The NFL has a reputation for being a copycat league. So it makes perfect sense that the two best guard prospects in this year’s draft class spent the majority of their college careers playing left tackle – Iowa’s Brandon Scherff and LSU’s La'el Collins.

Last year, Dallas Cowboys rookie Zack Martin made that same transition, going from left tackle at Notre Dame to right guard in the NFL. And he wound up as a first-team All-Pro.

[+] EnlargeLa'el Collins
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyLa'el Collins is a first-round prospect who can play at several offensive line spots.
It’s still possible that Scherff or Collins could wind up playing tackle in the NFL, depending on where they land. But for a team like the New Orleans Saints that values the guard position so highly and needs to start building for the future behind veteran guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs, those two prospects could be strong possibilities with the 13th pick in this year’s draft.

“There are trends, and you look at that and say, ‘OK, this kid [Martin] just did it and he played really well for Dallas. And he was great.’ But you’ve gotta also look at the individual player,” said ESPN/Scouts Inc. draft analyst Steve Muench, who said that neither Scherff nor Collins is as “quick on his feet” as Martin was last year.

But Muench described both as worthy first-round picks and “plug and play” guards – meaning he believes they could step right in and start at guard in the NFL.

I chatted with Muench last week at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, where he said he was impressed by what he saw from the 6-foot-5, 308-pound Collins during the week of practices while Collins took turns playing left tackle, right tackle and left guard.

Scherff (6-5, 320) elected not to play in the Senior Bowl. He is projected slightly higher than Collins on most draft boards right now – often in the top 10 overall.

Muench said he has Scherff graded slightly higher right now as a guard prospect – though he believes Collins has a better chance to play right tackle in the NFL than Scherff if that’s what teams are looking for.

“I still really like Collins and thought he had a good week, but Scherff is a little more consistent with more explosive power. Both players should be good, though,” said Muench, who described Collins as a “mean run blocker” and said his only knock on him during Senior Bowl week was a few technique issues, like opening up a little too much with his feet during 1-on-1 pass-rush drills.

“Outside of the technique, I think he’s a really good player. He’s got a lot of talent. He’s got good hands, good feet, good balance. He doesn’t overreact to things in pass pro, lets it develop, stays in front of guys,” Muench said. “And then you don’t see it as much here [at Senior Bowl practices] because guys don’t fire off like they do on game film, obviously. But he’s a mean run blocker on tape, who’s got the power to move guys off, in addition to having enough athletic ability to seal guys, seal a defensive end, get up to the second level, cover up linebackers.”

Scherff was a first-team All-American and Collins a second-teamer in 2014, according to the Associated Press. But Collins, a Baton Rouge native, seems to have helped his draft stock by deciding to return for his senior season at LSU, where he won the Jacobs Blocking Trophy as the SEC’s top blocker and was named as the Tigers’ Most Valuable Player.

Collins said between practices last week that it doesn’t matter to him whether he plays tackle or guard in the NFL.

“I’m comfortable playing anywhere on the offensive line,” Collins said. “You’ve just gotta be ready to fit in wherever you need to be. So a guy like me, I feel like I can play inside and outside.”

When asked why he played in the Senior Bowl despite being projected as a top-20 draft prospect, Collins said, “Because I’m a competitor, and I look to get better. This is another chance for me to elevate my game, with NFL scouts out here. Who wouldn’t want to be here? …

“Why would you pass up on chance to work with great coaches and play against great competition?”

Collins said it would be great to play for the Saints, just an hour away from home, but he stressed, “Anyone that wants to give me an opportunity, I’ll definitely be there with open arms and that will be my new home.”

Cowboys position breakdown: Safeties

January, 27, 2015
Jan 27
Dallas Cowboys reporter Todd Archer breaks down the team, position by position, analyzing what the players did in 2014, what they can do in the future, and what the team can do to improve the position in 2015.

Under contract: Barry Church, J.J. Wilcox, Jeff Heath, Jakar Hamilton, Keelan Johnson
Free agents: C.J. Spillman

A look back: Church and Wilcox started every game at safety, which is the first time the Cowboys have had the same pairing for a full season since 2011 when they had Abe Elam and Gerald Sensabaugh.

Church led the Cowboys with 110 tackles, according to the coaches' breakdown. He had two tackles for loss, a quarterback pressure, two interceptions, six pass breakups, a forced a fumble, and a recovered fumble. Wilcox finished fourth in tackles, according to the coaches’ breakdown, with 89. He had three interceptions and eight pass breakups.

Like the defense as a whole, their play was solid at times and lacking at others. Wilcox has been a safety for just three seasons -- two at the NFL level. He is still learning the position and angles. Church is a decent open-field tackler, and knows how to keep himself in good spots on the field.

