NFC East: kenyon coleman

Cowboys are getting younger

March, 12, 2014
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IRVING, Texas -- These are not your father's Dallas Cowboys, so to speak.

Once a team stocked with enough players to field a softball team in an over-30 league, the Cowboys are getting young.

With the releases of DeMarcus Ware and Miles Austin, the Cowboys have three starters over 30 years old in Tony Romo, who turns 34 next month, Jason Witten, who turns 32 in May and Doug Free, who turned 30 in January.

The only other thirty-somethings on the roster are backup quarterback Kyle Orton, who is 31, and long-snapper L.P. Ladouceur, who turns 33 on Thursday.

Not included on the list are free agents Anthony Spencer (30) and Jason Hatcher (31).

Ware turns 32 in July and Austin turns 30 in June.

The Cowboys have refused to use the word "rebuild" over the last three seasons but they have re-tooled their roster moving away from Leonard Davis, Kyle Kosier, Andre Gurode and Marc Colombo on the offensive line and Ware, Jay Ratliff, Marcus Spears and Kenyon Coleman on the defensive line.

They have made the decision to not restructure the contracts of Witten and Brandon Carr, who turns 28 in May, unless absolutely necessary so they do not push more money into the salary cap in future years.

For years people have called the NFL a young man's game. The Cowboys are moving to a younger man's team.

NFC East race: The case for the Cowboys

December, 21, 2012
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This is the third in a three-part series looking at each of the three teams tied for first place in the NFC East with two weeks to play and making the case for why that team will win the division. The case for the New York Giants appeared here Wednesday, and the case for the Washington Redskins appeared here Thursday. Today, we look at the Dallas Cowboys, who have won five of their last six games, and the reasons to believe they will keep it going and win the division.

As we have been saying here since training camp, it's important when evaluating this year's Cowboys to try and throw out everything you think you know about the Cowboys.

[+] EnlargeJason Garrett
Tim Heitman/USA TODAY SportsCharacter and chemistry appear to be fueling a playoff charge for Jason Garrett's Cowboys.
They entered this season with the same high hopes they and every other team take into every season in an NFL in which last-place teams routinely turn into first-place teams overnight. But the broader focus in Dallas over the past couple of years has been on building a lasting foundation for a team that can contend year in and year out. Their draft was future-year focused -- they used their first two picks on a brilliantly talented cornerback they saw as a foundation piece instead of getting two players who could plug 2012 holes, and their mid-round picks were spent on developmental players.

Everybody I talked to in Oxnard, from Stephen Jones to Jason Garrett to Jason Witten, spoke about building around young leaders such as Sean Lee on defense and DeMarco Murray on offense. The Cowboys were operating as a calm, level-headed, big-picture organization.

But a funny thing happened on the way to that future they're trying to build in Dallas. After a 3-5 start, the Cowboys have won five of their past six games and moved into a first-place tie in the NFC East with two weeks to go. All they have to do is beat the Saints at home this week and the Redskins in Washington next week, and they are division champions. The reason to believe this is possible has less to do with how hot they are right now and everything to do with the players having bought into that vision that Garrett and the rest of the organization has been selling.

There is elite-level talent in certain spots on this roster, to be sure. DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer are playing like Pro Bowlers at the outside linebacker spots. Tony Romo is playing some of the best, most consistent and responsible quarterback of his life. Dez Bryant has been one of the very best wide receivers in the league for the past month and a half and is winning fans inside and outside his locker room by insisting on playing these final weeks in spite of a broken left index finger. Murray, in the three games he's played since his return from a foot injury, is running like the tough, young leader they believe him to be.

But this Cowboys season is at least as much about what they've overcome as it is about where they're great. The losses of Lee and fellow inside linebacker Bruce Carter left the defense thin in the middle, and they've been without safety Barry Church, nose tackle Jay Ratliff and defensive end Kenyon Coleman for large chunks of this season as well. They beat the Steelers last week without all of those guys and without that talented first-round cornerback, Morris Claiborne, who had a concussion and couldn't play. The Josh Brent drunk-driving tragedy that took the life of practice squad defensive lineman Jerry Brown has deprived them of the services of Brent, who was playing well, and was certainly the kind of event that's capable of throwing a team off of its preferred path.

