Saturday, August 20, 2016

DMN Post-Game Call-In Transcript - Preseason Miami

http://sportsday.dallasnews.com/dallas-cowboys/cowboys/2016/08/20/cowboys-might-know-impressed-miami?f=r

Sportsradio 1310 The Ticket host Bob Sturm analyzes the Dallas Cowboys' win over the Miami Dolphins on Friday:
Do you believe in Dak Prescott?
There's no doubt his first training camp has resulted in fantastic results. I am sure he can be their No. 2 (quarterback) right out of the gate. I don't necessarily see anything I could say critically about him. He did flirt with a few near interceptions, including one that was nullified by a penalty. I don't know what else can be asked of a fourth-round rookie in his first two preseason appearances. He looks very poised, very knowledgeable and his throws absolutely where they need to be over and over again. I understand why everyone is so excited. Compared to most Cowboy quarterback rookies over the last 20 years or so, this is absolutely uncharted waters. Very impressive stuff.
What did you think of Tony Romo, and were you concerned he even played?
I wasn't necessarily worried he played. I would have been fine if he didn't. I think it's probably important for a guy to get used to game action, but a 10-year starter doesn't need more than one half of preseason. It goes back to the unnecessary nature that the NFL makes teams play so many preseason games.
How did Alfred Morris look? And could Ezekiel Elliott be even more impressive?
That's the big question. When the Cowboys got Morris back in March, I did not see Ezekiel Elliott as a need here. He seems like a real luxury. If they had gone with Morris and maybe Darren McFadden as backup, they would have been fine this year. Morris is a clean fit, his timing is good, his vision is solid. With this offensive line, there are any number of running backs who would have great success. I am certainly not mad Ezekiel Elliott is here, but with this much talent on the line and Dez Bryant occupying space and Tony Romo who can put the ball where he wants to, running back has an easy job description on this team. Which is probably why Elliott admitted as much this week.
What did you think of some other players not named Dak?
Once again Shaniel Jenkins pops up. I need to study why Denver lost interest in him so quickly, because in both appearances he has popped off the screen with sacks and tackles for loss and a forced fumble.
Josh Thomas was pretty good today, the corner. I still continue to see plenty out of Jeremiah McKinnon. It seems they have some depth in the secondary. Going back to other players, even on the offense, I certainly enjoyed seeing Darius Jackson running the ball. He's a rookie who will probably have to start on special teams. It's fun to see Brice Butler at receiver in his first training camp with the Cowboys. He is perhaps demonstrating he's the fourth wide receiver. If you're going to carry Cole Beasley and Lucky Whitehead, Butler brings a nice big, strong receiver who can win on the goal line and learn from Dez Bryant. Maybe he's a real keeper now.
Is there anything that concerns you entering the third preseason game?
I think there experimenting without giving their future opponents a whole lot. I see some things that are fresh to me. As they are trying to add some wrinkles. There's going to be some times when they don't look as smooth. It's hard to find things to complain about. I think we need to see more time from the regulars. For the most part, they mopped the field with Miami and that makes them pretty happy where they are. I think the Cowboys feel pretty decent where they're at.

Friday, August 19, 2016

DMN Cowboys Mailbag - Aug 19th

http://sportsday.dallasnews.com/dallas-cowboys/cowboys/2016/08/19/sturms-friday-mailbag-miami-comes-calling-cowboys-sort-depth-chart


We get Friday Night Football this week as the Cowboys return home to deal with Miami -- a team they seem to make sure is on the preseason schedule every year. Clearly, with last week's game now in the rear-view mirror, some players try to confirm what we saw last week, some players try to erase what we saw last week and others who we haven't seen will join the battle. The observations and reactions will have to wait until tonight, but there is plenty of work to be done, no doubt. Meanwhile, I have work to do as well, as I dig through your mailbag queries:
Q: What are 3 or 4 things you'll be focusing on in Friday's game vs. Miami?
Well, I am with everyone else in wanting to see the continued play of the QBs. I thought both Dak Prescott and Jameill Showers were impressive Saturday night with Prescott having some more help and less sabotage from his mates, but Showers looking the part as well. I expect Prescott will have less than a 154 passer rating this time, but we just want to see continued competence and poise. We fully understand the ball is going to hit the ground a time or two, but he needs to know where to go with the ball and deal with more complex coverages and so forth. I think he looks great, but this is a very long journey and I already think some people are forgetting that.

