Dallas Cowboys: Zack Martin

Three thoughts on Day 12 of Dallas Cowboys' training camp:

A few days ago, I was watching practice with former Pro Bowl guard Nate Newton, while the offense was gashing the defense virtually every play.

Newton leaned over and said, “If Butch Davis or Dave Wannstedt was coaching this defense and they had a day like this, he’d tell one of his guys, 'Enough of this, let’s take them to the ground. I want to see somebody get hit.'

Wilcox
Well, J.J. Wilcox took it upon himself to drill Dez Bryant during Sunday’s Blue and White scrimmage. Less than a minute later, punches were being thrown.

Bryant had been talking trash virtually the entire scrimmage, and he had just taken a slant about 80 yards for a touchdown on the previous series. Finally, Wilcox had heard and seen enough.

He delivered a message. Good for him. Next time, delivering it sooner would be even better.

Zack Martin gets matched up with former Pro Bowl defensive tackle Henry Melton much of the time, and it hasn’t seemed to bother him.

It’s just training camp, but he looks like a player who is going to be a quality starter for a long time.

Martin
That is good because it’s devastating when a franchise misses on a first-round pick. One of the biggest reasons the Cowboys have only one playoff win since 1996 is they missed on a pair of first-round picks in 2008.

Coming off a 13-3 season, the Cowboys had two first-round picks and three of the first 61 picks.

They drafted Felix Jones, Mike Jenkins and Martellus Bennett. Neither first-rounder received a second contract with the Cowboys.

They spent a third-round pick on DeMarco Murray to replace Jones, they spent $50 million on Brandon Carr to replace Jenkins and they essentially spent a second-round pick on Gavin Escobar to replace Bennett.

Jones, Jenkins and Bennett didn’t have to be stars, but what if they were? The Cowboys would have more than one playoff win.

The same is true if they had each had been good players like Anthony Spencer. Or really good players like Greg Ellis.

None of them were impact players in Dallas, and the Cowboys have spent a lot of time, money and resources cleaning up that mess.

Dallas might have a similar situation with Morris Claiborne, but it looks like they got it right with Martin.

If the Cowboys can keep Tony Romo upright -- that is a huge if -- this could be the Cowboys’ best offense since the glory days of the early 90s.

In 2007, the Cowboys scored 455 points (28.4 per game) as Tony Romo passed for 4,200 yards with 36 touchdowns and 19 interceptions. Terrell Owens had 1,355 yards receiving with 15 touchdowns, and Jason Witten had 1,145 yards with seven touchdowns.

This offense should be able to run it, and the triumvirate of Dez Bryant, Witten and Terrance Williams is better than T.O., Witten and Patrick Crayton.

The key, as it was in 2007, will be the offensive line. If that unit plays to its immense potential this offense will be one of the league’s best -- as long as Romo is in the lineup.

Key number: 257

The Cowboys’ defense was on the field for 1,094 plays last season and 257 of them -- 65 runs and 192 passes -- gained 10 yards or more.

That’s 23.4 percent. Wow.

The 65 runs of 10 plus yards they allowed ranked second only to Chicago’s 84. Philadelphia (202) and Minnesota (200) were the only teams that allowed more pass plays of 10 yards or more.

The Tampa 2 scheme is designed to stop big plays because the safeties and linebackers are supposed to keep plays in front of them.

This is the biggest indictment of Monte Kiffin as defensive coordinator. He couldn’t get his players to play the scheme the way it was designed.

Player to Watch: Martez Wilson

The Cowboys are trying to convert Wilson from a linebacker to a defensive end, in part, because they are so desperate for someone, anyone who can rush the passer.

Wilson, who played nine games with three different teams last season, has a quick first-step and he used it to scoot past tackle Jermey Parnell during Sunday’s Blue & White scrimmage. Then he stripped the ball from quarterback Brandon Weeden and returned it from a touchdown.

“One of the things he has that’s just so evident is great quickness and explosiveness off the ball,” coach Jason Garrett said. “The biggest thing for him to do is to learn how to play the position and all the nuances of playing with his hand on the ground as a defensive end.”

The Cowboys need pass-rushers and playmakers, which is why he will get every opportunity to make the team.

