NFC East: laurent robinson
In it, we discuss:
- The future of Tony Romo
- Mr. Indispensable
- Tyrone Crawford as a defensive end
- Morris Claiborne’s offseason.
- Once more on Kyle Orton, with feeling.
If you want to see Part 1 of the mailbag, click here. And this will be our last Twitter mailbag for a few weeks thanks to some vacation.
Away we go:
@toddarcher: Since Romo is such a golf guy, let's use a golf analogy: he's on the back nine. I don't know how anybody could think otherwise. He is 34. He is coming off two back surgeries. He is in his eighth year as a full-time starter. Just because he is on the back nine doesn't mean he can't play at a high level. I know the odds are stacked and thirty-something quarterbacks haven't won a lot of Super Bowls here lately, but I'd take my chances he's on Holes 12 and 13, if you will. He still has football in him, provided he can stay upright. I do think Romo is smart enough to adapt his game as he gets older. If you allow me to carry on with other sports analogies, here's another one: fastball pitchers can develop into multipitch guys over the years. Romo has done a lot on his own with some improvisation and ability to buy time. I don't think you'll see him run around as much as he did when he was younger. I think you'll see him pick and choose his spots. I believe he did some of that last year, which is one of the reasons his sack total was so high. He was willing to take the sack -- not necessarily the big hit mind you -- and move on to the next play rather than take a risk of a hit or a poor throw.
Is Tony Romo's best years in front of him or behind him? #cowboysmail— Nolan (@Nolan_Fowler22) June 20, 2014
@toddarcher: Conventional wisdom says DeMarco Murray because when he gets 20 carries in a game, the Cowboys win. I hate that stat. If it really means what it says it means, then Murray should get the ball on the first 20 plays of every game. We all know it doesn't work that way. But I'm also of the opinion that the running back position has been devalued. I think the Cowboys could get by without Murray. Would they be as good? No, but they would not be lost. To me, if they lost Jason Witten, then they would be in trouble. Witten has been a mainstay. He does everything. The passing game has missed receivers over the years, but Romo has been able to throw for more than 300 yards in game whether he has Kevin Ogletree, Laurent Robinson or Dwayne Harris playing big roles. Without Witten, I don't know that that would continue. And in the running game, Witten can set the edge. He's not a blow-them-up blocker, but he can displace defensive ends and linebackers to allow backs to pick holes. On defense, I really didn't have a candidate, but if I did, I'd probably go with Barry Church. I don't know what they would do at safety without him. The defense would take a different look, for sure. DeMarcus Ware type. He can be a Greg Ellis type. If he does not play well, then the Cowboys' defensive line will struggle. They need him to have a good year. I think the expectations have been raised on the kid from comments by guys like Jason Hatcher and Tony Romo. People need to remember he didn't have a sack in 2012 and he missed last year. There will be some growing pains, but the potential is definitely there. Orlando Scandrick will be the starter Week 1 against the San Francisco 49ers. To win that job from Scandrick he will have to knock out the champ, if you know what I mean. NFL's collective bargaining agreement, look at Article 4, Section 9. It's about forfeiture. If I had to bet when Kyle Orton shows up at training camp it would be either July 27 or July 28. Once he misses six practices, the Cowboys can come after the prorated amount of signing bonus in 2014. So in addition to the fines he induced in the offseason -- $69,455 for missing the minicamp, $10,930 for missing the physical -- and the $75,000 de-escalator in his contract for missing too many workouts, Orton would be fined $30,000 for missing camp. So let's say he misses a week, costing him $150,000. You're looking at about $300,000 in fines, de-escalators, which brings his base salary to just under $3 million. I think for 17 regular-season weeks and a month of preseason, Orton would be OK to make that kind of money and then walk away from the game. It will be interesting to see how this goes when the Cowboys get to camp. They have remained patient, to say the least, while Orton has been silent.
Take Romo, Dez, and Tyron out of the equation, who is Mr. Indispensible for the boys this yr?? #cowboysmail— Michael Scattone (@scattydukes) June 20, 2014
The story is from more than 10 years ago, when Edwards was coach of the New York Jets. As a boy, Edwards' father made him sweep the back patio of their house. When Edwards was done, his father went out back, saw the pile his son made and immediately went to the corners. They were untouched.
The message that stuck with McClay when he first heard the story was simple: Details matter.
In his current job as the Dallas Cowboys' assistant director of player personnel, McClay is sweeping the corners.
In this case, sweeping the corners is looking anywhere and everywhere for a player to help the Cowboys in next month's draft. This is McClay's first as the Cowboys' highest-ranked personnel chief not named Jones.
"He's there night and day," said McClay's former Arena Football League assistant and confidante Terry Gray. "He's got a relentless passion to provide Mr. [Jerry] Jones and Stephen [Jones] the very best product available within the means and the parameters of what he's able to work with. He's nonstop. Nonstop. He doesn't sleep a whole lot."
There will be time to sleep after the draft. Maybe McClay, 47, can sneak in a little bit in June after the minicamp ends but before training camp in Oxnard, Calif., begins in late July.
For now, sleep can wait. McClay, whom the Cowboys declined to make available for this story, is in charge of putting the Cowboys' draft room together. It is a painstaking process that takes months to go through but picks up its pace in the final few weeks before the Cowboys pick No. 16 overall in the first round on May 8.
This week, nearly 30 players from across the country will visit Valley Ranch, wrapping up on Wednesday. On Thursday, the club will host its Dallas Day workouts for the local draft prospects. When it is all over, McClay and the scouting department will be back in the office grinding away, sweeping the corners.
