NFC East: j.j. wilcox

Dallas Cowboys' projected roster

July, 18, 2014
Jul 18
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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.
IRVING, Texas -- Rod Marinelli likes what he saw from his Dallas Cowboys defense in the spring.

The defensive coordinator liked that he has more players along the defensive line. He likes the linebackers’ “movement skills.” He likes how cornerbacks Brandon Carr, Orlando Scandrick and Morris Claiborne can play man-to-man. He likes the growth J.J. Wilcox made at safety opposite Barry Church.

[+] EnlargeBarry Church and Morris Claiborne
Howard Smith/USA TODAY SportsDallas defensive backs Barry Church and Morris Claiborne didn't have much to celebrate during 2013.
But there’s something else Marinelli likes about the group.

“I think there’s something to prove a little bit,” Marinelli said. “Not something to prove from last year, but there are some guys coming here off the street with something to prove. There are some guys in contract years with something to prove. There are some guys coming out saying, ‘I want to be a better player,’ who have something prove.

“You get that many guys wanting to prove something, then you can become better. Right now what I like is how hard they’re going after their craft.”

Last season was a mess for the Cowboys' defense. It has been referenced so many times this offseason that “32nd-ranked defense” has been tattooed on everybody. The Cowboys gave up 6,279 yards in 2013 a year after giving up a franchise-record 5,687 yards. Five quarterbacks had four-touchdown games against the Cowboys. Two times in a three-week span, they allowed more than 620 yards. The New Orleans Saints had 40 first downs.

“It definitely bothers us,” Church said. “I’m speaking for myself, but it definitely bothers me. But there’s nothing we can really say or prove different. We were 32nd in the league and we weren’t that good on the defensive side of the ball. This year, the only way we can counter that is by playing good and becoming one of the better teams in the league at taking the ball away and against the run and the pass.”

It’s not just the players. The tag falls on the coaches, too.

“Nobody wants to look at last year and take ownership of that, but we have to,” secondary coach Jerome Henderson said. “And we’ve got to get better from there, and we cannot let that happen again.”

Oh, and now the Cowboys have to show they can be better in 2014 without the franchise’s all-time leader in sacks, DeMarcus Ware, who was cut, last year’s leader in sacks, Jason Hatcher, who signed as a free agent with the Washington Redskins, and their best playmaker, Sean Lee, who suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in organized team activities.

But the sense is that Marinelli likes it this way. He had ubertalented defenses with the Chicago Bears with guys like Brian Urlacher, Julius Peppers, Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman. He won a Super Bowl with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with guys like Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, Simeon Rice, John Lynch and Ronde Barber.

He doesn’t have an Urlacher, Sapp, Brooks, Briggs, Rice or Lynch with this group.

He has Henry Melton, whom he coached to the Pro Bowl with the Bears, trying to prove he can come back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament. He has Bruce Carter trying to prove he is a big-time player in a contract year. He has Claiborne, a former sixth overall pick in the draft, trying to prove he is not a bust. He has Carr trying to prove he is worth the five-year, $50 million contract he received in 2012. He has George Selvie trying to prove he was not a one-year wonder after putting up seven sacks last season. He has Tyrone Crawford trying to prove he can come back from a torn Achilles.

He has low-cost free agents such as Terrell McClain, Jeremy Mincey and Amobi Okoye trying to prove they can be prime-time players. He has Justin Durant trying to prove he can be a middle linebacker and Kyle Wilber trying to prove he can be a strongside linebacker. He has Rolando McClain trying to prove that a player who has retired twice in the past year has the desire to keep playing. He has DeMarcus Lawrence trying to prove that a second-rounder can make an impact as a rookie. He has Wilcox trying to prove he can play strong safety.

He has guys like Church and Scandrick trying to prove that they can put up solid seasons in back-to-back years.

So much to prove. So much to forget.