Dallas Cowboys' projected roster

July, 18, 2014
Jul 18
11:00
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IRVING, Texas -- Examining the Dallas Cowboys' roster:

QUARTERBACKS (2)

The Kyle Orton watch is over now that the Cowboys released the veteran backup. The timing of it is a surprise, and Jason Garrett spoke optimistically all offseason about Orton’s return. Now the Cowboys turn their attention to Weeden as Romo’s backup. Weeden had a productive spring, running the first-team offense as Romo recovered from back surgery. The Cowboys haven’t kept a third quarterback since 2011, and Caleb Hanie and Dustin Vaughan will have work to do to crack the 53-man roster

RUNNING BACKS (4)


The last two spots could be up in the air. Randle, a fifth-round choice, will be pushed by free-agent pickup Ryan Williams in the preseason. Williams, a former second-round pick, was not able to stay healthy in Arizona. The Cowboys have given him a chance to win a backup job. Clutts did a nice job as a late-season pickup in 2013. He is more versatile than undrafted rookie J.C. Copeland, but I don’t think having a fullback on the 53-man roster is set in stone.

WIDE RECEIVERS (5)


I debated whether to go with a sixth, but later on you will see why I stuck with five. It is possible the Cowboys will look for a veteran in the final cuts if they feel limited by their depth because of injury, but I think they like the overall group. They will work their No. 3 receiver role on a rotation basis, but Beasley could emerge as a bigger threat on third down. There will be a lot of eyes on Williams, who takes over the No. 2 role on a full-time basis. Bryant is set for another Pro Bowl-type season.

TIGHT ENDS (3)


Witten remains near the top of the game at his position. His total catches were down last year, but his touchdowns were up. Escobar’s role figures to expand, especially as a No. 3-type receiver. Hanna has the inside track on the third spot, but I have a feeling the Cowboys will be looking for more of a traditional blocker, especially if they want to get away from the fullback spot to open up a role elsewhere.

OFFENSIVE LINE (9)

The top six are set, with Bernadeau or Leary fighting it out for the left guard position and the loser becoming the top backup on the interior. Parnell is in the final year of his deal, and if Weems develops, I wonder if the Cowboys would look for a trading partner. They have invested a lot in Parnell in time and money for him to be a backup, so it would be a risk, but perhaps one worth taking. Weems had a decent offseason. Clarke gets the nod as the No. 9 guy right now, but veteran Uche Nwaneri could work his way into the mix.

DEFENSIVE LINE (10)

I think the Cowboys will go heavy here, especially considering what happened last year and the numbers they have thrown at the position this year. Four of them are rookies -- Lawrence, Gardner, Bishop and Coleman. I believe Anthony Spencer and possibly Amobi Okoye will start the year on the physically unable to perform list, so they don’t make this 53-man roster with the idea that they join the team after the sixth game of the season. Wilson garnered the last spot over a 2013 starter, Nick Hayden, but there will be a few players in the mix for the final few spots, including Ben Bass.

LINEBACKER (7)

Carrying seven linebackers might be a little heavy, but I have special teams in mind when it comes to Will Smith. He benefits from having only two quarterbacks on the 53-man roster. The Cowboys spent the offseason telling us games are won and lost up front, so carrying an extra offensive or defensive linemen could get in this mix as well. McClain gets a spot only because of his experience. Backups of Holloman, Hitchens and Smith would be tough considering their youth, and I can see the Cowboys looking for veteran backup help around the final cut dates.

CORNERBACK (5)


Carr and Claiborne have to play exceptionally well for this defense to have a chance, and they might have to do it without much help from a consistent pass rush. Scandrick is coming off his best season, and Claiborne will have to beat him out to reclaim the starting spot. Moore can play inside and out. Mitchell showed in his limited offseason work that he can make plays. Last year’s fourth-round pick, B.W. Webb, will have to fight for a spot. Based on his offseason work, he did not make the cut for this roster.

SAFETY (5)

Church is the only player without questions. The Cowboys are projecting the other four with their biggest bet on Wilcox. He enters camp as the starter, but he could be pushed by Heath and Hamilton. Dixon will be more of a special-teams threat if he is to make the roster. Hamilton showed some playmaking in the offseason. No Matt Johnson? Not right now, especially after he couldn’t practice -- again -- for most of the offseason.

SPECIALISTS (3)


Perhaps Cody Mandell can push Jones, but Jones is the more consistent punter and has a good rapport as a holder for Bailey. Ladouceur remains one of the best long-snappers in the game. This group won’t change during the summer unless there is an injury.
Constructing a 53-man roster is a difficult process, piecing together 10 positions groups and matching up present needs with future production of older and younger players. This week we take a look at constructing the Cowboys’ roster.