McClay's rise to this current position has taken him through the Arena Football League as a player and coach, the defunct XFL and the Jacksonville Jaguars, where he was the assistant director of pro scouting. He joined the Cowboys organization in 2002 as defensive coordinator of the AFL's Dallas Desperados and became the head coach in 2004. He also served as a pro scout for the Cowboys, and in 2012 he was named the director of football research. Last spring he was promoted to his current title.
"Everything equates in looking at talent," Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said. "He found some really unique guys in the arena league and then of course when he was back in scouting. He has had a passion for it, and it just seems like every step of the way he's done a good job for us. I commend him on the job he did finding guys like [George] Selvie and [Nick] Hayden, people like that. People that everybody had a shot at, but he brought them in."
Over the past few years, the Cowboys have found several prizes in street free agency in Laurent Robinson, Tony Fiammetta, Eric Frampton, Ernie Sims and Selvie, who had seven sacks last season. The Cowboys dressed 20 different defensive linemen in 2013.
McClay spent most of the season sweeping the corners for defensive linemen. And he was doing it long before he ever heard Edwards' tale. He did it at Houston Marian Christian, playing wide receiver as a freshman and quarterback as a senior to win Class 3A state titles in the Texas Christian Interscholastic League in 1981 and ‘84.
His high school coach, Mike Treybig, remembers walking into his office only to see McClay feeding the 16-millimeter film into the projector.
""William liked watching tape," Treybig said. "I would imagine he would've loved it if we let him call his own plays. I know there were times we allowed him to do that. He was definitely a student of the game. We didn't have to worry about a lot of stuff when it came to William. We knew he did his homework and would take care of things to give us the best chance to win on that Friday."
He found some really unique guys in the arena league and then of course when he was back in scouting. He has had a passion for it, and it just seems like every step of the way he's done a good job for us." -- Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones on assistant director of player personnel William McClay
McClay could have gone to Nebraska, but he chose Rice instead to stay close to home and played defensive back. He was recruited there by Mike Nolan, the current defensive coordinator of the Atlanta Falcons. Tyrone Willingham, the former head coach at Notre Dame and Stanford, was the receivers coach at the time.
He remembers questions from McClay about what receivers looked for, searching for ways to get better as a defender even if the wins did not come as much as the Owls would have liked. Willingham and McClay remain close to this day.
"I'm personally excited for the individual, but I'm more excited for the organization because they did not let talent, for one reason or another, slip through the cracks," Willingham said. "That, to me, is so important because when you have talent you want to let it rise to the top to better everyone else in the organization."
Clint Dolezel played two years at East Texas State, throwing for 3,152 yards and 22 touchdown passes. McClay was defensive coordinator with a hand in personnel for the Milwaukee Mustangs in 1995 when Dolezel was recommended and eventually signed.
By the time Dolezel retired in 2008 with the Desperados with McClay as his head coach, he threw for 44,563 yards and 931 touchdowns.
"So many scouts get caught up in the fact, ‘Well, we want him because he went to this big school,'" said Dolezel, now the head coach of the AFL's Philadelphia Soul. "And a lot of times they're right, but those are the no-brainers that no one is pointing a finger at if he doesn't pan out. Hey, he had the pedigree because he went to Texas or Oklahoma or Florida State or Alabama. The good ones find the ones at East Texas State and schools like that."
In his interview with the Jaguars, Tom Coughlin had McClay research a particular free-agent cornerback the team was high on and wanted to sign. McClay watched the tape and concluded that the player would not be worth the money or fit in the system. Coughlin briefly objected, but McClay held firm. He got the job, and the Jaguars did not sign the player.
"There is not a magic formula," Gray said. "It's just good, old-fashioned bust-your-ass hard work and lots and lots of tape. Lots of calls. Lots of research. Just looking at thousands of players until you find one you think fits for you. He's just got a very unique way knowing a football player when he sees one. That's commonly described by a lot of people, but he just knows it at a different level. It's more than just everybody saying, ‘He can't play.' It's Will finding guys that can play that no one considered.
"Will McClay is a machine. He's a film-watching, evaluating, researching machine. He just never stops and he will never stop."
There always will be corners to sweep.
Every Tuesday as always wonder about some things. Five Wonders is back and off we go:
- Jason Hatcher is having a career year and it could not have come at a better time. Hatcher will be a free agent after the season and already has more sacks this year than he has had in any season. And he could make the Pro Bowl, which is something he mentions frequently. But Hatcher will turn 32 next July. I'm on record saying the Cowboys can't pay age. But I wonder if the Cowboys would consider using the franchise tag on him. It would chew up $9-10 million in salary-cap room, but they would buy some time in finding defensive line help for beyond 2014. The Cowboys will have to make a number of moves to get under the cap, but they would be able to fit Hatcher in at the franchise number. Is it worth it? The Cowboys put the tag on Anthony Spencer last year, paying him $10.6 million. I thought it was the right move at the time and did not second guess it after Spencer's knee injury cost him all but one game this season. I'm not as sure about tagging Hatcher. They might have to restructure more deals than they would want and that would also affect the cap in 2015 and beyond. And last year the defensive line market was thin, even for the top players.