Through it all, though, these Cowboys have stayed focused and determined and calm. I don't think the tragedy galvanized them, because I don't think they've looked any different since the tragedy than they did before it. They have, for some time now, been showing a great deal of resolve -- an ability to stay in and win games that, in the past, they very often found ways to lose. I think that shows you a group of players that believes they're all in this together, building something as a team that they believe can be great.

Whether they win this division, take a wild-card spot or come up short this year, Cowboys fans have to like the direction of the franchise. They have to like that these players, many of whom have long been maligned for coming up small in big spots, are playing tougher and smarter and more clutch than they ever have before. When the Cowboys gather next summer for training camp, many of the same old questions people always seem to have about them will have been answered by the way they played the second half of this season.

In the meantime, though, they may just win the division. And if they do, that resolve, toughness and team dynamic that should help the Cowboys in the long run is exactly the reason why. Garrett's bunch has a seriousness of purpose it hasn't always had. It focuses not on what might have been had there not been so many injuries but rather what can be if the next pass is completed, the next big tackle made. The Cowboys have been trying to build something for the future, and there have been aspects of the team this year (the offensive line leaps to mind) that show they're probably not all the way to where they want to be just yet. But some of the very important character aspects of this project are happening at an accelerated rate. And that's why these Cowboys may just be the team that comes out of this tie and wins the NFC East.

Bryant says he's in, but Ratliff is out

December, 13, 2012
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Mixed bag today for the Cowboys on injury news. Wide receiver Dez Bryant, who has a broken left index finger, taped the thing up and practiced and told everybody when it was over, "Only thing y'all need to know is I'm playing." So that's ... good, I guess, unless the broken finger is going to make it harder for him to hold onto the ball. Which is obviously possible.

The news on nose tackle Jay Ratliff, however, is not good. Ratliff, who has missed the past three games with a groin injury, had sports hernia surgery on Thursday and appears likely to miss at least the rest of the regular season. The Cowboys have not yet decided whether to put Ratliff on injured reserve. His injury leaves them incredibly thin at the position, especially with backup Josh Brent unavailable while facing intoxication manslaughter charges for the accident that killed teammate Jerry Brown last weekend.

The Cowboys are shredded on defense. If Ratliff goes on injured reserve, he'll be the fifth Cowboys defensive starter to do so this year, joining safety Barry Church, inside linebackers Sean Lee and Bruce Carter and defensive end Kenyon Coleman. Also on IR is nickel cornerback Orlando Scandrick. So the Bryant news is theoretically good for a team that needs its offense to be in peak form. Bryant has 525 receiving yards and seven touchdown catches in his past five games, and the Cowboys are 4-1 over that time. The key is whether he can fight through the pain to continue to make the kinds of athletic, physical, at-times-acrobatic plays that have keyed his second-half surge.
The Dallas Cowboys are already playing with four defensive starters on injured reserve, and unless they can somehow reach at least the divisional round of this year's playoffs, it appears slot cornerback Orlando Scandrick is out for the season as well. Scandrick says he'll miss 6-to-8 weeks after having surgery to repair his broken left hand. Per Calvin Watkins:
Scandrick also said he's got a bone bruise and sprained ligaments in his wrist. With five weeks remaining in the regular season, the Cowboys elected not to place Scandrick on injured reserve in the hope he could return for any potential postseason games.

"I just want to come back and help my team anyway that I can," Scandrick said Wednesday.

The team does need it. Starting inside linebackers Sean Lee and Bruce Carter, as well as safety Barry Church and defensive end Kenyon Coleman are all on injured reserve. They do have depth at cornerback, with Mike Jenkins behind starters Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne, but Scandrick has played well as the slot corner and had the job because the Cowboys believed him to be better suited for it than the others. Carr has shown a lot of versatility, even filling in at safety at times earlier this year, so it's possible he could handle it. But that likely would weaken the secondary on the outside.

