NFL Nation: Jason Witten
As the Cowboys look to end the drought in 2014, Romo will remain the central part to their success, but the core of the team has changed.
While Romo and Jason Witten remain, the core of the team has become players like Dez Bryant, Tyron Smith, DeMarco Murray, Orlando Scandrick, Barry Church and Sean Lee. The Cowboys have transitioned from an older team to a younger team.
Starting next year, the Cowboys will be in much better salary-cap space. The days of the Cowboys setting the market on free agents might be over. They signed cornerback Brandon Carr to a five-year, $50 million deal in 2011 and have not received the payoff. They parted ways with DeMarcus Ware and Miles Austin this offseason. They did not attempt to re-sign Jason Hatcher. For a team that did not hesitate to pay age often, the Cowboys have turned almost frugal.
They have drafted better and smarter. Three of their past four first-round picks have been offensive linemen. Their drafting will never be perfect but it has been better. They have found more role players after a disastrous 2009 draft. They are trying to build the roster from the inside out as opposed to outside in.
For the Cowboys to make the jump from 8-8 to a consistent playoff team, they honestly need to continue down the same path. Patience has never been one of owner Jerry Jones’ strong suits, but the team has shown a willingness to change its ways.
If they continue to build smartly and avoid the costly mistakes that come about in free agency, the Cowboys could find themselves beginning to open up another window of opportunity as Romo and Witten wind down their careers.
“Just kind of working on my feet and pumping my arms at the top of routes,” Beasley said.
At 5-foot-8, 180 pounds, however, there are limitations to Beasley’s game that he has to overcome, which is why he spent that post-practice time working on his route running.
“Typically when you’re a smaller receiver, you have to win by more,” coach Jason Garrett said. “And so how do you do that as an outside receiver? You outrun guys. I’m thinking about a deep ball down the field. You can beat a guy by a yard or two when you’re a smaller guy and he still kind of has you covered because he’s a bigger guy and as the ball is coming in, he has an equal chance to make a play on that ball. Bigger guys outside don’t have to win by as much because they can fight for that ball when it’s up in the air. That’s how his size hurts him.
“What helps him out there is his quickness, his change of direction. He’s a very good route runner, and he’s able to kind of create the space that he needs as an outside receiver a lot like he’s able to do inside. His change of direction is really pretty unique, and he has a real good feel. He’s very quarterback-friendly when he runs his routes. We’re trying to give him opportunities in a lot of different spots. He’s most natural playing inside, but he’s certainly not a non-factor as an outside receiver.”
Beasley worked on the outside some in the offseason but most of his work was still from the slot. Wide receivers coach Derek Dooley said Beasley has expanded his route inventory. The Cowboys would like to move Dez Bryant around more in 2014. In order to do that, they need Beasley to be able to handle the outside.
“You don’t have as much space because the sideline is there,” Beasley said. “In the slot you kind of have a two-way go on a defender. You can’t just get way out or way in. Outside [the cornerback] can kind of use the sideline as his friend. You don’t want to get too close to that sideline because there’s no throw. It’s just a little different as far as releases go and stuff like that.”
By having more routes in his repertoire, Beasley will be more difficult to read.
“Even just being a slot guy you can still have more routes,” Beasley said. “To me, it’s all about opportunities. I didn’t have much opportunity to run that many different routes and they’re doing a good job of giving me more stuff just to see what I can do, what I can handle, what I can’t handle. I’ve just got to prove to them I can do the stuff. I believe I can, so it’s all a matter of showing them.”
In an offense with Bryant, Jason Witten, DeMarco Murray and Terrance Williams, Beasley could have a prominent role.
“He’s going to be a much better player than he was last year,” Dooley said, “and he was really valuable to us last year.”
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
Pete Prisco of CBS Sports has two candidates for breakout seasons -- Travis Frederick and Terrance Williams -- in his annual list.
Here’s what Prisco said about Frederick and Williams:
Travis Frederick, C, Dallas Cowboys -- When the Cowboys picked him in the first round of the 2013 draft, there were snickers. But it was the right move. He showed last season as a 16-game starter that he has a chance to be a really good center. He is smart and athletic, two musts for the position these days.
Terrance Williams, WR, Dallas Cowboys -- With Miles Austin now gone, this second-year player takes over as the starter opposite Dez Bryant. That should mean a lot of single coverage and a chance for big plays. Look for his numbers to go up dramatically from his 44 catches a year ago.
