Friday, March 30, 2012

Cowboys Mailbag - 3/30

It is the end of the week - so let’s knock out another Cowboys’ mailbag, where we take actually queries and premises from the good readers and kick around some good football conversation in March. There is clearly no offseason for those who of us who are obsessed by this great game.

Before we get to those emails, let’s review one small piece of the puzzle that was filled in since our last freeform blog regarding the Cowboys’ offseason. It was the final release order of the draft picks around the league as all the coin-flips and compensatory picks were dished out, so now we can actually look at a giant chart to see where every pick shakes out for next month’s league selection meeting.

Here is the Cowboys’ full haul:

Rd 1#14#14
Rd 2#13#45
Rd 3#19#81
Rd 4#18#113
Rd 4#40#135
Rd 5#17#152
Rd 6#16#186
Rd 7#15#222

HTML Tables

The one extra 4th that was compensation for losing Stephen Bowen to the Redskins falls between the 4th and 5th rounds and you would hope that would provide you some ammunition to plug another hole. Why get all fired up about a 4th round pick? I trust you really don’t need a lesson in late picks in the draft, but if you do, just know that Brandon Carr and Orlando Scandrick were both hits in the 5th round of the 2008 draft and are now substantially rich cornerbacks for the Cowboys. Add to that players of great substance all over the roster (Tony Romo, Miles Austin, Jay Ratliff) are players that either went 200 picks deep in the draft or were not picked at all.

I readily admit that I don’t have the time or knowledge to go 135 players deep in my draft preparation and simply try to focus on the top 3 rounds and top 100 players, but the teams that do damage in this league are the teams that accomplish way more than simply picking their top 2 players and then start grabbing names out of a hat. This should be treated as a very exact science and the best personnel departments run laps around those that don’t deal with deep picks well. I hesitate to make too much of that, because this Cowboys team has much to prove when it comes to finding diamonds in the rough since Bill Parcells left town. Not to say that Romo, Austin, and Ratliff were his idea – they undoubtedly were not his specifically. But, given that those players and DeMarcus Ware and Jason Witten were all part of an era that ended in 2006 (a lifetime ago in the NFL), we can see that the Cowboys have too many holes and a real need to not get 2 or 3 useful players from this draft, but rather a half-dozen. The best players since Parcells left on the Cowboys roster: Sean Lee, Dez Bryant, Tyron Smith, Doug Free, Anthony Spencer, Mike Jenkins, DeMarco Murray, and Felix Jones are all players that would be considered top picks with the exception of Free who was a 4th Rounder and Murray a 3rd. But, beyond that, late picks that have hit might just be Scandrick and perhaps Sean Lissemore. Useful, but hardly Ratliff/Romo/Austin types.

In case you missed it, this week we spent blog entries on 3 different players who I think are real candidates for consideration at pick #14. I think the Cowboys prefer to go to the defensive line at that pick (although corner, safety, and even OL are also reasonable ideas) and I want to break down as many players who might be targets at #14 and #45 as we have time for. Feel free to email me names ( you want to see covered, but I plan to hit all of the hot names at a rate of 3 or so per week. Here are this week’s profiles in case they slipped past you:

Michael Brockers – DT – LSU

Fletcher Cox – DE – Mississippi State

Quinton Coples – DE – North Carolina

And now, to your emails for this week:

Bob - what do you think of trade scenarios where the cowboys package Jenkins with some pics to move up and get Claiborne?

Ah, a delicious, time-killing draft rumor that has the Cowboys spending valuable resources to cruise up into the Top 5 or so to snag the top corner in the draft. I seem to recall a similar trade rumor last year when the whispers threw out the idea that Pat Peterson was the apple of Jerry’s eye and the Cowboys were looking to hop from #9 to #6 if Peterson would slip to Cleveland. Well, it is another LSU corner and another Dallas rumor, but the one I heard was laughable to me. Mike Jenkins, #14, and a 4th to get up to say #5 or #6 to get Claiborne?

Please. That is absurd. Mike Jenkins is not the most attractive stock out there and every team in the league is looking to trade players the year before they hit free agency if they are not sure they want to sign him. Of course the Cowboys would do this move. Why wouldn’t they? They get a better corner. A younger corner. And a cheaper corner (starting next season when it is highly possible that Jenkins could be your next $8 million a year corner out there. And, we know that in free agency if the corners are few and far between, $8m can become $10m over dinner).

Now, ask yourself why the other team would do it? They drop 9 spots, get a corner who has had uneven performances, can't always stay healthy, and is on the final year of his deal, and a mid round pick? That is one of those great Cowboys rumors that is so slanted in the Cowboys favor that every fan quickly wants to know if this could really happen. Let me respond to that. No. Nobody is going to do that. If you want to tell that same team that you are willing to go #14, #45, and #113, they might listen, but just like last year, the Cowboys have more holes than they can handle as it is. Clear out all of your picks for a corner and that will be most of your draft. I pass.

This next one technically wasn’t an email, but rather a response to my Brockers’ profile where I basically suggested I would pass on that big of a project when better choices like Fletcher Cox were available:

Tyron Smith was "raw" compared to other prospects like Gabe Carimi and Anthony Castonzo, but Dallas still pulled the trigger based on his upside. Similarly, I can see them taking Brockers. This guy is massive and a good athlete. It is just too bad his college numbers and YouTube videos do not tickle the fancy generally.

My response is to take issue with Tyron Smith’s reviews last year at this time. The reason I liked Smith better than Carimi, Castonzo, and Nate Solder was simple – he was as good or better than them at that very moment, and had enormous room to grow, too. Smith’s upside was far beyond those other 3, in my opinion. But, he was not a project. He was a very good tackle for USC and was going to be a plug-and-play player from the day he arrived.

Brockers, to me, is a player that needs to learn how to play. I am sorry, but 2 sacks at LSU? LSU spent the entire season ahead on the scoreboard so the opposition becomes one dimensional. Then, he had two defensive ends around him that were the focus of any offensive line when it came time to pass protect. He was getting chances to get to the QB and did not do it. Further, what bothered me was that he wasn’t even being left on the field in a lot of passing situations. Like Marcus Spears and Kenyon Coleman in Dallas, he was taken off the field on passing downs quite a bit. If, in college, your team decides they have better options than you to get to the passer, then that gives me great pause. This team has been good for years against the run. They need pass pressure. They need Eli Manning to feel the rush. They need to get home and with more than just Ware.

I cannot compare the present tense of Brockers to that of Tyron last year on any level. I know that many who have looked at him and have much better resumes than me project him to be a special player in a few years. But, I don’t like that risk. I need results quickly and I am not interest in rolling the dice on a project. Yes, I think college production should be strongly considered when evaluating a prospect and I don’t care for his production at LSU in the pass rush department.

can you compare Brockers vs Cox? Brockers better vs run, Cox better as pass rusher is what I see. Thoughts? –

I would buy that, Mike. But, I think Cox can be a perfect fit in Dallas against the run and pass as a DE in both their 3-4 fronts and the 4-3 fronts. He is a real athlete with great quickness and a wonderful motor. I really loved the fact that Mississippi based their entire defense around him and moved him around constantly. The opposition knew that they had to watch for Fletcher and find him in the presnap. And yet, he still rattled off big production and seemed to be a factor in most games. I am very impressed with his tape. I would say Brockers is a bigger load against the run so he will stand his ground, while Cox is more likely to squeeze through a gap and stop a run play in the backfield. Both strategies have value, but the difference between Cox and Brockers in the pass rush is enormous. Brockers advantage in the run game is not substantial to me, although they are asked to do different things.

I want to be clear about Brockers. I don’t care for him, but I have an aversion to players who I think are pushed up the board with measureables over actual proof that they are good players. I know that NFL people cannot resist long arms and a great wing-span and Brockers has that. In fact, listening to Jerry Jones talk about those topics makes you think that he might love Brockers and Dontari Poe. But, I just want them to jump off the screen when you watch him play. I know LSU has many of those players, but still, I needed Brockers to change games and when I watched 5 of his performances from last season, I missed it.

Hi Bob,

I believe the Cowboys need to draft someone that can play both DE and DT in the 3-4 and 4-3 Defense. Spears and Coleman dont do anything for the Cowboys. I want someone that can stop the run and rush the passer. I like Crick from Nebraska, Brockers from LSU and Wolfe from Cincinati later in the draft. What are your thoughts on this?


