Dallas Cowboys: Jon Beason

IRVING, Texas -- About three days into free agency and the Dallas Cowboys are not a better team today than they were on Monday.

They cut DeMarcus Ware. They cut Miles Austin. They have signed two defensive linemen in Jeremy Mincey and Terrell McClain that figure to be rotation parts, not cornerstone pieces.

Meanwhile elsewhere in the NFC East …

The Philadelphia Eagles have added Malcom Jenkins and Noland Carroll and traded for Darren Sproles. The Eagles also did some nice special teams' shopping with Chris Maragos and Bryan Braman and also re-signed their punter, Donnie Jones.

The New York Giants added a piece to their offensive line in Geoff Schwartz and brought in running back Rashad Jennings. The key move, however, was re-signing linebacker Jon Beason. They backed out of a deal with O'Brien Schofield.

The Washington Redskins have added wide receiver Andre Roberts, guard Shawn Lauvao and linebacker/special teamer Adam Hayward. Bruce Campbell is a low-risk help to the offensive line.

Too often we get caught up in the splashes in free agency only to see them not live up to the billing down the road.

Before free agency started Stephen Jones said the Cowboys would be efficient with their spending in free agency. To see them sit back and wait should not be surprising, but that doesn't mean fans can't be aggravated.

There are good players still to be had. The Cowboys could still re-sign Jason Hatcher or add Henry Melton. While they can afford both, I don't think signing both would make sense. They could keep Anthony Spencer and hope his repaired knee comes around. They could take fliers on some of the bigger names you want if those prices come down as free agency rolls along.

As maddening as the 8-8 finishes have been, the Cowboys have been the only team in the NFC East to compete for a division title the last three years. It's a hollow accomplishment for sure, especially when stacked up against the franchise's history, but spending for spending sake is not the best solution.

There is a plan and it has to be more than Mincey and McClain, right?

Jason Garrett not surprised by Giants turnaround

November, 19, 2013
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IRVING, Texas – After a 0-6 start to the season, the New York Giants find themselves back in playoff contention thanks to four straight wins.

Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett is not surprised at the turnaround.

“They’re a good football team,” Garrett said. “They’ve been a good football team for a long time, they’ve got a lot of good players. They’re doing what winning teams do, and I don’t think that’s anything of a surprise or a revelation at all. When you play winning football and you have talented players on your team and you’re well coached, typically you’re going to win more than you don’t.”

Eli Manning has played better. In the first six games he was intercepted 15 times, including three against the Cowboys. In the last four games he has been intercepted just twice. They have allowed just 47 points in their last four games with linebacker Jon Beason playing like he did in his time with the Carolina Panthers and defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul playing more like he did two years ago.

The competition as certainly helped as well. The Giants played the Minnesota Vikings with Josh Freeman at quarterback. Matt Barkley started for the Philadelphia Eagles. The Oakland Raiders are, well, the Raiders though they have improved some. Last week the Giants got the Green Bay Packers without Aaron Rodgers.

Still, the Giants are hot and the Cowboys aren’t.

“I think it’s really important to focus on what the task is every week,” Garrett said. “You play these games one game at a time. Certainly when you’re feeling good about yourself, that’s a positive thing. But the best teams, the best players are the ones that take each situation independently of the other one and do it to the best of their ability. That’s why you play one game at a time in this league. Anything you did last week really doesn’t have that much of an impact in what you’re doing this week. It’s a clean slate. It happens within ballgames play after play after play. The teams and players who are able to do that, who are mentally strong enough to do that, put the last one behind them and focus on this one, are the ones that typically do the best.”

The Other Side: Jonathan Jones

October, 19, 2012
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Jonathan Jones covers the Carolina Panthers for the Charlotte Observer. On this week's The Other Side, we talk to Jones about the the Cowboys' opponent for Sunday.

Here's our interview:

PODCAST
ESPNDallas.com's Jean-Jacques Taylor and Tim MacMahon join Ben and Skin for an entertaining and informative Dallas Cowboys think tank.

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Q: So, what's wrong with Cam Newton this season? Sophomore slump?

A: I'm not ready to call it a sophomore slump just yet, but it's getting there. First of all, it was going to be nearly impossible for him to repeat the type of production he had last season. But Cam's feeling more pressure this season. Last year the Panthers had a pass because it was obviously a rebuilding year, but after improving their win total 300%, that pressure mounts. And we still have to remember for as great a football player as Cam is -- his exploits at Auburn, what he did last season and what he'll do in the future -- he's still a 23-year-old barely in his second year as a professional. But I fully believe he's going to figure things out and stop pressing like he has been.

Q: Does Carolina need to start Jon Beason or Luke Kuechly?

A: I think they may have to start Kuechly just because Beason's knee has forced him to sit out two days of practice. Beason showed earlier this season that he's still the same Jon Beason who went to three Pro Bowls, but nagging shoulder and knee injuries have rendered him less effective. I charted that in his last game against Atlanta, he missed five tackles. And in Kuechly's first and only game at the Mike, he had the best game of his young career. The numbers show Kuechly is growing more comfortable on the field, and if Beason isn't close to full health, the decision is easy.