- Kyle Orton in the offseason. He will make $3.25 million in 2014 and count $4.377 against the salary cap. The Cowboys will have to do a lot of maneuvering to get under the cap in the offseason and could just restructure Orton's contract in the same way they did last March. The Cowboys have yet to start the clock on finding Tony Romo's replacement, which is another reason to keep Orton around. But the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers also offer up valid reasons to keep Orton even if he does not throw a pass this year. The Packers season has gone to shreds without Aaron Rodgers. They have not won since losing Rodgers, turning first to Seneca Wallace, who got hurt, then to Scott Tolzien and now they're on Matt Flynn. The Bears are 2-3 without Jay Cutler, though it is difficult to put much of the blame on Josh McCown. He's done a nice job and been a stabilizing force, but the Bears appeared to learn their lesson when they lost Cutler in previous seasons. Romo turns 34 in April. He's battled injuries in the past and had back surgery last April. Keeping Orton makes sense and something I think the Cowboys do. It's an insurance policy worth keeping. I wonder if the Cowboys will have a decision to make on backup quarterback
- I wonder if the Cowboys had Laurent Robinson in the back of their mind when they have signed some of these defensive linemen this season. Confused? Hear me out. In 2011, Robinson had a career year with 54 catches for 858 yards and 11 touchdowns, but because the Cowboys signed him to a minimum salary-benefit contract they were unable to re-sign him before he hit free agency. Jacksonville swooped in with a five-year, $32.5 million deal with $14 million guaranteed. It was way too rich for the Cowboys -- and ultimately the Jaguars -- but without the restriction Robinson would have re-signed with the Cowboys at a much cheaper rate. That brings me to the defensive linemen. When the Cowboys signed George Selvie, Everette Brown, Jarius Wynn, Drake Nevis and Martez Wilson, they made sure they got a second year on the contracts. They are all signed through 2014, so if they hit -- and Selvie is a hit -- the Cowboys hold their rights for a second year. That's a shrewd move, in my opinion.
- I wonder if DeMarco Murray can reach 1,000 yards. Yep, I do. Murray missed two games with a knee injury and essentially missed a third when he got just four carries for 31 yards against the Minnesota Vikings when the game plan called for Tony Romo to pass the ball early and often. But with four games to go Murray needs 303 yards to reach 1,000. In his last three games Murray has rushed for 89, 86 and 63 yards. If he keeps up that pace, he would get there. Reaching 1,000 yards should not be that difficult, but the Cowboys sure seem to make it difficult after years of Tony Dorsett and Emmitt Smith almost annually reaching the mark. The last Dallas runner to go for more than 1,000 yards was Julius Jones (1,084) in 2006 and that's the Cowboys only 1,000-yard rusher since 2001.
- I don't wonder if the Cowboys will rue the day they lost Alex Tanney, just as I don't think the Cowboys have rued the day since losing Matt Moore oh so many years ago. (Long-time readers will know how I feel about Moore). The Cleveland Browns signed Tanney off the Cowboys' practice squad last week. I liked what Tanney did in a short time with the Cowboys over the summer. He showed some things in his preseason work, but there will be a new Tanney next summer. Or even next week. I wonder if the Cowboys add a quarterback to the practice squad over the final month of the season. They could use the last four weeks to bring a guy in for a free look and essentially give him a “signing bonus” for four weeks of being on the practice squad and sign him to a futures deal when the season ends.
Tim McManus looks at 10 wide receivers who are still available on the free-agent market at this very late date, and it's an uninspiring list. The top name is Brandon Lloyd, who had 74 catches and 911 yards for the Patriots last year. But something's off with Lloyd that is scaring teams away. Fact is, he'd have been one of the Eagles' top three receivers if he'd signed a month ago, and they weren't interested. I have to think that, if they liked Lloyd, he'd already be on their team.
Laurent Robinson, the 2011 Cowboys touchdown maker, is also on this list but comes with major injury concerns due to concussion problems. Guys like Deion Branch and Brandon Stokley have put up decent stats in the league, but not without Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, respectively, throwing them the ball. Chad "Ochocinco" Johnson isn't what the Eagles need as they rebuild under Chip Kelly.
You get the idea. There's not much out there. And I fully understand why the Eagles wouldn't want to sign any of the receivers on this list. But it's Aug. 7, they haven't even played a preseason game yet and their wide receivers are dropping like flies. The reason they had so much volume at the position was to protect against injuries, and certainly there's no guarantee that there won't be any more injuries over the course of the next month. As much as they don't want to, the Eagles probably should hold their nose and take a flyer on someone like Lloyd or Branch or Stokley. Maybe call up the Redskins and find out what their plans are for Donte' Stallworth and Devery Henderson ... something to address what's becoming a problem for a team that already has a huge question mark at quarterback and is hoping to run as many offensive plays as possible.
"We have a lot of faith in our skill position group as a whole. That's kind of how we look at it," Eagles GM Howie Roseman said before Sunday's practice. "We're not only looking at the wide receiver group. We look at the running backs. We look at the tight ends. Those are the guys that we have high hopes and expectations for."
"When we met with Chip originally, he's much more personnel-driven than even I thought just from observing him at Oregon," Roseman said. "So it's going to be based on the guys who are producing at a high level. If that's the tight end position, they'll get more reps. If it's the receiver position, if it's the running back group ... I think that's yet to be determined since we're so early in camp."
We've been talking about this since before the Eagles hired Kelly. The best coaches are the ones who accurately assess their personnel and its capabilities, and design their schemes around those. It's not as though Kelly had some ironclad plan to run a certain specific offense and needs a piece to play the Maclin part in it. Losing Maclin makes the wide receiver group worse, unquestionably, but the depth the Eagles have at tight end (Brent Celek, James Casey, Zach Ertz) and running back (LeSean McCoy, Bryce Brown, Felix Jones, Chris Polk) offers Kelly options in the likely event that Arrelious Benn, Damaris Johnson and Riley Cooper aren't enough to replace Maclin's production. Kelly could be sitting in a film room two weeks from now deciding that the backs look so good that the September plan will be to throw it to them as much as possible.
