Monday, March 19, 2012

The Cowboys' Makeover At Guard

The Cowboys were certainly active during free agency in the first week in adding a number of pieces to their roster. One player is a premium free agent, Brandon Carr, that anyone in the league would have been thrilled to add. The others consist of a number of bargain basement additions that either did not cause a ripple around the league or in the case of Nate Livings, the guard from Cincinnati baffled many who thought that a 5 year/$19 million deal ($6.2 guaranteed) was way above market value for a player of his performance.

Over the weekend, I looked carefully at the play of Livings and the other guard the Cowboys signed, an even more anonymous Mackenzy Bernadeau from Carolina for 4 years/$11 million (4.25 guaranteed). Here is what we were able to figure out.

First, to properly compare these two replacements with those who came before them, let us look at what the Cowboys did at guard in 2011. At right guard for all 16 games was the old war horse, Kyle Kosier. Kosier, 6'5, 309, has done everything he can to keep his body holding together for the cause, but as he approaches 34 years old, it becomes more and more obvious that his body just cannot withstand the punishment that a 5 month meat grinder in the trenches asks of him.

2011 might have been his roughest as a Cowboy, and although he can play for me any day with his toughness and resolve, it is difficult to make the case that the timing wasn't right for the Cowboys to look in a different direction. I wasn't worried about any cap savings in the move, but the Cowboys tried to prolong his run here for another year and I have no beef with them trying to get a replacement.

Left guard was a mess, as well. When the Cowboys said goodbye to Leonard Davis (also the right call), they moved Kosier from left guard to right guard and tried to replace the LG spot internally with very young and unregarded rookies. First, Bill Nagy was overmatched early, then Derrick Dockery looked finished in his limited action, then Montrae Holland walked right in off the street and played very well for 10 weeks, but was lost to injury on Christmas Eve and finally, Kevin Kowalski tried to plug in at guard in Week 17 at NY and was thrown around like a rag doll.

In total, the interior of the Cowboys line in 2011 was an unmitigated mess. Both guard positions were poor (save for Holland's 10 week span of playing well) and the center position was very poor, too, with Phil Costa trying to withstand players with seemingly gigantic strength advantages.

So, enter the battle plan for the 2012 offseason. A few months back, the name Carl Nicks went quickly to the top of the wish lists for many of us who understand what an elite player could do for this offensive line inside. Tampa Bay paid the man 5 years/$47 million to add to their promising line, and the Cowboys never entered the bidding. Instead, they used their limited cap space to add a cornerback, and any observer of the Cowboys can hardly argue with filling that hole as a top priority. But, that does still leave this considerable issue in front of Tony Romo.

First, Nate Livings. He is 6'4, 310 pounds, and has primarily been a left guard for the Bengals. He has been a starter and has kept himself pretty healthy so the idea of getting a big body that you can count on is worth something. But, beyond that, I am a bit puzzled at what made the Cowboys rush out and put 5 years and a fair amount of cash on this guy at the start of free agency. He has many characteristics of a guard that you might want to replace. He is on the ground a lot, meaning he is losing battles and losing his balance. This is a problem Leonard Davis had because he would often be plugging holes for his own runner by falling in the path. On pulling plays, he does win a reasonable amount, but it is far from a regular event. He is often stood up at the point of attack which is uncommon for a pulling guard who is getting a running start to the collision. Sometimes, he is being stood up by a linebacker with which he severely holds a weight advantage.

Livings plays high, and in football at the line of scrimmage, that is not something that is a plus. Low man wins, and he is often not very low. In pass protection his feet do not look quick enough to deal with stunts, as Jeremy Mincey destroyed him on an inside stunt in Week 5. As most guards, he is as good in pass protection as can be expected as long as he doesn't get exposed in space. If the gaps widen out, he is in trouble, and Antonio Smith of Houston was able to make that happen in the playoffs. With the run, he can be decent, but there are plays where the man across from him shoots a gap to either side of Livings and the guard has no chance and either holds or gets beat badly.

In general, he is just not that impressive. I am hoping the Cowboys know something that we don't, but on the surface, yes, he is younger and yes, he is healthier. But, he is not better than Montrae Holland from what I could tell, and I am a bit puzzled at the signing. Time will tell, but I would keep my bar low on this signing.

Now, Mackenzy Bernadeau (6'4, 308) from Carolina, who will be 26 years old next season. Bernadeau had limited action in 2011, playing as a backup guard for the Panthers behind Travelle Wharton. Ironically enough, Wharton has just signed a 6 year/$35 million deal to replace Livings in Cincinnati. Small world.

Bernadeau is a player that has started in the past and did not look the part. However, in limited action in 2011, he replaced Wharton who had slid out to left tackle and Bernadeau performed quite well. It was just 125 snaps or so, but in watching him, he looked the part of a promising young guard who might be ready to play well.

His run blocking was strong and he was able to hold his blocks better than Livings. His pass protection was hard work, but he held his own pretty well. Again, a very small sample size, but he may be a developmental player who has developed enough to be worth the shot. Of course, the fact that Carolina didn't fight hard to keep him when losing Wharton should make us slow our optimism a bit. But, I like the signing at the price and think he has a good shot to be ok.

Let's not lose focus on the draft as well. This is one of the deepest guard drafts in a while, with many players we think could step right in and start available in the top 100 picks. If the Cowboys decide to go that route, they might have a strong interior. In fact, one source indicated to me that center is a possibility for Bernadeau if they did select a guard in the top few rounds. Or, they could pick one of the few top centers and fix that spot as well.

Make no mistake, this is not fixed. But, it should be improved from 2011.

Unfortunately, that accomplishment alone would not say much.

Plenty more work to be done.

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