Beyond that, I really want to see a fourth and fifth receiver step up and grab the job. It was pretty thin last year and the year before despite the Cowboys spending draft picks to try to fix it. Luckily, it seems that decent depth WRs are out there to be found on cut-down day, but it would be nice if someone would step up. I would say Lucky Whitehead did his job on Saturday by showing game-breaking return ability, but we could use some size if Cole Beasley and Whitehead are both in the group. They are both useful, of course, but if someone 6-foot or bigger wants to join Dez Bryant and Terrance Williams with some remarkable results, I would enjoy that. The smart money says it is Brice Butler right now, but I would say that is far from in stone.
Defensively, let's keep watching that defensive line. No David Irving tonight and likely too soon for Benson Mayowa tells us to not get too carried away with expectations from DE. And it would be great to see more from Byron Jones at FS.
But, you know what I will really be watching tonight? Special teams participation in preseason Games 2 and 3 are very much worth tracking. These games are where we will see who they trust in covering kicks and punts. And that will tell us who is making this team, because if you are not a starter, then you better add some real value to special teams. So, if you are looking for who is going to win the fifth WR, third RB, fifth-seventh LB and so on, watch the punts and kicks early.
Q: Do you think Jameill Showers has already been knocked out of the QB battle?
Not at all. Of course, it was always going to be a long shot that he would be on this roster until Kellen Moore fell. But once that happened, he had to play well enough to chase them away from shopping for another veteran. Prescott certainly alters things because if they are feeling extra adventurous, they could roll with two QBs, but I can't imagine a team that hasn't seen Romo play 16 games since 2012 would risk that. So, if Showers does his job to continue to run the offense like he has in the 2015 preseason and now in 2016, I expect he makes the team.
Let's not forget: Many things change over the course of a preseason. Things happen. Unexpected things. So, you just keep putting in work and you never know what will occur around you.
Q: People are saying Claiborne has had a great camp. Do you think this could be the year he shows he was worthy of being a first-round pick?
I am going to need to see it for an extended period of time. The bar is now so low for Claiborne that there will be false alarms. Remember, around Week 4 last year, there were proclamations that Mo Claiborne had finally come around. Then, time passed and we had another disappointing year due to health and not staying on the field. He has to stay on the field. He has to play. Maybe the results are less important now than his attendance record. If a corner can't stay on the field, then he is just not going to ever be a massive contributor.

Since drafted No. 6 overall (at the cost of picks Nos. 14 and 45 in that 2012 draft), he has played 2,199 snaps in the regular season. To compare, Brandon Carr, also acquired in 2012, has played 4,182 snaps. They play the same position, so you know that Carr is dependable and consistent. Claiborne is yet another player this franchise depends upon who evidently cannot be depended upon at that same level or even close.
So, I appreciate his camp performance in the first few weeks in August. I want to know if he is going to be around in October and November this year. A guy cannot determine his own health, but that is a large part of our issues with Mo Claiborne in Year 5. He, of course, may be playing for his next deal elsewhere, because a great year this season would no doubt make it difficult to keep him, but given his track record, "great" years are rather rare at this level.
Let's see it week after week.
Q: This is the last year of Terrance Williams' rookie deal, right? If he doesn't improve much, is he worth re-signing?
I actually wrote about the next level of free agents for the Cowboys back on Tuesday, which I shall link for you right here. In there, we showed you the list of players who are in the "contract year": 
Expires after 2016: Lance Dunbar, Terrell McClain, Andrew Gachkar, David Irving, Darren McFadden, Brice Butler, Barry Church, Jack Crawford, Ron Leary, Kellen Moore, J.J. Wilcox, Terrance Williams, Morris Claiborne, Gavin Escobar, Rolando McClain
Williams is high on that list of names, of course, but it is a weird spot. If he disappoints this year, then you would expect the Cowboys would rather spend a pick on his replacement and not spend a ton to keep him. If he is awesome, then the price for his next deal might be high above the Cowboys' threshold and suddenly you want to draft his replacement. I am sure there is a sweet spot, but as we have talked about for quite a while, his next deal (based on his current resume and conservative projections moving forward) could be very similar to the deals that are currently out there in the 5-year/$40-million range. At worst, you figure Williams will get $6M a year and if he is huge this year, there is no question it could creep up near $10M. The questions, of course, are going to be whether you think he is a difference-maker on an offense that already has declared that designation for Romo, Zeke, Dez, Witten, Tyron, Zack and Frederick. You cannot keep paying everyone elite money on one side of the ball, so if I had to guess, Williams will be playing his final year in a Cowboys uniform.
Q:  Zeke figures to be the mainstay, but should the Cowboys have taken a look at Arian Foster over Alfred Morris perhaps? I know he's had a rough couple of years but the thought of him healthy behind that Cowboys OL.
I promised everyone I wouldn't bring up Ezekiel Elliott's pick every single time we talk roster construction, but my plan last spring did not include a RB at No. 4. I would have gone after 24-year old free agent Lamar Miller (now in Houston) and Alfred Morris and if I failed on either, I would have looked for a RB on Day 2 of the draft, with my belief that Derrick Henry (picked 45th by Tennessee) would have been an unstoppable beast on this offense in this scheme.
They didn't agree (nor have most Cowboys fans) and now the Cowboys have an amazing RB in Elliott, so the issue isn't really whether they have quality. They do. The issue is did they need it when they already have this group? I say they did not, but it is over.
As for Foster, who visits tonight with the Dolphins, the No. 1 thing I look for in a RB is durability. So, the fact that he has played in 25 of the past 48 NFL games he was scheduled to play in was not overly appealing to me. This sport demands so much from the bodies of its players, that when it goes, there is often no getting it back.
Q: How did you think the Cowboys' defense performed in the first preseason game? Is there reason for hope for a competitive unit?