I wrote Saturday that the Eagles won't be able to effectively replace Maclin, and I stand by it. But they're still going to have to play the games and do what they can to score as many points as possible. It appears as though their plan for handling this situation is the same one they've had all along -- to evaluate what they actually do have and be creative with it. Kelly surely isn't scared of that. On the contrary, it appears to be something he relishes.
I thought of this scene late Wednesday night, when I surveyed the day in the NFC East and realized that, on the second day of the NFL's much-ballyhooed free-agent signing period, the only player who had signed to play in our division was new Giants kicker Josh Brown. No offense, Josh. I'm not calling you a pair of socks. But I think even you'd have to admit this division hasn't exactly been a hot zone of free-agent activity to this point.
This is what happens when two of your teams had their cap space taken away and the other two don't seem to want to sign big-name guys. You wait. And you think of things to write and talk about. And you look for links. Like these.
Lorenzo Alexander says that the Redskins couldn't offer what the Arizona Cardinals offered in terms of guaranteed money or a chance at more playing time. This is why Alexander is an Arizona Cardinal today.
The Redskins are bringing in former Tampa Bay tackle Jeremy Trueblood for a visit this weekend. Not exactly the top end of the free-agent tackle class there, but that's where the Redskins are right now. They need to take a chance on someone who can outperform a make-good contract. We'll see whether they decide Trueblood can be that guy.
New York Giants
Free-agent linebacker Jasper Brinkley was in New York to visit the Giants on Wednesday. He left without a deal, but so did Cullen Jenkins a week or so ago and they still signed him. The Giants need linebacker help, and these early visits do tend to offer a clue or two about the kinds of guys they're after to fill their needs.
And the New York Daily News reported that Steelers free-agent safety Ryan Mundy will visit the Giants on Thursday. I kind of like Mundy as a safety option, and I know we've talked about him for a couple of NFC East teams. He's an under-the-radar guy who played a bit role in Pittsburgh but likely could handle more. The Giants' starting safeties right now appear to be Antrel Rolle and Stevie Brown, but in spite of all of the interceptions I don't think the Giants are ultra-comfortable going with Brown as a full-time starter just yet.
Remember how upset so many of you were last year when the Cowboys lost Laurent Robinson to free agency after his one big year? Yeah, well, the Jaguars cut him Wednesday, so you can have him back if you want him. But do you? He obviously didn't do much in Jacksonville, and the concussion issues appear to be a significant problem. I don't see wide receiver as a major need right now for the Cowboys, especially compared to others, and I think we've all learned our lesson here that sometimes the receiver is special and sometimes the system and the quarterback make the receiver.
Randy Galloway thinks Tony Romo could have helped himself in the public perception department if he'd given a little in contract negotiations with the Cowboys and helped them clear some cap room in advance of free agency. But as Randy notes early in his column, I don't think Romo cares that much about public perception. And in the NFL, you get your money while you can get your money. Not everybody's got UGGs deals and is married to a famous Victoria's Secret model, after all.
Ricky Jean Francois left Philadelphia without a contract Wednesday, though it remains possible the Eagles could sign the free-agent 49ers defensive lineman. Jean Francois is a versatile lineman who can play any of the three spots on a 3-4 defensive line, but he's not a full-time starter and could be looking for someone who thinks he is. Part of free agency is, after all, finding out what people think you're worth.
And Eagles brass isn't offering too many clues about what it was doing in West Virginia the other day checking out top quarterback prospect Geno Smith. I don't expect execs to offer many, either. Could be they were just doing due diligence and making sure they don't overlook any options with that No. 4 pick. Could be they've done a turnaround on their opinion of Smith and are going to shake up their whole quarterback plan. Could be anything in between. But I feel pretty confident saying they don't want us or any of their competitors to know the answer. Nothing wrong with a little gamesmanship when you have something as valuable as the No. 4 pick in the draft.
Seriously, some of this garbage just doesn't make any sense. Chris in Charleston, S.C. addressed me as "Matt," which shows he's been paying close attention to the blog for the past 16 months. And Frederick from Gresham, Ore. actually wrote that not enough people are giving Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III credit for his performance Sunday in New Orleans, and accused ESPN of racist coverage. What in the world is Frederick reading, watching or listening to, exactly?
Anyway, try harder, you maniacs, or we'll scrap this. Meantime, here's what I fished out of the sludge this week.
Andrew from Rockville, Md., asks whether I think all of the praise and accolades Griffin is receiving (and Frederick from Gresham is apparently unable to find anywhere) might go to Griffin's head. Specifically, Andrew says, he worries "that his development will be stymied because he feels that he is already at an elite level and no longer needs to prove himself."
Dan Graziano: In general, it's a worthwhile question to ask about any young player. But I think part of what the Redskins (and many other teams) saw that they liked in Griffin was his remarkably grounded nature. If you've ever spoken to Griffin, or to his parents, as many of us had the pleasure of doing at and around the draft, this is not something that would concern you. I believe the Redskins did their homework on Griffin before trading all of the very high picks they traded to get him, and I'm certain they asked themselves this very question. But he doesn't not strike you as the sort of person for whom this will be an issue. He's driven and determined and, I am sure, far from satisfied with one game. He's also a rookie quarterback, and there's little reason to believe he won't have some bumps in the road this year that will help keep him humble.
Dale from Novato, Calif., has an issue with the comparisons of Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Kevin Ogletree to the 2011 version of Laurent Robinson. Dale points out that the main reason Robinson was as involved in the Cowboys' offense as he was last year was that he was filling in for an injured Miles Austin, and that as long as Austin and Bryant are healthy Ogletree is likely to fill a lesser role.
