How Much Has Each Dallas Cowboys Positional Unit Improved This Offseason?
The goal of every team in the NFL during the offseason is to get better; the Dallas Cowboys are no different. As John Gruden once said, "You never stay the same. You either get better or you get worse."
The Cowboys took some significant hits to their roster this offseason in losing players like DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher to free agency and Sean Lee to injury. However, they have also brought in some pieces through free agency and the draft to hopefully improve the team.
The fact of the matter is that the Cowboys must improve as a whole if they expect to make the playoffs and beyond, and for that to happen, the team needs a number of players, especially ones who are still developing, to step up.
Let's take a look at each position group on the Cowboys and analyze if it has done enough to improve off of last season.
The Cowboys quarterback group is one of the strongest on the roster because of the great play of Tony Romo.
However, the Cowboys have not improved at the quarterback position over last year. At this point in his career, Romo, 34, is what he is. He is not going to drastically improve in any facet of quarterbacking. The only way Romo improves is if offensive coordinator Scott Linehan somehow better utilizes the signal-caller's strength while hiding his weaknesses.
Nevertheless, the Cowboys don't need Romo or the quarterback group to improve because Romo was an elite player last year. If the Cowboys get the same production from him this year, then they will still be in a great position to make a playoff run.
Behind Romo, it looks as though Brandon Weeden will be the backup QB because of the uncertainty surrounding Kyle Orton and his future with the team.
Weeden should be able to do an adequate job if asked to play a game or two in Romo's absence, but any longer than that and the Cowboys are in big trouble.
Overall, the Cowboys have not improved at the QB position, but that is not a bad thing. The team needs multiple position groups to step up, but quarterback isn't one of them.
Much like QB, running back was a strength for the Cowboys in 2013. They averaged 4.5 yards per carry, per Pro-Football-Reference.com, which is great. The only knock on them with respect to their running game is that they should have done it more last year.
The Cowboys' only addition to the running back group has been the signing of former Arizona Cardinals second-round pick Ryan Williams. At fullback, they signed J.C. Copeland as an undrafted free agent.
At the moment, it would appear that DeMarco Murray and Lance Dunbar are locks to make the roster. That leaves Williams, Joseph Randle and Ben Malena battling for the third running back spot, with Copeland and Tyler Clutts competing for the starting fullback position.
Even though the Cowboys have not made any drastic improvements roster-wise, the running back group should be an improved unit in 2014, especially if Dunbar can remain healthy.
Murray has improved every year he has been with the team, and Dunbar brings a new big-play facet to the offense.
Also, the third running back position should be improved no matter which player ends up winning the job. Randle should progress with another year in the offense and another NFL offseason under his belt. Williams brings a great deal of talent, while Malena brings a type of shifty quickness that could make him an open-field threat.
The Cowboys running backs have not improved because of roster additions but because the team's holdovers from last year are developing in capable players.
Wide receiver is a position that looks solid but is not without some question marks. Dez Bryant is one of the best receivers in the NFL, but his game still has room for growth (specifically route-running). This is a scary proposition for any defense; Bryant is already a nightmare because of his physical abilities. If he can polish his route-running, he could be a Calvin Johnson-type of receiver.
Along with Bryant, the Cowboys have Terrance Williams at the No. 2 receiver spot, with Cole Beasley and Devin Street competing for the slot receiver position. Then you have Dwayne Harris, who should do most of his damage on special teams, along with a myriad of rookies and young, unproven players.
This offseason, the Cowboys decided to part way with receiver Miles Austin, which, at this point in the veteran's career, is not much of a loss.
The Cowboys' improvement at wide receiver hinges on the development of Williams, Beasley and Street. If Williams can avoid the sophomore slump and make a similar leap as Alshon Jeffery did last year for the Chicago Bears, then the Dallas offense will be even more potent in 2014. However, it is just speculation at this point whether he can make this type of development.
At the moment, the Cowboys are at a push with last year's group. However, there is a lot to like with this wide receiver corps, and it is very possible that it takes the next step this year to becoming an elite one.
In 2013, the Cowboys got another productive year out of Jason Witten but not much else from the rest of the tight end position. Gavin Escobar wasn't ready to make a serious impact in his rookie year, and James Hanna didn't live up to expectations.
Nonetheless, things are looking up for Dallas. Witten will once again prove he is one of the best all-around tight ends in the NFL. Escobar has gotten stronger and more comfortable in the Cowboys offense this offseason.
