Dallas Cowboys: Marshal Yanda

NFC East Top 20: No. 19 Evan Mathis

August, 17, 2012
In the final 20 days before the start of the regular season, we are counting down the top 20 players in the NFC East. For a full explanation, see this post.

No. 19 -- Evan Mathis, Philadelphia Eagles G

Mathis is one of only two offensive linemen on our list and the only one who plays inside. Yes, it's rare for a guard to make a list such as this one, but I consider myself an especially enlightened football mind and Mathis an exceptional candidate. His case has been made quite famously by the folks at Pro Football Focus, who ranked him the No. 1 guard in the league last year by a pretty fair margin. His overall grade of 34.6 is more than six points better than his closest competitor, Carl Nicks.

But what puts Mathis on this list is his status as one of the elite run-blocking linemen in the entire NFL. As a pass-blocker, he graded out just fine -- No. 9 in the league according to PFF, which charged him with three quarterback hits and 12 hurries. But we know pass-blocking in Philadelphia is rough, what with the quarterback running around and extending plays all day. Where Mathis stands out is as a run-blocker. PFF's grade on him in that area last year was 20.4. The second-highest grade they gave was Marshal Yanda's 6.9.

That's a stunning differential, and it elevates Mathis well above his peers in the most critical element of NFL guard play. Eagles running back LeSean McCoy is a good bit higher up this list, but after a year in which he rushed for 1,309 yards and 17 touchdowns, McCoy has not missed a single chance to credit his offensive line for the work they did opening holes for him. The combination of an explosive back like McCoy and a run-blocking line like the one the Eagles have is a devastating mix. Mathis, who didn't even ascend to his starter's role until late in training camp last year, may well be the most important part of it all.

Rankings so far

19. Evan Mathis, G, Eagles

20. Ahmad Bradshaw, RB, Giants

Fixing the Cowboys: Pass rush and protection

January, 19, 2012
Fixing Cowboys
IRVING, Texas -- I would like to thank my warmup acts -- Tim MacMahon, Calvin Watkins and Bryan Broaddus -- for their solutions on how to fix the Cowboys.

The salary cap will not be an issue. The Cowboys have said they will be able to do whatever they want in free agency, despite the dead money that lingers. By the time free agency begins, they could have around $20 million in room.

That’s plenty.

I’m looking at the four teams that are playing this weekend in the conference championship games as prime examples of how to structure your team.

Baltimore, New England, San Francisco and the New York Giants offer the Cowboys a blueprint of what works.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Spencer
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezAnthony Spencer has been solid against the run but does not get to the quarterback enough.
The NFL is not about running the ball and stopping the run anymore. Those are tired clichés. It’s protecting the passer, especially up the middle, and rushing the passer.

So while we can all say the Cowboys need to get better in the secondary, I’ll go with improving the pass rush first. DeMarcus Ware needs some help. Jay Ratliff needs some help.

The Giants have pass rushers all along their defensive front, from Jason Pierre-Paul to Justin Tuck to Osi Umenyiora. San Francisco has pass rushers in Justin Smith and Aldon Smith. Baltimore gets pressure from more than Terrell Suggs.

Go get a pass rusher -- make that two.

Let’s look at a team that lost last week: Houston. The Texans drafted J.J. Watt and Brooks Read, and Wade Phillips’ defense attacked the passer. Too often we have used the excuse that defensive ends in a 3-4 are just space eaters. Smith proves that wrong. So does Watt. They can be disruptive.

To come up with draft names at this point is somewhat silly, but at No. 14 the Cowboys need to get that 3-4 defensive end or outside linebacker, especially if they deem the Anthony Spencer experiment over. Spencer will be a free agent, and while he is solid against the run, he does not get to the quarterback enough.

My first two picks go to defensive end and outside linebacker.

What about cornerback? I’ll use San Francisco as an example again. Carlos Rogers was the epitome of “just a guy” when he played for Washington. He goes to the 49ers with that great front seven and makes the Pro Bowl. The Giants’ secondary is playing a lot better now that the pass rush has improved.

A terrific pass rush can offset some deficiencies in the secondary. We saw that in 2009 with the Cowboys.

