2015 NFL Offseason: Dallas Cowboys

Dallas Cowboys (Last Year: 12-4)

2015 NFL Season Preview:

Veteran Additions:
RB Darren McFadden, FB Jed Collins, DE Greg Hardy, OLB Keith Rivers, ILB Jasper Brinkley, ILB Andrew Gachkar.
Early Draft Picks:
CB Byron Jones, DE/OLB Randy Gregory, OT Chaz Green, ILB Damien Wilson, DE Ryan Russell. Cowboys Rookie Forecast
Offseason Losses:
RB DeMarco Murray, OT Jermey Parnell, DE Anthony Spencer, DE George Selvie, DT Henry Melton, OLB Bruce Carter, CB Sterling Moore, CB Corey White, KR Dwayne Harris.

2015 Dallas Cowboys Offense:
The primary question surrounding the Cowboys this offseason has been how they’ll possibly be nearly as effective without DeMarco Murray in 2015. Murray, the league’s leading rusher from this past season, signed with rival Philadelphia in the spring. Murray was one of the reasons Dallas’ offense was so explosive last year, as it averaged 28.4 points per game. He’ll undoubtedly be missed.

However, while Murray is very talented, Dallas will survive without him. There are plenty of reasons for this. One is that the team possesses the best offensive line in the NFL. Zack Martin, last year’s first-round pick, is a major reason for this. Martin stepped in right away and was completely dominant, becoming one of the top guards in the league. He surrendered no sacks and was a beast in terms of run blocking. He, left tackle Tyron Smith and center Travis Frederick formed a terrific trio that combined to allow just three sacks and open up huge lanes for Murray.

As good as Dallas’ offensive line was in 2014, it might be even better this upcoming season. That’s because Jerry Jones was able to sign La’el Collins as an undrafted free agent. Collins, who was expected to go in the teens a few weeks prior to the 2015 NFL Draft, was taken off many teams’ boards because of a possible involvement in a homicide. Collins was cleared of all wrongdoing and became a hot commodity. Virtually every team pursued him, so the Cowboys were extremely fortunate to obtain him. Collins should be able to step in at left guard and start right away, just like Martin. He would upgrade Ronald Leary, who was the lone liability up front last year. The “weakest link” would then become Doug Free, who is a solid blocker.

Reasons two and three why losing Murray won’t matter very much: Tony Romo and Dez Bryant. Romo turned 35 this offseason, but he’s still at the top of his game. He didn’t hit 4,000 passing yards in 2014, but he threw 34 touchdowns compared to only nine interceptions, and he completed 69.9 percent of his passes, which was a career-high figure. He also maintained an 8.5 YPA, which is an amazing number. The crazy thing is that Romo did all of this after an offseason in which he was coming off back surgery. Romo had no maladies to deal with this spring and summer, so he could be even better in 2015.

Bryant, meanwhile, also set career-highs in touchdowns (16) and yards per catch (15). He racked up 88 receptions and 1,320 yards, and he hasn’t missed a game since 2011. He’s arguably one of the top three receivers in the NFL, and he obtained a huge contract as a result. Unfortunately for Romo, Bryant is one of the few reliable players he can throw the ball to. Cole Beasley has developed into a solid option out of the slot, and Jason Witten, despite his eroding skill set, is still one of Romo’s favorite targets. However, Terrance Williams’ inability to develop has to frustrate the organization. The Cowboys could have picked up a new receiver in the 2015 NFL Draft, but passed on all of the players at the position. There is a glimmer of hope though, and that’s Williams’ positive showing at OTAs.

Dallas also eschewed addressing the running back spot, leaving Joseph Randle, Darren McFadden and Lance Dunbar to compete for touches. It seems like there’s going to be a committee approach, but Randle is the favorite to receive the majority of the workload. Randle, who averaged 6.7 yards per carry last year on 51 opportunities, has gotten into some hot water off the field recently, but still remains with the team. He also criticized Murray for leaving too many yards on the field. It’ll be interesting if Randle will be able to talk the talk by outperforming his predecessor behind the league’s best offensive line.

2015 Dallas Cowboys Defense:
The Cowboys’ entire defense was seen as a major liability heading into the 2014 season. However, thanks to several players who unexpectedly stepped up their game, Dallas was able to field a middle-of-the-pack stop unit, which was good enough just to help it claim the NFC East.

