2011 team previews
About the Author
Recent posts by Eric Edholm
Jason Garrett convinced Cowboys officials — well, who are we kidding, he convinced owner Jerry Jones — to give him a shot after salvaging a 1-7 start and finishing 5-3 down the stretch.
There are elements of a 1-7 team, as well as those of a 5-3 club, on the current Cowboys roster, but there's no question that the prevailing thought is that the team underachieved last season and has the talent to rebound quickly.
How quickly? And how high up can it go? There must be some perspective. QB Tony Romo should rebound from his broken clavicle, and many of the offensive pieces are in place to score points. But there are concerns about the offensive line and several aspects on defense — despite the addition of well-respected Rob Ryan as the new coordinator.
Ryan has some mind-bending defensive concepts, just like his father, Buddy, did and just like his brother, Rex, has implemented with the Jets. But a complete defensive overhaul after last year's tumble in the rankings might be asking a bit much without a lot of improvement in the personnel. The team made few additions through free agency, was forced to cut players because of high salaries and realistically only will receive significant contributions from a few rookies.
Then there's Garrett. He has the look and feel of a coach, a CEO and a general all in one, but he must demand excellence and discipline — two things that sometimes went by the wayside under his predecessor, Wade Phillips. Jones expects nothing less, as do Cowboys fans.
Jason Garrett has a great knowledge of the passing game but has been accused of falling in love with throwing the ball too much. With good balance, the Cowboys could be a top-five offense — they ranked seventh in yards and tied for seventh in points despite Tony Romo missing much of the season — if the O-line shows improvement amid personnel changes there. The blocking fell off in 2010, which was a problem, but the defense also put the Cowboys in some compromising positions and they had to throw too often at times.
Quarterbacks:Tony Romo appears fully healed after missing the final 10 games with a broken clavicle. The time away might have been a strange blessing in disguise, as it allowed him to get away from the intense media and fan spotlight he lives under and watch a pro like backup Jon Kitna perform. Romo pressed at times last season as the Cowboys were losing, but he completed 69.5 percent of his passes, was good against the blitz and has an emerging skill-position pool to throw to if the protection improves. There's no reason to think he can't come back strong at age 31 and have a great season. Kitna probably bought himself at least another year with his leadership and performance, which was all the more impressive considering how long it had been since he had played in a game that mattered, with a 4-5 mark as a starter. No. 3 Stephen McGee stood tall in the final two games and gave the team the belief he could be the future backup.
Running backs: The Cowboys are moving forward with Felix Jones as the starter and Tashard Choice as the change-of-pace back, but don't forget about rookie DeMarco Murray. Jones has great quickness and finally showcased his skills as a receiver, but he appeared to lose a step after gaining weight prior to last season. He's best in space and in one-back sets, isn't great against stacked boxes and tends to wear down with more carries, which likely means Choice will retain a significant role. Choice lacks special skills but is versatile, extremely tough and hard-running and has a win-at-all-costs mentality. Choice also is a leader in the locker room. Marion Barber was let go because he was nicked up and his fierce running style had the edge taken off of it. Murray is in line to be the third back if he can stay healthy, but he could push Choice. Murray has very good skills but has fought injuries throughout his football life. FB Chris Gronkowski is an average plugger who must fend off seventh-rounder Shaun Chapas for one spot.