Heath played a backup role for most of the season, but missed two games with a broken thumb. He saw some time when the Cowboys went to a dime defense, and he covered tight ends. He is also a top special teams performer.

Spillman was picked up before the season started, mostly for his special teams’ skills. Hamilton was suspended the first four games for violating the league’s substance abuse policy and was active for just two games.

A look ahead: Church and Wilcox will return in 2015, and the Cowboys have not had the same pairing start the majority of games in back to back seasons since Roy Williams and Darren Woodson (2002-03). That should be a benefit for them and the defense.

But there remains room to grow for both. Wilcox has some playmaking skills, but he needs to see the field better. Church is solid, but there are times you want more. He is good enough to win with.

Heath takes grief for a lot of things unnecessarily. He was forced to play more as an undrafted rookie in 2013 and was exposed. He is a backup safety who can be a stop-gap performer while also playing a key role on special teams.

Spillman’s ability on special teams brings value, but he will only be back on a short-term deal, probably at the veteran minimum. Hamilton was having a decent training camp before a concussion and hamstring injuries kept him off the field. Then he was suspended. He has to show the coaches he can be trusted before they give him a role on defense. The Cowboys signed Johnson to a futures contract with the hope he could develop.

A look out: Whenever people talk about upgrading the safety position, they always mention how the Cowboys need a Troy Polamalu or Ed Reed in their prime. Now it’s an Earl Thomas or Kam Chancellor.

It sounds great, but there aren’t too many of those available on the planet. (And this might be a bad time to remind folks the Cowboys took Akwasi Owusu-Ansah in the fourth round before Chancellor was picked in 2010). The Cowboys were highly interested in Kenny Vaccaro in 2013, but the New Orleans Saints took him with the 15th overall pick. He was a disappointment in 2014.

Sometimes solid is good enough. The Cowboys could look to the draft for upgrades, but the more pressing need defensively is finding pass-rushers. If they can find more players to affect the quarterback, it would make their safety play better.

Cowboys position breakdown: RBs

January, 27, 2015
Jan 27
Cowboys reporter Todd Archer breaks down the Cowboys, position by position, analyzing what the players did in 2014, what they can do in the future and what the team can do to improve the position in 2015.

Under contract: Joseph Randle, Lance Dunbar, Ryan Williams
Free agents: DeMarco Murray, Tyler Clutts

A look back: In a word, Murray was phenomenal. The Cowboys wanted to be a physical team and Murray allowed that to happen. He led the NFL in rushing with 1,845 yards, setting a single-season franchise record. He also scored 13 touchdowns and opened the season with eight straight 100-yard games.

[+] EnlargeDeMarco Murray
AP Photo/Scott BoehmDeMarco Murray rushed for an NFL-best 1,845 yards this season, nearly 500 yards better than second-place Le'Veon Bell.
He was helped by three first-round picks on the offensive line, but he also saved his best season for a contract season. And he played in every game for the first time in his career, working through a broken left hand that required surgery.

When the MVP and offensive player of the year awards are announced later this week, Murray should be in the conversation.

Because Murray was so good, the Cowboys did not give Randle or Dunbar much work. Randle, however, managed to average 6.7 yards per carry and scored three touchdowns on 51 carries. He had runs of 38, 40 and 65 yards. He ran hard and his pace was different than Murray's and caught defenses off guard. Dunbar did a decent job as a third-down back. His opportunities will be lacking just because of the depth of the Cowboys' offense but he has a good feel for setting up screens.

Clutts didn't have a carry during the season and caught just one pass in the regular season. He added his first touchdown in the playoffs. Williams' comeback from injuries was a good story in training camp and he spent the year on the practice squad.

A look ahead: What happens to Murray will be the story of the Cowboys' offseason. Do the Cowboys pay him a nice reward or do they let him walk as a free agent? Depending on the day, hour, minute that answer can change.

Murray has value to the Cowboys for more than just his ability to run the ball. Finding how to come to a financial agreement with all those things considered will be difficult. It won't be impossible. The Cowboys can certainly afford Murray, Dez Bryant and make plays in free agency with their salary cap. If they don't keep Murray, it will be a decision that they don't want to overpay for a running back.

If that happens, then Randle will get a chance to prove he can be effective as a full-time back. There are those at Valley Ranch who believe he can be a 1,400-yard rusher, but they also acknowledge there is more to the position than running the ball.

Clutts could be brought back at a decent price as well.

A look out: If Murray walks, then the Cowboys would figure to be players in the running back market. While everybody wants to connect the dots between the Cowboys and Adrian Peterson, who remains under contract with the Minnesota Vikings, the cost of business with a running back will be a factor. Peterson won't come at a discount and the Cowboys would have already passed on keeping Murray because they didn't want to fork over a lot of cap space to a running back.

