With the preseason in full swing and the opening weekend less than a calendar month away, now is the perfect time to glance in at all 32 NFL franchises and get a scoop on what to expect this season. I will be grading every team on all three phases of the game: offense, defense, and special teams. I will also take a look at the coaching staffs of all 32 teams, including the 10 new Head Coaches and evaluate the impact they might have on their team’s success. Then I will outline some key position battles and some names you may or may not know about to watch for the upcoming season.
In 2005, the Cowboys were a team that perplexed many people. While the New York Giants and the Washington Redskins performed better than most expected, the Cowboys looked to be an enigma that could not be solved. At times they looked unstoppable and one of the strongest teams in the NFL, but then would look like a bottom feeder the very next week. Owner Jerry Jones and Head Coach Bill Parcells felt that some changes were necessary. In come some new free-agents in some key positions, including one very large ego landing in the big D. Can the Cowboys, Bill Parcells, Jerry Jones, and Terrell Owens co-exist or are we just getting ready for the inevitable meltdown?
Last year’s Offensive Coordinator Sean Payton has left his post in order to become the Head Coach of the New Orleans Saints. Parcells tapped the well of former colleagues by getting Maurice Carthon to take over for the departed Payton. Carthon, who worked with Parcells as an Assistant Head Coach and Running Backs Coach in New York from 1997-2000, spent the last two seasons in Detroit, 2005 as their Offensive Coordinator. Carthon will work with Parcells and not change the system completely. I believe that there will be more adjustments made by Carthon to the Dallas offense than vice versa because the Cowboys, especially starting quarterback Drew Bledsoe, are comfortable in Sean Payton’s system. Look for the Cowboys to stress running because they want Julius Jones to be more consistent than he was a season ago and to take more chances down the field with the receivers they have.
QB: All Drew Bledsoe has done throughout his career is throw for over 40,000 yards and has been the starting quarterback for three different NFL franchises. People thought he was done in Buffalo, but he came over to Dallas last season and threw for over 3,600 yards and 25 touchdowns while completing 60 percent of his passes, a feat he hasn’t accomplished since 2002, his first year in Buffalo. Bledsoe is a traditional pocket-passer who can sling the ball 60 yards downfield without straining his face and put it where only the receiver can catch it. I guess the debate as to whether he or Rick Mirer would be the better NFL quarterback has been settled, huh? Bledsoe will need the assistance of his offensive line and his backs to block for him as he takes time to find his receivers and tight ends down the field. He will stand there and take the hit in order to deliver the ball. Tony Romo is the quarterback of the Cowboys’ future, but it will be Bledsoe for the Cowboys’ Super Bowl hopes.
RB/FB: The biggest concern in the running game for the Cowboys is whether or not Julius Jones can become more consistent. He’s they type of runner who can go out and get 160 yards and 2 touchdowns one week before rushing for 43 yards and no effect the very next. They want a running game that they can lean on, much like Parcells had in Curtis Martin in both New England and New York Jets. For his part, Jones has had solid overall numbers in each of the past two seasons, but he has yet to eclipse the 1,000 yard mark, a milestone that isn’t that hard to reach in today’s NFL. But health concerns and games where he disappears are his biggest obstacles. Jones is a hard runner who goes between the tackle, but sometimes finds himself running too much east-west and not enough north-south. They will probably use Marion Barber in short yardage situations, but Tyson Thompson has been showing signs of life in camp. Anthony Fasano, a TE in college, is listed in the H-back starting position, which is something that he can do, much like Frank Wycheck in Tennessee during the late 90’s. Fasano is an athletic man who can catch the ball and is a good blocker.
