Cowboys Draft Weekly Notebook – Episode 3 – Personnel Issues On Defense

This week, I wanted to spend some time on how we see the current roster for the Cowboys so that when we look at their job on the weekend of May 8-10, we are clear on the direction for the potential targets.  This requires us to do a little self-evalutation, part of which should be accomplished in a longer project, but let’s at least establish a starting point.

Today, we will tackle the defense for the Cowboys, which of course is coming off a season of amazing and historic lows in the history of the franchise.  There is no question that a lot of this was caused by injury, but in my estimation (based on our looks in the summer) much of this was caused by being undermanned at many positions even when fully healthy.  That is a speculative opinion, but I don’t think it is too absurd to look at the names and the positions and argue that whatever caused the Cowboys to consider a major scheme change without major personnel adjustments (ala, the Parcells 3-4 transition that was supplemented in the 2005 draft by taking front 7 fitting players with their first 3 picks) was a rather silly idea.

The result of trying to do something like that – changing your scheme, but not changing your personnel – was a defense that looked to be stretched too thin in September, beyond its limits in October, and utterly hopeless in November and December.  If you want to call it just "bad luck" in the injury department, then you are taking away any culpability and responsibility from the front office and forgetting that many of us projected the defense would have an impossible time learning and executing what Monte Kiffin and Rod Marinelli had planned for them from the time this plan was announced.

How many defensive linemen do you need to run a 4-3 defense?  Well, in 2013, the Cowboys used 20.  According to the snap totals at ProFootballFocus.com, here is the list in the order of most snaps to fewest:  Nick Hayden, Jason Hatcher, George Selvie, DeMarcus Ware, Kyle Wilber, Jarius Wynn, Drake Nevis, Everette Brown, Caesar Rayford, Corvey Irvin, Edgar Jones, David Carter, Jason Vega, Jerome Long, Landon Cohen, Anthony Spencer, Martez Wilson, Frank Kearse, Everett Dawkins, and finally, Marvin Austin.  That is one team, one defensive line, and one front office trying to find anyone who can actually do what the scheme needs, but also trying to acquire them in places other than unrestricted free agency in March or in the spring draft.  In other words, they were trying to put together a defensive line – arguably the most important part of the 4-3 under defense – without any investment against the salary cap and checkbook aside from the 3-4 price tags invested in Ware, Hatcher, and Spencer.

The linebackers and the secondary are pretty much exactly what you planned in the spring.  This, again, is why I think it would be crazy to argue that they were snakebitten with horrible fortune.  The fact is they planned along to have Bruce Carter, Sean Lee, and somebody at the 3rd linebacker (Justin Durant was the idea, but they knew this was a spot where someone would have to emerge) and then in the secondary, they had Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Orlando Scandrick, Barry Church, and a safety to emerge later as their 5 in the back.  Claiborne was hurt for a while, Lee surely was the straw that broke the camel’s back around Thanksgiving, but for the most part, that group we named were all relatively healthy and available for the season.  Carr, Scandrick, and Church all played 1,000 snaps and Carter played over 900 and would have played 1,000 if he wasn’t benched a few times.

The biggest issue in the linebacker group is that Carter turned into a weakness in a lot scenarios rather than the strength that he was billed to be, and then in the back, Will Allen became JJ Wilcox who became Jakar Hamilton who became Jeff Heath as the center field free safety option.

The Cowboys lack of investment in safety goes back a long ways and I have written about it plenty enough over the years that after Jerry was so devastated that Roy Williams was over-rated and over-compensated that he swung in the opposite direction, giving the Cowboys Pat Watkins, Keith Davis, Alan Ball, and a host of other spares in the last 8 seasons or so that has now led us to where Jeff Heath – a guy that only made the roster as a special teams terror – being devoured by many a QB as the season reached its end.

One of my favorite false narratives of 2013 is the idea that the Cowboys were running a horrendous scheme that is outdated and just a poorly conceived piece of strategy, while the entire time the Seattle Seahawks were running to a large extent a Monte Kiffin defense in Seattle and winning games with a punishing defense that made many of their opponents beg for mercy on their way to capturing their first Lombardi Trophy.

