NFC East: Ryan Shazier

IRVING, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys have not had a flashy offseason by any stretch. Saying goodbye to the franchise’s all-time leader in sacks, DeMarcus Ware, has been the headliner, and the team did not make a real bid to keep last year’s leader in sacks, Jason Hatcher.

I offered up an offseason wrap-up on Thursday, and the ESPN Insiders have put their touches on the offseason. While Mike Sando, Bill Polian, Matt Williamson, Louis Riddick and Field Yates combined to give the Cowboys a passing grade, only two teams did worse: the Carolina Panthers (C-minus) and Indianapolis Colts (D).

To read the league-wide grades Insider, you have to be an Insider, but here is what Sando wrote about the Cowboys’ offseason:

Analysis: The Cowboys had very little salary-cap flexibility through questionable long-term planning. They lost Ware as a result and appear to be no better off on defense, which could keep Dallas in a category with Washington among teams forced to win high-scoring games to contend.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Spencer
AP Photo/James D SmithThe Cowboys need a healthy season from pass-rusher Anthony Spencer.
"They really did not do enough to aid a defense that is just bereft of playmakers, especially on the front," Polian said.

Yates gave the Cowboys a B grade and lauded their discipline, but he did not offer an enthusiastic endorsement. The other graders weren't as positive. The GM consulted for this piece gave the Cowboys a C and lamented their lack of an edge pass-rusher. The GM pointed to Anthony Spencer's suspect health and said he thought Dallas would have preferred using its first-round pick on Ryan Shazier, who came off the board one spot earlier.

"They will have to outscore people with a 34-year-old quarterback coming off back surgery," the GM said.

The Cowboys' decision to draft an offensive lineman in the first round went over well. Williamson called Zack Martin the last piece of the offensive puzzle for Dallas. Riddick also loved that pick, but he still gave the Cowboys a C-minus.

"They followed their board and beat that whole drum on that," Riddick said. "Their expectations for Demarcus Lawrence in the second round are higher than what mine are, but other than that, the defense still has major problems at safety, they are banking on Sean Lee being healthy at linebacker and there are too many problem areas overall."
My analysis of the analysis: The Cowboys could have kept Ware by restructuring his contract again, but did not want to kick the salary-cap can down the street again. They also could have made him an offer in the Terrell Suggs neighborhood ($16 million guaranteed) but never made a proposal. They were simply ready to move on.

In essence they traded Henry Melton for Hatcher. Melton is younger but coming back from an ACL tear. If he can come back, then that signing was better than keeping Hatcher, who turns 32 in July and had one great season.

Despite the supposed salary-cap constraints, they could have gone after Julius Peppers and Jared Allen and paid them big money. That might have made the Insiders happy, but it would have hamstrung their abilities to keep Tyron Smith and Dez Bryant. That’s an easy call to make, so they went after low-cost, low-risk signings like Jeremy Mincey, Terrell McClain and Amobi Okoye. Will any of them play better than Ware in 2013? That is their hope.

The Insiders also did not recognize the coaching changes. How much better will Rod Marinelli be than Monte Kiffin? I’d say that is a plus. I think Scott Linehan will be better than Bill Callahan on the offensive side of the ball. That is a plus.

The Cowboys could not answer all of their offseason questions, but they did have a “smart” offseason, and in the NFC East they should be able to compete.