WR/TE: The biggest acquisition to some NFL experts is the Cowboys’ signing of one Terrell Owens. Owens, who fell out of favor last season after some disputes with team officials in training camp lingered through the season, leading to Owens being deactivated by the team midway through the season. Meanwhile, the Cowboys seemingly get themselves an elite NFL receiver who is an excellent playmaker and can change the way a team plays defense against you. Owens has the speed to blow by defenders, the strength to overpower them, and the skill to make them miss once he does have the ball. They are a truly dangerous combination that gives the Cowboys and Drew Bledsoe an instant threat in the passing game. To question is whether or not Owens will be happy in Dallas or if another blowup is inevitable and how long it will take before it surfaces. Terry Glenn, Owens’ counterpart, is no slouch either. A former first-round pick, Glenn had an excellent 2005 season with 62 receptions for over 1,100 yards and 7 scores. Glenn is a speedy receiver who can be as slippery as any other in the league. They could have problems with depth in case of injury, with Patrick Crayton and Sam Hurd as the top two backup receivers. They have one of the best TEs in the NFL in Jason Witten. Probably one of the strongest men at his position, Witten has incredible athleticism and very soft hands, rarely dropping passes. The aforementioned Anthony Fasano could see time in two-TE sets.
OL: The loss of Larry Allen is going to hurt the Cowboys in the running game, but they have some solid guys to lead the line. They have versatile Andre Gurode, who has played since being drafted in 2002 by the Cowboys and has seen time at the center and guard. He has earned himself a starting nod at center because of the players the Cowboys have at the two guard positions. One of those players, Kyle Kosier, will pair with Flozell Adams on the left side. Kosier was a big free-agent signing for the Cowboys in the offseason because of his ability to play every single position on the line, from tackle to tackle. Established himself in San Francisco and moved on to the Lions last season. Adams is one of the NFL’s elite tackles. He’s a mountain at 6’7″ and 340 lbs. and can run block and pass block as efficiently as any other tackle in the NFL today. They will form a line, with Witten lined up there, as a favorite to run behind. The right side possesses no slouches either, with Marco Rivera and Marc Columbo. Columbo was signed for depth after Adams was lost of the season in October with injury and performed well for the Cowboys, earning him a starting role for the upcoming season. Rivera is a NFL veteran who is known around the league circles as a tough and strong lineman, didn’t have an effective 2005 after undergoing surgery in the offseason, but looks to rebound for the 2006 season.
Overall Grade: A-
Bill Parcells coached teams are always known for a tough, hard-nosed defense that works hard and gets the job done. This 2006 Cowboys squad is no different, as they will have young players ready to step up and established NFL veterans looking to lead the charge. They will be under the direction of the Tom Zimmer, who has been the Defensive Coordinator in Dallas since 2000. They are still working on playing the 3-4 in this system, something which the Cowboys installed last season and are quickly gaining even more personnel for in 2006. They will be attacking, force the plays on defense, and rely on the strength of their linebackers to make the plays for them.
DL: The defensive line is very young on the ends with Chris Canty and Jeremiah Ratliff. Canty was one of the big surprises of the 2005 draft class. Canty was a player with first-round potential that dropped in the draft because of injury concerns, but the Cowboys took the gamble and it paid off. He’s got good size and great quickness for his size. He does well to get off the ball and into the backfield quickly, something that is very important in the 3-4 alignment. Ratliff, meanwhile, is a guy who possesses good straight ahead speed but doesn’t have the pass rush capabilities that some ends have. He can effectively collapse the pocket and create pressure but will rarely see time on top of the quarterback. He will be challenged by 2005 first-round pick Marcus Spears, who will most likely be a part of the defensive line rotation. The Cowboys have Jason Ferguson as the top NT as Le’Roi Glover has since departed to St. Louis via free-agency. Ferguson provides the Cowboys with veteran leadership on the young line and experience in the 3-4 alignment.
LB: This position is probably the strength of the Cowboys defense. Greg Ellis and DeMarcus Ware will be manning the outside linebacker positions for the Cowboys. Ware had an incredible rookie season and could have been rookie of the year if Shawne Merriman wasn’t in the NFL. Ware is incredibly quick off the end and makes plays, registering 8 sacks, second for all 2005 rookies. Greg Ellis makes the move from DE to linebacker because of the 3-4 scheme. Ellis has the athletic ability to play in coverage, but will have to adjust to different looks that these NFL offenses will give you. He does give you the ability to be the fourth rusher in the 3-4. Inside will be free-agent Akin Ayodele and Bradie James. Ayodele comes over from Jacksonville and is a great playmaker with his speed and ability to perform in pursuit. He will be challenged because of the need for a strong linebacker to attack the bigger offensive linemen. James, a former special teams standout, filled in for the retired Dat Nguyen and showcased his size and ability to make the big hit for the Cowboys in 2005. Look for 2006 first-round pick Bobby Carpenter and Al Singleton from Tampa Bay on the bench, they are deep and talented and could see some heavy competition for some of these linebacker spots.
