2014 NFL Offseason: Dallas Cowboys

Dallas Cowboys (Last Year: 8-8)

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2014 NFL Season Preview:

Veteran Additions:
QB Brandon Weeden, G Uche Nwaneri, DE Jeremy Mincey, DT Henry Melton, DT Terrell McClain, ILB Rolando McClain, ILB Will Herring, S Danny McCray.
Early Draft Picks:
G/OT Zack Martin, DE Demarcus Lawrence, LB Anthony Hitchens, WR Devin Street. Cowboys Rookie Forecast
Offseason Losses:
QB Kyle Orton, RB Phillip Tanner, WR Miles Austin, G Brian Waters, C Phil Costa, DE DeMarcus Ware, DE Everette Brown, DT DeMarcus Ware, OLB Ernie Sims.

2014 Dallas Cowboys Offense:
Tony Romo takes a ton of flak for his team constantly failing to live up to expectations, but it’s usually not warranted. Romo is coming off a terrific season in which he threw 31 touchdowns compared to just 10 interceptions. He may have led Dallas into the playoffs, but he suffered a back injury and had to miss the finale in which Kyle Orton nearly led the team to victory. However, Romo is coming off back surgery – his second in as many years – and at 34, he may not be the same quarterback he once was.

With that in mind, Jerry Jones had to make sure his franchise signal-caller will be protected as well as possible. That would explain why he eschewed a defensive player at No. 16 overall in the 2014 NFL Draft and opted for Notre Dame lineman Zack Martin instead. Martin can play every position up front except for center, though he has short arms, so he might be better off at guard. That’s exactly where Dallas needs him right now though, as right guard Ronald Leary did a poor job this past season. Martin will start there along with center Travis Frederick and left guard Mackenzy Bernadeau on the interior. Frederick was a reach in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft. He struggled at times as a rookie, but had a solid season overall. Bernadeau is a mediocre blocker, but he’s not a liability.

Martin may eventually take over at right tackle, which is currently occupied by Doug Free. The 30-year-old has had some dreadful seasons in Dallas, but performed better than expected in 2013. He’s entering his contract season, so he’ll continue to start across from Pro Bowl left tackle Tyron Smith for now.

Given that his protection will be better, Romo could have a career year if his back holds up. Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan will utilize his pass-happy attack, and Romo has plenty of weapons at his disposal. Miles Austin is gone, but that’s actually a good thing because Dallas’ offense was more sluggish when he was on the field. His departure will allow Terrence Williams to be a full-time starter across from stud wideout Dez Bryant. Williams thrived as a third-round rookie this past season, catching 44 balls for 736 yards and five touchdowns. He’ll undoubtedly improve in 2014, giving Romo a pair of strong wideouts to throw to.

Romo will also have Jason Witten at his disposal once again. Romo has loved connecting with Witten over the years, but the big tight end is slowing down at the age of 32. He saw his receptions total drop from 110 to 73 this past season, and he’ll continue to decline as he transitions into his mid-30s. Dallas drafted Gavin Escobar in the second round last April to eventually replace Witten, but he won’t be doing that this season.

Having a healthy DeMarco Murray for most of the season was definitely a big help for Romo. Murray rushed for 1,124 yards on a 5.2 YPC clip and also caught 53 balls in 2013. It’s difficult to expect that once again, however, given that Murray has yet to play all 16 games in any season thus far. He even missed two contests last year, and the 14 starts happened to be a career-high. Dallas will use Lance Dunbar as a pass-catching, change-of-pace player to preserve the fragile Murray.

2014 Dallas Cowboys Defense:
The Cowboys nearly made some dubious history last season. They surrendered 6,645 total yards last season, which is the third-most ever allowed in NFL history. They finished behind only the 2012 Saints (7,042 yards) and 1981 Baltimore Colts (6,793). However, given what has transpired this offseason, it’s very possible that Dallas could eclipse that 7,042 figure.