Receivers: No one questions the skill of Dez Bryant, who caught 45 passes in 12 games and appears set to replace Roy Williams in the starting lineup. What people worry about is Bryant's maturity, focus and attention to detail. So far, his bouts of immaturity off the field have been distracting, and the Cowboys worry he'll never buy into the program completely and figure out how to be a pro. If he can — as well as master the offense — there's no doubting Bryant's upside. He glides effortlessly in and out of breaks, can high-point the ball, run by bigger DBs and outmuscle smaller ones. And though his route tree was limited last season, expect it to expand — if he grows up. Miles Austin might be a good role model, but Austin must work on his consistency, too. His drops last season were far too frequent, as he was coming off an incredible 2009. Austin is fluid, fast and can set up defenders deftly, but he too often didn't look passes into his hands. That problem should go away. TE Jason Witten is the perfect foil to the wideouts: a humble, consistent and passionate possession and seam receiver who earns his catches and fights for his yards. Witten doesn't have fancy footwork or special speed, but he's deceptive and precise and gets in and out of his breaks well. Tony Romo also loves him, which helps. In addition, Witten is an able, hardworking blocker. Beyond them, there's little established, though TEs Martellus Bennett and John Phillips and WRs Kevin Ogletree, Jesse Holley, Manuel Johnson and Teddy Williams offer depth. Bennett showed signs of developing into an occasional threat, and Phillips was in line to be the second tight end as a key blocker before getting hurt last preseason. Even though Ogletree took a step backward last season, he has promise. The other receivers are unknowns.
Offensive linemen: This unit is in flux. The biggest question entering last season — OLT Doug Free — ended up being its most pleasant surprise. Free was guilty of too many false starts (seven) but was agile, smart and tougher than expected and re-signed for big money. He should be an anchor for the next few seasons, either at left or right tackle. First-rounder Tyron Smith has been penciled in at right tackle. He has great feet for the position and tremendous upside, but he must maintain his weight and prove he can handle complex blitz schemes. The contingency plan if Smith struggles is concerning because of the lack of depth. C Andre Gurode, coming off knee surgery in June, has been given a choice: take a pay cut or be cut. He has been voted to the Pro Bowl on reputation alone and has been outplayed by Phil Costa for a starting spot. Costa has shown promise in limited snaps, though his technique remains a bit raw. Montrae Holland, a reserve the past three seasons in Dallas, would be the left guard if healthy. But OL coach Hudson Houck loves the toughness of seventh-rounder Bill Nagy, who otherwise would be the shocking choice to start in Week One. Steady, sturdy ORG Kyle Kosier, who moves over from the left side to replace Leonard Davis, was re-signed to keep some continuity up front. The rest of the depth is frightening, especially at tackle. Fourth-round OG David Arkin has looked OK in camp.
Rob Ryan takes over a defense rife with potential, and his units traditionally attack, confuse and disrupt opposing offenses. He used creative, opponent-specific schemes in Cleveland and has sprinkled elements from his father, Buddy Ryan, as well as former boss Bill Belichick, into his unique approach. Rob Ryan operates out of an odd front but will veer quickly from the 3-4 alignment at a moment's notice. He will stand up and drop nose tackles into coverage, rush six on one play and two the next, and he likes to make opposing quarterbacks process as much information on the fly as possible. With better talent than he had in Cleveland, Ryan could get this defense back to its earlier form.
Defensive linemen: Many have been quick to jump on NT Jay Ratliff for a somewhat down season, but Ratliff is exactly the type of versatile penetrator who should thrive under Ryan, and he has slimmed down in the offseason. Ratliff can play the edges and slant into gaps. He's as good laterally as he is upfield, and he can take over games. But Ratliff's run stopping did drop off, so it will be interesting to watch that area of his game as he approaches the age of 30. Expect Ryan to use him in multiple spots. DRE Igor Olshansky's play also fell off, and he could lose his job to Kenyon Coleman, who followed Ryan from Cleveland. Losing Stephen Bowen up front hurts the pass rush, but the Cowboys brought back Marcus Spears and Jason Hatcher as base guys. Green backups Sean Lissemore and Josh Brent must be investigated more, especially Brent, who could handle the nose for 15-20 snaps per game. He's strong and sturdy, although his motor can run hot and cold.
