Friday, January 29, 2016

1/29/16 - Cowboys Mailbag - DMN

Let's dive right in to your reactions, questions, concerns, and queries from another week of football.  Please be reminded that if you wish to read/review any of the many draft profiles already completed in this space, you may at the following link that is positioned right here.  
And now, to your Emails:
Q: Do you expect Dunbar to return to DAL next season? - Jon
A: You know, this is a good place to start this week, with this question and the next revolving around the free agent situations that face the team.  Unlike last year where the free agents that would hit the market were named Dez Bryant and DeMarco Murray at the top of the list, this squad might be the least stressful that the team faces here for a bit.  First, on the topic of Lance Dunbar. 
As is the case with anyone on the list, it should be noted that there are often 2 levels of free agent aspiration.  1) fair market value or 2) maximize every last dollar opportunity.  We are purely guessing what each player wants to do, but when healthy, Dunbar might be the type of guy who could get a pretty enticing offer.  However, to be fair, he really needed a great 2015 to make his value soar and when he was hurt in the 4th game of the season and lost for the year, that plan went out the window.  
The good news for him is that the Cowboys loved him.  And missed him.  And depending on who you ask, there is at least a moderate sized belief that if they would have had him, they could have survived the famine of offense much better this year - even with Dez and Romo hurt.  I am cynical there, but it sure didn't help the situation.  Let's be honest, the concept of Lance Dunbar is much more impactful to this point of his career than the reality of Lance Dunbar.  They have talked at length on making him a real weapon and their version of Reggie Bush/Darren Sproles and the real devastating wildcard that is too fast to defend underneath.  But, in 4 seasons, he has never had a season of more than 316 yards of total offense (2014).  That isn't much production to get excited about.  Yet, they still think he can be that guy.
Now, there are a million miles to travel in this offseason and there are ways to replace Lance Dunbar in the draft for sure, but I really do feel that they want to keep him and with his knee still on the mend, I am sure that can happen.  He needed a big year to maximize his deals and he got hurt, which means his best offers will be much smaller and his best chance will certainly be right in Dallas.  We should wait and see, but I think he will be here in 2016.
Q: Would you be willing to look at the free agent class to see who we are going to attempt to keep? - Rob in Sachse
Sure, Rob.  Let's look at the list.  
Morris Claiborne, CB - This one is tricky for sure.  My first inclination is that the Cowboys and Claiborne both want to go in a different direction.  But, they might also be close to the end with Brandon Carr and with Scandrick returning and year 2 of Byron Jones, they might be able to survive a complete overhaul with a drafting of a corner or two in the spring.  But, if you use picks on corners, they have to be near the top of the draft and then you are running to stand still with the roster upgrades.   It seems to me that you have to keep one or the other.  I am thinking they keep Carr - because it still costs a lot of dead money to cut him loose.  So, my first impression of the spring is that Claiborne is gone.  Like Mike Jenkins before him, they picked a corner in the first round and anticipated he would get a 2nd contract to lead the defense past his 30th birthday.  Then, when the time came, they really never wanted to even offer a deal for the 2nd contract.  Unlike Jenkins, they paid beyond premium prices to Claiborne.  This one is a pretty painful miss. 
Greg Hardy, DE - Confusing for sure, because his price has really dropped.  But, all signs say they are done.  We may never know the level of headaches that he presented everyone around him, but Jerry, Stephen, and Jason have all had a chance to say anything about their desire to keep him around and all 3 have passed.  I am not thinking they want Hardy back in their room.
MacKenzy Bernadeau, G - He was a very useful part around here and seemed like a solid pro.  But, they have finally pushed him out by acquiring so many young OL.  Last spring it was La'el Collins and Chaz Green.  I assume they will keep Ron Leary and let Bernadeau walk.  But, I am sure he can catch on somewhere because he was a nice utility player with his positional versatility on game day.
Rolando McClain - LB - I have mixed emotions on the run of Rolando McClain.  At times he was great, but in both years, it seems like as the season goes on, his effectiveness fizzles and he looks slower and less durable.  I would not say it is out of the question he returns, but it sure seems like they are ready to turn the page and either add a rookie stud in the draft or promote from within with the candidates they have taken in 2014 and 2015.  He teased, but the consistency just doesn't really seem possible.
Jeremy Mincey - DE - Good pro and I have no problem keeping him around.  But, it would be at a low rate and low snap count.  He is good depth to have around and he plays hard.
Matt Cassel - QB - Not bloody likely. 
Lance Dunbar - RB - See the answer above.  I expect him back.  
Kyle Wilber - LB - I have always felt I like Wilber more than the Cowboys do.  I assume he would also value from a change in scenery and maybe a 3-4 defense again (as he was drafted for).  He is solid depth, but maybe not above the minimum here.  
James Hanna - TE - Another player I think I like more than the Cowboys.  I never understood the Gavin Escobar pick because I never saw him do anything better than Hanna.  That said, he can now leave and while the Cowboys need a Tight End, I am not sure they will give him much of an offer.  I might be reading this wrong, but I assume this part of the 2012 draft is also gone.  
Jack Crawford - DE - Here is one that I think might be staying.  I think they really like Jack Crawford for their defensive rotation.  He can stay if he wants, I am sure.  Good motor and fine productivity when he gets a chance.  
Robert Turbin - RB - Here is a big not sure.  I like him, but there are a lot of things to consider at RB.  
Others that are now unrestricted, but I am not sure will be offered:  Danny McCray, Tyler Clutts, Charles Brown, and Josh Thomas.  I suppose all could get a 1-year minimum deal late in the spring.
In other words, the 2012 draft class is pretty much down to Tyrone Crawford as we head into 2016.  Not great. 

