The DC Times

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By Jonathan Bales

Seven Cowboys Who Need to Step Up in 2011

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Jonathan Bales

7.  Phil Costa

While I don’t agree with the release of Andre Gurode, I think Costa is ready.  He looked good in the preseason and should be an upgrade over Gurode in the run game.  Remember, despite the notion that Gurode’s strength was as a run blocker, I gave him a “D” in that category in 2010.  Instead of impacting the center position, Gurode’s release indirectly affects the guard position (as Costa probably would have started there over rookie Bill Nagy).

6.  Abram Elam

I didn’t talk much about Elam during the preseason, but I wasn’t impressed with his play.  I like his athleticism and on paper he appears to be a good fit, but I didn’t see the sort of range in coverage this team desperately covets from the safety position.  As of now, I am holding out hope that Rob Ryan knows Elam well enough to understand he’s a good fit here.  Either way, he’s a more vital cog in the defense than most realize.

5.  Sean Lee

In my 2010 Inside Linebacker Grades, I gave Sean Lee a “B-”–the highest grade of any inside ‘backer.  Lee beat out Bradie James and Keith Brooking in regards to tackles-per-play, missed tackle percentage, yards-per-attempt against, and yards-per-snap while in coverage (despite playing the majority of his snaps in passing situations).  He was underwhelming in the preseason, but I think you’ll see a really effective player in 2011.

4.  Felix Jones

Jones led Cowboys running backs in every significant category in 2010, which is why he received an 86.3% from me in my 2010 Running Back Grades.  Jones is the team’s best inside runner, outside runner, pass-catcher, and short-yardage runner.  His presence on this list is less about his talent and more about his health.  The Cowboys need Jones to stay healthy throughout the season to have any shot of making the playoffs.  DeMarco Murray looks promising, but the play-making ability of Jones cannot be replaced if he goes down.

3.  Tyron Smith

Smith is questionable this week against the Jets, and I think Dallas should sit him if he isn’t 100% ready to go.  This is certainly an important game, but not as important as Smith’s future health.  For a rookie, the Cowboys are leaning on Smith about as much as is possible.  He’ll be an upgrade over Marc Colombo from a year ago, and perhaps a significant one.  If Tony Romo has even an average amount of time to throw the football this season, this offense will be dangerous.  Smith and fellow bookend Doug Free are big parts of that.

2.  Mike Jenkins

After a 2009 season in which he received one of my highest grades, Jenkins regressed badly in 2010.  I gave him a 64.6% overall grade, including a D- against the run.  Jenkins allowed a 67.4% completion rate (higher than his grade, which is sad), six touchdowns, 11.17 yards-per-attempt, 1.07 yards-per-snap, and missed 12.9% of tackles.  The lack of pass rush certainly contributed to Jenkins’ struggles last season, but there is no doubt he needs to improve in a big way.  With Terence Newman currently down, Jenkins’ play is more vital than ever.

1.  Anthony Spencer

The player who just claimed he “mailed it in” at times in 2010 is perhaps the player the Dallas Cowboys need to improve the most in 2011.  Rob Ryan’s scheme should help some, as should the push from backup outside linebacker Victor Butler.  Look for Ryan to place Spencer, Butler and DeMarcus Ware on the field at the same time often this season, as well as create innovative looks that should help Spencer get to the quarterback.

I didn’t think Spencer’s 2010 play was atrocious, but it can undoubtedly improve (click here for 2010 Outside Linebacker Grades).  His success is strongly linked to the play of the secondary.  Maybe I’m being naive, but I think Spencer racks up double-digit sacks this season.

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7 Responses to Seven Cowboys Who Need to Step Up in 2011

  1. Tyrone Jenkins says:

    Good words JB

    I agree, I think Tyron Smith should sit if not 100%. This 1st game of this season should be looked at as the beginning of a 3 year ERA by which the Cowboys begin their journey toward a deep run in the playoffs. Short term payout of having him play now does not justify long term effects (effects to his body physically and emotionally) that might adversely affect his development by playing at 85% or so (emotional effects might just be greater than playing through the pain as just last year, we saw Mike Jenkins regress and just about everyone speculates the reasoning being mental).