Offensive line

Smith
On the roster: Tyron Smith, Mackenzy Bernadeau, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, Doug Free, Jermey Parnell, Ronald Leary, Darrion Weems, Uche Nwaneri, John Wetzel, Josh Aladenoye, Brian Clarke, Andre Cureton, Darius Morris

Locks: Smith, Bernadeau, Frederick, Martin, Free, Leary, Parnell

Inside track: Weems, Nwaneri

Need help: Wetzel, Aladenoye, Clarke, Cureton, Morris

How many fit? The Cowboys had 10 offensive linemen on the 53-man roster to start last season and through attrition ended with eight on the final 53-man roster of the season. Eight seems too light, but the Cowboys have carried just seven to the game for the past few seasons. Ten might seem like too many but finding offensive linemen can be tricky and the future has to be factored in with Free and Parnell entering the final year of their contracts.

As the Cowboys head to Oxnard, California, for training camp, I believe nine is the magic number. The top six are without question Smith, Bernadeau, Frederick, Martin, Free and Leary. The Cowboys could have their best line since 2007 when Flozell Adams, Andre Gurode and Leonard Davis made the Pro Bowl. The Cowboys invested three first-round picks in Smith, Frederick and Martin. Free rebounded with a solid 2013 season. Bernadeau and Leary are good enough to win with.

The questions are with the backups.

With Parnell entering the final year of his contract, could he be trade bait late in camp provided Weems shows he can be the swing tackle on game day?

There would be some salary-cap benefit, saving $1.5 million, especially if Parnell isn’t viewed as a starter in 2015 or beyond. The Cowboys could choose to extend Free’s deal, which could make a Parnell move possible. It’s all predicated on Weems, who had some good moments in the offseason.

The interior depth is a little in question. The loser of the left guard battle between Bernadeau and Leary becomes the top backup with Bernadeau serving as the backup center. Nwaneri has a lot of experience. Clarke could be a guy worth grooming for the future after what he showed as well. Wetzell might have some position flexibility as well at tackle and guard.

The series:

Quarterbacks
Specialists
Running backs
Safeties
Wide receivers
Cornerbacks
Tight ends
Linebackers

Best case/worst case: Tony Romo

July, 9, 2014
Jul 9
9:00
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IRVING, Texas -- In order to break out of their 8-8 doldrums, the Dallas Cowboys will need a lot to go right in 2014.

This week we take a best-case, worst-case look at five offensive and defensive players who will go a long way toward shaping the Cowboys’ season.

Tony Romo

Best case: He clicks with Scott Linehan

Romo
Romo will be on his third play-caller in as many years with Linehan taking over for Bill Callahan. Jason Garrett handled the job from 2007-12. Though Callahan called the plays last season, Garrett did not completely step aside. This season he will for Linehan. Their offseason together was limited as Romo rehabbed his back, sitting out 11-on-11 drills in the organized team activities and minicamp. Linehan likes to attack down the field, which is something the Cowboys did not do much of last season. Romo averaged a career-low 7.2 yards per attempt in 2013 and had just 44 pass plays of 20 yards or more in his 15 starts. Romo was intercepted only 10 times. Was that a product of being too careful or finding the balance between risk and too careful? Matthew Stafford was unafraid to take chances with Linehan as his coordinator in Detroit, which was at times to the team’s detriment. When Romo is at his best he is part risk-taker, part manager. With a defense that could be as leaky as it was a year ago, the Romo-Linehan partnership will have to work better than the Romo-Callahan partnership and look more like the 2007 version of Romo-Garrett.

Worst case: He can’t stay healthy

Romo expresses no worries about his twice surgically repaired back. The Cowboys express no worry about it either and passed on the chance to take Johnny Manziel in the first round. But Romo has had two surgeries on his back in less than a year and turned 34. Before the back surgeries, the Cowboys believed Romo was younger than his age because he did not play his first three years and was not subject to the pounding of the position. He was sacked 35 times in 15 starts, which was one off the most he had been sacked in his career. The Cowboys open the season against one of the most physical defenses in the league in the San Francisco 49ers. The last time Romo played against the Niners in 2011, he suffered a fractured rib and punctured lung, but he managed to return to that game and led the Cowboys to an overtime win. Romo’s toughness is without question -- he won his final start with his back so bad he needed surgery five days later -- but the Cowboys invested another first-round pick in the offensive line (Zack Martin) to make sure he can make it through a 16-game season.

