Dallas Cowboys: 2014 Cowboys position breakdown

Cowboys position breakdown: Specialists

January, 31, 2014
1/31/14
2:00
PM ET
Cowboys reporters Calvin Watkins and Todd Archer break down the Cowboys, position by position, analyzing what the players did in 2013, what they can do in the future and what the team can do to improve the position in 2014.

Bailey
Under contract: Dan Bailey, Chris Jones, L.P. LaDouceur and Dwayne Harris.

A look back: Special teams coach Rich Bisaccia took over a unit in need of a new voice and provided solid results. You can start with kicker Dan Bailey, who converted 93.3 percent of his field goal tries and was perfect from 40-49 yards (10-10) and made 6-of-7 field goal attempts from 50 plus yards. Bailey was so good, the Cowboys avoided any contract issues by giving him a contract extension worth $22.5 million with $7.5 million guaranteed. Well deserved. Chris Jones also had a solid season as the punter, finishing eighth with 30 punts inside the 20 and he had a 39.1 net average. Dwayne Harris emerged as a return threat during the season. He finished eighth in kickoff return yards with 857 and despite just 256 punt return yards, he did score a touchdown and when he missed a game due to injury, replacement Michael Spurlock returned a punt 62 yards. If there were any negatives it was centered on rookie Terrance Williams, who fumbled an opening kickoff and probably should have stayed in the end zone for a few returns.

A look ahead: This group has no issues. L.P. LaDouceur is one of the best deep snappers in the league, Bailey morphed into a reliable if not one of the Top 5 kickers in the league and Harris is a legit threat on returns. Injuries are always a concern, Harris missed three games with a hamstring injury, but Cole Beasley (6.8 average on 10 punt returns) was a capable backup and you could always punt Dez Bryant back there.

A look out: Williams is someone who can improve in this area and might get a few looks during training camp again. Bryant and Beasley are solid backups for Harris, who has become a solid returner.

Cowboys position breakdown: Coaches

January, 31, 2014
1/31/14
10:00
AM ET
Cowboys reporters Calvin Watkins and Todd Archer break down the Cowboys, position by position, analyzing what the players did in 2013, what they can do in the future and what the team can do to improve the position in 2014.

Under contract: Jason Garrett, Scott Linehan, Rod Marinelli, Bill Callahan, Monte Kiffin, Wade Wilson, Gary Brown, Derek Dooley, Mike Pope, Frank Pollack, Keith O’Quinn, Matt Eberflus, Jerome Handerson, Leon Lett, Ben Bloom, Joe Baker, Rich Bisaccia.

A look back: For the first time since he arrived as an assistant coach in 2007 Jason Garrett did not call the offensive plays. It wasn’t Garrett’s idea, but he had little choice in the matter. Owner Jerry Jones wanted Bill Callahan to do the job, so that’s how it went.

[+] EnlargeJason Garrett
AP Photo/Tom HauckAfter a third straight 8-8 season, Dallas' Jason Garrett made several key changes within his staff.
The Cowboys averaged 27.4 points per game but had their fewest yards in a season since 2005. For the final six games of the season Garrett asserted himself in the process, relaying the plays from Callahan to the quarterback. Garrett maintained Callahan called the plays throughout the season.

Defensively, it was a disaster for Monte Kiffin. The Cowboys’ move to the 4-3 could not have gone worse. Injuries depleted the defensive line and took their toll on the linebackers by the end of the season. Players counted on to have big seasons – DeMarcus Ware, Brandon Carr, Bruce Carter, Morris Claiborne – didn’t and Kiffin was unable to come up with any answers.

The Cowboys allowed the most yards (by a wide margin) and the second-most points in franchise history. Kiffin's return to the NFL after a run with his son, Lane, at Tennessee and Southern Cal, was a flop.

Special-teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia might have had the best season of any assistant coach. The special teams were better across the board in 2013 and he interviewed for the head coaching jobs with the Washington Redskins and Cleveland Browns.

