The DC Times

A New Way to Look at the Cowboys, NFL, and Fantasy Football

By Jonathan Bales

Dallas Cowboys 53-Man Roster Projection

Jonathan Bales
With roster cuts on the way, I wanted to take a final stab at the Cowboys’ 53-man roster.  There are a lot of tough decisions for Jason Garrett this season, making the 53-man roster even tougher to project than in other years.  Garrett has already shown the ability to make gutsy calls, sitting or cutting underperforming players.  The release of Andre Gurode was a recent surprise.  Don’t be shocked to see more unconventional moves in the next few days.
QB
1. Tony Romo
2. Jon Kitna
3. Stephen McGee
Analysis: This is one of the few positions which is easy to predict.  Romo, Kitna and McGee will enter the season as the Cowboys’ three quarterbacks.  McGee has improved tremendously this preseason, capped off with a 21-for-25 performance last night.  He has convinced me he is, at worst, the backup quarterback of the future in Dallas.
RB
1. Felix Jones
2. Tashard Choice
3. DeMarco Murray
4. Phillip Tanner
Analysis: Felix Jones is the clear cut No. 1 back, and for good reason.  Expect Garrett to utilize Jones far more this season, as the tailback is physically and mentally prepared for a heavy workload.
With Murray and Tanner’s lack of experience, I think you’ll see Choice stay on the team.  It doesn’t appear as though he will be traded, and you can’t release a player who projects to be your No. 2 running back (to start the season, anyway).  Choice’s possible increase in touches would justify his lack of special teams play.
Jerry Jones recently stated Tanner is a lock to make the roster, and that’s the right move.  If the ‘Boys placed him on the practice squad, he would be picked up in a heartbeat.  There is only a slight chance that the Cowboys enter the season with a running back combination different from this one.
FB
1. Shaun Chapas
Analysis: This position is perhaps the most difficult to predict this season.  You could make a case for Chapas, Chris Gronkowski and Jason Pociask.  Gronkowski has experience in the offense and offers some value as a receiver out of the backfield.  Pociask gives the team flexibility with his ability to play on offense and defense, and we know Garrett values versatility quite a bit.  Still, I think Chapas will be the guy to do his lead-blocking ability and the fact that Dallas spent a draft pick on him.
TE
1. Jason Witten
2. Martellus Bennett
3. John Phillips
Analysis: The two questions here are 1) Has Martin Rucker done enough to make the roster? and 2) Will Phillips overtake Bennett as the No. 2 tight end?  I vote no to both.  Rucker doesn’t offer enough upside to keep a fourth tight end, and Bennett is still one of the most underrated players on the team.  In my 2010 Tight End Grades, I once again showed how effective he is as a blocker.  I actually think he’s superior to Witten in that department.
WR
1. Miles Austin
2. Dez Bryant
3. Kevin Ogletree
4. Dwayne Harris
5. Jesse Holley
Analysis: Austin and Bryant are options 1A and 1B this season.  I think you’ll see them receive a similar number of targets.  Ogletree and Harris are battling for slot receiver duties.  I think Garrett will side with the veteran to begin the season, but I predict Harris will overtake him as some point this year.  The fifth receiver spot is still up in the air.  Promising undrafted rookie Raymond Radway may have had a legitimate shot at making the team before breaking his leg last night.  I think Holley’s evolution as a pass-catcher and added special teams value has his roster spot safe.
OT
1. Doug Free
2. Tyron Smith
3. Jermey Parnell
4. Sam Young
Analysis: Free and Smith are obviously locks.  Parnell has surprised me in the preseason and I’m surprised more people aren’t talking about him.  I think he deserves to be the primary backup offensive tackle.  He has played on the left side so far, but he would probably move to right tackle if either Free or Smith went down (with Smith kicking to left tackle in the event of an injury to Free).
G/C
1. Kyle Kosier
2. Phil Costa
3. Bill Nagy
4. David Arkin
5. Montrae Holland
Analysis: The first four players are secure, I think, with Holland’s competition coming primarily from center Kevin Kowalski.  Kowalski has a shot since Costa is down right now, but don’t forget Kosier can move to center.  Thus, I think you’ll see the Cowboys side with Holland’s experience due to the lack thereof from Nagy and Arkin.
DL