What could have been for the Cowboys

July, 8, 2014
Jul 8
11:45
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IRVING, Texas -- Things are quiet at Valley Ranch these days. Most members of the Dallas Cowboys are on vacation, enjoying their final few weeks of downtime before training camp begins in Oxnard, California.

Everybody loves the fact it’s quiet, but things can change at any moment. Every team fears the 2 a.m. phone call, like every parent fears them.

So far, things have been quiet. But it could have been so much different had the Cowboys taken a different path in recent drafts.

Gordon
Gordon
The Cowboys wrestled with the idea of taking wide receiver Josh Gordon in the 2012 supplemental draft. They put in a midround bid for him only to be jumped by the Cleveland Browns, who took him with a second-round pick, in the selection process.

Coach Jason Garrett spoke with Baylor coach Art Briles numerous times about Gordon in the evaluation process. The Cowboys liked Gordon’s ability even if he didn’t play football in 2011 after transferring from Baylor to Utah. They felt they could help with the off-field issues that bothered Gordon and could fashion a similar plan to the one that helped Dez Bryant.

On July 5, Gordon was arrested and charged with driving while impaired after speeding down a street in Raleigh, North Carolina. He was already facing a year-long suspension for failing a drug test and is reportedly scheduled to meet with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell this month.

Manziel
The Cowboys also passed on Johnny Manziel with the 16th pick in the first round of this year’s draft. The Texas A&M quarterback seemed to be a Jerry Jones dream, but the Cowboys' owner and general manager listened to his football people and drafted guard Zack Martin.

Manziel has been in headlines ever since he won the Heisman Trophy as a redshirt freshman with the Aggies. This offseason he has been a frequent visitor to Las Vegas, and many photos have been taken and distributed of his time there.

The Browns have asked Manziel to calm down his off-field life, but Johnny Football hasn't slowed down. He has done nothing wrong other than failing to realize perception is reality when it comes to quarterbacks.

This isn't to congratulate the Cowboys for what they didn't do because they would have taken Gordon if no other team had put in a better bid and would have taken Manziel if they did not have so much money committed to Tony Romo.

But it shows you just how much luck can be involved in decisions.

The Cowboys could very well be getting the late-night calls the Browns are receiving. Every team could.

Training camp can't get here fast enough -- for every team.

Frederick looks to lighten Romo's plate

July, 7, 2014
Jul 7
12:15
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IRVING, Texas -- Dallas Cowboys center Travis Frederick likes to please. He especially likes to please his quarterback, Tony Romo.

As Frederick enters his second season with the Cowboys, he has one goal.

“I’m going to try and do as much as I can to take as much as I can off Tony that he was doing before for the offensive line,” he said. “Not necessarily because I was a rookie or this or that, but because, if I can see it better, that’s going to take one thing off his plate and that’s going to help the team as a whole.”

Frederick
Romo
Part of Romo’s responsibility is setting the protections with calling out the middle linebacker. The offensive line follows the assignment. If Frederick can take that responsibility away from Romo, then Romo can worry more about the coverage.

When Romo and Frederick watch film of practices or games, they discuss what worked and didn’t work, what they might do differently the next time.

“I think what really has helped is going through the season last year,” Frederick said. “It’s literally about situations. You can talk about as many situations as you can think of and still see 50 more. It’s about being in situations and maybe you make a mistake. Maybe last year I’d change the Mike (linebacker call) on something and he would rather have kept it. After it happened, he told me, ‘OK, this is what I would’ve done.’ Now in the next situation I can do it.”

It’s not just about making Romo’s life easier. If Frederick can do more, he makes it easier for his fellow linemen Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, Doug Free, Ronald Leary or Mackenzy Bernadeau.

“The more I can communicate, the better Zack’s going to be able to do, the better Tyron is going to be able to do, the better Doug’s going to be able to do,” Frederick said. “When that happens, everybody can move faster and play faster and they don’t have to think. If I can think more than I did last year, then it makes it less that everybody else has to think about.”

There is a physical adjustment Frederick has made this offseason, too.

“Hand placement has been a big thing for me,” Frederick said. “In college it’s just about getting it done. If you’re strong, you have a better opportunity because no matter where you grab usually you can just hold on. But in the NFL with the great talent we play against and even here in who we practice against every day, you really have to focus on where you’re playing your hands and an inch can make a huge difference.”

Cowboys' Twitter mailbag, Part 1

July, 4, 2014
Jul 4
12:00
PM ET
IRVING, Texas – Part 1 of the Dallas Cowboys’ Twitter mailbag is ready.