I thought there were some nice things there. The blitzes that led to big plays are something that makes me wonder about how often we can expect to see pressure and extra rushers this season.  We know the Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli does not prefer to blitz, but we also saw last year more Cover 1 man coverage, so perhaps they are more willing to play with more aggressiveness and potentially risk things this season. For several years now, the Cowboys have played a very conservative brand of defense. Rush four, drop seven has been what we have seen since Rob Ryan left town. Maybe they are planning to change that with a better free safety on patrol and more capable coverage players with the return of Orlando Scandrick and veteran secondary men in Barry Church, Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne.  
As they say, "it can't be any worse," in some respects.
If you have to roll the dice to cause the offense to make mistakes, that might be the best way to attack this year. Especially with an offense that might be able to cover up some mistakes with scoring more often.
We shall look for that tonight.
Enjoy the game.


Thursday, August 18, 2016

Xs and Os: Romo's First Big Moment - August 21, 2004

http://sportsday.dallasnews.com/dallas-cowboys/cowboys/2016/08/18/sturm-xs-os-thursday-time-machine-trip-august-2004

One thing I love doing here at The Dallas Morning News is found on Thursdays.  We cut up the last Cowboys game and talk ball.  Sometimes it is tactics and strategies, other times it is marveling at what some great athletes can do in this great sport.  Either way, we are implementing video and discussing this game through the lens of 11 on 11 GIFs.  It is something that Grantland Rice did not have the technology to pull off.  Let's take advantage of what we have to work with.
However, for our very first episode of the year, I had a choice to make.  I could either break down a few Chaz Green busts, a Lucky Whitehead return, and a JJ Wilcox issue or I could ignore that opener this morning and take you on a trip to another preseason game you might be interested in.  Since I didn't really crowdsource your opinion, you will just have to trust me.
The day is August 21, 2004.  The Cowboys are playing preseason game No. 2 of the 2004 season, so keep in mind this was two weeks after Quincy Carter was told goodbye due to his pot issue.  The team had just drafted Julius Jones, Jacob Rogers, and Stephen Peterman.  They had just won 10 games and lost to Carolina in the 2003 playoffs, and they had a QB depth chart of Vinny Testeverde, Drew Henson, and some kid named Tony Romo.  
This is not the 2004 opener.  That was the week before when the team was pounded by Houston 18-0.  All three of this QBs played and that Romo kid was 3-for-11 for 37 yards and two interceptions and had a QB rating of 1.5, which is about the lowest I have ever seen.  
So let's be clear here.  This is not Tony Romo's first preseason game.  He even played in some games in 2003 that were not considered noteworthy.  (I have no video evidence of any of these earlier games.  Side note: I collect NFL games going all the way back to the 1960s.  I love this stuff.  But, I never keep preseason football games, usually.  But, now, I wish I had all of these early Romo appearances.  So, if you have anything from the 2003 or 2004 Dallas preseason, I am interested in hearing from you.)
But, this one would easily be considered as "the first time anyone suggested Tony Romo might have something."  So, recently I watched this game -- in Spanish, since that is the only broadcast that I think has survived -- and wanted to share some details with you.  
Now, he would never play in the early parts of the game when the good players are playing.  Just like Jameill Showers of modern times, he had poor offensive linemen, receivers who would drop passes, and had to sort of make things up as he was going.  But, he entered this game to mop up with 4:43 to go in the fourth quarter and the Raiders leading the game 20-15.  
What happened next was a 17-play drive to win the game.  It was Tony Romo's first big preseason moment.  Let's have a  look at the drive:
First significant throw down the sideline to Randal Williams that the WR could not come up with.  But, the location is there and the throw looks confident and on point.
This drive featured many fourth downs.  Here is one.
4th and 11 from the Oakland 49.  Romo steps up to escape former Cowboys great Peppi Zellner and is picked off by some guy named DeJuan Green for Oakland.  Game over?  Not so fast.  
Referee Ed Hochuli is there!  Holding on the Raiders away from the play.  First down and the rally lives.  
Remember all of the former Jets that Bill Parcells brought over?  Here is Dedric Ward in the slot making a catch on a slant for 8 yards.  He would catch one pass as a Dallas Cowboy for 5 yards in the regular season.  
So, now on second and 2, Romo wants to do the Tom Brady quick QB sneak.  They didn't quite get there, though, and it is now third down.  
So, below, third and 1.  
Play-action to the FB out of the backfield.  It is Lousaka Polite who would go on to play nine seasons in the NFL.  On this occasion, Polite juggled the ball and was ruled out of bounds after coming up with this pass.  Then, it was challenged by the Cowboys, but Hochuli was not having it.  Incomplete after review.
It moves to fourth and 1.
The Cowboys briefly considered trying to run for it, but as you can see, it is lucky they did not.  Another play-action bootleg where Romo is again having to escape an untouched Peppi Zellner and hits Landon Trusty at the marker to move the chains again.  He is certainly not getting too much protection to lead this drive.
And perhaps I was merely foreshadowing the sack.  You likely don't remember Javier Collins playing tackle for the Cowboys, but he has no answer for Zellner on this drive.  Romo is hearing footsteps from every direction and eventually hits the turf which will take us down to about 1:30 to play.  
A run cuts it to third and 3, and now we find another short underneath throw to Dedric Ward to move the chains and keep hope alive inside 1:00.  If you are curious (why would you be?), the Cowboys do have one timeout left.  
On first down, Rashard Lee got 1 yard.  On second down, Romo spiked the ball to stop the clock.  So here we are on third and 9.  Romo drops and finds TE Sean Ryan from Boston College (5th round pick, No. 144) open, but he drops the ball.   So now we face the third different fourth down of the drive!
Fourth and 9 from the Oakland 13.  0:23 to go!
It looks like the exact same play as Romo sees Ryan again.  This time waits to clear the first window and hits him past the sticks and at the goal-line for a first down to the 1.  But, the clock is ticking!  Will they use their last timeout?
No!?!?
Romo rushes them to the line.  He is telling everyone it is the kill play.  Spike the ball.  Get set!  Don't move before the snap!  We are going to spike it!
Just kidding, Raiders.  QB sneak touchdown for the win!
Romo really did the "fake spike/ run a real play" trick in one of his first ever NFL appearances.  That cracked me up quite a bit.  
And if you look carefully, I think you can see his coach cracking a smile, too.
So, there you go.  The Cowboys failed on the 2-point conversion, and left Oakland with a 21-20 win in week 2 of the 2004 preseason.  And Tony Romo made the last few minutes watchable.  
So much so, that I wanted to share them with you this morning -- 12 years later.  
Hope that was enjoyable for you.  It proves you never know who you are seeing in the 4th Quarter of a preseason game.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Examining The Dallas Pass Rush Sack Rates: 2011-15

http://sportsday.dallasnews.com/dallas-cowboys/cowboys/2016/08/17/sturm-talk-stat-matters-rushing-passer