P1 Marc


I feel like I have said all I have to say about Brockers, so let’s visit about Jared Crick a bit. I really have not watched much of this past season, but when watching Prince Amukamara last year, I watched a load of Nebraska and left each game loving Crick. He is a real stud on that defensive line and seems to have that size and frame to be another candidate to be a DE that might be a nice pick in the 2nd round. I have to say that he could change games in a number of ways and you never were worried about his motor and effort level. I need to make sure that 2011 was similar before I get carried away, but assuming he did not fall off, I have no problem endorsing that idea.

As for Wolfe, he turned plenty of heads at the Senior Bowl, but it is tough to say at this point where the 6’5/295 lineman rates. I have heard he is a 3rd round type, but you know how that goes this time of year. I will try to take a look at him, Marc.

And finally, one last word on our final profile of this week, Quinton Coples. There is no doubt that he is a very controversial type that is eliciting a ton of feedback – both good and bad. But, the biggest thing that I think is worth pointing out is that I feel there is only a slight chance that he will be available. Odds are substantially stacked the other way that he will be long gone. But, this is the situation teams often must deal with on draft day; making sure you plan for any and all scenarios. A team will bill its board and then cross off the names that are taken and then take the next highest player. They must trust the board and follow it so that the emotions of the moment do not make them take a silly chance.

With that in mind, I would build our board with the three names that have been studied so far like this: 1) Coples, 2) Cox, 3) Brockers

Perhaps, as we add more and more names, we can build our highly unofficial board for Pick #14 to 10-15 names. If you are the Cowboys, you are hoping QBs, RBs, WRs, and Tackles all are jammed into the 13 picks in front of them, so that all of the preferred players on their board slide down to them.

And then they can take the name that they have agreed upon. Easy, right?

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Draft Profile: Quinton Coples - DE - North Carolina

The following is the 3rd in a series of draft profiles for potential 1st and 2nd round picks for the Dallas Cowboys. These profiles are put together with the specific needs of the Cowboys in mind, and is an attempt to examine their resumes and game tape to get an idea of who might fit in best with Dallas come draft day.

Quinton Coples
North Carolina
6'6, 284
40 time: 4.71, Bench Press: 25
June 22, 1990 (21)

This is one of my favorite parts about preparing for the NFL Draft. Those who follow this closely grab a stack of games and try to trust their eyes and block out everything that has been said or written about a particular player who is being considered. Opinions this time of year can vary from constructive criticism to nit-picking to full-out-lies to increase or decrease draft stock, sometimes released by teams to attempt to get a guy to fall into their lap. Can you trust what you see out there? Or, do you just watch the player and attempt to ignore the noise?

Quinton Coples is one of those players. People have said a number of things about him and the things that are said challenge whether he actually enjoys football and wants to be as good as he can be. Does his motor run? Does he care? What is most interesting about these critiques are the parallels between Coples and a player he greatly admires, Julius Peppers.

Peppers did not wear #90 at UNC. He actually wore #49, but has wore the number #90 ever since he has been in the NFL. Coples wears #90 at UNC and their frames are shockingly close. Peppers is 6'7, 287 and Coples is 6'6, 284. "Pep" ran a 4.68 and lifted 22 bench press reps. Coples ran a 4.71 and benched 25.

Peppers had no flaws coming out of college. He had 30.5 sacks in 3 seasons and 53 tackles for loss. It took Coples 4 seasons to put together 24 sacks and 40.5 tackles for loss.

Peppers was the #2 pick in the 2002 draft - David Carr went #1 - and has put up 100 sacks in 10 seasons. But, there was a time not too long ago (2007) when he was being asked by many in the media all of these same questions about motor and love for the game and "why aren't you better?" That was the year that Peppers looked disinterested and had just 2.5 sacks. Perhaps they were right, because the other 9 seasons, he has averaged about 11 sacks per season and has made football look easy his entire career.

And that is Coples criticism: That he is not Julius Peppers. And if you are picking #14, you should celebrate that fact. Because if he was Peppers, he would not have a chance to potentially fall to you. But, here is Coples, with 1 month to go, now showing up in the mock drafts as a guy who could fall to pick #20 or beyond.

I don't believe those mock drafts for a second. Coples is a freak of nature and a dominant football player.

In 2010, because of major scandal at North Carolina that left many players suspended, Coples moved inside to play defensive tackle for the Heels. He responded with a ridiculously productive season of 10 sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss from the inside position where he proved he could handle the inside double teams and stand up against the run.

Then, in 2011, with a new coach and a return to defensive end, his numbers dropped. He "merely" had 7.5 sacks and 15 tackles for loss and the football world was unimpressed. And that is what we do when preparing for the draft. We end up comparing players to generational greats in the NFL (Is he Julius Peppers?) or we compare him to what we think he should do (Why didn't he have 15 sacks this season?). But, if you just watch him play a few hundred snaps, you might see that in this draft class he is a cut above. If there was one guy that you would have to put money on to be a dominant pass rusher in the NFL, for me it is easy: Coples.

So, why did his numbers drop in his senior season? I might argue with his emerging as a force at UNC that he was focused on and game planned around much more. But, it is also not uncommon for players to not go 110% when they start reading about themselves on the NFL Draft board. Players often play their final college season with their head on a swivel, trying to make sure that nobody attempts to cut them at the knees and risk an injury that could take untold millions off the table. One player who had that rap last season of whether the motor always runs as high as it should was Von Miller. His sack totals dropped from 17.5 in his junior season to just 10 in his senior year. He also changed positions and the questions about this health or whether he was playing to not get hurt also emerged. And then Von Miller went to the NFL and blew the doors off with 11.5 sacks in his rookie season.

Coples body type is that classic basketball power forward frame. His athleticism is fantastic. And he over-matches his blocker on a regular basis with quickness and an array of moves that is tough to deal with. The fact that he "only" accounted for 48 explosive plays (sacks + tackles for loss) in his last two seasons is laughable. That ratio of over 2 explosive plays per game in a major conference is well above others in this draft class who are being considered for Round 1. If he did that while "not trying", then I think I can live with it.

Here is some youtube cut-ups for your perusal:

Vs Virginia Tech

This is a great tape if you want to be talked into Coples. He seems at different times to be unblock-able. It becomes clear that he is an issue rather early in this game and I think you can see his pass rush ability to both the inside and outside as well as a chance to dispel the rumors that he never forced a fumble as he strips draft prospect David Wilson rather clearly in the 4th Quarter.

Vs Miami

Miami sure seemed to roll away from Coples path here in a game where the Hurricanes to a healthy lead early. Coples again shows that in a 1-on-1 pass rush situation, most college tackles can't do much but hold and hope. He has so many weapons and does well in pass rushes. You might wonder about his technique against the run as he gets too far up field and runs right past the ball carrier on some occasions. Very impressive "get off" at the snap.

Vs Missouri (Bowl Game)

Not the most impressive game in his final college contest. He has some moments that look impressive, but if there was a particular game where he appeared to be playing "not to get hurt", this one has some moments where you wonder if he is protecting himself a bit. But again, when he turns that corner, he absolutely looks the part of an edge rusher who can get double digit sacks on Sunday.

And then this clip Is from Pro Football Weekly where we can find out what his favorite movie is and also see one of several impressive brands that he has on his arms.

The Case For Taking Quinton Coples at #14: Honestly, I don't believe for a second that he will be around at #14. I think this is a case of many teams trying to get him to slide to them with these question marks, because when you look at measurables and game tape, he is so impressive. If he does slide to 14, then I think the Cowboys will run to the podium and happily take him, even if it requires some tweaking of their scheme to make it fully work. I cannot swear he is a prototypical DE in a 3-4 and would be best utilized as a 2-gap player who holds the line, but he absolutely could do it if you wanted that done. Instead, I think you might consider a lot more 4-3 fronts in passing situations where he can be a fine edge rusher or he can go inside and whip guards with his quickness. His tools make you wonder how good he can be in 3 seasons. He has a skill set that you don't often see at 6'6.

The Case Against Taking Quinton Coples at 14: The case against him (assuming he will be there) is that he spends a lot of time discussing the business of football already. That, coupled with the possibility that he was protecting himself his senior year does hint at the idea that he might always be a signing issue and motivated by his next contract (like his hero, Mr Peppers). That being said, he would not be alone in that regard in the NFL. Otherwise, his technique needs work as he can be much more affective once he fully understands his role with relation to the other 10 guys on the field. He sometimes plays as if he is on his own, but without knowing what he was being told from his coaches in college, it is difficult to get too worried about that. He honestly doesn't have too much that scares you. He is an elite prospect that suggests that he can be as good as he wants to be.