In it we discuss:

** The Rolando McClain deal
** The futures of Travis Frederick and Zack Martin
**The rebuilding of the defense
** The defensive coaches

 

Veteran depth key to offensive line

June, 26, 2014
Jun 26
4:50
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The Dallas Cowboys haven't made the signing of guard Uche Nwaneri official because they have to make a roster move first.

Nwaneri
Moving Sean Lee to injured reserve, thus clearing space when training camp starts, is one possibility. The Nwaneri signing means the Cowboys want to add experienced depth to an offensive line that is getting younger at its core.

Four potential starters are each under 25 -- Ronald Leary, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin and Tyron Smith.

Smith, 23, anchors the left tackle spot and is coming off a Pro Bowl season. The team picked up his vested option for next season and has plans to give him a long-term deal.

Martin, 23, was a first-round draft pick this year and will play right guard with the potential to move to right tackle in the future.

Frederick, also 23 and last year's first-round pick, was solid at center and appears ready for a long-term future with the Cowboys.

Mackenzy Bernadeau is 28 and he's competing for a starting left guard spot with Leary.

The old man of the group if you will, is 30-year-old Doug Free, who played well in 2013 after taking a pay cut. The Cowboys value him. The question is for how long, considering they have Martin on the roster as well as two younger tackles, Darrion Weems and Jermey Parnell.

Nwaneri is 30. If he makes the team, he's got eight years of experience and adds depth to the interior of the line, which is important to the Cowboys.

Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones has said protecting Tony Romo up the gut is essential considering the quarterback is coming off back surgery.

This offseason, the Cowboys devoted themselves to getting younger and as one team official said, youth is important.

When you stick with youth, mistakes happen, and the Cowboys are willing to deal with that -- at least right now.

But there is nothing wrong with adding an experienced player to the line, and if Nwaneri's deal is completed that's what the Cowboys will have accomplished.

Left guard battle is between brothers

June, 26, 2014
Jun 26
1:00
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The business of the NFL takes over on a regular basis, so when the Cowboys drafted Zack Martin in the first round last month, it meant somebody along the offensive line was going to lose a starting job.

What the team did was pit Ronald Leary against Mackenzy Bernadeau for the starting spot at left guard.

Kluwe
Leary
Leary started all 16 games at the position last season, while Bernadeau regained the starting spot at right guard after Brian Waters suffered a season-ending torn pectoral muscle injury. Bernadeau started 11 games for the Cowboys at right guard, but Martin is playing there now, so it's a position switch for the seven-year veteran.

"It's part of the business; it is what it is," Bernadeau said. "I can only control what I can control, and that’s getting better and doing my role and Martin is a great guy and I'm helping him out as well and talking to him. A great player, a great guy."

Leary said the same thing about Bernadeau, whom he called his brother despite the reality that they are competing for the same position.

"Competition is a good thing; it forces you to play your game," Leary said., "Play your best ball, and I knew coming into this game I was going to have to compete and I don’t have problem competing. So me and Mac, that's my brother, so it's not like we going behind each others back. We talk and help each other out; it’s a great thing."

From the moment the Cowboys signed Leary as an undrafted free agent in 2012, he was scheduled to become a starter. It just took him getting used to the NFL game after playing in college at Memphis.

The biggest issue with Leary was a chronic knee problem. It hasn't caused him to miss any games.

"This is as healthy as I've been in a long time, going back to college," he said. "I feel great right now, I'm feeling good right now."

Bernadeau was signed as a free agent from Carolina the same year and endured offseason health issues that prevented him from starting training camp on time. He played in 16 games in 2012, including two starts at center, showing the Cowboys position flexibility.

But last year, Bernadeau had more health problems and before the start of the season, the team signed Waters. He played well until his injury and then Bernadeau took over to start 11 games.

This summer at training camp, the Cowboys will share the first-team snaps between Leary and Bernadeau.

There's a belief both will remain on the 53-man roster regardless of who wins the starting job.

"We both compete as hard as we can and help each other on and off the field and we talk about certain plays we like and don’t like," Bernadeau said. "Its great competition. We're great friends and I understand the business."

Cowboys' Twitter mailbag, Part 1

June, 20, 2014
Jun 20
9:00
AM ET
IRVING, Texas -- Part 1 of the Dallas Cowboys' Twitter mailbag is ready.

