Q: The Colts waived Curtis Johnson right before the 2009 season started and Dallas claimed him. All year long it was reported that he was trying to heal from an injury to his leg, so he was inactive for much of the season. But, the Cowboys still kept him around. Is he that special? He must be for them to go short all season long while carrying him on the active roster. Can you give us some insight into this player? Thanks!
Edward Toerner, Lafayette, LA
A: Johnson was undrafted in 2008 before signing with the Colts. Dallas claimed him one day after Indianapolis released him last season, so they obviously had a lot of interest.
Johnson is undersized for a 3-4 outside linebacker, even though he played defensive end for the Colts. He has been working to add a little bulk, and he has the right body frame to be able to add some quality weight.
The key for Johnson will be if he can maintain his speed after adding the weight. He ran a 4.60 forty-yard dash coming out of Clark College, so if he stay in that 4.6-4.7 range, he has a chance to be a special player. He will likely have to be a pass rush specialist to start, particularly because he doesn’t have much experience playing in a two-point stance. Even if he only rushes and never drops into coverage, it can be a difficult transition from 4-3 defensive end to rushing from a stand-up position.
The other problem for Johnson is the depth Dallas has at outside linebacker. Of course Ware and Spencer start, but the team also drafted Victor Butler last season. Still, things can change quickly with an injury or two, and the Cowboys obviously see enough potential in Curtis to keep him around.
Q: When Marion Barber became the full-time back, I read that the coaching staff was trying to tweak his running style in order for him to take less punishment since he was getting the bulk of the carries. Do you think this has anything to do with his performance since becoming the full-time starter and is he still trying to run “smarter”? I say set the Barbarian loose!
A: We detailed the decline of Barber’s 2009 production in our Running Back Grades segment, but it is unlikely that his struggles are due to a change in running style. The coaches wanted him to avoid unnecessary hits in situations where gaining any further yards is highly unlikely. You always want your players to give 100 percent on each play, but sometimes going down on purpose or running out of bounds on a dead play is the smartest decision. In a way, this is truly giving 100 percent, because a player is implementing his intelligence to make a decision which is smart for both him and the team.
Quarterback slides are another example of this. Sure, quarterbacks could get another yard or two by not sliding, but that isn’t the smart play. Running backs are a bit different, but sometimes it is best for the team for Barber to just go down.
If there is a part of Barber’s running style that has contributed to his decline, we believe it is the league’s crackdown on stiff arms to the head of the defender. A few years ago, using jabs to the defender’s head was a big part of Marion’s game. Since this move has been made illegal, Barber’s production has decreased, although we can’t be completely sure how strong the two are correlated.
Overall, though, Barber’s struggles are probably due to a variety of factors. Perhaps a return to the “closer” role Barber performed so well in during the days of Julius Jones may serve him well.
Q: How much do teams alter their draft boards based on Combine numbers?
Fred Jennette, Phoenix, AZ
A: This really varies based on the team. The Oakland Raiders are well known for taking players who excel at the Combine, i.e. Heyward-Bey over Crabtree. Other teams don’t pay any attention to the Combine workouts unless a particular number really jumps out.
The teams which consistently draft the best seem to not overreact to workout numbers. Generally, these teams will rank players into tiers based on their game film. The film is used for about 90 percent of the evaluation. They will then move players around within a tier based on their numbers.
For example, if the Cowboys have both Golden Tate and Mardy Gilyard graded evenly, they may move Tate ahead of Gilyard based on the drastic difference in their forty-yard dash times. Thus, the Combine creates no drastic changes on a team’s board, but simply sorts out the order of players within the same tier. Game film will always rule, as it should.