NFL Nation: Kenyon Coleman

METAIRIE, La. – The New Orleans Saints didn't plan to start a youth movement or some kind of extreme roster makeover on their defense this season. In fact, they worked hard to restructure the contracts of core veterans such as Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma and Roman Harper because they wanted them to be part of their revitalized defense.

But the Saints and new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan have been forced to continually adapt as six projected starters have gone down with injuries.

[+] EnlargeJunior Galette and Cameron Jordan
AP Photo/Bill FeigYoung players such as Junior Galette and Cameron Jordan, with five sacks between them, have emerged to help turn around the Saints defense.
The result? The Saints are 3-0, and a defense that last season set the NFL record for most yards allowed now ranks as the fourth-toughest in the league (295.7 yards allowed per game).

Although no one around Saints camp is claiming they’re better off without those missing veterans, there is obviously some sort of mojo that has developed while dynamic young playmakers such as linemen Cameron Jordan and Akiem Hicks, outside linebacker Junior Galette and safety Kenny Vaccaro have started to emerge.

“I gotta start by saying it’s very unfortunate that we had so many pivotal parts of our defense go down. One guy that sits right next to me in this locker is Will Smith, and that’s something that can’t be replaced,” Hicks said. “But there’s definitely an energy, and we can use that. So it’s been working out.”

The Saints lost three projected starters to season-ending injuries this summer – outside linebackers Smith and Victor Butler and end Kenyon Coleman. Then inside linebacker Vilma was placed on short-term injured reserve after he had minor knee surgery in training camp (he could return at midseason). And in recent weeks, safety Harper and tackle Brodrick Bunkley have been sidelined by injuries, and nickel cornerback Patrick Robinson suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 2.

Yet none of those injuries has seemed to faze the Saints. If anything, the circumstances have empowered some of the young players who are stepping into more prominent roles.

Coach Sean Payton said that kind of injection of youth and energy can benefit a team – but only if the players “earned those positions.”

“In other words, I don’t think by design you go out and say, ‘We’re going to keep all these young players and cut the veterans,’” Payton said. “One thing that we try to do is just keep the best players. And the young players that earned spots we felt like were players that earned spots. And the veteran players that made the roster we felt like earned those spots. So, like you said [when the question was posed], it wasn’t by design.”

It hasn't just been young players stepping up to fill the void. Veteran linebacker David Hawthorne has played well as a replacement for Vilma. And the Saints traded for veteran linebacker Parys Haralson to help replace Smith.

And the most important change the Saints made to their defense this offseason came on the coaching staff -- which was by design. Payton fired former defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo after just one year on the job and replaced him with Ryan -- whose versatile schemes and energetic personality clearly have resonated much better with Saints players.

“Anything but the old defense, I would have got excited regardless,” said Galette, who has never been shy about voicing his displeasure with Spagnuolo’s system, which he felt was too rigid and reactive rather than unpredictable and aggressive. “But Rob, just meeting him as a person off the field, his character and his personality just kind of sinks in with everybody else, and he still feels like he’s young and he brings a lot of energy himself.

“Anything but Spags would’ve been great. But Rob is just a plus.”

The players have been feeding off of each other as well. As veteran inside linebacker Curtis Lofton said, that amped-up energy level is especially noticeable along the defensive front, where young guys such as Jordan, Galette, Hicks, Martez Wilson, Tyrunn Walker, John Jenkins and Glenn Foster have taken turns rising to the challenge – and cranking up friendly rivalries among themselves.

For instance, when Galette (two sacks) was asked who’s having the better season so far between him and Jordan (three sacks), he said, “C’mon, are you serious right now? That’s not a serious question. Who do you think?”

“There’s no days off. We get to the film room, and it’s like, 'OK, I got off the ball faster than you.' You’re competing. And that’s that competitive nature that I feel like we lacked in past years,” Galette said – though he was quick to point out that he doesn't think the Saints are better off without their injured veterans.

“Obviously it would help if Will and Victor were here. But we can’t worry about that right now,” Galette said. “This is who we have right now, and this is what we’re gonna keep rolling with.”

It may not be how the Saints drew it up in the playbook, but sometimes the best thing a team can do is call an audible.

Observation deck: Saints-Dolphins

August, 29, 2013
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Thoughts on the New Orleans Saints24-21 loss to Miami on Thursday night:

What it means: The Saints came up a little short of a perfect preseason, finishing 3-1. But they are far from a perfect team. They head into the regular season needing to replace three guys (defensive end Kenyon Coleman and linebackers Victor Butler and Will Smith) who were expected to be starters but have been lost to injuries.