Part II of the mailbag right here, right now:
Q: Bob, if you could add 3 impact players in the 1st 3 rounds to give this team a shot in the arm...who would you add? - Rowdy
A: Rowdy, it is too early to have 3 rounds figured out. But, I am thinking I would want to grab my highest available QB at #4 in the 1st round. Wentz, Lynch, or Goff. It is time to take care of this as I try to keep Romo healthy for a few more years. Then, in the 2nd round, we have WR (Josh Doctson or Corey Coleman, maybe?) or DT or LB or perhaps even RB Derrick Henry from Alabama? In Round 3, there should still be a very nice option at pick #67. And there, I will be trying to grab another top player at one of those spots. This team should be able to get a very nice haul with their positioning and the strengths of this draft matching up with their shopping list. I will try to give you more specific names as I continue to work my way through this draft.
Q: How does a coach look at a (prospective) player differently than a scout? - Jack Burton
A: This is a good question and the reason I assume it is being asked was what I said earlier in the week on the DMN podcast "Ballzy."  Here it is "On how valuable the Senior Bowl will be for the Cowboys to determine if Carson Wentz is the right fit for the organization:"
"It depends who you ask. If you were to ask a coach they would say it's incredibly valuable. 'We get to basically ask him to do anything we want him to do over the course of an entire week.' Usually at a pro day, he'll be put through a workout, but as a team you're just kind of observing, and at the combine you'll get 15 minutes with him, but this is unprecedented to Carson Wentz that they don't have for Jared Goff and they won't have Paxton Lynch. You can bring the guy in for the personal team workouts, but this should be even better because you can put him on a field in 22-man drills, you can see him in a game carrying out your game plan. That's very very valuable. Now if you ask a scout, they'll recoil a little bit and say, 'Man, the worst thing that can happen sometimes is the coaches getting to meet some of these guys and suddenly thinking they're scouts.' "
I think scouts will tell you that they have a very rigid and exhaustive look at players through cold and calculating eyes.  Whereas a coach uses personal interaction, anecdotal data, and a much smaller collection of information to make their decisions.  Coaches are said to go on feel and scouts are said to have a real tested process.  Both sides will say their way is superior, by the way. But as to the question of how much benefit is there to having your coaches work with him, many will say it is big.  But, some scouts fear that coaches falling in love with Wentz will build a bias where they will not more fairly examine Goff or Lynch.  Tough to say for sure.
Q: If DeMarcus Ware plays another season, should we consider letting him go a mistake? Or is it already?
A:  Well, you are asking a DeMarcus Ware fan and someone who definitely has strong opinions about his body of work in Dallas.  I realize the breakup had to happen because it takes 2 to come to an agreement.  On one hand you want Ware only at the right price.  But, he sees himself as worth more.  Also, at the time, he might have been pretty bothered by the direction of the franchise, and going to play with a team that was coming off a Super Bowl seemed pretty appealing.  From the Cowboys standpoint, the idea of "not being able to afford" Ware and then turning around 12 months later and putting the same money on Greg Hardy is frustrating.
Basically, it seemed like it had to happen and the other element is that in Denver he did not need to be the #1 pass rusher anymore.  Instead of being constantly double and triple teamed, he would be the beneficiary of Von Miller being that guy.  He never had a book-end like Miller here and this has obviously made him a real stud again.  I am rooting for Ware, but I don't really think we can second guess his decision to try to go to a more advantageous situation rather than stay on a pay-cut.  
Q:  A couple weeks ago I didn't think there was anyone worth drafting in this upcoming draft. Now, thanks to the TV coverage -- and your Draft Profile Series -- there are some potential cornerstones out there at No. 4! Oddly, the build up for the draft is more exciting to me than the build up to the Super Bowl. Your thoughts? - Mark M
A:  Well, I find that this is a fantastic time of year to get to know the next wave of NFL superstars. I know some drafts are better than others, but you need not look further than the 2011 draft as to how quickly the NFL changes and how vital getting your drafts right truly are.  Look at the top 2 picks in 2011:  Cam Newton and Von Miller.  Then, Marcell Dareus, AJ Green, Patrick Peterson, Julio Jones, Tyron Smith, and JJ Watt are all in the Top 11 picks!  That was just 4 years ago.  The NFL is a sport that doesn't have much longevity - despite Brady and Manning and other exceptions - so the draft of a few years back can fill the league with guys who are running the league by the age of 25 or 26.
That means this current group - which I try to learn a new one each weekday until the draft - is another treasure chest of talent.  Some are household names now and some are not, but you can believe by 2018 or 2019, the teams that did well in this draft might just be the same teams getting ready to play in Super Bowl 54.  The wheels on the truck keep on turning.  And more specifically, the Cowboys should be able to find something really special at #4.  The real question is whether that player can be so good that you don't have to pick high again anytime soon.  Like the Panthers.  