1. Jay Ratliff
2. Marcus Spears
3. Kenyon Coleman
4. Jason Hatcher
5. Josh Brent
6. Sean Lissemore

Analysis: The big question here is whether or not Igor Olshansky will get cut.  I think it happens, although I mentioned in my Defensive End Training Camp Battle article that he could theoretically get some snaps at the nose.  Nonetheless, there are cheaper options on the roster who can probably provide more pressure than Olshansky, including Lissemore and even Clifton Geathers.  I think you’ll see Dallas try to sneak Geathers onto the practice squad, though.
OLB
1. DeMarcus Ware
2. Anthony Spencer
3. Victor Butler
4. Alex Albright
Analysis: Will the Cowboys cut Brandon Williams?  He has underperformed and Rob Ryan has no loyalty to him, so it looks likely at this point.  The only thing Williams has going for him is the lack of sensational prospects behind him, but I still think Albright offers more upside.
Will Butler push Spencer for the starting job?  Either way, expect Butler to play more snaps.
ILB
1. Bradie James
2. Sean Lee
3. Keith Brooking
4. Kenwin Cummings
Analysis: The only thing saving Brooking, in my opinion, is the fact that rookie Bruce Carter will start the season on PUP.  Otherwise, I think you’d see the veteran get released.  Cummings will probably beat out Orie Lemon for the final inside linebacker spot since the latter player has a hamstring injury.
CB
1. Mike Jenkins
2. Terence Newman
3. Orlando Scandrick
4. Bryan McCann
5. Josh Thomas
6. Mario Butler
Analysis: Most people have Alan Ball making the team due to his ability to play both cornerback and safety, but what is the point of retaining versatility if it comes in the form of a player who is mediocre at both positions?  Ball might be superior to Thomas and Butler right now, but he offers much less upside.
Thomas and Butler are far from locks, however.  Thomas has been dealing with a hamstring injury and Butler’s undrafted status means the Cowboys won’t feel like they “wasted” a draft pick if they cut him (although picks are already sunk costs and should really have no bearing on future decisions, in my opinion).  Either way, I think six cornerbacks will make the roster due to the abundance of ailments affecting the players at the position.
S
1. Gerald Sensabaugh
2. Abram Elam
3. Barry Church
4. Akwasi Owusu-Ansah
Analysis: This position is very hard to project after Sensy and Elam.  Church and AOA are battling Danny McCray and Andrew Sendejo for the final two roster spots, although five safeties could make the team.  In my opinion, Church is safe due to better performance at the safety position than the other three.  McCray and Sendejo offer special teams ability, and the value of Owusu-Ansah’s return skills is diminished with plenty of other return men on the squad.  Still, I’m just not sure Dallas is ready to give up on him, although I may just be naive due to my fascination with AOA.  Sendejo is practice squad material.
Specialists
1. Mat McBriar
2. L.P. Ladouceur
3. Shayne Graham
4. David Buehler
Analysis: This won’t be popular to most of you, but I think there’s a legitimate shot the Cowboys keep two kickers.  Garnering touchbacks is more valuable than most realize, and Buehler is the only kicker on the roster who can do that on a consistent basis.  Unfortunately, he can’t kick straight. . .kind of a big deal for a placekicker.  Graham, Dave Rayner and Dan Bailey are all battling to kick field goals.  It would be tough to enter the season with a rookie kicker, and Rayner may have blown his shot with an 0-for-2 performance last night.  Thus, I think Graham is the guy.

By Jonathan Bales

Dallas Cowboys Training Camp Battles, Part III: Tashard Choice vs. Phillip Tanner vs. Lonyae Miller

Jonathan Bales

Click here to read Part I or Part II of the “Training Camp Battles” Series.

Despite not playing a single down all preseason, rookie DeMarco Murray’s roster spot at running back is obviously safe.  With Felix Jones set to be a bit of a workhorse this season, the Cowboys’ final running back will likely need to play special teams.  One of the contenders–Tashard Choice–doesn’t particularly enjoy playing special teams.  Of the other two options, one (Lonyae Miller) has run tentatively in the preseason, while the other (Phillips Tanner) has been outstanding.  Let’s break down the cases for each player. . .

  • Tashard Choice

Choice had an up-and-down 2010 season, finishing with a C+ (78.9%) overall grade.  In my 2010 Running Back Grades, I graded Choice as follows:

Short-Yardage Running: B-

Choice’s sample size of 10 short-yardage runs isn’t enough for those stats to mean much, so we have to judge his performance with film.  To me, Choice did just an average job on short-yardage in 2010, but I think he’s a better player than what his numbers indicate (70.0 percent conversion rate).  He doesn’t have incredible explosiveness, but he always seems to be either elusive or strong enough to adequately perform his job.  Still, Choice’s yards-after-contact and broken tackle numbers need to improve.

Overall Running:  C-

Again, I don’t think Choice’s numbers match up with his actual ability.  I think Choice is the type of player who performs well as he becomes accustomed to the flow of the game.  He needs some time to get going.  Is that ideal?  No, but it does appear to be the case.

When Choice has received that extra playing time in the past, he’s done well.  He’ll never be a feature back, but I certainly believe he can be a very productive No. 2 option.  He’s solid in every aspect of running back play, but will Garrett even want him around in 2011?

Receiving:  B-

Choice is a natural pass-catcher.  Again, he’s not flashy and won’t take a screen pass 60 yards to the house, but he will consistently put himself in position to convert first downs.

Pass Protection:  B

I think Choice regressed just a bit in his pass protection this season.  He really struggled in the preseason, but he got it cleaned up (for the most part) during the regular season.  I attributed one sack and three pressures to Choice.

Choice has been a productive player for the Cowboys when given snaps, but Jason Garrett doesn’t like that Choice won’t play special teams (and for good reason).  As a No. 3 back, it should be a given that special teams duties are in your future.

If the Cowboys cut or trade Choice, they could be in some trouble.  Rookie DeMarco Murray is a true unknown at this point, and it would be quite risky to have No. 2 and No. 3 running backs with zero NFL experience behind a starter who has an above average chance of getting injured.

Thus, I think you’ll see Choice either get traded or make the final roster.  If Garrett can get a mid-round draft pick for him, he’ll probably pull the trigger.  If not, I don’t think Choice will be released and he may even enter the season as the No. 2 running back.

Running: 5

Receiving: 7

Pass Protection: 7

Special Teams: 0

Total: 19

  • Lonyae Miller

Miller has been awful in the preseason.  Outside of a pancake block on Sunday night, he has been poor as a runner, receiver and pass protector.  No. 3 running backs need to do a variety of things well, and Miller doesn’t do any of them at a particularly high level.  He’ll play special teams, but again, that should be a given.

Running: 2

Receiving: 3

Pass Protection: 4

Special Teams: 5

Total: 14

  • Phillip Tanner

Tanner has been one of the biggest surprises for Dallas this preseason.  He has run with power and explosiveness, highlighted by his breakout performance on Sunday night.  He kind of reminds me of a young Marion Barber, but with a lot more wiggle.  He’s not afraid to lower his pads and hit a defender in the mouth, but he can run around them too.  You know that kind of attitude will translate well to special teams.