Ingram’s role? Running back Mark Ingram had a nice 8-yard touchdown run. But the mere fact Ingram was getting nine carries in the final preseason game makes me wonder if he’s bound to spend another year buried on the depth chart behind Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles. Rookie running back Khiry Robinson got mop-up duty, but finished with 165 yards of total offense. Robinson isn’t a lock to make the roster, though, because he fumbled twice.

What’s next: The Saints open the regular season against Atlanta on Sept. 8 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
METAIRIE, La. -- The first thing I noticed when watching the New Orleans Saints practice was the silence.

There was no messing around and no coaches screaming at players. Instead, the Saints looked like a veteran team that is intensely focused -- more focused than last year, when chaos surrounded the entire season. Maybe even more focused than in 2009, when the Saints eventually won their first Super Bowl championship.

The quiet practices are a firm sign that coach Sean Payton is back in charge and that this team wants to put last season as far in the past as possible. The bounty scandal that led to the season-long suspension of Payton and a disappointing 7-9 record is over, and the Saints want to return to their winning ways.

“Last year was an apparition," quarterback Drew Brees said. “It was a different time with all the situations that had taken place. This year, just knowing that we’ve got everybody here, this is our team. Nobody’s missing. This is the team that can accomplish great things, and there’s a lot of work that needs to be done. Here’s our window of time to bring it together. We know there’s going to be tough times. We know there’s going to be adversity. Build that attitude, build that chemistry, and get ready to make a run at it.”

Payton’s return alone should make a big difference. He’s one of the league’s best coaches and possesses a brilliant offensive mind. After watching his team from a distance last year, Payton had some strong critiques for his players, even the superstars.

Soon after Payton was reinstated, he called tight end Jimmy Graham and told him that a season in which he caught 85 passes but led the league in drops, according to ESPN Stats & Information, wasn’t good enough.

“First, he called me and I didn’t recognize the number so I didn’t pick it up," Graham said. “He was pretty mad because it took like two or three days for me to call him back. The conversation was very serious, talking about his expectations for me and the things that I need to correct from last year and how he’s ready to be back. He’s ready to see my growth even more."

Payton needs to see growth from more than Graham. He’s made it clear that he wants to run the ball more often and that the Saints have to be substantially better on defense.

If the Saints can combine those things with Brees and the passing game, they should be right back in playoff contention.

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. The defensive overhaul. Payton is an offensive guru, but the first order of business upon his reinstatement was to replace defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo with Rob Ryan. Spagnuolo’s defense never caught on in New Orleans, and the Saints finished last season ranked No. 32 in total defense.

The Saints aren’t just switching coordinators. They’re switching schemes. With Payton’s blessing, Ryan is installing a 3-4 scheme. The pass rush now will have to come from the outside linebackers, particularly Junior Galette, Will Smith and Martez Wilson, a trio of guys that previously played defensive end.

The secondary also is going through some major changes. The Saints signed free-agent cornerback Keenan Lewis and drafted safety Kenny Vaccaro in the first round.

The defense will look a lot different because Ryan uses a lot of exotic looks. If the results are different from last season, the Saints will be in good shape.

[+] EnlargeMark Ingram
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireThere won't be any excuses for Mark Ingram this season, as the Saints plan to keep him involved in their running game.
Ingram’s time? Payton repeatedly has said the Saints need to get back to running the ball more efficiently. They were good in that area in their Super Bowl season but got away from the run last season.

There really is no reason the Saints shouldn’t be able to get production from the running game. They have a good offensive line and three talented running backs -- Mark Ingram, Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas.

The real wild card is Ingram. Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis used a first-round pick on Ingram in 2011, but he hasn’t produced a lot in his first two years. I think Payton is going to make it a point to give Ingram more carries this season.

A new age of receivers. A few years ago, the Saints had a receiving corps as deep as any in the league, which came in handy because they use so many three- and four-receiver sets. But Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson left over the past two seasons. Joe Morgan, who had been ticketed for the third receiver spot, suffered a season-ending injury in camp.

That leaves starters Marques Colston and Lance Moore as the only sure things. Beyond them, there’s a lot of uncertainty. But the Saints hope veteran Steve Breaston, who was signed this week, and second-year pro Nick Toon, who missed his rookie season with an injury, can fill the void.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

Any team that has Brees as its quarterback is going to be competitive. With weapons such as Graham, Colston and Sproles, the Saints are going to score plenty of points. It would be difficult for the defense to be any worse than last season.

