Sunday, July 31, 2011

Observations from Training Camp

I made a trip down to San Antonio yesterday to get a look at this year's team. It was a very long practice but the first hour was devoted to allowing the younger players and rookies to get some extra work. Saturday's afternoon practice was the first full pad practice of the year.

Once the full practice got under way it was amazing to see the difference between a Jason Garrett run practice and a Wade Phillips run practice. There was no wasted time this year. No one stood around joking or laughing. Everyone was there to work. Everyone ran from drill to drill. And you could tell that players were worn out by the end of practice. Based on what I witnessed I would expect the Cowboys to be one of the most well conditioned teams in the league this year.

All of the offensive and defensive lineman were wearing knee braces. I remember that Bill Parcells required all lineman to wear braces when he was the coach. I don't know if Garrett is going to require braces for the entire season but I do like the injury protection especially this early in training camp.

I won't be the least bit surprised if the Cowboys enter the season with a new kicker. Dan Bailey from Oklahoma State looks like the real deal. He went 5 for 5 during the team portion of practice and all his makes were right down the middle. He doesn't kick the ball nearly as hard as Buehler but I'll take accuracy over distance any day at this point. Buehler went 4 for 5 during the team drills but his kicks always just seem all over the place.

Dez Bryant is a freak of nature. Miles Austin is no slouch. But there is a noticeable difference between the explosiveness of Dez with the ball in his hands and any other player on the team. And Dez seems to catch everything with ease. The Cowboys are lucky to have a 1-2 punch at receiver as skilled as Miles Austin and Dez Bryant.

I think Kevin Ogletree is ready to step into the #3 receiver role. He looked the best I have every seen him look at practice. His routes were crisp and he was making great catches all day long. Seeing him operate really put my mind at ease in terms of the #3 receiver. Dwayne Harris, the rookie from East Carolina, has great hands but he needs to work on his routes because he was getting no separation from defenders. Manny Johnson did nothing to impress me.

Tony Romo was his usual excellent self. His arm was accurate and he threw with great velocity. Don't be fooled by the media reports of his practice stats due to the current offensive line situation. He had no time to throw and was always under pressure due to the back ups currently manning nearly the entire first unit of the offensive line.

Also on the quarterback front, both Kitna and McGee looked good as well. The Cowboys have great depth at quarterback as it stands right now. I certainly don't want to see either of these guys on the field in the regular season because that would mean Romo was hurt again. But I have a lot of confidence that all is not lost if Romo does go down again.

The offensive line is a mess right now. It is frustrating that Kyle Kosier and Doug Free are standing around watching practice even though they are under contract due to the new CBA. Tyron Smith is really struggling to block Demarcus Ware. With Gurode still rehabbing his knee the Cowboys have only Tyron Smith and Montrae Holland as actual starters who are currently playing with the first teamers. I'm going to give Tyron a break for now because it was the first padded practice and he is going against the best pass rusher in the league. But he needs to get it going.

Felix Jones still looks a little heavy to me. I thought he was planning to go back to his rookie weight but I didn't see that in his physique. I'm not saying he was fat, but he looked very stout compared to his younger days. I really don't care what he weighs as long as he regains his explosiveness. Unfortunately both Tashard Choice and DeMarco Murray aren't practicing right now due to injuries.

The Cowboys are stacked again at tight end now that John Phillips is back. He looked good but I want to see him in a game before I'm convinced about his knee. Martellus Bennett seems to get bigger every year. Pretty soon he is going to look like an offensive tackle. As long as his run blocking continues to be excellent I don't care what he weighs. Jason Witten was great as always.

Watching Rob Ryan coach the defense was exciting. There were blitzes coming from all over the place. And several times Demarcus Ware started by lining up all the way back at safety and then ran to different spots along the line to rush. The defensive will make a lot of big plays this year.

I didn't get a good feel for the play of the secondary because most of the action during the team portion of practice was running game and screen passes. But at least Scandrick, Jenkins and Newman are all healthy for now.

I like Barry Church at safety but I still think the Cowboys need a free safety. Again, it was hard to judge any of the secondary guys in practice but I would feel better with at least one seasoned veteran back there. I keep hearing rumor about Abe Elam but we'll see how that plays out.