Defining how Frederick breaks out is tougher than Williams just because of the nature of his position. The Cowboys were stronger up the middle in 2013 than they had been in recent years because of Frederick. He did not miss a game as a rookie and carried himself as a veteran from the first day he arrived.
(As an aside, there is a similar feeling when it comes to this year’s first-round pick, Zack Martin.)
For Williams, it can be a little easier to define because his statistics will be there for everybody to see. He caught 44 passes for 736 yards and five touchdowns as a rookie.
With Austin gone, Williams will be the starter opposite Bryant in 2014. The Cowboys have no reservations about Williams. They believe he will slide into that role without any issues. In coach parlance, they don’t believe the game is too big for him.
He will get opportunities. Bryant will be the focal point of opposing defenses.
With Bryant catching 93 passes for 1,233 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2013, Austin caught 66 passes for 943 yards and six touchdowns as the No. 2 receiver in 16 games in 2012. The Cowboys would live with those numbers from Williams.
Cowboys' quarterbacks had 375 completions last year.
Pencil in Bryant for another 90-plus catch season. Jason Witten will catch 75-80 passes. The running backs will combine for 80. Cole Beasley should figure in that 35-45 catch range. Dwayne Harris and Gavin Escobar will have more than the 18 they combined for last year. Devin Street will be in that 20-30 range if things go well as well.
There will be opportunities for Williams to show 2014 will be a breakout season.
His son had surgery in the morning, and the OTAs are voluntary. Plus, Witten has a resume complete with nine Pro Bowls and a Dallas Cowboys' franchise record 879 catches.
He wanted to be there not just to improve as a player under the early June sun, but to show his teammates how important the game is to him.
"This time of year you go back to the fundamentals," Witten said. "As an offense you run the basic plays and as an individual player you go back to the basics of what the fundamentals are and it's going to allow you to be better. I've taken a lot of pride in doing those really well. And this time of year you can tighten it up even more."
Playoff success fuels Witten more than catches. Only Tony Gonzalez has more catches by a tight end in NFL history, but Witten would trade it all in to win more.
That's why he won't miss an offseason workout, an OTA or a minicamp practice. That's why he will fight the coaches who want him to take a day off in training camp next month.
He is on his sixth position coach with Mike Pope taking over for Wes Phillips. He is on his sixth playcaller in Scott Linehan. There is a new energy brought by changes with coaches who see things a little differently.
"I think with Scott it's been neat to see just his ideas and his view on things," Witten said. "Obviously I've got a lot of respect for him and the success he's had in this league, so being around him is good. Then obviously coach Pope, new ideas and new ways to kind of dive into my world and make me a better player. That's been really good and coming to work every day in finding ways to even be better than what you've done before."
From the outside, Pope and Linehan had a great appreciation for Witten. Now on the inside, the appreciation has grown.
"You think of tight ends and he's like the first guy that comes to my mind as far as the position goes," Linehan said. "He's an every-down player. You don't see that so much. There are a few guys in this league that never come off the field at the tight end position. He's been kind of the one that set the standard, set the bar, so to speak, in this league the last 10 years or so."
Where Linehan would need two, sometimes three tight ends to handle the role in previous spots, he can use Witten in the slot, on the line, in pass protection, as the front-side blocker or as the back-side blocker in the run game and even some fullback.
"He knows everything that you would ask a tight end to know but more," Linehan said. "I mean he's like a quarterback at tight end. He knows all the nuances of the run game. He knows the protections better than anyone. I just think so much of that is him making it that important. ...You can tell he made it his business to know as much as he needed to know."
Witten uses the other tight ends in the league, such as Antonio Gates, Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, and Vernon Davis, to push himself to continue to be at the top of his game.
"I want to try to compete with those guys the best I can," Witten said.
Witten turned 32 last month. He is entering his 12th season. He knows the years are running out, but he thinks more about his hand placement for a block than he does retirement at this point.
"I think more than anything you get in that routine, you feel confident in what you can do and how you can practice and prepare," Witten said. "I'd rather leave it all out there than say I still had some gas in the tank."
But Weeden also realizes he can't take everything from Romo and implement it into his own game. They play the same position but they play it differently.
"He's done it for so long that he's found what works for him, whether it's footwork or types of throws or reads or whatever it may be," Weeden said. "He's got a feel for what he's good at. I just pick and choose what IU think may work for me. One thing about me, I'm going to be an aggressive thrower. I'm going to stretch the field vertically and I'm going to throw the ball aggressively. Sometimes I may get myself in trouble but I think being smart aggressive vs. being dumb aggressive is two different things.