DB: Anthony Henry showed his potential during the first part of the 2005 season but nagging injuries slowed his production towards the end of the season. Henry looks healthy now for 2006 and should be able to show the ability that they have been salivating for since he signed the contract in 2005. Opposite of Henry is Terrence Newman, who is giving the Cowboys justification for making him a top pick 4 years ago. He’s so close to making a Pro Bowl or two with his performances and is establishing himself as one of the better corners in the NFL. Newman also excels at returning kicks, making his a double threat. With Aaron Glenn, the Cowboys have three proven NFL veterans who partner with the safeties to make one of the most talented secondaries in the entire league. Speaking of those safeties, both Roy Williams and Keith Davis are strong players with playmaking ability. Williams can be imposing in both run and pass defense, making the tackles on the running back at the line or dropping in coverage and making a play on the ball. He adds an ability to take the ball to the house one he does get his hands on it, scoring 3 touchdowns with only 12 career interceptions. Keith Davis is a young safety who was a big time special team performer who is improving at safety with his ability to get into the plays and make strong, decisive plays.
Overall Grade: B+
K: What do you do when you lose 3 games by 3 points or less? If you are the Cowboys, you go out and sign the most accurate kicker in NFL history. They bring in Mike Vandejagt, who’s last NFL memory was going wide right against the Steelers in the AFC Divisional playoffs. It remains to be seen how he will do under pressure, because the Cowboys have been needing a productive kicker and could lean on him more than normal.
P: Mat McBriar won the job as a free agent brought in simply for competition in 2004 and has steadily improved in each of his two seasons. McBriar is a former Australian football player who possesses a great leg which can boom the ball down the field. Still improving on his directional kicks, McBriar has been the most consistent punter for the Cowboys in recent memory.
Overall Grade: B
Bill Parcells is still an NFL legend and is proving his ability to turn teams around with his work in Dallas. This will be the pivotal season for Parcells because his team is dealing with extremely high expectations with the addition of Terrell Owens and their current talent. Parcells is known for leading teams to the Super Bowl and that’s what Cowboys fans expect. Parcells is a coach who gains the respect of all his players and gets the most out of his players on a consistent basis. Jerome Carthon comes over to take over the offense for the departed Sean Payton, but Carthon will work with the same system that Payton had. On defense, Tom Zimmer has been a mainstay with the Cowboys defense for 12 seasons, the last 6 as their coordinator. Zimmer is doing an excellent job with the 3-4 transition and we should continue to see improvement as Zimmer himself is also adjusting.
Coaching Staff: B+
Position Battles to Watch
QB: Funny to say, no? But it’s true, with the very inspiring play of Tony Romo behind Drew Bledsoe, people are beginning to murmur that his leash isn’t as long as people once thought. I’m sorry, but I believe that Bledsoe is the quarterback to take the Cowboys to where they are destined to go this season. Romo may very well be the quarterback of the future, but that means future, not 2006.
ILB: With Akin Ayodele, the Cowboys have a linebacker who makes plays and is very athletic. However, the position of inside linebacker forces them to attack and play the bigger interior linemen, something that Ayodele might not have the strength to do. That, added with Al Singleton and first-round pick Bobby Carpenter on his tail, means that Ayodele has a bunch of competition for him to beat out.
Player to Watch
Bradie James, LB: I like James, he was a hard working special teams player who has earned him the starting position inside the 3-4 scheme. James proved his ability to play everyday after Dat Nguyen abruptly retired before the 2005 season. James will continue to improve in his second full season and could be the quiet MVP of the defense with his playmaking ability and extreme work ethic.
Offensive MVP: Jason Witten
Defensive MVP: DeMarcus Ware