“The first thing you do is you take it as coaches and players and you take accountability for it,” Marinelli said. “And no excuses. Now we look forward. Now it’s about the expectations of this group and with expectations you have to execute. It’s that simple. That simple, yet that hard.”
IRVING, Texas -- When Matt Johnson spoke after the first day of the Dallas Cowboys' organized team activities about how well his hamstrings had felt for more than year, he joked that he needed to find a piece of wood to knock on.

Johnson
It must not have worked.

Johnson has missed most of the OTAs with a sore hamstring but there is a tiny hope will be able to do some work during next week's minicamp. Johnson suffered hamstring injuries that mostly kept him out for his entire rookie year. He missed last season with a foot injury that required surgery.

As they have since they drafted him in the fourth round of the 2012 draft, the Cowboys will remain patient.

"Our attitude is to try to give him an opportunity to show us what he can do," coach Jason Garrett said.

Some of you might ask why.

"The interesting thing about Matt is that every time we've given him an opportunity, he seems to do a pretty good job, whether it's in practice or some of the scrimmage situations that he's been in," Garrett said. "He just needs time on task. He needs to get out there. It seems to me that he's got a real good approach mentally. He continues to work. He doesn't seem outwardly frustrated. I'm sure he is, but he's just got to continue to work through it, get himself healthy. We're going to try to give him every chance to show us what he can do."

If the Cowboys were set at the safety position maybe they would feel otherwise. While they like what J.J. Wilcox has done this offseason, he is hardly a lock to win the spot. Jeff Heath started nine games last year.

Johnson, despite his inability to stay healthy, still has a chance to win a job.
IRVING, Texas -- Matt Johnson remains the most mysterious of all Dallas Cowboys.

In his third season with the Cowboys, he has yet to play a game. Hamstring, back and foot injuries have kept him off the field in his first two seasons. He is like some sort of myth.

Johnson
The questions asked to him on Tuesday after the first organized team activities (OTAs) were the same asked to him last spring.

“I can just repeat my answers from last year,” Johnson joked. “I feel like it’s been a long time since I’ve been in a groove playing football really since my senior year in college. It’s just good to get back out there with the guys and compete and kind of gear up for a new season.”

He hopes the new season isn’t like the old season. The Cowboys have been extremely patient with Johnson, perhaps more than they should have been. Johnson understands the angst fans have toward him.

“I have to own it, there’s no other way,” Johnson said. “I’ve been hurt. I haven’t proven myself. I haven’t proven why they drafted me.”

The Cowboys drafted Johnson in the fourth round out of Eastern Washington because of his abilities to make plays. He had 17 interceptions in four seasons. He had a four-interception game against Portland State as a sophomore.

All of that is so long ago, but Johnson still has a chance to deliver on what the Cowboys saw in him in 2012. They waited until the seventh round to draft a safety earlier in the month (Ahmad Dixon) and have yet to add a veteran. J.J. Wilcox, a third-round pick last year, is working with the starters now. Johnson is working the second team with Jeff Heath.

The screw in his foot will remain unless it starts to bother him. So far it hasn’t. He hasn’t had an issue with his hamstrings in more than a year, but he quickly looked to knock on wood once he said it.

Even though he hasn’t shown it, he feels he has improved.

“Mentally is the only way,” Johnson said. “I’ve tried to get better at my footwork when I’ve been out there, but I’m grasping the game better. It’s slowed down for me definitely from my rookie minicamp to now. The game is a lot slower. I want to get in a groove each day. I see myself progressing whereas before it was progress, progress, progress, have a setback. It would be nice to keep it going for a while.”
IRVING, Texas -- Everybody believes one of the Dallas Cowboys' most pressing needs is safety. Everybody except the Cowboys.

[+] EnlargeJ.J. Wilcox
Howard Smith/USA Today SportsThe Cowboys will rely on second-year safety J.J. Wilcox to add depth to the position in 2014.
The Cowboys liked Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Calvin Pryor, the top-rated safeties in the draft, but did not love either, especially when compared to offensive tackle Zack Martin, whom they took with the 16th pick in the first round. The Cowboys could have had Dix or Pryor at No. 16 but stuck with their board.

