NFC East: Dallas Cowboys
ESPN.com New York Giants reporter Dan Graziano makes his game-by-game picks for the 2014 season.
Week 1: at Detroit Lions
The Giants are coming off a mess of a preseason, undermanned and overwhelmed, with the offensive line still a mess and the new offense not clicking at all. No one will pick them to win this game. Except me. Prediction: Win
Week 2: Arizona Cardinals
This one's a comedown off the Week 1 surprise, as Arizona's banged-up defense still manages to flummox Eli Manning and collect a few interceptions. It's a bummer of a home opener as reality begins to set in. Prediction: Loss
Week 3: Houston Texans
Houston's defense is as liable as Arizona's to make life miserable for Manning and the offensive line. But Houston has bigger questions on offense than even the Giants, and this is a win for the New York defense against Ryan Fitzpatrick. Prediction: Win
Week 4: at Washington Redskins
Week 5: Atlanta Falcons
The pattern continues, and the Giants overcome two Osi Umenyiora sacks to outscore the Falcons with a furious Manning comeback in the final minutes. The Giants poke their heads over the .500 mark as they make the turn into the most brutal stretch of their schedule. Prediction: Win
Week 6: at Philadelphia Eagles
The Giants don't have Matt Barkley to kick around this time when they visit the City of Brotherly Love. Chip Kelly and the Eagles show them what a truly innovative offense looks like. Prediction: Loss
Week 7: at Dallas Cowboys
The season-long debate about what gives when an anemic Giants offense meets a pathetic Cowboys defense tilts in Dallas' favor in the first meeting. Tony Romo & Co. have more than enough weapons to outscore Manning and his bunch, and the Giants hit the bye with a 3-4 record. Prediction: Loss
Week 9: Indianapolis Colts
After a long break before the Monday night home game, the Giants get taken apart by Andrew Luck, Hakeem Nicks & Co. at MetLife Stadium for a third straight loss. The offense is starting to run more smoothly, but it still doesn't have enough playmakers to outscore one of the league's better offenses. Prediction: Loss
Week 10: at Seattle Seahawks
You're kidding, right? Prediction: Loss
Week 11: San Francisco 49ers
The Giants have obviously handled the Niners in recent years and in some high-profile situations. But by this point in the season, San Francisco's defense is back to full strength, and the 49ers can't afford to lose ground to the Seahawks by failing to beat the team Seattle just beat the week before. Prediction: Loss
Week 12: Dallas Cowboys
A sixth straight loss is by no means out of the question here, as Romo and his crew still have the potential to outscore anyone in a given week. But from this far out, I'll forecast that something goes wrong for Romo late in this game, and the Giants get a gift. Prediction: Win
Week 13: at Jacksonville Jaguars
This is where the schedule starts to soften up, when the Giants start playing teams that insist on not starting their best quarterback. It's unfortunate they're 4-7 at this point and just about out of the playoff hunt, but they will get it going against the bottom-feeders. Prediction: Win
Week 14: at Tennessee Titans
I think the Titans are going to be dreadful this year, and by December they won't be very difficult for anyone to beat, even at home. A third straight victory keeps the Giants' hopes alive. Prediction: Win
Week 15: Washington Redskins
Have to be honest: The NFC East is so unpredictable that, when doing these predictions, I just decided to give the Giants a 3-3 division record with victories in all three home games and losses in all three road games. It's as fair a way as any to do it, I believe. Prediction: Win
Week 16: at St. Louis Rams
After moving back to .500 with four straight wins, the season falls apart at the hands of the St. Louis pass rush. An offensive line that has once again been the Giants' biggest problem all year can't protect Manning in a must-win game. Prediction: Loss
Week 17: Philadelphia Eagles
Tom Coughlin's teams can always find a way to play for pride. The Giants' playoff hopes are extinguished, but they still manage to end the season on a high note and with a .500 record. Prediction: Win
Predicted Record: 8-8
“No different to what we’d do with players who are gone from after the offseason before training camp and from the end of the regular season before they come back, before the offseason program,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “Talk to (strength coach Mike Woicik, assistant strength coach Brett Bech), get everything squared away that way.”
