Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Offseason Digest #3 - Alvin "Bud" Dupree, Rolando McClain, and Safety

Dallas Cowboys linebacker Rolando McClain (55) smiles on the sidelines during the fourth quarter against the Indianapolis Colts at AT&T Stadium on Dec. 21, 2014. Mandatory (Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports)
There are few things about the 2014 season more interesting to me than the season of Rolando McClain.   I remember being in Oxnard and watching him as closely as anyone not named Tony Romo (major back concerns to observe) and wondering about his past, present, and future, as it pertains to the NFL and the Cowboys in particular.
They were without Sean Lee, and seemingly, due to Jason Garrett's relationship with Nick Saban and Jerry Jones' ability to wow Rolando with a direct call, were investing any hope they had in the defense being respectable in another professional football player who had not been in a game in 22 months.
In August, it was tough to tell what to believe about McClain.  First, because of studies on draft-able players, he had the reputation of a destroyer in the middle of the field going back to his draft class.  We knew the quality was there.  He was only 25, so this surely wasn't the case of pulling someone out of retirement who wasted their prime years.  He should be right in the midst of a All-Pro career.  Yet, he was barely seen at training camp.  There were explanations of health and conditioning.  Then, days later, there were questions about whether he really wanted to be here.  Then, the rolling of the eyes from sources about "it is always something with this guy".
Week 1 hit, and he slammed Frank Gore to the turf a couple times and suddenly, the Cowboys were seeing the lights go on for the regular season and Rolando McClain was reporting for action.
In September and October, he was a destroyer.  He had some superb games and some dominating moments where he controlled the middle of the field and had some wondering if Rolando might be better at middle linebacker than Sean Lee.  That seem preposterous in August, yet a reasonable topic in October.  It was really, really unexpected.
Then, talk of whether or not 2015 might be a season with both Lee and McClain playing together as a dynamic duo of linebacker quality was imagined.
Unfortunately, as the season went along, we saw yet again that linebacker is one of the hardest positions to play in the NFL.  It is a real accomplishment just to stay on the field, and at one time or another, pretty much every linebacker employed by the Cowboys spent time unavailable due to health.
Below, you can see McClain's availability by month:
Wks 1-4Wks 5-8Wks 9-12Wks 13-16PlayoffsTotal
128 of 248222/250173/295131/26229/142654/1199
52% snaps89%59%50%20%54.5%
As you can see above, it was difficult to keep McClain on the field.  He is so good that you would be happy to let him be a 3-down linebacker who can do it all.  He really had very few deficiencies appear when he was out there.  His issue is being out there.  Nagging injuries and concussions were all over.  In a way, he was Sean Lee's replacement with a very similar health dossier.
All indications are that Rolando McClain wishes to continue as a professional football player and ideally I would love to see the McClain/Lee combo happen.  But, I also realize that if I invest in those two guys with pretty much all of my linebacker budget (and then some), that I should prepare for each guy missing a month of the season due to health.  McClain's 654 snaps were a great find, but actually, Lee has played seasons of 868, 331, and 717 from 2011-2013.  If a normal season has about 1100 snaps, you can see that "every down, every game" linebackers are tough to find.
He is a very impressive player, but as an unrestricted free agent, he is one of the more complicated players on the Cowboys' list to value and assess.  Anthony Hitchens is here and well proven in 2014.  Justin Durant or Bruce Carter would be cheaper.  But, Rolando McClain has plays like the moment below that I really don't wish to lose.
He was one of the bright spots of this defense, a clear leader that team-mates respected, and above all else, a player of rare traits.  Do we assume that a year of proper conditioning will lead to a more reliable 2nd season back in the league?  Or, will his style and position always mean he can't play a full year?
I want to keep him.  But, they need to be very careful how far the bidding goes.  $3m a year?  Sure.  $4m a year?  Careful.  More than that?  I think I need to bow out.
Here is today's draft profile.  I know not every reader reads every passage, but please read these few paragraphs.  I have heard from many of you that Randy Gregory and Shane Ray - our first 2 profiles - will not be around at #27 for the Cowboys and that I should only profile players who will be.  I understand your sentiments but I have thought this through.
I started writing blogs like this for the 2011 draft and was able in February to settle on Tyron Smith as my guy.  There were many others I studied, but we all knew that it was going to be Tyron very early in the draft season. That was so easy.
Then, in 2012, when the Cowboys sat at #14, I narrowed it down to 10 guys and studied each of them closely.  I loved Fletcher Cox the most and Dontari Poe the 2nd most.  But, none of the research mattered, because they traded up to get Morris Claiborne, a guy who I didn't really worry about because he was too highly rated and the Cowboys don't draft that high.  I was not terribly prepared and the spring project seemed a waste of effort.
In 2013, with the Cowboys at #18, we studied a ton of players.  But, no amount of study could anticipate they would trade down to the end of the round and grab Wisconsin's Travis Frederick.  Again, this project was too small.
We never know what Jerry Jones is going to do, but he has shown us every year that he might trade up and he might trade down.  So, given that there are 99 days to the draft and given that I want to use those to be ready for any scenario, allow me to write up as many guys as possible so that regardless of what the Cowboys do in the first few rounds, we will know the players, ok?  I know Randy Gregory won't slide to #27.  Let's learn about him anyway.  My advice to those who can't handle that thinking is to skip the ones you don't wish to read.
(Each issue of S.O.D., we shall tackle another draft prospect.  No, I have never been a scout or a NFL General Manager, but I am willing to watch a ton of football.  By watching about 200 snaps of each prospect, we can really get a feel for a player and then know what we are talking about a bit better.  It is no exact science, but the NFL hasn't quite figured out drafting either, so we are going to do the best we can.)
Alvin "Bud" Dupree, DE/OLB, Kentucky - 6'4, 264 - Age 21
For the 2nd day in a row, let's check out a fantastic pass rusher from the SEC East.   Bud Dupree is a 4-year starter at Kentucky who has grown into one of the more exciting pass rushers in this draft.  He was not a guy who was on my radar a year ago when we started sorting through the names for the 2015 draft, but in becoming familiar with what he brings to the table, he is another guy who might be in the mix for the Top half of Round 1 if he has a nice spring.
He annoyed the Senior Bowl (along with several others) by opting out of this week in Mobile as we are sure he was advised that he had "more to lose" by going, but a quick view of his tape indicates that he might be right.  For his report, I watched Kentucky play Mississippi State, Missouri, and Louisville.
What I liked:  In watching edge rusher after edge rusher in this portion of our study, it is clear that some just have the tools and technique to get the corner naturally and with ease.  Bud Dupree has a certain element of "DeMarcus Ware" to his game and is as natural as you would hope.  He explodes off the snap and around a tackle at times and on his day is one explosive play after another.  He also had several occasions this year where on run plays he would jump through a gap before the guard/tackle could close the window and be on the running back as he takes the hand-off, leading to a tackle for loss and a forced fumble.  As you know, I am always looking for relentless chasers with motors through the whistle, and in the games I watched, I was very impressed with how badly he wanted the tackle.  He is just a terribly impressive athlete who has traits that cannot be taught.  It would seem that he can develop into a real game-breaker.
What I did not like:  There are moments where you want more.  As impressive as he is, his production level of only 7.5 sacks in 2014 and 7 sacks in 2013 does make you wonder.  He really looks like he has a gear he can find at any point, but in watching 200 of his snaps or so, I would have guessed I was watching a 15 sack season this year.  That did not happen for him.  His scheme will again be important, but, like Ware, when we are talking 6'4 and 265 before he enters the league, he can do either.  I would not assume I want him chasing Darren Sproles around too much in coverage, though.  His run game instincts are good going forward, but something he will have to refine at the next level.  There are a few occasions where it looks like he breaks scheme and freelances a bit.
Summary:  I would probably take Shane Ray before Bud Dupree, but based on the college tape, I think they are both better than Randy Gregory in the present tense.  Gregory and Dupree could have another gear to their careers, though, based on how well they are developed in their young NFL seasons.  Dupree was a tight end conversion in college and just looks like that type of electric player who should get you very excited to join your side.  I wonder if his Senior Bowl opt out might get him into Dallas' neighborhood.  If so, that is an exciting possibility to consider, opposite DeMarcus Lawrence.