The Cowboys also brought in undrafted free agent Jordan Najvar, who could be an interesting option as a blocking tight end.
However, as with other skill positions on the Dallas offense, improvement at tight end will rely on the development of younger players.
With offensive coordinator Scott Linehan excited about what Escobar can do in his offense, it is likely that the Cowboys will see more production out of the position in 2014. Furthermore, if Escobar is featured more, it would take a great deal of pressure off of Bryant in the red zone. Escobar's huge frame is perfect for working the middle of the field down near the goal line and could very well give the Cowboys another reliable red-zone threat.
Escobar could even be a mismatch at the slot receiver position. This would put defenses in a pickle, forcing defenders to choose between putting a linebacker on him or cover him with a safety, which could either be a mismatch for Escobar or cause a mismatch elsewhere in the formation.
Overall, it seams as though the tight end position has improved this offseason because of the development of Escobar.
The most improved position group on offense from last season is likely the offensive line. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) gave the 2013 line a cumulative grade of plus-52.9.
Nevertheless, the addition of first-round pick Zack Martin should improve the unit even further in 2014. Martin's college tape was outstanding and points to him being a better guard already then either Mackenzy Bernadeau or Ronald Leary.
Four out of the five line positions are already decided—the one exception being left guard, where Leary and Bernardeau will compete.
The Cowboys have some of the best young offensive linemen in the NFL with Martin, Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick, which points to them having one of the best young offensive lines in the NFL.
There is a little uncertainty over the reserves. Bernadeau will likely remain the backup center, with whoever loses the battle at left guard being the swing guard.
In a perfect scenario, Leary would show much improvement over last season. That would mean Bernadeau, in addition to being the backup center, might get a look at guard, where he would battle it out with Brian Clarke or Uche Nwaneri for snaps.
Another training camp battle Dallas fans should keep their eyes on is the one for the swing tackle spot, where Jermey Parnell will compete with Darrion Weems. Weems has a significantly lower salary, which may give him a leg up.
Altogether, the Cowboys offensive line will be improved in 2014 with the addition of Martin and hopefully the development of Leary. Any improvement along the offensive line will likely produce a ripple effect that could lead to increased productivity at the skill position areas.
The position that was hit the most in free agency was easily the defensive line. The Cowboys lost two starters and star players in DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher. They have tried to replace Ware with a combination Jeremy Mincey, a free-agent signing, and 2014 second-round pick DeMarcus Lawrence. And Dallas signed former Chicago Bear Henry Melton to replace Hatcher.
At this point, it is impossible to say the Cowboys have improved the line. Mincey has been a solid rotational player at best, Lawrence is a rookie and it's hard to expect anything from a rookie pass-rusher and Melton is coming off of a torn ACL. It is unclear how much impact he will make in 2014 coming off that significant of an injury.
With all that said, the Cowboys have much better reserves this season, and even though they haven't improved individually along the defensive front, a new philosophy may be the key to a more productive season.
Last year, the Cowboys relied heavily on the starters, but this year, there should be much greater use of a rotation, similar to the approach of the Seattle Seahawks. This means the Cowboys will likely use an eight- or nine-man rotation to keep players fresh and allow them to play at their highest ability on every snap.
The question going into training camp is how many defensive linemen the Cowboys will keep and which eight or nine players will compose the rotation. The locks to make the squad appear to be Melton, Tyrone Crawford, George Selvie, Lawrence, Mincey and Terrell McClain. After that, players like Nick Hayden, Ken Bishop, Davon Coleman, Ben Gardner, Ben Bass and Martez Wilson will battle it out at their respective positions for the last three or four spots on the line.
The Cowboys have dramatically improved the depth along the defensive line this offseason; however it is yet to be seen whether there is enough quality at the top for the unit to be an improved one.
Therefore, the question will be whether the quantity of adequate players can compensate for the absence of elite players at the top of the defensive line depth chart.
Going into the offseason, there was some optimism surrounding the linebacker position. Kyle Wilber finally found a home a "Sam" linebacker, Sean Lee was healthy and ready to resume his role as leader of the defense and DeVonte Holloman showed a ton of promise. Bruce Carter had more time to get comfortable in this new defense, and the drafting of Anthony Hitchens at the very least gave the Cowboys more depth.