Safety Jakar Hamilton will miss the first four games because of violating the league’s substance-abuse policy, but he is allowed to continue to work out at Valley Ranch during his suspension. He is not eligible to take part in practices until Sept. 29.
Jones has been consistent in insisting this summer that Romo was completely healthy, even as the Cowboys’ $108-million-man missed several practices throughout training camp, with the team attributing those absences to preventative maintenance. Jones firmly believes that a healthy Romo is primed for his best season at the age of 34 because of the blossoming relationship with new offensive play-caller Scott Linehan.
“I also think you’ll see an improved player relative to the experience and the time that he’s spent with his new coordinator,” Jones said Tuesday on 105.3 The Fan after being asked about Romo’s health. “This is a real successful matchup. I think these guys are going to be pretty effective with the way they work together.
“Tony basically said, ‘He’s thinking of it before I do,’ and that’s something because Tony has a lot of thoughts as he plays a ballgame. He stays out ahead of it pretty good, so we’re going to be pretty pleased with that combination.”
That version is a good tackle and veteran leader on an offensive line that is expected to be one of the league's best. The other version of Free is a weak link.
The problem: Free might be the most unpredictable player on the team.
For whatever reason, Free's four seasons as a full-time starter have been a roller coaster. He was very good in two of them and terrible in the other two.
Just look at where Free ranked among offensive tackles in Pro Football Focus' grading system the last four seasons: tied for fifth in 2010, 51st in 2011, 68th in 2012 and 20th in 2013.
Those looking for reasons to be optimistic can take some comfort in the fact that Free has been at his best when he had major financial motivation. He was playing for a contract in 2010, when he had the best season of his career and cashed in with a four-year, $32 million deal. Last season, after Free accepted a pay cut that slashed his salary in half over the option of being released, Free had a bounce-back campaign, which was probably necessary to keep his roster spot with this year's $3.5 million not being guaranteed.
Another factor, which the Cowboys consider much more important, is Free's comfort level playing for offensive line coach Bill Callahan. This will be Free's third season under Callahan, and the Cowboys believe he benefitted last year from a better understanding of the techniques Callahan coaches.
The bad news is that the last live glimpse we got of Free wasn't exactly encouraging. He gave up two sacks in a half playing against Pro Bowl pass-rusher Cameron Wake in the preseason loss to the Miami Dolphins, when the starting offensive line as a whole was a disappointment.
Garrett noted that Free's performance outside of the two sacks allowed wasn't bad, but subjecting Tony Romo to that sort of punishment is never acceptable.
"Any time you give up a sack, it's not something you want to do," Free said. "You want to play all year without giving up a sack. At times, it happens, but you try the best you can to not give up a sack. He's a good player, but it's something you've got to shut down."
Added Garrett: "You certainly have to learn and grow from that situation."
If Free performs as well as he did last season, he'll fly under the radar, which is fine with him. If he turns back into the 2011 and 2012 version, he'll get plenty of attention as one of the primary reasons as high-powered offense is underachieving.
“I’m just going to go with the flow,” Melton said. “If they want to hold me to a certain amount of plays, I’m just going to listen to them.”
For the Cowboys to have any chance of having a solid defense this season, they need Melton to play well.
That's especially important against a physical offense like San Francisco, which prefers to use its running game to control the game. Last season, the 49ers ranked third in the NFL in rushing attempts (505) and yards per game (137.6) and fourth with 18 touchdowns.
“The biggest thing for (Melton),” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said, “is to get out there and practice and go against a live opponent. He was able to do some of that today.”
The 6-foot-4, 277-pound Edwards had nine tackles in seven games as a rookie. The Cowboys acquired him on Saturday for a conditional 2015 seventh-round pick.