The draft would figure to be the more logical spot. Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon looks to be a good fit for what the Cowboys want to do in the running game and with the 27th pick in the draft, they might be in a good spot to get value. There will be other runners that will gain attention between now and May as well.

Remember, Murray was a third-round pick.

The series:
IRVING, Texas -- On Sunday, ESPN and Pro Football Focus unveiled a project to determine how close each team not in Super Bowl XLIX is to playing in the Super Bowl.

The Dallas Cowboys were deemed to be the closest of the 30 teams not in the Super Bowl. PFF graded the Cowboys with four elite players, eight good players, 16 average players and just two bad players.

But close is a relative term. Thirteen of the 30 players rated by PFF are set to be either restricted or unrestricted free agents. Teams change. Opponents change. What is true today won’t be true in September when the season begins.

[+] EnlargeBryant/Murray
AP Photo/Brandon WadeRe-signing stars Dez Bryant and DeMarco Murray will likely help Dallas be a contender again in 2015.
“I think more so now than ever before,” tight end Jason Witten said, “I think we have an identity in which how we play. And I think that’s something that you feel like you’re building and can build upon. Coach [Jason] Garrett did a great job of kind of enforcing that, kind of laying out that as a blueprint week in, week out since April of what’s going to allow us to have success. Having said that, you start over. No team's the same, and so you have to build that again. I think it was good for us to taste that. It was good for guys to get back there.

“But I don’t think that says next year just roll the ball out and we’re going to do it again. No, you’ve got to do it all over again. I do think we’re good at the right positions that will allow us to have a chance to be successful.”

The Cowboys should have the best offensive line in the NFL with Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin leading the group. Tony Romo had his best season. Dez Bryant, who is set to be a free agent, is among the best wide receivers, as is Witten among the best tight ends.

But then there’s DeMarco Murray. Like Bryant, he is set to be a free agent but there is no guarantee he will be back. If they have to use the franchise tag, it will be on Bryant.

If Murray leaves, the dynamics of the offense are sure to change. Maybe Joseph Randle can replace Murray. Or maybe Adrian Peterson, in fact, ends up a Cowboy. Or Mark Ingram. Or maybe some rookie. Maybe doesn’t fit into an equation.

And this is where "close to the Super Bowl," talk is not necessarily realistic. Thirteen of the 30 Cowboys graded by PFF are free agents, either restricted or unrestricted.

Eight of those 13 players are on the defensive side of the ball, including the leading tackler (Rolando McClain), leading interceptor (Bruce Carter) and second-leading sacker (Henry Melton). Key contributors like Anthony Spencer, Justin Durant and Sterling Moore (restricted) could hit the market to some degree.

When Garrett’s five-year extension was announced shortly after the Cowboys' season ended, he mentioned the word "build" in his opening statement.

“I think teams make mistakes when they say, ‘OK, we’re one player away,’” Garrett said. “I just think you’re continuing to try and build a football team. If we do that, right guys, the right way, that’s what gives us our best chance.”

The quick fix in free agency is sometimes never quick or a fix because the cost is so prohibitive. The Cowboys signed Brandon Carr in 2012 to a five-year, $50 million deal but he has not played to that level and entering his fourth year with the team he is looking at a pay-cut-or-be-cut scenario.

There is also the element of luck. Was it lucky that Tony Romo spun away from J.J. Watt and found Terrance Williams for a touchdown in the overtime win against the Houston Texans? Was it good fortune that the Cowboys were matched up with the dreadful AFC South?

The Cowboys saw a bit of bad luck in the playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers when Bryant’s catch was overturned.

“Sometimes it’s the way the ball bounces,” Frederick said. “You’re on the sideline and you drop one and it might bounce out of bounds or it might bounce back in and the other team picks it up. There really is a bit of luck in there.”

Each year is a delicate balance of skill, luck, health and chemistry mixed in with a team’s ability.

The 2014 Cowboys were close to contending for the Super Bowl. That doesn’t mean the 2015 Cowboys will be close to competing for Super Bowl L.

“One of the things you learn early on in this game is if we brought back the exact same team, the exact same players, the exact same coaches and we got together on April 20 for the start of the offseason program, we have to start all over again,” Garrett said. “So I do believe that you get yourself to a point and the experiences that we’ve had up to this point are real ones and we can benefit from those experiences, actual game experiences, success and adversities and all that, so we start from that point but we have to get back to work.

“We have to put our socks back on and start from the ground floor and do it all over again. That’s an exciting thing.”

Cowboys' youth movement has changed tide

January, 27, 2015
Jan 27
IRVING, Texas – Since Jason Garrett took over as coach on a full-time basis, the goal of the Dallas Cowboys was to get younger.