DG: Your point is fair, Dale, and it's the main reason why people (especially fantasy football players) need to pump the brakes on expectations that Ogletree will automatically put up Robinson's numbers just because he's playing his position. That said, I wouldn't be so quick to assume Week 1 was a fluke. The Cowboys do like to use three wide receivers a lot, and Tony Romo seemed very comfortable looking for and throwing to Ogletree, especially on third down. If the guy can keep getting open, I think he's going to keep seeing the ball. And I also don't think Austin's any lock to stay healthy.
Bill from Reading, Pa., thinks that New York Giants safety Antrel Rolle should have been excluded from this week's All-NFC East team because of the mistake he made on Austin's touchdown. Bill says that play was bad enough to disqualify Rolle from the team in spite of anything else he did in the game, in his opinion, and that he knows I don't care what he thinks but appreciates the opportunity to tell me anyway.
DG: Bill, of course I care what you think, and you're entitled to your opinion. When I watched the game back, I saw Rolle as consistently active and disruptive at several different levels of the field, and I thought he played like the best safety on the field in that game. Which is high praise, considering how well the Cowboys' safeties played and my opinion of Kenny Phillips. But because you and others have complained, I went and checked out Pro Football Focus' grades for the week to see if maybe I was way off base. They ranked Rolle's performance 18th among Week 1 safeties, and the only NFC East safety who got a better grade was Philadelphia's Kurt Coleman, who had two interceptions. Rolle was their highest-rated safety against the run for the week, for the entire league. So while I don't think PFF is the be-all, end-all of analysis, I respect their work and seeing that they rated him there made me feel as though I had some sense of what I was talking about. Again, I respect your right and the rights of others to disagree, but I feel I'm on solid ground on this one.
And yes, it has begun. Derrick from Queens, N.Y., wonders, given the issues Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick has had last year and had in the opener with turnovers, would "a big... prototypical QB like Nick Foles, even though he is a rookie, better suit the eagles explosive offense?" Derrick believes the main issue plaguing the Eagles' offense is Vick's ability to get the ball out quickly and to open receivers.
DG: I agree that that's the issue, Derrick, but I disagree with any assumption that a rookie third-round pick is the answer. We haven't seen Foles in these situations in which Vick is struggling, and given what we know about rookie quarterbacks and the time it takes them to develop, it's no stretch to assume he'd have the same issues or worse. The Eagles are built around Vick and his unique abilities, which do exceed those of Foles. If he costs them the season, I imagine they'll say good-bye to him after this season and rebuild around someone else, possibly Foles. But they're going with Vick now, and to be calling for the rookie after one game is short-sighted.
See you all next week. Maybe.
No. 15 -- Jason Witten, Cowboys TE
The NFC East has more spectacular players, but there are few as reliable as Witten, who ranks third among tight ends in NFL history with 696 catches and fifth with 7,909 receiving yards. As the Cowboys' offense has shifted and changed around Tony Romo in recent years, Witten has hung in as the one constant, averaging 89 catches and 1,014 yards over the last five seasons. His numbers may have taken a step back last year, especially as Romo grew comfortable looking to Laurent Robinson in the red zone. But Witten was also needed more as a blocker last year as the offensive line struggled and the run game became a higher priority with the emergence of DeMarco Murray.
As the Cowboys approach 2012 with a plan to lean hard on Murray and with uncertainty in that No. 3 receiver spot vacated by the free agent Robinson, one of their chief reasons for offensive optimism has been the presence of the 30-year-old Witten. That's why his spleen injury, suffered in the preseason opener against the Raiders, is such a significant concern. Witten is the rare NFL player who can be counted on as a constant, and the Cowboys don't have anyone who can step right in and do exactly what he does for their offense. Without him, Romo would likely be at sea.
Assuming he comes back healthy and soon, Witten will be a vital contributor to this season's Cowboys. They might need him to stay in and block more, especially with Martellus Bennett having left via free agency for the Giants. But if that's the case, he offers value there. And when he's out running routes, his value to Romo is that the quarterback knows his tight end is going to be where he's supposed to be -- and that he'll almost certainly make the play.
Rankings so far:
16. Dez Bryant, WR, Cowboys
17. DeSean Jackson, WR, Eagles
18. Osi Umenyiora, DE, Giants
19. Evan Mathis, G, Eagles
20. Ahmad Bradshaw, RB, Giants
Jim McCormick at our fantasy site has authored a detailed post examining the choice between Dallas Cowboys wide receivers Miles Austin and Dez Bryant as 2012 fantasy options. It is a tough call. As Jim points out, they are being drafted very near each other in most mocks. And a good case can be made for or against either guy. Austin's proven an ability to produce as a No. 1, but he hasn't been able to stay healthy lately. Bryant has shown flashes of elite potential but has yet to develop reliability and is an off-the-field time bomb. However, the ultimate point is that this is a choice between two very good options:
While both players inspire valid degrees of concern, they also both have youth, undeniable talent and a capable quarterback on their side. The absence of Laurent Robinson, who finished as the 15th wide receiver in ESPN standard leagues last season with 145 fantasy points, can only serve to increase the attention that both Bryant and Austin will receive from Tony Romo. Austin has averaged 7.2 targets per game over the past two seasons, while Bryant averaged 6.7 last season and nearly 7.2 when Austin was inactive in 2011. If we assume that a good percentage of the Robinson targets will be shared amongst this duo, both should average more than seven targets per contest. This isn't a feast-or-famine scenario where only one wideout can "eat" this season; as the premier threats in a potent passing game likely to surpass 500 attempts, both players can realistically be projected to top 70 receptions and 1,000 yards with a quality share of scoring opportunities.