“I think I’m a little better fit in the 4-3,” Edwards said. “I was the only defensive end they kept on the line last year. They moved all the others to outside linebacker. I had no idea I was going to get traded, but it’s good to be employed. That’s the most important thing.”
Coach Jason Garrett said the Cowboys view Edwards as a left defensive end, which means he’ll usually line up against tight ends and tackles and will need to be strong against the run.
He'll join George Selvie, Tyrone Crawford and Jeremy Mincey as part of the Cowboys' defensive end rotation.
“He was a guy we really liked coming out of school,” Garrett said. “We feel like he can be part of our rotation -- a big strong guy who plays with really good effort.”
For example, he could definitely do without dealing with the media, as McClain said as politely as possible as a swarm of reporters surrounded him Monday, six days before his debut with the Dallas Cowboys.
"If I lied and said I did enjoy camp, then you shouldn’t ask me any more questions," McClain said, laughing.
The real fun starts soon for McClain, who will likely start at middle linebacker for a Dallas defense desperate for playmakers.
McClain cut off questions about Sunday’s season opener against the San Francisco 49ers. He is adamant that he has to simply focus on the next practice, a fair point for a guy who has had problems staying on the practice field this summer. But he is clearly anxious for his first regular-season action since November 2012.
This is the kind of opportunity that makes the work worth it.
"I still love the game like I’m an 8-, 9-year old kid," McClain said. "It’s just about getting back into it, building chemistry with some of these guys, some trust, and just playing and having fun really."
The 25-year-old McClain’s passion for the game can certainly be questioned after he gave it up twice after being selected with the eighth overall pick in the 2010 draft by the Oakland Raiders, but he insisted that was never his problem. He had to learn how to be a professional, which required a lot of growing up for a guy whose rocky road has included three arrests.
Over the past year, McClain has cut ties with a lot of his friends and family from his Alabama hometown, attempting to eliminate the bad influences from his life. He has made his two sons his priority and made his faith his foundation.
McClain doesn’t want to be the same guy who came into the league with such high expectations after being an All-American at Alabama. That guy failed in football and life.
"I’m just an overall better man," McClain said. "That makes me a better football player, a better boyfriend, a better father. You’ve got to start with the base, man, get yourself right and then fill in the blanks from there. That’s what I had to do."
The Cowboys acquired McClain’s rights in a minimum-risk deal with the Baltimore Ravens because they had a massive void at middle linebacker after Sean Lee's injury. After consulting with Alabama coach Nick Saban, head coach Jason Garrett and the Dallas decision-makers determined that it was worth taking a chance on McClain.
Given the low risk and Saban’s recommendation, the Cowboys could deal with McClain’s character red flags. Of course, that is the case only because of his rare talent.
The Cowboys really need McClain to live up to his potential to have any realistic hope of fielding a respectable defense.
"If you live up or care about somebody’s expectations, you’ll always let them down," McClain said. "So you set your own expectations.
"What are my expectations? I don’t have to reveal them."
McClain punctuated the thought with a laugh. At least football is fun for him again as the regular season approaches.
Dixon had an eventful summer, leading the Cowboys with 12 tackles in their preseason opener against the San Diego Chargers, showing up late to a walk-through that left him benched for the second preseason game and earning a $22,050 fine for hitting a defenseless receiver in the third preseason game.
If Dixon clears waivers, he could be brought back to the practice squad.
At the time Dixon was drafted, the Cowboys hoped he would develop into a special teams' ace, but they opted to keep Jemea Thomas, who was claimed off waivers from the New England Patriots last week, and go with Spillman, who led the San Francisco 49ers with 19 special teams' stops in 2013.
Dixon was one of the Cowboys' five seventh-round picks and the third to be cut, joining Will Smith and Terrance Mitchell. Ben Gardner is on injured reserve with a shoulder injury. The only seventh-rounder currently on the 53-man roster is defensive tackle Ken Bishop.
