Dallas Cowboys 2014 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Cowboys fans must be sick of going 8-8, after the last 3 seasons ended in the same way, with the team finishing 8-8 and missing the playoffs after losing essentially a divisional play-in game week 17. The good news is that the Cowboys could be pretty bad this season, so Cowboy fans won’t have to worry about the monotony. This team was a lot worse than their 8-8 record suggested as they finished 22nd in rate of moving the chains differential, at -3.51%. They were very reliant on a +10 turnover margin and a 66.67% fumble recovery rate to be successful last season.

Their offense was really strong, moving the chains at a 74.15% rate, 9th in the NFL. However, their defense was horrible, ranking dead last in the NFL, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 77.66% rate. That should remain the case this season. The Cowboys spent their first round pick (16th overall) on Zack Martin, who will slot in immediately as a guard and help their offense. However, they also lost DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher on defense this off-season.

They have Henry Melton coming in as a free agent and Anthony Spencer coming back from injury, but both are coming off of serious leg injuries and the latter’s status for the start of the season is still very much in doubt. 2nd round rookie DeMarcus Lawrence is going to have to play a significant role as a rookie and their top defensive player, middle linebacker Sean Lee, is already out for the season with a torn ACL. Like last season, when they allowed 388 first downs and 50 touchdowns to 61 punts, they’re going to have a hard time getting off the field defensively without forcing turnovers, which obviously can’t be relied on.

Let’s start with the good though, meaning their strong offense. Tony Romo is obviously the quarterback of that offense. Romo takes an unnecessary amount of heat because he’s the Cowboys’ quarterback, so every mistake he makes is magnified and last season every mistake he made was especially magnified because of how bad their defense was. However, he’s coming off of a very strong season, completing 63.9% of his passes for an average of 7.16 YPA, 31 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions, a QB rating of 96.7. For his career, he completes 64.6% of his passes for an average of 7.83 YPA, 208 touchdowns, and 101 interceptions.

He was Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked quarterback last season, including 7th in passing grade. He’s graded out above average in 6 of 7 seasons since 2007, including 8th in 2007, 16th in 2009, 9th in 2010, 9th in 2011, 10th in 2012, and, of course, 13th last season. The concern with Romo isn’t a lack of clutch (whatever that means). It’s that he’s going into his age 34 season coming off of a significant back injury with his YPA declining in every season since 2011 (8.02 YPA, 7.57 YPA, 7.16 YPA) and his completion percentage declining in every season since 2010 (69.5%, 66.3%, 65.6%, 63.9%).

He had a strong interception rate (1.9%) last season, but interceptions happen on such a small percentage of snaps that it’s better to evaluate quarterbacks on YPA and completion percentage. That interception rate should be closer to his career rate of 2.7% this season. That’s not bad, but if he declines and throws an interception on 3% of attempts and continues to see his YPA and completion percentage drop as he ages coming off of back surgery, it’s an issue. I’m not that concerned yet, but it’s something to note.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

As I mentioned, Zack Martin was the Cowboys’ first round pick in this past draft, going 16th overall. He’ll instantly slot in at one guard spot, forcing Mackenzy Bernadeau and Ronald Leary, the starters last season, to compete for the other starting job. He might not be an upgrade as a rookie over what either of those two was last season, but both of those two can’t be counted on going forward for different reasons and Martin has far more long-term upside.

Leary struggled last season as a 16 game starter, grading out 54th out of 81 eligible guard last season, after the 2012 undrafted free agent didn’t play a snap as a rookie. He’s unlikely to get much better going forward given his history and his draft status, so Mackenzy Bernadeau is probably the better choice at the other guard spot. However, Bernadeau’s history is shaky as well. While he was the Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked guard in 2013, he graded out well below average at both guard and center in 2012 in his first year as a starter. Before that, he played an average of 352 snaps per season in Carolina from 2008-2011 after being drafted in the 7th round in 2008, grading out above average only once, in 2011, when he played just 125 snaps.