They loved Jimmie Ward, but in the second round. The San Francisco 49ers took Ward with the 30th pick in the first round.

When they looked at the rest of the board, they saw safeties who were comparable to what they already had on the roster, according to executive vice president Stephen Jones.

The Cowboys are putting their belief in last year’s third-round pick, J.J. Wilcox. He had 38 tackles in 2013. He started five games and missed three with a knee injury.

But it was the loss of his mother, Marshell Wilcox, in training camp that affected Wilcox’s performance the most. The Cowboys were set to name him the starter in training camp on the day his mother died, according to Jones. He missed two weeks to be with his family to grieve. He eventually was named the starter in Week 3.

SportsNation

Which 7th-round pick has the best chance to make an impact for the Cowboys this season?

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    10%
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    48%
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    21%
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Discuss (Total votes: 7,574)

“That can get a lot of people off track when you have that type of emotional tragedy like that,” Jones said. “It took a toll on him, and we started seeing signs of what we’d seen in camp towards the end of the year. But I think, obviously, that was a tough deal he was going through, and we have a lot of confidence we’re going to see the J.J. we saw in training camp.”

Wilcox was mostly a running back at Georgia Southern, playing safety only his senior season. The Dallas coaches, however, saw him make a quick transition to the position and were primed to rely on him as a rookie. After hurting his knee, Wilcox could not unseat Jeff Heath as the starter opposite Barry Church, but saw his playing time increase down the stretch.

The Cowboys drafted Baylor safety Ahmad Dixon in the seventh round. They also have Matt Johnson and Jakar Hamilton at the position. Johnson still intrigues because the 2012 fourth-round pick has yet to stay healthy enough to play in a game.

“Matt Johnson is the great unknown,” Jones said. “We’ll see. Maybe he’ll stay healthy and we’ll get to really take a long look at him.”

Chat recap: A look at safety play

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
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IRVING, Texas -- We had another lively Dallas Cowboys chat on Wednesday with a wide range of topics.

We touched on the Cowboys possibly trading down in the first round if a player like Aaron Donald was not available, the non-issue (to me anyway) of Tony Romo, Jason Witten and DeMarco Murray in Jerry Jones’ suite at the NCAA title game, if the scheme change was just an excuse for some of the poor defensive play in 2013 and, as always, drafting a quartrerback.

If you want to read the whole chat, click here.

If you have more questions, send me one on Twitter (@toddarcher) and use the #cowboysmail hashtag. The mailbag posts will go up Friday and Saturday.

But Geno in Plano asked a question I’d like to expand upon.

Church
Thomas
Geno: the Cowboys seem to undervalue the safety positions- always seem to back fill or try a stop-gap; any chance of signing a more proven commodity this year pre- or post- draft?

Todd Archer: I don't think so, Geno. There's not a real proven guy worth it right now. Look at Marinelli's safeties in Chicago. They were solid players but hardly stars. Maybe they look in the draft, but I really think they try to see what they have in J.J. Wilcox, Jeff Heath and Matt Johnson.

To expand, I have received a ton of questions about the safety spot this offseason because there is no doubt the play was poor in 2013 next to Barry Church. The Cowboys have not expressed interest in any veteran safeties that I have been able to determine, so it looks clear they will go with Wilcox, Heath and Johnson, as I stated in the answer. Personally, I’d take a look at Steve Gregory, but they are not about to take me up on that suggestion.

Jimmie Ward is among the pre-draft visitors, so they could look at him as well.

But the notion is that the Cowboys have to have an Earl Thomas to succeed in today’s NFL. Sure, but how many teams have an Earl Thomas? Five years ago everybody was saying the Cowboys needed to get a safety like Troy Polamalu or Ed Reed. Sure, but how many of those guys are rolling around?