In our efforts to solve the Cowboys' pass rush issues, I always think that sometimes we are looking in the wrong place for the proper measuring stick.  There are so many variables that go into evaluation for this type of thing; especially when your efforts need to be measured against 31 teams.  NFL average is a worthy pursuit, especially if you haven't been at or above the NFL average since 2011.  That is now five seasons back and the Cowboys have spent the last four in the bottom of the league as it pertains to raw sack numbers.  
The problem, of course, is that all things are never equal in the NFL.  Team X gets 60 sacks and Team Y gets 30.  However, upon closer inspection, we find out Team Y gets no sacks because teams are running the ball so much against them.  Maybe their offense is incompetent, and the opponent is always ahead in the second half.  Why would they pass and subject their QB to danger when a simple run down the throat is all it takes to ensure victory?  
If some teams are facing 50 passes a game and some teams are facing 25, then it stands to reason that we'd better not look at raw sack totals to evaluate the pass rush.  
Just for fun, here is what the raw sack totals look like, though, as we separate them into three categories:  In Green, we put the best team in the NFL.  For your reference, the leaders in the last five years have been - Philadelphia in 2011, Denver in 2012, Carolina in 2013, Buffalo in 2014, and Denver in 2015.  In red, we put the NFL average.  This is how many total sacks the average team gets each year.  And then, in blue, is your Dallas Cowboys in a five-year trend:
The Cowboys' league ranking in sacks since 2011:  9th, 22nd, 28th, 29th, and 26th.  So, since 2012, they have been bouncing around the basement.  2011-12 was Rob Ryan and a healthy DeMarcus Ware and a helping of Jay Ratliff.  2013 was the Monte Kiffin year, and 2014-15 have been our current defensive architect, Rod Marinelli.  Not to lower our bar or anything, but you can see how most of us just want to see the Cowboys climb into the 50th percentile in the league to feel like the pass rush has made major strides.  Being in the top 5 will require a massive investment and talent change, and although the Cowboys flirt with putting resources into this spot, they obviously do not have elite pass rushers right now.  So, to put this on tactics and strategies is simply unfair.  
That said, let's now visit about the stat that coaches really focus upon.  This is what makes all things equal from a statistical point of view.  It is sack rate.  In other words, how many pass plays does it take to get a sack?  If the average NFL game features each team attempting 38 pass plays (2015 numbers), then the question is based on expectation levels of how many pass plays does it require each defense to get a sack?
Now, see the data from above applied in that way:  How many passes do the Cowboys need for each sack?  In case there is any confusion, you want your bar to be small on this chart.  
And here we see the progress of 2015.  Since moving from the 3-4 to the 4-3, the Cowboys have been taking between 19 and 21 pass plays to get to the QB.  They needed way more pass plays than the league average to get there.  They just couldn't do it in 2013 and 2014.  Heck, in 2014, you can see Buffalo was almost completely doubling up the Cowboys.  It took the Bills just 11 passes to record a sack, but the Cowboys needed 21.  But, in 2015, the Cowboys cut that number down by a huge chunk.  Almost to a point where in 2015, the Cowboys column and the NFL average column almost were at the same height.  This is pretty major progress, to be honest.  It is basically a 20 percent improvement.  
Of course, it required a season of Greg Hardy and DeMarcus Lawrence and quite a few pieces that aren't here in 2016.   But, we need to understand sack totals from a proper perspective.  If your team is always ahead, you are going to get more sacks because your opponent has to throw (theoretically, that should have been 2014 for Dallas).  If your team is always behind, you are going to have a real issue getting to the QB because your opponent doesn't ever have to throw.  
And since we know how dramatically different the game situations were in 2014 and 2015, we are led to conclude that the 2014 pass rush was simply awful (despite the rest of the team being pretty nice) and the 2015 pass rush was not far at all from being a league-average pass rush.  
That said, since Hardy was so difficult the team just wanted him gone and since Lawrence and Gregory both got popped with suspensions, it is hard to say that there is any relation to the 2015 pass rush and the mysterious 2016 rush group.   There is also the consideration of how often do you blitz to get your sacks, but I wanted to keep this study simple.  If you blitz, you leave more space in your secondary, so it is all a balancing act.
Quite possibly, irrelevant, but just for your info: In the preseason opener, the Rams attempted 42 pass plays and were sacked once.  That clearly won't cut it.  
The league average has sat at right about one sack per 16 pass plays for the last five years.  That needs to be the goal that the coaching staff is setting for the team.  Whether they can get close is a whole other story.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Travis Frederick Signs Massive Extension - Who Is Next?

http://sportsday.dallasnews.com/dallas-cowboys/cowboys/2016/08/16/sturm-frederick-gets-massive-extension-next

Great news over the weekend was buried underneath a preseason game's reviews and observations in a way that was fitting for the player who signed it. 
Unlike some of his more high-profile teammates, Travis Frederick would seem to love it no other way when he signed a six-year extension all the way through the 2023 season (2018-2023) for $56.4 million with exactly half of that money guaranteed in a deal (although there are reports that say less is guaranteed) that makes him the highest paid center in football. 