Should be a really interesting matchup Sunday night between the Philadelphia Eagles, who are down to four healthy starters on offense, and the Cowboys' shredded defense.

Cowboys lose Bruce Carter for season

November, 26, 2012
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The Dallas Cowboys have placed linebacker Bruce Carter on injured reserve due to the elbow injury he suffered in the Thanksgiving Day loss to the Redskins. Carter had filled in beautifully for injured linebacker Sean Lee as the defensive signal-caller and the team's leading tackler, but like Lee he will now miss the remainder of the season, per Todd Archer:
Carter is the fourth defensive starter to be put on injured reserve with Lee, safety Barry Church and defensive end Kenyon Coleman.

Cornerback Orlando Scandrick remains on the active roster despite undergoing left hand surgery last Friday.

One of the Cowboys' strengths coming into this season was their linebacker corps, with DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer on the outside in their 3-4 scheme and Lee and Carter on the inside. Overall roster depth is not among Dallas' strengths, and so the losses of their two starting inside linebackers isn't going to be easy for them to overcome. They will need to rely even more on Brandon Carr and rookie Morris Claiborne as shutdown cornerbacks to help cover their weaknesses up front and at safety, and there are liable to be games down the stretch in which the league's No. 8-ranked defense gives up more yards and points than it should to apparently inferior opponents.

This latest significant injury on defense also puts more pressure on Tony Romo and the Cowboys' offense to deliver more consistent production, something that could be helped if running back DeMarco Murray ever returns from his foot injury. The Cowboys are 5-6, two games out of first place in the NFC East and one game behind the NFC's final wild-card spot with five games to play. They host the Eagles this Sunday night.

How you feeling? Browns-Cowboys

November, 18, 2012
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As the Dallas Cowboys prepare to host the Cleveland Browns today at 1 p.m. ET (noon CT), here's one reason for Cowboys fans to feel good and one reason for concern.

Feeling good: Cleveland's rookie quarterback, Brandon Weeden, is completing just 56.1 percent of his passes this year and has thrown 11 interceptions against just seven touchdowns. He is 31-for-58 with no touchdowns and two interceptions over his last two games. He is the kind of quarterback who plays into the hands of a Dallas pass defense that relies on its cornerbacks to blanket wide receivers and force the quarterback into bad choices. Dallas' turnover margin of minus-9 is the third-worst in the league behind only Kansas City and Philadelphia, but if it can get a lead and force the Browns to have to throw, this game offers a chance to improve it.

Cause for concern: If Dallas can't get that lead (and its offense hasn't exactly shown quick-strike capabilities, after all), the Browns could have an opportunity to run their offense through tough, impressive rookie running back Trent Richardson. Dallas' front line is not the strength of its defense in the first place, and the injury to defensive end Kenyon Coleman deprives it of a key piece. The Cowboys are eighth in the NFL this year against the pass but a more middling 13th against the run, and Richardson is the kind of bruising, physical back who could give them trouble in the run game.
It is Tuesday, the day of chats, knee-jerks and Power Rankings. (Hints: There's a new No. 1 this week, and our division's teams aren't doing very well.) We will take another day to dwell on Sunday's results before turning our attention to a Week 11 in which everyone in the NFC East plays but its leader -- and in which, therefore, everyone has a chance to gain ground. Before we do any of this, however, we must have our links.

New York Giants

The Giants are concealing something about the health of running back Ahmad Bradshaw, saying he's going to have a whole bunch of medical tests but not saying on which part of his body. Whatever's wrong with Bradshaw, it's keeping him from a full practice schedule and limiting his effectiveness in games. Andre Brown was a bigger part of the game plan Sunday, and nobody would be surprised at this point if that continued after the bye. Shame for Bradshaw, who really wanted to be the No. 1 back for the Giants and thought he was ready to do it this year. Guy just can't keep himself healthy.