There was some talk that Martin, a collegiate offensive tackle, could play right tackle for the Cowboys and move Doug Free inside to guard. That’s not going to happen, but Martin could still end up at right tackle at some point as Free will be a free agent going into his age 31 season next off-season. As for 2014, Free will line up at right tackle, but it’s tough to know what to expect from him. The 2007 4th round pick played a combined 17 snaps in his first 2 years in the league and then broke out as a starter at right tackle in 2009, grading out 30th on 571 snaps.

He was even better in 2010 on the blindside, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked offensive tackle. However, he then struggled in 2011, grading out 51st out of 76 eligible and was moved back to right tackle. That positional move didn’t really help him in 2012, as he graded out 68th out of 80 eligible. The Cowboys slashed his salary for 2013 and 2014 and he responded well, grading out 20th among offensive tackles at right tackle last season. There’s obviously no guarantee he can be as good as that again in 2014 given his history, but he saved his job for 2014 with a strong 2013 season.

The Cowboys also have a pair of former 1st round picks at left tackle and center in Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick respectively, giving them three former 1st round picks on the offensive line, including Martin. Smith is the better of the two. The 2011 9th overall pick graded out 3rd in 2011 and 7th in 2013, with a down 2012 season in between, when he graded out slightly below average. He played right tackle as a rookie, had some growing pains at left tackle in 2012, but then put it all together last season. Only going into his age 24 season, Smith is one of the better young left tackles in the game. The Cowboys picked up his 5th year option for 2015.

Frederick isn’t as good as Smith, but he’s still a strong offensive lineman. He was a surprise pick as the 31st overall pick in 2013, but he impressed as a rookie, grading out 7th at his position. He struggled in pass protection, grading out 32nd out of 35 eligible in that aspect, which is unfortunate considering pass protection is more important than run blocking, but he was Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked run blocking center and he could be even better in his 2nd year in the league in 2014. It’s a strong offensive line overall.

Grade: A-

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

The Cowboys also have plenty of talent in the receiving corps. Dez Bryant is the leader of this unit, though he’s not quite as good as his numbers would suggest. He was Pro Football Focus’ 24th ranked wide receiver in pass catching grade in 2010 as a first round rookie, 12th in 2011, 40th in 2012, and 14th in 2013. He’s averaged 1.97 yards per route run in his 4 year career and caught 63.1% of his targets, which is above average, but not fantastic. He’s averaged 2.09 yards per route run over the past 2 seasons, but he’s also dropped 22 passes. Still, he’s going into his age 26 season only and he could have a very big contract year.

The Cowboys got rid of Miles Austin this off-season, after the injury plagued, aging former 1000 yard receiver caught just 22 passes for 244 yards in 11 games last season and averaged 0.76 yards per route run. He was Pro Football Focus’ 100th ranked wide receiver out of 111 eligible in terms of pure pass catching grade last season. He could have bounced back this season, but it was his age 30 season and he was owed a lot of money so the Cowboys are going to move forward with some young receivers after Bryant on the depth chart.

The heavy favorite to be the #2 wide receiver is Terrence Williams, who was 2nd on the team in snaps played by a wide receiver last season with 700, ahead of the injury plagued Austin. The 3rd round rookie caught 44 passes on 72 targets (61.1%) for 736 receiving yards and 5 touchdowns on 490 routes run, an average of 1.50 yards per route run, which isn’t great. He graded out below average on Pro Football Focus overall and actually ranked 89th out of 111 eligible in pure pass catching grade. Still, he has upside and he could easily be better in his 2nd year in the league considering rookie wide receivers rarely do anything.

Meanwhile, 3rd year wide receiver Cole Beasley is going to have a significantly bigger role this season as the slot receiver. The 2012 undrafted free agent has played just 375 snaps in 2 seasons, but a ridiculous 312 of them have been routes run. He’s caught 54 passes on 76 attempts (71.1%) for 496 yards and 2 touchdowns, an average of 1.59 yards per route run. He has a lot of potential but the 5-8 177 pounder is only a slot man, running 293 of his 312 routes on the slot (93.9%) and he’s still unproven. We’ll see how he does as the full-time slot man. Their competition behind him and Williams is also really young as Devin Street is a 5th round rookie and Dwayne Harris is primarily a return man who has played 414 snaps in 3 seasons since being drafted in the 6th round in 2011.