"I've watched every game of his last year and I think what he does in the pocket, moving around the pocket, those things you really can't teach them, so I'm not sitting back there trying to do those spin moves and crazy stuff he does. But he's one of the best. Him and Ben Roethlisberger are the best I've ever seen at extending plays. That's not really my skill set. That's something I'm not going to take from him."
Weeden is getting to work with the first team during the organized team activities because Romo is recovering from back surgery and Kyle Orton is absent. He views this as an audition to show the coaches he can be the backup if needed.
Orton's status remains unsolved, but the club anticipates he will take part in the June 17-19 mandatory minicamp.
"That was one of things I talked to coach Garrett about when I came in before I signed," Weeden said. "I said, ‘I want an opportunity to come in and compete and get some reps and show that I can play.' He assured me that I was going to. So coming in Day 1, I think it's kind of what I expected. I think it's my job now to take advantage of each rep, especially going with the ones. I'm out there with guys who are perennial Pro Bowlers like Jason Witten and Dez (Bryant) and all these guys who are just the best at what they do. It's made it nice. It's been a good transition. Tony has been helping me a lot. It's been good for the first four days."
Part of what was then a state-of-the-art workout area remains today. The camera booths at either end of the field are still in place, too. There are more neighborhood houses in the background, but the feel remains.
Twenty-seven years later, Linehan is now the Cowboys' passing game coordinator. He will not put on pads when the Cowboys go to California -- this time to Oxnard, not Thousand Oaks, but his importance to the success of the Cowboys in 2014 cannot be understated.
"Kind of nostalgic for me to be out here for this one," Linehan said after the first day of last week's rookie minicamp.
Unlike last year's playcaller, Bill Callahan, Linehan will have a free hand in running the offense. Callahan called plays for Jason Garrett's offense and the coach was involved in the playcalling process down the stretch last season, relaying the plays to the quarterback in the huddle.
Linehan will have no middle man. This is his offense. Most of the verbiage will remain the same, since he and Garrett ran similar systems, but there will be changes.
"It would be a disservice to not continue a lot of the great things that Jason and Bill and the guys have implemented here in the past few years," Linehan said. "Then as the timing fits for us ... we get through our OTAs to start to mesh some of the things that make sense."
Not surprisingly, Linehan did not agree with the assertion that the Cowboys have too many voices on offense with Garrett, Callahan and even quarterback Tony Romo, whose involvement in devising game plans will continue in 2014.
"That kind of expertise in one room?" Linehan said. "To have a staff with the qualifications I feel we have is truly a strength."
In 2005, Garrett's first coaching job came under Linehan with the Miami Dolphins. They remained tight over the years and their friendship played a big part in why Linehan came to the Cowboys.
Garrett said they share similar convictions in attacking defenses with the running game and passing game, getting the ball to their playmakers and playing to the players' strengths.
Linehan once directed one of the NFL's best running games with the Minnesota Vikings when Randy Moss was at the top of his game. Steven Jackson had a 1,500-yard season with the St. Louis Rams when Linehan was head coach.
But his most recent five-year run with the Detroit Lions has many convinced Linehan is a pass-happy coordinator, even moreso than Garrett. From 2011-13, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, threw for 14,655 yards and 90 touchdowns with 52 interceptions and Calvin Johnson caught 302 passes for 5,137 yards and 33 touchdowns.
Before 2013, the Lions did not have a running game rank better than 23rd. With the addition of Reggie Bush, Detroit had the 17th-ranked rushing offense.
"Between our first and second back we had almost 1,700 yards rushing," Linehan said. "That was as good as they have done in 10 years. You just lean to your personnel."
The Cowboys will still lean to the pass with Romo, Dez Bryant and Jason Witten. But DeMarco Murray is coming off a 1,100-yard season and Zack Martin became the third offensive linemen to be picked in the first round by the Cowboys in the last four years two weeks ago.
"You start with running it effectively," Linehan said. "You achieve balance in the NFL by playing good football throughout three quarters, gaining that lead and then you've got a lead going into the fourth quarter. The teams that run the ball the best, that run the ball balanced, generally are getting a lot of their damage done in that late third, early fourth quarter. You get behind the score then you say you want to do (run the ball). You don't want to abandon it, but you're going to lean toward throwing the ball a little more. So that's to me, I think, the thing with the offensive line, that's a no-brainer. This is a great young front. Added a great piece to it. It was already an offensive line that was really meshing and playing well. We don't have to have this certain look to run the ball. We feel like we can line up and say hey, if they're going to drop guys into the box, we still feel like we've got the guys that can get it done. And then that helps everything. That opens everything on the outside of the field."