I'm picking Bryant here, because I think his best days are ahead of him and I don't want to miss them if they're happening this season. I think he's physically capable of being as productive and dominant as any receiver in the league. And I think the risks are less worrisome with Bryant than they are with Austin. There's reason to believe that Bryant, still just 23, can improve his route running and his maturity. There's less reason to believe that Austin, at 28, is all of a sudden going to stop having hamstring problems. He couldn't even make it through the first week of training camp without one. So it's Bryant for me. I think he's the guy that's going to have the better year in Dallas, and part of me thinks he might never look back and this debate might never be close again.
The fact Garrett's examples, in this case, are a third-year linebacker and a second-year running back says a great deal about where the Cowboys are as a franchise. Yes, of course they want to win in 2012-13. But the sense you get when you spend time around this team is that everyone is focused on building a successful and sustainable long-term future.
"Those young guys we have came in right away and just started molding themselves as impact players," star linebacker DeMarcus Ware said. "Those are the guys that are going to be here and be that team. And right now, our veteran guys are still in our prime, along with the guys who are going to take your place eventually. So I think we have the building blocks that we need, and I feel like we have that total team this year."
This year could go either way for a Cowboys team that still has questions about its defense, its offensive line and its depth in general. But those who focus only on the upcoming season and wonder whether Garrett or quarterback Tony Romo will be in trouble if Dallas doesn't reach the playoffs are missing the point. Garrett is increasingly in control of the way this team is being put together. And his long-range vision has the support of owner Jerry Jones, who longs for a return to the 1990s dynasty days.
"We're trying to build our football team for 2012, but we're also trying to build a football program," Garrett said. "To put a program in place that's going to have sustained winning for years to come. 'Build' is an important word for us. It's something we've talked about a lot this offseason. I think the values that I have are shared by the people in our organization. We've done it a lot of different ways with the Cowboys through the years, but I would argue that the football character of the Super Bowl teams in the '90s was outstanding. They loved to play football. They worked hard at it. There was great spirit to them. They loved it and they worked hard at it and they understood what 'team' was."
By trying to prioritize character and makeup when choosing which players to draft or sign, Garrett believes the Cowboys are giving themselves the best possible chance to replicate that 1990s vibe. Of course, there's one very important thing this year's team can do to contribute to the long-term goals.
"We've put the good work in when it comes to foundation, but it doesn't mean anything unless we win," Lee said. "We need to win in big situations. We need to get to the playoffs. We need to compete for Super Bowls every year if we want to be a legitimate team. I think we have the character and the talent to do it, but it's a matter of putting it on the field."
THREE HOT ISSUES
That Romo was able to post big numbers last year behind a struggling line says a lot about him, and the Cowboys will once again count on their quarterback to cover some of those weaknesses. But they must be able to protect him, and open holes for Murray in the run game. NFL history is littered with teams that had great quarterbacks, running backs and receivers but were done in by bad offensive lines. If the Cowboys want to avoid becoming another of those teams, they need to find a serviceable mix of linemen at some point in August.
2. Corner-ing the market. Garrett says that the first thing the Cowboys do when constructing their roster is identify the "money positions" -- the spots on which they're willing to commit major resources. For Dallas, these are quarterback, offensive tackle, pass-rusher, playmaking wide receiver and cornerback. Given that, it's no surprise they attacked cornerback hard this offseason. They signed free agent Brandon Carr to a huge contract and traded their first-round and second-round draft picks for Morris Claiborne. That's committing major resources to one position, and the Cowboys' hope is that they can build their 2012 defense around two great man-coverage cornerbacks.
"No pressure, right?" Carr joked when asked about the responsibility he carries as the big free-agent signing. "I like it. I came from Kansas City, where we played a lot of man-to-man, and with this front seven we have here we should have an opportunity to go out there and challenge receivers and make plays on the ball."
Claiborne missed the offseason program while recovering from wrist surgery, and a knee problem has kept him off the field for the early part of training camp. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan will be able to do a lot of creative things with his defensive front if he can count on Carr and Claiborne being effective in man coverage, so the Cowboys would like to see Claiborne on the field as much as possible this preseason so he can get up to speed on the NFL game.
3. Winning when it counts. The Cowboys lost four of their last five games last season, including two to the Giants, and finished one game behind the first-place Giants in the NFC East. It's not hard to figure out what they need to do better.
"That's why we didn't end up making the playoffs and that's why the Giants went on -- because they could make big plays in big situations," Lee said. "We need to be able to do that and be more consistent with it."
Lee, Ware and the linebacking corps look like a bunch of playmakers. The Cowboys think their new cornerbacks can be playmakers. They know Romo, Dez Bryant, Jason Witten and Miles Austin can be playmakers on offense. But as Lee says, they just need to do it. Austin can't lose the ball in the lights on third down in the home game against the Giants. Somebody besides Ware needs to come up with a sack every now and then. If the Cowboys' lesson of last season is that they need to be tougher in big spots, they'll get plenty of chances this season to show whether they have learned it.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
REASON FOR PESSIMISM
The flip side, of course, is that there isn't much depth behind those offensive stars. And guys like Austin, Bryant, Murray and Romo aren't always the picture of health. You can make the point that no team can sustain injuries to key starters, but the Cowboys especially look like a team for which everything really needs to go right. An early training camp hamstring injury to Austin is a bad sign. Unless they're going to somehow find another Laurent Robinson in the wide receiver bargain bin, they need to keep Austin and Bryant on the field.