At tight end, Jason Witten remains one of the best and most reliable tight ends in the NFL. Since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2003, he’s missed one game, missing one as a rookie when he broke his jaw. He played in the opener in 2012 less than 3 weeks after rupturing his spleen and needing to sign a waiver to get onto the field. Excluding his rookie year, he’s always been between 64 and 110 catches 754 and 1152 yards and 1 and 7 touchdowns.

He’s also a fantastic run blocker, as the 6-6 261 pounder has graded out above average as a run blocker on Pro Football Focus in every season since they started keeping track in 2007. He’s also been a top-9 tight end in each of the last 7 seasons (something no other tight end can say) and a top-4 tight end in 6 of the last 7 seasons on Pro Football Focus, maxing out at #1 in 2009 and 2010 and grading out 3rd last season. He’s going into his age 32 season, which is a concern, but he should still be a dominant tight end.

With a lot of youth at wide receiver, the Cowboys are probably hoping they can run more two-tight end sets this season than last season. They drafted Gavin Escobar in the 2nd round in 2013 for a reason, but he only played 207 snaps as a rookie. He wasn’t bad on those 207 snaps so he could be fine in a bigger role in 2014. If he can’t win the #2 tight end job, it’ll be disappointing and it’ll once again be up to 2012 7th round pick James Hanna to be the #2 tight end. Hanna has played 424 snaps in 2 seasons and struggled mightily on 315 snaps last season, especially struggling as a run blocker. Despite his limited playing time, he still graded out 59th out of 64 eligible tight ends last season. After Bryant and Witten there are question marks in the receiving corps, but there’s young talent.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

The Cowboys were able to have a well-rounded offense last season because they ran the ball well. They didn’t run that often, running 336 times to 586 passes (something that won’t change with Scott Linehan coming in from Detroit), but they were effective when they ran, rushing for 1504 yards and 12 touchdowns, an average of 4.48 YPC. That’s because DeMarco Murray had the best season of his career, rushing for 1121 yards and 9 touchdowns on 217 attempts, an average of 5.17 YPC. He also added 53 catches for 350 yards and a touchdown through the air.

He was Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked running back overall and had the 7th highest elusive rating last season with 53 broken tackles on 270 touches and 2.71 yards per carry after contact. The Cowboys’ strong run blocking offensive line helped, but he also showed fantastic running ability himself. I’m skeptical whether or not he can repeat that kind of season, given his injury history. He’s been banged up dating back to college, even missing 2 games last season, and missing a combined 11 games in 3 seasons in the league. He’s never played more than 14 games in a season and the 270 touches he had last season blew his previous career high of 196 out of the water.

If Murray misses time, it’ll be a bigger role for Lance Dunbar, who could have a significant role either way. Scott Linehan, coming in from Detroit, sees Dunbar as someone who can be a Reggie Bush/Darren Sproles/Danny Woodhead type weapon so he’ll have a significant role on passing downs and make Murray largely a two-down running back. He won’t see a lot of carries unless Murray gets hurt, but he could see 40-50 catches. The 2012 undrafted free agent has seen 143 carries in 2 seasons in the league.

The 5-8 188 pounder could have trouble carrying the load if Murray gets hurt though so the #3 running back position in Dallas is important. There’s currently a positional battle for that role between Joseph Randle and Ryan Williams. Randle is currently leading the battle, even after struggling mightily on 121 snaps as a 5th round rookie last season. Williams was a 2nd round pick in 2011, but injuries have derailed his career. He’s had injury problems dating back to his days at Virginia Tech and, as a professional, they’ve caused him to be limited to 5 games and 58 carries in his career and caused him to averaged just 2.83 yards per carry. There’s talent at running back with DeMarco Murray, but, because of his history with injuries, he’s unlikely to match what he did last season and their depth at the position is less than ideal given that situation.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

While the Cowboys’ offense was strong last season, their defense was terrible, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 77.66%, easily worst in the NFL. They had 20 players play at least a snap on the defensive line last season and only two of them graded out positively. As bad as they were defensively last season, they could be even worse this season. The Cowboys had 4 players play more than 100 snaps on defense last season and grade out above average on Pro Football Focus. Two of them (Jason Hatcher and DeMarcus Ware) are gone, while another one (Sean Lee) is out for the season with injury.