In it we discuss:
Away we go:

@toddarcher: He will go on the refused to report list if he does not show and is not cut and the Cowboys would gain a spot on the 90-man roster in his absence. I want to get more into the "why" on Orton's absence. I don't believe it's unhappiness with his contract. I don't think he is looking to go anywhere else. I truly believe he doesn't want to play. But if the Cowboys don't cut him, then he might have to play. We all should be so burned to have to come back and earn $3 million for a season in which he might not play a snap. Orton can skip the first week of camp before the Cowboys would be able to come after some of his signing bonus money. If he retired, then he would have to repay the team $3.4 million. Would you want to write that check? Would you be willing to give up about $300,000 in fines, de-escalators and still make excellent money? I believe we'll see Orton sometime in late July in California. @toddarcher: No, because those aren't his strengths either. He can run with running backs and tight ends. When he plays with confidence, he is fine. He had a solid offseason in coverage, improving as the OTAs and minicamp went along. Now that doesn't mean anything when the pads come on but there were some encouraging signs. Linebackers coach Matt Eberflus made it sound like Carter is much more into the process of learning everything he needs to learn. That's a good thing. He's just not built to be a run stopper/pass-rusher. The weak-side backer in this scheme has to be the playmaker. Think Lance Briggs in Chicago. Carter has those skills, but can he put it all together? I'm not sure, but he did some good things in the spring. @toddarcher: As an Aussie, I was expecting a Mat McBriar question. Oh well. The Cowboys had nine picks. Do I think all nine will make the 53-man roster? No. I'll make Zack Martin, DeMarcus Lawrence, Anthony Hitchens and Devin Street locks. I like Ben Gardner, Ahmad Dixon and Terrance Mitchell to make it as seventh rounders. I think Ken Bishop and Will Smith will have chances too, but I'm just playing a numbers game right now. Then there are the undrafted rookies, like Tyler Patmon, Ben Malena and Davin Coleman. The Cowboys look to have some rookies who can contribute if not this year, then in the future. @toddarcher: I've asked and was told no. I think his day is done and I think the Cowboys want to see what they already have. There's something about Babin that just doesn't fit. He has been in a ton of spots the last couple of years. Teams keep biting on his talent. The Cowboys are content with their defensive line mix. @toddarcher: If you think about it, it is their base package. They will play more nickel defense than base package just because of what you said. It's all dependent on personnel groupings. If teams want to line up with a fullback or two tight ends, you'll see their base defense. If they want to spread the field, they'll go with a nickel look. The Cowboys feel like they're covered at cornerback with Brandon Carr, Orlando Scandrick and Morris Claiborne. They like their defensive line rotation, although there are a lot of questions simply based on the untested or unknown players added in the offseason or coming back from injuries. But at the end of the day, Rod Marinelli will be in a nickel defense 60-65 percent of the snaps. 

Stephen Jones: Cowboys O can be great

June, 19, 2014
Jun 19
11:00
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IRVING, Texas -- Much of the focus of the Dallas Cowboys' offseason has been about how to improve a defense that finished 32nd in the NFL last season.

The Cowboys swapped out defensive coordinators, bringing in Rod Marinelli for Monte Kiffin. They have swapped out players, cutting DeMarcus Ware and losing Jason Hatcher. They lost their best defender, Sean Lee, to a knee injury in May. Their highest-profile free-agent signing, Henry Melton, has not taken a team snap as he recovers from a torn anterior cruciate ligament. The biggest re-signing, Anthony Spencer, might not be able to take a snap in training camp as he recovers from microfracture knee surgery.

Despite the historic defensive deficiencies in 2013, the Cowboys were a Week 17 win away from making the playoffs.

With just a slight improvement on defense, the Cowboys believe they can contend for the postseason.

"I agree," executive vice president Stephen Jones said, "and I think we're better on offense than we were last year."

The Cowboys averaged 27.4 points per game last year, which was fifth-most in the league, but they averaged only 341.1 yards per game, which was 16th. They struggled on third down, converting just 35 percent, and they could not finish games by running the ball or chose not to attempt to run the ball.

Jones believes the offense has a chance to be great in 2014.

"Obviously we believe Tony Romo is an elite quarterback and you put the supporting cast with him, that's why picked Zack Martin," Jones said. "I think we're better in the offensive line and you'd hope so if you spent the 16th pick in the draft on one of the better offensive lineman in the draft. You'd like to hope you're better. And we were pretty good last year and I think we'll move that up to where you say, ‘Hey, we've got a chance to have an elite offense.'"

