us to this week's project. If you read my thoughts for very long, you will soon realize that I am one of many that believe the game of football is always won at the line of scrimmage. And while the Cowboys focus seems to often be on players on the perimeter of the game (WR, RB, DB) and building from the outside-in, I think you will see that many successful teams build from the inside-out.

So, when I am proposing ideas or looking at players in the draft or free agency, I will give some thought to your defensive back idea, but I will then attempt to twist your arm and look at the offensive line and the defensive line. And with the success of teams that stress that sort of building in the post-season having success this month (Houston, New York, San Francisco, Baltimore), perhaps that is something worth considering.

Which leads us to what is reportedly the apple of the Cowboys' eye right now, Carl Nicks, OG for the New Orleans Saints.

Carl Nicks - OG
5/14/85 (age 26)
6'5, 343
Nebraska


Nicks is a very impressive force who has started from Week 4 in 2008 for the Saints. Since that time, he has been rated no lower than the Top 5 guards in the NFL. In fact, if you start grading him from 2009 to 2011, you will see that he is among the top 2 or 3 on any given ranking by personnel people around the league. He is flat-out quality and a mauler inside.

Unlike Leonard Davis, the last time the Cowboys dipped into the free agent pool, he is not going to be converted from tackle back to a guard, and he isn't 29 years old. He has only played guard and he is very good at it. He is also just entering his prime, and you can feel great about a major investment in him.

Looking back at his 2011, Nicks was an anchor in one of the most prolific offenses in football history and a chief reason why the Saints ran the ball with ease. According to ProFootballFocus.com, he was on the field for an insane 1348 snaps this season (Doug Free led the Cowboys OL with 1080) and pass blocked on 844 occasions for Drew Brees. He gave up 2 sacks all season. In Week 3, Texans DE Antonio Smith worked around his shoulder for a sack in space where Nicks didn't move his feet enough against an impressive interior pass rusher. And in Week 14 at Tennessee, rookie Karl Klug finally worked past Nicks when Brees held the ball for 4.8 seconds. Other than that, there were almost no occasions where Brees was hit because of Carl Nicks.

As a run blocker, he is above-average and has great quickness to get to the Linebackers on the 2nd level. The Saints don't ask him to pull in space too much, but his angle blocking is apparent. This past weekend, against the 3-4 of San Francisco, you can see him fire up the field and lock down Patrick Willis on several inside run plays. In the pass game, he has his hands full with an elite matchup against Justin Smith of the 49ers, and won more than his share of battles. Smith has great strength and while he pushed Nicks around a bit, but not enough to cause too much trouble.

Maybe the most impressive attribute that Nicks has that is not talked about is the ability to switch off and deal with stunts and blitzes with no difficulty whatsoever. There were a few occasions where he dealt with multiple rushers trying to work a seam on either side of him, and there was no daylight as Nicks would block one and then get a piece of the other in the blink of an eye.

This will be a very expensive signing and it won't come with glamour and huge headlines in places where fantasy football and jersey sales are important. But, in the film room where a team has dealt with a below average offensive line for several years in a row, this would signal a major upgrade at a spot where the Cowboys could now afford to get by with average center play because the guards next to him would be able to cover that up. There will not be as many days where the Cowboys are trying to game plan around a weak OL. Instead, like Brees, Romo can stand back and comfortably look for a target. If the Cowboys started a Phil Costa or Bill Nagy at center next season, but had Carl Nicks to the left and Kyle Kosier to the right, they would be far better equipped to deal with the Giants or Eagles than they were this season.

Having watched him closely this week in several games, and noting the Bill Callahan-Nebraska connection, as well as the Cowboys' interest, I would absolutely endorse a signing of Nicks when free agency opens. It will be very expensive, as his team-mate in New Orleans, RG Jahri Evans signed a 7-year, $56.7m deal in May of 2010. That seems to be the rough estimate of Nicks' price, but it would also settle things for the Cowboys at a major position of need.

Then, if Tyron Smith moves to LT, and Free back to RT, Nicks will solidify things and offer you a major improvement inside. Also, keep in mind that Nicks has been present and accounted for each Sunday along the way. He appears to be a pretty special player and should be target #1 in this offseason.

The defense needs help all over, and there will still be some money and a full draft to address that, but I think this is a very worthy ambition for the Cowboys front office.