Frederick surpasses Alex Mack ($45 million), Mike Pouncey ($44.75), Rodney Hudson ($44.5) and Maurkice Pouncey ($44.1) at the center position who have all recently signed deals that all put them in the $9 million-per-year range on five-year deals. Nick Mangold actually had the highest total-value contract of $54 million that he signed way back in 2010 that is about to expire but averaged $7.7 million a year. 
Frederick's new deal puts him at the top of both categories in terms of total value ($56.4 million) and average payout per year ($9.4 million). 
He just turned 25 years old and has completed his third year in the NFL, having already gone to the Pro Bowl twice and making the All-Pro team twice (second team) all while not missing a single game or snap. If you are wondering, Maurkice Pouncey finished first team All-Pro in 2014 and Ryan Kalil of Carolina finished first team in 2015. But, Frederick seems to take a back seat to nobody in his performance. There certainly have been moments in those three seasons when he may not have graded out as perfect, but to be completely honest, there are almost no moments that come to mind. He is as solid as a rock and therefore is seemingly as worthy of a contract extension as you can find. 
People do stress out when their team locks someone up to the biggest contract at their position -- especially Cowboys fans. Why? Because they have been conditioned to stress about the cap situation of this team for since the salary cap was adopted by the league a few decades back. Seemingly, each year the Cowboys have had to scale back, and do gymnastics to get under the bar with annual adjustments for relief instead of adding much needed players. 

I would simply suggest the following in matters like this. Yes, cap room matters and yes, you want to be careful when handing out deals of this magnitude, because there is no doubt that Frederick costs a lot of money moving forward for a center. 
But, this is actually the model move for model franchises. It is the conveyor belt of talent that hopefully never stops turning.  First, you draft a player that you think will be a high quality foundation piece (even if drafting a center or guard in the first round seems foolish to your observers) and then you develop him to be one of the faces of the franchise. And then you pay him (generally, ahead of schedule to save money that you would not save if you waited until the deadline in two years) to stay for his entire prime of his career. He will be past his 33rd birthday when this deal expires, and while nothing is a lock in professional sports, the prospect of this man seeing his whole deal seems relatively assured if his body holds up through the grind. 
In other words, "growing your own" and paying them your cap resources is the best way to achieve and sustain success in today's NFL. And the fact that we can now add Tyron Smith, Dez Bryant, Sean Lee and Travis Fredrick to the familiar names of Tony Romo and Jason Witten demonstrates some progress in the Cowboys' organizational goals to get where the successful franchises are. 
Now, we can look ahead to see who is next for the Cowboys to consider moving forward. Frederick now joins Smith as the longest contracts in the organization through 2023's season. The next three, Tyrone Crawford, Dan Bailey and Ezekiel Elliott, all have through 2020. Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, Sean Lee, Orlando Scandrick, Jeff Heath and Cedric Thornton - as well as this entire rookie class (besides Zeke) go through 2019. So that leaves the following three free agency classes: 
Expires after 2016: Lance Dunbar, Terrell McClain, Andrew Gachkar, David Irving, Darren McFadden, Brice Butler, Barry Church, Jack Crawford, Ron Leary, Kellen Moore, J.J. Wilcox, Terrance Williams, Morris Claiborne, Gavin Escobar, Rolando McClain 