Thursday, January 28, 2016

2016 NFL Draft Profile #12 - Shawn Oakman, DE, Baylor

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.To read more about the 2016 NFL Draft Project, Click Here.

Shawn Oakman, Edge, Baylor - 6'8, 270 - RS Senior - #2
Often when judging draft prospects, it is best to know almost nothing about the player going in to the project.  You want to trust your eyes and avoid all of the noise and opinions about a player.  This, of course, is impossible when the player has been a bit of a lightning rod in the area - partly because he has been involved in some high profile moments that have absolutely colored people's perception of him before the tape is ever viewed. 
That will be the case with Shawn Oakman.  Whether it was the incident that had him dismissed from Penn State, the internet memes showing his insane build, the moments of poor judgment on the field, or even the pull-up exhibition (here) that has been shown for many, everyone has a Shawn Oakman opinion.  Then, Sports Illustrated decided to place him as the top pick in the 2016 draft when they released their first mock draft last May, and with that he became "over-rated", a descriptor that has followed him for the balance of the last 12 months. 
He also has quite a personal story of a tough upbringing and the hurdles he has overcome in life that cause many to root for his ultimate success.  He is an incredible physical specimen - even amongst NFL prospects - and appears to be the model for all future uniform unveilings with a body chiseled out of granite.  But, of course, there are many male models in the world who are not exceptional football players.  The question that follows Oakman everywhere is the following:  Is he the top notch prospect that people want him to be or is he just another project that will end up being a Day 3 pick that we might never hear from again?
What I liked:  When you watch 200-300 snaps of Oakman, you will absolutely find plays that explain someone placing him high in Round 1.  He is a large man who contains great traits including very long arms and a wing-span that reaches 84" across.  This allows him to work his way through traffic and affect plays in many ways.  He does have a motor that at times runs very high and chases plays to make them after they break down.  When he sees a crease he often penetrates and rings up many tackles for loss.  The idea he has not been a productive college player is pure fiction.  In 25 games in the last 2 seasons he has racked up 15.5 sacks, 34 tackles for loss, and 5 forced fumbles.  That may not quite match some of the other candidates high in the draft, but it seems to shatter the idea that he doesn't make plays and just looks great in a uniform.  The questions become "how is he making plays" and "who is he making plays against" which is another portion of an evaluation.  He made most plays with quickness off the snap (rather than beating guys with moves) and he made much of his production against less-than-heavyweight competition.  
What I did not like:  There was a very high amount of things that I would put in this category.  Unfortunately, his 2014 was enormously better than 2015.  I try to use recent footage to study, but on this player, I actually wanted to look at both years to see the distinct difference.  Why was his motor and production much worse in 2015 after he decided to skip the draft and stay another year?  One theory is that he was hurt (knee seems to be what most are saying) and another is he decided at some point to get into the "stay healthy for the draft" mode.  Maybe it was both.  But, for whatever reasons - possibly after he was blindsided in the Texas Tech game (shown above - likely as a moment to get even after his cheap-shot the year before on their QB) he looked like he was playing at half-speed and turned into a very pedestrian player and often a bystander.  He played with no speed and very little urgency for a large part of 2015 which was certainly confusing to all who know what he is capable of.  
On top of this, he has poor overall technique combined with a build that places almost all of his bulk in his upper body.  He evidently has no vast array of pass rush moves.  He has no anchor against the run and therefore - regardless of what game you watch - he gets moved out of the way at the point of attack like you might expect a much smaller man to be pushed.  He was pancaked numerous times where he cannot keep his feet in a tight battle with a tackle.  He has leverage issues that suggest he is too upright, but even in a proper stance, he just doesn't have the lower body to compete unless he is using quickness to penetrate.  He can't stand his ground.  More than anything, I fear Oakman has no position.  He has some traits of a 3-4 DE, and some traits of a 3-4 OLB or a 4-3 designated pass rusher, but not enough of either to feel confident on Sundays.  Whoever takes him might need to be ready for a project that may or may not have time given that he will be 24 years old on draft day.
Summary and Potential Fit For the Cowboys:  I realize after that last section that many will be turned off by his future.  This is an important time to remind people that it only takes one team to see something and that he will test very well at the Combine.  Some teams target traits and are comfortable looking for value on Day 2 and 3 where they can find diamonds in the rough.    If he can find his right home and if he turns the switch back on, he can fix a lot of this and quiet his doubters (an ever-growing group).  I don't see the Cowboys on this list because their defensive end issue is already due to not having players to stand against the run. 
As for his future in the NFL, I am going to hope he has another gear that more properly represents 2014.  2015 is over now and whatever poor tape he put out there, it won't matter when he is on his new NFL team.  From there, he can control his future and work hard to develop into something special.  I don't see him in Round 1 anymore, but at some point, the good tape and measureables will get him picked and a chance to change his narrative completely.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

2016 NFL Draft Profile #11 - Carl Nassib, DE, Penn State

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.To read more about the 2016 NFL Draft Project, Click Here.