Dallas, of course, lost future Hall of Famer DeMarcus Ware when it was forced to cut him because of salary-cap ramifications. Ware wasn’t at his best in 2013 because of nagging injuries – he tallied six sacks in 13 games – but he was still one of the top defenders on the roster. Anthony Spencer will be back to take his spot after playing just one contest last year, but he won’t be at 100 percent either, given that he’s coming off serious knee surgery. Spencer isn’t even a lock to be ready by Week 1, so it’s unlikely that he’ll duplicate the 11-sack campaign he enjoyed back in 2012. If Spencer can’t play well, the Cowboys will have to count on the likes of Jeremy Mincey, George Selvie and second-round rookie Demarcus Lawrence to get to the quarterback.

The best player on the Cowboys’ stop unit from 2013 is also gone. Jason Hatcher, who actually put together an exceptional season, signed with the Redskins this spring. Dallas brought in Henry Melton as a replacement, but the former Bear was dreadful last year. Perhaps Melton can rebound. If not, the defensive interior will be brutal, as the anemic Nick Hayden will once again be asked to start.

Making matters worse, Dallas received some devastating news this summer when it learned that Sean Lee would be out for the year with a torn ACL. Lee was arguably the second-best player on the defense last season, so he will also be sorely missed. The Cowboys will have to start fourth-round rookie Anthony Hitchens, who was widely considered a reach. Hitchens will be flanked by DeVonte Holloman, who was atrocious this past season, and Bruce Carter, who struggled in his transition from the 3-4 to the 4-3. Rolando McClain could push for a starting job, but he has been a huge bust.

The secondary is the strongest part of the Cowboy defense, which is sad considering the team allowed the third-most passing yards in the NFL this previous season. Part of the problem is that both starting cornerbacks have failed to live up to expectations. Brandon Carr, who signed a 5-year, $50.1 million contract in March 2012, has just been mediocre. Meanwhile, Morris Claiborne, chosen No. 6 overall that following April, has been even worse. Orlando Scandrick is a solid nickel at least, but he’s the only decent player Dallas has in its corner group.

The safety position isn’t in better shape. Barry Church is fine as one of the starters, but J.J. Wilcox, chosen in the third round of the 2013 NFL Draft, didn’t play very well as a rookie. All Dallas did in an attempt to improve this area was acquire Ahmad Dixon in the seventh round this past May. It’s safe to say that he won’t be making much of an impact anytime soon.

2014 Dallas Cowboys Schedule and Intangibles:
Jerry Jones opened up his fancy new stadium with its giant video screen in 2009. It all looked great – until the players took the field. In the five years at Cowboys Stadium, the host is just 23-18, compared to 19-22 on the road.

Undrafted rookie Dan Bailey came out of nowhere in 2011 to perform as one of the league’s top kickers. He was sharp again last season, hitting 28-of-30 tries, including 6-of-7 from 50-plus. Bailey was awarded with a 6-year, $22.5 million extension this offseason.

Punter Chris Jones was only in the middle of the pack in terms of net average, but he finished in the top 10 in terms of attempts placed inside the 20.

Dallas scored once on special teams – a punt return by Dwayne Harris. The team outgained the opposition on both punt and kickoff returns.

Four of the Cowboys’ first six games are against the 49ers, Rams, Saints and Seahawks, so they could be in a hole early. The rest of their schedule gets easier after that though, thanks to the NFC East’s ineptitude.

2014 Dallas Cowboys Rookies:
Go here for the Cowboys Rookie Forecast, a page with predictions like which rookie will bust and which rookie will become a solid starter.