Q: Steve Smith doesn't have a touchdown this season. What's his biggest problem, if there is one?

A: I don't think it's his problem as much as Cam has been targeting Smith a lot. He threw to him 13 times against Seattle and essentially neglected some other targets. When that happens, it's easy for defensive backs to key in even more on the Panthers' top wideout. Newton hasn't distributed the ball through the air as well as he can -- and he's noted that. So once guys like Brandon LaFell and Greg Olsen get more involved, things will open up for Smith.

Q: It looks like the defense has struggled this season. Injuries, poor play or the scheme to blame?

A: Honestly, had you told me before the season that this defense would hold Tampa Bay and Seattle to just 16 points, I would have told you those were automatic wins considering the Panthers' offense. The defense, really outside of Beason and one missed game by top corner Chris Gamble, has stayed relatively healthy. But the Panthers haven't established that strong running game they've been known for, and a healthy run-pass balance always keeps the chains moving and the defense resting on the sideline. Certainly there was some poor play involved, most notably the huge drive by Atlanta in the final minute, but overall I think this defense has exceeded preseason expectations.

Q: Panthers start a three-game stretch with Dallas, then play Chicago and Washington. Is this basically their last chance to salvage their season?

A: I think so, and I think that's the sentiment in the locker room. You hear the "take it one game at a time" refrain, but these guys know that they're 1-4 and they've spent their bye week. You look at the NFC South and see that Atlanta locked up the division weeks ago, so the Panthers are playing for a wild card. And if they can even their record at 4-4 after these next three games, there's some hope for Carolina. But obviously, that's a tall task.

Power Rankings: Top 10 NFL linebackers

April, 12, 2011
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Power Rankings Linebackers ESPN.com IllustrationSan Francisco's Patrick Willis ran away from the field in our voting for the NFL's best linebacker.
ESPN.com’s NFL writers rank the top 10 linebackers in the league today. Next week: Top 10 cornerbacks.

San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis beat out a strong and diverse field for top billing in ESPN.com's latest positional power rankings.

All eight panelists ranked Willis among their top three, elevating the 26-year-old perennial Pro Bowler above James Harrison and DeMarcus Ware as our No. 1 linebacker in the NFL.

Even 12-time Pro Bowler Ray Lewis, the dominant linebacker of his era, pointed to Willis as a worthy successor to his undisputed reign. Not that Lewis is finished just yet. He placed fifth in the rankings behind Willis, Harrison, Ware and the Green Bay Packers' Clay Matthews. But there was no more complete linebacker than Willis.

"Nobody in the NFL plays their position better than Patrick Willis, and that is saying a lot," said Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc., whose insights helped shape my ballot. "He is as good a linebacker as Peyton Manning is a quarterback, as Andre Johnson is a receiver, as Adrian Peterson is a running back. He has no weaknesses."

Willis, a three-time Associated Press All-Pro first-team selection, is the first 49ers player since Ronnie Lott to earn Pro Bowl honors in each of his first four seasons. Joe Thomas and Peterson are the only other 2007 draft choices with four Pro Bowls.

Apples and oranges: Comparing linebackers from 3-4 schemes to their 4-3 counterparts proved problematic for some panelists. AFC East blogger Tim Graham ranked Ware first among pass-rushers three weeks ago, but only ninth among linebackers.

"Patrick Willis, Brian Urlacher and Ray Lewis would be great linebackers in a 3-4 or a 4-3," Graham explained. "DeMarcus Ware and Cameron Wake might not even be linebackers if they played in Indianapolis, Tennessee or Minnesota. At some point, I had to value elite pass-rushing abilities on my list even though those players aren't universal-type linebackers."

There was room for differing views. ESPN.com's John Clayton and AFC North blogger James Walker ranked Ware first among linebackers and first among pass-rushers. AFC South blogger Paul Kuharsky ranked Ware first among linebackers and second among pass-rushers.

"Separating Ware, Willis and Harrison is like splitting hairs, because it really depends on what you want in a linebacker," said Walker, who went with Ware, Willis and Harrison atop his ballot. "Ware is a slightly better pass-rusher than Harrison, and Willis is a future Hall of Famer in his prime. Age also has to be a consideration if you’re building a defense, and Harrison will be 33 in May. But they're all great."

First things first: Graham and NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert joined me in ranking Willis first. AFC West blogger Bill Williamson had Willis second only to Harrison.

"When I think of linebacker play in the current day, James Harrison pops out," Bill Williamson said. "I think he’s the gold standard of complete linebacker play. Look at his signature play in the Super Bowl against Arizona. That play will forever be part of NFL lore. Patrick Willis, who is also a great player, doesn’t have that play on his résumé. Plus, Harrison is an ornery cuss on the field. The man was born to be a 'backer."

