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Examining Dallas Cowboys' Offseason and Key Preseason Positional Battles

Justin OnslowContributor IIMarch 21, 2016

Examining Dallas Cowboys' Offseason and Key Preseason Positional Battles

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    With an 8-8 record and a devastating 28-18 loss to the Washington Redskins in Week 17 of the 2012 regular season, the Dallas Cowboys were left to take an early look ahead to an offseason that would promise a bevy of big changes.

    Head coach Jason Garrett and quarterback Tony Romo would remain in the driver’s seat, but defensive coordinator Rob Ryan saw his way out of Dallas in favor of legendary defensive guru Monte Kiffin. With Kiffin’s arrival, the Cowboys will look to adopt a new plan for augmenting a defense that finished the 2012 season 19th in both total defense and pass defense.

    Against an NFC East that features two-time Super Bowl winner Eli Manning and budding superstar Robert Griffin III, Kiffin will have his hands full in bolstering Dallas’ defense. He’ll implement his signature Tampa-2 defense this season, but it remains to be seen how smoothly the Cowboys can make the switch in just one offseason.    

    The defensive line went largely unaddressed this offseason, but Garrett and Kiffin seem content with a rotation at the 1- and 3-technique defensive tackle positions. Linebacker Anthony Spencer (who was handed the franchise tag this offseason) and pass-rushing specialist DeMarcus Ware will slide down to defensive end in the 4-3 front—a move to which both players should adapt rather quickly.

    To address the positional change for the pair of linebackers, Dallas signed former Jacksonville Jaguars and Detroit Lions linebacker Justin Durant and drafted South Carolina linebacker DeVonte Holloman in the sixth round of April’s draft—a tremendous value pick in an otherwise bland draft for Jerry Jones.

    Despite Holloman’s late draft position, he stands to fight for a starting role in Kiffin’s defense. The Tampa-2 is predicated on plenty of zone looks that necessitate mobile linebackers who can play in coverage, and Holloman previously played safety before transitioning to linebacker at South Carolina.

    With Bruce Carter and Sean Lee already in place, Dallas is in line to start a very capable trio of linebackers in 2013, with plenty of depth to give Kiffin some versatility to work with.

    Perhaps the biggest surprise of the offseason, however, came in the first round of the draft, when Jones selected Wisconsin center Travis Frederick after moving down to the 31st pick. It may not have been a popular choice, but Dallas desperately needed to address its interior offensive line this offseason, which it also did in re-signing center Phil Costa.

    The recipient of a new six-year, $108 million contract, Romo was constantly harassed by A-gap pressure last season, due in large part to abysmal performance from Dallas’ interior offensive line. The Cowboys probably should have continued to address their offensive line beyond the first round, but adding Frederick was a good start to rebuilding a unit that was 22nd in the league last season, according to Pro Football Focus' rankings.

    Read on to take a closer look at some of those moves and delve deeper into Dallas’ offseason, as well as preview some key position battles and predictions for the 2013 season.

2013 NFL Draft

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    Round 1 (Pick 31): C Travis Frederick, Wisconsin

    Round 2 (Pick 47): TE Gavin Escobar, San Diego State

    Round 3 (Pick 74): WR Terrance Williams, Baylor

    Round 3 (Pick 80): S J.J. Wilcox, Georgia Southern

    Round 4 (Pick 114): CB B.W. Webb, William & Mary

    Round 5 (Pick 151): RB Joseph Randle, Oklahoma State

    Round 6 (Pick 185): LB DeVonte Holloman, South Carolina

     

    Grade: B-

     

    Analysis:

    Jerry Jones has never been lauded for his drafting abilities, but despite a questionable selection in the first round (labeled a “reach” by many), he did well to fill in some holes and take advantage of value in the later rounds.

    Perhaps the best pick Jones made was in the third round in Baylor wide receiver Terrance Williams. Dez Bryant proved toward the end of the 2012 season that he has the pure talent to be a tremendous No. 1 going forward, but Miles Austin has been far from reliable due to durability concerns, and Dallas was already without a true No. 3 receiver.

    Georgia Southern safety J.J. Wilcox was another strong selection in the third round, especially with the retirement of Gerald Sensabaugh. Barry Church and free-agent acquisition Will Allen are in line to earn starting roles in 2013, but Kiffin’s Tampa-2 defense will necessitate true playmakers at both safety positions. Wilcox fits the bill, and he could see substantial action this season.