A look ahead: Rod Marinelli has replaced Kiffin as defensive coordinator, although the Cowboys cushioned the demotion by naming Kiffin the assistant head coach/defense. Callahan has been replaced as playcaller by Scott Linehan, who is a Garrett confidante.

The Cowboys have denied teams from speaking with Callahan, which has not pleased Callahan and could lead to ill-will on the staff no matter how much the Cowboys try to put a smiley face on the situation. Callahan will return to coaching the offensive line full-time, which pushes Frank Pollack down the line after he did a good job with the group in 2013.

The Cowboys hope Marinelli can be as effective as a coordinator as he was in his three-year run with the Chicago Bears. He will need more talent, especially on the defensive line. He will need to be more creative than Kiffin as well. Players play hard for him and believe in his coaching, but the confidence of the entire group was shot last year. Having Sean Lee return from injury and players like Ware return to form, will help.

Kiffin will be around but mostly in an advisory role. Tight ends coach Wes Phillips joined the Redskins and was replaced by Mike Pope, a long-time veteran considered one of the best in the NFL. Assistant special-teams coach Chris Boniol also left.

A look out: The Cowboys have set up an interesting situation on the offensive side of the ball by hiring Linehan and demoting Callahan, but Garrett believes the transition will be smooth because the system remains in place.

But how well will Linehan and Callahan work together? Are there too many people involved in the offense with different agendas? It will make for interesting viewing.

On defense, the move to Marinelli should also be easy because the system remains. He should be more adept at handling the current game than Kiffin, who could not come up with ways to slow spread offenses.

But this year will be all about Garrett, who is entering the final year of his deal. The Cowboys gave him the authority to make the changes on the staff, and it’s up to him to make it work. He has been able to keep the players on his side despite three straight 8-8 finishes. They believe in what he says. Now the actions have to back up the words.

Position breakdown:

Quarterbacks
Running backs
Tight ends
Wide receivers
Defensive line
Offensive line
Linebackers
Defensive backs

Cowboys position breakdown: DBs

January, 30, 2014
1/30/14
2:00
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Cowboys reporters Calvin Watkins and Todd Archer breakdown the Cowboys, position by position, analyzing what the players did in 2013, what they can do in the future and what the team can do to improve the position in 2014.

Under contract: B.W. Webb, Jakar Hamilton, Morris Claiborne, Sterling Moore, J.J. Wilcox, Orlando Scandrick, Jeff Heath, Brandon Carr, and Barry Church.

A look back: This unit was an overall disappointment. Scandrick (tied for team lead with 13 pass breakups) and Church (team-leading 135 tackles) were the best of the bunch. Claiborne battled through injuries and inconsistent play and has raised questions about whether he was worth being the sixth overall pick in the 2012 draft. Carr started the season strong but slumped badly the last two months of the year. Carr was the main defender during Calvin Johnson's 14-catch, 329-yard performance in an Oct. 27 victory by Detroit. The Cowboys struggled to find a free safety to make plays on the ball from Heath to Wilcox. Depth is a concern so much that Webb, a fourth-round draft pick last spring, was replaced by Moore, a veteran, who was released in training camp. The Cowboys struggled against passers who challenged the secondary deep and that's been a recurring theme the last few seasons.

A look ahead: Scandrick and Carr are the starters with Claiborne the nickle corner. But the Cowboys need Claiborne to either regain the starting role from Scandrick or make more plays on the ball as the No. 3 corner if he can't become a starter again. Carr said he played with confidence during the season, and while that might be true, his play on the field didn't show. Carr has to produce more plays on the ball and even though some teams didn't target him early in the season, that changed in the last few months of the 2013 season. It will be interesting to see if Wilcox can overtake Heath as the starting free safety. Church was solid as a strong safety especially in the open field. Yet, depth was a problem for the Cowboys and Webb needs to prove he can be a NFL corner.

A look out: The Cowboys need to draft a cornerback who has good awareness and ball skills. Creating competition is the best way to get this disappointing unit to improve. Free agency isn't something the Cowboys will look at because of the lack of money to spend in salary cap, so the draft is the best way to go.