Garrett constantly referenced the tough decisions to part ways with veterans Leonard Davis, Marc Colombo, Andre Gurode and Kyle Kosier in 2011 and ’12. Last offseason, the Cowboys said goodbye to DeMarcus Ware and Miles Austin and made no attempt to re-sign Jason Hatcher.

It’s one thing to say goodbye to talented players who could have played their best football, but teams have to do a good job in securing those younger, cheaper replacements.

ESPN Insider Matt Williamson, ranked all 32 teams based on their talent aged 25 and under and the Cowboys checked in at No. 21.

That might be a tad low or it speaks to what kind of shape the game is in with so many teams blessed to have such young talent.

Williamson’s top three Cowboys under the age of 25 are no surprise: Tyron Smith, Zack Martin and Travis Frederick. All three just played in their first Pro Bowl. Smith and Martin were named All Pro. Tyrone Crawford and Terrance Williams rounded out the top five.

He also made note of guys like Rolando McClain, who will be a free agent, DeMarcus Lawrence, Anthony Hitchens and Cole Beasley.

I can’t give away all the juicy tidbits, but if you’re an Insider, click here.

Again, Williamson has these guys at No. 21. Considering the futures of this quintet, the Cowboys appear OK. In the NFC East, Philadelphia checked in at No. 16, but I'd put the Cowboys' top five against the Eagles' top five. The New York Giants checked in at No. 25 and the Washington Redskins were last.

Garrett has said that the goal of the team is to continue to build.

The drafts have been better in the last two seasons and the Cowboys will need to continue to hit on players if they want to be true contenders as Tony Romo and Jason Witten move to the final few holes of their careers.
Take a listen to this week's NFL Nation TV podcast as the crew breaks down the latest in "deflategate" and the lead-up to Super Bowl XLIX on Sunday at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.

Host Paul Gutierrez (San Francisco 49ers reporter) and co-hosts Coley Harvey (Cincinnati Bengals reporter) and Mike Wells (Indianapolis Colts reporter) are joined by two other NFL Nation reporters to discuss the big game.

Kevin Seifert (NFL Nation writer) takes us behind the multi-step process that goes into the pregame checking of football inflation, and the impetus behind the league allowing quarterbacks to play with their own footballs. He also chats briefly about the Super Bowl's head referee, Bill Vinovich, and what we might be able to expect from his mixed crew.

Jeff Legwold (Denver Broncos reporter) shares his thoughts on covering the Super Bowl after having been in the press box of each championship game since Super Bowl XXVIII in Atlanta in 1994.

Be sure to watch NFL Nation TV live on this Friday at 1 p.m./10 a.m. PT as we catch up with Legwold and ESPN Insider's Mike Sando, who will fill us in on the Hall of Fame selection process that will occur this weekend.

Also, be sure to give the show's podcast a listen following each taping.

Listen to this week's podcast here.

Cowboys position breakdown: Specialists

January, 26, 2015
Jan 26
Cowboys reporter Todd Archer breaks down the Cowboys, position by position, analyzing what the players did in 2014, what they can do in the future, and what the team can do to improve the position in 2015.

Under contract: Dan Bailey, L.P. Ladouceur, Chris Jones-*

(* - restricted free agent)

A look back: In a year in which the offense was outstanding and the defense was surprising, the special teams were only OK.

Bailey missed four field goal attempts (two were blocked). Jones’ gross (45.4) and net (39.8) averages were middle of the pack, and he missed chances to pin offenses deeper.

The return game was something of a disappointment. Dwayne Harris’ punt return average fell by 3.6 yards. His kickoff return average fell by nearly 6 yards. He was not as dynamic as he was in 2013. Some of that was the blocking. Some of that had to do with teams kicking it away from him.

The coverage teams were solid enough and C.J. Spillman came on late.

A look ahead: The Cowboys signed Bailey to a seven-year extension last offseason because of what he did and what he will be. They feel better about Bailey than just about any kicker they have had in the Jerry Jones’ era.

He is clutch. He doesn’t make excuses. He works hard. He keeps his head down. Jones has a big leg, but consistency is an issue. He is also a decent holder, which is a must with a kicker like Bailey.

Harris and Spillman were arguably the Cowboys best coverage guys and both are free agents. A special teams unit changes from year to year because of how the bottom of the roster fluctuates each year. It’s tough to build cohesion, but the Cowboys should look to keep their core guys and hope to see a rebound in 2015.

A look out: The Cowboys can sign Jones to a cheaper deal than the $1.5 million restricted free agent tender, but the amount is a guaranteed and it doesn’t stop them from signing a cheaper punter to bring in some competition.

Ladouceur turns 34 in March and does not appear to be slowing down, but the Cowboys always bring in an unknown during the offseason just to ease the work on the veteran. The Cowboys usually bring in a leg to do the same for Bailey, but there is no doubt he is the kicker for the present and the long-term future.