Notes on the 2016 class: As you look at that above list, the names that are worth discussing at length would be Terrance Williams, Barry Church and Lance Dunbar. Then, based on their seasons, you might also consider David Irving, Brice Butler, Ron Leary and the rest of that 2013 draft class -- Wilcox, Escobar, etc. But, to be honest, there is nobody on this list that gives you too much stress. Williams is a classic case of hoping he makes you sign him with his play. 
Expires after 2017: Brandon Carr, Jason Witten, Doug Free, Zack Martin (option for 2018), La'el Collins, DeMarcus Lawrence, L.P. Ladouceur, Chris Jones, Alfred Morris, Kyle Wilber, Anthony Hitchens, Devin Street, Lucky Whitehead 
Notes on the 2017 class: This group also included Travis Frederick, so you can see from the big ticket items that you wanted to knock that one down quickly. Zack can be pushed to the next year (although there is every indication that in 12 months he will get the Frederick treatment, too) with his rookie-deal fifth year. Then come the interesting deals waiting for both La'el Collins and DeMarcus Lawrence. You can see how both could put in two great seasons (although for Lawrence his suspension situation complicates matters) and become very highly coveted free agents and therefore big deals at the perfect ages. Also, there are several other deals in here you may want to figure out, including a Jason Witten exit strategy. 
Expires after 2018: Cole Beasley, Byron Jones, James Hanna, Benson Mayowa, and basically the rest of the 2015 draft class: Randy Gregory, Chaz Green, Damien Wilson, Mark Nzeocha, Ryan Russell and Geoff Swaim. 
Notes on 2018 class: Hopefully, someone from this group besides Jones (who also can be pushed back with his option year) becomes a priority with their play on the field. From right here, it doesn't look too stressful. 
In other words, now that the Frederick deal is done, I think you would say that the front office has the following contracts listed as their top 3 in-house extensions to consider moving forward, in order:
1. G Zack Martin - two more seasons 
2. DE DeMarcus Lawrence - two more seasons 
3. WR Terrance Williams - after this year, provided he plays well enough to make them commit to his future.

Monday, August 15, 2016

The Morning After: Dak Prescott's Debut In Los Angeles

http://sportsday.dallasnews.com/dallas-cowboys/cowboys/2016/08/15/sturm-cowboys-morning-dak-prescotts-debut