Tanner’s biggest con is his lack of experience.  The Cowboys know what they have in Choice and even Miller, but Tanner’s uncertainty might scare off Garrett.  If Jones gets injured and Murray isn’t as advertised, what happens if Tanner isn’t what we saw the other night?

Running: 8

Receiving: 6

Pass Protection: 6

Special Teams: 7

Total: 27

Conclusions

So far, I have been assuming the Cowboys will retain just three running backs.  That is standard practice, especially with so many potential fullbacks and tight ends on the team.  Of course, you want to keep as close to the best 53 guys on the team as possible, and if four running backs deserve to be on the squad, then they should all make it.

If Tanner continues to play as he did Sunday night, I don’t know how Garrett will cut him.  It would be a bonehead move to try to sneak him onto the practice squad, in my opinion, because a running back-hungry team will scoop him up in no time.  His presence on the roster would lead to too much inexperience at running back, however, so I think he should be the fourth running back–behind Jones, Murray and Choice.  Unless Miller can suddenly learn to kick field goals with great accuracy, he isn’t making this team.

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By Jonathan Bales

Dallas Cowboys Training Camp Battles, Part II: Kenyon Coleman vs. Jason Hatcher vs. Igor Olshansky

Jonathan Bales

Click here to read Part I of the “Training Camp Battles” Series.

I was rather shocked when the Cowboys failed to secure a rookie or high-profile defensive end this offseason.  The ‘Boys did bring in Kenyon Coleman from Cleveland, and his numbers against the run were far superior to those of the Dallas defensive ends in 2010.  You can read why I think that was the case in my article on if the defensive ends can generate enough pressure in 2011.

After letting Stephen Bowen walk in free agency, the Cowboys are currently left with Coleman and Marcus Spears currently starting at defensive end (Coleman replaced Igor Olshansky on the first team yesterday), with Jason Hatcher and Olshansky on the second team.  Clifton Geathers and Sean Lissemore round out the position.

As of now, it looks as though either Coleman or Olshansky will be starting in 2011.  It is very possible that Coleman simply got the nod this week because he is more familiar with Rob Ryan’s defense and just to get some time with the ones.  If Olshansky does regain his starting gig, it will be tragic.  Olshansky has shown to be awful against the pass and, despite being known as a “run stopper,” rather mediocre against the run as well.  In my 2010 Defensive End Grades, I gave Olshansky a 70.2% overall grade.  He secured the worst sack and hit rates of any defensive end on the team.  Actually, Olshanksy failed to record a sack during any of his team-leading 574 snaps.

In my grades, I had the following analysis of Olshansky’s 2010 play:

Run Defense:  C

You wouldn’t know it from all of his celebrations, but Olshansky took a big step backwards in 2010.  His tackle rate was way down from 2009 and he simply wasn’t in on a lot of plays.  Olshansky’s average play against the run means this “run-stuffing specialist” needs to be out of Dallas next season.

Pass Defense:  D-

Olshansky was never incredible as a pass-rusher, but his inability to generate any sort of pressure makes it way too easy for the opposition to pass on first down.  Zero sacks in 574 snaps is debilitating to a defense.

Now, it wasn’t as if Hatcher was lighting it up either.  You can see had only two sacks, two hits, and a pressure rate that was barely better than Olshansky’s.  That is particularly poor news because Hatcher played more snaps against the pass than Olshansky.  Still, I think we can all agree that Hatcher undoubtedly offers more upside than Olshansky as a pass rusher.  With NFL teams passing more and more on early downs and Rob Ryan allowing the defensive ends to freelance more this season, Hatcher seems like the logical choice to start over both Olshansky and Coleman.

But why not Coleman?  He had 54 tackles in Ryan’s scheme last season and a 9.5% tackle rate.  The problem with starting Coleman is that a similar player is already playing on the opposite side of the line in Spears.  If the ‘Boys fail to stop the run as they did in their preseason opener, however, that might be the defense’s only option.

If Olshansky is still on the team by the start of the regular season, why not give him some snaps at nose tackle?  His lack of pass rush skills would be less of a liability inside, and it would allow Jay Ratliff to give the defensive end position a much needed boost.  Also don’t rule out Geathers receiving some snaps this year.  He’s a talented player who is having a solid preseason, and he could be a contributor if someone ahead of him goes down.

In the end, though, I expect the defensive end snap breakdown to go something like this (assuming the defensive ends play a total of 1,700 snaps):

  • Marcus Spears: 600
  • Kenyon Coleman: 400
  • Jason Hatcher: 400
  • Igor Olshansky: 300

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By Jonathan Bales

Dallas Cowboys Training Camp Battles, Part I: Anthony Spencer vs. Victor Butler

Jonathan Bales

In last year’s “Training Camp Battles” Series, I analyzed the Cowboys’ most intriguing positional battles heading into the season.  I’m continuing the series this year with a matchup that might not even be much of a competition.  It has kind of been assumed in the past that Anthony Spencer’s starting job is secure, and that Victor Butler, Brandon Williams and company are all competing to garner snaps behind Spencer and DeMarcus Ware.  Perhaps it is because Spencer is a former first-round selection, or maybe the Cowboys think his run-stopping ability is far superior to his backups, but it needs to end.  And it needs to end in 2011.

With new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan in Big D, I think there is finally a legitimate shot of Butler unseating Spencer from the starting strong-side outside linebacker position.  With Ryan’s version of the 3-4 defense calling for multiple pass-rushing linebackers on the field together, Butler at least figures to see far more than the 157 snaps he saw in 2010.  But even 300 snaps is not nearly enough for a player who, in my opinion, should be starting opposite Ware from Week 1.  Here is why. . .

