2014 Preview: Dallas Cowboys
Once again, it appears the Dallas Cowboys will have to rely on their potent offense to keep them competitive. Their defense finished the 2013 season with a -118.7 team grade and was the primary culprit for a third straight 8-8 season. Salary cap issues prevented the team from spending big money in free agency and resulted in more attrition along the defensive line.
With the hope of improving the defense, the Cowboys promoted Rod Marinelli to defensive coordinator and demoted Monte Kiffin. They hope a combination of rebound seasons from current players and the addition of a few low-cost free agents provides a spark to a defense that has nowhere to go but up. With that in mind, here are reasons for both confidence and concern in 2014.
Five Reasons to Be Confident
1. Offensive Line
Recently thought of as a weakness, the Cowboys’ offensive line is now a strength. Doug Free bounced back in 2013, grading as the 20th-ranked offensive tackle and Tyron Smith played more consistently in his second season on the left, earning a +22.5 overall grade (and the fourth-best pass-blocking grade among left tackles) and the 23-year-old could get even better. Add to that one of the most productive seasons ever for a rookie center in the PFF era from Travis Frederick who topped our run-blocking grades at the position (though he left room to improve as a pass blocker). The same scouts that identified Frederick successfully lobbied for the first-round selection of Zack Martin, who will start at offensive guard. Returning starters Ronald Leary and Mackenzy Bernadeau will compete for the remaining spot.
2. Offensive Weapons
In 2013, the Cowboys’ offense ranked fifth in points per game at 27.4. Dez Bryant has obvious talent; Jason Witten is a fixture at tight end and DeMarco Murray is coming off his healthiest campaign yet. Wide receiver Terrance Williams should benefit from the 700 snaps he received in 2013 and he looks poised to start opposite Bryant. Our 2013 Secret Superstar, Cole Beasley, will make some crucial catches out of the slot. The team has high hopes for 2013 second-round pick, tight end Gavin Escobar and running back Lance Dunbar’s receiving abilities should result in more opportunities for him with new ‘play-caller’ Scott Linehan.
3. Rod Marinelli Promoted
Marinelli takes over for Monte Kiffin as the defensive coordinator. Defensive tackle Henry Melton had his best years as a pro in 2011 and 2012 with Marinelli as his defensive line coach. The team also hopes Marinelli can help free agent addition Jeremy Mincey return to 2011 form (+9.6, eight sacks, 38 hurries, and 35 stops) at defensive end. Although the scheme won’t change dramatically, minor adjustments should help cornerbacks Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr, both of whom would benefit from more press coverage opportunities. At linebacker, Bruce Carter will have extra motivation as he heads into a contract year. He was our Secret Superstar of 2012, so the former second-round pick still has potential. Finally, Marinelli will attempt to work his magic with troublesome-but-talented linebacker Rolando McClain, who could solidify a porous run defense. McClain earned a +10.8 against the run and had 35 stops during his most recent season in 2012.
4. Tony Romo…Yes, him again
Tony Romo graded ahead of division rival quarterbacks Nick Foles, Robert Griffin III and Eli Manning in 2013. Romo also limited interceptions, throwing only 10. While his back injury is a concern, an improved offensive line should help keep him upright. Although he did not end up on the winning side in the 2013 Week 5 shootout against Denver, Romo showed that he could keep the team in games despite poor play from his defense.
5. Potential Comebacks
Anthony Spencer tried to play through a lingering knee issue in 2013, but shut things down after Week 2 of the regular season, undergoing microfracture surgery. This is a notoriously difficult procedure to bounce back from, but Spencer has been an effective pass rusher and run defender throughout his career including a 2012 season that saw him finish second among 3-4 OLBs with a +24.3 overall grade and the top mark for run defenders at the position. He might start the year on the Physically Unable to Perform list, but if he can recover and approach his old form, he will provide a valuable midseason boost. Tyrone Crawford was expected to be a contributor in 2013, but tore his Achilles before even playing in a preseason game. The 6-foot-4 285-pound defensive lineman, and former third-round pick, will figure into the rotation at both defensive end and defensive tackle.