Carl Nassib, DE, Penn State - 6'7, 272 - RS Senior - #95
As we continue our profiles this week of draft prospects who are certainly in the mix for the top 2 rounds and also (special to this week) in Mobile for the Senior Bowl, we happen across yet another Penn State defensive lineman who is being coached by the Dallas Cowboys coaching staff as we speak.
Just being at the Senior Bowl this week is a major upset for this player if you merely went back 6 months.  For back in the summer, Carl Nassib - the little brother of New York Giants backup QB, Ryan - was a virtually anonymous defensive end for PSU who had 2 seasons in which he registered 1 sack each year.  But, 2015 was an amazing season for Nassib where he led all of major college football in 2 significant categories.  He led the country in sacks with 15.5 and forced fumbles with 6 while playing in just 11 games this season (this despite missing a few weeks in November with a hamstring injury).  Add to that another 19.5 tackles for loss and Nassib was a human highlight film in what amounts to most of one swim through a Big 10 schedule. 
If you go back further, his story gets even more like a script as he arrived at Penn State as a walk-on athlete and had to earn every snap he ever received while sticking in with Penn State through a very tumultuous time for the program (to say the least).  To go from that to the Big 10 Defensive Player of the Year (as well as many more awards he received this year) is quite a story.  But, is he a significant NFL prospect?
What I liked:  There is no question that if a player is leading the country in sacks and forced fumbles and has 35 explosives (sacks + tackles for loss) in just 11 games, the player is as productive as you could ever hope in a Power 5 conference.  When he gets up to speed around the corner, he is a menace in backfields and is closing down Quarterbacks.  He is primarily coming off the LDE spot (against Right Tackles) and is able to use his very long arms and top-of-the-class wing span to clear a path.  Against the run it almost looks like he is a comfortable 2-gapper - perhaps a 5 technique in a 3-4 defense - because of his gifts to extend his arms and turn the blocker in any direction.  You are not going to win leverage against this large man very often at the point of attack.  He also works down the line against zone very well and looks the part as a strongside defensive end.  He really moves well in a straight line once he gets up to speed.   He also will give you everything he has in the motor department, which might be the most important attribute for a pass rusher.
What I did not like:  There are some significant things in this category to consider.  In short spaces, he really has trouble changing directions.  I am concerned about his quickness in tight and this becomes an issue in the numerous times he is stuck in the bind as the unblocked edge man against the zone read.  Ohio State, in particular, and Northwestern both exposed him at times for getting his choice wrong and exposing the flank to the QB.  He also occasionally has a few issues getting disengaged on run plays in his direction.  Nothing too significant, but perhaps a little technique work might clean that up. 
Also, we at least have to point out that there have been prospects over the years that do fit in the "one year wonder" categories that have never showed sustained success at the college level until his final year and then, at the age of 23, is somebody you are betting on for the next 8-10 years of his life.  It requires an amount of blind faith that this is his "new normal".  If it is, you have yourself a real find.  But, that is the risk.  Also, always being a LDE hurts his value a bit, but if he shows at the Senior Bowl that he can also rush against left tackles, he can erase that doubt.
Summary and Potential Fit For the Cowboys:  There is a lot to like about Nassib and he seems like the type of guy you would be willing to bet on both on and off the field.  Knowing that he is a high production guy and knowing the Cowboys have great regard for Penn State defensive players like Sean Lee and Jack Crawford (Dan Connor, 2012) and knowing the Cowboys are in the market for a big defensive end to compliment their under-sized pass rushers, we shouldn't rule out this type of prospect being on the board as the draft develops.  I question if he has some of the NFL traits to excel on Sundays, but the fact that he made so many plays make him a somewhat interesting calculation.  Some guys have traits and make no plays.  Some guys are just the opposite.  Nassib has some exceptional traits and perhaps that compensates for his slow ability to "stop and start".  It will take a while to see where exactly he will be valued, but as a player who was on nobody's list in August is now creeping onto many Top 50 lists and is going to continue his rise right onto an opening day NFL roster.  

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

2016 NFL Draft Profile #10 - Noah Spence, DE, Eastern Kentucky

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.To read more about the 2016 NFL Draft Project, Click Here.