2014 Dallas Cowboys Positional Rankings (1-5 stars):
Offensive Line
Running Backs
Defensive Line
Special Teams

2014 Dallas Cowboys Analysis: Everyone always jokes about the Cowboys finishing 8-8 every year. Well, they’ll need a miracle to get up to eight victories in 2014. The third-worst defense of all time will be even worse this season. Tony Romo is coming off his second back surgery in as many years. DeMarco Murray is unlikely to play in as many games again. Plus, Jason Garrett is once again bound to cost his team several wins. Dallas is atrocious, and as a consequence, will one of the veteran teams to bottom out this year, much like Houston in 2013.

Projection: 3-13 (4th in NFC East)

2014 Fantasy Football Rankings

More 2014 NFL Season Previews

Follow @walterfootball for updates.

NFL Draft Individual Grades: C- Grade

Goals Entering the 2014 NFL Draft: The Cowboys have a terrible defense with plenty of holes. Upgrades are needed all over. Some areas could be addressed on offense, including right tackle and receiver, but Dallas has to spend most of its energy improving the stop unit.

2014 NFL Draft Accomplishments: Some expected Johnny Manziel to be the pick at No. 16, but that was never a realistic option, given Tony Romo’s contract. Zack Martin made a lot more sense even though the Cowboys had to upgrade their defense. The guard position had to be addressed in order to keep Romo healthy, and Martin will be able to start there right away before perhaps moving to right tackle once Doug Free moves on.

So, did the Cowboys manage to bolster their stop unit with the rest of their selections? Not really. Demarcus Lawrence was a solid pick, but Jerry Jones made a ridiculous trade in order to get him, surrendering his third-rounder to the Redskins, of all teams. With no choice in the third frame, the Cowboys’ next selection came in the fourth, where they took Anthony Hitchens, an undraftable player. The next defender would be chosen at No. 231.

Dallas is still going to have a terrible defense, so it obviously deserves a poor mark. There are two things saving it from an “F.” The first is the Martin pick; Jones didn’t reach, so that was a miracle. The second were some exceptional seventh-round choices. All eyes were on Michael Sam toward the end of the draft, so no one noticed that Jerry was absolutely on fire. My theory is that he handed the reins over to his scouts because he didn’t recognize any of the names remaining on the board.

16. Zack Martin, G/OT, Notre Dame: B Grade
So much for Johnny Manziel being the pick. He was never a realistic option, though this is a bit of an upset in that the Cowboys aren’t upgrading the third-worst defense of all time (according to yardage allowed). However, this pick still makes sense. The Cowboys needed a guard upgrade for 2014 and a future right tackle if they can’t retain Doug Free. Zack Martin was expected to go around the 12th pick, so there’s a decent amount of value here. Having said that, Jones may regret not upgrading his stop unit when the Eagles, Redskins and Giants all put up 30 on his team.

34. Demarcus Lawrence, DE, Boise State: C+ Grade
The Cowboys lost the trade because they gave up a valuable third-round pick to move up to No. 34. I guess they were concerned that the Falcons would select him. This pick obviously makes sense from a needs standpoint because Dallas is desperate at defensive end after losing DeMarcus Ware. He also fits the range. I’d like this pick a lot more if the Cowboys didn’t give up so much.

119. Anthony Hitchens, LB, Iowa: JOHNNY MILLEN Grade
And the first UDFA prospect is off the board. No surprise, given who’s making the pick. I heard zero buzz about Anthony Hitchens, so I’m sure many teams expected to sign him after the draft. Jerry Jones needs a GM.

146. Devin Street, WR, Pittsburgh: B Grade
Someone stop the presses because Jerry Jones didn’t reach for a change. The Cowboys wanted another receiver after losing Miles Austin-Jones, so this selection makes sense.

231. Ben Gardner, DE, Stanford: A- Grade
The Cowboys had to spend multiple picks on defensive ends, given the lack of talent they have at the position. Ben Gardner would have gone earlier if it wasn’t for an injury, so I like this value. It feels weird writing that about a Dallas pick.

238. Will Smith, OLB, Texas Tech: C Grade
And the Cowboys are back to picking undraftable players. It’s nice to know that hell hasn’t frozen over.