In my 2010 Outside Linebacker Grades, I provided Butler with a 89.9% and Spencer with an 84.6% (for the record, Ware received a 94.0%).  My grades are obviously based on efficiency as opposed to total production, but the gap between Butler and Spencer, in terms of pure efficiency, was rather vast.  You can see to the right that Butler’s sacks-per-rush were over twice that of Spencer.  With only 157 snaps, though, I think sacks are a poor indicator of Butler’s play.  The same can be said for hits, which are perhaps even more fluky than sacks.

In my view, quarterback pressures are the best determiner of a pass rusher’s worth.  Of course you want a player who can bring the quarterback down once he reaches him, but past sacks have been shown to be a worse predictor of future sacks than past pressures, i.e. despite being less valuable in games, pressures are “more valuable” than sacks in statistical analysis.  Butler’s pressure rate of .118 is incredible–even better than that of Ware.

But what about Butler’s run-stopping ability?  He’s a pass-rush specialist, some argue, and his numbers are inflated due to an increased percentage of snaps against the pass.  Errrntttt. (Like a buzzer.  Like at the end of games, ya know?  Like I’m saying the hypothetical Butler “hater” is wrong in his assessment of Butler’s efficiency.  Whatever.)

On the contrary, Butler actually played the highest percentage of snaps against the run of any outside linebacker in 2010.  39.5% compared to Spencer’s 38.6%.  Good numbers for us, because it makes the statistics of the two players very comparable.  You can see Butler’s production against the run is arguably superior to that of Spencer.  He recorded a tackle on 7.6% of his snaps in 2010, compared to 5.6% for the former Purdue Boilermaker.  And oh yeah, Butler also didn’t miss a single tackle.  Spencer missed six.

Some might argue that we should expect Butler’s stats to be superior to Spencer’s because Butler’s lack of sizable snaps means he is always at near-100%.  Efficiency numbers might be a poor barometer of value because we should expect the players who receive the most snaps to get a little tired and see at least a small decline in play.

That is certainly the best argument in favor of Spencer retaining his starting job, but it is also in some ways irrelevant to Butler.  He has played incredibly while in the game, and that’s all he can do.  At the very least, it is the job of the coaches to make sure the players who are performing at the highest level receive the most playing time.  Butler’s 157 snaps in 2010 is a joke.  DCT readers knew before the 2010 season began that Butler was a rising player (dare I say potential star?) who deserved more snaps.  Actually, just prior to the season I wrote:

Victor Butler will play close to 250 snaps and will record at least five sacks.

The kid has shown he is ready for more playing time.  There’s no way Coach Phillips wants DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer playing 1,100+ snaps again this season, so either Butler or Brandon Williams will have to step up.

Butler was phenomenal in the preseason, particularly against the run (and we know he can get to the passer).

So why didn’t Butler get the snaps in 2010?  Unlike Wade Phillips, I think Rob Ryan has the guts to sit a veteran in favor of a more productive player.  At the very least, he should increase Butler’s snaps until the production and efficiency of both players (combined) is maximized.  At that point, the Nash equilibrium of outside linebacker production will be reached.

Think of it like this: as Butler’s snaps increase, his production will, at some point, decline (due to fatigue, increased attention from the offense and so on).  Once his efficiency declines to the point of Spencer’s, the Nash equilibrium will be reached.  Although neither player’s individual production will be maximized, the overall efficiency of the outside linebacker position will be at its peak.

When you have an All-World player like DeMarcus Ware, the Nash equilibrium is shifted to Ware playing as many snaps as possible, i.e. a tired Ware is better than anyone else.  Spencer isn’t Ware.  When he is tired, he needs to come out of the game.  Ryan should shift the snap count of Spencer and Butler until the ‘Boys reach their Nash equilibrium of outside linebacker production.  I have a strong feeling that equilibrium would result in Butler receiving the majority of snaps.

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By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys Training Camp Battles, Part VIII: David Buehler vs. Himself

Jonathan Bales

In the first seven parts of my Training Camp Battles Series, I analyzed the future of the nickel linebackerdefensive end, free safetyleft tacklewide receiver, tight end, and cornerback positions.

Today, I will analyze the oft-overlooked, yet extremely critical kicker position.  A couple years ago, I conducted a study on the importance of kickers. I found that the difference between a 70 percent kicker and a 90 percent kicker is about one extra win per year–a pretty big deal in the context of a 16-game season.

Thus, it is imperative for the Cowboys to secure a reliable kicker, whether it David Buehler or somebody else.  The inherent lack of season-to-season stability at the position could mean Buehler is the right guy for the job.

Recently, however, Peter King reported the organization seems “worried, really worried” about the kicker position.  Veterans John Carney and Matt Stover are still free agents.  King believes the ‘Boys will sign one of them by Week Three of the preseason if Buehler doesn’t show he can handle all kicking duties.

As of now, however, Buehler’s only true competition is himself.

Scouting Report

I’ve never really scouted a kicker, but Buehler must be the most athletic one in NFL history.  He ran a 4.57 forty-yard dash at 6’2”, 222 pounds and performed 25 reps on the bench press.  That would be an impressive weight/strength/speed combination for a running back, much less a kicker.

None of that really matters if Buehler is to be the Cowboys’ placekicker, of course.  Obviously he has a ton of leg, leading the NFL in touchbacks as a rookie.  His issue will be accuracy (as is the case with just about every NFL kicker).

Perhaps being an athlete will help Buehler in his quest for accuracy.  Kicking is as much (or perhaps more) mental as it is physical, and Buehler, as an athlete, has the confidence and mindset to rebound from a miss.  Anyone can get on a roll, but the best kickers don’t allow previous misses to negatively impact future kicks.

Pros/Cons of Using Buehler at Placekicker. . .

The biggest advantage to using Buehler for all kicking duties is the “extra” roster spot that would be saved.  Buehler will make the squad as a kickoff specialist whether he tanks field goals or not, so the addition of another kicker would mean the disappearance of a positional player.