The primary player who outperformed expectations was middle linebacker Rolando McClain. The former first-round bust was out of the league before the Cowboys gave him a shot. It paid off big time, as McClain was effective in all regards when he was on the field. McClain did miss two games and was limited in several others, but if he can stay healthy for the entire season, it’ll be a huge boost for Dallas. He won’t be available for the first four games because of a suspension, but he should come back strong in Week 5.

It’ll also help the Cowboys if they can get Sean Lee to play the majority of the season. Lee is a very talented linebacker, but he hasn’t been able to stay on the field; he missed 10 games in 2012, five contests in 2013, and then all of this past year. He has been cleared for OTAs, but it wouldn’t surprise anyone if he got hurt again shortly. If he can actually remain in the lineup, he, McClain and Anthony Hitchens would form a solid trio, though Hitchens, a fourth-rounder from the 2014 draft, struggled a bit as a rookie. Having said that, Hitchens’ troubles were in coverage, which wouldn’t be as prevalent if Lee were around to play all three downs along with McClain.

Three defenders up front also stepped up. That would be Jeremy Mincey, Tyrone Crawford and DeMarcus Lawrence. Mincey, who barely played for Denver in 2013, recorded six sacks this past season, a number that is not indicative of how well he performed. The same can be said for Crawford’s three sacks, but the former Boise State product was also excellent. Lawrence, meanwhile, didn’t do all that much during the regular season as a second-round rookie, but he had a couple of big outings in the playoffs, showing plenty of promise for 2015 and beyond. Lawrence figures to start across from the newly acquired Randy Gregory at end for a long time. Gregory, who was selected in the second round this spring, was seen as a top-five prospect before some off-the-field concerns capsized his draft stock.

Both Lawrence and Gregory aren’t expected to start beginning in Week 5, because that’s when Greg Hardy will return from his suspension. Hardy is one of the most-talented players at his position in the NFL – he’d be even better if he was able to tackle women – but became available this offseason because he was toxic to all NFL franchises that value integrity. Meanwhile, the defensive line is rounded out by one-technique defensive tackle Nick Hayden, who was woeful in 2014. The position was not addressed this offseason because Dallas’ staff doesn’t put much value into the one-tech spot.

Instead, the Cowboys used their initial draft pick on some help in the secondary to go along with Orlando Scandrick, who was the fifth player who stepped up. Scandrick was previously seen as a decent nickel corner, but he was much more superb when asked to play outside in bust Morris Claiborne’s spot. Scandrick is just 28, so he has at least four more terrific years left in the tank. He figures to start across from that aforementioned first-rounder, Byron Jones, a tall, athletic corner, who actually set the world record for longest broad jump at the Combine. Jones will have to prove himself first, though he won’t have much competition, as both Claiborne and Brandon Carr struggled immensely last year.

The safety position, meanwhile, is in worse shape. Barry Church is a marginal player, yet he’s way better than the other starter, J.J. Wilcox, who was abused in run support this past season. The Cowboys curiously did nothing to remedy this situation during the offseason.

2015 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 28-22, compared to 27-23 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 25-of-29 tries, including a terrific 5-of-7 from 50-plus.

Punter Chris Jones was only in the middle of the pack in terms of net average, but once again did a good job of placing kicks inside opposing 20s.

Return specialist Dwayne Harris did a good job of taking back punts this past season, but the Cowboys struggled to defend them. They were close to even with the opposition on kickoffs. Things may change in 2015, however, because Harris is no longer on the team.

The Cowboys don’t have many tough, non-divisional opponents. They have to deal with the Patriots, Seahawks, Panthers and Packers, but they have plenty of foes they can walk over as well.

2015 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.

2015 Dallas Cowboys Positional Rankings (1-5 stars):
Offensive Line
Running Backs
Defensive Line
Special Teams

2015 Dallas Cowboys Analysis: Everyone joked about the Cowboys always going 8-8, but the team had the last laugh this past season, finishing 12-4 and on top of the NFC East. No one will look past Dallas this upcoming year, but it won’t matter; the Cowboys still have a great shot at once again claiming the divisional crown and advancing deep into the playoffs.

Projection: 11-5 (1st in NFC East)

NFL Draft Team Grade: B+ Grade

Goals Entering the 2015 NFL Draft: Many expect the Cowboys to go defensive tackle at No. 27, but that’s unlikely to happen because the team doesn’t value the one-technique position very much. Dallas could upgrade that position later. In the meantime, cornerback and safety will be looked at early on.