Noah Spence, DE, Eastern Kentucky - 6'3, 261 - RS Junior - #9
Hardcore followers of college football do not need the following recap of Spence, but for the benefit of the rest of the audience, it goes like this:  Noah was the first 5-star recruit that Urban Meyer landed when he went to Ohio State and almost instantly, Spence became a standout for the Buckeyes and was very impressive with grades in the classroom as well.  His 2013 has 21.5 explosive plays in 13 games before he was suspended for the Orange Bowl because he failed a drug test.  He then was suspended again by the Buckeyes as he failed another drug test the following season before being permanently banned by the Big 10 for the same infractions.  He then transferred to finish up at Eastern Kentucky (as he was not eligible for the draft) and put up a massive season there with 34 explosives in just 11 games - with several big plays against Power 5 opponents.  He is as talented a player as you might see in this entire draft, but he obviously is going to be at the top of the "red flag" discussions in this draft.
I would advise anyone interested in his backstory to read this fantastic feature from Bruce Feldman to paint a much better picture than the above paragraph if you are so inclined. 
Spence is an edge rusher which is one of the most sought after positions in football.  Just a few days from when Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware brought the mighty Patriots to their knees, most football enthusiasts do not need an explanation on how destructive speed rushers can truly be on the biggest stage.  Spence is touted as possibly the best of the bunch and to examine further I used both his Ohio State tape from 2013 and several games from his quick stop at Eastern Kentucky.
What I liked:  Everything I heard about his ability is true.  He is as "twitched up" as an edge rusher can be with an explosive get-off, a fantastic bend around the corner where he dips and gets around the corner with a minimum of wasted motion or distance, and then closes on a QB from either side with a violence upon his arrival.  He is devastating.  When they played against Kentucky this fall, it was somewhat amusing to see how many players the Wildcats would dedicate to make sure he got blocked.  Often, the number for that job was three.  He was unstoppable in many passing down situations, but is big and strong enough - at over 260 with room to grow - that nobody was trying to take advantage of him with the running game.  He also showed some very nice relentless battle when a play did not include him and chased several plays down from behind.
What I did not like:  His rap-sheet is disconcerting for a few reasons.  The biggest issue for me is that he was given a mulligan by Ohio State and still did not make sure he tested clean after being warned harshly.  This, for someone with everything to lose, is a very bothersome warning sign for how serious someone is about football.  The investments are all about calculating how badly someone wants to be great and his decisions as a 19-year old indicated that he wasn't too serious about making himself the best he could be.  But, young people sometimes make poor decisions and learn from it.  We don't know. On the field, he does slow down some as the game goes on in 2015, and while he looks sculpted from stone, one wonders how well his cardio was as the conditioning was not impressive as some of these games went along.  That said, it would be placed as a minor concern which likely is a non-issue on a NFL roster.  I wonder about his lateral quickness and will be interested in how he tests in February to confirm that he has the right hips to get the DeMarcus Ware comps that his tape suggests are possible.  But, on the field, he checks all the boxes for a top prospect.
Summary and Potential Fit For the Cowboys:  There will come a time where you take the best player available and Spence will quickly be that guy, probably by about the 15th pick in the draft.  Then, it will come down to which teams will take on his concerns to reap the benefits of a guy who certainly appears to be a prototypical edge rusher on Sundays. 
The most likely scenario is that one of the rich teams will get richer and he will end up as one of the ensemble rushers that the power teams put together like in Seattle or Carolina and be an instant threat off the edge in the back half of the 1st round.  But, if Spence had no red flags and we simply were watching him race Joey Bosa to the QB at Ohio State these last several seasons, there is a good chance he would be strongly in the mix for a top 5 pick - just like Bosa.  That said, he is one interesting redemption story that will continue to play out as draft day approaches.  There is no question he could be one of the best players in the 2016 Draft.  Or, one of the cautionary tales.

Monday, January 25, 2016

2016 NFL Draft Profile #9 - Austin Johnson, DT, Penn State

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.To read more about the 2016 NFL Draft Project, Click Here.