On the bright side, Buehler can again participate on the coverage units if he is retained solely as a kickoff specialist.  In this way, Dallas wouldn’t be losing a full roster spot–more like half of one.

Advantage

I predicted Buehler would win all kicking duties in my last 53-man roster projection.  I am not as confident in him now as I was then, however.  He is certainly on a short leash.  If he performs perfectly in preseason, he should retain his job.  The first sign of trouble in either the preseason or start of the regular season, though, would likely result in the Cowboys signing a veteran and moving Buehler back to kickoff specialist/special teams ace.

By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys Training Camp Battles, Part VII: Martellus Bennett vs. John Phillips


By Jonathan Bales

In the first six parts of my Training Camp Battles Series, I analyzed the future of the nickel linebackerdefensive end, free safetyleft tackle, wide receiver, and cornerback positions.

Today, I will take a look at the current battle between tight ends Martellus Bennett and John Phillips for the No. 2 job behind starter Jason Witten.  Recently, offensive coordinator Jason Garrett seemed to indicate that the competition for the second tight end spot is quite open.  He said there will be “healthy competition” at every position and when referring to Phillips, Garrett claimed:

Every opportunity he gets, he seems to make the catch, make the block, do the little thing that helps our football team. He did that really all throughout last year in a limited role, and he has a little bit more of a role with Martellus out here the first four or five practices. He’s doing it. It’s not always flashy, but he always seems to make the block or make the catch or do something that helps our offense.

With Bennett currently sidelined due to an ankle injury, Phillips has stepped up.  On Monday, he had what Jason Witten labeled “his best practice ever,” followed by perhaps an even better performance on Tuesday.

Will the less flashy second-year man be able to overtake Bennett for the backup tight end spot?  Let’s take a look at the scouting reports.

Scouting Reports

  • Martellus Bennett

Bennett may still need to mature off of the field before he can flourish on it.  He isn’t a bad kid by any means, but he sometimes does boneheaded things.  He’s even led me to question if Dallas would be better off without him.

On the field, Bennett is actually a little underrated (at least in terms of blocking).  Take a look at what I wrote about him in my 2009 Tight End Grades:

Blocking:  B+

Despite the general consensus among fans that Bennett had a horrible 2009 season, he actually performed quite well as a blocker.  It is ironic that such an athletic player has developed faster as a blocker than a pass-catcher, but perhaps the way in which Witten goes about his business is rubbing off on Bennett.

Like Witten, though, we’d like to see Bennett’s penalty count decrease.  Yes, it is difficult for tight ends to often block larger defensive ends, but a few of Bennett’s penalties were offensive pass interference.

Receiving:  C-

Bennett obviously regressed as a pass-catcher in 2009.  He caught only 51.7% of balls thrown his way, and just 15/21 on-target passes (71.4%).  Bennett doesn’t have poor hands, so we think this was due more to a lack of concentration than anything else.

Bennett is dangerous after catching the ball (4.8 yards-after-catch-per-reception–wow, that is a lot of hyphens), so the key to his 2010 success will be mastering the mental aspect of the game so he can let his athleticism take over.

  • John Phillips

Also from my 2009 Tight End Grades:

Blocking:  C-

Phillips’ pass-blocking sample size (only 26 snaps) is too small to draw meaningful conclusions, but not so for his run-blocking sample (126 snaps).  In a study I performed on the effectiveness of fullback Deon Anderson, I compared Anderson’s stats to those of Phillips.  What I discovered (listed below) was that Phillips was far inferior to Anderson as a blocker, at least out of the backfield.

The Cowboys averaged nearly two more yards-per-carry with Anderson in the game as compared to Phillips, and, surprisingly, .2 more yards-per-pass.  Phillips’ rookie play was a pleasant surprise in 2009, but he has a long way to go before he can be considered a dominant blocker.

Receiving:  B-

It is tough to grade Phillips as a receiver because of his limited sample size (only seven regular season catches).  Rather than use purely statistics, this grade is based more on what I saw from Phillips on film.  He displayed good route-running ability and solid hands (zero drops and a natural receiver).  He averaged an impressive 6.6 yards-after-catch and showed he is capable of being an adequate runner after receiving the football.

Pros/Cons of Starting. . .

  • Martellus Bennett

Bennett is more athletic than Phillips and offers a higher upside.  He has the potential to be an outstanding all-around tight end.  The problem is that he suffers from frequent mental lapses and has yet to cash in on that potential.

Bennett’s skill set makes him more of an in-line tight end/slot player.  He can be split out wide and, although he struggled there last season, possesses the ability to play as a sort of “big receiver.”

The addition of Dez Bryant means the Cowboys will likely use more three-receiver sets and spread formations, though, so Bennett’s snaps could be limited.  After all, who would you prefer line up outside for the ‘Boys on 3rd and 7:  Bryant or Bennett?

  • John Phillips

Like Bennett, Phillips can be moved around the field.  He will not flourish out wide, however, and is even inferior to Bennett as an in-line tight end at this time.  Phillips does have the ability to play as an H-Back (a tight end/fullback hybrid), however, which Bennett really does not.  This could be of use to a Dallas offense that figures to be more spread out in 2010.

Some have been predicting the Cowboys might even retain no true fullback, using Phillips at the spot when needed.  However, as I stated above, Phillips has a long way to go as a blocker, so expect Deon Anderson to hold onto his job–for now.

Advantage

The Bennett/Phillips battle is an interesting one due to the varying nature of their skill sets.  Bennett is currently a much better blocker and has the ability to succeed out wide, but the addition of Dez Bryant could make the former trait less valuable (if the team is in less two-tight end sets) and the latter irrelevant altogether.

