The Cowboys have an impressive young core of athletes developing on both sides of the ball. The offensive line was one of the best in the league and featured three players yet to hit their 25th birthday, while the weapons outside feature a 26 year old WR (Dez Bryant) who can count himself among the top 3-5 in the entire league, along with a plethora of complimentary players. On the defensive side, linebacker Anthony Hitchens showed what he is capable of, surprising many who claimed he was over-drafted in the 4th round in 2014, while Tyrone Crawford was a disruptive force at the Under tackle position from the first snaps he played there early in the season, 27 year old Orlando Scandrick took huge steps and became the clear cut best CB on the roster, and Demarcus Lawrence finished his rookie campaign with sacks in back to back playoff games. Each of these players has proven that the best way to build for long-term success in the NFL is to depend on the draft to acquire and upgrade your talent.
However, as is true for every team in the NFL, their window of championship opportunity is tied directly to the playing window of the franchise Quarterback. In Dallas’ case, as CowboysHQ has been harping in the Offseason Manifesto series, that window is approximately two more years.
In other words, the Cowboys need to add catalytic players (specifically on defense) this off-season who will make major impacts in the next two years if they expect to take advantage of this window of time. Two positions in particular, defensive end, and free safety, which most people point to when looking to upgrade, present specific sets of challenges for players in their early campaigns, and historically players at those positions struggle early on as they adjust to the NFL game.
This points to the need to add veteran players, specifically those coming off of their rookie contracts, who will be more apt to make the type of impact you need to dramatically improve the defense’s performance in 2015 and beyond.
The 2015 off-season will be the first full off-season for Tony Romo since 2012, no back surgeries, no missing time, no “Coach Romo” in OTA’s and Mini-Camps. Tony looked to be at his peak health over the last month and a half of the 2014 season, and ready to continue his elite level of play into 2015 with a young, improving OL, and deep corps of weaponry.
However, Romo will turn 35 years old this off-season, and based on research done by Jason Fitzgerald at overthecap.com, the season in which a player reaches 35 years of age is the typically the last season in which a QB is able to attain the combination of production, and availability in order to be an effective player. Some of my concerns regarding availability are lessened due to Romo’s history of playing through just about any injury, but at some point, his body will break down on him to a point where he can’t be as effective, either because he can’t stay on the field, or he cannot do the things on the field that we are now accustomed to witnessing from number 9.
The top 5 contracts for NFL RBs (Adrian Peterson, LeSean McCoy, Arian Foster, Matt Forte, & Marshawn Lynch), average just over $9.4 Million per season. Adding the next 5 highest paid backs (Jonathan Stewart, Jamaal, Charles, Frank Gore, C.J. Spiller, and Trent Richardson) drops that average to about $7.8 Million per season. If you believe, like I do, that DeMarco Murray belongs in that company, then you believe he should be paid as such. However, let me list off a few players who make LESS than $9.4 Million, and provide the pass rush that the Cowboys so desperately need, and you can decide for yourself if you’d rather use that money to add a player of that ability on defense, while relying on the proven zone blocking scheme running system to generate yardage for whatever back you put on the field for slightly over the league minimum.
- - Cameron Wake (Miami)
- - Jared Allen (Chicago)
- - Michael Bennett (Seattle)
- - Cliff Avril (Seattle)
- - Lamarr Houston (Chicago)
- - Julius Peppers (Green Bay)
- - Robert Mathis (Indianapolis)
- - Elvis Dumervil (Baltimore)
While you’re at it, remember that there is only one safety in the entire NFL who makes more than $9.4 Million per season. Meaning a top flight safety could be added within that price range as well.
For the most part, on an NFL sideline, the person who determines which players are on the field on a particular snap, is the position coach. In the case of the Cowboys defensive linemen, that is former Cowboy player, Leon Lett. In my opinion, he does a poor job of maximizing his players’ opportunities to play at their highest level. Situational football is a huge determinant in the result of each and every NFL game. And constantly throughout 2014 we saw players like Nick Hayden, Ken Bishop, or Josh Brent on the field in 3rd down and greater than 4 yards, as well as two minute drive type situations at the end of the half. None of those guys provides much as a pass rusher, yet they are consistently on the field in those obvious passing situations. Thus limiting the overall ability of the Defensive line to produce in those crucial instances.
For many years, the best pass rushing teams have focused on getting their best pass rushers on the field on those passing downs. The Seattle Seahawks have played DE Michael Bennett inside at DT in passing situations, while moving OLB Bruce Irvin down to rush from DE. This creates two mismatches, Irvin’s speed vs an OT and Bennett’s quickness & technique against an OG. Even back to the Giants Superbowl winning team in 2007, who placed pass rushers Michael Strahan, Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyora, and Mathias Kiwanuka on the field together in passing situations, wreaking havoc on opposing passing games all the way to a Super Bowl championship, including a win over a record setting, and previously undefeated New England Patriots team.
There is no doubt that the Cowboys need to upgrade the talent level on the defensive front this off-season, but they would benefit a great deal from some significant self-scouting in this area, and more thoughtful talent implementation in 2015.