Either Monte Kiffin is a ninny or he isn’t, folks.  And when Tony Dungy and Pete Carroll believe in everything he teaches and have made it work for Super Bowl titles (in addition to the one Kiffin won with John Gruden in Tampa Bay), we should assume that his scheme (or Rod Marinelli’s) can work with the proper ingredients.

Which leads us to where we want to go today.  I want to look at the current group and try to at least give a quick look at the depth chart from a blue/red/yellow approach.  Blue means that assuming full health you can feel good about this spot and red is a spot where you may survive, but if you can upgrade you should certainly do so.  Red could also be a player who is developing into a prospect, but is still a question mark at this point.  Yellow is a guy who is simply filling a spot on the roster and is likely to be the type of player that can be picked up on the street in November. It is a rough way to evaluate as we should break down each situation separately, but this is just to get a broad idea of what is what.

 

As you can see, this is a rather rough approach to things, but it should at least get us started.  In fact, I am likely being too kind to many on this chart, but let’s try to remain realistic about how many changes they can make in one offseason (with no cap room).

Now, let’s pull this all together.  As you consider what the Cowboys are trying to do defensively, you can simply look strategically at what the Seahawks are doing (which is singing from the same song book) or you can look at who is doing it.

Is Earl Thomas capable of doing certain things at safety that Jeff Heath is incapable of doing?  Can Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett close the edge faster than the Cowboys?  How about the play at the corner position?

As we look at the picks that the Cowboys have at their disposal, below, you can understand how the Cowboys could and should address defense over and over again in those first 3-4 picks and attempt to begin the transition to a defense that can at least raise itself up to league average.

Round Pick Notes
Rd 1 #16/#17 Coin Flip Will determine with Balt
Rd 2 #16/#17  
Rd 3 #16/#17  
Rd 4 #16/#17  
Rd 5 #16/#17  
Rd 6 Traded Edgar Jones Trade with KC
Rd 7 #14 (Chi) From Dante Rosario Trade
Rd 7 #16/#17  
Rd 7 #23 (KC) From Edgar Jones Trade
 

 

The Combine will help us further place some names up for evaluation, but I wanted us to continue to evaluate several names that can really help in a the most needed position of need – in my opinion that is two places, the 3-technique which was held down by Jason Hatcher last season, but I expect he is a guy who will be off to a new city for some handsome cash, and the free safety spot which might be dealt with by JJ Wilcox, but I don’t really believe that I would be comfortable with that at this particular point.  They also need Defensive ends, a Sam linebacker, and depth everywhere, but 3-tech and free safety are the highest spots of need as I look at this.  
 
As potential 3-techniques, I hope you had a chance to look at Pitt’s Aaron Donald who I really like.  He appears to be the most ideal choice I have seen at this point who A) is a player who is a real talent but B) has a chance to slide to the Cowboys because of concerns about his slightly less than ideal height.
 
Others who might be 1st round candidates include Minnesota’s Rashede Hageman, Notre Dame’s duo of Louis Nix (who seems more like a 3-4 nose or a 1-tech), Stephon Tuitt, Florida State’s Timmy Jernigan, and then the drop off at that spot takes you down a round or two to the rest in the field.  
 
The safety spots are primarily Louisville’s Calvin Pryor and Alabama’s Haha Clinton Dixas well as others in Round 2-3 where I might like to target a safety like Baylor’s hard hitting, trash talking safety, Ahmad Dixon (although he may be more ideal as a strong safety.  That is ok, I need interchangeable safeties, like Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor are apt to do).  
 
I recommend you look at their work at DraftBreakdown.com to lock into their videos and I will break them all down in next week’s edition.  
 
Finally, I want to leave you with mandatory reading from SmartFootball.com and Grantland.  It is an in-depth look at the Seattle defensive scheme that will really help you understand the scheme the Cowboys wish to run along with the hybrid concepts that they will run along the line and in the secondary when they are stocked with the proper talent.  It is awesome and something you should keep bookmarked to enhance your understanding of what the big picture is most likely focused on. 
 
Great job, Chris Brown, on that piece.
 
The Combine approaches!