Right now, Phillips is making up ground on Bennett, but he is also competing just as much with fullback Deon Anderson for playing time.  I believe Anderson is the superior blocker, but Phillips obviously offers more athleticism as a legitimate pass-catching threat.

Once Bennett returns from injury, it will be interesting to see how offensive coordinator Jason Garrett splits up the tight ends reps.  You can probably expect Bennett to regain his No. 2 gig.  Don’t think for a second the coaching staff doesn’t value his blocking ability.

Bennett is on a much shorter leash this year than in the previous two, however, meaning an outstanding preseason from Phillips, particularly as a blocker, could win him the job.



By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys Training Camp Battles, Part VI: Roy Williams vs. Dez Bryant

By Jonathan Bales

In the first five parts of my Training Camp Battles Series, I analyzed the future of the nickel linebackerdefensive end, free safety, left tackle, and cornerback positions.

Today comes the battle most fans think of as “the big one”–veteran Roy Williams versus rookie Dez Bryant.  I have yet to speak to a fan who doesn’t believe that Bryant and Miles Austin are the future of the Cowboys’ wide receiver position.  If Dallas’ roster decisions were simply a popularity contest, Williams would have been out of Big D awhile ago.

Nonetheless, Williams truly does appear to have a new attitude this season.  He’s been brash.  He’s been talkative.  He’s been conceited.  A few months ago he said:

“Dez Bryant wants to play.  The only way he is going to play is to get No. 11 off the field, and that’s going to be tough to do.”

Sound a bit different from the ’09 version of Roy Williams?  I explained in a previous article why this isn’t a “new” Roy Williams, but instead, we are finally obtaining a glimpse of the “old” Roy Williams–the University of Texas variety.

The quote came just a few weeks after I begged Williams to do whatever he can to regain his “swag. When your team drafts the consensus number one receiver (in terms of pure talent) just months after a breakout season by a young receiver who figures to be in Dallas for quite a few years, you have no choice but to come out swinging.  What does Williams have to lose?

Williams is supremely talented, but in 2010 we will discover if he is a true champion.  If so, Bryant will have to fight like hell to win the No. 2 receiver job.

Scouting Reports

  • Roy Williams

Make no mistake about it–Roy Williams struggled badly in 2009.  I gave him a “D+” in my 2009 Cowboys wide receiver grades.

We all know the sort of routes Williams is comfortable running: ins, digs, slants, posts, i.e. routes where he can catch the ball in stride and get moving downfield.  He actually has fairly good speed once his engine starts running.

Despite the recent drops, Williams also has some of the better hands in the NFL.  He made circus-like catches game after game in Detroit (with few drops), meaning his current struggles are more mental than anything.

Williams’ biggest weakness is a lack of quickness which inhibits his ability to effectively run routes which invoke a quick stop, such as comebacks and curls.

Like I said earlier, Williams should really not worry about his on-field ability for now and concentrate on regaining his confidence.  If he does that, he has a legitimate shot at holding onto his job–for now.

  • Dez Bryant

Taken from my original pre-draft scouting report on Bryant:

Bryant is an absolute beast. There is simply no other way to put it. He is ranked No. 10 in our latest Big Board, and he is only that low due to concerns about his attitude and work ethic.

Bryant is a bit of a mystery to us. He does bone-headed things like show up to his Pro Day with no cleats or (allegedly) arrive late to games. However, one look at the guy lets you know he is a hard-worker. Everybody knows Bryant can play–the question teams must answer will be how much he loves football.

On the field, we are confident in saying Bryant is every bit as talented as Larry Fitzgerald when he left Pitt. That is a gigantic statement, but this kid has gigantic game. His game tape and production are off the charts. He displays top-notch hands and run after the catch ability.

We loved Michael Crabtree coming out of Texas Tech last year, and we will tell you there is really no comparing him to Bryant. Bryant is superior in every aspect of the game–he runs better routes and is even more dangerous once he gets his hands on the ball.

Bryant recorded varying forty times at his Pro Day–from 4.52 (which he ran twice) to 4.68. We are unconcerned about that number. He plays as fast as any receiver in this class and we have yet to see him get caught from behind.

Again, every concern about Bryant is an off-field issue. If he can prove he has the requisite attitude and work ethic to succeed in the NFL, there is simply no way he drops to the Cowboys.


Pros/Cons of Starting. . .

  • Roy Williams

Williams has experience in the Cowboys’ system (even if he has yet to excel in it) and will have an immediate leg up on Bryant due to his knowledge of the playbook.  Don’t forget Williams is a naturally gifted pass-catcher who can be a big-time red zone threat.  He scored seven touchdowns last season despite hauling in just 43 total catches.  He’s also a darn good blocker (he’s not a devastating hitter, but Williams uses his size and excellent body position to open lanes for the backs).

On the downside, the Cowboys may be stunting the growth of Bryant if they hold him back this season.  Everybody and their brother thinks Bryant is the future for Dallas out wide, so why wait?

  • Dez Bryant

The biggest pro of starting Bryant immediately: upside.  The kid could struggle in 2010, or he could be amazing.  If the latter is the case, opposing defenses simply won’t have enough players to effectively stop Bryant, Austin, Witten, Jones & Co.  And as large of a red zone threat as Williams may be, Bryant is even better.  He has perhaps the most polished ball skills of any receiver coming out of college since Larry Fitzgerald.

Bryant’s inexperience does make starting him a risk, however.  He also figures to be dynamite on returns, but his time there could be limited if he is starting opposite Austin.

Advantage

This battle is different from previous ones in that both players can be on the field at the same time.  I explained a few weeks ago why the Cowboys should run more three-receiver sets in 2010.  You can probably expect to see both Williams and Bryant on the field together quite a lot this season.

