On draft day 2011, the Dallas Cowboys had a choice on their hands when they selected #9 overall. High on their board was a player they believed could play tackle for them for the next 10 years at a very high level, Tyron Smith from USC. But, just as high according to at least one source, was a DE from Wisconsin that they felt could fill a real position of need for them in their scheme as a disruptive, all-situations DE in the 3-4, JJ Watt.
Picking that high in the draft is not something that a team wants to do very often, as it is usually the direct result of a disappointing season, but when you do find yourself in the Top 10, it is crucial that decisions like these are made carefully and properly.
Both Smith and Watt were strongly supported with great tape in college and a solid spring pre-draft season where questions would be answered about their abilities. The brass had a choice to make, and the simple discussion of position premiums easily helped make the decision. The chance to have a left tackle who should be elite for years to come was too much to pass on. The Cowboys happily rushed to make the choice. Tyron Smith was a Cowboy and the war-room was thrilled with the result.
It was the right choice. Tackles are so vital to the game of football and the overall protection of the Quarterback. To have one with all of the skills of Tyron Smith seems like a choice that cannot bring regret. His development this season alone is enough to excite any fan of the team, and it seems reasonable to assume that he will be at left tackle by start of business 2012 and remain there for a long, long time.
But, when you are a team that has multiple needs at multiple spots, the choice you make is often at the expense of a number of other spots. If the Cowboys would have taken JJ Watt, they would have also addressed another major need. And frankly, it remains a spot where they simply must get better for the Cowboys to have that defensive front that they so desire. A front that makes plays in the backfield, disrupt plays, and batters opponents.
We are a long way down the road since the false narrative was offered by so many about how "defensive ends don't make plays in the 3-4". This was used to explain the largely anonymous seasons that the Cowboys DE's would turn in after the Cowboys flipped schemes in 2005. The explanation was that the DE is there to simply tie up the OL and stand their ground, 2-gapping and allowing the LBs to run free and make plays.
But, that didn't explain what was going on around the league, where we would watch each post-season and see many 3-4 teams having great success in the playoffs. And each time, it seemed like they had defensive ends that could play in every situation and that could make plays of great importance. This year, Justin Smith and Ray McDonald were substantial forces in San Francisco. JJ Watt and Antonio Smith in Houston were disruptive all year, too. It was just that the Cowboys didn't seem to possess any of that breed.
In the last 4 seasons, only one Cowboys defensive end has played more than 600 snaps in a single season. Given that each season has roughly 1,000 to 1,100 defensive snaps, the fact that only Chris Canty played 677 in 2008, you can see what the Cowboys biggest problem is and was. They just don't have any full-time, any-situation defensive ends.
So, instead, they try to get by with 2 sets of part-timers and patch them together. Marcus Spears would handle the run snaps from RDE this past season, then Jason Hatcher would come on to the field in passing downs at the same spot. On the other side, Kenyon Coleman would start each set of downs, and then Jay Ratliff and Hatcher would be joined by DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer in 3rd Downs scenarios.
What that amounted to was this: Ratliff played 750 snaps, Hatcher 429, Coleman 426, Spears 400, and reserve Sean Lissemore 284. They used a crew of players to patch together different situations and did the best they could. But, from the defensive end position, for another season of many, the Cowboys had no DE's who could do what a full-time DE must do. Stand up well against the run while possessing the ability to beat his man and get to the passer on a pass.
Heading into 2012, that allows us to look at options for the Cowboys in this offseason.
I was asked last week to write about my free agent priority, and I detailed at great length my feelings about Saints guard, Carl Nicks . I think the offensive line could greatly benefit from adding Nicks, and going into free agency, if I am going to break the bank, it has to be for a player who is both young and elite.
But, in discussing the defense, the answer to my free agent priority is more of an outside possibility. Word from Arizona seems to indicate that the target for this defensive end need will never make it to March 13, but if the Cardinals do not get a deal done with Calais Campbell, and do not slap the franchise tag on him, then the Cowboys should pounce.
Let's look at him for a moment:
Calais Campbell - DE
9/1/86 (Age 25)
At 6'8, 310, Campbell is a rare specimen, but out of college was thought of as lacking both strength and quickness. Neither has proven to be a fair assessment, but the Cardinals were thrilled that he slipped to them in the 2nd round in '08.
Because of the new CBA, we are seeing players getting to free agency from the 2008 draft (those who did not sign 5-year rookie deals) in full force. That means that players who have not signed extensions from the 2nd round on are up for bid in March. Jordy Nelson and Lamarr Woodley are examples of players who have been extended this year, but many have not come to an agreement with their clubs and therefore, WR Desean Jackson and Calais Campbell are two of the premium players who could hit the market.
To see Campbell's skills on full display, pop in the tape of the Cardinals match-up with the Cowboys from early December. Playing over Doug Free and Montrae Holland for most of the day, he terrorized both the run and pass game of the Cowboys by demonstrating quickness that was too much for the Cowboys to handle. He would shoot gaps on pass plays and get to Romo for a sack and several other pressures. Then, we would blow past Free and run down DeMarco Murray before a play could get started in the Cowboys backfield. Darnell Dockett and Campbell make a very formidable DE duo in Arizona, and both had big days as the Cardinals totaled 5 sacks of Romo.
Looking at Campbell's stats will impress you, especially if you compare them to anything you have seen at DE for the Cowboys in years, but I am more impressed from the overall effect of having a DE that causes so much disruption. Before long, he is demanding a double team and freeing up a team-mate for a match-up that can be won. He blocks kicks, bats down passes, never stops running to the ball, and best of all, is only 25 years old.
To prepare for this project, I watched several more of his games this week to see how he performs from week to week. Both 49ers games were more of the same as he competes hard all of the time. In Week 3, he destroyed Russell Okung for 3 sacks in Seattle. He played 1,033 snaps this season and seldom leaves the field. Dockett, his more noted mate, signed a 6-year, $56 million deal in 2010, but is also 30. Together, they show that the 3-4 is run in different ways, but a smart coaching staff tailors the scheme to fit the play-makers. And clearly, the Cardinals love to tailor what they do around Dockett and Campbell.
Again, chances are that he never gets to the open market. But, if the Cardinals mess around and make him open to bidders, I fully believe that the Cowboys would make him a very top priority and make that JJ Watt regret disappear. It isn't likely, but keep that name front and center on your off-season radar.