They are rare players. I think the Cowboys would have selected Kenny Vaccaro last year if he wasn’t scooped up by the New Orleans Saints before Dallas picked in the first round. He was gone, so they traded down.

In his three years with the Chicago Bears, [Rod] Marinelli’s safeties were Danieal Manning and Chris Harris in 2010, with Chris Conte and Major Wright handling the duties in 2011-12. The Bears let Manning walk as a free agent when the Houston Texans offered him a big deal. Conte and Wright were third-round picks in the 2011 and 2010 drafts, respectively.

Wilcox was a third-round pick last year by the Cowboys.

Since 2000, the winning Super Bowl teams have had five All-Pro safeties: Rodney Harris (New England), Polamalu (twice), Darren Sharper (New Orleans) and Thomas.

You can get by with functional safeties. Marinelli did it in Chicago. He will try to do it here as well.

The question should be do the Cowboys have a functional safety next to Church, not whether they can get a Thomas.
IRVING, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys have signed three defensive players in free agency, but that does not mean they have fixed the woes on that side of the ball in the offseason.

Among the national visitors to the Cowboys next week for pre-draft visits are UCLA outside linebacker Anthony Barr, Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald, Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier, Boise State defensive end Demarcus Lawrence and Northern Illinois safety Jimmie Ward, according to sources.

Teams are allowed 30 national visitors leading up to the draft. They do not work out, but they meet with coaches and scouts and are put to the test mentally. The Cowboys can have an unlimited number of players work out at their Dallas day session on April 17 that includes players from local colleges or who played high school football in the area.

Donald has been linked to the Cowboys since an impressive showing at the Senior Bowl in January. He met with coaches at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis in February and will come to Valley Ranch as well. Donald might be the perfect fit as a 3-technique in Rod Marinelli’s defense.

The Cowboys signed Henry Melton as a free agent, but it does not take them out of the bidding for Donald, who had 11 sacks and 28.5 tackles last season. Melton’s contract is essentially a one-year deal. If he does not perform at a high level, the Cowboys can walk away from the final three years of the contract by not exercising the option.

Barr had 23.5 sacks in his last two years at UCLA and was a first-team All-Pac-12 pick. He played mostly linebacker, but his ability to rush the passer has some teams wondering if he can be a full-time defensive end. It is possible he could play strongside linebacker and move to defensive end in passing situations.

Shazier has phenomenal athleticism and can cover tight ends and running backs. With Bruce Carter in the final year of his deal, Shazier could provide excellent insurance or perhaps force Carter to move to the strongside linebacker spot. Shazier had 143 tackles last year for Ohio State and 44.5 tackles for loss in his career.

Lawrence led the Mountain West with 10.5 sacks in 2013 and had 20.5 tackles for loss. At 6-foot-3, 251 pounds, he is more of a defensive end than outside linebacker with long arms and deceptive strength.

Ward is one of the top safeties in the draft and could be a first-round pick. He had 95 tackles, seven interceptions and 10 pass deflections last season, but he is also coming off foot surgery. The Cowboys have not looked at the veteran safety market in free agency for somebody to play alongside Barry Church. They have said they like what they have in last year’s third-rounder, J.J. Wilcox, as well as Jeff Heath and Matt Johnson, who has yet to play in his first two years because of injuries.

In recent history, the Cowboys have shown a preference for selecting players who visited Valley Ranch before the draft. Last year, Travis Frederick, Terrance Williams, Wilcox, B.W. Webb and Joseph Randle were among the pre-draft visitors they selected. Since 2005, the only top picks not to visit the Cowboys before the draft were DeMarcus Ware (2005) and Morris Claiborne (2012).

Kiper's Mock 3.0: Cowboys

March, 13, 2014
Mar 13
10:30
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The Dallas Cowboys need defense when it comes to the draft.

That was the case before they decided to part ways with DeMarcus Ware on Tuesday. That remains the case whether they re-sign defensive tackle Jason Hatcher.