If the Saints can just put a middle-of-the-pack defense on the field, they can be a dangerous team.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

Rob Ryan
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsRob Ryan will bring an aggressive new 3-4 attack to New Orleans, but do the Saints have the proper personnel to run it effectively off the bat?
The Saints already have had some tough breaks when it comes to injuries. Defensive end Kenyon Coleman and outside linebacker Victor Butler, who were brought in specifically to fill important roles in Ryan’s defensive scheme, already have suffered season-ending injuries.

Ryan is an aggressive coach, and the 3-4 has had plenty of success around the league in recent years. But I’m not sure Ryan has the personnel to make this defense succeed. It could take another offseason to get this defense fully stocked.

OBSERVATION DECK

One of the brightest spots in training camp has been the play of second-year defensive lineman Akiem Hicks. I saw him make several big plays during my visit. Hicks is going to get his chance to shine in the regular season, and with Coleman out, it looks like he'll be a starter at defensive end.

In another sign that the Saints are serious about running the ball more, Graham has bulked up. The tight end said he now weighs about 270 pounds and that he’s focusing on becoming a better blocker.

The Saints have a history of finding unheralded running backs who end up making a contribution (see Chris Ivory and Travaris Cadet). They might have found another one in Khiry Robinson, an undrafted free agent out of West Texas A&M. Robinson has flashed big-play ability in camp. The Saints have so much depth at running back that it might be tough for him to make the roster, but he could end up on the practice squad.

There was some thought that Jason Smith, a former first-round pick by the St. Louis Rams, could end up as the starting left tackle. But it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen. Charles Brown has been getting virtually all the first-team work. Smith has fallen to third on the depth chart and is working behind rookie Terron Armstead. It’s looking like Smith might not even make the roster.

In recent years, the Saints have brought rookie defensive backs along slowly. Malcolm Jenkins and Patrick Robinson didn’t play significant roles in their first seasons. But I don’t think the Saints are going to be cautious with Vaccaro. Whether it’s at one of the safety spots or as the nickelback, Vaccaro is going to play a lot this season.
METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints got a double dose of bad news Wednesday.

Receiver Joe Morgan will miss the season with a knee injury, coach Sean Payton said. Payton also said it’s likely defensive end Kenyon Coleman will miss the season with a pectoral injury. Payton said Morgan was scheduled for surgery Wednesday, and Coleman likely will have surgery Thursday.

The loss of Coleman is substantial. He was expected to start at defensive end. Coleman is the second projected starter to suffer a season-ending injury. Outside linebacker Victor Butler suffered a season-ending injury during offseason workouts.

With Coleman out, the Saints are likely to take a long look at second-year pro Akiem Hicks, who has been working at both defensive end spots and defensive tackle.

Morgan had appeared to be the leader in the competition for the No. 3 receiver spot. Veteran Steve Breaston and second-year pro Nick Toon are likely to be next in line to compete for the third spot.
The players aren’t the only ones being impacted by the New Orleans Saints’ switch to a 3-4 defense. General manager Mickey Loomis said the personnel department also is adjusting.

“It’s changed, there is no question, because we are looking for different things and we are still trying to understand completely what [new defensive coordinator] Rob [Ryan] is looking for in a defensive player,’’ Loomis said. “It’s really the front seven that we are talking about here, but I think we have a really good handle on the type of player that he is looking for. We brought in a couple of guys from his team in Dallas in free agency and we have spent a lot of time talking to him about each of these college players that are draft eligible and how they would fit into our system.”

Loomis and coach Sean Payton have a history of drafting the best available player and that doesn’t always coincide with needs. But I think this draft could be different.

Even with their free-agent signings the Saints still need more players to fit Ryan’s scheme as he tries to overhaul a defense that ranked last in the NFL last season.

“We could line up and play today if we had to play, with a few practices,’’ Loomis said. “We’re just trying to add to that and improve. This draft is part of that process and, obviously, free agency was part of that process too, bringing in Victor Butler, Kenyon Coleman and Keenan Lewis. We’ve got some elements. We have some expectations of some guys that we drafted last year, Akiem Hicks in particular, and then we are looking for good seasons from some of our veteran guys.”

There’s no question the Saints already have put some parts in place. But this defense is far from a finished product and this draft will be crucial. Even if there’s an offensive player the Saints really like at No. 15, I think they need to pass and get a defensive player who has a chance to be a difference maker.

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.

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.

Three things revisited: Rams-Cowboys

August, 25, 2012
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Looking back on three things discussed here before the St. Louis Rams’ preseason game Saturday night, a 20-19 defeat at Dallas:

1. Center of attention. Veteran Scott Wells, sidelined by knee surgery for much of the offseason, made his preseason debut after signing with the Rams in free agency. He called out line adjustments, pointing about the field as centers typically do.