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.
**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.
It was that iconic ad that popped into my head when I saw the picture of Tony Romo and Jason Witten in Jerry Jones’ suite at AT&T Stadium Monday night at the NCAA men’s basketball final with Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Running back DeMarco Murray was also in the suite, but not in the much-circulated photo.
I tweaked the ad some: status has its privileges.
New SEC Network hire and former Dallas Cowboys defensive end Marcus Spears sparked debate on Twitter Monday and it continued on Tuesday. Spears wondered if teammates of Romo and Witten would be upset to see them hanging with the presidents and celebrities.
Spears has a point, but if Cam Lawrence or Ronald Leary were upset Romo, Witten and Murray were in the suite, oh well. Should I be upset Chris Berman gets to play in the Pebble Beach Pro-Am every year and I don't? Oh well.
Wonder if any other players get invited to these events off the cowboys team! Sends the wrong message to me pic.twitter.com/A2ZgZUsJgq— marcus spears (@mspear96) April 8, 2014
Status has its privileges in any line of work. Those three have status, especially Witten and Romo, and we don’t know who else was invited to sit in the power suite to see Connecticut beat Kentucky but unable to attend for whatever reason.
Witten and Romo have been with the Cowboys since 2003. Witten has been to the Pro Bowl nine times. He was named the NFL’s Man of the Year in 2012. Romo owns most of the Cowboys’ passing records and has been to three Pro Bowls. Jones has showed his faith in the quarterback by signing him to two big-time contract extensions. Murray is coming off his first Pro Bowl season.
As teams go, not all players are created equally. Jimmy Johnson didn’t treat Troy Aikman the same as he treated a third-string safety. Bill Parcells treated “his guys” differently than the other guys.
Too many people believe professional sports are entirely different than an office you or I may work in. There is office politics everywhere.
You like some people. You’re OK with some people. You distance yourself from some people. You loathe some people. But you do your job for the common good, be it winning football games or producing widgets.
It can be safely assumed Witten, Romo and Murray were invited by Jones to the suite. He’s the boss. He’s the guy who signs the checks. You have a chance to talk with Presidents Bush and Clinton and some other celebrity folks, would you say no to your boss because the guy in the next cubicle didn’t get invited?
Of course you wouldn’t.
To me, the question is should Jones have put those three guys in position to be perceived as above their teammates in a public way? I doubt the question even crossed Jones’ mind and I’m not sure it even needed to cross it. He was simply making a kind gesture to three of his top players -- and maybe more -- and they took him up on the offer.
If there are players that are upset, then, well, they’ll just have to get over it. But they should also realize Witten, Romo, who is also rehabbing from back surgery, and Murray have been working out at Valley Ranch well before the official start of the offseason program on April 21.
That’s what should matter most to them.
Like just about everything with the Cowboys, perception overrules reality. The perception of the photo might tell one story, but it doesn’t mean it’s the whole story.
Both were linked to the Dallas Cowboys by the media (hello, that's me), but sources indicated the Cowboys had some interest in Burleson, who played for their new passing game coordinator, Scott Linehan, with the Detroit Lions. The Cowboys just were not willing to pull the trigger on a deal now, continuing their patient approach in free agency.
Could it mean the Cowboys are as content at wide receiver as owner and general manager Jerry Jones has said?
I've long said the Cowboys do not need a true No. 3 receiver over the years because they have tight end Jason Witten, and the running backs have always figured prominently in the passing game.
The best performance by a No. 3 receiver for the Cowboys in the past five years has been Laurent Robinson, who caught 54 passes for 858 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2011. But mostly the Cowboys need their third receiver to catch anywhere from 30 to 40 passes a season. Kevin Ogletree did that in 2012 with 32. Technically Roy Williams might not have been the No. 3 receiver in 2010, but he caught 37 passes. In 2009, Patrick Crayton caught 37 passes for 622 yards and 5 touchdowns.
So you’re looking for a No. 3 receiver to catch two or three passes a game when you look at the options available in how the Cowboys have constructed their offense.
But what if Bryant or Williams gets hurt? And there will be injuries. Can Harris be a No. 2 receiver and excel outside? Maybe for a few games. Beasley is just a slot receiver because of his size. That is why I thought Avant or Burleson would have been good fits. Other options remain, such as Earl Bennett and even Miles Austin, but that would be a long shot.