Position breakdown:

Quarterbacks
Running backs
Tight ends
Wide receivers
Defensive line
Offensive line

Cowboys position breakdown: LBs

January, 30, 2014
1/30/14
10:00
AM ET
Cowboys reporters Calvin Watkins and Todd Archer breakdown the Cowboys, position by position, analyzing what the players did in 2013, what they can do in the future and what the team can do to improve the position in 2014.

Under contract: Sean Lee, Kyle Wilber, Cameron Lawrence, Bruce Carter, DeVonte Holloman, Orie Lemon, Kyle Wilber, Justin

A look back: The Cowboys signed Lee to a six-year extension worth $42 million in August, believing he is one of their cornerstone pieces and one of the best linebackers in the NFL … provided he could stay healthy.

Lee missed five games with hamstring and neck injuries and finished second on the defense with 123 tackles. He led the Cowboys with four interceptions, which shows how much of a playmaker he can be and how poor the secondary was that he could miss so many games and still lead in the category.

The Cowboys viewed Carter as the prototype weak-side linebacker when they moved to the 4-3 but he struggled in space. He had a hard time tracking down running backs and tight ends and lacked confidence. When he played well in 2012 it came after Lee suffered a toe injury, but he was unable to raise his game to a similar level after Lee’s injury in 2013. The coaches were so frustrated with Carter, that they had him splitting time with Ernie Sims, who is a free agent.

Durant was signed to a moderate free-agent deal to be the strong-side linebacker. He was not bad but he had only 30 tackles. He played only 197 snaps because he came off the field in nickel packages. His season ended early because of a hamstring injury.

Coach Jason Garrett believes injury creates opportunity and the Cowboys might have lucked into Durant’s replacement in 2014 in Wilber. Unable to make some headway at defensive end, Wilber settled in at the strong side spot in the final six games and did a more than decent job against the run. Holloman’s rookie season was slowed because of a neck injury, but he had his best game in the finale versus the Philadelphia Eagles with 12 tackles, two tackles for a loss and two quarterback hurries.

A look ahead: For Lee the story continues to be his health. He is everything a team wants in a linebacker … again, provided he is healthy. He is as important to the defense as Tony Romo is to the offense. He has a calming effect on the group when he is on the field.

If Lee can remain on the field, then the defense should be better in 2014.

Carter is at a crossroads. His rookie year was a wash because of a knee injury suffered at North Carolina. He flashed in 11 games in 2012, leading the Cowboys to believe he could be a cornerstone player like Lee. After his performance in 2013, he could face a challenge for a starting spot. He is entering the final year of his contract and needs to perform to be paid. Maybe that is what will light the fire a little bit more.

Durant could find himself as a salary-cap casualty. The Cowboys would save $1.25 million in room, and they will be looking here, there and everywhere for space to get under the cap and to sign players. Wilber and Holloman are intriguing prospects and could take over the strong-side starting spot with one of the training camp battles to watch.

A look out: The Cowboys will have to focus their attention on the defensive line in the draft -- and perhaps free agency -- but they should not just ignore the linebacker spot.

From the first day of last offseason Monte Kiffin wondered who the backup to Lee would be and the Cowboys had to mix and match at the spot with limited success.

Linebackers in the 4-3 have to be able to run and cover. Carter has those tools but has not put it together enough to make him a long-term option at this point. Since he is entering the final year of his deal, finding his potential replacement should be a real option.

Position breakdown:

Quarterbacks
Running backs
Tight ends
Wide receivers
Defensive line
Offensive line

Cowboys position breakdown: O-line

January, 29, 2014
1/29/14
2:00
PM ET
Cowboys reporters Calvin Watkins and Todd Archer breakdown the Cowboys, position by position, analyzing what the players did in 2013, what they can do in the future and what the team can do to improve the position in 2014.

Under contract: Tyron Smith, Darrion Weems, Ronald Leary, Travis Frederick, Phil Costa, Mackenzy Bernadeau, Doug Free and Jermey Parnell.