Austin Johnson, DT, Penn State - 6'4, 325 - RS Junior - #99
It is important to place values on different players at different positions because lost in all of this talk every year about "Best Player Available", we lose sight of the simple idea that all positions are not created equal.  If you want the best player available, you better have considered the ability to understand these differences in values from one spot to the next. 
That means that at the top of the chart of value is a starting QB, along with a starting left tackle, a dominant pass rusher, and a shut down corner.  There are numerous positions on the field that are not "full time" positions, where they are part of a rotation - Running backs, defensive line, and most linebackers.  There are positions where the life span is considered much shorter and there are positions where the supply is high to fulfill the demand.  Others, obviously, there is no supply for the demand.  So yes, get the "best player available", but if all of those other variables are not properly assigned, you might regret not asking the right questions.
This leads us to the place we will spend most of the week - looking at the defensive linemen who are at the Senior Bowl.  Today, let's dive in on a player I have been told is definitely on the Cowboys' radar, Penn State's defensive tackle, Austin Johnson. 
Johnson is part of a Penn State defensive line that was very strong this year and will put a few different prospects into the top of the draft and Johnson was the inside force of this crew.
What I liked:  For a man of his size (6'4, 325), Johnson moves very well both in moving forward and from sideline to sideline.  He really is a player that might balance what everyone seeks in an inside force as a 1-technique (he will switch to the 3-tech at times).  Can he stand his ground against a double-team block, while possessing mobility that allows him to make plays - especially behind the line of scrimmage?  With Johnson, you can definitely see how his ceiling would be that type of inside player who cannot be slowed down.  He has a real strong bull rush, but clearly what sets him apart from most 1-techniques are his movement skills.  And there is no question that running through the whistle is something he feels quite strongly about.  He will draw double teams and that will limit his ability to make impact plays, but he certainly will free up his mates to do just that, which is what his position is all about (and frankly why the Cowboys don't always value it).  He has "Dancing Bear" traits, which makes him appealing at the right price.  He also is impressive inside with his hand skills to move past a man.
What I did not like:  His experience level at Penn State is solid, but his time as an "impact" player is rather short.  He had 21.5 explosive plays (sacks + tackles for loss) in 2015, but before that, he had very few - if any.  He will get locked up in a block from time to time and that is when he is not making enough difference to value highly.  He also appeared to get banged up a bit which limited his mobility.  When he is not on the move, he ceases to be special.   He gets held a lot and will need to continue to work on his techniques to free himself because those calls inside don't occur very often.  We should consider him a capable pass rusher, but one who is generally getting his production off stunts rather than one who just destroys his blocker on the way in.
Summary and Potential Fit For the Cowboys: We certainly know the Cowboys are careful on 1-techniques.  We also know that they have almost no impact plays behind the line of scrimmage from their 1-technique since they moved to the 4-3 defense and if they hope to improve their defense, they need to reconsider their stance if they can find the right player at the right price. 
Now, they have Johnson on their "North" squad this week in Mobile, which certainly will not mean as much as we will want it to mean, but they will have a close-up view on him to see if it is time to invest in their defensive front further after spending important picks on DeMarcus Lawrence, Tyrone Crawford, and Randy Gregory.  Adding Johnson in the 2nd round might be a very fine idea to bring this line together.  This is a very deep defensive line draft (again - this is becoming a bit of an annual truth) so there should be some fine ideas in Rounds 2-4. You don't want to over-value the 1-technique who is always going to face a center-guard double team, but it might be time the Cowboys stop under-valuing the spot.  The 21-year old from Penn State seems to be a target going into the Senior Bowl.

