Ranking the 7 Biggest Upgrades Dallas Cowboys Made This Offseason
The Dallas Cowboys had a lot of moving parts this offseason, upgrading in a few locations and seeing a dip in talent at others. It’s still difficult to say what the net result will be, just because we’ve seen a lot of long-term production replaced by relative unknowns.
In this slideshow, I will focus on seven potential upgrades the Cowboys made in the 2014 offseason. But how do we define "upgrade?" For the purposes of this analysis, the general formula will be Value of New Player minus Value of Old Player, and I’ll be considering on-field talent, age, long-term outlook and contract situation.
If I were to look at the Cowboys’ addition of defensive tackle Terrell McClain—an acquisition that didn’t make this list—for example, I’d compare McClain to the man he’d be replacing if he starts, Nick Hayden, and examine their projected contributions, age, and so on. The greater the difference between the subject and the player he’s replacing, the higher he’s ranked on this list.
Without further ado, here are the seven biggest upgrades for Dallas in 2014.
7. CB Terrance Mitchell over B.W. Webb
We really don’t know all that much about Cowboys rookie cornerback Terrance Mitchell. He’s 5’11”, 192 pounds without great speed (4.63 40-yard-dash time, according to NFL.com). He did, however, post top-tier times in the short shuttle and three-cone drill.
However, we do know some things about the man Mitchell could potentially replace in second-year cornerback B.W. Webb, who also stands 5’11” but weighs in at just 178 pounds.
Against Webb in 2013, quarterbacks tallied a passer rating of 148.2, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Webb allowed 11 completions and three touchdowns on 13 targets, getting torched throughout the year. As athletic as he is, Webb is simply too frail right now to compete with physical NFL receivers.
We don’t really know exactly how much of an upgrade Mitchell will be over Webb, if any, but chances are he won’t be as poor as Webb was in his rookie season.
6. P Cody Mandell over Chris Jones
Rookie punter Cody Mandell improved his punting every year he was at Alabama, culminating in an average of 47.1 yards per punt in 2013. In comparison, Cowboys punter Chris Jones averaged just 45.0 yards per punt in 2013.
This one shouldn’t be difficult for Dallas. Mandell, 22, is younger and has a stronger leg than the 25-year-old Jones.
5. RB Ryan Williams over Joseph Randle
I haven’t been shy in my criticism of second-year running back Joseph Randle. It’s not that Randle couldn’t possibly have success in the NFL, but it's just that the chances are limited due to his lean frame (6'0", 210 lbs) and lack of speed (4.63 40-yard dash at the combine). The pick didn’t kill Dallas because it was a fifth-rounder in 2013, but it’s not like there weren’t backs with higher upside still on the board.
Free-agent addition Ryan Williams also disappointed in terms of the 40-yard dash (4.61 seconds), but he was injured when he ran at the combine. Williams’ 40-inch vertical and 10’3” broad jump suggest he indeed has the explosiveness to play in the big leagues.
The concern with Williams is that he might be injury-prone, but the Cowboys signed him basically “for free,” so there’s no risk here. This is a straight on-field comparison, and Williams wins out.
Combine numbers provided by NFL.com.
4. WR Chris Boyd over Cole Beasley
I’m comparing undrafted rookie receiver Chris Boyd to Cole Beasley because, with Dez Bryant and Terrance Williams locked in as the top two receivers, any potential playing time for Boyd that would come in the near future would likely be at the expense of Beasley.
This is a simple issue of yards being replaceable; what Beasley does well—gain first downs—is something that Boyd should also be able to do. What Boyd does best—score touchdowns—isn’t something that Beasley can replicate. The rebuttal might be that “you need to get into position to score touchdowns,” but again, there’s no reason that Boyd can’t help the Cowboys do that.
I chose Boyd over Devin Street and L’Damian Washington—the two other rookie receivers for Dallas—because I believe Boyd has the most upside as a scorer. I’d love to see a three-receiver set with Boyd and Bryant out wide and Williams in the slot, especially near the end zone.
3. G Zack Martin over Mackenzy Bernadeau
When you draft a player in the first round, it’s usually with the expectation that he’s going to start right away and be an upgrade over someone on your roster. First-round pick Zack Martin would be an upgrade over three of the Cowboys’ 2013 starting linemen in Ronald Leary, Mackenzy Bernadeau or Doug Free.
It looks like Martin is going to take over for Bernadeau at right guard, with Bernadeau moving over to left guard to compete with Leary. If Bearndeau wins that job, it will mean that the addition of Martin will have actually upgraded two spots for Dallas. Even though the Cowboys don’t want to kick out Martin to play tackle, his ability to potentially do that gives him even more value.
2. DE Demarcus Lawrence over Anthony Spencer
Second-round pick Demarcus Lawrence is the hopeful long-term replacement for another DeMarcus (Ware) who just left town. No one is expecting Lawrence to have a Ware-like career, but those comparisons will always be drawn.
In the short term, though, Lawrence is really an upgrade over veteran defensive end Anthony Spencer. In terms of 2014 impact, you could argue that Lawrence and Spencer would be about even in terms of productivity if Spencer were healthy. He’s not, of course, as he's recovering from a surgically repaired knee, and the 30-year-old is also eight years older than Lawrence, 22.
For 2014, I’d likely project both players at around seven or eight sacks over a 16-game schedule. With Lawrence’s long-term arrow pointing upward and Spencer’s in the opposite direction, it’s a no-brainer that Lawrence is a big upgrade here.
1. DT Henry Melton over Jason Hatcher
Let’s just do a quick comparison of Henry Melton to Jason Hatcher.
Melton: Age 27, 13 sacks in past two full seasons, one-year deal worth $3.5 million with club option
Hatcher: Age 32, 15 sacks in past two seasons, four-year deal worth $27.5 million
The Cowboys were extremely intelligent to let Hatcher walk. The defensive tackle who recorded a career-high 11 sacks in 2013 had never tallied more than 4.5 sacks in his previous seven NFL seasons. To say Hatcher overachieved in 2013 is an understatement.
So we have an aging 32-year-old tackle whose perceived worth was at its peak—and surely more than his actual value—signed to a player-friendly deal. Compare that to a 27-year-old coming off a season-ending injury—not ideal in a vacuum, of course, but the impetus for an extremely team-friendly one-year contract.
Melton is so much better of a long-term option than Hatcher, yet people don’t seem to fully grasp how much of an upgrade this is for Dallas. Hatcher isn’t an 11-sack player; he’s a four-sack defensive tackle who got paid like he’s an 11-sack guy.
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