As of right now, though, Williams is the starter.  Most NFL pundits believe Bryant will overtake him by the start of the season, but I wouldn’t be so sure.  The preseason will be vital for Williams, but if he can make a few plays (and avoid any drops), I wouldn’t bet against him opening the season as the starter.

I’ve been vocal in my support for Williams thus far this offseason, so I won’t stop now.  In reality, it is simple for the former UT star:  if he plays consistently well in both the preseason and regular season, he will retain his job.  If not, he won’t.



By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys Training Camp Battles, Part V: Doug Free vs. Alex Barron


By Jonathan Bales

In the first four parts of my Training Camp Battles Series, I analyzed the future of the nickel linebackerdefensive end, free safety, and cornerback positions.  I gave slight edges to Sean Lee, Marcus Spears, Alan Ball, and Bryan McCann in winning each job.

Today, I will address the left tackle position.  K.C. Joyner of ESPN recently wrote an interesting piece on how the diminishing salaries of left tackles show that NFL teams are now placing less emphasis on the quarterback’s blind side.  I tend to agree, and perhaps the Cowboys’ release of Flozell Adams in favor of the unproven Doug Free shows they do as well.

In addition to Free, remember the Cowboys also traded first round bust Bobby Carpenter to St. Louis for Alex Barron.  Barron has loads of skill but, like Carpenter, has yet to consistently utilize it on the field.

Scouting Reports

  • Doug Free

Free is the opposite of what the Cowboys generally seek in an offensive lineman–a fact that could lend insight as to the organization’s offensive mindset and philosophy moving forward.  He is somewhat “undersized” (as far as Dallas’ linemen go), but extremely athletic.  Free did well (but not outstanding) in pass protection last season (I gave him a “B-”) and his quick feet should aid him in his transition to the left side.

On the other hand, Free isn’t particularly dominant in the run game (here are Free’s 2009 run blocking grades).  He is the “anti-Flozell Adams,” meaning the ‘Boys may be transitioning to a more athletic offensive line to combat the pass protection problems which arose in Minnesota during the playoffs.

I gave Free a “B-” overall grade, ranking him at No. 19 on my list of 2009 Cowboys grades.

  • Alex Barron

Barron’s skill set is similar to that of Doug Free.  He probably has more natural ability than Free (having been a first round pick), but potential means nothing without production.

The biggest knock on Barron has been his penchant for penalties (particularly false starts), but I completed an interesting study detailing why false starts, although annoying, are not as costly as they seem.

In my comparison of Barron and Flozell Adams, I gave Barron a “C+” overall grade for his 2009 play.  He has appeared eager to get to work thus far in offseason activities, and if he can finally maximize his potential, he could be a real asset to Dallas.

Pros/Cons of Starting. . .

  • Doug Free

Free has experience with the offense.  Although he has yet to play on the left side of the line, his skill set makes him (on paper) a good fit to protect Romo’s blind side.  Free isn’t going to dominate in the run game, but he is probably (at this point) a safer pick than Barron.

  • Alex Barron

Barron’s upside is incredible (even more so than that of Free).  Like Free, he probably won’t be as efficient in the run game as ex-Cowboy Flozell Adams.  Barron must limit his penalties, but his natural ability is outstanding.  Perhaps a change of scenery is just what the former Florida State Seminole needed.

Advantage

Overall, I like the Cowboys’ situation at left tackle.  It is the primary reason I wrote an article on why the Cowboys were smart to not trade for Jammal Brown.

As of now, Free’s experience in Dallas gives him the advantage to win the job.  The Cowboys obviously have a lot of confidence in him as they released Adams and did not address the tackle position until late in the draft.

I listed Doug Free as a player who will break out in 2010, but Barron is an X-factor.  His presence is a great thing for Free, as both players know that poor play will result in no play.

Normally, the loser of this battle might become the “swing tackle” (the backup at both offensive tackle positions), but I don’t see the Cowboys using Barron on the right side.  Instead, Free may be a rare “starting swing tackle”–the starting left tackle who would move to right tackle in the event of an injury to Marc Colombo.  In that scenario, Barron would step in as the starting left tackle.

As of now, expect Free to win the starting gig in camp (although Barron’s talent makes this a battle to monitor closely).  You can almost label Barron as starter 1B, however, as an injury to either offensive tackle position could force him into the starting lineup (even if he isn’t a swing tackle).


By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys Training Camp Battles, Part IV: Gordon vs. Wall vs. McCann


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By Jonathan Bales

In the first three parts of my Training Camp Battles Series, I analyzed the future of the nickel linebacker, defensive end, and free safety positions.  As of now, I would give a slight advantage to Sean Lee, Marcus Spears, and Alan Ball in winning those jobs, although Spears will surely see some of his snaps taken by Stephen Bowen and Jason Hatcher.

Today, I will address the cornerback position (namely, the fourth cornerback spot).  Mike Jenkins, Terence Newman, and Orlando Scandrick have the top three spots nailed down, but with the frequency with which NFL teams run four and five-receiver sets, the ‘dime’ cornerback (fourth CB) is becoming an increasingly vital position.

Further, in my opinion, the fourth cornerback with actually be the last cornerback on the roster.  In a previous article I wrote:

Only four cornerbacks in this day and age? The reason behind my prediction is that the Cowboys will have two safeties on the roster (Alan Ball and rookie Akwasi Owusu-Ansah) who will be able to play cornerback. In a way, the team will really have six cornerbacks on the roster even if they only list four at the position.

It is the versatility of Ball and AOA that will allow the ‘Boys to retain just four true cornerbacks.  If that turns out to be the case, who will be the guy?

The job will really be a three-way battle between veteran Cletis Gordon, sixth-round pick Jamar Wall, and undrafted rookie Bryan McCann.