Jay Ratliff looks like he is in great shape. He claims to have lost 15 pounds and it shows. I just hope he didn't lose so much that he gets pushed around. Igor Olshansky looked a lot more fit as well. Josh Brent looked huge out there. He is expected to get a lot of playing time this year and he looks ready.

Sean Lee started at inside linebacker with Bradie James because Brooking is injured. It was easy to notice Lee because he was always around the ball. He seems a lot more comfortable reading the running game this year. I hope he steps into a starting role this season.

It was so early in camp I can't really draw any big conclusions from what I saw. But I did see a team that clearly was in shape even after the long lockout. And I saw a coach running practices that are no joke. The Cowboys are working hard and that is all you can ask right now.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Philadelphia Snatches Asomugha Away

For about 30 minutes today it really looked like the Cowboys were going to get a deal done with Nnamdi Asomugha. But, at the last minute, the Eagles swooped in and stole him away. I consider it to be a narrow escape.

I know Jerry Jones likes to go for the gusto. But this move was wrong on so many levels I don't know where to start. Just look at the glaring needs remaining on the roster as it stands right now. The Cowboys are in dire need of a safety and they have very little depth at defensive end, wide receiver, and they are still in the market for a right guard. Signing Asomugha would have made any additional free agency moves very difficult to pull off.

And the dead money counting against the cap next year is bad enough without throwing in Terence Newman's cap hit had he been released to make room for Nnamdi. I could have lived with throwing money at a guy like Nnamdi if the Cowboys weren't heading for salary cap hell next year and weren't struggling with the cap this season before signing a high priced free agent.

I know that everyone is in love with Asomugha right now. But I still have visions of Miles Austin going for 7 receptions, 145 yards and a touchdown against him in 2009. Don't get me wrong here. Nnamdi is a very good player. But to get the money he wanted I think you have to be great and I don't know that he is great.

And hey, it isn't like the Cowboys are one guy away from making a Super Bowl run. Coming off a 6-10 season it is hard to imagine that ignoring several areas of need to obtain a luxury item is going to help you turn things around.

I know people are down on the Cowboys secondary right now but I think the secondary is going to be much more effective this year now that Rob Ryan is going to be constantly mixing things up on defense. Nnamdi would have been great in the Cowboys defense. But can he also play safety and defensive end? Can he fill in a right guard if needed?

In other news, the Cowboys were able to come to terms with Marcus Spears today to start to fill the glaring need at defensive end. The contract is for 5 years and $19.2 million. That is a relative bargain compared to the 5 years, $27.2 million contract that Stephen Bowen got from the Redskins. Spears has always been the best Cowboys defensive end against the run so I'm glad he'll be back. Now he just needs to stay healthy.

Unfortunately the injuries in camp are mounting very quickly. Tashard Choice is out with a strained calf and Keith Brooking strained a hamstring today. Injuries are a part of the game but the Cowboys have just seemed to get more than their fair share in training camp over the last few years.

As another crazy day of free agency starts to draw to a close I am actually very thankful that the Eagles saved Jerry Jones from himself today. I know there are promising young players on the roster but you don't want to count on too many of them if you want a real chance at a playoff run this season. Like I said before, getting Asomugha would have make it next to impossible to address the rest of the roster needs. Hopefully the rumors of Astante Samuel being shopped in a trade are true because the Eagles are loaded at cornerback right now.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The 2011 Dallas Cowboys Are Slowly Taking Shape

As expected, Marion Barber and Roy Williams were cut today. And along with them Leonard Davis and Marc Colombo were also let go. A few other guys got the axe as well but those four were the headliners. I'll miss Marc Colombo's intensity but he was clearly on the decline. I won't miss Marion Barber.

Now that the Cowboys have signed Kyle Kosier to a three year deal the offensive line is almost complete. Tyron Smith signed his rookie contract so now there is only a hole at right guard. But at least Montrae Holland is capable of starting if the Cowboys don't sign another offensive lineman. That leaves defensive end and safety.

Stephen Bowen is now with the Redskins so he is no longer an option at defensive end. And it is looking like Jason Hatcher might be headed for Denver. I'm still hoping that the Cowboys can bring Marcus Spears back but only if his price tag is reasonable. Sean Lissemore played defensive end during practice today so maybe he can provide some depth there.

