Adam Schein of NFL.com lists your Dallas Cowboys as the most fascinating team heading into the off-season.
Dallas enjoyed a fantastic — and wholly surprising — regular season in 2014. Now there’s pressure to do it again and go even deeper in the playoffs.
After facing questions about job security in prior offseasons, coach Jason Garrett received a new five-year, $30 million deal to stay with the Cowboys. But will he have the same shiny toys when his team takes the field again?Receiver Dez Bryant and running back DeMarco Murray are both due to hit free agency next month. Yes, Bryant can be tough to handle sometimes, but you cannot replace his talent — owner Jerry Jones must retain his services. Murray is a stud fresh off the best season of his career. The NFL’s leading rusher (1,845 yards) ran wild behind the best offensive line in football. This took pressure offTony Romo, allowing the quarterback to enjoy his finest NFL season. But will the price be right for No. 29? What if it’s not? What other options would the Cowboys have at running back?
Backup Joseph Randle certainly didn’t help his cause by getting arrested for the second time in the last five months. (UPDATE: Police dropped a drug charge against Randle on Friday.) If the Minnesota Vikings cut ties with Adrian Peterson, and the running back is reinstated from his suspension, could Dallas be in the mix? It’s possible. Remember the phone call between Peterson and Jerrah?
And another big question looms on the other side of the ball: Can Dallas count on linebacker Sean Lee to return to form after missing the entire 2014 campaign with a torn ACL? When healthy, Lee’s a stud, but this wasn’t the first time he missed significant action due to injury.
I think Stephen Jones proved last year that he knows how to build an actual team while keeping his dad at bay. (See: Last year’s draft, when Stephen forced Jerry to take Zack Martin over Johnny Manziel. Martin was an All-Pro as a rookie. Manziel … was not.) But now there will be a bull’s-eye on the Cowboys‘ back.
Schein rightly stated the obvious Dez vs Demarco —either, neither, or both?— debate. But, as national media types are wont to do, he dwelled too much on the high-profile offense and barely mentioned the defense, where most of the really big questions reside.
Brandon George of the Dallas Morning News gave a more informed, realistic assessment of the Cowboys’ challenges this off-season:
The Cowboys want to upgrade the front, middle and back of their defense. When the draft begins April 30, they’ll be looking for help along the defensive line, at linebacker and at cornerback.
“Our goal here more than anything, more than the obvious of Dez and DeMarco, is to improve our defense,” Jones said. “That’s where our focus will be. It won’t just be defensive front, although that’s first and foremost.”
Bringing back defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli under a three-year contract extension gives the Cowboys a chance to improve their defense. Losing Marinelli would have likely forced the Cowboys to change schemes, a setback Dallas couldn’t endure.
The Cowboys climbed from last in the league in defense in 2013 to 19th overall last season despite a pass rush that lacked consistency.
Only four teams in the NFL had fewer sacks than the Cowboys’ 28 in 2014. What’s more: The Cowboys have the fourth-fewest sacks in the league over the last two seasons (62).
Marinelli’s Tampa 2 scheme is dictated on getting pressure on the quarterback. The better the pass rush, the better chance the cornerbacks have to thrive.
The Cowboys like how defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford progressed last season at the key three-technique spot. Free-agent defensive end Jeremy Mincey proved to be a key addition, leading the Cowboys with six sacks in the regular season with rookie second-round pick DeMarcus Lawrence injured.
But the Cowboys need upgrades up front.
Free-agent defensive tackle Henry Melton never played at 100 percent in his first season with the Cowboys after battling back from knee surgery. Dallas isn’t expected to exercise his three-year, $24 million contract option that would fully guarantee him $9 million in 2015. That would make Melton a free agent.
Defensive end Anthony Spencer, who came on late last season, will also be a free agent with his one-year deal up. Defensive tackle Nick Hayden, who started every game the last two seasons, and starting defensive end George Selvie are also set to become free agents. Selvie’s 10 sacks are the most by any Cowboys player over the last two seasons.
The Cowboys draft 27th overall, and finding a player who can pressure the quarterback will be a top priority.
The Cowboys used seven of their nine draft picks a year ago on defense, but five came in the seventh round. They’ll look to go heavy on defense early in the draft this time around.
And the Cowboys could pursue a cornerback with their first-round pick if Brandon Carr becomes a salary-cap casualty. The Cowboys will likely ask Carr to take a pay cut or be cut this offseason after he failed to live up to the five-year, $50.1 million contract he signed in March 2012.
The Cowboys also have to decide by May 3 if they want to pick up cornerback Morris Claiborne’s fifth-year option on his rookie contract. Claiborne also hasn’t lived up to expectations since the Cowboys drafted him sixth overall in 2012.
With the futures of Carr and Claiborne in doubt, the Cowboys need to address the cornerback position.
Cowboys cornerbacks combined for only four interceptions last season, one fewer than linebacker Bruce Carter had by himself. Carr didn’t have any last season.
Cowboys cornerbacks have combined for only 11 interceptions over the last two seasons. Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman and Cleveland safety Tashaun Gipson each have 12 during that span.
One thing is certain. Schein was right about the Cowboys being a fascinating off-season study.
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