The DC Times

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

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

Dallas Cowboys Training Camp News and Notes: Who’s Hot and Not?

Ryan is a huge long-shot to make the final roster, but he has shown flashes of tremendous athleticism.  We’re still projecting the ‘Boys to retain both Crayton and Sam Hurd, however, in our latest 53-man roster prediction.  Bryant is the favorite to win punt return duties and would represent the largest upgrade at any position.

Coach Wade Phillips said, “He looked as good as any player at any position, on the first day, as anybody I’ve seen in a long time.  He’s got a lot of ability.”

Bryant was said to have arrived late to practices at Oklahoma State, so this was a good sign.  On why he came out so early, Bryant replied, “Just to show everybody that I’m ready. I’ve been away from the game a long time and I feel like me being out here early, I want [the fans] to know I’m ready.”

The Cowboys placed him on the Non-Football Injury list because he sustained the injury while not under the team’s supervision.  NFI is like the PUP (Physically Unable to Perform) list: a player can come off of it at any time but does not currently count as a member of the 80-man roster.

Hamlin has a long way to go to beat out current starting free safety Alan Ball.  We previewed the free safety battle a few weeks ago.

By Jonathan Bales

20 Dallas Cowboys Training Camp Pictures: San Antonio, Day One

Dallas Cowboys Training Camp: Day One, San Antonio
Photos Courtesy of mysanantonio.com.

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.

By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys Training Camp Battles, Part II: Marcus Spears vs. Stephen Bowen vs. Jason Hatcher

By Jonathan Bales

In the first part of my Training Camp Battles Series, I analyzed the nickel linebacker position.  Today, I will take a look at defensive end.

Coach Wade Phillips loves to rotate his defensive linemen.  The chart to the left displays the percentage of snaps each of the defensive ends played in 2009 (it adds up to 200 percent since there were always two ends on the field).

Notice that Igor Olshansky led the group at 62.8 percent of snaps, but that wasn’t even twice as much as the player with the least snaps (Jason Hatcher at 38.2 percent).  Marcus Spears, the starter opposite Olshanksy, played just slightly more (51.6 percent of all snaps) than  his backup Stephen Bowen (47.4 percent).

With Spears’ and Bowen’s snaps so evenly distributed, you could effectively call them starters 1A and 1B.  Spears is the run defense guy (53.2 percent of his snaps came against the run), while Bowen is the Cowboys’ pass-rush specialist at end (79.6 percent of his snaps came against the pass).

In case you are wondering, 50.5 percent of Olshansky’s snaps came against the run, while just 32.2 percent of Hatcher’s came in the same situation.

A lot of questions have arisen of late regarding this snap distribution.  Is it time to provide Bowen and Hatcher (Hatcher in particular) with more snaps?  Spears, Bowen, and Hatcher are all restricted free agents.  There is practically zero chance of the Cowboys retaining all three players, particularly with seventh-rounder Sean Lissemore waiting in the wings.

Spears is by far the most likely candidate to leave Dallas, and there still exists an outside chance he is traded before the start of the season.  If not, however, you can still expect a tremendous battle for playing time at defensive end during training camp.  Spears’ probable departure only adds to the likelihood of Bowen and Hatcher receiving more snaps.

In my view, it is time to transition Bowen and Hatcher into the lineup a bit more.  In our 2009 Defensive End Grades, Spears, Bowen, and Hatcher all received nearly identical grades (all around 80 percent).  If the Cowboys coaches also view the players as interchangeable (which appears to be the case), then it is time to slowly scale back Spears’ snaps.  Let the players who will be here in 2011 play now.

Scouting Reports

  • Marcus Spears

Spears has never gotten the credit he deserves because fans had unrealistic expectations for him.  As a run-stuffing 3-4 end, he was never going to put up big numbers.  He is an intelligent, hard-working player who still has a role in Dallas.  His lack of pure pass-rushing ability, though, will limit his 2010 snap count.

  • Stephen Bowen

Bowen is the player most likely to pilfer some of Spears’ snaps.  His sack and quarterback hit percentages led all defensive ends, so he will surely once again be the Cowboys’ nickel end.  If he can show he is capable of holding up against the run, he could steal Spears’ starting gig.

  • Jason Hatcher

Hatcher is a personal favorite of mine and a player I labeled as one likely to bust out in 2010.  Despite playing significantly less than the other defensive ends, Hatcher racked up the most quarterback pressures.  Pressures, in my opinion, represent a players’ future sack total better than any other statistic.  It wouldn’t surprise me to see Hatcher (assuming he receives enough snaps) rack up six to eight sacks this season.

Pros/Cons of Starting. . .

  • Marcus Spears

Spears is still fairly stout against the run, so he is by no means a liability for Dallas during early downs.  The problem is that everybody and their brother knows Spears won’t be in town in 2010.  If Bowen and/or Hatcher’s play is comparable, shouldn’t they get more reps?

  • Stephen Bowen

Bowen has a legitimate shot at starting, but he recorded only 13 tackles all of last season and played less than 100 snaps against the run.  Is he ready to hold up against the offense’s “big boys” during early down work?  How will that affect his pass rushing?

  • Jason Hatcher

Hatcher appears primed to break out as a pass rusher, but I have some doubts about his ability to consistently hold up against the run.  His tackle rate of 1.81 percent last year was the worst on the team.

Advantage

Right now, I’d give Spears the slight advantage as the projected starter.  As is the case with so many positions in football today, however, the label ‘starter’ really doesn’t mean much.  More crucial is snap distribution, and I think you will see that change in 2010.

Listed to the right is my 2010 defensive end snaps projection.  The big “loser” is Spears, who would see his snap count decrease by about 10 percent.

I think you’ll see Spears begin the season as the starter, again playing on only running downs.  Bowen may get substituted in a bit more to start, but I could see the initial 2010 rotation as similar to that of last season.

As the season progresses, you’ll likely see the playing time of both Bowen and Hatcher increase.  This is dependent on play, but the Cowboys are likely eager for both players to see more action, particularly on some running downs during which Spears would normally be on the field.

All of this could change with a spectacular camp from either Bowen or Hatcher, of course, making this an awesome battle to monitor this summer.

By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys Poll: Which training camp battle are you most excited to watch?