Mailbag: 6/10/10 (Slot WR, Second-Year Players, and RB Touches)
Q: Who will be starting at defensive end for the Cowboys in 2010? It seems Jason Hatcher or Stephen Bowen might be able to step into the starting lineup.
Martin Young, Ft. Worth, TX
A: Hatcher and Bowen played fairly well in 2009, but expect Spears to start again this season. Despite being labeled a “semi-bust” by fans and much of the Dallas media, Spears is an above-average run defender. He recorded zero penalties and a tackle on 4.11 percent of plays–second only to Igor Olshansky.
As a 3-4 defensive end, Spears came into Dallas with unrealistic expectations. No matter how well he plays, the numbers he can put up from that spot will never be “good enough.”
We have suggested the Cowboys continue to start Spears and Olshansky, replacing them with Hatcher and Bowen on passing downs. Since Spears is unlikely to be a Cowboy next year, the team could slowly transition either Hatcher or Bowen. Despite also being restricted free agents, both of those players are more likely than Spears to sign a long-term deal with the Cowboys, so you could see both acquire more reps as the season progresses.
For comparison’s sake, we provided Spears, Hatcher, and Bowen with nearly identical grades for their 2009 play.
Q: Miles Austin has been lining up in the slot during Cowboys OTAs. Do you think that is a legitimate spot for him? Is Patrick Crayton already out of three-receiver sets?
Damon Hill, Cleveland, OH
A: Don’t forget that Austin was lining up in the slot when Crayton was absent from OTAs. Now, the Cowboys have Hurd in the slot, as rookie Dez Bryant is sidelined with a minor hamstring injury. Crayton is running with the two’s.
Of course Crayton is not going to be below Hurd on the depth-chart, so his current demotion is due to his previous absence. You can probably expect Crayton to regain his position in the slot once training camp begins. Whether he retains that spot throughout camp, though, is a mystery.
As far as Austin is concerned, he certainly has the ability to be moved around the field. He lost about 10 pounds this offseason, so perhaps his improved quickness would make him a good fit for some slot duties.
Offensive coordinator Jason Garrett might be well-served to try a variety of players in different positions. The only player that really doesn’t have the skill set to play in the slot is Roy Williams. Other than that, you’d think that either Austin, Bryant, or Kevin Ogletree could pick up the nuances of lining up inside. Crayton has the edge in experience, but not in numbers.
Nonetheless, you’ll most likely see Crayton as the team’s opening day starter in the slot (assuming he isn’t traded or released).
Q: You published a poll asking us which Cowboys second-year player would have the biggest impact. Who do you think it will be?
Sharon Taylor, Eden Prarie, MN
A: Personally, I think Brandon Williams has the best shot to contribute in 2010. The reason is the nature of his skill set and the need for a reliable outside linebacker to relieve starters DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer of some early down work.
According to our stats, Ware and Spencer played 1093 and 1112 snaps in 2009, respectively. That is way too many for both players. If coach Wade Phillips decides to give either player a breather, however, it is unlikely to come on passing downs.
Thus, Williams has the edge over fellow second-year player Victor Butler, who is more of a pass-rush specialist. I think you’ll see Butler’s snaps remain steady (or even slightly decrease), while Williams’ should approach 200.
My selection of Williams is also related to limited opportunities for other “redshirt” players. Safety Michael Hamlin will compete for the free safety job, but that is Alan Ball’s to lose. Inside linebacker Jason Williams has a great shot at contributing in 2010, but he has to fight off second-rounder Sean Lee. John Phillips showed flashes last season, but with the addition of Dez Bryant, how many opportunities can we truly expect him to receive?
Q: Who is going to win Game 4 of the NBA Finals?
Marcus Gregario via Twitter
A: Lakers, of course.
Q: Marion Barber played almost all of last season with a torn quad. Does this, along with the great shape he is currently in, change how the coaches might plan to use him?
Adam Natal, Odessa, TX
A: I don’t think so. You will probably still see Felix Jones start and receive the most touches. However, I think the overall split could be closer to even than most people think.
We have suggested the Cowboys provide Jones, Choice, and Barber with 50, 30, and 20 percent of the touches, respectively. We’d love to see Jones start and receive two touches for every one of Choice’s, with Choice handling short-yardage duties and Barber taking third downs and the fourth quarter.
Of course, the touch distribution should be flexible. The “hot” player should receive the bulk of the touches in any particular game. If that results in a 33/33/33 split, then so be it. More likely, however, is that this method would optimize the ratio by season’s end, with the “best” running back earning the most touches.