However, if the Cowboys were not willing to make a play for a free agent Monday, they're not going to get into the market Tuesday.
Last week, I wondered whether Gavin Escobar could be an option as the third receiver. The Cowboys like his athleticism and saw in glimpses his ability to make plays. His touchdown against the Philadelphia Eagles in the season finale was an eye-opener. With the way the tight ends are used these days, Escobar has more receiver skills to him than tight end skills. He needs to get bigger and stronger to be an on-the-line tight end, but that part of his game will never be his strength. His strength will be working the seams and his ability to go get the ball.
But here is a thought: This is considered one of the deeper drafts in memory for wide receivers. Could the Cowboys be looking for their No. 3 receiver, who could be the No. 2 receiver, in the early to middle rounds of the draft?
Williams, a third-rounder last year, caught 44 passes for 736 yards and 5 touchdowns and showed he could handle the No. 2 role when Austin missed games with a hamstring injury. Williams' development played a part in the release of Austin.
If a Mike Evans fell, or if a Marqise Lee is there in the first round, could they be targets? It sure seems as if the draft is the Cowboys' preferred method to find their No. 3 receiver.
I don’t want to say Calvin is wrong, but, well, um, well, I don’t agree with that premise.
I just don’t think you rebuild when you have a franchise quarterback that will turn 34 in April and is only in the second year of a six-year extension.
What the Cowboys have done the last few years -- and I wrote about it -- is re-tool. The departures of DeMarcus Ware, Miles Austin and Jason Hatcher are more evidence that the Cowboys are re-tooling. With Tony Romo, the Cowboys still need to win now. Owner and general manager Jerry Jones said as much at the NFL scouting combine.
He doesn’t have time to wait three or four years to rebuild with Romo as his quarterback.
What the Cowboys are doing is changing their core. While Romo and Jason Witten are still the focal points of the team because of their play, status and production, the core of the team has moved on from guys like Ware, Jeremiah Ratliff, Austin, Andre Gurode, Marc Colombo, Bradie James and Terence Newman in recent years to newer players.
The core now is Sean Lee, Dez Bryant, Tyron Smith, DeMarco Murray, Orlando Scandrick, Travis Frederick, Terrance Williams and Barry Church. They would love guys like Morris Claiborne, Tyrone Crawford and Gavin Escobar to join this list but they have not proven they can play yet.
The Cowboys have to maximize what they have left with Romo and Witten but not to the point where they are left in salary-cap shambles for when the “new guard” is in their prime.
Rebuilding, to me, is starting over. The Cowboys aren’t going to start over with Romo and Witten and they’re not exactly moving back to ground zero either.
What they are doing does not guarantee success or even something better than 8-8, but they are in the process of passing the torch, so to speak.
It will be hard for the Cowboys to stomach because there will be noise from here, there and everywhere if Ware has a 15-sack season and is as dominant as ever, but it would not necessarily mean they made the wrong move in letting their all-time leader in sacks go. If anything, the Cowboys decided to make a move a year too early rather than a year too late by releasing Ware.
"I want to be quiet," Ware said almost a month ago before undergoing elbow surgery. "I just want to let my actions speak for themself. But I do chuckle a little bit because I know there’s a tornado coming."
When he arrived from Troy in 2005, there were some doubts that he could not only make the jump from that level of football to the NFL but from defensive end to outside linebacker. Bill Parcells did not have many doubts, even if he wanted Marcus Spears with the No. 11 pick. Parcells quickly mentioned Lawrence Taylor after the Cowboys took Ware, so I wouldn’t say he didn’t want Ware.
He had seven straight seasons with at least 11 sacks. He had seasons of 20 and 19.5 sacks.
But injuries knocked him down in 2012 and ’13. The Cowboys did not view this from only a 2013 prism only. Even though Ware had 11.5 sacks in 2012, they felt the decline had started.
The move to the 4-3 might have quickened the fall, but there are images of Ware I can’t get out of my head.
It is of Ware in Oxnard, Calif., in training camp. Day after day he repeatedly beat Tyron Smith. He did it in one-on-one pass-rush drills. He did it in team drills. He was the best player in training camp almost every day. Better than Dez Bryant. Better than Sean Lee. Better than Jason Witten. Better than Smith.
He had four sacks in his first three games but then the injuries piled up. Ware's practice time became limited and his production sank.
