Mailbag, 7/30/10: Dez Bryant Rookie of the Year?
Q: According to your film study, who was the most improved Cowboys player last season?
Nicholas Florentino, Amarillo, TX
A: The easy answer is wide receiver Miles Austin, and you really couldn’t go wrong in selecting him. He had a touchdown rate of 8.7 percent (tops on the team) and dropped only 2.2 percent of passes thrown his way. Who knows where Dallas would have ended up had Austin not broken out in Kansas City in Week Five? Check out my 2009 Wide Receiver Grades and a breakdown of Austin’s catches for further proof of his dominance.
Austin certainly improved in 2009, but a lot of his success was due to increased opportunity. The most improved player, in my opinion, was outside linebacker Anthony Spencer.
Spencer, who was in coverage more than any other outside linebacker at 14.9 percent of snaps, racked up the most tackles of any outside linebacker in the league (67). He also missed only 6.5 percent of all tackles–better than DeMarcus Ware. Spencer’s .055 hits-per-rush also led the NFL and nearly doubled Ware’s rate. These are all reasons I graded him so well in my 2009 Outside Linebacker Grades.
Having said that, Spencer is a candidate for an even bigger year in 2010. He has a legitimate shot at racking up 15-20 sacks. Look for him to be a Pro Bowler this season.
Q: Who has had the best training camp so far?
Aaron Stamps, Los Angeles, CA
A: I’ll give you an offensive player and a defensive player. On offense, it has to be rookie Dez Bryant. I hate to hype this kid up even more, but he deserves it right now. His work ethic and on-field attitude have been phenomenal. Bryant’s refusal to carry Roy Williams’ pads made headlines, but that issue seems to be squashed for now.
I looked at a little homemade practice film of Bryant (below)and did a quick scouting report on him. He has shown tremendous speed out of breaks and incredible hands. I believe he has yet to drop a ball to date. He has been able to separate from cornerbacks, including Mike Jenkins and Terence Newman. He needs to work on his release against press coverage, but so far, he appears to be the real deal. He’s Vegas’ favorite to win Rookie of the Year.
On defense, outside linebacker Brandon Williams has shown why the ‘Boys selected him last season. As far as reps, he is really a rookie. He was able to become comfortable in the scheme last year (from a mental standpoint), though, so now he can just go out and play.
Coach Wade Phillips has even compared Williams to Ware on more than one occasion. If he keeps it up, he will be the primary backup behind Ware and Spencer and could see 15 snaps a game.
Q: Which players have underperformed the most so far in training camp?
Adam Reich, Houston, TX
A: I’ll again give you two names, both on defense. The first is second-year inside linebacker Jason Williams. Williams has looked a bit lost and has had some trouble recognizing routes. He has exceptional athleticism and certainly has all the tools to get the job done, but rookie Sean Lee is currently the favorite to win nickel linebacker duties.
You also won’t want to hear this, but free safety Alan Ball has been just mediocre. It isn’t that Ball has performed extremely poor, but rather that he has yet to make many big plays. Meanwhile, second-year player Michael Hamlin and undrafted rookie Barry Church have both played quite well.
The good news is that secondary coach Dave Campo has said Ball has been in position and the big plays will come. Having released veteran Ken Hamlin due to his lack of game-breaking ability, however, Ball needs to step it up.
Q: Will the Cowboys duplicate their No. 2 overall defensive rank from last season?
A: I’m going to say no, but that may not be a bad thing. The reason is that, with such am emphasis being placed on creating turnovers this season, the Dallas defense could yield more yardage than last season in an effort to get the ball back for the offense.
The extent to which this philosophy is successful will be determined by how many extra yards they give up compared to how many extra takeaways they garner. If they can force 10 more turnovers while only yielding 10 extra yards-per-game, I think the coaches would be happy with that.
Overall, their final ranking will come down to their ability to limit big plays by the offense while still making some of their own. Do I think they’ll be in the top two again in terms of yardage? No. Do they have the requisite talent to be there? Of course. Will any of that matter if they are top five in takeaways? Probably not.