In his first two mock drafts, ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. had the Cowboys selecting Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. That would represent a fit because the Cowboys need help at safety as well, according to many folks.

But at the NFL scouting combine, owner and general manager Jerry Jones expressed optimism in J.J. Wilcox, a third-round pick last year. Wilcox’s season was slowed by the death of his mother, which took him away from training camp for a long spell, and a knee injury, which took him out of three games. When he did return he was unable to unseat Jeff Heath from the starter’s role.

But if you’re looking at what new defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli has done in his career, it has always been about the defensive line. The Cowboys have added two pieces in free agency in Jeremy Mincey and Terrell McClain, but they are hardly cornerstone pieces.

ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay had the Cowboys selecting Florida State defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan in his most recent mock. Pitt’s Aaron Donald has been the player most linked to the Cowboys since the process began, but he might not make it to No. 16 in the first round.

Mel Kiper's latest mock draft .

Free-agency primer: Cowboys

March, 7, 2014
Mar 7
11:00
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» AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South » NFC: East | West | North | South

Key free agents: Jason Hatcher, Anthony Spencer, Brian Waters, Danny McCray, Ernie Sims, Jarius Wynn

Where they stand: After finishing with the worst-ranked defense in the NFL in 2013, the Cowboys need help everywhere, but mostly on the defensive line. The need could be even greater if the Cowboys are unable to come up with a new deal for DeMarcus Ware, who is set to make $12.25 million in 2014 and count $16.003 million against the cap. Coming off an 11-sack season, Hatcher is likely to command more money from another team that will make it unlikely for the Cowboys to match, but they will not close the door on keeping him. Spencer is rehabbing from knee surgery and could be had on a short-term deal that will not involve a lot of money. The rest of their free agents are more fill-in types who will be allowed to test the market if not allowed to leave altogether.

What to expect: Not much. Last year the Cowboys added safety Will Allen and linebacker Justin Durant in free agency on short-term, low-money deals. The approach will be more that way than setting the market on a player as they did in 2012 for cornerback Brandon Carr (five years, $50 million). Executive vice president Stephen Jones said the Cowboys can be "efficient" spenders in free agency. The Cowboys will have to create space under the cap to sign players to modest deals. The best bet is for them to look for low-cost help on players on the line looking to rebound from down years or injuries. They also could look at safety, though Jerry Jones said at the NFL scouting combine that they liked their young safeties such as J.J. Wilcox. Whatever money the Cowboys do have is more likely to be set aside for Tyron Smith and/or Dez Bryant.

Cowboys' Twitter mailbag, Part 2

February, 22, 2014
Feb 22
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Here's Part 2 of the Dallas Cowboys' Twitter mailbag.

In it we discuss whether the Cowboys were wise to move to the 4-3, the cap issues and what the Cowboys might do at safety. If you want to check out Part 1, click here.

Cowboys Twitter mailbag, Part 2

January, 25, 2014
Jan 25
12:00
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IRVING, Texas -- The second part of the Dallas Cowboys’ Twitter Mailbag is ready for you guys.

If you have questions for next week or beyond, hit me up on Twitter (@toddarcher) and use the #cowboysmail hashtag.

Away we go:
 

Mel Kiper's re-grade of Cowboys draft

January, 24, 2014
Jan 24
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IRVING, Texas – Last April, ESPN's Mel Kiper gave the Dallas Cowboys a C+ for their draft grade. After seeing the season play out, Kiper bumped them up to a B in his re-grade.

If you're an ESPN Insider, you can click here for Kiper's comments. Insider

To paraphrase, Kiper liked what Travis Frederick did, even if he felt the Cowboys could have gotten him in the second round. Technically, that was just two picks later since they moved down to No. 31. And in the Cowboys' draft grades, Frederick was a second round pick because they had only 18 players with first-round grades. He was also a big fan of the Terrance Williams' pick in the third round.

He still has faith that second rounder Gavin Escobar will be a starter. As I wrote over the weekend, it will be the No. 1 job of new tight ends coach Mike Pope to make sure Escobar develops. Will he ever be a true on-the-line tight end? I'm not sure of that.