It certainly gives me no joy to grab the exact same topic matter that any Cowboys enthusiast will in the aftermath of the preseason opener.  I prefer to zig when the media zags, but on this occasion, perhaps you could allow me to not take the road less traveled for the day after (or 2 days) analysis from the very first game of the preseason.  
After all, while I do have observations about David Irving, Chaz Green, James Morris, Anthony Brown, and several others of the young starlets, this game was always going to be a real look at what the Cowboys have behind Tony Romo as they try to decide how to handle that issue moving forward.
Most of the football world thinks the Cowboys need to shop for backups - especially since losing Kellen Moore.  Anyone who disagrees with them is simply arguing the side that says that since 2015 went so horribly bad with veteran backups, why not just roll with two kids in Dak Prescott and Jameill Showers under the heading of "it can't possibly be worse than what we saw last season."  I think that is a rather dangerous position to take, but Saturday night will likely add support to that side of the discussion.
Let's recap my Dak Prescott position.  It started in March when there was talk the Cowboys were so in love with Prescott that the team was considering a high second-round pick.  That may have been fiction, but when it happened, I spent a day with his Mississippi State tape for a draft preview and you can see that here.  
I summarized my feelings at the end of that piece:  the odds of QBs in this range of a draft developing into something special are much longer than most pundits (or teams) are willing to admit. That said, at the right price (top of Round 3?), you can see why Prescott may be a prospect that a coach like Scott Linehan believes he can develop and get to agree to the Romo retirement timeline. There are certainly traits and flashes where you can see a high ceiling.
I wanted the right price.  Which, to me, wasn't ever going to be pick No. 34.  Then, he slid and slid and slid.  The Cowboys pretty much confirmed to us at the top of Round 4 (pick No. 101) that they wanted Connor Cook from Michigan State, but when the Raiders traded in front of them, they moved on to DE Charles Tapper.  Dallas came back to the idea when Prescott remained available at No. 135 in the compensatory picks in Round 4. 
Was Prescott worthy of a second-round pick?  Not to me.  But a late fourth?  Let's do it.  
Fast forward to two weeks back.  Kellen Moore is lost for the year and we are looking at Prescott and Showers every day in practice.  Prescott is smartly checking his passes down and keeping them out of trouble.  Showers is pressing the ball down the field and looking like he is campaigning for No. 2 behind Romo.  I think both QBs are doing the right thing as Prescott is in the oven for 2017 and 2018 as a developmental play, whereas Showers is trying to convince the braintrust that he can do it and they shouldn't pull the trigger on a trade for a veteran.  The biggest reason there is if they make a trade, it will be Showers on the streets to make room.
Then Saturday happened.
I am not sure how much you read into preseason game No. 1, but it should not be too much.  Most of the time you get limited participation and almost no tactical preparation for the opponent.  Game plans are vanilla and the objective is generally to see young players with live ammunition to see how they respond.  Otherwise, get through it without major injuries and get back to camp.
Well, all that being said, my plan was to look the good and the bad of Dak Prescott's debut.  He did not cooperate.  He provided nothing bad to analyze.  
So, here is the good.
First drive and after a Geoff Swaim drop and an Alfred Morris run, the Cowboys have 3rd and 1.  This is easy, right?  Rams' franchise tag recipient, Trumaine Johnson, plays off and soft on Beasley and Cole runs a slant where Dak hits him in stride for some easy work.  Pretty casual coverage there by Johnson against a guy who is a third down machine, but hey, it is August 13th.  