    I think it’s a safe bet for fans, analysts, prognosticators, owners, coaches and even other players to expect a certain degree of decreased production from FJ due to injury EVERY year (whether it be him playing 16 games at less than 100% or missing a few altogether). It’s not his fault, he’s just not as durable. While I hope for the teams and my own sake I’m wrong, I certainly don’t EXPECT him to be completely healthy to a great extent (I think his durability would increase if he were used as a complementary/change of pace back but that is a different discussion). Overall, expectations of Felix Jones to be a 18 game / 1200 yard / 4.2 yards per carry / 45 reception / 350 yards rec /15 TD back are realistic under the current scheme.

    Agreed w/ Abe Elam but I’m still of the opinion that Dallas is going to have to look at drafting a stud FS next year. There’s really no way around it. Elam has never been considered to be more than slightly above average – perhaps he could be in a scheme other than Ryan’s but he’s not in that scheme. Him stepping up here and there looks likely as his play should at least “appear” to be better w/ the increased level of talent around him. However, Brian Dawkins or Ed Reed, he is not. With the current FA environment that just ensued and decent (not HOF but just decent) FSs like Weddle and Huff received upwards of 4-5 million a year, I see Elam as a cheap stop gap measure until a better/cheaper/younger option is secured. Step up from Elam encouraged but certainly a huge leap is not expected.

    I completely disagree w/ Spencer needing to step up – 2 reasons. One, I think Victor Butler will be the “answer” to the LOLB question if Spencer doesn’t and two, I think the greatest room for needed improvement on this team (outside of O line which you mentioned previously) is defensive line – more on that below. Spencer is well aware of what the expectations are and can hear Butler breathing down his neck. At the same time, he either has the ability/talent in him, or he doesn’t. I, for one, think he’s a fairly decent/solid player and the team would be fine w/ him there for the next 3-5 years. However, he’s not a break the bank type of guy. In a way, Spencer stepping up actually helps and hinders at the same time as he most assuredly would want more $ in his 2nd contract.

    On to Marcus Spears. He was, for intents and purposes, somewhat humiliated for the past 2 years in being tendered at less $ than other DEs even though he was drafted higher, he wasn’t sought heavily on the open market this year and he had to witness his backup receive a contract almost twice that value that he received. If any man needs to step up, be heard, put the smack down or bring the thunder – just on principle alone – this year, it is Spears. I wish the boy luck…

    Side note – Ratliff = 5 yr /$40 million (18 guaranteed). JB, I hope you write about this because I love Rat but think that was a fairly bad move by JJ.

  2. Tyrone Jenkins says:

    Oops, just proofread my work (JB, can we get an edit after post button please). Words about FJ are that “expectations of Felix Jones to be a 18 game / 1200 yard / 4.2 yards per carry / 45 reception / 350 yards rec /15 TD back are ‘NOT’ realistic under the current scheme.”

  3. john coleman says:

    1st regarding players stepping up-JB, I would have to say I’m with you on the 7 mentioned. I do think that step up is a little different term than what I would like in the cases of Smith and Costa. I prefer step in. Smith is in his 1st season, so it is what it is. Costa has already “stepped up” and outperformed Gurode to the point that Gurode was released. As a sidenote- I realize Gurode’s release also had financial reasons, but I feel he has been overrated for several years now. I also like Costa at C better than at G.( I feel good about either Nagy or Arkin at G, even more so than Costa being there.)

    Spencer- Not sure about the mailing it in comment? If I’m in charge and I find out about “Mailing it in” someone is going to get some extra shots. Followed by an offseason release. I am so sick of no heart! Maybe that’s why his play has always been almost. Maybe I’m misunderstanding the comment. Either way it is time for him to STEP UP or be gone.

    Jenkins-O yeah! After ducking hits last year and now a stinger that has caused him to miss the whole preseason, his toughness is definitely in question. Not to mention that he was just plain terrible last year. He too is in a make or break campaign, IMO.

    Lee-He just needs playing time and to stay healthy.

    Jones-He needs to get touches,stay healthy, and have his coach utilize quality players behind him to maximize his ability. With Choice, Tanner, and Murray we should have NO FEAR in regards to Felix. Each of those guys offer an element or two that are just as good as Felix. I believe he is already a different player with the departure of progress stopping Barber. BTW, Barber is injured for game one. What a shocker!

    Elam-I’m not sure what we are evaluating on him. I don’t feel we saw enough of him to make any assessment. I do know that barring a mistimed jump, he picks off McNabb on a TD throw. I believe it was he and Sensy. Looked to me that he was in the right place.