The pieces are there. Romo threw 31 touchdown passes and was intercepted just 10 times in 15 games. Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, DeMarco Murray and Tyron Smith went to the Pro Bowl. With Martin, the Cowboys have three first-round picks on the line with Smith and Travis Frederick. Wide receiver Terrance Williams proved he could be a playmaker last year and will take over for Miles Austin.

The Cowboys will break in their third playcaller in as many years in Scott Linehan after Jason Garrett and Bill Callahan, but Jones likes the freshness Linehan will bring to the offense. The Cowboys are not overhauling the system, but adding Linehan's wrinkles.

"I think he brings a different look," Jones said. "After a while when it's been Jason's offense and Bill ran Jason's offense and called the plays in Jason's offense but at the end of the day we'd been doing that for a while. I think now to add wrinkles and add things to it, I don't think it's going to be, when people get ready to play us, that they know exactly what to expect now."
IRVING, Texas -- Let's start the final day of the Dallas Cowboys' minicamp with some observations from Wednesday's team and 7-on-7 drills.
  • All eyes will be on Bruce Carter this season. If he can cover the way he did in this session, then he will be greatly improved over 2013. He blanketed Jason Witten on a corner route in the end zone, forcing an incompletion when Brandon Weeden's pass wasn't perfect. He also intercepted Weeden at the goal line, reading the quarterback's eyes as he tried to fire a pass low. After the play defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli challenged Carter by saying, "Do it again."
  • Weeden's best throw came on the first play of 7-on-7 drills when he put just enough air and just enough speed on a throw over safety J.J. Wilcox to wide receiver Terrance Williams by the goal posts. Williams was able to make the athletic grab and get both feet down for the touchdown.
  • Tempers flared when center Travis Frederick and defensive end Tyrone Crawford got into a scuffle. Rookie guard Zack Martin lost his helmet in the fracas.
  • Crawford had an active practice, but DeMarcus Lawrence also performed well hours after signing his first contract. He trapped Lance Dunbar on a shotgun run versus the first team. To close the day he drew a holding penalty on Darrion Weems and had a would-be sack of Vaughan.
  • Rookie cornerback Terrance Mitchell has wasted little time making a good impression. He had an interception of Caleb Hanie on a slant, forced a fumble that went out of bounds and broke up a Dustin Vaughan pass to LaRon Byrd.
  • The defense had some poor situational football on a fourth-and-long play. Tight end Gavin Escobar was able to come up with a first-down on a seam route with the linebackers and safety getting separated in their coverages.
  • Rookie safety Ahmad Dixon ended practice with an interception on a Vaughan overthrow of tight end James Hanna. Dixon sprinted up the field but heard the coaches and teammates yelling for him to get down because the turnover ended the game. No need to risk a return and have something bad happening.

Lawrence signs deal, rookies wrapped up

June, 18, 2014
Jun 18
9:15
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IRVING, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys' draft class is all signed, sealed and delivered.

Second-round pick DeMarcus Lawrence signed a four-year deal with the Cowboys on Wednesday morning, his agent, David Canter, tweeted, becoming the final member of the nine-player class to come to terms. First-round pick Zack Martin signed on Monday.

The Cowboys picked Lawrence, a defensive end, with the 34th overall pick after giving up their third-rounder to the Washington Redskins. The Cowboys viewed Lawrence as the third-best right defensive end in the draft behind Jadeveon Clowney and Anthony Barr and were willing to make a trade with a divisional rival to get him.

In two seasons at Boise State, Lawrence had 20 sacks and 34 tackles for loss, and the Cowboys hope he can grow into a premium pass-rusher on a defense that needs pass-rushing help. He has taken most of the first-team reps at right defensive end since the rookie minicamp.

“He’s made progress,” defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said. “Good progress in the drill work and all those things. Right now you’re just trying to get him ready for pads.”

Zack Martin signs four-year deal

June, 16, 2014
Jun 16
1:50
PM ET
IRVING, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys are down to one unsigned draft pick with first-round choice Zack Martin signing a four-year deal on Monday.

The Cowboys surprised some by passing on Johnny Manziel with the 16th pick of the first round to take Martin, who started 52 games at Notre Dame at tackle. In the organized team activities, Martin has lined up with the first team at right guard. He also took some backup center snaps last week.

Martin’s four-year deal is worth $8.967 million and includes a $4.842 million signing bonus. Second-round pick DeMarcus Lawrence is the last remaining pick to sign.