Linebackers: Imagining DeMarcus Ware in the hands of Rob Ryan gets everyone excited. Even last season, when Wade Phillips played a far more conservative brand of the 3-4 defense, Ware was terrific. Every season, he seems to add new arrows to his quiver, continually improving against the run and — in the handful of times a game he's asked to drop — in coverage. As a pass rusher, there are few, if any, better. He bends the edge, crosses tackles' faces in a blink and can drive through chips and double-teams. Ryan has never had a rusher as talented as Ware, who might be in line for his best season yet. With his emotion, motor and heart, Ware is a rare beast. On the other side, Anthony Spencer's pass-rush flash flamed out, though he remains an elite run defender. Expect Ryan, as well as the motivation for a new contract, to light a fire under Spencer and a return to his 2009 production. If not, Victor Butler or second-rounder Bruce Carter could push Spencer. Butler has been one of the stars of camp, lining up in multiple techniques, and Carter adds elite athleticism, if he is healthy. ILB Keith Brooking dropped off in '10, and he likely will give way to Sean Lee, an emerging playmaker. But there is a place for Brooking's heart and leadership in a reduced role. Health is Lee's biggest question. He has the smarts and athletic ability to be a standout at the weak ILB spot. Bradie James gets sludged in traffic at times but can sniff out run plays well. His limitations are in coverage, and he might be starting a slow decline, though he's still useful, solid and respected. Brandon Williams is a limited reserve who has yet to flash much.
Defensive backs: The problems at safety were glaring, but they shouldn't mask the CB issues. Terence Newman had one of his worst seasons and was said to be a poor influence on Mike Jenkins, who regressed from Pro Bowler on the verge to disappointing enigma. Newman remains the starter on the left side, but he's turning 33, was beaten deep far more often than in recent memory and became a target for opponents. Jenkins showed elite playmaking skills in 2009 but became lazy and interference-happy, playing with poor technique and an indifference for tackling. Deion Sanders could get away with that; Jenkins cannot. Both starting corners have health issues, too. Newman's groin is a concern, as he has missed most of camp; he might not be able to play in Week One. The steadiest corner was Orlando Scandrick, who spent most of his time in the slot. He might get a shot outside if the health concerns continue with Newman and Jenkins. CB Bryan McCann made a few head-turning plays but needs refinement. Alan Ball was a bust at free safety and was moved back to corner. Taking his place is FS Abram Elam, a heady player who can make a big play or two. Expect him to become a leader in the secondary. SS Gerald Sensabaugh returns even though he was only so-so. He can support against the run but is a below-average NFL starter. Unheralded backups Akwasi Owusu-Ansah, Barry Church and Danny McCray are mainly special-teamers but could end up in the mix.
The Cowboys were wrong about the FG kicking of David Buehler, and the team now has an unheard-of four kickers (including Buehler) on the roster. Don't be surprised if undrafted rookie PK Dan Bailey steals the job, but veteran Shayne Graham signed late and could make a push. P Mat McBriar is a pro's pro who continues to work on his craft. He can boom balls just as easily as he pins them down along the sideline or up against the goal line. Dez Bryant showed outstanding punt-return ability but might not see as many chances with more reps coming on offense. He broke his ankle against the Colts this way, and Jason Garrett might be leery to expose him more. Bryan McCann could prove to be a nice kickoff returner if he keeps improving, but Akwasi Owusu-Ansah also will get a crack. The punt coverage was good, but kickoff coverage was poor last season.
The Cowboys have question marks, but they are in the upper half in the league in terms of talent and could get a boost from Jason Garrett's discipline and Rob Ryan's imaginative schemes. The healthy return of Tony Romo and a slew of talented skill-position players should ensure that they will score points, but concerns remain on the offensive line and in the secondary. The playoffs are within reach after a down season, but this is not an elite club just yet.
To order the digital edition of Pro Football Weekly's 2011 NFL Preview magazine, visit the PFW Store. The publication contains scouting reports on all 32 teams, rosters, depth charts, positional grades and 2010 week-by-week stats. Also, the magazine includes PFW's exclusive player rankings feature, ranking the top players in the league by position and overall.