Previous Profiles:
Fletcher Cox - Mississippi State
Michael Brockers - LSU

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Draft Profile: Michael Brockers - DT - LSU

The following is the 2nd in a series of draft profiles for potential 1st and 2nd round picks for the Dallas Cowboys. These profiles are put together with the specific needs of the Cowboys in mind, and is an attempt to examine their resumes and game tape to get an idea of who might fit in best with Dallas come draft day.

Michael Brockers
Louisiana State
6'5, 322
40 time: 5.35, Bench Press: Did not lift - Rt Shoulder
Dec 21, 1990 (21 years old)

One thing that is always important on draft day is making sure that you account for upside. A player may be at one level while he is merely a kid who is growing into his body, but if you can figure out where he will be at the height of his powers, you have a chance to get a real special talent who can change the face of your franchise for years to come.

Trouble is, it is this fine art that has cost countless organizations. They saw what a player could do. They squinted hard and debated what that meant in 3 seasons. And then they pulled the trigger. Only to find out that he never came close to achieving things that others imagined he could achieve. And that gives us the draft day bust.

This is not to suggest that Michael Brockers from Louisiana State University isn't an impressive specimen in the present tense. He surely is a force to be reckoned with when you pop in a tape and watch him do what he does across that LSU defensive line. At 6'5, 322, he is right in the middle of a very stout LSU defense and most running plays seem to die in his general vicinity when the opponent dares to run the play between the tackles.

He is just raw. A redshirt sophomore, who like Fletcher Cox and Tyron Smith, was also born in December of 1990. But, unlike Cox, it seems he is much further from being a finished product. If he can figure things out, he appears to have special qualities, but as of March 2012, there seems to be a lot of gray area in his game.

When watching LSU on defense, there are many other players that seem to jump off the screen first. Five different Tigers had more sacks than Brockers did this season when he bagged just 2. One sack in September at Mississippi State and one more in November at Mississippi were the full allotment, and when you watch him over the course of several games, you quickly realize that at this point of his career, pass rushing doesn't seem to be his specialty by a long shot. LSU almost never moves him around, keeping him over the right guard on the majority of occasions in the "3-technique", although they do mix up their fronts.

Against the run, he is, at times very good. He can shed his blocker and make the play when he gets leverage off the snap. However, when you watch some of the clips below you will find that he gets washed out at least a few times when a tackle joins the engaged guard, collapses Brockers, and leaves a sizable path for the running back. He had 10 tackles for loss this year, so he is winning his share of battles at the line. But, 12 explosive plays in 14 games would seldom set the world on fire in most draft rooms.

That would be accomplished by "upside". He has the ideal arm length that so excites many scouts and personnel people with 35" arms and a wing span of nearly 84". That is off the charts impressive from a measurement standpoint (Jason Pierre Paul was 34 3/4 with an 81" wingspan) and makes many salivate at what he might be capable of when he gets to 24 years of age. On the other hand, his 40 yard dash was painfully slow among the top prospects at the combine (5.36 while Fletcher Cox ran 4.79) and his bench press was an item of mystery as the NFL reported he did not lift because of an injury. However, reports from when he did lift at other times had his bench press number (19-21) well behind those at his position. Whether those reports are credible enough to question his strength is debatable, and to his credit, strength does not seem to be a giant issue when you look at the film.

Here is some youtube cut-ups for your perusal:

Vs Georgia

Here you can see him occasionally locked up with another draft prospect, center Ben Jones from the Bulldogs. Brockers went to a spin move that did not impress, was caved in on a double team run right at him, and did bat down a ball showing that considerable arm length.

Vs Mississippi State

In this matchup, he did bag one of his 2 sacks, but for the most part was single-teamed and handled by the MSU right guard. He took himself out of a play as he took the cheese and ran upfield and past a running play to his other gap. His motor seems reasonable, but he does look a bit plodding at times.

Vs Alabama

Here and in the 1st meeting against Alabama, you saw Brockers out for several plays of substance as LSU employs a deep rotation and would have Brockers on the sideline for pass situations, which would give you pause if you ponder his ability to help the pass rush in Dallas.

And then this clip is nothing more than Les Miles pouring on the sarcasm with regard to being asked about Michael Brockers tweeting about his swollen knee.

The Case For Taking Michael Brockers at #14: The Cowboys are said to have a keen interest in Brockers and that would not make them a special case. If there is one thing that draws scouts like mosquitos to a light it is a player with Brockers size in the middle of a defensive line. Is he really 322? Well, he played at about 310 at LSU. Is he a DE or a DT? The Cowboys might want to grab him at #14 if they see him as the best chance to get a special player at that spot - dependent on how the draft falls to them. But, I would cringe at the risk/reward here.

The Case Against Taking Michael Brockers at 14: Dallas doesn't need a project in their defensive line. They need a plug-and-play difference maker. When comparing him to Fletcher Cox, I see Brockers as part of an ensemble cast, where the opposition might pay more attention to Sam Montgomery or Barkevious Mingo - the two defensive end pass rushers - and yet Brockers seldom got home. Meanwhile, I saw Cox as the main focus of every game plan in the SEC to stop him, and yet he still accounted for 14.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks in just 12 games. That ratio tells me that Cox has upside, but his present status is just fine. Brockers, if he doesn't really come along, might join Tyson Jackson, Glenn Dorsey, and Marcus Spears as other 1st round talents at the position from LSU that never quite turned the NFL on its ear like some projected. Please don't get me wrong, Brockers is more interesting than many of the other names on the list, but when it comes to "front 7" help at pick #14, I think the Cowboys can do better than this. Let somebody else bet on his upside.

Previous Profiles:
Fletcher Cox - Mississippi State

Monday, March 26, 2012

Draft Profile: Fletcher Cox - DL - Mississippi State

The following is the 1st in a series of draft profiles for potential 1st and 2nd round picks for the Dallas Cowboys. These profiles are put together with the specific needs of the Cowboys in mind, and is an attempt to examine their resumes and game tape to get an idea of who might fit in best with Dallas come draft day.

Fletcher Cox
Mississippi State
6'4, 298
40 time: 4.81, Bench Press: 30
Dec 13, 1990 (21 years old)

Our first profile as we ponder the best scenario at #14 when the Cowboys come up to make their selection might actually be the best option when we finish this series. Fletcher Cox appears to be exactly the type of player that has been missing from the Cowboys 3-4 scheme over the last several years.

Because of Dallas' reliance on the outside linebacker in the defense, and the luxury of having one of the elite pass rushers in this generation in DeMarcus Ware, they have felt almost no pressure to address the 2 defensive end positions with any level of urgency. Instead, it has been a constant parade of stop-gap types and part time players. They are either plodding run stoppers who have no prayer of pass rushing or situational pass rushers who have no anchor in the run game. Instead of having anyone who approaches the 1,000 snaps of a full-time defensive end, they have had a series of 400 snap defensive ends. This, of course, requires more man-power and trouble as the Cowboys have needed essentially 4 defensive ends at all-times. But, not for the reasons the Giants use that many (rotational substitutions to simply wear out the opponent) but rather by necessity based on each down and distance they must substitute the proper DE into the game to keep from being caught with the wrong players on the field.

In the 2011 draft, the Cowboys had a chance to get an elite defensive end at the #9 spot with JJ Watt from Wisconsin - a player that they were said to be quite taken with. But, they also had major weaknesses on the offensive line, and properly targeted young Tyron Smith as a solution to their long-term issues at tackle on the OL. It was a rare time where there was no wrong answer when they chose between Smith and Watt, because whoever they took was going to be a "blue chip" addition for years to come. But, which ever direction they went, the other spot was still going to be a glaring weakness.

And, after scrambling to make sure Marcus Spears and Jason Hatcher were re-signed, the Cowboys found stop gap DE Kenyon Coleman with young and promising Sean Lissemore to keep the position warm until there was a chance to bring in a young stud.

Well, perhaps, Cox is that man. Fletcher Cox was born on December 13, 1990. That was 24 hours after Tyron Smith was brought into this world on December 12, 1990. Smith was very young to be placed into the NFL as a raw but exciting 20-year old, and now it appears that there are similar ideas about Cox as a 21-year old draft prospect. Cox did not redshirt and is now turning pro after his 3rd year. He is still figuring things out.

When watching his tape, he appears to be a defensive lineman with great versatility. Mississippi State was very liberal in their use of Cox, moving him up and down the defensive line snap after snap. On early run downs, he anchored the middle as a DT in their 4-3 front. On pass downs, they would sometimes kick him outside to work on a tackle. There were scenarios (such as the 1st snap against Wake Forest in their bowl game) where they would even drop Cox into pass coverage out the hook/curl area. And regardless of what he was asked to do, it seemed like he was ready to answer the bell.