- There are interesting battles going on for spots on the defensive line, where Kenyon Coleman and Marcus Spears are seeing their roster spots challenged by the likes of Sean Lissemore and Clifton Geathers. With Jay Ratliff and Jason Hatcher looking like sure-thing starters, Josh Brent the likely backup at nose tackle and third-round pick Tyrone Crawford in the mix as a situational pass-rusher, there may only be two more spots on the roster for defensive linemen.
- Don't rule Ronald Leary out of the mix for a starting guard spot. He was undrafted, but the Cowboys like him a great deal and the competition at those spots is very much open at this point.
- Bryant looks like the best player on the field at Cowboys practices. Simple as that. There is nothing football-related that's keeping him from being one of the best wide receivers in the league. Now, if they can just build him an apartment that's attached to the field so he never has to be away from it, they should be all set.
- This time last year, everybody was worried about the third wide receiver spot, and they plucked Robinson out of nowhere to catch 11 touchdowns. With Robinson gone off to Jacksonville, fans are worried again, but the Cowboys aren't. Even if someone like Kevin Ogletree wins the spot and can't play the way Robinson did last year, they'll find a way to make up for his production. "You can fill it with the second tight end, you can fill it with the backs, and obviously with the third wide receiver," Witten said. "But I don't think it's just one guy. What Laurent did, it's hard for a No. 3 receiver to come in and do that. So I think it's got to be a combination."
- Barry Church won a starting safety spot in the first week of camp. Yes, Brodney Pool was a disappointment, but part of the reason they cut him so early was that they liked what Church had shown them. So it appears he'll start at safety along with Gerald Sensabaugh. If he can transfer his early-camp performance into real games, that'd be a big bonus for the secondary -- whether or not those corners are locking people down in man coverage.
- The linebacker group looks like a real strength, even inside. Lee is a big-time playmaker, and both Dan Connor and Bruce Carter have been performing well as they fight for the other starting inside linebacker job. Still not sure if Anthony Spencer can improve as a pass-rusher enough to give them a credible threat opposite Ware, but they should be tough to move the ball against in the middle of the field.
- The switch from left tackle to right tackle could take a little time for the ultra-talented Tyron Smith. He played right tackle in college and is working on retraining himself on things as simple as which foot to move first. I expect he'll get it figured out in time.
- The talk early in camp was of using Bryant on punt returns and backup running back Felix Jones on kick returns. The Cowboys have been hesitant to use Bryant on returns because of his value to the passing game, so they're looking at other options. But none is as potentially game-changing as Bryant is with the ball in his hands.
The only news out of Eagles camp Sunday was the awful news of the death of Andy Reid's son Garrett. Our Eagles "Camp Confidential" is coincidentally scheduled to run today, and it was reported and written days before the tragedy, so I hope you'll forgive the fact that there's only a passing reference to Sunday's news. Those pieces are supposed to reflect the mood in training camp, and it's safe to assume that the mood is far different there today than it was when I was there Wednesday and Thursday.
Jeff McLane had, I believe, the best story of the day, relaying his personal experience of talking with Reid about fatherhood. "They grow up," Reid told Jeff back in March at the NFL owners' meetings, "but you never stop worrying about them." Just rotten, lousy news that makes football seem small. The players and people in the Eagles organization love Reid and will rally to support and strengthen him the best they can. But I can't imagine there's any way to ever make this feel better.
Get to know Redskins rookie lineman Josh LeRibeus, who is a jokester, but is also probably just one more lineman injury away from being thrust into a prominent role right away.
A lot of people asked me about the kicking battle when I was at Redskins camp last week, and to be totally honest with you, I was watching other things. But here you go. Mark Maske wrote about it over the weekend. No real way to handicap it, I don't think, until preseason games. And even then the opportunities might be tilted one way or the other. My sense is that Neil Rackers is better, but Graham Gano seems to have a nine-lives thing going on.
Jason Witten caught a couple of touchdowns in Sunday's scrimmage. My theory has been, when people have asked how they'll make up for those 11 Laurent Robinson touchdowns, that Witten is the answer. Yeah, Tony Romo trusted Robinson in the red zone, but who has he ever trusted more than he trusts Witten. Tim MacMahon has a story about Witten and his sense of urgency about this season.
Oh and Jerry Jones says he's not overly concerned about Miles Austin's latest hamstring injury. I mean, sure. Why would anyone be concerned about a Miles Austin hamstring injury? When has that ever been a lingering issue in the past? Seriously, name me one time. Okay, two. Okay, okay... Anyway, Kevin Ogletree is playing in his place.
New York Giants
Running back Ahmad Bradshaw is fired up about his chance to be the clear No. 1 running back on the Giants. He told me that in so many words when I was at their camp a week and a half ago, and Ohm Youngmisuk has a story about how Bradshaw is taking more of a leadership role with the Giants. If this guy's healthy, he could do big things this year. Has that look in his eye, like they say. But that health is a big "if."
When the Giants signed Shaun Rogers like two hours before the draft in April, it was an easy move to overlook. And frankly, until I got to Albany and spoke with people about him, my sense was that he was a camp body or a placeholder in case Marvin Austin got hurt again. But Chris Canty is hurt, and Austin may need some time to acclimate after two years without playing in games. And Rogers has been impressing people at Giants camp. A lot of people outside the Giants have told me they're not buying it with Rogers, who's been a behavior case elsewhere. But the Giants don't suffer those. If this guy weren't legit, they wouldn't be giving him all these reps. Anyway, maybe a surprise guy to watch there.