A look back: Smith earned a Pro Bowl berth at left tackle and Frederick emerged as a solid first-round pick at center. Bernadeau and Leary produced solid seasons and Free, after taking a pay cut, was worth keeping around. The line was a strength overall for the Cowboys and it didn't start that way. In training camp there were questions about the durability of some players, Nate Livings, Bernadeau and Parnell battled injuries and it prompted the team to sign Brian Waters days before the start of the regular season. Waters was solid until a triceps injury ended his season. Bernadeau regained his starting job at right guard and played better than expected. Smith was just a dominant force on the left side and there was a confidence in the interior when quarterback Tony Romo stepped up in the pocket.

A look ahead: Depth is always a concern and while Smith and Frederick have bright futures, there are two starters -- Free and Leary -- who enter the final year of their contracts. Leary avoided knee issues last season and Free performed better in his second-year under line coach Bill Callahan. Should they get contract extensions? Waters was given credit for bringing a toughness and a higher level of play to the line, but he'll be 37 next season and it's probably best to let him go. Costa handled his backup role professionally after battling through injuries in 2012 while the starter. It will be interesting to see if Weems and Parnell can push Free in training camp to win a starting job.

A look out: The salary-cap-tight Cowboys don't need to look at free agency here. Getting another guard through the draft might be worth looking at. There is youth along the line with Leary, Frederick, Bernadeau and Smith all under 30. Free is 30 but he's proved to be a durable player. Nothing wrong with upgrading the talent through the draft which is something the team will probably do.

Position breakdown:

Quarterbacks
Running backs
Tight ends
Wide receivers
Defensive line

Cowboys position breakdown: D-line

January, 29, 2014
1/29/14
10:00
AM ET
Cowboys reporters Calvin Watkins and Todd Archer breakdown the Cowboys, position by position, analyzing what the players did in 2013, what they can do in the future and what the team can do to improve the position in 2014.

Under contract: DeMarcus Ware, George Selvie, Nick Hayden, Corvey Irvin, Martez Wilson, Everette Brown, Frank Kearse, Ben Bass, Tyrone Crawford, Edgar Jones, Caesar Rayford

A look back: Jason Hatcher had the best season of his career with 11 sacks and was added to the Pro Bowl, but the defensive line play in 2013 was shoddy and played a big part in why the Cowboys finished last in the NFL in defense.

Spencer
Monte Kiffin’s defense is predicated on the front four getting pressure, and they did not affect the quarterback enough. From the first day of training camp on, the group was beset by injury. Tyrone Crawford tore his Achilles on the first day. Jay Ratliff never played a down and was cut in October. Anthony Spencer played in one game before needing microfracture surgery on his knee. The Cowboys used 20 different defensive linemen during the season. They hit on George Selvie, who started every game and had seven sacks, and received some moments from Nick Hayden as well, but the group just wasn’t good enough.

DeMarcus Ware missed three games with a quadriceps strain and had a career-low six sacks. He had four sacks in the first three games. Whether it was injury or age, Ware was not the same player in 2013 as he was even in 2012, when he had 11.5 sacks but was limited by shoulder and elbow injuries.

A look ahead: The biggest decision the Cowboys have to make is on Ware. He is to count $16.003 million against the salary cap with a $12.25 million base salary. Do the Cowboys ask him to take a pay cut, or do they restructure his deal in order to create room?

It is a delicate decision that owner and general manager Jerry Jones has been loathed to make in the past. There is no way Ware can count that much against the cap.

It seems almost a given that Hatcher will leave as a free agent. The team does not have the cap space to keep him, and it is difficult to commit big money to a soon-to-be 32-year-old defensive end. The chances of Spencer returning as a free agent are better just because his price will be kept low.

Crawford could be the key to the group, but the Cowboys should not bank on him being an every-down player coming off the injury. He played well as a rookie in 2012, but did not have a sack. His plus, however, is versatility. He could play all along the line. The question for Selvie is whether 2013 was an anomaly or a sign that he finally figured it out.