When the Cowboys lost Jason Hatcher this off-season, their defensive tackles might have been the single worst position group any team had at any position in the NFL. Fortunately, they signed Henry Melton from Chicago, who reunites with former defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, but he’s coming off of a torn ACL and a rough start to the 2013 season, in which he struggled mightily on 125 snaps before getting hurt.

He could return to form this season, back with Marinelli, and he’s still young, only going into his age 28 season, but ACL injuries are tricky. At his best, he’s a very good defensive tackle and the 6-3 260 pounder is a fantastic fit as a one gap penetrator in a scheme like Marinelli’s. He was Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked defensive tackle in 2012 and 14th ranked defensive tackle in 2011 (grading out well above average as a pass rusher and below average as a run stopper in both seasons), after struggling on a combined 353 snaps in his first 2 seasons in the league after being drafted in the 4th round in 2009. A return to form would obviously really help this defense, but there are no guarantees.

After him, the depth chart at defensive tackle is pathetic. Nick Hayden led the defensive line in snaps played last season with 843. That’s absurd because Hayden was out of the league in 2012, played 33 snaps in 2011, and struggled mightily in his last significant action in 2010, grading out 68th out of 76 eligible defensive tackles on just 484 snaps. He played about as well as you’d expect him to last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked defensive tackle, showing himself to be extremely overstretched in such a large role. I don’t expect him to be any better this season. He could have a smaller role, but anyone else who plays significant snaps at the position won’t be much better.

The biggest competitor for Hayden’s starting job is Terrell McClain, a 2011 3rd round pick who is already on his 4th team. He’s graded out below average in each of the three seasons he’s been in the league and he’s played a combined 203 snaps over the past 2 seasons combined. In his only season of significant action as a rookie in 2011, he graded out 83rd out of 88 eligible defensive tackles on just 481 snaps, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out worse. He won’t be much of an upgrade over Hayden if he wins the starting job. They really need Melton to stay healthy. If he can’t, McClain and Hayden would both have to start and the 3rd defensive tackle would be 7th round rookie Ken Bishop. The fact that Bishop is currently their 4th defensive tackle just reinforces how bad things are at the position.

As I mentioned, the Cowboys also lost DeMarcus Ware this off-season. Ware is on the decline, but he still graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked 4-3 defensive end last season, on an otherwise horrible defense. The Cowboys will attempt to replace him with a combination of Anthony Spencer and DeMarcus Lawrence. Spencer has a very impressive history. The 2007 1st round pick was a top-11 3-4 outside linebacker on Pro Football Focus in all 5 seasons from 2008-2012, including 4 as an every down starter and topping at #1 overall in 2012. As a result, he was franchise tagged by the Cowboys twice, but he played just 38 snaps on his 2nd franchise tag in 2013, missing most of the season with a knee injury.

He was brought back on a one year, prove it deal this off-season, but he’s going into his age 30 season and coming off of serious microfracture surgery and reports haven’t been good. He’s reportedly out of shape, not close to on schedule in terms of his recovery, and could begin the season on the reserve/PUP list, which would cost him the first 6 games and put him severely behind the 8-ball. His health is something to monitor throughout training camp and the pre-season, if he’s even able to get onto the field then. Lawrence, meanwhile, is a 2nd round rookie who will be counted on in a significant role as a rookie, especially if Spencer can’t stay healthy.