Giants coach Tom Coughlin said he saw signs of improvement from quarterback Eli Manning amid the wreckage of Sunday's loss in Cincinnati.

Dallas Cowboys

Defensive end Kenyon Coleman's season is apparently over, thanks to a torn triceps muscle. This leaves the Cowboys thin on the defensive line, which is not the strength of their defense in the first place, and makes it more important that Sean Lissemore can return this week from the ankle injury that has plagued him for the past month.

The Cowboys handed the Eagles six first downs Sunday with defensive penalties, and the way those are piling up is of great concern to defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. Dallas' defense is playing well overall, but the ill-timed penalties on third down are the kind of thing that eats away at that.

Philadelphia Eagles

As Reuben Frank details here, the Eagles have made life very easy for opposing quarterbacks Matt Ryan, Drew Brees and Tony Romo the past three weeks. It's apparently as bad a three-game defensive stretch as the team has ever had, and statistically among the worst in league history at limiting quarterbacks' completion percentage.

Sheil Kapadia breaks down Nick Foles' debut, in light of the likelihood that Foles will start Sunday's game in Washington. It seems clear the Eagles didn't ask overly much of Foles in his relief stint Sunday, but it remains to be seen how much more they'll put in for him with a full week to prepare.

Washington Redskins

Pierre Garcon was back at practice Monday, but it doesn't sound as though it's time for Redskins fans to get their hopes up about him playing Sunday. It sounds like he's still in pain pretty much all the time, and that the only reason he hasn't had surgery yet on his injured foot is that he's philosophically opposed to the idea of having surgery at all.

Now, safety Brandon Meriweather sounds like a guy who might actually play Sunday -- assuming he doesn't get hurt in pregame warmups this time. It would be a Redskins debut for Meriweather and a boost for a struggling secondary.

Camp Confidential: Dallas Cowboys

August, 10, 2012
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OXNARD, Calif. -- The one-on-one confrontations drawing the most attention these days in Dallas Cowboys training camp are the ones between running back DeMarco Murray and linebacker Sean Lee. Each of Dallas' young, serious, budding stars sees the other as a daily personal challenge. Murray is determined to finish every run as far downfield as he can, and Lee is determined to make that as difficult as possible. The action is so good, coach Jason Garrett said, that he's using Lee and Murray as examples for the rest of the team: "Look at the way this guy works. Look at the way this guy practices."

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

Tyron Smith and Bill Callahan
AP Photo/James D SmithTyron Smith, left, will be moving from right to left tackle along the Cowboys' reshuffled offensive line.
1. The offensive line. For all the well-deserved heat the defense took during last season's collapse, the offensive line was a yearlong problem. The Cowboys couldn't find any kind of decent mix on the interior, where they're still struggling with health, strength and the center-quarterback exchange. Phil Costa returns as a somewhat-underwhelming starting center, and the hope is that veterans Mackenzy Bernadeau and Nate Livings will solidify the guard spots, but to this point they have not. Doug Free struggled so much at left tackle last year that he has been moved back over to the right side, while 2011 first-round pick Tyron Smith has moved to the left. Smith was outstanding as a rookie, and there's little reason to believe he won't be able to handle the transition, but the other four spots on the line remain question marks.

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

Dez Bryant and Tony Romo
Ron Jenkins/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT via Getty ImagesDez Bryant, left, and Tony Romo are among the many playmakers the Cowboys have on offense.
The Cowboys' front-line talent is very good. Romo, Bryant, Austin and Witten all rank among the top players at their positions on offense, and Ware is probably the best defensive player in the entire league. There's reason to believe a healthy Murray can be an outstanding runner, and the offense worked well last year while he was healthy and starting. Lee looks like an emerging superstar on defense, and we've already talked about the corners. If they can get lucky and avoid major injuries to starters, the Cowboys have as much talent at key positions as anyone in the conference.