Scouting Reports

  • Cletis Gordon

Gordon is a personal favorite of coach Wade Phillips.  He is perhaps the most versatile of all three cornerback candidates, possessing the ability to return kickoffs.  In fact, it is this ability which prompted me to initially project Gordon to make the 53-man roster.  After the Cowboys drafted return aces Dez Bryant and AOA, however, Gordon’s return skills have became less imperative to the ‘Boys.

  • Jamar Wall

Wall is a physical player who has faced top-notch competition at Texas Tech (including Michael Crabtree in practice).  He doesn’t possess game-breaking speed or play-making ability, however, which is a trait for which the Cowboys’ brass is looking.  He struggled badly with footwork and change of direction in offseason practices.

  • Bryan McCann

McCann is the opposite of Wall: not physically overpowering, but a tremendous athlete with great speed.  He is more of what the Cowboys generally seek in a cornerback.  He has play-making ability and, up to this point, has probably played the best among the three candidates.

Pros/Cons of Keeping. . .

  • Cletis Gordon

Gordon offers NFL experience and return ability.  Rookie Dez Bryant is certainly capable of returning kickoffs, but it is more likely he will stick to punt returns, leaving just AOA, Kevin Ogletree, and Felix Jones to man kickoff return duties.  Jones will probably be off of returns completely and AOA is still injured, meaning Gordon’s return ability can still hold value to Dallas.  On the flip side, the upside of retaining Gordon is not as great as with Wall or McCann.

  • Jamar Wall

The Cowboys used a draft pick on Wall, so he probably has a slight advantage over Gordon and McCann in the event that they all play evenly (even though the coaches probably wouldn’t admit it).  He offers a physical presence in the secondary which is all but absent right now, but he won’t do much to contribute to the defense’s lack of takeaways.

  • Bryan McCann

Of the three cornerbacks, McCann is the fastest, most athletic, and (most importantly) has the largest play-making ability.  He can also be used on returns in a pinch.  He needs to show he can be physical (proper press technique and solid tackling ability) in training camp to make the squad.

Advantage

This battle will truly be one of the closest on the entire team this season.  All three players have a legitimate chance to make the roster.  In my latest roster projection, McCann was the choice (switching from Gordon in the initial version).

As of now, I would rate the chance of each player making the roster as follows:

  • Bryan McCann: 50 percent
  • Cletis Gordon: 30 percent
  • Jamar Wall: 20 percent

During training camp, each player will have to display he can improve upon his weaknesses to increase his opportunity of making the roster.  McCann needs to show physicality, Gordon must prove his experience is vital to the team, and Wall needs to demonstrate improved coverage ability and ball skills.

By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys Training Camp Battles, Part III: Alan Ball vs. Michael Hamlin


By Jonathan Bales

In the first two parts of my Training Camp Battles Series, I analyzed the future of both the nickel linebacker and defensive end positions.  As of now, I would give a slight advantage to Sean Lee and Marcus Spears in winning those jobs, although Spears will surely see some of his snaps taken by Stephen Bowen and Jason Hatcher.

Today, I will take a look at the oft-mentioned free safety position.  After a whirlwind of rumors that the ‘Boys would address the free safety spot via the draft or free agency, the position now seems to belong to Alan Ball.  Michael Hamlin is lurking in the shadows, however, and the coaches love his upside.  Is it possible that the second-year man swoops in to nab the job?

Scouting Reports

  • Alan Ball

The Cowboys cut free safety Ken Hamlin this offseason for one reason–he did not make enough big plays.  The team wants (needs?) a ball-hawking free safety, and Alan Ball might just be that guy.  Ball has been primarily a cornerback during his career in Dallas, so you know he can cover.  In fact, we gave Ball the highest coverage grade (B) in our 2009 Safety Grades.  You can see Ball’s statistics to the right and below.

The issue with Ball will be his tackling ability.  Ken Hamlin wasn’t exactly Ronnie Lott in the secondary, but he was still far superior to Ball last season.  Actually, Ball missed 22.2 percent of all tackles he attempted.  As the last line of defense on most plays, Ball doesn’t have to be a hard hitter, but he does need to be a sure tackler.

  • Michael Hamlin

Hamlin is really a giant question mark right now.  He got injured last year and fans have yet to obtain a glimpse of his skills.  The coaches, however, rave over his talent.  As of now, it is likely that he is worse than Ball in coverage but a better tackler.

Pros/Cons of Starting. . .

  • Alan Ball

The largest “pro” of starting Ball is the increase in coverage ability.  He allowed just a 45.0 percent completion rate in 2009 at free safety, the best number on the team.

There is also some upside with Ball.  He played last season during Ken Hamlin’s absence, but not enough for the team to truly gauge his full potential.  Right now, he is a huge risk/reward player.

That same high risk/high reward characteristic can also be considered a negative.  The Cowboys are loaded with talent and ready to make a championship run right now.  Perhaps a more steady, reliable player is what they need. . .or perhaps not. . .

  • Michael Hamlin

The “unknown” factor that accompanies Ball’s game is doubled with Hamlin.  Nonetheless, despite his age, Hamlin has more experience than Ball at free safety, having played it at Clemson.

Again, the mystery surrounding both players can simultaneously be viewed as a pro and a con.  Perhaps Hamlin’s (likely) superior tackling ability will put him over the edge if the players perform to a stalemate in camp.

Advantage

Right now, Ball holds the obvious advantage over Hamlin.  He played the position last season and is probably the main reason the Cowboys did not address the spot during the draft or free agency.  At the very least, the team believes one of the players–whoever it is–will step up and become a solid starter.

Hamlin isn’t so far behind that he can’t win the job during camp.  If Ball struggles and Hamlin shows he is ready to go, expect him to be provided the starting gig.  If Ball proves he can be counted on in run support, however, his coverage skills are unlikely to suffer enough for him to lose the job.