If you want a cornerback, be wise. There is not a Jonathan Joseph or Nnamdi Asomugha available this year. Kansas City’s Brandon Carr offers some intrigue but he might get overpaid this year.

Next up is the offensive line.

[+] EnlargeCarl Nicks
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireThe Saints' Carl Nicks, a veteran who has multiple Pro Bowls to his credit, could be an attractive option for the Cowboys if he is available in free agency.
This is where MacMahon got something right in targeting New Orleans guard Carl Nicks in free agency. He must’ve been reading the blog last week when I made the suggestion. We have to suppose Nicks will be available and doesn’t re-sign with the Saints before the market opens in March. I’ll take my chances on a 26-year-old free agent with multiple Pro Bowls to his credit.

Interior offensive line play is huge. New England protects Tom Brady with Logan Mankins and Brian Waters. Baltimore does it with Ben Grubbs, who is also set to be a free agent, and Marshal Yanda. San Francisco has a first-rounder in Mike Iupati inside. The Giants have Chris Snee.

Too often last season Tony Romo was left dodging traffic up the middle, and quarterbacks just can’t survive there. So why not take a guard with the first-rounder? I’m not sure Stanford’s David DeCastro can come in and duplicate what Tyron Smith did at right tackle as a rookie. Unless they are special, most rookie linemen need time to adapt to the speed and power of the NFL.

Give me Nicks, a stronger, more veteran center, and new coach Bill Callahan, and the line will be better in 2012.

Plus, to me, the defense needs more work. They have to come away with at least three impact players in the draft and/or free agency.

If they can do that, they can jump into the NFC mix next season.

Is guard the new tackle?

January, 12, 2012
IRVING, Texas -- On Wednesday I wondered if the Cowboys would make a play for New Orleans guard Carl Nicks in free agency.

Some of you wondered whether paying a guard $7 million a year on average (or more) would be worth it.

To me, absolutely it would be worth it. Why? Guard play is vastly underrated. Not to go all Bryan Broaddus on you here and turn into an NFL scout, but the best quarterbacks in the league right now – Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Tom Brady – excel for a variety of reasons but a lot of it comes from the fact they see clean pockets.

New England guards Logan Mankins and Brian Waters were voted Pro Bowl starters for the AFC. The Saints’ Nicks and Jahri Evans were voted starters for the NFC. Rodgers has T.J. Lang and Josh Sitton at guard as well as Pro Bowler Scott Wells at center.

Quarterbacks can adjust to the outside pass rush. They can see it coming or feel it coming. When the pressure is in their face, they struggle. There’s nowhere to go.

Is guard the new tackle? Maybe teams should start thinking that way.

Some teams playing this weekend already do. Mankins, Sitton, Evans, Chris Snee of the New York Giants, a second-round selection, and Baltimore’s Marshal Yanda, a third-round pick when he came into the league, signed large extensions to stay with their teams.

Doug Free, Stephen Bowen to be targets

June, 28, 2011
IRVING, Texas -- The Cowboys will have 10 unrestricted free agents whenever football returns, and two made the top-50 list created by Pete Prisco of CBS Sports: Doug Free and Stephen Bowen.

Free checked in at No. 14, while Bowen was No. 27. I was a little surprised Prisco did not have safety Gerald Sensabaugh on his list because I know he believes he is a decent player. Free, Bowen and Sensabaugh would be the top-three the Cowboys have to keep.

Free was the fourth tackle on the list behind Atlanta’s Tyson Clabo and Baltimore’s Jared Gaither and Marshal Yanda. I was a little surprised to see him fourth because he plays the pre-eminent position and is only 27. Gaither did not play last year because of a back injury that has since healed apparently. Clabo is a right tackle only and Prisco said Yanda might be a better guard.

Here’s what Prisco wrote about Free:
“He took over as the starter at left tackle last season and was the Cowboys best lineman. Was it a one-year thing or a sign of things to come? The Cowboys want him back.”

To me, Bowen is going to get bigger offers than many believe. Teams know how good he can be and how he has improved each year. Prisco seems to agree:
“He is an aggressive up-field end who is coming of his best season at the right time. Look for the 3-4 teams to bid his price up. He's a real free-agent sleeper.”