The odds of them lucking into another waiver-wire pickup who produces 11 touchdowns, as Robinson did before jumping to Jacksonville for big money, are extremely slim. They're counting on Miles Austin and Dez Bryant to stay healthy and perform up to their Pro Bowl potential, which means they'll just need a third receiver who can be reliable and catch about 35 passes.
They don't need another Robinson. They just need an upgrade over the reserve receiver options on the roster right now.
Calvin points out that the veteran wideouts still on the market come with ample question marks -- the kind of which the Cowboys don't want to add to their locker room mix at this point -- and he believes the addition of wide receivers coach Jimmy Robinson should help the team's ability to develop that reliable third wide receiver from among the current candidates:
Robinson has done wonders with young players in Green Bay and with theNew York Giants, so there's no reason to believe he can't do the same here. The Cowboys have two very good veteran quarterbacks in Tony Romo andKyle Orton, who will push the young receivers.
The Cowboys can't afford to keep asking veterans for help, time and time again. At some point you have to make sure your young players become something. Over the next month, the Cowboys need to discover this.
I'm with Calvin. Offensive line and safety are considerably bigger concerns right now than third wide receiver. Tight end Jason Witten can certainly pick up some of the Laurent Robinson slack, and I think Bryant's going to have a big year. I think Romo is capable of turning someone on the roster into this year's Robinson. At some point, they saw something in each of these young wide receivers they liked. At least one of them should be able to start showing it sooner rather than later.
The answer is yes but they don't have to move quickly. If Bryant is suspended, the Cowboys would be devastated at wide receiver. It's the same thing if Austin suffers an injury. They have only two legitimate wide receivers unless you believe totally in Kevin Ogletree. That said, I think they will be wide receiver shopping during camp. Laurent Robinson was the perfect No. 3 wide receiver, but he snagged more than $6 million a year from the Jaguars this offseason. The Cowboys need to find another Laurent Robinson.
I think John has it right. Just because Bryant is a question mark due to potential suspension doesn't change the fact that the Cowboys shouldn't have outbid the Jaguars for Robinson. They plucked Robinson off the wide receiver scrap heap last summer, and he became one of the surprise stories of the year. Now, what's more likely? That Robinson was 11 free touchdown catches sitting in the bargain bin waiting for some lucky team to snatch him up? Or that Tony Romo and the Cowboys' offense got the best of of a talented guy who hadn't yet shown what he could do?
I'm thinking the second thing is more likely. It's important to note that no one the Cowboys get at this point is likely to be a sufficient replacement for Bryant, who creates a physical mismatch against pretty much any defensive back in the league. But whether this year's Robinson is already on the roster or in the free-agent leftover bin, I imagine the Cowboys will trust Romo and Jason Garrett to get the best out of whoever it is.
Austin is a dangerous wide receiver because he can be used all over the field. Lost in the talk about the team's search for a No. 3 receiver is the fact that Austin is the guy who works the slot. They don't need a slot guy. That's Austin's gig. His quickness and speed make him a matchup nightmare for cornerbacks... when healthy.
And that's the key. Austin must stay healthy, because the Cowboys don't know how much they can depend on Bryant.
We don't know whether Austin can stay healthy this year, but Todd's point is a good one. If they don't know whether Bryant faces a suspension or whether he'll get into some other off-field shenanigans that could jeopardize his availability or reliability, they need Austin to be a rock. He may not need to be the guy he was in 2009, but they'll take 16 games of whatever Austin can give them at this point and be more than happy with it. Because no matter who ends up replacing what Robinson gave them in 2011, they're not going to be able to replicate Bryant.
The Cowboys' offense relies on its star players at the skill positions -- Tony Romo throwing to top-level receivers and top-level tight end Jason Witten, ideally with DeMarco Murray and Felix Jones handling the backfield duties. They are shaky on the offensive line (in the middle, at least) and shaky on defense, so they need their studs to perform like studs. The advantage they have over most of the teams they play is the excellence of their talent at quarterback and wide receiver. They're basing part of the 2012 hopes on the idea that Austin will stay healthy this year, and this week has only underlined how important that is.
Projected starters: Miles Austin, Dez Bryant
Reserves: Kevin Ogletree, Dwayne Harris, Andre Holmes, Raymond Radway, Danny Coale
Potential weakness: There has been plenty of concern expressed about that No. 3 receiver spot, which was filled so surprisingly ably by Laurent Robinson last year. Unless they find a veteran in the bargain bin as they did last season with Robinson, the Cowboys are going to let the guys on their roster fight it out for that spot. It's a pretty uninspiring group, but Ogletree is probably the favorite as he's the most experienced of the bunch. Harris has earned good reviews for his work in the slot during organized team activities but has struggled on special teams, and that's going to be a factor as well in determining who gets the final wide receiver spots. Coale was an intriguing possibility as a late-round draft pick, but an injury is going to keep him out for most of the offseason program and he may need a year to develop at the NFL level before he can be a reliable No. 3 wide receiver.
Keep an eye on: Holmes. He seems to be a favorite of Jerry Jones' when Jones speaks publicly about the No. 3 wide receiver situation. He was a scout teamer last year and was an undrafted player out of college, but Jones has a soft spot for those and so, likely, does Romo, who was undrafted himself. Again, if a guy like Holmes can make an impression on special teams, he could put himself in position to get more of an opportunity to show what he can do in the offense. And opportunity may be the only thing one of these guys needs to break through and offer more than is expected of them. If no one does, the Cowboys likely just lean harder on tight end Jason Witten as a No. 3 receiver -- something that would be even easier to do if Austin and Bryant play to the top of their abilities.