248. Ahmad Dixon, S, Baylor: A+ Grade
OK, so maybe hell has frozen over after all. Ahmad Dixon was viewed by some as a third-round prospect. I don’t understand how he and some others – Marcus Roberson, Christian Jones, Antonio Richardson – have lasted this long. But the Cowboys can’t complain because they’re getting a steal and potentially filling a position of need.

251. Ken Bishop, DT, Northern Illinois: B+ Grade
I was told Ken Bishop would generate some interest in Round 6, perhaps even the frame before that. With that in mind, the Cowboys are getting decent value at a position that absolutely needs to be strengthened.

254. Terrance Mitchell, CB, Oregon: A Grade
All eyes are on Michael Sam, but no one is paying attention to the fact that Jerry Jones is absolutely on fire in the seventh round. One team thought Terrance Mitchell would go in the Round 3-4 area, so Dallas getting him here is pretty amazing.

Season Summary:
Different year, same results. The Cowboys always find some way to screw up, and it apparently doesn’t matter who the quarterback is. Whether it’s icing the kicker, wasting timeouts or checking out of running plays when trying to bleed the clock, something always goes wrong, and Dallas seems to finish 8-8 no matter what.

Offseason Moves:
  • Cowboys sign G Uche Nwaneri
  • Browns sign WR Miles Austin
  • Cowboys re-sign DE Anthony Spencer
  • Cowboys sign DT Henry Melton
  • Bears sign S Danny McCray
  • Cowboys sign QB Brandon Weeden
  • Cowboys sign ILB Will Herring
  • Redskins sign DT Jason Hatcher
  • Colts sign C Phil Costa
  • Cowboys sign DE Jeremy Mincey
  • Broncos sign DE DeMarcus Ware
  • Cowboys sign DT Terrell McClain
  • Cowboys cut DE DeMarcus Ware
  • Cowboys cut WR Miles Austin-Jones
  • Cowboys re-sign P Chris Jones
  • Cowboys cut C Phil Costa
  • Cowboys cut DE Everette Brown

    Team Needs:
    1. General manager: Some analysts like Phil Simms and Daryl Johnston inexplicably love to kiss Jerry Jones’ butt, even when he drafts third-round centers in the first round, but the fact remains that the Cowboys’ owner desperately needs to hire a general manager to handle football operations. Jones has proven that he has no idea what he’s doing.

    2. Two Defensive Tackles: The Cowboys will probably have to spend one of their top draft choices on a defensive tackle. The situation was dire at one of the spots this past season, and now Jason Hatcher won’t be returning because he’s too expensive. Signed Henry Melton and Terrell McClain

    3. Two Defensive Ends: DeMarcus Ware was cut. Anthony Spencer won’t be back next year. George Selvie is a good situational pass-rusher, but Dallas needs two starters. An option could be available at No. 16 overall this May. Signed Jeremy Mincey; re-signed Anthony Spencer

    4. Strongside Linebacker: When defenders like Ernie Sims and DeVonte Holloman are playing major snaps for the defense, something absolutely needs to be done.

    5. Guard: The Cowboys might get away with one of Ronald Leary and Mackenzy Bernadeau starting, but they can’t have both on the field. Perhaps Brian Waters will return. Signed Uche Nwaneri

    6. Safety: J.J. Wilcox was a third-round rookie this past season. He didn’t play very well, but Dallas may give him another chance. Still, the team could stand to bring in another safety.

    7. Running Back Depth: DeMarco Murray is injury-prone, so the Cowboys should think about obtaining another running back for depth purposes.

    8. Wide Receiver Depth: Miles Austin-Jones is not expected back next year because of cap reasons. If he’s let go, Dallas will need to add another receiver for depth.

      Follow me @walterfootball for updates.

