Jerry "17-year GM Apprenticeship" Jones
The NFL offseason has now reached the point where training camp is virtually around the corner. It's time for freshly cut grass, tight spirals, pads popping and Dallas Cowboys football. It's also time to see just what this team is made of and how much of a progression was made from two disappointing seasons.
2013 is a crucial year in the evolution of the Jason Garrett era, and it's time to really find out which direction this franchise is headed. Every offseason raises the most significant questions of whether or not enough was done to improve the talent, the depth and the chemistry of a football team.
It's something that every franchise must ask themselves—no matter how successful they are or what was accomplished the previous season. The Dallas Cowboys have been the model for mediocrity that spans over a 15-year period, and that is just unacceptable.
With the sheer visibility of this franchise, an outspoken owner and a team that everybody loves to see come up short, the opportunity for the Cowboys to break down that wall is ripe. If the Cowboys plan on taking that next step in a parody-driven league, they need a roster built for success.
Is this roster assembled for success? Do they have the right pieces? The depth?
In some aspects, the answer is yes, but in others, the answer is an emphatic no. There has been a nice influx of youth, talent and building blocks, but many questions remain.
Let's start with the red flags.
The brief success and recent pitfalls of Doug Free's career have many fans still worried about how he will perform in 2013. While his acceptance of a pay cut did show a degree of commitment to getting things right and helping out the team, he will still face premier defensive stalwarts every week.
For now, Free deserves the benefit of the doubt, and Jeremy Parnell is only one snap away from being a full-time starter. Free will be on a short leash, but the real issue I have at the tackle position is the lack of position flexibility and lack of depth.
Tyron Smith, Free and Parnell basically comprise the anticipated spots at tackle on the 53-man roster. But suppose someone sustains a significant injury? Are we to believe that Darrion Weems, J.B. Shugarts or Edawn Coughman can be relied upon if necessary?
This is very troubling, considering Tyson Clabo and Eric Winston were available in free agency and Terron Armstead was available within the first two rounds of the draft. This, in my estimation, represents a red flag at a premium position that many are not focusing on.
Management wanted to focus on offense in the draft, but that should've included at least another offensive lineman.
The focus has always been on the interior of this offensive line, but there are young players on this roster with position flexibility more so than tackle. All eyes will be on the play of Free during camp, but they should also be firmly on the unknowns.
Health and a born-again Doug Free will be the key to this position in 2013. Think about that.
The interior line of the Dallas Cowboys came under severe scrutiny last season, and despite the addition of Travis Frederick in the draft, there are a few red flags for a couple of reasons. The Cowboys should benefit from the play of Ronald Leary and contributions from David Arkin and Kevin Kowalski, but will that be enough?
The bigger question is whether or not one, or more than one of them, is ready to provide serious dividends for this team. The Cowboys may have to push hard for their answer because the combination of Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau could have some lingering injury issues.
Livings has had on-and-off again knee soreness, and Bernadeau is recovering from shoulder surgery. It could be an imminent danger, or it could just be an overreaction, but it's enough of an issue to warrant a red flag.
As part of the 2012 free-agent haul for the Cowboys, both of these players need to be on the field and playing consistent football on every snap, to every whistle, for all 16 games. Players like Leary are lurking and ready for the chance to start, but he will have to earn a job and perform in the preseason.
Arkin and Kowalski will be in the mix during the competition at guard, and they will need to show some maturity and growth as professional football players. It's that simple for this team, and it's just the way it has to be.
The Dallas Cowboys were in the hunt for a third quarterback so much so that a waiver claim was put in for Mike Kafka. Does this sound like a coincidence or was it something that was discussed at a high level within the organization that was a cause for action?
My money is on the latter reasoning and maybe it was done as a measure against Tony Romo's surgical procedure. But maybe the issue is deeper, and the Cowboys are starting to realize that other teams are making sound investments in young quarterbacks while they remain idle.
The Cowboys are not known to use draft picks on quarterbacks in the way that other teams do, and the journey that led to Romo is a prime example. It took years to find a replacement for Troy Aikman, and in the process, a path to mediocrity was well on its way to being dug.
Anybody want to disagree? Chad Hutchinson? Drew Henson? Ryan Leaf? Anthony Wright?
The Cowboys are set at quarterback with Romo, his bloated contract and Kyle Orton behind him, but are Dalton Williams and Nick Stephens camp bodies or legit prospects? It's hard to tell right now, but we will soon find out as camp unfolds.
Orton's contract could become an issue next season, and if the Cowboys want to make a decision regarding the cap, they may have a bigger problem in finding a backup to Romo. The Cowboys can't afford to have another Brad Johnson scenario and maybe the move for Kafka was more about next year.
The Cowboys could still sign a veteran, Williams or Stephens could show some positive signs or the Cowboys could scour the eventual waiver wire, so they do have options. A more likely scenario is that the Cowboys look to the 2014 draft for a quarterback prospect and eventual replacement for Romo.
The question is whether they will find another Stephen McGee or Romo's eventual replacement. Remember who is picking the players.
Before you scratch your head on this one, just remember that both Phillip Tanner and Lance Dunbar haven't established themselves just yet. Barring another DeMarco Murray injury and the assumption that Joseph Randle will secure the backup position, why not bring in a veteran like Willis McGahee as the third back?
The Cowboys can still carry four running backs, but the combination of Murray, Randle and McGahee would make a nice trio and a solid blend of power, youth and veteran leadership. Tanner, Dunbar and Kendial Lawrence could battle for the fourth spot versus the third.
I can't think of one negative to adding a veteran running back in this scenario, and when you factor in Murray's injury history, it really accents the need for an experienced back. Michael Turner is also available, but would probably come at a higher price than a McGahee.
The Cowboys don't need to view this as a mandatory move, but when you finish 31st in the NFL in rushing, no stone should be left unturned—regardless of who you draft. Depth in the NFL is like credit in the financial world—both are king.
The Cowboys may want to take a closer look at this position before they can call it a strength. Adding an experienced player like McGahee could return some huge dividends.
As is the case with the running back position, the Cowboys could be selling themselves short on the defensive line. Sharrif Floyd wasn't enticing enough to draft, and neither was Margus Hunt or any other defensive linemen for that matter.
Very head-scratching indeed, but the Cowboys will forge ahead with what they have. The combination of DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer, Jason Hatcher and Jay Ratliff is star-studded, but what lies beneath that group?
Tyrone Crawford, Sean Lissemore, Ben Bass, Jeris Pendleton, Kyle Wilber, Nick Hayden and Jerome Long round out the depth chart heading into camp. With the exception of Crawford and Lissemore, I see question marks, and, more importantly, big red flags.
I still can't understand how this position was not addressed and why it was overlooked. Monte Kiffin's 4-3 calls for the defensive linemen to attack the gaps, to be quick and explosive off the snap and to use leverage as a means to harass the quarterback and ball-carriers.
You can never have enough pressure players at this position or a rotation that is deep enough. Do we have to look back at how the New York Giants made their Super Bowl runs? Does this group have enough depth to comprise an effective rotation?
The key here, again, will be the health of Ware and Ratliff and the ability of Spencer to replicate his success of 2012. This will be an interesting group to watch in 2013 as this defense transitions to the 4-3. In fact, my eyes will be glued.