Quick takes: Redskins draft class

May, 11, 2014
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  • It jumped out at me that the Washington Redskins only drafted two defensive players out of eight selections. The Redskins have done a good job of building an offense, one that could (potentially) be very good for a few years, especially if quarterback Robert Griffin III develops.
  • But the Redskins' defense is still building and of their nine players 30 years or older, seven play on defense. At least five will likely be starters -- maybe even six.
  • Redskins coach Jay Gruden really likes running back Lache Seastrunk. Though he only caught nine passes in college, Baylor's scheme does not call for many throws to the running backs (I think there were a combined five receptions by backs last season).
  • [+] EnlargeBashaud Breeland
    Joshua S. Kelly/USA TODAY SportsCornerback Bashaud Breeland should find he fits in well with all of the Redskins' zone coverages.
    Though Seastrunk apparently showed at the combine and his pro day that he has good hands (he did have 10 drops in college), there is an adjustment to becoming a third-down back. He’ll have to learn to run routes, read coverages (though you can ease him in with easy routes, etc.). But it's also about pass protection: recognizing blitzes, knowing where you need to go. That takes time.
  • But until Seastrunk reaches that point, Gruden said he could become a backup to Alfred Morris, capable of being a home-run hitting type of back. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.51 seconds at the combine, so he has good speed. Haven’t seen a lot of him, but Seastrunk is an intriguing pick.
  • The Redskins didn’t absolutely need a pass-catching back because they do have Roy Helu. But Gruden made it clear at the NFL owners meetings that he would like more from this role.
  • The guy I’m really looking forward to seeing is corner Bashaud Breeland. I liked what I saw of him on film, but there will be questions about his speed. However, for those wanting a safety, he’s a guy who could play there at some point if they wanted. Gruden said that was a possibility, but if nothing else, he’ll be a versatile corner for them.
  • I know a lot of people think the Redskins reached on a lot of picks. I don’t know if that’s the case or not because it really depends on how their draft board was aligned. I also know that you can’t go by certain projections because if that’s the case many were very wrong on a number of players (look at quarterbacks AJ McCarron and Tom Savage, whom some thought might go late one or early two). Point is, every team rates guys differently, so a reach for one is not for another.
  • Heck, some pegged Morgan Moses as a first-round pick. Sorry, but while he's talented, his play did not warrant that sort of projection. He went in the third round. So is that good value or some analysts just being way off?
  • As for Trent Murphy, the Redskins probably could have waited at 47 and drafted someone else. But this was the pass-rusher they wanted because they had missed on two others they liked (Marcus Smith, Kyle Van Noy -- the latter of whom they were not going to take at 34). If they had waited, maybe they get him at 66 and maybe they don’t. They liked him; they took him.
  • And, as some Twitter followers mentioned, would anyone have been disappointed to get Moses at 47 and Murphy at 66? Still, you can argue Murphy was a reach but the Redskins liked him. We’ll find out in a couple years who’s right.
  • Wrote this in other places, but I did hear good things about guard Spencer Long. I listed him as a risky pick because, well, I had to list someone. And his knee makes him riskier than the others. But one scout I trust liked him a lot.
  • I know there was angst about the Redskins not drafting an inside linebacker, but I never really thought they would. They liked Ryan Shazier and they felt Van Noy could play inside (full-time, not sure). But C.J. Mosley and Shazier, there was a big drop-off inside. If that’s the case, anyone they were going to draft would have had an uphill battle just to make the roster. And if that’s the case, there was no reason to draft them.
  • Not only do they like Darryl Sharpton and Akeem Jordan, they also like how Keenan Robinson has (thus far) progressed. They have a special teams guy in Adam Hayward and a young guy they can still develop in Will Compton, who showed some toughness last summer.
  • They also felt there wasn’t much room at safety. You can debate that one -- I think they’ll still be looking for guys next offseason. I loved Deone Bucannon and liked Jimmie Ward, but both went in the first round. This was not a deep class at safety, but I am a little surprised they didn’t draft at least one.
  • The Redskins will add some defensive lineman, most likely, as undrafted free agents. Be wary of all the news regarding the UDFA’s, by the way. There have been plenty of times in the past players say they’ve signed with someone when they might just be attending as a tryout guy. Or they agree with one team then change their minds and sign with another.
IRVING, Texas -- With the draft finally within site, unless there is some sort of rain delay, it’s time for Five Wonders to return.

We’ll keep them focused on the draft.

** I wonder if the Cowboys are in never-never land with the 16th pick when it comes to first-round defensive linemen. That’s what an 8-8 finish will do for you. You’re stuck right in the middle and have to do too much to move up significantly and won’t get enough (some of the time) to move down big either. After Jadeveon Clowney and Khalil Mack, there is a drop-off on right defensive ends. Anthony Barr is a project and somebody I believe the Cowboys would pick at No. 16. Will he be there at No. 16? The rest of the options available, like a Kony Ealy, Scott Crichton, Kareem Martin or Demarcus Lawrence look more like second-round picks. That’s why I think if the Cowboys move up it’s only a couple of spots for a specific player. The more likely option is to move back where they’d have better choices at the right value. Now if only some team would be willing to move up.

** I wonder what the reaction of people who live in the best-player-available world would be if the Cowboys took North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron in the first round. If Ebron is there at No. 16 and is the best player, then the Cowboys must take him, right? If you live in the best-player-available world in which there is no gray area, then Ebron is your guy. Hooray. But after taking Gavin Escobar in the second round last year and seeing Jason Witten make another Pro Bowl in 2013, do the Cowboys need a first-round tight end? You might hate the word “need” but I don’t. Need has become the four-letter word in draft circles. If they take Ebron, they are saying the Escobar pick was a mistake and Witten is on his final legs. Ebron is a terrific talent, but the Cowboys can’t pick him. I do think, however, the Cowboys would take a tight end (more of a blocker than receiver) later on in the draft.

** I wonder how much scheme versatility will factor into the Cowboys’ decision making Thursday-Saturday. The elephant in the room is that Jason Garrett must win now. He is in the final year of his contract. If he doesn’t win, then Jerry Jones doesn’t have to fire him. He just needs to pick a new coach. But let’s say Jerry falls in love with a coach who has a 3-4 background or an offensive coach who wants to bring in a 3-4 coordinator. Can the Cowboys make the switch again? They felt they had the tools to move from a 3-4 to a 4-3 somewhat seamlessly and we saw how that worked in 2013. If the Cowboys picked Aaron Donald in the first round, then would he fit in a 3-4 scheme next year? He doesn’t look like a 3-4 player. It is a fatalistic view to have going into a draft, but the Cowboys could find some defensive prospects that offer versatility in a 3-4 or 4-3, like Barr, Ealy, Lawrence and possibly Ryan Shazier.