Kiper said J.J. Wilcox was not ready to start but has value. To me, it's a little disconcerting that the coaches would not insert Wilcox into the starting lineup late in the season for Jeff Heath, an undrafted free agent. Joseph Randle has the "upside of a No. 1 back," according to Kiper, which might be strong. I like Randle, but there's a lot to improve upon. Kiper didn't seem too impressed with DeVonte Holloman, but I would say he had his best game in the finale versus the Philadelphia Eagles.

If it were me, I would've kept the Cowboys at a C+ but there is one thing we do agree upon and Kiper hits it with his final sentence: "It's just still hard for me to believe a defensive lineman wasn't a part of the haul, given the age of that group."

Dallas Cowboys season wrap-up

January, 2, 2014
Jan 2
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Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final power ranking: 17
Preseason power ranking: 20

Biggest surprise: The Dallas Cowboys did not believe they could have a worse defense than the one they fielded in 2012. They were wrong.

Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan lost his job after the Cowboys finished the year ranked 19th in defense and allowed 400 points. The Cowboys not only switched defensive coordinators, they switched philosophies, bringing in Monte Kiffin to run a 4-3 scheme.

It never worked.

The Cowboys allowed 6,645 yards, 432 points and failed to deliver most of the time. They were hit by injuries, just as Ryan’s defense was, and poor play from big-name players such as DeMarcus Ware, Bruce Carter, Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr. Sean Lee was having a Pro Bowl-type season but hamstring and neck injuries forced him to miss most of the final seven games. Only Jason Hatcher, Orlando Scandrick and Barry Church had representative seasons.

Biggest disappointment: It’s hard not to go with Ware, who had a career-low six sacks. For the first time he did not play in every game in a season, missing three games with a quadriceps strain. He also played with injuries to both elbows, a back strain and stinger. But the pick will be Miles Austin. Like Ware, he suffered through injury. He missed five games with a hamstring injury and was held without a catch in two games as he attempted to play through the strain. He finished the season with 24 catches for 244 yards and no touchdowns. It was the fewest catches he had since 2008 when he was a bit player and first time since 2007 he did not score a touchdown. The Cowboys hoped for a late-season boost when he returned but it never came.

Biggest need: The easy answer is to say upgrade the entire defense. They need help at linebacker and safety. The defensive line needs an overhaul. We talked about Ware’s status, but Hatcher, who had a career-high 11 sacks, and Anthony Spencer, who is coming back from microfracture surgery, are set to be unrestricted free agents. The Cowboys used 19 defensive linemen during the year and found solid contributions from players such as George Selvie and Nick Hayden, but optimally they play in reserve roles. The hits on the line started in April when the Cowboys passed on Sharrif Floyd, their fifth-ranked player, at No. 18 and traded down and continued when Tyrone Crawford tore his Achilles on the first day of camp. Owner and general manager Jerry Jones said in the offseason the defensive line was a strength. There is no way he can say that now.

Team MVP: By process of elimination it cannot be a defensive player because the unit was the worst in the NFL. DeMarco Murray would get votes for a second-half MVP. The contest comes down to Tony Romo and Dez Bryant. Romo missed the final game because of back surgery, but threw 31 touchdown passes and was intercepted only 10 times while throwing for 3,828 yards. Bryant earned his first Pro Bowl berth and finished with 93 catches for 1,233 yards and 13 touchdowns. They made big plays at big moments. They had mistakes at big moments, too. As a result, they split the award.

Well, the Dallas Cowboys season has ended, thanks to a 24-22 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday night at AT&T Stadium.

With that we have our final Beat Writers Report.

Have fun.