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.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • 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 Cowboys practicing on the West Coast has thrown me off. The news comes in late, and at times when blog traffic is a little slow. I'll adjust. It's what I do. But in the meantime, here's Calvin Watkins' feature at ESPNDallas.com on defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, who says he's not doing any boasting this year and that he was humbled by the disappointing performance of the defense in the 2011 stretch run:
"Hell, that's my group," Ryan said. "It's on me. So it's pretty damn hard."

Ryan has to fix this because there is so much on the line for him in 2012.

He wants to become a head coach, and head coaches aren't hired unless they are successful somewhere else. If Ryan improves the defense, his stature around the league increases.

"I'm not running scared. I'm not scared of anybody. I'm ready," he said. "That's why I came to Dallas. I might not have known it was going to be this much scrutiny in the media, but, believe me, I wanted to be here with the Cowboys, America's Team. It's about time America likes a Ryan."

Love the last line for comedy/entertainment value, but the interesting part of the story to me was the part about the competition on the defensive line. Kenyon Coleman and Marcus Spears could be starting defensive ends or looking for work elsewhere, depending on how they and others practice and play in this preseason. Sean Lissemore, Clifton Geathers, Robert Callaway and Josh Brent are among those Calvin names who could snag those spots, and the Cowboys could use some new blood up front on defense. So much of the offseason focus was on the secondary that it's easy to forget there were some troubles in the trenches, too.
AFC hidden treasures: West | North | South | East NFC: West | North | South | East

Examining a position group that could exceed its preseason expectations:

Everybody knows how good Dallas Cowboys nose tackle Jay Ratliff is. Expectations for him are high and always will be. But it's the two spots next to him -- the 3-4 defensive end spots -- at which the Cowboys could stand to exceed expectations. And they have reason to believe they might get more from those spots than you'd think. Whereas the role of the defensive ends in most 3-4 alignments is to clear room for the outside linebackers to get to the quarterback, the Cowboys like their ends to take on some of the pass-rush responsibilities themselves.

Jason Hatcher did well at that last year and came up with 4.5 sacks. After his offseason comments about not knowing who the team's leaders were, he'll have more eyes on him than usual this year. He's the most likely candidate for a breakout among this group, though at the other end spot the team thinks it might be able to get something out of the combination of Marcus Spears, Kenyon Coleman and Sean Lissemore. As of now, Coleman projects as the starter, but either of the other two could show enough in camp to pose a threat to his playing time. Whoever looks as though he can be the most disruptive in the opponent's backfield is likely to get the most looks. Rookie Tyrone Crawford projects to get himself into this mix at some point, but it's not likely to be this year.

It's also worth mentioning the Cowboys' depth at nose tackle behind Ratliff. While they want Ratliff on the field as much as possible for his pass-rush ability, the Cowboys know that Ratliff has tended to wear down late in recent seasons, and they feel better about Josh Brent as his backup than they did a year ago. You could see Ratliff come off the field occasionally on first down and second down in an effort to keep him as fresh as possible into December. The Cowboys are hoping they turn out to have enough depth on the line to help give outside linebacker/perennial terror DeMarcus Ware some help with the pass rush.
Our position-by-position analysis of the teams in the NFC East takes a look this afternoon at the 3-4 defensive line of the Dallas Cowboys.

Projected starters: DE Jason Hatcher, NT Jay Ratliff, DE Kenyon Coleman

Reserves: DE Marcus Spears, DE Sean Lissemore, NT Josh Brent, DE Tyrone Crawford, DE Clifton Geathers, DT Rob Callaway, DE Ben Bass

[+] EnlargeJay Ratliff
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesDallas needs to make sure Jay Ratliff does not wear down over the course of the season.
Potential strength: Ratliff is the line's strength, as he remains one of the league's elite nose tackles and one of the best all-around athletes at the position. There are very few, if any, nose tackles in the league that are as great an asset to the pass rush as Ratliff is, and the Cowboys' goal should be to keep him from wearing down as the season goes along. Part of the problem he and outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware had late last year was wear and tear as a result of constant double-teaming and extra attention. That's why Brent, as Ratliff's backup, must become a strength as well. Because it may start making sense to find strategic ways of getting Ratliff on the field on some running downs, at least early in the season.