    In all, it was a solid draft class for Jones, but he could have done more to improve Dallas' offensive line and give Kiffin a little more to work with on the defensive line this season.

     

     


Lightning to Murray's Thunder

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    Provided DeMarco Murray can remain healthy in 2013, the Cowboys will have the biggest piece of their rushing attack in place. That’s a big question mark, however.

    Murray’s bruising, upright running style tends to land the 25-year-old on the injury report all too often. Murray missed six games in 2012 due to injury, and it remains to be seen if he can stay on the field long enough to have a substantial impact for a full season.

    To add depth to their backfield and put in place an insurance policy in the event Murray misses time, the Cowboys drafted Oklahoma State running back Joseph Randle in the fifth round. Randle has the frame (6’0”, 204 pounds) to play a similar role in Dallas’ offense, but he may ultimately work his way into a change-of-pace role if Murray can remain healthy.

    With Felix Jones now in Philadelphia (via PhiladelphiaEagles.com), the running back depth chart is wide open behind Murray. Phillip Tanner and Lance Dunbar each showed flashes of potential in 2012, but it looks like Randle has a leg up on the competition for the No. 2 role on the depth chart.

    The Cowboys’ rushing attack starts and ends with the offensive line, however. With one of the most inconsistent right sides of any offensive line in the league, Dallas has to continue improving in that area to give Murray a chance to stay on the field and make his mark.

    The 2012 season is in the past, but Dallas can’t afford to finish 31st in the league in rushing again this season if it hopes to keep pace with the NFC East.

Safety Uncertainty

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    The Tampa-2 places a huge importance on safeties who can make big plays in two-deep zone coverage. Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr are well-suited to the press-coverage and short-zone responsibilities in the scheme, but Allen, Church and Wilcox have to step up and make big plays this season.

    Church will likely retain the starting role at strong safety, but the position battle at free safety will be one to keep an eye on. Allen is a Pittsburgh transplant with limited starting experience behind former Steelers teammates Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark and Ryan Mundy, and there’s no guarantee he’ll win the starting free safety spot ahead of Wilcox.

    Wilcox got his start at Georgia Southern as a wide receiver, eventually transitioning to a slot corner role and ultimately to safety. Those position shifts mean he too has limited experience at the position, but they also indicate tremendous athleticism and above-average ball skills for the position.

    Short of that trio, there aren’t any standouts poised to make a play at the starting safety positions. As is often the case, Jones made a couple moves this offseason that could work out very well—or very poorly—for the Cowboys' secondary. In Kiffin’s capable hands, the former is a good possibility.

What of Miles?

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    Dez Bryant’s tremendous final stretch of the season (50 catches, 966 yards and 10 touchdowns in last eight games) puts him squarely in position to enter the 2013 season atop the Cowboys’ depth chart. Given Miles Austin’s injury history, Bryant could be in for another monster season.

    But Austin’s No. 2 role is no longer guaranteed. After missing six games in 2011 (and playing through various injuries last year), the 28-year-old is far from a sure thing entering the 2013 season, and he’ll be looking over his shoulder with Terrance Williams in town.

    Williams slipped to the third round of the draft after months of being widely considered an early second-round prospect. With a tremendous blend of size and speed (paired with good production at Baylor), Williams will be competing for Austin’s old role this season, and there's a good chance he becomes one of Romo's favorite targets by the end of the year.

    At the very least, Dallas now has another capable receiver for Romo and a big-play weapon to take pressure off Bryant. Provided Jason Witten continues playing at an All-Pro level and Austin can get healthy for the 2013 season, Dallas will field as potent a passing attack as ever with Romo at the helm.

It Takes Two to Tackle

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    Defensive line responsibilities in a 4-3 front vary greatly from those of Dallas’ former 3-4 scheme. Along with personnel adjustments, the team’s stable of tackles will have to adapt to their new one-gap responsibilities.

    Jay Ratliff should assume the 1-technique position—a role that won’t be all that different from what he did at nose tackle in the team’s defunct 3-4 front—but the 3-technique position could be up for grabs.

    Jason Hatcher and Sean Lissemore each saw considerable time on Dallas’ defensive line in 2012 (26 combined games), and the pair is poised for a rotational role in the new scheme, along with 324-pound space-eater Rob Callaway.