Wells played Jay Ratliff to a stalemate on an early third-and-7 (left guard Quinn Ojinnaka gave up a sack on the play). The Cowboys’ Kenyon Coleman got past Wells with a quick first step, but Wells held on. Coleman did not disrupt the play.

Wells played a couple series and seemed to do fine. There were no botched center exchanges when he was in the game.

2. Offensive draft choices. Rookie running backs Isaiah Pead and Daryl Richardson got into the game early. Pead had a 47-yard kickoff return. He didn’t find much room to run while working with the first-team offense. Richardson fared better. The blocking for Richardson might have been better, but he also impressed with powerful strides. Richardson ran with determination through the play. He carried 10 times for 51 yards.

Pead bobbled a pass and couldn’t get away from defenders in the open field. But he did run hard in the red zone during a fourth-quarter drive ending with a touchdown pass from Kellen Clemens to Austin Pettis. Pead finished with nine carries for 22 yards.

The Rams did not get their young receivers involved early. Rookie second-round choice Brian Quick left the game in the second half after taking a crushing hit to the midsection, but he returned and contributed with a 39-yard reception. Fourth-round choice Chris Givens did not catch a pass.

3. Roster battles. Undrafted rookie safety Rodney McLeod seemed to improve his case for a roster spot, although evaluating secondary play can be tricky. McLeod made a positive first impression with an early tackle on special teams. He made a diving pass breakup on a risky third-down pass thrown over the middle in the fourth quarter.

At tight end, Mike Hoomanawanui made two receptions for 23 yards. One of his potential competitors for a roster spot, rookie Mike McNeill, threw the key downfield block on one of those receptions.

Clemens, the No. 2 quarterback, played deep into the fourth quarter. He completed 6 of 9 passes for 68 yards and the one score. Austin Davis finished up and led a quick touchdown drive, completing 4 of 5 passes for 53 yards. Davis showed pocket awareness. The offense perked up when he entered the game.

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 that 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. But the sense you get when you spent time around this team is that they're all 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 2012 and wonder whether Garrett or quarterback Tony Romo would 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 of the well-deserved heat the defense took during last season's collapse, the offensive line was a year-long 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's 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 last year 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 to 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 that 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 in 2011, 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 2011 is that they need to be tougher in big spots, they'll get plenty of 2012 chances to show whether or not they 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 very 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.
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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.
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.

What if the Eagles had hired Rob Ryan?

October, 20, 2011
10/20/11
1:00
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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 than 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. 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 year 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'd 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, 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 under-spent 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. They 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 and Jenkins and 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 under-emphasizing it may prove costly.
When training camp began last month, inside linebacker Sean Lee wasn't even a sure thing to start for the Dallas Cowboys. But after three eye-popping games as their starter, the Cowboys announced Wednesday, Lee has been named the NFC's Defensive Player of the Month. Lee is the first Cowboys player to win this award since it was established in 1986.

The numbers that accompanied the release of this announcement are impressive. The Cowboys have credited Lee with a team-leading 36 tackles through three games. He also has two interceptions, two fumble recoveries, a tackle for a loss and three pass breakups. He's been a revelation at inside linebacker, reducing veteran Keith Brooking to something like an afterthought and symbolizing the effect new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has had on the team.

I had thought that the Cowboys would struggle on defense early in the season as they worked to learn Ryan's complex new scheme -- that the Dallas defense, while talented, would be better in November than it was in September. But the Cowboys have been a very good defensive team so far -- particularly in the second halves of their past two games -- and Lee and the seamless way he seems to fit in with what Ryan is teaching are a big reason why.

Ryan's defense relies on ever-shifting looks and deception. A player like Lee is given an assignment -- be it cover the tight end, spy the running back, rush the passer, play a certain zone, whatever -- but is allowed freedom to determine how he wants to accomplish that assignment. He can line up wherever he wants, for instance, assuming he can get to where he needs to be in time to do his job. The player becomes part of the deception, doing his part to confuse the offense before the snap. And a player like Lee, who plays with speed and intensity and has the ability to put himself around the ball seemingly at all times, can thrive in that kind of a scheme.

Lee isn't the only one thriving. Defensive end Kenyon Coleman and safety Abram Elam, who played for Ryan last year in Cleveland, also have shined. Linebacker Anthony Spencer and cornerback Mike Jenkins, two talented players who regressed last year after strong 2009 campaigns, have rebounded. And DeMarcus Ware, likely the best player Ryan has ever had on one of his defenses, remains an unparalleled pass-rushing force. But Lee has been the battery, the spark plug, the main cog in the Cowboys' defensive machine so far this year, patrolling the middle of the field with unrelenting energy and disrupting offenses at every turn. A well-deserved award, to be sure.

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