A look out: Last season's free-agent market was light for defensive linemen, so that could help the Cowboys in possibly keeping Hatcher, but he will take the best offer with this being his last chance to cash in.

Finding free agent help will be difficult, so the best chance to improve is in the draft. They made a mistake in not choosing a defensive lineman last year, and they can’t do that again this year. They need to find a pass-rusher, a run defender and a multi-faceted player. Getting one or two in the early rounds seems imperative.

Position breakdown:

Quarterbacks
Running backs
Tight ends
Wide receivers

Cowboys position breakdown: Tight ends

January, 28, 2014
1/28/14
10:00
AM ET
Cowboys reporters Calvin Watkins and Todd Archer breakdown the Cowboys, position by position, analyzing what the players did in 2013, what they can do in the future and what the team can do to improve the position in 2014.

Witten
Under contract: Jason Witten, Gavin Escobar, James Hanna

A look back: The final numbers might look off after catching 110 passes in 2012, an NFL record for a tight end, but in some ways Witten had a better season in 2013.

He caught 73 passes for 851 yards and had eight touchdowns. He had to stay in for pass protection more, which contributed to his reception total decreasing, but he averaged 11.7 yards per catch, which was his second highest in the past five seasons. His eight touchdowns were one off a career high and his involvement inside the 20 played a big part in the improvement of the red-zone offense.

Escobar
Hanna
Escobar came in with second-round expectations with the Cowboys moving more to a “12 personnel” offense, but he was unable to unseat Hanna and saw only 197 snaps during the season. Hanna played 311. The Cowboys knew Escobar needed development as a blocker but how much even surprised them. He finished with nine catches for 134 yards and two touchdowns. What he does have is athletic ability and the chance to stretch the seams from his position.

Hanna caught 12 passes for 73 yards and was OK. The coaches were unable to find ways to get him the ball in space where he could use his speed. For a backup, he was fine but Escobar should take some playing time from him in 2014.

A look ahead: The Cowboys replaced tight ends coach Wes Phillips, who took the same job with the Washington Redskins, with veteran New York Giants coach Mike Pope, which might qualify as their best move of the short offseason.

Pope has developed tight ends everywhere he has coached and developing Escobar will be his No. 1 task. Witten turns 32 in May and with his ninth Pro Bowl appearance in 11 years does not appear to be slowing down. Pope can help him with the nuances of the game and also challenge him schematically.

Escobar needs to add bulk this offseason and be a weight-room junkie. He has to show a willingness to improve as a blocker. If he doesn’t, then the Cowboys will have used a second-round pick on a niche player.

A look out: There is no doubt the Cowboys will draft a tight end in the second round. OK, we kid. With Witten entering his 12th season and Escobar and Hanna something of a question mark, it is not inconceivable the Cowboys look for help at the position.

They do not need to spend a premium pick or cash on the position. With Witten playing nearly 100 percent of the snaps, the Cowboys have to figure out a way to integrate their two tight end package better and with more options.

They could add more of a blocking tight end. Some at Valley Ranch thought Andre Smith could have filled that role in 2013 more. They could look in the middle to late rounds in the draft.

Position breakdown:

Quarterbacks
Running backs

Cowboys position breakdown: RBs

January, 27, 2014
1/27/14
2:00
PM ET
Cowboys reporters Calvin Watkins and Todd Archer break down the Cowboys, position by position, analyzing what the players did in 2013, what they can do in the future and what the team can do to improve the position in 2014.

Under contract: DeMarco Murray, Joseph Randle and Lance Dunbar.