Cowboys position breakdown: QBs

January, 26, 2015
Jan 26
Cowboys reporter Todd Archer breaks down the Dallas Cowboys, position by position, analyzing what the players did in 2014, what they can do in the future and what the team can do to improve the position in 2015.

Under contract: Tony Romo, Brandon Weeden, Dustin Vaughan

A look back: It’s difficult not to call 2014 Romo’s best season. He led the NFL in completion percentage. He led the NFL in quarterback rating and Total QBR. He had the best touchdown-to-interception ratio of his career.

[+] EnlargeTony Romo
Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesBy many statistical measures, Tony Romo had the best season of his career.
And he did it coming off major back surgery and not being able to practice fully the entire season. After the second week of the season, Romo did not practice on Wednesdays during full practice weeks in order to build up strength in his legs and core.

It worked perfectly. The one time it didn’t was on Thanksgiving, a shorter week, in a 33-10 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.

Romo threw 34 touchdown passes and was intercepted just nine times. Three came in the first half of the season opener. He was more efficient than ever and benefitted from the belief in the running game. But as the running game slowed some late in the season, Romo’s play picked up and the Cowboys closed the regular season with four straight wins. He had 12 touchdowns and one interception. He completed 90 percent of his passes in the win against the Indianapolis Colts. He showed he didn’t need to throw for 300 yards to be successful. He did it just once all season.

And he showed again just how tough he is playing through two transverse process fractures and torn rib cartilage.

Weeden started the 28-17 loss to the Arizona Cardinals and completed 18 of 33 passes for 183 yards. He was picked off twice and threw one touchdown pass. The Cardinals made a lot of quarterbacks look pedestrian during the season. Weeden had a good spring, which helped the Cowboys decide to cut Kyle Orton after the veteran skipped the offseason program, organized team activities (OTAs) and mandatory minicamp. He had some good moments in the preseason and played well in relief of Romo against the Washington Redskins.

Is he a long-term answer or a stop-gap backup? The Cowboys will give him a chance to show that either way.

Dustin Vaughan made the roster as an undrafted free agent and was active for just one game. He has a big arm and showed potential in training camp and in the preseason, but his presence would not deter the Cowboys from taking a quarterback in the draft this spring.

A look ahead: For the first time since 2012, Romo will have an offseason to be able to perfect his craft. Back surgeries held him out in 2013 and ’14 and while he was able to play at a high level, he has long believed his improvement came in the spring when he tinkered with different things.

Romo turns 35 in April, but the Cowboys believe he is different than most 35-year-old quarterbacks because he didn’t play the first three years of his career. Maybe the back surgeries or hits he has taken eat up some of that clock. But this isn’t about a five-year plan with the Cowboys. There is no reason to think Romo’s about to hit a steep decline in play.

Mentally, he is at his best. Physically, he can still get it done and he has a top offensive line that is a huge benefit.

He is set to count $27.773 million against the cap, which is an astounding number but one that the Cowboys could keep him at with the kind of salary-cap shape they are in. By restructuring his deal, they would only add to how much he will count against the cap in the future.

Weeden is signed through 2015. The Cowboys will have Vaughan's rights through 2017.

A look out: Every spring we wonder if this is the year the Cowboys draft Romo’s successor. The guess now is no, they won’t. Whenever the Cowboys decide to move on from Romo or Romo moves on from the Cowboys, then they will find his successor. The thought of grooming quarterbacks these days seems quaint, like a glass of lemonade on a hot day. Teams mostly draft a guy early and play him.

They could look for a more veteran backup than Weeden, but there’s not a lot available and they still like Weeden’s arm and potential. The same goes with Vaughan.
Join us today at 1 p.m. ET, 10 a.m. PT, for a special ESPN NFL Nation TV Super Bowl Week Spreecast as episode No. 41 will review Deflategate and look ahead to what the Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots can expect heading into Super Bowl XLIX.

Host Paul Gutierrez (San Francisco 49ers reporter) and co-hosts Coley Harvey (Cincinnati Bengals reporter) and Mike Wells (Indianapolis Colts reporter) will be joined by EPSN NFL Insider Kevin Seifert and Jeff Legwold (Denver Broncos reporter).

Seifert, who has covered the world of NFL officiating with aplomb, will break down the process of inflating and inspecting footballs and how officials are involved in the process. He’ll also give us a scouting report on the officials assigned for Sunday.

Legwold, who covered the Broncos in last year’s Super Bowl, will then give us a day-by-day breakdown of the week and how teams attempt to stay focused with so many outside distractions.

Also, the crew will discuss the Pro Football Focus project that examined how many above-average players each NFL team was from contending for this year’s Super Bowl.

Viewers are encouraged to log in and ask the panelists questions as well as contribute in the chat feature.