Willis can't match Harrison in Super Bowl memories -- he could use a quarterback, for starters -- but he's not hurting for signature plays:
Lewis pointed to Willis when ESPN's Dana Jacobson recently asked him which young linebacker reminded Lewis of himself.

"I just love the way he plays the game," Lewis said. "He plays the game with a fire. He reminds me of myself -- a lot, a lot, a lot."

Unanimous decisions: The top five finishers received votes from all eight panelists. The gaps between highest and lowest votes fell between four and seven places for all but Willis, who ranked no lower than third.

Seifert ranked Lewis third. I had Lewis 10th and feared I might be measuring him against himself. No list of top linebackers would be complete without him, I thought, but a younger generation is taking over.

Hugs for Suggs: Lewis' teammate, Terrell Suggs, finished just out of our top 10 despite getting a No. 5 ranking from Kuharsky.

[+] EnlargePatrick Willis
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswirePatrick Willis has averaged nearly 149 tackles per season since joining the league in 2007.
"I unabashedly love Suggs, and frankly would have placed him higher if I thought there was any way he needed help to crack the top 10," Kuharsky said. "To me, there is a great deal of subjectivity in ranking this position when mixing guys from 4-3s and 3-4s, so I did a lot of know-them-when-I-see-them ranking. Suggs is absolutely a top-10 guy to me."

Clayton, Seifert, Graham and I did not list Suggs on our ballots while searching for the right mix of 3-4 and 4-3 talent.

Fit to be tied: The players tied for ninth on our list illustrate the varied criteria for the position. Kansas City's Tamba Hali is a pure pass-rusher in the Chiefs' 3-4 defense. Carolina's Jon Beason is a traditional 4-3 linebacker with the versatility to play multiple spots. He changed positions twice in 2010.

Beason peaked at No. 5 on my ballot. NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas had Beason sixth and considered ranking him higher.

"There was a time when I would have ranked Beason in the same echelon as Willis," Yasinskas said. "I think he has a chance to re-emerge if Carolina can put a better team on the field, particularly by getting better at defensive tackle and keeping blockers off Beason. If that happens, I think Beason can be as good as any linebacker in the league."

Youth on his side: New England's Jerod Mayo appeared on six of eight ballots, ranking sixth overall between Lewis and Urlacher. At 25, Mayo was one of two linebackers younger than Willis to earn a spot among the top 10. Matthews, 24, was the other. Graham ranked Mayo third.

"Nose tackle Vince Wilfork might be the anchor of the Patriots' defense, but Mayo is the one who ties their defense together," Graham said. "Mayo is a tackling machine who compensates for shortcomings at outside linebacker and injuries along the defensive line. He would be a star in any system."

On an island: Four linebackers received a single vote. That list featured Brian Orakpo (Clayton), Lance Briggs (Seifert), London Fletcher (Walker) and Wake (Graham).

Best doesn't mean most valuable: Matt Williamson called linebacker the toughest position to evaluate. I'll close by passing along a few of his thoughts:

  • "Willis is so exceptional it would be a coin flip with Ware. Willis has no weaknesses, but if I were a general manager, I would take Ware because pass-rushers are so hard to find. You can get away with a C-level middle linebacker and still have a good defense. You can have a two-down run-stopper and pull him out in nickel."
  • "Ray Lewis would not be in my top five at this point. For his age, he is still exceptional and a borderline Pro Bowler, but he doesn't run like he did. I remember when I was with the Browns, I looked at every report the team had written since 1999 and Lewis had the highest grade ever given out. He was nearly perfect."
  • "Hali is a one-trick pony, a pass-rusher, but he is great at it -- as good as any pass-rusher in the league."
  • "Beason is like Patrick Willis, but he is 95 percent of him. He can play outside, inside, he's smart -- but there is so little around him that people don't realize how good he is."
  • "Pass rushing is Clay Matthews' greatest gift, but he is the prototypical outside linebacker. He's a great technician and way more explosive and athletic than people realize. He's good in coverage, not great, but they line him up all over."
  • "London Fletcher is underrated, but not in this conversation. How Beason is to Willis, Fletcher is to Lewis. He is smaller and slower than Lewis, good among older guys."
  • "Brian Urlacher is still a really good player, but the top 10 might be a stretch. I would take him ahead of Lewis, behind Beason and Willis among 'Mike' 'backers. He is good in coverage. People forget that he was a safety at New Mexico. He doesn't run like he used to and is just not as dynamic as he was in the day."
  • "The Steelers have the best linebackers in the league. LaMarr Woodley is very strong and in that conversation too. Definitely top 15. Harrison is great against the run, extremely strong and one of the few linebackers in the league that is a difference-maker from an attitude standpoint. He brings attitude to the table like a Jack Lambert or a Dick Butkus or a Ray Lewis type. He is feared. He is one of the best leverage players in the league, great in pursuit, tenacious as hell. The other guy to know about is Lawrence Timmons. He will be spectacular."

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