George Selvie will remain the starter on the other side. In an overall very bad year for the Cowboys’ defense, one of the positives was Selvie. He wasn’t great or anything and he didn’t even grade out above average (grading out slightly below average, 27th out of 52 eligible 4-3 defensive end), but it was nice to see the one-time dominant college pass rusher finally make a positive contribution. He had 14 sacks as a sophomore in 2007, but he combined for just 8 sacks in 2008 and 2009 and ended up falling to the 7th round of the 2010 NFL draft. In the first 3 seasons of his career, he combined to play 662 snaps, struggling when on the field, but Rod Marinelli was able to get the most out of him last season and get him to give at least some positive contributions. However, he’s still very much a one year wonder so he could regress in 2014.

One defensive end who could get a significant role, especially if Spencer can’t play, is Jeremy Mincey, a free agent acquisition and their 4th defensive end. Mincey was a 6th round pick in 2006 and played just 166 snaps from 2007-2009, before breaking out as a solid starter in 2010 and an above average starter in 2011, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked 4-3 defensive end. That convinced the Jaguars to give him a 20 million dollar deal over 4 years with 9 million guaranteed. Mincey then proved that his 2011 season was a fluke, grading out 47th out of 62 4-3 defensive ends in 2012 and then getting cut midway through 2013, combining for just 304 snaps on the season between Jacksonville and Denver. He could bounce back this season, but he’s already going into his age 31 season. The Cowboys’ defensive line, overall, might be even worse than it was last season.

Grade: C

Linebackers

As I mentioned, the Cowboys also lost Sean Lee in addition to DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher. It’s usually tough to know how a team will play without a certain guy, but Lee also missed 5 games with injury last season (this torn ACL will make it 31 games missed 3 games) so we have some reference point. The Cowboys’ defense was awful overall, but they were even worse without Lee, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 79.51% rate in the 6 games in which Lee played fewer than 50% of snaps, as opposed to 76.60% in the other 10 games.

Lee is incredibly talented, but has injury problems dating back to his days at Penn State, which is why he fell to the 2nd round in 2012. As a professional, he’s missed 18 games over the past 4 seasons combined with another 16 on the horizon, but he’s been dominant when on the field, grading out 7th in 2013 on 717 snaps and 8th in 2012 on 331 snaps. No one played fewer snaps than him and graded out higher in 2012. He was 14th at his position in 2011 and excelled on 169 snaps in 2010, grading out 16th at his position, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out higher.

Lee will be replaced at middle linebacker by Justin Durant, who played 202 snaps in a two-down role last season, grading out slightly below average. Prior to last year, he had graded out above average in each of his first 6 seasons in the league, after getting drafted in the 2nd round in 2007. He averaged 620 snaps per season over those 6 seasons, playing both outside and inside linebacker. He’s never been spectacular, but he had always been solid prior to last season. He struggled last season, but he’s only going into his age 29 season, so he could bounce back. The issue is that he struggles in coverage, grading out below average in that aspect in 4 of 6 seasons, as good as he is against the run, so he could be limited to two-down work, as he often has been in his career.

DeVonte Holloman took over for Lee when he was hurt last season, but the 6th round rookie was horrible in 2013. He played just 214 snaps as a rookie, but he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 7th worst ranked middle linebacker despite the limited playing time, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out worse. The wild card in the linebacking corps is Rolando McClain. The Cowboys took a long shot trading a late round pick to the Ravens for him.

McClain was out of the league completely last year after “retiring” after his 3rd year in the league in 2012. He got kicked off the Raiders’ roster in 2012 because of issues with his coaching, got signed by the Ravens, but then retired after his 3rd arrest since being drafted. However, he was the 8th overall pick in 2010, graded out above average in each of his first 3 seasons in the league, including 14th in 2010 and 11th in 2012, and is only going into his age 25 season, so it was a worthwhile gamble, there’s just no guarantee it works out. He’s had a variety of issues and is reportedly out of shape after his year off. The Cowboys also used a 4th round pick on Anthony Hitchens.