2015 NFL Draft Accomplishments: I received an e-mail from a Cowboy fan who was concerned about the Byron Jones selection, wondering if it was wise that Dallas took a “late-round prospect” in the first frame because of his Combine performance. Jones is more than just a workout warrior; teams considered him to be a second-round prospect prior to his Combine, so the bump up to No. 27 makes sense. Jones also fills a glaring need in the secondary.

Of course, the big story regarding Dallas’ draft class is Randy Gregory. I mocked Gregory to the Cowboys in the first round because I was aware that they liked him. I would’ve been OK with him at No. 27, but there’s no denying that getting him at the end of the second round is a steal. Gregory has major issues beyond his positive drug test, but he would’ve been a top-five pick had he been clean off the field. He was absolutely worth the gamble with the 60th-overall selection.

Other Cowboys’ selections weren’t discussed as much, but the front office made some wise decisions. Swing tackle Chaz Green was one of Charlie’s sleeper picks; Damien Wilson figures to be a quality linebacker for Dallas going forward; while Laurence Gibson was a steal in the final round.

Dallas has improved its drafting ability ever since Jerry Jones relinquished some control. The team has made major strides out of mediocrity as a consequence, and it figures to be even better in the near future because of the players acquired in this draft.

NFL Draft Individual Grades:

27. Byron Jones, CB, Connecticut: B+ Grade
So much for the Cowboys picking Randy Gregory. Byron Jones makes a ton of sense. I had him going 20th overall to the Eagles, which I thought was a slight reach, so the 27th slot seems like the right area for him. He also fills a big need. Morris Claiborne has struggled, while Brandon Carr is overpaid. The Cowboys were desperate for corner help, and they landed an extremely athletic player as a probable upgrade.

Follow @walterfootball for updates.

60. Randy Gregory, DE/OLB, Nebraska: A Grade
ESPN is gushing about the Cowboys being the right place for Randy Gregory. Call me crazy, but I don’t think a locker room comprised of Dez Bryant and Greg Hardy is a great fit. Having said that, I really like this pick; I had Dallas taking Gregory in the first round of my mock, so this is a steal. Gregory may have been the third-overall selection if he was completely clean off the field. Of course, he’s not, and what he has going on behind the scenes is a major concern. NFL personnel have said that they think he may not last five years in the NFL. However, the Cowboys are ready to win now. Tony Romo just turned 35, and Jerry Jones doesn’t have many years left either. They’re in position to win a Super Bowl, and Gregory should be able to help with his awesome pass-rushing ability.

91. Chaz Green, OT, Florida: B+ Grade
Chaz Green is one of Charlie’s draft sleepers. I thought he’d go a bit later than this, but I still like the pick. The Cowboys wanted to upgrade the offensive line because Doug Free won’t be around much longer, so Green could step in as a starter as early as 2016.

127. Damien Wilson, ILB, Minnesota: B Grade
The Cowboys were expected to pick an inside linebacker before re-signing Rolando McClain. However, McClain was retained for only one year, so Dallas needs some insurance in 2016 and beyond. Damien Wilson is a quality player with good athleticism who fits the range of this pick.

163. Ryan Russell, DE, Purdue: C Grade
Jerry Jones has had success with a Purdue pass-rusher before, but going back to the well this time may not work out. Ryan Russell is a good athlete, but he never developed into a quality player at Purdue. Russell has upside, and Dallas might be able to develop him, but he probably should have gone a bit later in the draft.

236. Mark Nzeocha, LB, Wyoming: C Grade
Mark Nzeocha is an old player (25) who tore his ACL during the season. He has made good progress, however, so he’ll be ready for OTAs. Having said that, I don’t really like his chances of making the final roster. I didn’t have him in my top 400.

243. Laurence Gibson, OT, Virginia: A Grade
I had the Cowboys picking Laurence Gibson – at No. 168 (fifth round). Gibson is a long-armed, athletic tackle, so even though he’s raw, there’s no reason he should have fallen this far. This is a potential steal for Dallas.

246. Geoff Swaim, TE, Eastern Michigan: C Grade
I’m not sure why the Cowboys moved up for Geoff Swaim, who will have trouble making the final roster. He’s an athletic tight end, but wasn’t very productive at Eastern Michigan.