    The presence of DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer at defensive end will make things much easier on Ratliff and company, though. The bookends are tremendous pass-rushers with the quickness and athleticism to afford Kiffin plenty of stunt and twist options to keep opposing offensive linemen on their toes.

    Despite not addressing the defensive tackle position through free agency or the draft, the Cowboys won’t be in bad shape this season. Look for Ratliff and Hatcher to assume the starting tackle roles with considerable depth behind them.

2013 Schedule

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    2013 Dallas Cowboys Schedule
    Week Date Opponent Time TV
    1 Sept. 8
    vs. New York Giants
    8:30 p.m. ET NBC
    2 Sept. 15
    at Kansas City Chiefs 1 p.m. ET
    FOX
    3 Sept. 22
    vs. St. Louis Rams 1 p.m. ET FOX
    4 Sept. 29 at San Diego Chargers 
    4:25 p.m. ET FOX
    5 Oct. 6 vs. Denver Broncos 4:25 p.m. ET CBS
    6 Oct. 13 vs. Washington Redskins 8:30 p.m. ET NBC
    7 Oct. 20 at Philadelphia Eagles 1 p.m. ET
    FOX
    8 Oct. 27 at Detroit Lions 1 p.m. ET FOX
    9 Nov. 3 vs. Minnesota Vikings 1 p.m. ET FOX
    10 Nov. 10 at New Orleans Saints 8:30 p.m. ET
    NBC
    11 Nov. 17 BYE WEEK
    12 Nov. 24 at New York Giants 4:25 p.m. ET
    FOX
    13 Nov. 28
    vs. Oakland Raiders 4:30 p.m. ET
    CBS
    14 Dec. 9
    at Chicago Bears 8:40 p.m. ET
    ESPN
    15 Dec. 15 vs. Green Bay Packers 4:25 p.m. ET
    FOX
    16 Dec. 22
    at Washington Redskins 1 p.m. ET FOX
    17 Dec. 29
    vs. Philadelphia Eagles 1 p.m. ET FOX

     

    *For a complete look at Dallas' 2013 schedule, check out NFL.com.

Season Outlook

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    There isn’t much to like about the Cowboys’ 2013 schedule. Apart from a potentially friendly series with the AFC West (save for the Denver Broncos), Dallas is in for a difficult slate of games this season.

    According to last year’s records, Garrett’s squad faces the No. 22 most difficult schedule in the league, but those numbers can be deceiving.

    The NFC East is always a tough division, and the Giants and Redskins should again be in the conversation for the division title, as well as a rebuilt Eagles team under new leadership. Paired with a full series against the NFC North and a non-division contest with the Saints, there aren’t many games in which Dallas can afford to come up short.

    But any team can win on any given Sunday, and Dallas’ success this season will depend on more than the quality of its opponents.

    The Cowboys’ success starts and ends with their quarterback. If Dallas is to earn a playoff berth atop the NFC East, Romo has to live up to his massive new contract and establish himself as a premier quarterback in a loaded division.

    In his team’s eight losses last season, Romo threw 15 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. In Dallas' wins, the 33-year-old was far more effective, tallying 13 touchdowns and just three interceptions. With an inefficient running game and an offensive line that is a work in progress, Romo has to step up.

    There’s a lot of uncertainty entering this season, but Cowboys fans also have a lot to be hopeful for.

    Kiffin is one of the league’s best defensive coordinators with a proven track record and a solid foundation on which to build. Schematic transitions often take some time to develop, but the Cowboys have a lot of quality pieces already in place. Should things play out as expected, Dallas could field a top-10 defense in 2013.

     

    2013 Prediction: 9-7, second in NFC East

    Dallas had a largely successful offseason, but will it be enough to get over the hump in the loaded NFC?

    For America’s Team to once again flourish in the postseason, it will likely have to win its division. To take nothing away from the rest of the NFC East, there’s a good chance at least two playoff squads come out of the NFC West again this year—most likely Seattle and San Francisco.

    But New York and Washington won’t be easy teams to overtake, and it could take a 10-6 record or better to earn a trip to the playoffs this season. If recent seasons are any indication, Dallas will be battling it out for a trip to the postseason in Week 17.

     

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