Potential weakness: The Cowboys were tied for seventh in the league in sacks last season but 23rd in passing yards allowed. And while a lot of that had to do with a leaky secondary that has been addressed in free agency and in the draft, the guys up front need to find a way to create more consistent pressure on the passer. Hatcher grades out well in the pass rush, and we already addressed Ratliff. But the Cowboys need to find something scarier than Coleman at that other end spot. Spears doesn't appear to be the answer, which is one reason Lissemore is being talked up as an offseason sleeper. He played extremely well in limited action last season, and it remains to be seen how he'll hold up if given more snaps in 2012. He could push Coleman for his spot if he shows the ability to hold up week in and week out.

Keep an eye on: Crawford. The Cowboys' third-round pick in April's draft is likely a project player who will be groomed to be a pass-rush asset down the road. But there is talent there, and if he takes well to Rob Ryan's coaching and his system, he could be the kind of player who's deployed strategically in certain situations later in the year. The Cowboys would be thrilled if Crawford could make an impact for them in 2012, and while that's not really what he was drafted for, it's not completely out of the question given the opportunity he'll have if his learning curve is short.
They sat out the second round after trading up to take cornerback Morris Claiborne in the first, and when the Dallas Cowboys came back on the clock they were still thinking defense. With the 19th pick of the third round of the draft (81st overall), the Cowboys picked Boise State defensive end Tyrone Crawford.

Crawford is a project pick. Most of the scouting reports had 4-3 defensive end as his best fit, with potential to develop into a good 3-4 end. He's not an impact pass-rusher, at least not right away, and is better against the run. But he's got long arms and a big frame and potential to grow into a better pro player as time goes along and he's coached by Rob Ryan and the rest of the Dallas defensive staff.

I don't see this as a move that would allow them to part with Kenyon Coleman or Marcus Spears for salary cap relief, but assuming it's a player in whom they see big potential, the Cowboys are wise to be stocking up on depth in their defensive front. There are decisions and potential changes looming on the defensive line in Dallas in the coming years, and this is a player who could be major asset if he takes the next step he needs to take as a pro.

It was my opinion that the Cowboys needed to find three defensive starters in the first three rounds. After they made the deal to move up to get Claiborne, the best they could do was two. Crawford may not be a starter right away, but he's certainly got a chance to be down the road. Good depth move.

As for that second round, the obvious pick the Cowboys could have made had they not traded up and kept pick No. 45 was not a defensive player but rather Wisconsin's Peter Konz, the draft's best center, who lasted until Atlanta at No. 55. Konz would have solidified the Dallas offensive line at their biggest position of need there, but to stay in position to take him they would have had to sit tight at 14 in the first round and be content with a defensive lineman such as Michael Brockers. I still contend that this would have been a wiser way to go, but the Cowboys believe Claiborne is an elite talent, and if he turns out to be, they'll be happy with the deal they made.
Things didn't work out exactly the way I planned for the Dallas Cowboys in the ESPN blogger mock draft Monday. Yes, the Eagles traded up to No. 7 to take Fletcher Cox, a player the Cowboys like a lot. But for the Cowboys I decided not to get into such excitement. First of all, they don't have the cushion the Eagles have with two second-round picks. And second of all, they need to add depth all along the roster, so I decided that if they traded they'd come away with more picks rather than fewer.

As the draft wound on into the middle of the first round, I was thinking my top Cowboys target, Alabama safety Mark Barron, would be there at No. 14. So when James Walker of the AFC East blog called on behalf of the Patriots and offered a first-round pick (No. 27 overall) and a second-round pick (No. 48), I said no. James pointed out that each side of the deal added up to exactly 1,100 points on the NFL draft trade value chart, and for a second I thought we should make the deal just based on that coincidence alone. But I held off, thinking Barron would fall to 14.

