LLANO, Texas — Now that the cheery draft grades are in (did anybody get lower than C+?), we should feel inclined to forecast the 2017 NFL season. The free-agency sale is over. Aside from Richard Sherman in Seattle, or not, we know where all the big stars will be.
Barring injuries – you always get a few with those lethal non-contact drills — you can be fairly sure of most starting lineups.
My focus here is on the Dallas Cowboys, the team closest to my heart and home. I formerly covered them as a newspaper beat, and they are the NFL’s most valuable franchise, with the broadest national interest.
They were pro football’s hottest brand long before Jerry Jones owned them. But he deserves a tip of the Stetson for marketing at a level and pace no one else could have imagined, not even visionaries like Tex Schramm and Gil Brandt.
Jones excels at creating constant buzz that the ‘Boys soon will be Super Bowling like they haven’t done since the 1990s. He and his son Stephen, who actually directs the football operations, with dad as the front man, are basking in afterglow of a draft that gave them exactly what they say they wanted.
They needed a pass rusher, so they used their first-round pick – down at 28 — on a defensive tackle/end from Michigan who scouts described as “very Texan.” That seems likely to be an accurate assessment, considering his name is Taco Charlton.
He does have credentials as a penetrator: 9.5 sacks last season, plus 13.5 tackles for loss, despite missing two games with a sprained ankle and being less than 100 percent for the ones he played.
It helps his chances that he played for Jim Harbaugh, former NFL head coach whose college system is pro-oriented. So that pick makes sense, as does a cornerback on the second round.
But in a draft reported to be stronger on the corners than anywhere else, Colorado’s Chidobe Awuzei was not one of the top ten.Nobody is saying he’s as good as Mo Claiborne or Brandon Carr, who were last season’s starters for Dallas. “Doesn’t fight for the ball,” said one scout. Will he last long enough for me to learn to spell his name?
The Cowboys went for more corner support in the third round, with their second Wolverine. Two-time All-America Jourdan Lewis would have gone higher except that he’s undersized at 5-10 and is scheduled for trial in July in Ann Arbor, where he faces a misdemeanor charge of domestic violence.
“I think all charges will be dropped and I will be exonerated for everything,” Lewis declared in a conference call with reporters. One problem: At first he said there was no sexual contact with the accuser, but a few days later he said they had consensual sex. Anyway, the Cowboys are buying. After all, they have a tradition of mercy toward abusers of women. If they’re properly violent on the football field.
They’ve endured Dez Bryant’s mom saying he punched her, and the mayor of Dallas chastising them for signing edge rusher Greg Hardy after a jury found him guilty of assault that featured throwing a woman onto a couch covered with rifles.
More recently, Cowboys All-Pro running back Zeke Elliott was filmed at a St. Patrick’s Day parade tugging at a young woman’s wardrobe to expose a breast, as the crowd booed. Meanwhile he’s under investigation by the NFL for allegations of assaulting women in Ohio and Florida.
Just as the Joneses forgive Dez for every misbehavior and make no apology for Zeke’s roaming hand, they will allow Lewis every opportunity to redeem himself. That’s the Cowboy Way. Tough love is not part of it.
But they’re not expecting all that much from Lewis or Awuzei. They see their top three corners being Orlando Scandrick, Nolan Carroll II and second-year nickel back Anthony Brown.
Dallas signed Carroll as a free agent for three years, $10 million, which perplexes me. Pro Football Focus rated him 92nd out of 122 cornerbacks last season. He was torched like a Salem witch.
As if losing their corners in the market place wasn’t bad enough, the Cowboys lost their best safety, the punishing Barry Church, and his backup who hits almost as hard, J.J. Wilcox.
“Players we want to keep, we keep,” Stephen Jones said, adding that “most of them we were ready to let move on.”
Jones considered Church and Carr not worth the guaranteed contracts of $12 million that other teams were willing to pay.
Seems to me the Cowboys were right to put Carr on the highway. He’s about to be 31, and his 4.4 speed a memory.
Church is a better player and only 29. They could have kept Wilcox, 26, for two years at $6 mil total, but they let him move on to Tampa Bay. Questionable decision there.
Besides retooling on defense, the Cowboys wanted more of a return game, with fortune waning for Lucky Whitehead. Fourth-rounder Ryan Switzer of North Carolina should help. And at 5-8 he looks like a slot-receiving clone of Cole Beasley.
But I don’t see how they feel confident about their postseason prospects with Carroll as the right corner and last year’s third-stringer, Jeff Heath, at strong safety. Heath is backed by recently signed Robert Blanton, who was found wanting in Minnesota and Buffalo.
Where will the coverage come from?
Scandrick is 30, his best years probably behind him, and they were not very distinguished. He missed four games with a drug suspension in 2014 and four with hamstring issues last season. He has a history of squabbling and grappling with teammates. On a team that’s more tolerant than most of distraction, the Joneses grew weary of him. He was on the trade block before the exodus of Carr and Claiborne.
In this draft the Cowboys chose to add depth rather than trade up for a solid starter in the secondary.
Fortunately for them, their main divisional rival, the New York Giants, had what most analysts graded as one of the worst drafts of the week — B-, said Sports Illustrated.com.
Like the Cowboys, the Giants failed to fill the most gaping holes.
The NFL last season had lots of dreadful offensive tackles — Greg Robinson in LA, Donald Stephenson in Denver, anybody in Minnesota. The Giants’ combo of Ereck Flowers on the left side and Bobby Hart on the right had much to do with Eli Manning suffering his worst season of the past four.
But if Dallas repeats in the East as it should, it will be an underdog against the NFC’s other likely division winners, Atlanta, Green Bay and Seattle.
These teams have elite quarterbacks – Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson – and receivers – Julio Jones, Jordy Nelson, Doug Baldwin – who will be a major mismatch for the new and overly green Dallas secondary. There won’t be much talk then about this Grade-A draft.