However, Sean Lee tore his left ACL this offseason and put the whole position in flux. Justin Durant has moved over to the "Mike" LB position, while players like Hitchens and Holloman are learning both the "Mike" and "Sam" positions.
Dallas did recently sign former Oakland Raider linebacker Rolando McClain, but there are still a ton of questions surrounding the position.
Linebacker is probably the defensive unit at which the Cowboys have seen the biggest decline thus far this offseason. The loss of Lee alone is huge, but coupled with guys playing unfamiliar positions, the situation doesn't look promising.
The onus is on Carter to become the leader and most productive linebacker. Rod Marinelli's promotion to defensive coordinator is likely to result in some slight changes that should bode well for Carter—the most important of which is Carter playing behind (or "covered") by the 3-technique lineman. This will allow him to be able to flow more easily to the ball, as he will be spared having to immediately engage with offensive linemen at the snap.
Because of this and the development of Wilber and Holloman, the Cowboys may see improvement at two out of the three linebacker spots. However, there will be a huge drop in the play at "Mike."
Regardless, it is highly unlikely that any player will be able to duplicate or replace the play of Lee. This is the key reason the Cowboys linebacking corps has declined this offseason.
As is the case with most of, if not all the positions on defense, the Cowboys are relying on the development of younger players and holdovers from last season.
There are some excellent indications that some of these players may improve in 2014. This is Morris Claiborne's first full, healthy offseason, which should do nothing but help, and Brandon Carr has lost 10 pounds. Orlando Scandrick had a great 2013 season, and there is no reason to believe he won't continue his improvement.
As is the case with other units on defense, there will be some scheme changes for the secondary as a whole and the cornerback position specifically. The Cowboys plan to utilize more man coverage in 2014, a change that should play more to the strengths of the corners presently on the roster. This should be particularly helpful to Claiborne and Carr, both of whom are better in man than in zone coverage.
Behind those top three, the Cowboys have five players competing for two spots. B.W. Webb, Terrance Mitchell, Sterling Moore, Tyler Patmon and Dashaun Phillips will all battle for the last two cornerback spots on the roster.
The improvement of this position group will come down to the improvement of Claiborne and Carr for the most part, but any contribution from the fourth and fifth corners would be a huge improvement over last year.
Once again, the story at safety will be whether the young safeties will develop as they gain experience in the Cowboys' defensive system.
Barry Church had an incredible year in 2013 considering he was coming off of a torn Achilles. His play solidified his spot as the starting free safety. (In most defenses, Church would be considered at strong safety; however the Cowboys flip the names.) Church should show even more improvement, as he will be another year removed from his injury.
The strong safety position is much less clear. J.J. Wilcox would appear to be the favorite, but he will be competing with Jakar Hamilton, Matt Johnson and Jeff Heath, all of whom have significant question marks.
Can Wilcox get more comfortable playing safety, and will he improve his coverage ability? Will Hamilton prove to be a good enough tackler and comfortable enough in the defensive scheme to make a difference at strong safety? Can Johnson stay healthy? Can Heath make drastic improvements in coverage and tackling?
All of these questions need to be answered before the Cowboys can decide who will start alongside Church.
Wilcox has the most potential out of all the candidates, but Hamilton may be the best coverage player, Heath may be the smartest and Johnson may be the best all-around safety. The Cowboys need one of these players to step up and prove he can play as the single-high safety in Cover 1 or Cover 3 coverages. However, they all must also prove that they can provide run support.
As the Seahawks proved, great safety play can hide any deficiencies in a defense, and the Cowboys need to figure out which of the young players they can pair with Church to help offset weaknesses on that side of the ball.
All in all, the Cowboys should see improvement at the free safety position, but it is unknown what, if any, improvement we will see at strong safety.
The Cowboys' kicking and return teams were outstanding last year, and there's no reason to believe that will be any different in 2014.
Dan Bailey is one of the best kickers in the game, while Dwayne Harris is one of the NFL's most prolific return men. It is unlikely that either of them will improve upon their great performances from last year, but as with Romo, that is not a bad thing as long as they both maintain their level of play.
The position up for grabs this summer will be punter. Undrafted free agent Cody Mandell will compete against incumbent Chris Jones. Thus far, Mandell has been impressive and looks to be in the lead heading into training camp.
Mandell's age and upside should give him an advantage over Jones, who was mediocre last year.
Overall, the Cowboys' punting unit should see an improvement while the kicking and return teams maintain their level of excellence.