Little did I know, James was also talking to Mike Sando about the Seahawks' No. 12 overall pick. James offered Mike both of the Patriots' first-round picks (No. 27 and No. 31) for the No. 12 pick and a fourth-rounder (N0. 106). Guess I should have asked James for more, because that's a steal for Sando, who happily gave up the No. 12 and began making plans for what to do with his two first-rounders. James moved up to 12 and took Barron for the Patriots, and I started fielding offers for the No. 14 pick.

No one was interested, though, so when 14 rolled around, I took the player I believed would be the highest on the Cowboys' board at that point -- LSU defensive lineman Michael Brockers. What I like about Brockers for the Cowboys is that he's a more polished, NFL-ready prospect than is Dontari Poe (who would fall all the way to the Steelers at No. 24!) and that he's versatile enough to play any spot on the Cowboys' defensive line. He can play inside as a defensive tackle alongside Jay Ratliff when they line up in 4-3 sets. He can play end in a 3-4 (and allow them to move on from Kenyon Coleman or Marcus Spears if they so choose). He can spell Ratliff at the nose when and if they decide to move Ratliff outside. I just felt as though he'd appeal to Rob Ryan as a guy who could do a lot for him -- and do it right away -- in a defense that relies on constantly changing looks and fronts.

I thought about Poe, and Quenton Coples, and Stephon Gilmore, and Dre Kirkpatrick, and Courtney Upshaw. But in the end, I believe that, of the post-Barron choices, Brockers was the one that fit the Cowboys the best.

(NOTE: Stanford guard David DeCastro was also gone, at 11 to the Chiefs, but as you know I believe the Cowboys should be focused on defense in this round. And probably all of them.)

So what do you think, Cowboys fans? Did I get it right? Did I pick the wrong guy? Was I wrong to turn down the Patriots' offer? I eagerly await your feedback.

Could the Cowboys cut Felix Jones?

April, 10, 2012
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The inimitable Calvin Watkins, who spends his summer nights at baseball games but still writes about the Dallas Cowboys by day, has a piece on ESPNDallas.com about five Cowboys players whose roster spots could be negatively affected by the draft. One of those players is running back Felix Jones, who lost the starter's job to rookie DeMarco Murray last year and, Calvin thinks, could lose his spot on the team to another rookie depending on how the draft goes:
The Cowboys were interested in Boise State running back Doug Martin, but the storms of last week prevented him from visiting Valley Ranch for a predraft visit. Jones isn't an elite running back, or that matter a No. 1 back. His coach, Jason Garrett, continues to call him a complementary running back, and the team had internal discussions about trading him. If the Cowboys find a younger version, it wouldn't surprise anyone if he's let go. DeMarco Murray, Phillip Tanner and quite possibly a draft doesn't make the Cowboys younger, but gives them some fresh legs.

Would be quite a fall for Jones, from starter in September 2011 to looking for a job in the summer of 2012. But it gives you some idea what the Cowboys think about him. He did an okay job filling in for Murray after Murray got hurt last year, but the offense tailed off considerably with Jones as the lead back. It may be that they believe they need someone or something different in that role -- or that they'd like to give Tanner more carries. Certainly, if you see them draft a running back in the top half of the draft, you have to think Jones is at least in trouble.

The other four players Calvin lists are defensive ends Kenyon Coleman and Marcus Spears, center Phil Costa and receiver Kevin Ogletree, though I don't think it comes as any kind of surprise to think their spots could be in danger. The Cowboys still have a number of areas they can reasonably address in the draft, and veterans do tend to hold their breath until all seven rounds are complete.

What if the Eagles had hired Rob Ryan?

October, 20, 2011
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We all know that if the San Diego Chargers had hired Rex Ryan instead of Norv Turner to be their head coach in 2007, they'd have two Super Bowl rings by now. This is headline news today, in large part because Ryan has become a prominent head coach at a time when no one in the NFL can seem to take a joke.