There is good football left in Ware. He showed it last summer against one of the best left tackles in football.
The Cowboys will only see it if the next team he signs with his is on their schedule or if they pay attention to the highlights.
He said drafting a corner “could be stacking it up,” too much with Brandon Carr, Orlando Scandrick and Morris Claiborne. He said tight end would not be a position of need with Jason Witten and Gavin Escobar. He said “not necessarily” wide receiver, either. The Cowboys like DeMarco Murray a lot, but “that doesn’t mean we won’t bring in another potentially very competitive running back in at all.” He said a strongside linebacker would not be much of a need because of its lack of importance in the 4-3. He mentioned liking what they have at safety but would not rule out a draft pick.
What does it all mean in early March? Not much.
The question was about drafting solely defensive players considering how much help the Cowboys need on that side of the ball.
“We’ve got to be careful foregoing a really top offensive lineman,” Jones said. “I’d head scratch about that, all things equal, same quality.”
The follow-up question was specifically about defensive line help.
“It’s certainly where we were almost bankrupt last year in terms of what we had personnel wise,” Jones said. “As you’ve noted and I’ve mentioned, I thought that was our strength going into the season. And by the way, I was up here talking to Monte Kiffin earlier and Monte was talking about how [Anthony] Spencer, how we were doing with [Jay] Ratliff not out there, but how well we were playing at Oxnard in that defensive front. That was without Tyrone Crawford, who got hurt the first day. Still we were creating some havoc out there and we, of course, really lost that. But that is certainly an area of need. I’m not being evasive, but don’t discount a good offensive lineman that is high on your board.”
That was twice Jones mentioned an offensive lineman. The Cowboys have hit on their past two first-round picks on the offensive line in Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick after not previously drafting one in the first round in the Jones era.
Just something to note.
If you look at the roster, however, the Cowboys have undergone a slow-rebuild -- if not a one-year overhaul -- the past few years with the idea that they can still make the playoffs, which would fall into Jones’ “compete for a Super Bowl,” credo by definition.
The offensive line has been remade since 2011 with only Doug Free remaining. They have invested in three younger cornerbacks, although they have yet to see the payoff in Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne. They have two younger receivers to build around in Dez Bryant and Terrance Williams.
The rebuilding of the defensive line has to start this offseason, especially if DeMarcus Ware does not return.
The Cowboys have gotten younger. They have seven players under contract for 2014 that will be 30 or older by the time the season starts. Only Tony Romo, Free, Jason Witten and L.P. Ladouceur are guaranteed to be around this season. There are cap questions around Ware and receiver Miles Austin, and quarterback Kyle Orton has to decide whether he wants to continue to play.
Free agent defensive linemen Jason Hatcher (32) and Anthony Spencer (30), and guard Brian Waters (37) will be allowed to test the market and sign elsewhere.
The Cowboys have 27 players signed past 2014 who finished the year on the 53-man roster in 2013. Only 10 have significant financial commitments, including Austin and Ware, who could be gone before this coming season. Players such as Carr and Mackenzy Bernadeau could be part of a recycle in 2015.
Bryant and Tyron Smith stand to see steep pay increases over the next 12-18 months, with their contracts expiring over the next two seasons. Perhaps the same could happen with running back DeMarco Murray, who is in the final year of his deal.
Rebuilding is not a word Jones will use. Reloading does not apply to a team that has one playoff win since 1996.
Maybe retooling is the more apt description.
But will that guarantee anything more than 8-8?
“Til it’s time to get under the cap,” executive vice president Stephen Jones said.
Teams do not need to be compliant with the salary cap until March 11, but some teams have already started cutting players to create cap savings, like the Detroit Lions did last week in cutting Louis Delmas and Nate Burleson and the New Orleans Saints with Will Smith, Roman Harper and Jabari Greer.
In addition to using the time at this week’s NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis to look at draft prospects, the Cowboys will use the time to discuss the futures of players like DeMarcus Ware and Miles Austin and how they want to pare their salary cap by $20 million-$25 million before the first day of the league year.
Several others could have their contracts restructured, like Tony Romo, Sean Lee, Jason Witten, and others could be cut, like Justin Durant, to make room.
“We continue to look at them and we continue to look at what’s available out there, what’s going to be available out there, and we’re looking at a lot of tape with [assistant director of player personnel] Will [McClay] and the pro guys are looking at the tape on all those guys and what’s likely to be available in the draft,” Jones said. “All these things affect the decision.”
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