When you watch all of the defensive line prospects year after year, you quickly are able to eliminate players who do not seem to back up their workouts with game tape. For instance, it is great to hear you can bench press 225 25 or 30 times, but how come you don't look that strong on the field when you are playing? Your quickness is intriguing, but where was it when your team needed it last fall?

That is not the problem with Fletcher Cox. I think of all of the defensive line prospects in this draft, Cox's game film is the most impressive. He demands double teams, and he often splits them. He is a destructive force against the run, seldom being pushed back, but often working his way into the backfield. He beats most single-team match ups. He anchors well against the run and yet gets to the Quarterback with sacks and pressures. 5.5 sacks may not sound like much, but if you watch him on film, there are plenty of plays where he is running at the QB and forcing him into the waiting arms of a team-mate.

And most importantly, like Tyron Smith, the belief is that in 3 years, he will be even better. He is still growing and just figuring the game out at the top levels. But, if there is something that is always important for this position to me, it is that high motor. And when you look at the tape below, tell me you see any energy drop off late in games. I don't. He looks relentless all day long, and with a huge workload, many players of his type don't have the same burst all day. I really like his game.

Here is some tape for your own eyes:

Vs South Carolina

Beat double teams. Very quick at the snap with his get off. Disruptive. Plays all 4 spots. Did not tire out. Great motor.

Vs Alabama

Inside on early run downs. Sheds and tackles on interior runs. Sideline to sideline pursuit of the wide runs. Doesn't give up on a play. And is able to move up and down the line with great versatility.

Additional video from the Music City Bowl vs Wake Forest here. In this game he blocks a kick with ease after pancaking his blocker.

Vs Kentucky. Video quality is not great, but you can see him again from a different perspective.

Diary of Fletcher Cox TV Story: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

The Case For Taking Fletcher Cox at #14: As I have looked at the Cowboys principle positions of need, I keep walking back to the spots at defensive end that I think are biggest reasons that players like Anthony Spencer are not as productive as we would like. For years, the Cowboys have had Jay Ratliff flanked with replacement level players who just do not stress the opponent with their abilities. If you could get a defensive end like Cox who can play in either a 3-4 or 4-3 with ease and will be your best player at the position the day he arrives but in year 3 or 4 might be among the very best in the NFL, I think this pick speaks for itself. If you could get a player at DE that could win his match-ups, you might be shocked at how many pressure situations are made better for all of your front 7. He would be an immediate 3-down DE, and in my mind fits the Cowboys like a hand in a glove.

The Case Against Taking Fletcher Cox at 14: Obviously, if I think this highly of a player like this (and more importantly, if I feel the Cowboys feel the same way about him), then the trick is to hope that he falls to 14. Every team in the league can talk themselves into the idea that a fabulous talent at DL is a great way to go on draft day. Thankfully, Quinton Coples, Michael Brockers, and even Dontari Poe might be more freakish athletes or interesting prospects and perhaps more appealing to teams higher up the board. It is highly possible that the Cowboys could fancy a David DeCastro as well, and it would be difficult to argue that pick, either. But, if Cox falls to #14, I think he is the Cowboys man.

How To Do Your Own Homework

For about the last 2 months, we have spent a lot of time breaking down tape of some of the more prominent free agents around the NFL from a Cowboys' perspective and now we move to where we will begin looking at college players so that we are familiar with the good and bad of each and every player that might be a real possibility for the Cowboys in the 1st and 2nd rounds. And whenever we do this, I am asked by a large number of readers about the methods and resources available to breaking down a player for this sort of thing.

2012 is a great time to be a football fan, as now, we are at the best point in football history for doing our own homework. Now, some scouts and football types may roll their eyes on that sort of statement, but as someone who truly loves this sport, I always hated relying on Street and Smith's Draft Guide to tell me who my team should take in a draft. Because often times, the writers were not giving each player an independent evaluation, either. He was talking to people who had seen a player play and simply repeating everything he hears about a guy.

But, now days, there is no reason why anyone could not watch a player closely for even just an hour and get a strong feel for what a player does well and what he doesn't do so well. You watch football. You have watched it your whole life. So, why would someone like you not be able to watch 5 different defensive ends play a few hundred snaps each and rank them for yourself?

This isn't to say that any of us can do the job of an NFL scout or general manager. But this is to say that if you love the sport and the team, there is no reason that you have to believe everything that you are told by the brass of a team when we all know that they are predisposed to tell us the sun is shining even when it is pouring rain.

Anyway, if you are someone who fancies himself as a "student of the game", then you likely know all of the methods that are used in the year 2012 for this sort of thing, but since many ask me how I do it, I wanted to share it with you on this blog post.

So, here are the Frequently Asked Questions for a football dork like me:

Q: Where/How do you find all of the tape that you watch?

A: I admittedly have a bit of a problem when it comes to football. I have an extensive library of hundreds of game broadcasts going back to the 1970's at home. I make an effort to put as many games on DVD that I can these days and file them away because you never know what game you are going to want to see again down the road. But, honestly, that is antiquated and it will only make your wife mad at you, so I would like to recommend something far more practical in the year 2012.

In the year 2012, we have that offers you every game of the 2011 season in full high definition on your computer for about $29. This is the best purchase a football nerd could ever make and a place where I view almost all of my NFL film these days. also offers the "coaches tape" for every key play of the game, and there you can see exactly the same film that scouts and coaches are looking at in those rooms at the facility.

When the Cowboys are said to have interest in a player that I am unfamiliar with, or if it looks like they are going hard at a corner in free agency, it is easy to call up any game you want and watch every snap a guy takes for the entire year. Before long, you will know Brandon Carr from Cortland Finnegan and you will understand what each can and can't do. It really amazed me when a beat writer suggested something that was flat out contradictory about Carr a few weeks ago. It was clear that he was getting his information from someone who didn't know what they were talking about and if he was watching Carr himself (For just $29) he wouldn't have misled his audience. Others in the Cowboys media suggested that Finnegan was strictly a slot corner these days. That also was categorically false and easily dispelled if they would have watched just 1 Tennessee game with their own eyes.

When it comes to college players, it gets more complex. has an archive of all of the ESPN college games that have been broadcasted, but that can be difficult for all to have access. There are also a number of channels like ESPN Classic and CBS College Sports Network that rerun games all year round. If you know what you are looking for, you can generally find the right games. But, this does require you planning ahead. I start recording college games in September so that I have a proper library for each spring when I need to see certain prospects play. But, of course, that is not practical for most and certainly won't help you now.

For those that need games now, your best bet is youtube. There are many people out there these days that will put reels of players up that are significant for the draft. It is amazing the amount of work they put into these tapes that, when properly done, contain every snap from a given game so you see good plays and bad ones, alike. Highlight films are of no use. You quickly learn that any player can string 10 good plays together over the course of the season and make you think they are great. But, if there are also 25 horrible ones, we need to consider the full body of work.

Youtube is not ideal, but it is much, much better than believing what someone else thinks about a given player. As fans and media, there never used to be away to do your own work, but now there are plenty of resources to see most Top 100 draftees from countless perspectives by draft day.

Q: Do you have access to coach's tape and why does everyone talk like it is so important?

A: The first answer is "sometimes". I would elaborate, but the last thing I want to do is mess up my methods for obtaining this tape, so I will stay rather vague and generic. I am building a nice collection, but I often get it well after the week of the game.

Everyone talks about it because it is considered the single best way to analyze football. The cameras are high and wide and you can see "All 22" players, which is a real weakness of the TV copy. This allows you to get a much better idea about what each player is supposed to do because you can see what coverage the team falls into and you can see where the open receivers are for a QB. You can see the end zone view for watching line play, and there is no question that is helpful. Do you learn more from the coach tape? Sure. But, having used both, I might argue that the advantages are not always so substantial that you cannot settle for the TV copy. Here is a big story in the Wall Street Journal about the debate of making all of the information available to all of the fans.

So, do I do my work using the coach's tape? Whenever I can. But, that is a small percentage of the time.

Q: What are some way to watch film that make the job easier?

A: This may be elementary, but I think it is mandatory that you lock on to just 1 or 2 players at a time. You use rewind a ton. You have no sound up on the game because hearing opinions from the broadcasters will affect your opinion and it is often dead wrong. It seems many broadcasters rely on dated information that still champions washed up players as elite, and we don't need any further distractions.