SportsNation

Which position should the Cowboys address first in the draft?

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    42%
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    4%
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    3%

Discuss (Total votes: 11,844)

**I wonder if third round is the area in which the Cowboys target an offensive lineman. Of the linemen not named Zack Martin who visited Valley Ranch before the draft, almost all of them are in that Rounds 3-4 neighborhood like Gabe Jackson, Trai Turner, Jack Mewhort and Billy Turner. To be clear, in just about every mock I’ve been asked to participate in, I have the Cowboys taking Martin at No. 16. If they go offense there, I think they need (there’s that word again) to go defense with the second- and third-round picks, provided the grades match up. I’m breaking all ties in the defense’s favor. I’ll add this note: The last middle-round (Rounds 3-5) offensive lineman to pan out for the Cowboys was Doug Free (fourth round) back in 2007. And it took him well into his third season to get on the field. Since then the Cowboys have missed on Robert Brewster (third, 2009) and David Arkin (fourth, 2011). I’ll give them partial credit for Sam Young (sixth, 2010) since he’s still in the league. Their best middle-round offensive lineman in the last 10 years has been Stephen Peterman (third, 2004) and his playing time came with the Detroit Lions after he was cut.

**I wonder if the extra time in the draft has led teams to overanalyze things. The New Orleans Saints attempted to bust up the boredom by spending some time in Las Vegas. Some other teams took a week’s break earlier in the process. The Cowboys altered their schedule some but not that much. Too often we hear teams talk about the importance of watching the players play and not putting as much stock into the combine or pro days. And every year there are guys that come out of nowhere, like Pitt quarterback Tom Savage, and small-school gems, like Pierre Desir. Maybe they will be great finds. Who knows really? The extra time served up plenty of interest, which the NFL craves, and allowed for more mock drafts than ever before, but did it really serve the teams well? We’ll find out in a couple of years.
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).

Eagles still in transition at OLB

February, 7, 2014
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PHILADELPHIA -- In assessing the Eagles' biggest areas of need, the outside linebacker position is especially tricky.

It is obvious the Eagles need to generate more pressure on quarterbacks from their edge rushers. In their two biggest games of the season -- the NFC East clinching win in Dallas and the playoff loss to New Orleans -- the Eagles did not put nearly enough pressure on Kyle Orton and Drew Brees.

And since that's our final impression of the team, it resonates. But when you look at the individual players involved, things begin to get murkier.

Trent Cole was rightly praised for making the difficult transition from defensive end, where he was a Pro Bowl-level player for his entire previous career, to outside linebacker. Cole had zero sacks in the Eagles' first eight games, then had eight in the second half of the season.

Does that mean he grew more comfortable in his new role? Partly. But it also appears that defensive coordinator Bill Davis simply used Cole more often in familiar situations. He did drop into coverage at times, and Cole was always an eager and aggressive run defender, but Cole rushed the passer much more than his counterpart on the outside, Connor Barwin.

As the season progressed and Davis came to understand his players better, he used Barwin to do the less glamorous tasks. He rushed the passer less and dropped into coverage more. Barwin even lined up at cornerback against big receivers like Larry Fitzgerald, jamming them at the line and then sliding into shallow zone coverage.

In a perfect world, Davis would surely like a group of versatile linebackers equally capable of covering backs and tight ends or rushing the quarterback. That would give him more options when devising alignments and calling plays. As it is, he is camouflaging one player's limitations by limiting another player.

There's nothing unusual about that, especially when a team is caught in a transition such as the 2013 Eagles were. Cole and Brandon Graham, two 4-3 defensive ends, tried to adjust their games (and their bodies) to fit as 3-4 outside linebackers. They did better than expected, but they remained most effective within their comfort zone – rushing the passer.

The Eagles can hold on to Cole and Graham throughout free agency and the draft, then make decisions on them depending on what happens.

It's hard to imagine the Eagles throwing big money at Washington's Brian Orakpo, arguably the best outside linebacker on the market. But if Pittsburgh doesn't commit to Jason Worilds, who started ahead of first-round pick Jarvis Jones in 2013, he could be an interesting name to watch. After all, Davis made it clear that his model is the Steelers 3-4 defense. Worilds is already ahead of the learning curve.

The draft could provide help, as well. Stanford's Trent Murphy and Ohio State's Ryan Shazier could be around when the Eagles are on the board with the 22nd pick of the first round.

It isn't a bad spot to be in. If Graham and, especially, Cole are back next season, the Eagles can still pick up where they left off in the second half of 2013. If they can get younger and more versatile at the outside linebacker position, Barwin will be freed up to have even more of an impact. That would make the long-term prognosis for this defense even brighter.

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