Season Summary:
No one expected the Cowboys to finish above .500, let alone win the NFC East. Yet, they managed to win division and prevail in a playoff game. They appeared to be on their way to the NFC Championship, but a poor call on a Dez Bryant reception ruined their chances. Still, things are promising going forward, given that the offensive line has been completely rebuilt.

Offseason Moves:
  • Saints sign DE/OLB Anthony Spencer
  • Cowboys re-sign ILB Rolando McClain
  • Giants sign DE George Selvie
  • Cowboys re-sign DT Nick Hayden
  • Buccaneers sign CB Sterling Moore
  • Cowboys sign DE Greg Hardy
  • Cowboys sign ILB Andrew Gachkar
  • Cowboys claim CB Corey White
  • Cowboys sign RB Darren McFadden
  • Cowboys sign ILB Jasper Brinkley
  • Cowboys sign FB Jed Collins
  • Eagles sign RB DeMarco Murray
  • Buccaneers sign DT Henry Melton
  • Buccaneers sign OLB Bruce Carter
  • Giants sign WR/KR Dwayne Harris
  • Falcons sign OLB Justin Durant
  • Jaguars sign OT Jermey Parnell
  • Cowboys re-sign OT Doug Free
  • Cowboys sign OLB Keith Rivers
  • Cowboys re-sign WR Cole Beasley

    Team Needs:
    1. Defensive End: Jerry Jones spent his resources bolstering the offensive line in recent years. He’s likely to turn his attention to the defensive front. He has to find a consistent pass-rusher, which is something his defense lacked in the wake of DeMarcus Ware’s departure. A first-round pick could be used on an end. Signed Greg Hardy

    2. Defensive Tackle: Henry Melton, an impending free agent, put some heat on the quarterback, but was a major liability in run support. Dallas needs a strong force on the interior. One can be acquired with an early draft choice.

    3. Safety: The secondary also has to be fixed. Both safeties are not very good, but J.J. Wilcox is especially anemic. A second-day choice should be used on a safety.

    4. Cornerback: The Cowboys have one stud cornerback in Orlando Scandrick, but not much else at the position. Sterling Moore had his moments during the regular season, but he was awful in his attempt to cover Davante Adams in the playoff loss.

    5. Weakside Linebacker: The Cowboys have Sean Lee coming back, but Bruce Carter and Justin Durant are both impending free agents. A third linebacker is needed alongside Lee and Rolando McClain. Signed Keith Rivers and Andrew Gachkar

    6. Wide Receiver: Re-signing Dez Bryant is a greater priority than retaining DeMarco Murray. I’ll be shocked if Jerry Jones lets his new No. 88 get away. Franchised Dez Bryant

    7. Right Tackle: The offensive line was a big reason for Dallas’ success in 2014, so it’s imperative that the Cowboys re-sign either Doug Free and Jeremy Parnell, both of whom are free agents. Re-signed Doug Free

    8. Running Back: Murray is a free agent, and he may command too much money for his injury history and recent workload. If he leaves, Dallas will have to find a new running back. Signed Darren McFadden

    9. Backup Quarterback: I’m not sure why the Cowboys thought Brandon Weeden would be a viable backup behind Tony Romo.

      Follow me @walterfootball for updates.

    2015 NFL Free Agent Signings:
    1. Greg Hardy, DE, Panthers. Age: 27.
      Signed with Cowboys (1 year, $11.3 million)

      It’s difficult to rank Greg Hardy. He’d have a 4.5-star rating under normal circumstances, given that he’s one of the top pass-rushers in the NFL. His domestic-abuse issue looms large, however. I’ll bump him down a star.

    2. Jed Collins, FB, Lions. Age: 29.
      Signed with Cowboys (1 year, $810,000)

      Jed Collins is an adequate blocker, but not a particularly strong one. He can catch passes as well, if needed.

    3. Jasper Brinkley, ILB, Vikings. Age: 30. — Signed with Cowboys
    4. Keith Rivers, OLB, Bills. Age: 29. — Signed with Cowboys
    5. Darren McFadden, RB, Raiders. Age: 28. — Signed with Cowboys
    6. Andrew Gachkar, ILB, Chargers. Age: 26. — Signed with Cowboys (2 years)
    7. Corey White, CB, Saints. Age: 25. — Claimed by Cowboys

    Dallas Cowboys Free Agents:

    Salary Cap: TBA.
    1. Dez Bryant, WR, Cowboys. Age: 26.
      Franchised by Cowboys

      Dez Bryant is one of the top 3-5 wide receivers in the NFL. He has been unstoppable, accumulating 1,200-plus yards and at least 12 touchdowns in each of his previous three seasons. The only issue with him is his attitude, which has backfired in some games. Still, the Cowboys must re-sign him.