You have a pad of paper and you watch closely how he plays on each snap. How hard is he playing? How well is he playing? How many of his individual battles are being won? Remember, in this game of blocking and tackling, let's not make this more complicated than it has to be. Is he getting his lunch handed to him or is he dominating? Is he merely holding his own? Does he demand a double team? Does he need help to block the guy in front of him? Evan Mathis, one of the more under-rated linemen in the NFL, actually wrote a piece on on this very topic.

Don't be fooled by: Long hair, tattoos, or other things that don't matter. Also, don't be fooled by high-light film plays when there are 99 other plays in every 100. Consider carefully who he is playing against. Sometimes, a guy can look great against poor talent, but you want to watch a number of games to see if he is as good as you might think. You want to see him in every spot because sometimes a team will change their game plan because of game circumstances. But, you want to watch your player in every situation.

Finally, I recommend that you actually try to read less about the players you are studying. Sure, comparing notes with those you might trust makes sense, but I just cited a few examples where Cowboys' beat writers just did not know what they were talking about when telling their audience misinformation. Sometimes, no information is better than wrong information.

Anyway, over the next few weeks, I am going to be posting reviews of about 15-20 players which I have looked at as Cowboys prospects. Whenever possible, I am going to include youtube cuts of each player to help you do your own work if that is something that you desire. When I do that, there will be plenty that roll their eyes and say you can't learn anything off youtube. And this is my response: Ridiculous. You can't learn everything, but it is way better than what we used to have. If you have full game tapes, great. If you have coach's film, share! But, if you are a big football fan and this sort of thing interests you, there is now more information out there than ever before.

Or, if you don't care about this sort of thing, I will do the work and you can read that review and not worry about any of the rest of this. Either way, it is always football season.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Cowboys Mailbag - 3/23

Let's get back into the habit of the Friday Cowboys' Mailbag and knock out a bunch of emails. Then, starting Monday, we will start our video review of many of the candidates for the draft picks at #14 and #46. I am starting to find plenty of guys to like and dislike after watching more college football games from last fall than anyone should ever watch in February and March, and there is plenty to discuss on that front.

To be part of these good times, email in for next week's haul at

Let's get started -

Dear Bob,

I've decided what the cowboys should do with their first round pick and after hearing no one else make this sugguestion yet, im beginning to think i might be the draft expert. Dontari Poe. The 6'4, 346 pound, defensive tackle from Memphis. He is the perfect mold to plug into a 3-4 defense and take up two to three blockers every play. On top of this, he benched 225 forty four times and ran a 4.95 forty; he's clearly a freak athlete. The biggest reason why i sugguest this is because the cowboys could then kick Jay Ratliff out to defensive end where he'll actually be able to hold up for a full sixteen game schedule and put him at the position where i believe he's best suited for. On top of all this, put ratliff on the weak side next to Spencer or even Victor Bulter which should potentially give them more one on one's or even allow them to run free. Poe will certainly be there at 14 and i think overall this will help the cowboys bring more pressure without all the crazy blitz packages rob ryan throws out, letting them drop 6 or 7. The pass rush has become the most important part of being a winning football team in this now pass-happy league. I think im a genius, what says you?

The Number One P1,
Mike from Plano


I enjoy your style and your idea. There is no question that since about 2009, I have been a proponent of kicking Jay Ratliff out to defensive end. This has been a source of much argument as people cite that Ratliff is a solid nose tackle and that he says he enjoys playing over the center. But, I use a different approach altogether. My rationale is simply studying the most successful 3-4 defenses in the NFL and comparing the player that they attempt to play at the nose and comparing them with Jay Ratliff from a simple size standpoint. The results are not close. The Jets employ Sione Pouha at 6'3, 325. The Steelers have had Casey Hampton 6'1, 325. Green Bay has used Ryan Pickett at 6'2, 340. San Francisco uses Isaac Sopoaga: 6'2, 330. Baltimore uses Terrence Cody at 6'4, 350 (and Haloti Ngata at 6'4, 330). Big Vince Wilfork anchors the New England 3-4 (when they run the 3-4) and he sits at a hefty 6'2, 330.

Meanwhile, the honorable Mr Ratliff fluctuates between 290 and 295 most times, and while he effectiveness is not to be doubted, I just don't think that he can drop anchor and demand the same level of attention that players who weigh as much as 50 pounds more than him can sustain. He wears down as the season goes on and December represents his worst production on a tackle-per-game basis.

Against that backdrop, we also have the Cowboys with a revolving door at defensive end where they have not really had a difference maker since they switched defensive schemes so many years ago. Igor Olshansky, Chris Canty, Kenyon Coleman, Marcus Spears, Stephen Bowen, Jason Hatcher, and Kenyon Coleman (again) have all represented defensive ends who are not full time defensive ends. Some could play the run. Some could play the pass. Some were just warm bodies, but none of them made you say you were set at that position. And yet, Ratliff, seems to be a cinch to be a full-time defensive end if you found a proper nose tackle to carry out the scheme like the successful teams do. It seems to make too much sense, really.

So, why do the Cowboys continue to try to do the 3-4 their own way?

Maybe, because they have never been in a great spot to address the situation at nose properly. And perhaps, the draft will make that happen. Mike mentions Dontari Poe from Memphis, who we will look at closely in the next few weeks. But, I have major issues with his production while playing in Conference USA. Sure, Memphis is a bad team, but 1 sack when you are playing SMU, Middle Tennessee, Rice, and the rest? I enjoyed his absurd combine performance, but do you want to take a player based on a workout? His 40 time is crazy, but if my nose tackle is ever running 40 yards, the play is already a lost cause.

Personally, I am a much bigger admirer of Alameda Ta'Amu of Washington who really looked like a handful during the Senior Bowl. His quickness and size combination 6'3, 348 is something to behold. Even Baylor's Nick Jean-Baptiste looks the part and has better production against a better caliber of opponent and would not require pick #14 to take. I would only use #14 on a nose tackle if I was sure I was getting Wilfork or Ngata. I am not sure Poe could be considered anything close to a sure thing.

But, I agree that this is something that is long overdue as Ratliff gets older and older and the miles get higher on his odometer.

Hi Bob,

Possible topic for ask Sports Sturm or the FSSW site if you haven't already covered it. Or maybe someone has written on this you could point me to.

The QB or an OL generally point out which defender is "Mike" in the defensive set. Often it is not the MLB, but an OLB or SS.
I assume this is to set the blocking scheme and spots blitzers, but wonder how it is determined and what the real significance is?



Absolutely. You are right on in that the whole point of identifying the "Mike" is one of the most vital jobs of the pre snap reads for both the center and the quarterback. There is no doubt that with the league becoming far more heavy on the passing game, that defenses can only deal with it by attempting to stress your protection schemes and confusing your QB by giving some level of uncertainty with who is rushing and who is not.

So, in the pre snap, the Quarterback is generally identifying the "mike" so that everyone on the offense who is involved in pass protection (somewhere between 5 and 8 players) agrees that "52 is Mike". Once everyone sees it the same way (as the QB sees it), then they simply have to count from the inside out to find the player they are responsible for.

In general, in pass protection, the rule of thumb is to always take the inside player on pass rushes. So, as a team uses fan protection or slide to either the left or the right, the offensive line works in concert with the tight end and or running backs to figure out who has who. This, of course, is further complicated with the fact that everyone on the defense that looks like they might rush are not actually rushing. And some who do not look like candidates to rush might be rushing. And still others are not rushing at first, but then take off for the QB. And, of course, through all of this, the QB has to keep an eye on those that he knows are unaccounted for. If, somehow, those players head towards him, he knows he is on his own and it is up to him to either get rid of the ball before he is reached or to make that unblocked man miss. Not easy.

But, it is mandatory that everyone sees that defense the same way - through the QBs eyes - and that is why he vocally declares who he determines is the middle man for which the entire protection scheme is based.


Considering all the press about how the league has changed into a passing league vs the Cowboy's strategy to not focus on Safety since they hit on Woodson, which could be better for them this year? The 2nd-5th rated CB or the #1 safety? I've seen Dre or Janoris ranked 2-5 by various folks but Barron is always the #1 safety.

Enjoy your articles/blog posts. Thanks!


Much like defensive end, there is no question that the safety position has been relegated by the Cowboys' brass as "whoever we can find for cheap" since Roy Williams and Darren Woodson were once a fantastic tandem in 2003. Since then, Williams play diminished year by year after the league started to figure him out and his obvious deficiencies. Otherwise, there have been a number of different safeties who have rolled through town and an equal number who have been conversion attempts from corner. Recently, Alan Ball washed out quickly and a draft day gamble named Akwasi Owusu-Ansah was the Cowboys 4th Round pick under the premise that they could teach him safety in 2010. Given that by year 2 he did not make the squad out of training camp and then they attempted to convert him into a wide receiver before cutting him for good at Thanksgiving 2011 tells you all you need to know. He is now on Jacksonville's roster and the Cowboys ability to scout and develop was called into question again.