But the hubbub over all of this got me thinking about another Ryan -- Rex's brother, Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, and whether the Philadelphia Eagles might have been better off hiring him as their defensive coordinator last winter instead of promoting offensive line coach Juan Castillo to the position.

[+] EnlargeRob Ryan
Ronald C. Modra/Getty ImagesIn his first season with the Cowboys, Rob Ryan has helped turn the defense around.
Now, up front, let me say that I don't know that this was possible. Rob Ryan was officially hired by the Cowboys 10 days after the Eagles' playoff loss to the Packers, so it's likely his deal with Dallas was done before the Eagles ever knew they'd be firing defensive coordinator Sean McDermott. So this isn't a column that says the Eagles made a mistake by not getting Rob Ryan. I don't know if they ever could have.

But there's a point to be made here about the value and importance of coaching in the NFL, and the difference between the way the Cowboys' defense and the Eagles' defense have played this season helps make it.

Both defenses needed help. Both underachieved in 2010 -- the Cowboys to devastating levels and the Eagles just enough to cost them down the stretch. Both teams needed to overhaul things on the defensive side of the ball, and they went in different directions to do it. The Cowboys believed they had the player personnel in place to have a good defense if they could just get 2009 stars, such as Anthony Spencer and Mike Jenkins, to play the way they'd played in 2009. Add a safety here, a 3-4 defensive end there, promote Sean Lee to starter, and they felt like they weren't far off. What they needed was somebody who could bring it all together, and so they brought in Rob Ryan, who'd coached the Cleveland Browns' defense to respectability in 2009 and 2010 and clearly knew what he was doing.

The Eagles needed to change personnel, so they decided to overhaul everything. Not only did they switch Castillo from offensive line to defensive coordinator, they brought in respected defensive line coach Jim Washburn. They decided they would play a completely different style of defense, built on linemen who get upfield and harass quarterbacks. They went out into the trade and free-agent markets and brought in two new cornerbacks and two new defensive linemen and built it all up from scratch, and they gave all of this responsibility to a guy who'd been coaching the offensive line for the previous 13 years.

The results? Well, the Eagles have struggled, and the scheme and its administration have come under fire. Washburn's "Wide-9" defensive front appeared to leave the Eagles vulnerable to the run through the first five games, especially because they underspent at linebacker and don't have the players at that position to support the hyper-aggressive line in run defense. For some reason, they're playing their new cornerbacks in zone coverage when they've excelled in the past as man-to-man cover guys. Castillo has shown an ability to adjust and fix things during games, but the Eagles' defense often seems unprepared at the start of games, getting run over early by everybody from Steven Jackson to Fred Jackson to Victor Cruz.

There was a lot to bring together here in a short period of time, and they took a big risk by handing that responsibility to a first-year defensive coordinator. The results are mixed. The Eagles rank 14th in the league in total defense as measured by yards allowed per game, but their struggles in the run game prior to last week and their susceptibility to big plays early in games has cost them dearly.

The Cowboys, who were one of the league's worst defenses in 2010, currently rank fifth in the NFL in total defense. Only the Steelers, Bengals, Ravens and Chargers have allowed fewer yards per game. No team has been tougher against the run. And Dallas has played two of the league's highest scoring teams in its past two games. The Cowboys added Abram Elam at safety and Kenyon Coleman at defensive end -- two guys who'd played for Ryan in Cleveland -- and they let Ryan at the holdovers. The result is that guys such as Lee, Jenkins, Spencer and Terence Newman are playing lights-out. The Cowboys eschewed major personnel changes in favor of a new, stronger voice -- an experienced and accomplished defensive coordinator -- and it appears to be paying off. They're 2-3, but most of that is on the late-game failings of the offense. And with the schedule about to soften up, Dallas' improved defense could be a key to a huge second half.

Two different approaches to similar problems. And the year isn't even halfway over yet, so it's too early to say for sure whose solution was the better one. But the early returns indicate that the Cowboys' decision to emphasize coaching as a way of improving on defense was a smart one, and that the risk the Eagles took by underemphasizing it may prove costly.

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