Friday, January 22, 2016

1/22/16 - Cowboys Mailbag - DMN

This morning, let's answer some of your finest questions of the week!
Q: What do you think of getting Colt McCoy to back up Tony Romo? I think McCoy would have won 3-4 games and allow Romo to be completely healed before rushing back to play. -  Zeke 
Zeke, to me this is the move I would like to strongly consider if I want to look at a veteran free agent at the QB position to play backup.  Obviously, there are better QBs in free agency, led by the mysterious case of Denver's Brock Osweiler. I just don't see a scenario in which Denver let's him get out of there after all of the trouble taken in grooming him to replace Manning.  Then, there is Ryan Fitzpatrick, who we just saw last month play a pretty decent level of QB.  I assume his intention is to start.  There is also Sam Bradford and Robert Griffin on the market.  I imagine their price hopes and starting ambitions are still too high to take a QB2 job in Dallas.  Now, McCoy is in that next tier of QBs you would hope to take the job from Kellen Moore.  Colt McCoy, Chase Daniel, Matt Moore, or even former Scott Linehan backup Drew Stanton.  They are likely in the price range and in the spot of their careers where this could make some sense.  
As you know, I prefer we get serious about a QB at #4, so any of these moves might not fit my plan.  I am good with a QB up top in the draft and keeping Moore to be that bridge between draft day and when one of these young lads is ready to be Romo's backup.  That could be 2 weeks, 2 months, or 2 years.  
Q:  Say Dallas falls in love with Wentz but they don't think he's "worth" the #4 pick. Do they overdraft him to ensure they get the guy they want, or do they take the risk of trading down/waiting to see if they can get more players AND Wentz? - Matt Houston
Matt, if they "fall in love" with Wentz at the Senior Bowl and during the spring, then you take him at #4.  But, I suppose we all have different views on what "falling in love" means.  To me, it means you are convinced this could be your QB1 to open the 2026 season.  If you are working with a guy that you think could be your QB past his 30th birthday, then you don't screw around and risk losing him.  Quarterbacks are too hard to find.  Look at what Washington has gone through looking for a starting Quarterback since Mark Rypien.  He was the last time they had the same QB starting for them for 5 straight years.  1989-1993!  I am here to tell you that is not is what happens when you don't invest properly in QB.  Ask Detroit before Stafford.  Ask Chicago before Cutler.  Ask Jacksonville after Brunell or Tennessee after McNair.  Or Houston.  Ask Houston.  
The point is that if you think Wentz or Jared Goff or Paxton Lynch is "the dude", then you don't get cute.  you draft your QB and run for the hills.  I am not a big "trade down" guy.  I have seen that the team that gets the best player in a trade usually wins.  And that best player is found by going up, not moving back.  If you want a QB, trading up can blow up in your face.  But, trading down and hoping a QB of your dreams keeps falling so you can add another pick is dangerous and ill-advised.  
If I don't care which one I get, then I can start trading down.  If I don't think Wentz is all that great, then I risk it.  But, if they "fall in love" with the kid - think he can be a 23-year old version of Romo or better, then you take him at #4 and don't think twice.  
Q: Who would you say has been Jerry jones' biggest bust as a draft pick in his tenure with the Cowboys? - Stephen
The Cowboys have had some very disappointing draft picks since Jimmy Johnson has left town, so we have a few to choose from, don't we?  But, to the Cowboys great credit, they have hit home runs on just about all of their 1st rounders since 2010.  Dez Bryant, Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, Zach Martin and now Byron Jones all appear to be maximizing value in that top round.  Yes, JJ Watt for Tyron Smith would have been cool, but for the most part, there is little to 2nd guess about since 2010.  
Yet, likely the biggest disappointment of Jones' entire tenure - with all due respect to Bobby Carpenter, David LaFleur, and Shante Carver (A biggest bust cannot be a pick after the 1st round because the investment is quite a bit smaller.) - we need to look no further than Morris Claiborne.  Claiborne was a top pick at #6, yet besides never coming close to his hype actually required a pretty significant trade-up to get him.  It is one thing to pick a player that disappoints, but it is quite another to gamble other assets (in this case, the Cowboys paid their 1st and 2nd rounders) to get him and then he busts.  That was catastrophic and if it weren't for getting All-Pros in the 2010, 2011, 2013, and 2014 1st rounds, the trade would likely be talked about even more as the disaster that it was.  
It was said he was the best defensive player in the 2012 draft and perhaps the best prospect since Deion Sanders by the Cowboys brass.  Yet, in that 1st round, you find amazing difference makers on defense that would enhance any roster until 2020 - Luke Kuechly, Fletcher Cox, Dontari Poe, and Chandler Jones were all in that 1st round and if any of those players might have been the apple of the Cowboys' eye, you might argue that the trade was worth it.   Heck, Bruce Irvin, Melvin Ingram, Dont'a Hightower, Stephon Gilmore, and Whitney Mercilus were all in that 1st round, too.  Look at that list of defensive talent!  
So, Mo Claiborne is my vote for biggest bust for all of those many reasons.  I am not sure anything is that close when you consider all of that.
Q: What's the hardest part about evaluating college prospects in your expert opinion. - Hailey
Hailey, I will tell you that I am no scout or anything.  The only requirement to looking at prospects is time and the willingness to figure out what translates to the NFL and what doesn't.  But, I have seen that over the course of time, if you get to know these players well enough, it does seem pretty reasonable to often sniff out busts and fantastic players.  That said, like any experiment, it is probably important to try to keep track of how many players you get right or get wrong.  It is the most inexact science ever and there are many degrees of right and wrong.
If a guy is out of the league by 25 years old, then yes, he busted.  If he goes to the Hall of Fame, then yes, he had an amazing career.  But, what do we do with everyone in between.  For instance, is Bobby Carpenter really a bust?  Yes, he underachieved from what the hope was and he never became a starter in the NFL.  At the same time, he played 8 NFL seasons in a league where the average player lasts slightly more than 3.   That seems like a rather reasonable accomplishment given the odds.  
Regardless, the toughest position for me to evaluate is Running Back - because so much goes into a RB's success than just his own personal talents.  The thing I have learned in the last 12 months is not to undervalue a corner because he doesn't like to tackle or support versus the run.  Marcus Peters in Kansas City proved that really doesn't matter.  But, the more you spend a few hours with each draft prospect's tape, the more you learn every year.  I really enjoy it.  
Q: If the Cowboys somehow have another 4-12 year, does Jason Garrett get fired? - Nevil
Yes.  Absolutely, yes.  They cannot have another disappointing year.  The Romo clock is ticking, the natives are restless.  Now is the time for the Cowboys to bounce right back into contention.  They play in the right division for that to happen and have a reasonable schedule.  I would imagine, injuries or no injuries - a bad year would mean change.  Even with the contract payout he would receive.  