Last summer, the Cowboys had a few chances to address safety, but again ignored it in the draft completely and then signed veteran safety Abe Elam for just a 1-year stop gap deal. His play exceeded that of Ball in 2010, but was not noticeable enough to approach about an extension and has not been mentioned during free agency despite giving the Cowboys 1,050 snaps last season.

Meanwhile, Brodney Pool has been signed, but honestly, he doesn't seem like much of an investment nor should expectations be high for a FS who only played much in New York because their starter Jim Leonhard was injured midway through the season.

I would very much enjoy a top safety as I am positively confused as to why the Cowboys did a long extension with Gerald Sensabaugh. He seems to be a box safety who doesn't particularly care for physical play. That seems like a substantial problem to me, but somehow it was worth a 5 year/$22.5 million extension with $8m in guaranteed dollars. Of course, the Sensabaugh deal does resemble the Nate Livings deal in that there is a rather safe language to the deal that makes it much smaller in reality if the performance is not where it needs to be. Beyond that, it is Pool, Barry Church (who many inside the organization still suggest to me might be the player to emerge) and Danny McCray.

So, now back to Mark Barron, the hard-hitting safety from Alabama. It seems to me that it is very important to put a few things out there about Barron as it pertains to the Cowboys situation. He appears to be a strong safety. Although the position is more and more interchangeable than it used to be where both safeties must be able to do both things (run support close to the line and center field play deep in the back), a safety still must be sound in coverage for the Cowboys to make sense. And Barron does not appear to be the best safety in the draft from a "center field" stand-point. His specialty is in the box, and if that was what the Cowboys needed the worst, I wonder if they would have targeted someone like Laron Landry (who ironically is now in New York with Pool moving on).

The other thing that makes this difficult is that you want to find match-ups against great QBs to evaluate his cover skills, and anyone who watched the SEC this season would know that it is rather difficult to say that the conference was a great passing league. Can he lower the boom against the run? Yes. But, I think it must be giving talent evaluators head aches that the 3 top DBs in the draft (Morris Claiborne - LSU, Dre Kirkpatrick - Ala, Mark Barron - Ala) are all SEC guys so there aren't many great passers to watch them against from 2011.

Adding to the interest is the idea that Kirkpatrick is a conversion candidate to free safety, perhaps. This idea gives me indigestion - to draft a player in the 1st round and then immediately ask him to play a position he has never played - but the idea of drafting Kirkpatrick is actually interesting to me, despite the signing of Brandon Carr. In my mind, you can never have too many cornerbacks, and with Mike Jenkins on the final year of his deal, I certainly could happily enter the year with 4 strong corners.

Next week, let's start breaking down players for the top 2 rounds that are on the Cowboys short list (or should be).

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

X's and O's Breakdown - G Power

Today, with all of the talk of the new guards in the Cowboys offensive line, the timing of Shawn's email was perfect and a chance for us to look at what the Cowboys love to do with one of their quite successful run concepts over the years.

I say "over the years" as more of a look at the Jason Garrett playbook (2007-2011) rather than looking at last season in particular. Last season was a huge transitional year for the interior of the offensive line, as they changed the players in each spot from Left Guard all the way to Right Tackle. That type of change does not promote a whole lot of continuity, and now they are going to try to change both guards and perhaps even the center for 2012 - but they have the benefit of 2 things that 2011 did not allow: 1) a full offseason for installation and 2) new lineman who are NFL veterans and capable of doing the job.

In 2011, many of the things that the Cowboys held dear was scrapped as they tried to figure out how to utilize a lineup that was counter-intuitive to what Hudson Houck and Jason Garrett have always seemed to believe in. For instance, Houck had been known throughout his career as the left to Alex Gibbs' right. Where Gibbs loved smaller lineman and zone blocking concepts, Houck loved gigantic earth moving lineman and the man blocking schemes that went with it.

That is why as we explain this concept, we are also admitting that this play was not the bread-and-butter play in 2011 that it has been in the past. Not to make this all about Phil Costa and Bill Nagy again, but it does seem that once the Cowboys decided to gut their old guard on the Offensive Line in late July and attempt to move forward with a new left guard and center that were both inexperienced and undersized, they tried to install way more zone runs than ever before and almost come over to Gibbs' side of thinking about how best to open holes for your running back. The truth is that the NFL has evolved to where there are no man-blocking or zone-blocking teams anymore, it seems. Just about everyone runs both to some extent if you break down their calls over several weeks. Some weeks they will run a ton of zone plays, other weeks they will not run hardly any. That was true for the Cowboys in 2011.

But, in 2009 (the best days of the Cowboys running scheme in the Garrett era) the "G Power" was dominant at times, rolling downhill for over 150 yards in a game on 6 different occasions. The other 4 years combined of Garrett, the running game had just 13 other 150 yard games (3 in 2007, 3 in 2008, 3 in 2010, and 4 in 2011).

But, 2011 had 4 games of over 150 rushing yards. Did the transition to the zone runs work? Well, yes and no. They did start ground domination in October when the Rams allowed the highest rushing day (294 yards) for Dallas since 1982. They also ran over Buffalo, Seattle, and Tampa Bay for 150+ yard days. The caliber of those 4 defenses should be called into question - as they may have been the 4 weakest defenses on the schedule - but, ground success did emerge. But, it was with the emergence of 3 players who were not in the mix when camp broke in San Antonio: DeMarco Murray was now the lead back, Tony Fiammetta was now fullback (the Cowboys did not even have a fullback dressed for much of their first 5 games), and Montrae Holland was called off his couch to replace Bill Nagy who broke his leg in New England. We will never know the answer, but I often wonder how long they would have stuck with Nagy-Costa in the middle if the injury didn't happen, because it was incredibly difficult to run the ball when those two were starting next to each other.

Anyway, let's get to the email from Shawn:

Hey Bob,

I'm a huge fan of our Dallas Cowboys offensive playcalling analysis. I got into a discussion with some friends about the Cowboys running game and was trying to explain how they use their pulling guards (especially how it relates to Nate Livings). Because football is easier seen than spoken about I wanted to show them some video of the Cowboys' standard run plays. Unfortunately, when I went back to the archives it seems like the videos of the 2009 season have been taken down:

Do you know if there's any of the footage still up that shows how the Cowboys use pulling guards, especially the power play where the fullback and back-side guard lead the RB to the tackle/guard hole?



Shawn caused me to dip into the archives to one of my favorite Cowboys' performances of the last several years, their OT win in Kansas City that is best known for Miles Austin breaking out for 250 yards and becoming a very rich man shortly thereafter.

In that game, we saw a great example twice of what the Cowboys love to call - "G Power". It is a power play that utilizes a pulling guard and a lead blocker (usually a fullback) to attempt to dominate physically and to win blocks with raw power and strength in numbers.

Take a look at the video and then we will describe what we are seeing:

Here is the play, run to the left, on the chalkboard. In the first play above, you can see Leonard Davis pulling from his spot at right guard and opening a nice hole for Tashard Choice. In the second play, it was then left guard Kyle Kosier running the exact same play to the other side for Marion Barber. Both require strong timing and a good handle on assignments for all involved. Check out the diagram.

The Cowboys run the play to the strong side with the tight end, but in both of these plays they are in 22 personnel, which has 2 tight ends and 2 running backs (a full back in front of the tail back). On both plays, two tight ends were lined up off tackle and the idea is to cave in the line diagonally back towards center. On the play to the left, Jason Witten and Martellus Bennett slant the blocks inside to the middle of the field, and it is their job to try to get all the way to the inside linebackers. So, left guard and left tackle slant right, center slants right, and this is the concept of the down block.

Sometimes you hear football coaches discuss the concept of "down, down, and around" when talking about G Power. This means the lineman on the play side are blocking down, and then the pulling guard handles the around part which works with the full back as lead blockers who must fill in the gaps that the down blocking left behind. Often, the defensive end that starts over left tackle would be unblocked, but the Cowboys account for him with the double tight ends. They out-flank him and then try to down block him into the middle of the field. Meanwhile, the full back gets the player closest to the outside - usually a linebacker or occasionally a corner in zone. And now, the G part of the G-Power, the big pulling guard who is looking for something to run over.