    Others- Scandrick has his shot and was given a shot of confidence with his extension. I look for him to be our best CB this season.
    Bryant-For all of the hype, Dez still seemed to be very raw last season. He WILL NOT be able to use pure athleticism to beat NFL CB’s week in and week out. In other words he needs to improve in the crispness of his route running. He has good hands and jumping ability. He also has quick feet when facing the opponent. (Punt returns) IMO he needs to be utilized more on slant type routes. He is not as effective when having to turn after the catch. Frankly, Miles is still our best wideout until proven otherwise. So Dez, hopefully, steps up.
    DL-Spears, Hatcher, Lissemore- Especially the first two vets, need to bring it. The success of the whole season depends on us not getting gashed bigtime in the running game and some reliable pressure from the DL/DE. Oops! Forgot Brent. Both he and Lissemore need to provide quality minutes. Wildcard- Geathers-I’m hoping we have a future player in him. It might also be noteworthy that we picked up a bigbody in Robert Callaway. He was cut from one of the deepest DL teams, so he could have potential.

    TJ- I largely agree with you and good comments. One thing I would like to take you and basically everybody else to task on is,”Who is the Stud we are going to draft?” I have taken a look or two at next years prosects and I’m underwhelmed. FS, CB, and ILB lack any eye catchers on paper. So we need to hope some guys rise to the top and that our scouts are watching. The 2012 class seems to have some solid QB prospects, if you include underclassmen. There is also a little depth at OT and DT. So you and others throw a name out you have in mind. I liked Kenny Tate last season, but somehow he went from 4.4 to 4.7 and from FS to DE/OLB. 4.7 is definitley not FS speed. For insight- The prospects are all smallish(5-10, 190) or slow(4.5-4.6). The are very few guys with good size/speed combinations. I mean 5-10 is a joke against Burress or Gates types. Look at the size/speed of Prime.(6-1, 4.3) Not saying that a player must be that, but very few are great otherwise. Guys like Revis possess at least one of those qualities.(speed and 5-11, so not too small, and is instinctual+he is a solid tackler) Ed Reed is another who possesses solid measurables, but excellent instincts and understanding of the game.

    I DO BELIEVE in the direction, and like what I see. I believe with the influx of new talent and old guys seeing that nothing is certain, that Garrett is in the early stages of restoring the Jimmy J era Cowboys. Now if he is just left alone to do his job. I hope it is no repeat of the Parcell’s era. The ship gets righted followed by the Admiral shoving crap down the Captains throat. I still give Parcell’s a lot of credit for our quality players that are vets. It is also obvious that our player evaluation is much different under Garrett. Some say JJ deserves more credit, but I say, Garrett was heavy handed in the draft and UDFA process. Look at the 2009 draft and how many are left. Look at what Houston has to look forward to.

    BTW, I say sit Smith as well, until he is 100%.

  4. Tyrone Jenkins says:

    Nice writeup JC. Couple players to watch:

    Dre McDonald (CB) – Alabama. 6’3″ w / 4.3 speed

    Janoris Jenkins (CB) – N Alabama. Stud CB who transfered from Florida due to drug/personal/conduct issues (not sure if JJ would go w/ this guy being not RKG)

    TJ McDonald (FS) – USC. 6’2″ 205 w/ 4.5 speed. Thorpe Award watch guy

    Bily Winn (DE) – Boise St. Big DT/DE prospect @ 6’3″ 295 and can add wt. Looks like solid 2nd round prospect for now…

    There are others – and there’s also the potential FAs for next year to keep in mind:

    LaRon Landry (FS); Darnell Dockett (DE); Rashean Mathis (CB) and many others.

  5. john coleman says:

    TJ- I saw Janoris Jenkins name on a scouting site but didn’t connect the dots. I thought the name sounded familiar. I’m must have missed the kid from Alabama also. Thanks for some imput. Solid comments from posters here is what makes it my favorite. Not to mention, that the article quality isn’t close. Generally speaking, there is an occasional rant, but almost always solid explanation.

  6. Knowbody Knowsbetta says:

    Hey Jonathan, how about your statement after the Jets game? Looks like most of your selections stepped up pretty darn well….

  7. Knowbody: Yes, they did, and it sure is encouraging for the future. Like I said, I don’t believe in “moral victories,” but I do believe we saw a lot of great signs for the future on Sunday night.

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