NFL Nation TV will have a second show this week on Friday at 1 p.m. ET, 10 a.m. PT.

IRVING, Texas -- According to ESPN Stats & Information, the highest salary-cap figure in the NFL since 2000 has been the $24,752,941 the Washington Redskins heaped on defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth in 2010.

The Dallas Cowboys could very well break that mark with quarterback Tony Romo in 2015.

Romo is set to count $27.773 million against the cap because of a $17 million base salary and a proration of $10.773 million from his signing bonus in 2013 and restructure in 2014.

At the Senior Bowl last week, Executive Vice President Stephen Jones told reporters it is not a given the Cowboys will restructure Romo’s deal.

[+] EnlargeTony Romo
Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesTony Romo will cost the Cowboys almost $28 million in salary cap space next year.
“Obviously you don’t like to mortgage your future if you can help it,” Jones said. “We started making the move toward being a younger team and going a different direction in terms of pushing money out, so we’d prefer not to do that, but at the same time every situation has ramifications and you have to make tough decisions sometimes. I don’t think there’s an exact science, ‘Hey, we’re going to do it or not do it.’”

The Cowboys don’t want to do it and they probably don’t have to do it either even when it comes to re-signing Dez Bryant and DeMarco Murray to long-term deals or even putting the franchise tag (or transition tag) on either player and signing one to a long-term deal.

They can still create about $31 million in space with other moves and have enough to be viable players in free agency, re-sign their key guys and get all of their draft picks signed.

(Let’s get a misnomer out of the way: a restructure is not a re-do. A restructure is simply an accounting tool where the player still gets the same money it’s just counted differently against the cap. A re-do is a player taking less money. And Romo will not be taking less money, nor should he be asked to take less money.)

Last year the Cowboys turned $12.5 million of Romo’s $13.5 million base salary into signing bonus as part of a restructure. It helped the Cowboys get under the cap last year. They don’t need that help this March.

Romo turns 35 in April. The Cowboys have to believe he has three years left at a high level. If they can withstand such an astronomical cap figure, they should do it. Too often in the past they kept kicking the salary-cap can down the road.

The most common practice in restructuring a player’s deal is to turn the difference between his salary and the league minimum into signing bonus and prorate it five years. The Cowboys like round numbers, to a degree, in their capology and could move Romo’s base to $1 million and turn the remaining $16 million into a signing bonus.

Just like that, they create $12.8 million in space against the cap.

They also eat up $3.2 million more in cap space from 2016-2019 by doing so. Romo’s cap numbers in 2016-19 would jump to $20.835 million, $24.7 million, $25.2 million and $23.7 million.

But the cap will be going up in the future, so what’s the big deal? Sure. And Romo’s base salary in 2016 is just $8.5 million (just?). It might be better to turn the restructure trick in 2016 when you don’t have to prorate as much of the salary and don’t inflate the future cap figures too much.

But there is also this to consider when examining Romo’s $27.773 million cap figure in 2015.

The Cowboys can nibble away at that figure by restructuring it as many times as they want in the coming months, taking a bit here and there as they see fit instead of doing the maximum at the start of the league year and perhaps leaving themselves a bit more compromised in the future.

But go back to Jones words last week: The Cowboys don’t have to do it.

They should be more than willing to erase Haynesworth’s record.

Cowboys coaches will have to play catch up

January, 26, 2015
Jan 26
IRVING, Texas -- With the Pro Bowl over, the Dallas Cowboys coaches will be off for the rest of Super Bowl week.

When they return to work, however, they will be busy playing catch up.

After lasting two rounds in the playoffs and then coaching in the Pro Bowl, the Cowboys have yet to have closure on the 2014 season. After their loss to the Green Bay Packers and before they headed to Phoenix to coach Team Irvin in the Pro Bowl, most of the coaches had to get new contracts.

Coach Jason Garrett admitted the calendar has been pushed back a little bit.

"All that stuff has to be pretty clean," Garrett said. "The most important thing at the outset is to evaluate our own players and try to get that done the first week we get back."

Having almost all of the coaching staff back should help those evaluations, according to Garrett. Offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Bill Callahan left for the Washington Redskins but his replacement, Frank Pollack, has been hands on with the line the last two years. Assistant head coach/defense Monte Kiffin is not under contract and his status is in doubt.

The only new face so far on the coaching staff could be Marc Colombo, who is considered the leader to become Pollack's assistant line coach.

Having the coaches back helps in the "evaluation and when we start talking about our schemes for the coming year," Garrett said. "We'll go back and evaluate what we've done but it's not like we're teaching a coach or a number of coaches, 'This is what the offensive system is,' or the defensive system. We have a lot of those things in place. So that gives you a chance to go back and really evaluate it and make improvements on it instead of getting people up to speed. It applies to personnel and it applies to our schemes."