The tailback is now attempting to time his run to come right off the rear end of the guard. If the guard needs the block to the outside, the back cuts back inside and heads for daylight. If the defender cheats to the inside, then Davis or Kosier allow him to do that, and the back must now bounce the play to the outside. It is crucial that the guard stays on his feet and finds his man. We have seen this play fail plenty because the guard will come around the corner and miss his guy. This leads to an unblocked linebacker or safety in the backfield blowing up your ball carrier and everyone's shoulders slump. But, when it works, there is usually a big gainer that makes everyone want to run it again in the next huddle.

The play is run mostly to the right, but the Cowboys are quite comfortable flipping this play and running it back and forth based on whatever they feel is needed and which hashmark the ball is on. They also have plenty of counters that they will call if they see you cheating too many men to the strong side. Again, it takes strong and confident offensive linemen, but when it works it is perfect for ground and pounding to both kill the clock in a 4-minute drill and killing the morale of the defense.

But, you need competent guard play to make this work. So, when the Cowboys went and signed Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau, they hope they found two physical players who could pull in space and get them back to what they enjoyed doing. Bill Callahan will now work with their abilities and see if he can mold them to play their best football. A few days ago, I offered reviews of both players and was certainly pessimistic about Livings in particular being able to handle this. In the interest of fairness, I watched more of his action since then, in particular his game from Christmas Eve against the Arizona Cardinals, and feel a bit better about his performance. He blocked Calais Campbell all day without a whole lot of trouble and certainly was a film the Cowboys studied before they made their purchase. It was the best of the 5 games that I have looked at, and hope that he can be an improvement over what was at guard last season. Can he pull in space like Leonard Davis, circa 2009? That remains to be seen.

Anyway, that is a look at "G Power" - a staple of the Cowboys' playbook.

10 to Go

The last month has been a wonderful ride for the Dallas Stars and their loyalists who kept the faith. The Stars went on a run where they had 10 victories in 11 games and 21 of a possible 22 points. That run shot them up the standings to #3 in the Western Conference as Pacific Division Leader, but only by an eyelash.

There are 10 games to go. As we stand this morning, the Stars still sit in that #3 spot. But, by the slimmest of margins. So much so, that they sit 1 point out of 10th place in the West, 2 points out of 11th. This is essentially a dead heat. A photo finish. A cause to grab a fresh bottle of Pepto Bismol.

This will all be over by Saturday night, April 7th. For on the night before Easter, it will all be sorted. All the games will be played and only 8 of these 11 teams will have invitations to the playoffs. And in 3 cities, a lot of hard work will have been accomplished without any reward.

Nowhere is that more clear than in Dallas. Where the playoffs have been just a rumor since a wonderful spring run in 2008. And, where the Stars mounted a furious rally late in the regular season in 2010-11, only to be just the 2nd team in history to bag 95 points and still miss the playoffs. They had a "win and you are in" scenario last spring in St Paul, Minnesota, only to go down in defeat on the final day of the season. It was most gutting.

And here they sit again. 10 games to go. Simply match the total of those around you in those final 10 games, and they take that massive step forward into the post-season. With new ownership and seemingly a fan base that has been dormant but starting to stir, who knows the benefits of a berth in the 2nd season?

It can only be called, "Squeaky Bum Time", right?

There is a good chance that 98%-99% of the readers of this story have never heard that term. And for good reason. Only those that follow soccer over in England would know that about a decade ago, maybe the most famous manager in world soccer, Sir Alex Ferguson of Manchester United was playing his typical mind games in the media with those clubs (Arsenal, in particular) that dared to challenge his mighty United in the Premiership race.

His exact quote from March, 2003, was: ""They [Arsenal] have a replay against Chelsea and if they win it they would face a semi-final three days before playing us in the league. But then they did say they were going to win the Treble, didn't they? It's squeaky bum time and we've got the experience now to cope.""

That is a lot of information that might not register, so let's just focus on the phrase, "squeaky bum time", and assure the audience that he is not referencing flatulence. Rather, it is that nervous energy that has one shifting in their chairs. The constant repositioning of the anatomy that results (when on a metal chair, I assume) in the occasional involuntary squeak. Thus, squeaky bum time.

And a fair application to the local hockey team, that has exceeded many expectations to put themselves in a wonderful position. The other day, upon having confidence shaken by consecutive losses to Winnipeg and Chicago in rather overwhelming fashion, I was assured by a media mind that "they couldn't ask to be in a better spot. If you were looking down at your competition with 10 games to play, wouldn't everyone take that?"

Yes, of course.

But, that doesn't make me feel any better about the run-in. 10 Games that look most daunting in every respect.

It starts with 3 more at home: Tonight with Phoenix and old friend Dave Tippett, a team that gives the Stars fits. Then, Thursday with a Vancouver team the Stars have shocked twice and Saturday with Calgary, a team that sits 2 points back in 11th.

Next week, it is a tortuous road trip with 4 games in six nights, in 4 arena that make you earn your points with capacity crowds demanding the best from their sides: Calgary again, Edmonton, Vancouver, and finally at San Jose. Those last 2 games are back-to-backs, the final such situation that has the Stars in a 1-10-2 trend so far in the second night of such a scenario.

And then the final 3 games on the week of Easter. Home to San Jose, Away to Nashville, and home again to finish the season to St Louis, the only team with 100 points in the Western Conference to date, and their coach, Ken Hitchcock.

Find, if you will, the easy game in that 10. There isn't one. At Edmonton is the only game with a team not in the hunt, and we all know how crazy things happen up there. Squeak, squeak.

Below, please find the chart for how many points it takes to qualify for the playoffs since the lockout.

Year#1 Seed#8 Seed#9 Seed100 Pt Teams
05-06Det 114Col 95Van 924
06-07Det 113Cal 96Col 957
07-08Det 115Nas 91Van 883
08-09SJ 117Ana 91Min 894
09-10SJ 113Col 95Cal 907
10-11Van 117Chi 97Dal 953

HTML Tables

Numbers above are from a study found here.

So, it looks like 97 gets you in, while 95 usually does, and less than 95 will be tough. Whether that applies to this year remains to be seen, but as the Stars have 83 points with 10 to play, we can figure that they must win 6 games to get to 95 and 7 of the 10 to get to 97 points.

That means starting your streak tonight against Phoenix and placing the "must win" heading on all 5 of your remaining home games. Figuring you get 8 points out of 10 in those 5 home games, now you can narrow it to getting 5 or 6 more points out of 10 from those 5 hostile road games. Get 13 points and you are at 96. I think that will be the magic number.

Can it be done? Sure. But, I think most of the league is expecting Dallas to be one of the 3 teams that misses the cut. And why not? There is little track record for this squad, and the doubters will look at resumes.

They will need Kari Lehtonen to lead the way, a healthy and annoyed Sheldon Souray in the back, and Jamie Benn pulling a large load of the goal scoring. They will need pesky play from everyone wearing a jersey and a furious demeanor all 60 minutes. They can not afford to tip-toe into any of these games, especially tonight.

With every mis-step, doubt will creep in and the pack will catch-up. The nerves will be tested and the bums might squeak on their chairs.

It is cliche to say the playoffs start now, but they do. In fact, if the Stars don't win 6 or 7 of the next 10, the playoffs won't happen at all.

The stakes are high. But, this is why you played the first 72. Put yourself in a position late in the season to make a run. Well, they have done that. Now comes the tough part. Closing the deal.

Squeak much?

Some Questions And Answers About The Salaries Of The Cowboys Receivers

TC Fleming checking in real quick. Most of my sports curiosity these days comes from the fact that I work the board on weekends at the Ticket. I find myself listening to many hours of Ticket Saturday programming some weekends, and that's a really long time to talk about sports in the multi-topiced, quick-moving format they use on those shows. It's tough for those anyone to talk that long and not say a number of things that make me say "There's no way that's true." And then because I'm the sort of jerk who doesn't let things go, I spend an hour or two putting together the research that shows that, in fact, that point they made is not true.

The point this week? The Cowboys are devoting too high a percentage of their resources to their top two receivers to offer any sort of substantial contract to Laurent Robinson. For me, this breaks down into two questions: Relative to the other members of the NFL, how much are the Cowboys really paying for their two starting receivers? And, is Laurent Robinson's contract too rich to make him a third wideout?

To attack both of these, I made a chart that took each team and listed the top three highest-paid receivers on their roster. Then I found the average at each position:

1st WR2nd WR3rd WR
 $7,289243  $2,757,954  $1,787,659 

Looking at the first question, we can see the average for the salary of a team's top two receivers is $10,047,197. The Cowboys pay a little more than that, shelling out $10,526,857 for the services of Miles Austin and Dez Bryant. Looking at it a slightly different way, I'd like to show you where the Cowboys rank on a list of team's salaries of their top two receivers:

The Cowboys are precisely in the middle at 16. I think you can see that the average is weighed down a little by teams like the Rams and Dolphins that appear to not even be trying to field a professional receiver corps. Then again, maybe they're just trying to replicate the Steelers and Giants who have used strong drafting and development to pay very little for two of the better receiver groups around.