    2. DeMarco Murray, RB, Cowboys. Age: 27.
      Signed with Eagles (5 years, $42 million; $21 million guaranteed)

      DeMarco Murray rushed for a league-leading 1,845 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2014. He also caught 57 passes for 416 receiving yards. The Cowboys should be careful with giving him a big contract, however, given the workload he handled this past season and his prior durability issues. It’s unlikely Murray will have another year like this again, so the team that signs him will be paying on past production.

    3. Rolando McClain, ILB, Cowboys. Age: 26.
      Re-signed with Cowboys (1 year, $3 million)

      Rolando McClain came out of nowhere last year. He failed in Baltimore and was out of the league for a season. Dallas gave him a chance, and it paid off; McClain was tremendous against both the run and the pass, serving as the leader of the defense. There’s a chance he could regress, but perhaps he has truly turned his life around.

    4. Doug Free, OT, Cowboys. Age: 31.
      Re-signed with Cowboys (3 years, $15 million)

      Doug Free was so awful during the 2012 season that there was speculation that he would be released. The Cowboys kept him, and it paid off, as he has been a very solid right tackle over the past two years, especially in run blocking.

    5. Henry Melton, DT, Cowboys. Age: 28.
      Signed with Buccaneers (1 year)

      Henry Melton had a couple of awful seasons to close out his tenure in Chicago, but thrived in his first year with the Cowboys. He was a liability in run support, but put a tremendous amount of pressure on the quarterback. Unfortunately, Melton’s durability was once again prevalent when he was knocked out of the playoffs with a knee injury.

    6. Justin Durant, OLB, Cowboys. Age: 29.
      Signed with Falcons

      Justin Durant had been playing well for the Cowboys as an every-down strongside linebacker before tearing his bicep in late October.

    7. Jermey Parnell, OT, Cowboys. Age: 29.
      Signed with Jaguars (5 years, $32 million)

      The Cowboys didn’t have a drop-off in blocking when Doug Free got hurt late in the year. That’s because Jermey Parnell played well when asked to start. Jerry Jones expressed confidence in Parnell in the past, telling the media that the former Ole Miss product is ready to “take the next step.”

    8. Bruce Carter, OLB, Cowboys. Age: 27.
      Signed with Buccaneers (4 years, $20 million)

      Bruce Carter was miscast as a 4-3 outside linebacker when the Cowboys made a scheme switch. He should go to a team with a 3-4 defense so he can play inside linebacker again.

    9. Anthony Spencer, DE, Cowboys. Age: 31.
      Signed with Saints (1 year)

      Anthony Spencer used to be a terrific, albeit inconsistent pass-rusher until a knee injury caused him to miss all of 2013. He was limited this past year. Perhaps he can regain his former status after being two seasons removed from microfracture surgery. He just turned 31, however.

    10. Cole Beasley (RFA), WR, Cowboys. Age: 26.
      Re-signed with Cowboys (4 years)

      Cole Beasley has emerged as a solid slot option for Tony Romo; he caught four or more passes in three of his final five regular-season games.

    11. Sterling Moore, CB, Cowboys. Age: 25.
      Signed with Buccaneers

      Sterling Moore barely played in 2013, but had to start numerous games this past season. He was a big surprise, handling himself relatively well in coverage.

    12. George Selvie, DE, Cowboys. Age: 28. — Signed with Giants (1 year, $1.4 million)
    13. Dwayne Harris, WR/KR, Cowboys. Age: 27. — Signed with Giants (5 years, $17.5 million)
    14. Lance Dunbar (RFA), RB, Cowboys. Age: 25. — Tendered by Cowboys
    15. Chris Jones (RFA), P, Cowboys. Age: 26. — Tendered by Cowboys
    16. Nick Hayden, DT, Cowboys. Age: 29. — Re-signed with Cowboys
    17. Tyler Clutts, FB, Cowboys. Age: 30.
    18. Darrion Weems (RFA), OT, Cowboys. Age: 26.
    19. C.J. Spillman, S, Cowboys. Age: 29.


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