Why Dez Bryant was in uniform on Saturday night is a real mystery, to be honest.  It sounded like he talked his way into the lineup, which is a fantastic leadership anecdote if it works (it did) or a disaster that requires someone's job if he hurts himself (especially after last season where he did talk his way into the lineup too soon and hurt himself again).  Regardless, Dez is a QB's dream in that you throw him 50/50 balls and he makes it look so easy.  
Dak has this throw in his bag and this is exciting because not every QB can do this (Matt Cassel, Brandon Weeden, Kellen Moore), but if you can throw that back shoulder fade with authority and location, it can really be an issue for the defense.  Look at that beauty against Coty Sensabaugh.
Then back underneath to the security blanket of Beasley.  Keep in mind here the blitz is arriving and he is throwing right into it. Pretty veteran QB play there.
Above, it is 3rd and 11.  This is a play in which every team is expecting you to run on 3rd and 11.  It is the screen which satisfies the desire to make high percentage throws on 3rd and long which still have a chance to move the chains (especially behind this offensive line).  The timing is key and the location is vital, and Prescott checks both boxes, then Morris does the rest.  This is really encouraging, too, even though most people just assume it is easy.  I think we see it done poorly often enough to know it really isn't that easy.
And because they extended that opening drive with that screen, Prescott is allowed to make that same throw to Dez against Sensabaugh that they made minutes earlier.   Is this a Run/Pass option that is a give unless he sees the backside WR in man coverage?  Especially if that WR wears No. 88?  See the safety TJ McDonald No. 25 thinking run?  Either way, Coty Sensabaugh again is at the mercy of Dez and you can see that Bryant isn't losing this battle.  Good location, better receiver.  
This is pretty.  So, the Rams decide to show more zone on the next Cowboys' drive.  Especially with Dez Bryant now on the sideline.  So, the Cowboys start the next drive with a play-action pass and it appears the Rams are in a Cover 3 with Prescott tossing a "Cover-3 beater" strike to Brice Butler on that deep out.  The throw is on time and it all looks very easy.
The next throw is the signature play of his performance and you can just see the coaches and Dak in the break between the 1st and 2nd Quarter debating whether they should take a shot on the first play.  
Again, it looks like Cover 3 to me, and it looks like Williams beats the corner and the safety can't get there.  This is a throw.  The "drop it in a bucket from 40 yards" throw.  He didn't even allow Chaz Green's problems with that stunt throw him off.  Fire up that hype train and let's ride.  
Same throw from the end zone view.  He keeps the safety in the middle with his eyes.  And then puts the ball where it needs to go.  
This last play for Dak is maybe my favorite.  It is 3rd and a mile.  Players have to understand football to play QB.  We know the odds of converting 3rd and 26 are minuscule.  But, we also know that the FG range is the real goal.  Five yards gets us a chance.  Ten yards gets us a better chance.  And more than 10 yards makes it nearly automatic for Dan Bailey.  Prescott feels the blitz, leaves out the other side, and gets almost 15.  This is a high IQ read of the situation.  And then he gets down.  Brilliant stuff.
Now, you can't win with fans.  Either you are not positive enough and you are a hater or you are too positive and people tell you to put away the anointing oil.
That's fine.  We all know he can't do that every week.  How do we know?  Because his QB rating was pretty much perfect (154.5) and we have seen football before so we will rule that out on a weekly basis.
As we knew, he is interesting for sure.  He has upside.  And now he has this game for every Cowboys fan to reference for years that "he has it in him".  He should be very proud of his performance and confident that he can play at this level.
Now, we see what is next on his path.  Should the Cowboys now feel that backup QB is fine?  No.  QB is defined by consistency and repeatability.  He must do what so many have had to do in their career. Turn out another performance on Friday night that offers more information and evaluation.
But, man.  He will always have that first night in Los Angeles.  That was awesome.