Practice finally got under way today. While that is exciting I find myself frustrated that we are already talking about injuries to our rookie class again. Bruce Carter will likely start camp on the PUP list and DeMarco Murray will probably miss the first two weeks of camp. It seems like the Cowboys are cursed with their draft picks over the last few years. I know Bruce Carter was coming off a major knee surgery but DeMarco Murray's injury is a big surprise. I hope this isn't the beginning of another year of rookie injuries.

I can't wait to see the new defense in action. From the sound of it the Cowboys will now be moving around before the snap to disguise their defensive look. And the blitzes are going to come from everywhere. It should be exciting.

Stephen Jones made it clear that the Cowboys are ok with moving forward with just the receivers currently on the roster. That scares me. I really hope that Sam Hurd is brought back at a minimum just to add a little experience to the depth chart.

I'm hoping to get to training camp on Saturday to get a first hand look at the team. It should be exciting but it will probably be odd since all of the newly signed veterans won't be able to participate until August 4. I want to see how Tyron Smith looks in person. And I am very interested to see if Dez Bryant looks ready to take a big step forward this season. Can Sean Lee step into a starting role? Is John Phillips all the way back from his knee injury? I could go on. So many questions. So little time this year to answer them before the season starts.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Getting Free Under Contract Reshuffles Priorities

Priority #1 of the start of the 2011 league year was taken care of pretty quickly. Doug Free agreed to terms with the Cowboys late last night. There had to be a big sigh of relief with the Cowboys when Free agreed to remain with the team. Now the offensive line doesn't appear to be in complete disarray like it might have been if Free had gone elsewhere.

So Free will play left tackle and Tyron Smith will play right tackle. Andre Gurode will be back at center even though he'll need a little time to heal up before he is ready to participate in training camp. Both guard spots are a question mark. It looks like the Cowboys are working hard to get Kyle Kosier under contract. That would leave just the right guard spot open. The Cowboys are still considering bringing Leonard Davis back under a reduced contract. Montrae Holland is still with the team and is capable of starting if necessary. I expect Colombo to be cut now that Free is under contract.

Along with the guard position the focus has to be defensive end, safety, and wide receiver depth. There are young, unproven players on the roster at safety and wide receiver. But defensive end is in bad shape right now.

Jason Hatcher, Marcus Spears and Stephen Bowen are all available in free agency and I expect at least one of them to return. The Cowboys have to find some help at defensive end because the cupboard is pretty bare at that position right now. There was some talk of the Cowboys going after Cullen Jenkins but it seems like he is out of their price range due to the salary cap.

At safety the Cowboys are in bad shape but at least there are some young guys on the roster who might be able to play. Barry Church showed some promise last year and Akwasi Owusu-Ansah didn't get a chance to play much last year due to injuries. I would hate to see Alan Ball back at safety again this year but at least he is a back up plan if all else fails. I think the Cowboys need to sign at least one free agent safety and maybe even two. I would like to see Barry Church get a real shot at the starting strong safety spot.

I'm a little concerned about the depth at wide receiver. We've seen flashes from Kevin Ogletree but not enough to believe with any certainty that he is ready to move up the depth chart. It is hard to imagine that Dwayne Harris (7th round pick, East Carolina) will be ready to be on the field regularly early in the season. And Manny Johnson, Teddy Williams and Jesse Holley have done next to nothing in their time with the team. Stephen Jones indicated that wide receiver is not a priority right now but I don't see how the Cowboys don't at least bring back Sam Hurd to add depth.

The good news is that Free will be back. It would have been scary to have two unproven players manning the offensive tackle positions. The offensive line has got to do a better job protecting Romo this season. With Free and Tyron Smith on the outside the Cowboys are off to a good start in building a new offensive line. There is still a lot of work to do to get a contending team put together for 2011.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Big Changes In Big D

We knew a lot of this was coming. Marion Barber cut. No surprise. Marc Colombo rumored to be cut. Check. Leonard Davis likely cut. No shock there.

But then we get to Roy Williams. I am floored by this one. With the rules in place now the Cowboys actually save money this season by cutting Roy Williams. But they are pushing dead money into next year's cap which is never good. And now there is a big question mark at the #3 receiver. And Roy will still count more than $4 million against the cap this year and he won't be giving anything to the Cowboys in return.

