PFF Preview 2011 – Dallas Cowboys

| August 19, 2011

Dallas was clearly better than the six wins they amassed last year when the loss of Tony Romo was the prime reason for their fall. Their franchise signal caller is back, however, and the team looks ready for a run at the NFC East under now-official head coach Jason Garrett.
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While Free Agency may not have gone as Jerry Jones expected, the Cowboys were able to retain a number of key players – none more key than left tackle Doug Free – and other productive veterans like guard Kyle Kosier and safety Gerald Sensabaugh.
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Five reasons to be confident
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1.) Retaining the Core

As mentioned above, Dallas was successful in re-signing a number of their key contributors from 2010. In this shortened offseason, it’s been more important than ever to keep quality players in the fold. Doug Free, while perhaps better suited to the right side, was by far the best run blocker among tackles last season (+17.0). He may not compare well with some of the best blindside protectors, but he’s no slouch in that department either. Kyle Kosier, although he struggled a little in the run game, allowed his QB to be knocked down just three times last year (one sack, two hits) while Gerald Sensabaugh had a positive grade in every category and finished 10th among safeties in our overall grades.
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2.) Stacked at Outside Linebacker

If you were asked who has the best 3-4 outside linebackers in the game you’d probably answer the Pittsburgh Steelers – and you’d be right – but the group in Big D might have something to say about it. It all starts with Demarcus Ware, who ranked sixth in our pass Pass Rushing Productivity study last year. However, the less-heralded members of the group will be just as important to Dallas’ success next year. OLB Anthony Spencer, who receives more criticism than he deserves, finished ninth in our overall rankings for his position and pass rush specialist Victor Butler (+5.4 rushing the passer) is also in the mix.
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3.) Stacked at Inside Linebacker Too

Bradie James (+12.5 overall) looks to man one inside linebacker spot. He’s a complete player who excels in run defense. Next to him Keith Brooking is likely to see a reduction in snaps due to the presence of second-round rookie from 2010, Sean Lee. That’s no slight on the former Falcon either, he’s been nothing but good since leaving the Georgia Dome. It’s just that Lee may well have won our rookie of the year race if not for a distinct lack of snaps (just 169); his +9.4 grade in such limited action is remarkable. Talented but injury-prone rookie Bruce Carter may be able to contribute come year’s end.
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4.) Picking Your Poison

We’ve been singing tight end Jason Witten’s praises for a long time and we’ll continue here. With Antonio Gates sidelined due to injury, Witten didn’t have much of a challenge for the top spot in our rankings – and that was with John Kitna as his quarterback for much of the season. His hands remain two of the best in the league and he’s proven himself as the best run-blocking tight end around. The problem for Dallas’ opponents is they have to work out how to cover Felix Jones, Dez Bryant and Miles Austin too.
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Jones, finally healthy, amassed a league leading 11.9 YAC/rec as well as a 94% catch percentage and eight forced missed tackles. Dez Bryant’s talent has never been in question and if he can sort himself out off the field, he could be primed for a big year. Despite playing half the snaps of most of his competitors (431) he forced eight missed tackles and scored six touchdowns. Austin, despite a down year where he dropped a surprising number of balls, is likely to return to his 2009 form with Romo back under center.
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5.) Back in Command

Tony Romo finished 16th in our QB rankings despite playing in just over 300 snaps and was completing nearly 70% of his passes before going down with an injury. Performing admirably when under pressure He does see a sizable drop in completion rate, but continues to avoid turnovers. Over the past three years, he’s thrown more touchdowns (11) than interceptions (10) when facing a heavy rush. There’s no reason why Romo can’t pickup where he left off last year.
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Five reasons to be concerned
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1.) Half-filled Void

So we outlined how retaining strong safety Gerald Sensabaugh was a smart move. Unfortunately there remains a huge void next to him. Alan Ball simply wasn’t up to the task allowing an NFL-worst seven touchdowns and quarterbacks had a 105.2 rating when throwing into his coverage. Abram Elam may know Rob Ryan’s scheme from his time in Cleveland, but it’s unlikely he’ll be a significant upgrade. Elam (-4.0) lacks consistency; struggling in coverage in 2009 and then against the run in 2010. Needless to say, settling for Elam instead of a player like Michael Huff or Quintin Mikell was a gamble.
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2.) Aging and Underperforming

It’s no secret CB Terrence Newman is getting up there in age and the veteran may finally have lost a step. Newman finished with our eighth-worst overall grade among corners and it’s hard to see that improving. Across from him, Mike Jenkins was just as bad. Not only did he have a rough time in coverage but he struggled against the run too. His 122.6 QB rating allowed was third-worst in the league. Unlike they have  at linebacker, there’s no depth at this position for Dallas. Nickel back Orlando Scandrick had a positive grade on the year but coverage (-3.6) was his weakness – not a great thing for a corner. Bryan McCann may have made some highlight reel plays but also graded out negatively. Fifth-round pick Josh Thomas is unlikely to be the answer.
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3.) Struggles of a Rookie Tackle

Tyron Smith might be great as a rookie but let’s just say there’s not much of a precedent for it. Russell Okung (31st overall), Rodger Saffold (49th), Zane Beadles (53rd), Trent Williams (65th), Jared Veldheer (68th), Bryan Bulaga (69th) and Anthony Davis (71st) all had trouble making a consistent positive impact as they transitioned to the pros last season. Not one rookie offensive tackle who played at least 25% of snaps had a positive overall grade and most of them made our bottom 15 list for pass blocking efficiency. Considering the fact Smith was thought to be raw coming out of college, it’ll surely be a surprise if gets up to speed quickly.
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4.) Not Much in Reserve

Miles Austin and Dez Bryant are two top-quality receivers, but who’s behind them? Sam Hurd and Roy Williams are gone and no other receiver on the roster gathered more than 100 snaps last year. Kevin Ogletree, a late round pick from three years ago, has more experience than the rest and the Cowboys have six rookie wide receivers on their roster – only sixth-round pick Dwayne Harris was drafted. Three other players have two years or less of NFL experience. Lack of depth is probably an understatement.
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5.) New DC

Rob Ryan may be a skilled defensive coordinator but some of the talent might not fit his two-gap scheme. I’m talking specifically about nose tackle Jay Ratliff. Ratliff has been one of Dallas’ most dominant players for a while but his light build is better suited for getting up the field than anchoring in the middle. Perhaps he’ll receive more snaps as an end, allowing promising rookie Josh Brent to man the middle. Still, the change in system may well limit the effectiveness of one of the Cowboys’ best players.
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If the offensive line can come together and the secondary holds up, the Cowboys could be dangerous once more.
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Follow John on Twitter: @PFF_John … and be sure to follow our main Twitter feed as well: @ProFootbalFocus
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