Five Reasons to be Concerned
1. Missing Defenders
Injuries decimated the Cowboys on the defensive side of the ball in 2013 as Spencer, Jay Ratliff, DeMarcus Ware, Sean Lee, Crawford, Jason Hatcher, Claiborne, and J.J. Wilcox all missed multiple games. This trend has continued. Sean Lee will miss the 2014 season with a torn ACL. No. 34 overall pick Demarcus Lawrence will miss the rest of the preseason — a critically important development time for a rookie — and the first four to six weeks of the regular season with a broken foot. On top of these injuries, cornerback Orlando Scandrick was suspended for the first four games of the season as a result of a failed drug test.
2. The Loss of DeMarcus Ware
The Cowboys moved on from DeMarcus Ware partly for salary cap reasons and partly due to age and injury concerns. The team already put some of the future savings on Ware’s salary toward Tyron Smith’s extension. From the age and injury perspective, Ware was 31 when he was released and slowed by mounting neck, elbow and shoulder injuries. He missed Weeks 7-9 in 2013, and wasn’t the same player afterward as he finished the final seven games with a -0.9 grade. However, with a full offseason to recover, Ware could return to form and keep in mind he earned a +10.6 grade over the first six games of 2013. Either way, there’s no doubt Ware will be missed.
3. Defensive Tackle
Jason Hatcher left for Washington as a free agent, though the Cowboys didn’t make much of an effort to keep him, and returning starter Nick Hayden graded second-worst among all defensive tackles in 2013 (-34.1) — his Run Stop Percentage (5.2%, 61st among DTs) and Pass Rushing Productivity (3.5, 52nd) marks were equally lacking. Terrell McClain was an underwhelming free-agent addition who will be suiting up for his fourth team in as many years, while seventh-round selection Ken Bishop was the only (and by definition, highest) draft pick at the position. Marinelli’s tutelage will benefit Melton, but rotation players are needed to ease his transition back from a torn ACL.
4. A String of Fourth-Round Pick Busts
Fourth-round picks aren’t expected to be superstars, but they should be valuable rotation players. Also every few years, one should develop into at least an adequate starter with a year or two of seasoning. The depth issues the Cowboys experienced in 2013 can be partly attributed to unsuccessful selections over the past five years: B.W. Webb, Kyle Wilber, Matt Johnson, David Arkin, and Akwasi Owusu-Ansah.
Arkin is no longer on the team, while Owusu-Ansah is no longer in the NFL. Johnson has struggled with injuries. Webb failed to impress as a rookie, and his roster spot is already in danger. Wilber has the best chance of making a positive impact — he was drafted as an outside linebacker in a 3-4, moved to defensive end during the transition to the 4-3, and then moved to strong side linebacker for the final five games of 2013. In those games, he barely graded in the black (+0.2), primarily driven by his efforts in run support (+1.7). Of course, the team also hopes 2014 fourth-round pick, linebacker Anthony Hitchens, will help reverse the trend.
The safety position seems to be a perennial concern for the Cowboys. Barry Church is their best safety, but he has been thrust into a free safety role, even though more looks at strong safety would be a better fit for his skill set. J.J. Wilcox, a late third-round selection in 2013, missed some time in 2013, which handicapped his development as he makes the jump from the FCS level of competition to the NFL. The target of Minnesota and New Orleans highlights in 2013, Jeff Heath struggled in other games as well and the selection of Ahmad Dixon in the seventh round of the 2014 draft was praised by many, but he looks to be more of an asset on special teams. Dixon is another safety on the roster that struggles in coverage (-1.7 grade in his first preseason game). The dark-horse candidate, Jakar Hamilton, rarely played in 2013 (17 snaps).