Romo
Back surgery ended Tony Romo's season after 15 games and you can criticize him if you want. But Romo had a wonderful season, where he finished ninth in completion percentage, fifth in touchdowns and eighth in quarterback rating. He went toe-to-toe with Peyton Manning and should have won, but his interception at the end led to the loss. He threw four touchdowns in both wins against the New York Giants and in his 100th career start at Philadelphia threw for 317 yards, and despite two picks, earned the victory. In wild affair in Detroit the next week, where Dez Bryant was basically ignored, Romo had a quarterback rating of 102.9 and threw three touchdowns. It's easy to complain about the interceptions and the late season swoons, but the reality is Romo is a franchise quarterback without the rings. In the regular season finale, some of those Kyle Orton throws that sailed behind some receivers, including the one to Miles Austin at the end, might have been on target if No. 9 is playing. So while some fans want the Cowboys to draft a quarterback and begin the countdown on Romo's career, cherish what you have.

• According to Pro Football Focus the Cowboys had 32 drops and the biggest offenders were two of the biggest playmakers in the passing game. Bryant had 11 drops tied for fifth in the league and Jason Witten had six drops, fourth in the NFL among tight ends. Drops happen in the passing game. It's not liked but accepted in some fashion because it comes with the territory given the amount of throws attempted. However, 17 drops from Witten and Bryant is unacceptable considering their impact to the offense.

• This year fans want to rid themselves of defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. Last year it was right tackle Doug Free. Free compromised with a pay cut and he improved his play. With his season finished, Free handled this well at his position. The Cowboys ran 51 plays off right tackle this season and averaged 4.78 yards per attempt, which finished 10th in the league in average. It was a hard offseason for Free, who took the pay cut, withstood a challenge from Jermey Parnell in training camp for his gig and had people question whether he should remain in the starting lineup. While it was easy to say Tyron Smith was the Cowboys' best offensive linemen, Free, in my opinion, was the second-best.

Williams
Williams
• It's real easy to discuss what the Cowboys have done in the early rounds of previous NFL drafts. The middle rounds, three to five, is where the real action begins. The Cowboys drafted four players in those rounds in 2012 and third rounders wide receiver Terrance Williams (74 overall) and safety J.J. Wilcox (80th overall) started games and have bright futures. Fourth round pick, cornerback B.W. Webb (114th overall), looked overmatched. Running back Joseph Randle (fifth round, 151st overall) had a minimal impact this season. In the previous two seasons, only running back DeMarco Murray (third-round pick in 2011) has been a good selection from the middle rounds. The Cowboys, with needs for the defense, must get impact players for 2014 and 2015 if they're going to avoid further 8-8 finishes.

Notes: The Cowboys were one of 11 teams to score at least 400 points this season. The Cowboys scored 439 points, fifth-most in the league. Of the 11 teams, nine reached the postseason. … Romo was one of five quarterbacks with 30-plus touchdowns this season at 31. Romo joined Peyton Manning (55), Drew Brees (39), Andy Dalton (33) and Philip Rivers (32). … An NFL-record 863 field goals were made where kickers converted 86.5 percent of their kicks. Dan Bailey made 93.3 percent of his kicks, fourth best in the league, including his last 20 field goals. … There were 65 interception returns for touchdowns in 2013, second-most in league history. Two Cowboys were part of those totals in Brandon Carr and Sean Lee. Lee by the way, led the league with 174 interception-return yards.

Five Wonders: Changes on defense?

December, 11, 2013
12/11/13
9:00
AM ET
IRVING, Texas -- Those of you wondering where Five Wonders went on Tuesday, fear not. It's here on Wednesday.

We just pushed it back a day with the Dallas Cowboys playing on ESPN's “Monday Night Football.” And boy wasn't that an exciting contest?

Anyway, off we go ...

