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Tuesday, January 11, 2011
New DC must fix recent first-round picks

By Tim MacMahon

It won’t matter how smart the defensive coordinator Jason Garrett hires is if he can’t cure whatever ails the Cowboys’ recent first-round picks on that side of the ball.

Wade Phillips didn’t suddenly become an X’s and O’s idiot last season. Phillips had a ton of success using the same scheme in which the Cowboys struggled miserably in the first half of the season. It’s foolish to think the NFL suddenly caught up with the scheme after all those years, suddenly figuring it out after the Cowboys closed the 2009 regular season with the first back-to-back shutouts in franchise history.

This defense was a disaster because the personnel failed. That’s the simplest explanation for the Cowboys going from the second-ranked scoring defense in the league to second to last in points allowed.

In particular, the drastic regression of outside linebacker Anthony Spencer and cornerback Mike Jenkins destroyed the defense.

There are other holes that need to be filled, specifically at safety and defensive end. But the 2009 Cowboys had an elite defense with average players at those positions in large part because Spencer and Jenkins played up to their first-round potential.

Spencer, who might have been the Cowboys’ most dominant defensive player down the stretch in 2009, had a mediocre season. He disappeared for long stretches and didn’t make nearly enough plays against the run or pass. After showing such promise as a pass-rusher – finishing with eight sacks in the last eight games the previous season, including the playoffs – he had only five sacks in 2010. And it took a pair of sacks against Philadelphia’s backup tackles in the season finale to get that total.

Jenkins had a miserable season after earning a trip to the Pro Bowl as an alternate in 2009. According to Stats Inc., receivers caught 54 of the 87 intended for them when Jenkins was covering them. He allowed 935 yards, the second-most in the league. He picked off only one pass, a dropoff from five the previous season. He led the league with six pass interference penalties and was flagged twice for defensive holding and one for illegal contact.

And here’s the ugliest stat of all from Jenkins’ third season: Quarterbacks had a 113.0 passer rating when throwing his way. By comparison, Tom Brady’s 111.0 passer rating was the best in the NFL.

It doesn’t take a ton of football knowledge to figure out that it’s a lot easier for the defensive coordinator if he can count on an outside linebacker to be a beast against the run or produce constant pressure on the passer and a cornerback to consistently cover his man with little or no help. Stars make schemes look good. That’s what’s expected from first-round picks.

Spencer and Jenkins can’t just be considered draft busts. They’ve demonstrated the ability the Cowboys believed they had when they traded up to get Spencer with the 26th overall pick in 2007 and Jenkins with the 25th overall pick in 2008.

That’s why getting the recent first-round picks right needs to be a top priority for the Cowboys’ next defensive coordinator, whether it’s Vic Fangio, Greg Manusky, Paul Pasqualoni, Todd Bowles or somebody else.