    2014 NFL Free Agent Signings:
    1. Henry Melton, DT, Bears. Age: 27.
      Signed with Cowboys

      Henry Melton was one of Chicago’s top defenders entering the 2013 season, but he struggled prior to tearing his ACL in late September. He was also charged for misdemeanor assault in October. He should be able to rebound if healthy, but the knee injury is a natural concern.

    2. Uche Nwaneri, G, Jaguars. Age: 30.
      Signed with Cowboys

      It’s strange that the Jaguars released one of their few skilled linemen. Uche Nwaneri’s play has declined in recent seasons, but he’s still average in both pass protection and run blocking.

    3. Jeremy Mincey, DE, Broncos. Age: 30.
      Signed with Cowboys (2 years)

      Jeremy Mincey recorded eight sacks in 2011, but hasn’t done much since, registering just five combined sacks the past two seasons. Mincey didn’t fit Gus Bradley’s defense, so he was released this past year. He flashed some potential with Denver down the stretch, but he was just a rotational end.

    4. Terrell McClain (RFA), DT, Texans. Age: 26. — Signed with Cowboys (3 years)
    5. Will Herring, ILB, Saints. Age: 31. — Signed with Cowboys
    6. Brandon Weeden, QB, Browns. Age: 30. — Signed with Cowboys (2 years)

    Dallas Cowboys Free Agents:

    Salary Cap: TBA.
    1. DeMarcus Ware, DE, Cowboys. Age: 32.
      Signed with Broncos (3 years, $30 million; $20 million guaranteed)

      DeMarcus Ware, when healthy, is arguably the best pass-rusher in the NFL. He’ll turn 32 in July and happens to be coming off a six-sack campaign, but he was banged up last season. He still has the potential to have several Pro Bowl-caliber seasons if he can remain injury-free.

    2. Jason Hatcher, DT, Cowboys. Age: 32.
      Signed with Redskins (4 years)

      Jason Hatcher has always been a solid 3-4 player, but he took it to another level while in the 4-3 this past season. Hatcher proved to be a monstrous pass-rusher as a defensive tackle, so he should stay in that formation. The only downside with him is that he’ll turn 32 in July.

    3. Anthony Spencer, DE, Cowboys. Age: 30.
      Re-signed with Cowboys (1 year)

      Anthony Spencer collected 11 sacks in 2012, but now he’s a 30-year-old coming off a season-ending knee injury. Spencer has always been inconsistent throughout his career, so a long-term deal could spark some lethargy.

    4. Brian Waters, G, Cowboys. Age: 37.
      Brian Waters is a good blocker and an even better leader in the locker room, but he’s 37 in February and happens to be coming off a season-ending triceps injury.

    5. Miles Austin-Jones, WR, Cowboys. Age: 30.
      Signed with Browns

      Miles Austin-Jones – or maybe just Miles Austin now, given that Jerry Jones finally cut him – is another big-name player who gets a write-up despite ranking at 1.5 stars. Austin-Jones has regressed terribly, thanks to numerous injuries. He’ll be 30 in June, so it’s unlikely he’ll ever be the same receiver he once was.

    6. Phil Costa, C, Cowboys. Age: 27. — Signed with Colts
    7. Chris Jones, P, Cowboys. Age: 25. — Re-signed with Cowboys
    8. Phillip Tanner, RB, Cowboys. Age: 26.
    9. Sterling Moore (RFA), CB, Cowboys. Age: 24.
    10. Ernie Sims, OLB, Cowboys. Age: 29.
    11. Danny McCray, S, Cowboys. Age: 26. — Signed with Bears (1 year)
    12. Everette Brown, DE, Cowboys. Age: 27.
    13. Ryan Cook, C, Cowboys. Age: 31.
    14. Jon Kitna, QB, Cowboys. Age: 41.

    NFL Free Agent Tracker:
    QB | RB | FB | WR | TE | OT | G | C | DE | DT | OLB | ILB | CB | S | K/P | FA Grades | FA Rumors

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