And yes, because you deserve it, even more emails on the Cowboys and football issues..
Q: In looking at current as well as past analysis of quarterback prospects, two main traits seem to separate the ones the ones at the top of the first round and ones selected later (assuming measurables are similar): good decision making and pocket presence. Is this a fair statement? How would you rate the top three in this draft in terms of those characteristics? Also, in your opinion is it worth the time to try to develop a QB prospect that lacks either of these two traits but has the measurables (such as Cook or Hacklenberg)? - Keith
Keith, I don't disagree with good decision making as a top one.  Pocket presence is certainly a key, but I would suggest that unless a guy is really bad in this category - UCLA's Brett Hundley comes to mind from last year - it is somewhat difficult to distinguish this capability with any degree of significance.  I agree with Pat Kirwan on many football ideas, and in his latest e-book, "Quarterback - the Toughest Job in Pro Sports", he listed the 5 attributes of a QB that should be analyzed.  1) FBI - Football Intelligence  2) Accuracy  3) Pocket Awareness 4) Arm Strength and 5) Leadership.
Now, surely, those each offer their own issues when trying to sort out how to measure it and it becomes much more difficult if you never get closer to them than looking at a screen, but I think I boil it down to two major spots if all other things are sort of equal.  For me, that is judgement and judgement.  On-field judgement - can I trust him to take care of the football and not make too many ill-advised decisions at ill-advised moments.  And, off-field judgement - can I trust him to take his career and his responsibilities as serious as possible.  In the words of Bill Parcells, we are not looking for a celebrity QB.  Handle your business in a professional manner and understand that the job of NFL QB is not for everyone who loves the party that goes with it.  This is a rare chance so understand that and take advantage of it.
Now, that feeling will cost me on a guy like Jameis Winston who violated both.  He showed poor on-field judgement at Florida State with more interceptions than any Top shelf prospect in years and he showed poor off-field judgement for a myriad of reasons.  Despite that, he appears to be doing fine for himself in year 1 and I am awfully impressed about how Tampa Bay has limited his poor decisions.  I would like to know more about how that happened, because he was throwing into coverage repeatedly at FSU.  But, overall, that is what I seek.  
For this group, all 3 QBs at the top have given good initial signs about how they handle the 5 Kirwan attributes and none have set off alarms in what I seek.  But, there is a long ways to April 28.  
Q: Most disappointing 2015 draft pick of the Cowboys goes to _ *drum roll* - Henrik

Henrik, that one is pretty easy for me.  Chaz Green was taken in the 3rd round to nail down tackle as a 3rd in year 1 and then maybe to succeed Doug Free by year 2. Well, that isn't going to happen as we never saw Green on the field in Year 1.  As you may or may not recall, he was hurt a fair bit at Florida, so for him to spend his entire 1st year out of service is certainly not great news.  

Green could still, of course, be something pretty nice, but that pick - #91 - was a pick that I had plenty of ideas for at the time.  The guy they wanted, most likely, was Iowa's Carl Davis who was taken the pick before at #90 to Baltimore.  I am not sure if the war-room panicked or what, but this pick came out of nowhere.  If you want to know, my notes indicate my next 7 at that spot on my board were the following:  Grady Jarrett, Jay Ajayi, Paul Dawson, Bryce Petty, TJ Clemmings, Xavier Cooper, and Steve Nelson.  Now, I still prefer all 7 to Chaz Green a year later, but we still don't know how good he will be.  In fairness to Dallas, they also didn't know they were about to get La'el Collins.  

It should also be noted that the next few picks included a RB in Matt Jones to Washington.  Buck Allen and David Cobb also went shortly thereafter if you wish they would have better invested in a young RB. But, enough of the 2nd guessing.  Let's give Green a chance to take Right Tackle over or at least show as a decent reserve in 2016.
Q: Which prospect were you the most right about? And which prospect were you the most wrong about? - Hailey
2015 draft?  Well, I feel great about suggesting Todd Gurley was the best offensive player in the draft, but maybe that was basic.  So I will suggest Arizona's David Johnson is maybe the deeper pick I am pleased about nailing.  Erik Kendricks to Minnesota has ben solid, too.  Wrong?  Well, there were a few.  Jameis likely is the big one.  I liked him, but I would have taken Mariota first.  I still would.  But, Winston will win rookie of the year, so I guess he is not worried about me.  Also, Arizona State's Damarious Randall was a safety in school (and not good) but Green Bay made him a corner and he was very good this year.  And I definitely thought Melvin Gordon would be better in Year 1.  
But, in all of these cases, right or wrong, it is only 1 season.  A career is much longer and we must show patience.  
Q: Who do you think Tony Romo's best offensive teammate has been in his career? My buddies debated this and I say it's Jason Witten. They like TO - Stan
Well, there is no question that I agree with you.  From 2006 until now, Tony Romo and Jason Witten have hooked up for almost 10,000 yards and 47 touchdowns.  But, your buddies have a reasonable argument for most productive over any 3 years.  Romo to Terrell Owens was amazing while it lasted.  We forget it because Owens was so impossible to deal with and there was always a rift.  But, if you separate 2006-2008, Owens accounted for just under 3,600 yards and caught 38 touchdowns.  During that same stretch, Witten had 2,850 and 12 touchdowns.   Witten had more catches, 241-235, but even that was close.  But, obviously, Owens was all about massive plays while he was here.  
So, big picture?  Witten.  Smaller picture?  Owens.  Sorry.  But that one is too complicated for a simple answer.