In addition to the evaluation of the players on the roster, the coaches have to get up to speed with the players who could one day be on their roster. The coaches would have spent three days in Mobile, Alabama, for the Senior Bowl if not for their coaching duties in the Pro Bowl. That is their introduction to the college players after the season.

They will have the chance to see the practice tape from the week and their scouts will get them up to speed before the NFL scouting combine in February.

In effect, the coaches will go through two-a-days.

"The priority will be these personnel meetings, evaluating our own team, but then you start to get that [college] stuff started," Garrett said. "Typically we work on our football in the morning and our college evaluation stuff in the afternoon."

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- It may not be as warm as Hawaii or have an ocean for players to frolic in, but Arizona will host this year’s Pro Bowl, marking the second time since 1980 that the game won't be played offshore.

While most of the attention this week has been paid to the deflation controversy, there have been plenty of Pro Bowl storylines in the desert leading up to the 8 p.m. ET kickoff Sunday at University of Phoenix Stadium (ESPN). For the second consecutive year, the game won’t feature an AFC vs. NFC format. This year’s teams will be led by a pair of Hall of Fame wide receivers: Michael Irvin and Cris Carter.

Here are five things you need to know about this year’s Pro Bowl:

Watt could win offensive and defensive MVPs: While there may not be an official line on whether the Houston Texans' J.J. Watt wins the defensive MVP, he is the perceived favorite. Watt may also be the most versatile player at this year’s game. He had the second-most sacks in the NFL this season with 20.5 and scored two defensive touchdowns. But he also scored three offensive touchdowns, and there’s this: Watt kicked at least one field goal during Friday’s Pro Bowl practice. He was also seen catching passes in the end zone.

Kickers will have to be more precise: One of the more significant changes at this year’s Pro Bowl will make both kickers -- the Philadelphia Eagles' Cody Parkey and the Indianapolis Colts' Adam Vinatieri -- work harder. The NFL narrowed the uprights from 18 feet wide to 14 feet wide for the game. The goal is to make extra points and field goals more challenging since kickers made about 84 percent of their field goal attempts this season. And as the NFL did during the first two weeks of the preseason, it is moving the extra point back to the 15-yard line, making it a 33-yard attempt instead of a 20-yard kick.

Pro Bowl is the NFL’s laboratory: Not only will the league experiment with the goalposts and extra points, the NFL will also implement changes for instant replay. Instead of going under the hood to review plays, the referee will watch replays on a Microsoft Surface, the same tablet teams have been using all season to review plays. The replays will be streamed to the tablet.

QBs will see familiar WRs: Of the six quarterbacks at the Pro Bowl, four will have a teammate lining up at wide receiver or tight end on their team. The Dallas Cowboys' Tony Romo will throw to Jason Witten and the Detroit Lions' Matthew Stafford will have Golden Tate as one of his receivers for Team Irvin. On Team Carter, the Colts' Andrew Luck will have T.Y. Hilton, while late addition Andy Dalton of the Cincinnati Bengals will have A.J. Green. The four quarterback-receiver tandems combined for 22 touchdowns this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Luck and Hilton had the most with seven, followed by Dalton and Green with six, Stafford and Tate with five, and Romo and Witten with four.

Stats and facts: Of the 115 players selected for the Pro Bowl this season, 88 will play. This is the sixth consecutive season 100 or more players were chosen. ... Last year, Team Rice beat Team Sanders 22-21 with the fewest points scored by a winning Pro Bowl team since 1996. ... Members of the winning team, including coaches, earn $55,000; those on the losing team get $28,000. ... Each team has the same number of AFC and NFC players this season. ... The Denver Broncos had the most Pro Bowl selections with 11, while three teams -- the Tennessee Titans, Jacksonville Jaguars and Minnesota Vikings -- didn’t have a selection. ... There are 36 first-time Pro Bowl selections this year. ... Five rookies will play in the game: New York Giants WR Odell Beckham Jr., Cowboys G Zack Martin, St. Louis Rams DT Aaron Donald, Baltimore Ravens LB C.J. Mosley and Eagles K Cody Parkey.

Dallas Cowboys' Twitter mailbag, Part 2

January, 24, 2015
Jan 24
IRVING, Texas -- Part 2 of the Dallas Cowboys' Twitter mailbag is ready. In it we discuss: If you want to see Part 1, click here. Away we go:

@toddarcher: Scott Linehan was asked this question at the Pro Bowl and he said the Cowboys will continue to do what they do. The difference is Bill Callahan will not be calling the running plays. That will now be Linehan's duty. The Cowboys have full belief in new line coach Frank Pollack in part because of what he brought to the running game changes first in 2013 and in 2014. Linehan will have tweaks but it will be more about the natural order of things and the development of players and the personality of the team. What it won't be is a change in scheme.