1. Jerry Jones said there will be changes on the defensive side of the ball after the debacle against the Chicago Bears. I wonder what they would be. And how big of a difference could they actually make? The scheme is the scheme. They can't become some blitz-happy team overnight. The personnel is the personnel. So does it make a difference if J.J. Wilcox starts over Jeff Heath at safety? Minimally. I'd look for Sterling Moore to be the nickel back if Morris Claiborne cannot return this week from a hamstring injury. Huge difference? Perhaps considering how lost B.W. Webb looks. Injuries could force a shakeup at linebacker. Does DeVonte Holloman get some time? He's not a weak-side linebacker by trade, but maybe it's time he plays instead of Ernie Sims or Cam Lawrence if Bruce Carter can't go. The defensive line does not have many options, but maybe Drake Nevis moves in for Nick Hayden. Again, we're not talking major changes.

[+] EnlargeDallas' Rod Marinelli
Casey Sapio/USA TODAY SportsWould Rod Marinelli be interested in rejoining Lovie Smith if Smith were to become a head coach again?
2. This isn't so much an “I wonder,” but it is for those wondering if Rod Marinelli will join Lovie Smith should Smith return to the NFL as a head coach somewhere. From what I'm told, Marinelli signed a three-year deal with the Cowboys when he joined the team in the offseason. Technically Jones could allow Marinelli to join Smith if he wanted, but he does not have to. The promotion rule was dropped a long time ago. Since Jones would not let Joe DeCamillis leave for the Oakland Raiders two years ago to be with Dennis Allen or Tony Sparano to leave for the New Orleans Saints when Sean Payton took over in 2006, I can't see Jones letting Marinelli walk. The defensive line has been a drive-through of sorts because of injuries and Marinelli has made it work. It's not been perfect by any stretch but it's been fine.

3. With all of the talk about how well Tyron Smith has played this season, I wonder if the Cowboys will be more patient than normal in talking about an extension for Smith. Under the terms of the new collective bargaining agreement, the Cowboys have a fifth-year option on Smith in which they would pay him roughly the amount of the transition tag in 2015. They have to make their decision to use the option year in the spring and the money becomes guaranteed after the 2014 season. Maybe the Cowboys will wait because they will have to do something with Dez Bryant, who will be a free agent after next season. They could franchise Bryant and use the option year on Smith, but with salary-cap limitations I can see them being more willing to get a deal done with Bryant first. Because the option year is a new tool teams will have a difficult time navigating those negotiations on long-term deals. Bryant will be a more pressing deal to get done and the Cowboys will be able to keep Smith in their back pocket, so to speak.

4. I wonder how strongly the Cowboys attack the defensive line in the April draft. Marinelli played a big part in the team choosing to pass on Sharrif Floyd last April because they did not want to use a first-round pick on what they viewed was a two-down defensive lineman. A few years ago the Cowboys saw their offensive line grow old with Marc Colombo, Leonard Davis, Andre Gurode and Kyle Kosier. They cut Colombo, Davis and Gurode and bit the bullet. Jason Hatcher turns 32 next season and will be a free agent. Anthony Spencer turns 30 in December, is coming off microfracture surgery to his knee and is also a free agent. DeMarcus Ware turns 32 next July and has been slowed by nagging injuries this year. Their one building-block defensive lineman is Tyrone Crawford and he is coming off a torn Achilles. For as well as George Selvie has played this year, he is not a building-block player. He is solid, but you would feel better about him being a backup than a full-timer. The rest of the guys still have things to prove. If the last few years has been about rebuilding the offensive line, I wonder if it's time to start rebuilding the defensive line.

5. I wonder if assistant director of player personnel Will McClay becomes a sought after front-office personnel person. The NFL has tweaked its Rooney Rule and now teams will have to interview at least one minority candidate for their head coaching or general manager vacancy. Last year there were eight head coaching vacancies and seven general manager jobs and none went to a minority. McClay, who is African-American, was elevated to his current role in the offseason and has the run of the personnel department. He has yet to set up a draft board, but he has been responsible for a lot of the pro personnel work in recent years and has found players that have come off the street and contributed to the Cowboys' success. He was a former head coach with the Dallas Desperados and has also helped the coaches on game day. He has received interest from teams in the past, but the Cowboys have not let him leave. This time they may not have a choice.

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