But I'm getting off track. The point is that the Cowboys spend an entirely normal amount on receivers. The Cowboys spend about a million more per year than is the average for the highest paid wideout on a team, and they pay Dez about $400k less than is average.

Ok, let's take a brief pause for a side inquiry, and then we'll get back to our primary subject. Is Miles worthy of being paid like he's an above-average number one option? It depends on how you look at it. There are 11 names ahead of him on the salary list for receivers. Of those 12, Austin has the lowest average for yards per season. Focusing in on that, one would be led to say he's not worth his money. He's got kind of a weird situation though. He entered as an undrafted free agent, so he took a little longer to develop/get his chance than most of the others on the list. But to look at it with more of a focus on upside, Miles has already had a season where he gained 1,320 yards. There are 6 of the 11 receivers paid more than him can't say that. Looking at only that aspect, you'd say he has quite the favorable deal. Combine the two perspectives and you have a hearty "maybe."

Getting back to the matter at hand, anyone who tells you the Cowboys focus too much of their funds on receivers has it wrong. They spend an entirely moderate amount. There are massively successful teams who spend considerably more on their receivers (the Patriots and Packers) and massively successful teams who spend considerably less (the aforementioned Steelers and Giants).

Now onto that second question, the one about whether or not any third receiver is worth the money Laurent Robinson got. Looking back at that chart, we can see third receivers are paid an average of about $1.8 million. That's about $5 million less than Robinson got. Laurent's contract would be the highest ever paid to a third receiver. After the (stupendously ill-advised) contracts the Redskins gave to Pierre Garçon and Josh Morgan, Santana Moss is now third on the Redskins at $5 million a year. Laurent sits at $6.5 million per. Third wide receivers just don't get enough opportunities to justify the sort of money Laurent proved capable of demanding.

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.

Friday, March 16, 2012

A Cowboys Week of Activity In Review

The NFL offseason is now cruising by at a rapid pace. The news brings new developments on a seemingly daily basis, and I have been scolded by many of my readers for not weighing in each day on the developments. I do, but usually do so on twitter (@sportssturm) and can only break out full-length blogs when time permits. And guess what? Today, time permits. So, let's catch up by starting with the decision to franchise Anthony Spencer and comment on everything that has happened since:

ITEM: Anthony Spencer franchised by Cowboys for $8.8m in 2012.

Take: By now, you know my position on this, I should hope. If not, read this and this. The short conclusion is that the Cowboys had no choice. Unlike those who stop thinking through the issue after they declare Spencer is not worth $8.8 million, the Cowboys had to ponder the idea of finding someone to play the position without using all of their offseason resources to do it. Again, you are over-paying Spencer. But, that is a payment toward the sins of not drafting properly. But, in March of 2012, you either throw him away and hope Victor Butler can handle things, or you pay your penalty and move on. I expect that he will be extended if the price can be seen to drop the 2012 cap hit to $2-3m, but perhaps they are willing to make him play with no security beyond 2012 and look to find his replacement during the season. Although that would require the ability to find and groom his replacement, and if they could do that, then they wouldn't be franchising him in the first place.

ITEM: Cowboys penalized by the NFL $10m for 2010 cap infractions.

Take: This is maddening on a number of levels and I think the league may ultimately issue some level of compromise. In the meantime, the Cowboys cash strapped environment will be tested further by these alleged infractions. Frankly, the assertion that the Cowboys and Redskins were "cheating" is ridiculous and perhaps their only infraction is that they did not participate in an unspoken level of collusion. Regardless, challenging the authority of Roger Goodell is not a successful hobby for very many people in the NFL, and the Cowboys might have been made an example. One really has to wonder about the timing of the ruling. For instance, if the ruling had come down 1 week earlier, I don't think the Cowboys would have made the same decision with the franchise tag. That isn't to say that they would have given up on Spencer, but they might have worked harder to get a 3 or 4 year deal that would have spread out his cap hit. But now, they tied up a ton of money in Spencer and had the NFL take much of the rest. Even if the decision by the NFL is a righteous one, there is little basis for the announcement of an infraction from 2010 being given the day before free agency opens. That almost seems cruel and unusual.

ITEM: Cowboys cut Newman, Buehler; non-tender Fiammetta, Ogletree, Holley

Take: These moves help the team open up cap room to do deals that we will get to in a moment. The initial cuts of Newman and Buehler are both easy decisions. As much as anyone can love what Newman brought to the table for much of his career, he was always paid to be an elite cornerback. And the fact is for much of his career he was not elite. With annual money near $500k per game, the decision to cut him loose was delayed a year when they could not find his replacement last summer. But, this year, they realized that paying a guy like Brandon Carr $10m hurts, but not nearly as much if you consider he costs only $2m more than Newman. Buehler should have been gone last summer, too, but Jerry Jones seemed to be reluctant to admit that mistake. As for the tenders, it seems extremely curious to cut ties with Fiammetta when you were only talking about a $1.24m tender. After finding his replacement in free agency, they likely only saved about 200k, so I am not too sure the point to that. On the other hand, after the $5m cap penalty in 2012, maybe every 200k matters. Ogletree and Holley are lower level players that should be easily replaced by a warm body in camp.

ITEM: Cowboys get their #1 free agent target, Brandon Carr - 5 year/$50.1m

Take: Brilliant work by the Cowboys to target a player, find him to be their guy, and then pounce at 3pm on the opening day of free agency to get a signature. Yes, it is more than they wanted to pay, but you will not find sales when you shop on the opening day of free agency. Here is my full breakdown of Brandon Carr from last week here and here. He was quite expensive, but he now gives the Cowboys a top corner who is really strong in press coverage. And that is important because your defense is predicated on corners who can press and be physical and that wasn't really the specialty of Newman against big receivers. Now, the Cowboys should be able to get in your face on the edges and send more blitzes to make the defense really click. And, given his age, you can feel really good about his upside for the next 5 seasons. It is a ton of money, but I like the move and more importantly, I like the Cowboys having a plan and accomplishing said plan.

ITEM: Cowboys lose Laurent Robinson to Jacksonville for 5 year/$32.5m

Take: Really, all you need to know here is that somebody wanted Robinson so badly that they made him an offer over $30 million. He was great for the Cowboys in 2011, but let's not get carried away. 850 yards is a great trick, but nothing special. In fact, well over 30 receivers in football had that number last season, and due to the run on receivers in free agency where Pierre Garcon was paid well over value, it bumped everyone up. Robinson won the lottery, but that doesn't mean the Cowboys should get in on this type of over-payment for a 3rd receiver. If you think that he is better than Bryant or Austin, then the problems are actually bigger than we thought. But, I have no problem with the Cowboys offering him a fair price (4 year/$16m) and then seeing the bidding going crazy and moving on. The only losers here are guys like Jordy Nelson who signed an extension early with Green Bay (3 year/$13.5 million) and then lost out on the free agency bonanza. Nelson must think he missed out on $50 million if he would have hit free agency given what Robinson was paid. Good for Laurent who was cut just a few months back and now has hit the jackpot, but the Cowboys - regardless of the cap situation - could not bid in that area for a 3rd WR.

ITEM: Cowboys sign FB Vickers, LB Conner, FS Pool, G Bernadeau, QB Orton in free agency

Take: This is a lot of activity for a team with no cap room. Let's keep in mind that none of these players were clear starters on their own team. Pool played full time due to injury on the Jets. Conner is a guy who can be a full timer if he can stay healthy. And the rest of the players will play part-time roles. Orton is a big price to pay for a back-up, but at the same time, the Cowboys are wise to be fortified behind Tony Romo with quality. I would imagine some of these moves tell us what we need to know about Stephen McGee (gone?), Bruce Carter (not ready) and the interior offensive line. I expect that guard/center becomes a real high priority in the draft now, as Carl Nicks was never in the price range if the Cowboys could only afford one premium free agent.

Summary: Quite a week for the franchise, with plenty of work yet to do. They have done a nice job with little money, but are they better? They have not done anything to the biggest weaknesses on the team - the pass rush and pass protection in the middle of the line - save for the improved corner play that they expect Carr to bring. But, it is just March 16, so they have some time to figure things out.

Interesting items and they have accomplished a fair amount. Now, we begin to ponder what they have ahead of them with plenty of work left ahead.