I think the Marion Barber cut not only helps free up cap space but it also sends a message. Don't mess with the new coach or there will be a price to pay. Barber defied Garrett a couple of times last year and it appeared that he escaped without punishment. Maybe not so much.

It is hard to defend Leonard Davis. When you are one of the highest paid players on the team and you have to be benched during a game because you are playing so badly it isn't a good sign. And so the Cowboys cut their losses before Davis' play could decline any more. They probably could have held onto Davis for another season or two and gotten decent play out of him. But for his salary you want more than a decent player. If Davis wants to resign for a reasonable salary then I could see him coming back for one or two more years.

The Marc Colombo move is interesting. It appears the Cowboys are holding off on that move until they know what is going to happen with Doug Free. If they cut Colombo now and then Free signs with another team the Cowboys could find themselves in bad shape at tackle. But if Free comes back then Tyron Smith steps in to start at right tackle and the starting tackles could be better this year than last year. The next few days are scary from the standpoint of the offensive line. You don't want a rookie starting a left tackle and an unproven commodity like Sam Young forced into a starting role. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that things will work out with Free.

Jason Garrett has a lot of work to do during training camp. It was obvious that changes were coming. But with this compressed free agency period the roster is turning over at an amazing rate. Hopefully Garrett and the rest of the staff can put the old a new pieces together quickly.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The NFL Is Back!

It is finally over. The NFL is open for business. And while the last four and a half months have been agonizing for the hard core fans like me, what is coming is going to help make up for lost time very quickly.

We are about to see free agency and trades happening at a pace that has never been seen before. It is going to be exciting. But I hope all of the Cowboys fans out there have realistic expectations for what is about to transpire.

The Cowboys won't be signing the big name guys in free agency. They don't have the money to do it. The focus has to be on getting Doug Free signed and then filling out the roster as quickly as possible while managing a bad salary cap situation.

It is highly unlikely that Roy Williams will be cut or traded. It is very likely that Marc Colombo and Marion Barber will be cut.

But the good news is that we are finally going to get answers on all of the roster decisions that have been debated for months. And the answers are going to be here in a matter of days and maybe even hours in some cases.

Things are about to get very exciting. It is about time. I can't wait to get down to San Antonio to see the 2011 Dallas Cowboys get back to work!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Where Should the Cowboys Start?

Things are going to get absolutely crazy across the league next week. And for the Cowboys there is a lot of work to be done in a very short amount of time. Let's look at the priorities for the Cowboys heading into the shortest free agency signing period in the history of the NFL.

Priority #1 - Get Doug Free signed. I list this as the top priority because accomplishing the goal of locking Free into a long term deal not only helps shape the salary cap picture but it also impacts whether Marc Colombo can stay or go. If Free somehow ends up with another team the Cowboys will be forced to hold onto Colombo and start Tyron Smith at left tackle.

Priority #2 - Identify what dead weight is going to be cut from the roster to save salary cap space. There are some easy picks here. I know getting Free signed is the top priority for Jerry and Stephen Jones. So Colombo will be gone which will save the Cowboys $1.9 million in base salary and a $2.6 million option bonus. Cutting Barber saves $4 million on the cap and they Cowboys need to get rid of one of their backs anyway after drafting DeMarco Murray.

Priority #3 - Restructure some of the big money players to save cap space. Tony Romo, Demarcus Ware, Terence Newman and Miles Austin are all prime candidates for contract restructuring. I would love to see the Cowboys find a way to restructure Roy Williams' deal to make his cap number lower this season without making it impossible to cut him again next year. Leonard Davis is another prime candidate for contract restructuring.

Priority #4 - It looks like all teams will get 3 days to deal exclusively with their own free agents. The Cowboys need to resign Gerald Sensabaugh, Marcus Spears, Stephen Bowen and Kyle Kosier. I would love to see the Cowboys upgrade the offensive line but the lockout is going to prevent that this season. With very limited offseason work in the offense it is hard to imagine any of the young players progressing to the point that they can start the year at left guard. Bringing Kosier back is the safe option and they can buy another year of development. David Arkin was drafted to be a starter but he won't be ready this season. The Cowboys can't afford to go into the short free agent period needing two starting safeties. Hopefully Sensabaugh isn't trying to break the bank with his new deal. The Cowboys are in bad shape at defensive end if they don't resign at least one and hopefully two of their soon to be free agent ends (Jason Hatcher, Marcus Spears, Stephen Bowen)

Priority #5 - This is the beginning of open free agency. I seriously doubt the Cowboys will cut Newman and make a run at Nnamdi Asomugha. There won't be the cap space available to go after a high priced guy like that. The #1 priority should be finding a free safety. The Cowboys can't afford wait another year with Alan Ball as the only other starting option. There have been a lot of names thrown around as targets in free agency at safety. I'll be happy with anyone back there who isn't named Alan Ball.