A look back: Murray overcame doubts about his abilities from outside Valley Ranch and rushed for 1,124 yards, eighth in the NFC and 10th in the NFL, with nine touchdowns. Murray became the first Cowboys running back to rush for 1,000 yards since 2006. Murray missed two games due to injuries, and coach Jason Garrett said if not for that he might have been more productive. Murray's running style was questioned during the season -- he ran out of bounds and avoided contact on a few carries -- but he finished the season earning his first Pro Bowl berth with a measured style of running that gives the team hope he has a future. Randle wasn't used much in 2013 and didn't overwhelm anyone when he took over the starting role for an injured Murray. Lance Dunbar was a change-of-pace back, who battled through injuries and was lost for the season when he hurt his knee in a victory over Oakland on Thanksgiving Day. Dunbar, along with Phillip Tanner, who is a restricted free agents should return in 2014 to provide depth.

A look ahead: Murray is the undisputed leader at running back and there shouldn't be any issues with his status in 2014. He adjusted to the one-cut style of running backs coach Gary Brown and produced one of the best seasons for a Cowboys running back in a few years. If only the Cowboys would have used him more. There were too many instances where playcaller Bill Callahan didn't rely on him enough and quarterback Tony Romo changed run plays to pass too much. The Cowboys must rely on Murray more and, of course, if he stays healthy, use Dunbar on third-down plays. Randle has to improve his pass blocking to get more time on the field.

A look out: It's doubtful if the Cowboys will look to extend Murray's contract, like they have with other younger players on the team such as Dan Bailey, Orlando Scandrick, Sean Lee and Barry Church. However, he does have a future. Drafting a running back won't happen this year, given the holes on the defense, but there's expectations Randle will get better.

Cowboys position breakdown: QBs

January, 27, 2014
1/27/14
10:00
AM ET
Cowboys reporters Calvin Watkins and Todd Archer breakdown the Cowboys, position by position, analyzing what the players did in 2013, what they can do in the future and what the team can do to improve the position in 2014.

Under contract: Tony Romo, Kyle Orton

A look back: Romo equaled his best touchdown to interception ratio in his career, with 31 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions in 15 games. He threw for 3, 828 yards but he had five games in which he did not throw for more than 210 yards.

Romo
Orton
He completed 63.9 percent of his passes, which was just off his career average, but he averaged just 7.2 yards per attempt, which was a career low. He was more willing to take the checkdown than to wait for the deeper throws to open up, despite what was an improved offensive line.

He missed the entire offseason because of back surgery to remove a cyst, which might explain some of the reluctance to throw deeper. He continued to buy time with his feet, winning his final start versus the Washington Redskins by buying time, but not as much as he did in previous seasons.

Orton saw action in two games and started the finale against the Philadelphia Eagles. He did what you would expect a veteran quarterback to do: Perform well with limited practice time. He completed 30 of 46 passes for 358 yards with two touchdowns and two picks against the Eagles. The last interception ended the Cowboys’ chances of a comeback and a playoff appearance.

SportsNation

Which quarterback would you rather have?

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    16%
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    49%
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    11%
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    6%
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    18%

Discuss (Total votes: 11,181)

A look ahead: Romo is coming off his second back surgery in eight months with a procedure to heal a herniated disk. The Cowboys have said Romo is feeling better and the plan is for him to take part in the offseason program, which he did not do in 2013.

The Cowboys will restructure Romo’s contract in the offseason with him set to count $21.7 million against the cap. The move will save the Cowboys about $9.6 million. He turns 34 in April but the club believes he has what it takes to not only deliver them to the playoffs but to make a run in them as well.

Having the offseason to prepare will help Romo not in learning the offense of gaining more of an understanding of defenses, but in getting in optimum shape.

Orton is set to count $4.37 million against the cap. The Cowboys could restructure his deal again to open up space or could release him. The latter seems to be a stretch considering Romo is coming off the surgery, but there is also a wonder if Orton wants to continue to play.

A look out: Owner and general manager Jerry Jones said the Cowboys are not likely to use a pick early in the draft, but finding a pick in the middle rounds as a possible developmental quarterback is an option. Just remember that the Cowboys have drafted three quarterbacks since taking Troy Aikman in the 1989 draft.

With Orton, Jon Kitna and Brad Johnson, the Cowboys have shown a willingness to spend on a veteran backup since Jason Garrett’s arrival in 2007.

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