Any of the players who lose the middle linebacker battle can play the two-down role outside, where Durant played last season. Right now, the Cowboys have Durant as an every down player inside and Kyle Wilbur playing a two-down role on the outside. Wilbur, unfortunately, is definitely only a two-down player. The 6-4 246 pounder is a converted defensive end who has struggled at defensive end and linebacker on 529 snaps in 2 seasons after going in the 4th round in 2012. Things are very much up for grabs in the linebacking corps.

The one thing that is certain is that Bruce Carter will be an every down player on the outside. The 2011 2nd round pick was supposed to have a breakout year last year, but, like the rest of the defense, he struggled, grading out 32nd out of 35 eligible 4-3 outside linebackers. He struggled on 41 snaps as a rookie, but graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked middle linebacker in 2012. A lot of people thought he would breakout in his 3rd year in the league back at his natural position of outside linebacker, but that didn’t happen. His future now looks a lot bleaker than it did last season, going into his contract year, and, on top of that, he’s missed 12 games in 3 seasons due to injury. The 6-2 240 pounder played well in coverage, but struggled mightily against the run, showing a lack of physicality that’s been an issue for him dating back to his collegiate days. This unit is pretty bad without Sean Lee.

Grade: C-

Secondary

I mentioned that the Cowboys had 4 defensive players who played more than 100 snaps and graded out above average on Pro Football Focus. DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher are gone, while Sean Lee is hurt. The 4th one was cornerback Orlando Scandrick, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 38th ranked cornerback. He struggled mightily against the run, but dominated in coverage, grading out 15th in that aspect. He was forced into the starting lineup (starting 15 games and playing 1118 snaps) because Morris Claiborne struggled and got demoted to 3rd cornerback.

He’ll compete with Claiborne to keep that starting job. The Cowboys traded up in 2012 to draft Claiborne 6th overall, but he’s largely been a bust through the first 2 seasons of his career. He graded out below average in each of his first 2 seasons in the league, doing so as a starter in 2012 and as the #3 cornerback in 2013. There are no guarantees that Scandrick can continue to hold him off though and not even necessarily because Claiborne is ready to breakout or anything. Scandrick has a very inconsistent history at best. Scandrick graded out below average in 3 of his first 5 seasons in the league from 2008-2012 and never graded out above average in a season he played more than 395 snaps before last season. There are no guarantees he can keep it up and hold off Claiborne.

Brandon Carr remains locked in as the other starter by virtue of his absurd salary, 7.5 million. The Cowboys gave him a 5-year, 50.1 million dollar contract with 25.5 million guaranteed  before the 2012 season, but he’s only graded out about average in his first 2 seasons in Dallas. He got that deal because he was very good in Kansas City, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 20th ranked cornerback in 2009, 12th ranked cornerback in 2010, and 30th ranked cornerback in 2011. That player seems to be gone so this could be easily be Carr’s last season in Dallas, owed a non-guaranteed 8 million dollar salary in 2015.

Things aren’t terrible at cornerback, but they are at safety. Barry Church was their best safety last season and he is locked in at one starting spot. He didn’t even grade out above average, though he wasn’t terrible. The other starting spot has bigger problems, as JJ Wilcox and Jeff Heath will battle for the other starting job. They played 530 and 613 snaps respectively last season and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 57th and 62nd ranked safeties respectively out of 86 eligible. Wilcox probably has the better long-term potential, as he was a 3rd round pick in 2013, while Heath was an undrafted rookie last year, but it’s very possible that neither is the solution at that position. It’s a defense that has the potential to be truly terrible and once again the worst in the NFL.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The Cowboys were significantly worse than their record last season because of a horrific defense and this year their defense could easily be even worse without Jason Hatcher, DeMarcus Ware, and Sean Lee. That could make them one of the worst teams in the league, even if they have a solid offense. Last year, the only way their defense could get off the field was forcing turnovers, which isn’t sustainable, especially since they needed to recover 66.67% of fumbles to do that. They should be completely awful on that side of the ball. I’ll have an official wins prediction when I finish every team’s preview.

Prediction: 4-12 4th in NFC East

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