Priority #6 - Depth, depth, depth. The Cowboys need more depth at cornerback, linebacker, offensive line, and wide receiver. They need to find quality depth at as many positions as possible. Obviously some of the rookies will be providing depth at some spots but you never know what you have from your draft picks until you get them on the field.

It is going to be a wild and fun week of free agency starting hopefully on Monday. The Cowboys have plenty of work to do to keep things interesting for Dallas fans.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Roy Williams Dilemma

Over the last few weeks as the lockout hopefully nears its conclusion the speculation on the future of Roy Williams has reignited. And while there are some compelling arguments for simply cutting Roy Williams and moving on if you look at the bigger picture you will see that it is very unlikely that Roy won't be back with the Cowboys this season.

Let's start with the most important aspect of this discussion. Can Roy Williams get the job done as the #3 receiver? My answer is absolutely. Don't forget that he was off to a great start last season working with Tony Romo. Unfortunately once Romo went down the entire offense shifted from a big play passing attack to a run first/dink and dunk passing attack under Kitna. What that meant was Williams production dropped off dramatically after the first six games of the year last year. Roy was averaging about 4 receptions a game and had five touchdowns in the first five games last season. With Kitna, Roy's production dropped to 2 receptions per game and he scored zero touchdowns in his last eight games played last year.

As for all of the talk about the Cowboys cutting Roy Williams to save room under the salary cap, a lot of media members need to check Roy's contract before starting rampant speculation about his future. Roy will count about $9 million against the cap if he returns next season. That is a big number to accept but consider the alternative. If Roy is cut, he will count $12.9 against the cap due to the acceleration of his signing bonus. It is hard to imagine the Cowboys paying an extra $3.9 million in cap money to unload a player. How can you justify $12.9 million is dead money against the cap when you know the cap is going to be a challenge this season? With the Cowboys expected to struggle to get under the new salary cap, the last thing they will do is waste nearly $4 million in cap space. The salary cap will save Roy Williams.

I have also heard some speculation about the Cowboys trading Roy Williams. The problem with that theory is the same as cutting Roy Williams. If you trade a player then the remaining prorated piece of their signing bonus counts against the salary cap. That means it would cost the Cowboys $12.9 to trade Roy Williams as well. And who would trade for Roy Williams with his ridiculous contract anyway?

You can make a strong case that the Cowboys are better off without Roy Williams. He hasn't lived up to the hype that builds when a team gives up the draft picks the Cowboys gave up to get him. And he hasn't lived up to his bloated contract. He has dropped the ball far too much. And he let the Cowboys down in a big way last season against the Saints.

But, even with that said, put the salary cap issues aside and think of it this way. If the Cowboys did miraculously find a way to unload Roy Williams within the confines of the salary cap who would you want to step into the #3 receiver role? The #3 receiver is on the field on a regular basis. Is Kevin Ogletree ready to step up and fill that role? He regressed last season and the thought of counting on Ogletree scares me. Sam Hurd is a free agent and may not be back. Manny Johnson, Teddy Williams and rookie Dwayne Harris look far from ready to get real playing time. And think of what happens if Dez Bryant battles injuries all year long again. Roy Williams needs to be with the team.

I'm certainly not trying to convince anyone that Roy Williams is a great receiver. But I do think he is above average. And he is better than any alternative that you are going to find with only training camp and four preseason games to learn a new offense that a free agent would get. So, if you are a Roy Williams hater, you should come to grips with the fact that Roy Williams will be back with the Cowboys this season. The best thing all of the fans can hope for is that he continues on the path he took early in the season last year with Romo at the helm. Roy Williams can be an impact player in the right situations and the Cowboys need him to be if they want to compete for the playoffs this season. And hopefully the Cowboys will find a way to restructure Roy's contract to help free up some cap room and make it easier to unload him down the road.