Martin is the third first-round pick the Cowboys have used on the offensive line in the last four years, joining Tyron Smith (2011) and Travis Frederick (2013). He was a two-time captain at Notre Dame and was named the MVP of the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. The last offensive lineman to be named an MVP in a bowl game was Penn State center Jay Huffman in the 1959 Liberty Bowl.

With OL retooled, Cowboys look to fix DL

June, 11, 2014
Jun 11
11:50
AM ET
IRVING, Texas -- The look of the Dallas Cowboys’ offensive line has changed dramatically over the last three seasons.

In 2011, the Cowboys started the process of tearing down the line, moving on from Marc Colombo, Leonard Davis and Andre Gurode. In 2012, they replaced Kyle Kosier.

But in stripping down the line, the Cowboys didn’t have ready-made replacements, with the exception of Tyron Smith, who was their first-round pick in 2011. Bill Nagy was an undersized guard and seventh-round pick. He started four games before getting hurt. The Cowboys recalled Montrae Holland to the roster and started him for 10 games. They relied on Derrick Dockery as well. At center, they went with undersized Phil Costa, who was undrafted in 2010. Kevin Kowalski, another undrafted player in 2011, was a key reserve.

This spring the Cowboys have a line with three first-round picks in Smith, now at left tackle, center Travis Frederick and right guard Zack Martin. Doug Free is the only holdover, moving from left tackle to right tackle.

This offseason the Cowboys have stripped down the defensive line. A year ago at this time, Jerry Jones called it the strength of the team. DeMarcus Ware is now with the Denver Broncos. Jason Hatcher is with the Washington Redskins. Jay Ratliff is with the Chicago Bears. Anthony Spencer is coming back from microfracture knee surgery.

“There is an analogy there,” coach Jason Garrett said. “A lot of veteran players, who were really good, of the same generation, and you have to transition. You have to get younger.”

Like the offensive line, the Cowboys didn’t have any ready-made replacements on the defensive line. Instead of going with late-round or undrafted players, the Cowboys are going with low-cost veterans with questions about health, consistency or both.

They added Henry Melton, Jeremy Mincey, Terrell McClain and Amobi Okoye in free agency. They kept Spencer on a one-year deal for short money. They drafted DeMarcus Lawrence in the second round and Ben Gardner and Ken Bishop in the seventh round.

“Defensive line is one of those positions you can’t have enough of those guys,” Garrett said. “Some of the best teams I’ve been around, some of the best teams we’ve completed against seem to have a boatload of these defensive linemen constantly coming at you … We’ve just got to keep them coming.”

Rebuilding is not one of George Carlin’s seven dirty words, but it sure can be viewed that way at Valley Ranch. The preferred word is retooling. The Cowboys have retooled the offensive line. They are in the process of retooling the defensive line.

There might be a question of quality, but there is no question of quantity.

“The best defensive lines I’ve been around are the ones that have ‘wave’ players,” Garrett said. “If you think back to the 90s when this team was winning Super Bowls there were eight legit defensive linemen rotating through games. Jim Jeffcoat playing 12 plays in a game. It’s ridiculous.”

Garrett went on to mention Leon Lett, Chad Hennings, Jimmie Jones, Charles Haley, Tony Tolbert, Tony Casillas and Russell Maryland.

“If you can have some of those guys play 30 snaps instead of 60 snaps or 15 snaps instead of 30 snaps, you’re going to be so much better,” Garrett said.

Nick Hayden played a defensive-line high 821 snaps in 2013 after being unemployed in 2012. Hatcher played 747 in 15 games. George Selvie, who was signed during training camp, played 744. Six of his seven sacks came in the first nine games.

“We played a lot of snaps last year,” Selvie said. “Where the rotation helps is everybody can stay fresh. The new guys coming in, it will help a lot. It was rough by the end of the year. We were hurting. A lot of snaps like that takes a toll on your body.”

To carry out the offensive line analogy, Lawrence can be viewed like Smith, a premium pick at a premium spot. And the job is hardly close to being over. Melton, Okoye, Spencer, Selvie and Hayden all could be on one-year deals. Mincey signed a two-year deal. McClain is on a three-year deal.

“The games are won and lost up front and always will be lost up front,” Garrett said. “If you don’t have good offensive and defensive linemen your skill guys can’t do what they need to do. So we’ve tried to do that. We’ve kind of tried to restructure our fronts over the last few years and build the team the right way.”

The retooling is in its infant stages, like the offensive line in 2011. The Cowboys have to replenish the defensive line in 2015 and beyond with more premium picks the way they have the offensive line.

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