@toddarcher: I'm not sure I can put this in the "when" category. I think it needs to be in the "if" category. Rolando McClain and Doug Free can be re-signed now if the Cowboys and their agents get busy. I'll say this for Free, McClain and all of their free agents: It'll come down to price. I don't think the Cowboys break the bank, so to speak, for anybody. McClain played well but there are questions about him. I'm not sure a ton of teams will jump at him as a free agent and I think he realizes he has landed in a pretty good spot considering his past. To me, Free is a must-keep. He is better than people think and the leader of the room. Free is 31 but tackles can play longer. I'm not sure he will see a huge payday in the $6 million average per-year range.

@toddarcher: I would say it's fairly secure, but I don't think the Cowboys will avoid looking at taking a safety in the draft in the early or middle rounds if there is one they really like. Wilcox is an interesting case. He hasn't played the position long. He had decent moments and he had moments when you are reminded he has been a safety for just three years of his football life. He has natural skills but sometimes his angles are off and he gets beat. I think there's something to continue to work with but if you can upgrade, then I don't think the Cowboys should pass on the position.

@toddarcher: I would bring Dwayne Harris back. He plays a big role on special teams and on the offense. His numbers won't reflect that offensively, but he is a guy they can count on and he is a terrific blocker. He didn't have the breakout season I thought he would have as a returner, but he is dangerous. I don't think there will be a great demand for him in free agency. Maybe he'll look for a better opportunity for more playing time, but wherever he goes he will be a niche player.

@toddarcher: All three? Not good. Davon Coleman has yet to re-sign with the Cowboys and I'm told he's considering other options. I don't know what they could be, but it's certainly within his right to do that after spending most of the year on the practice squad. Chris Whaley is an intriguing process, but how well will he come back from the knee injury? Ken Bishop has the best chance. I thought he played well in the loss to the Green Bay Packers considering he too spent most of the year on the practice squad. There is something to work with there as a rotation guy. 
IRVING, Texas – At Sunday’s Pro Bowl, L.P. Ladouceur will be a lone wolf.

He is the only member of the Dallas Cowboys not to be on Team Irvin, where Tony Romo, DeMarco Murray, Jason Witten, Tyron Smith, Zack Martin and Travis Frederick reside. Ladouceur is on Team Carter, coached by the Baltimore Ravens staff.

Regardless, he is just happy to be at the Pro Bowl.

“After 10 years, to get a little reward like this, it’s a little cherry on top of the Sunday for me,” Ladouceur said. “It’s pretty good.”

This is actually his third trip to the Pro Bowl. He made two as a guest of former Cowboys punter Mat McBriar.

Ladouceur was added as a need player. And he missed Jerry Jones’ initial phone call.

“I was hanging out with my daughter outside; it was so pretty out,” Ladouceur said. “I called back and didn’t get a hold of him but (Marylyn Love, Jones’ executive assistant) told me, ‘Congratulations.’ It was a Friday afternoon. I’m with my family. I didn’t even think about it, to tell you the truth. Just a call out of the blue.”

Ladouceur has been just about perfect since he got to the Cowboys in 2005. He turns 34 in March and is signed through 2017. He joked he wanted to play “until I’m 52.”

“I’d like to play out my contract and then we’ll see from there,” Ladouceur said. “My body feels great. I can’t tell you I can play until I’m 40, but some guys have done it. Just year by year.”

And 2014 was a good year.

Jimmy Graham: Jason Witten is my idol

January, 23, 2015
Jan 23
IRVING, Texas -- Throughout the years, we have heard countless teammates rave about Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten.

This past season, we heard Dez Bryant and DeMarco Murray talk about Witten’s impact on them as players and men. We heard Tony Romo say Witten might be the best Cowboy of all time. Jason Garrett called Witten the best tight end in football for the past decade.

On Thursday, I pulled aside New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham after a Pro Bowl practice and asked about Witten.

During the practice, Witten, who was added to the Pro Bowl as an injury replacement for Denver’s Julius Thomas, took the first-team snaps over Graham. I wondered if it was Graham deferring to a tight end who will be playing in his 10th Pro Bowl.

"The first thing I told him is, you know, he’s my idol and he always has been," Graham said. "I try to emulate everything he does on the field and off the field. Not only does he do everything right on the field, and he’s been consistent for the past forever, but he does so much in his community. So I’ve tried to emulate myself just like him as a man, just because of the type of individual he is."

Graham and Witten have played in Pro Bowls before. They share the same agent, Jimmy Sexton. How they play tight end is different. Graham is more athletic, almost a wide receiver playing the position. Witten is the more traditional tight end.

"He is what I know I will be or what I try to be each and every year," Graham said. "And I strive to be the type of tight end that he is."