Today's Email/Tweet Of The Day:
A few great questions.  First, this is a good pass rush draft, so do not assume that #27 is too low for a good sack guy.  They do go fast, but we have just scratched the surface of the rushers.
Second, a veteran can really help the defensive line, but anyone proven - Suh, Pierre-Paul, are very expensive free agents.  I am not sure what veteran trade target you have in mind, but as you know, the budget is not such that we can buy pass rushers around here.  I think you have to continue to grow your own and Lawrence and Tyrone Crawford are already 2 major pieces to your defensive front from the last few drafts.
You safety question is a good one.  I don't think the Cowboys are any better than ordinary at safety.  I think they have two "box" safeties playing together in Church and Wilcox and although I like them both, I think they are a bit redundant.  I think Church is a better player, for sure, but Wilcox has a higher upside if they stick with him.  But, man, what could a proper centerfielder do for this defense?  I have talked about for a long time that we have gone so long without a true free safety around here that we have actually forgotten what a difference one makes.  I would absolutely eye a safety this spring, but this draft is not ripe with them at all, like they were in 2014 when the Cowboys elected Zack Martin over Calvin Pryor, Haha Clinton-Dix, and Jimmie Ward.
I know they don't 2nd-guess that decision, but those are 3 pretty good deep safeties right now.
Next time: Florida's Dante Fowler and more from the Senior Bowl

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