- For the first time since 2011 with Stephen McGee the Cowboys have kept three quarterbacks on the 53-man roster with Dustin Vaughan joining Tony Romo and Brandon Weeden. I wonder if the Cowboys did not want to risk losing Vaughan at the final cuts and might look to cut him in the next day or two after the opposing teams settle their roster. It would be a way to sneak him through waivers and onto the practice squad. It might be a reach and nobody truly can “sneak” a player through waivers these days, but I believe teams are reluctant to add young quarterbacks to the roster in which they have no previous relationship. Vaughan really progressed since signing in May. He was erratic in the spring but started to come on in camp and in the preseason. Will he ever be a starter? I wouldn't go that far, but he has enough tools to make him worth developing. He has a big arm and he showed some surprising mobility.
- Last week Jerry Jones said there would be no additions to the Ring of Honor this year, but that could be subject to change. I wonder if he will put Ryan Williams in there after the 112 yards he put up on the ground in three preseason games. I kid, I kid. But the Cowboys' decision to cut Williams was panned by a lot of people. I had one guy tell me Williams was the Cowboys' best runner, and I wonder if I needed to introduce him to DeMarco Murray. Williams had a good summer. He ran hard. He showed some good vision against the Baltimore Ravens and the Miami Dolphins. But there is more to being a backup running back than just running the ball. The fourth tailback has to play special teams. Williams was only OK and certainly not as good as Joseph Randle, who is the third tailback. When it was ones against ones in the first preseason game, Randle did a nice job and enough to show the Cowboys he was worth keeping but he would have been inactive every week. If Williams clears waivers, which is a distinct possibility because of his injury history and lack of production with the Arizona Cardinals, then he could be brought back to the practice squad and signed to the active roster at any point.
- On Tuesday I expect the Cowboys to put rookie defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence on injured reserve with a designation to return. Lawrence can't go on that list sooner than Tuesday. I wonder if the Cowboys look to bring back Kenneth Boatright or Dartwan Bush to the active roster. Boatright and Bush were among the final cuts and also practice-squad eligible. To me, I would put Boatright on the active roster because he has more pass rush. Even with the addition of Lavar Edwards, I don't see enough natural pass-rushers on this roster.
- If you're wondering about whether the Cowboys will add veteran players after these cuts, I think you should stop. Maybe Kevin Vickerson of the Denver Broncos would make sense. He was hard for the Cowboys to block in the last preseason game. But I had people ask via Twitter if the Cowboys would go after Champ Bailey. Well, if it was the Bailey everybody remembered, I would say yes, but that guy never would have been available. But here's the big reason as to why I don't think they'll go after many (or any) vested veterans: if they are on the roster the first week of the regular season, they are guaranteed their base salary for the rest of the season. I believe that played a part in the departure of veteran guard Uche Nwaneri at the final cuts.
- I wonder who the 53rd player on the roster is right now. Could it be tackles Darrion Weems or John Wetzel. I wonder if Wetzel played better in the Broncos game that it would have spelled the end for Weems, who hurt his shoulder the first week of camp. I wonder if it is safety Jemea Thomas, who has yet to have a full practice with the club after getting picked up off waivers from the New England Patriots. I wonder if it is linebacker Cameron Lawrence, who figures to be a key special teamer, or fullback Tyler Clutts. The bottom of this roster should not exhale for quite some time. The Cowboys will be rolling through players over the next few days, weeks and months.
On Friday, coach Jason Garrett said he was not sure when Spencer would be able to practice. Spencer, who will play right defensive end, had microfracture surgery on his left knee last fall and has gone through a painstaking rehab process. In the last few weeks, the Cowboys have said Spencer is ahead of schedule on his comeback.
The Cowboys also have rookie defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence on the active roster despite a broken foot. He is likely to be placed on injured reserve with a designation to return. He needs to be on the 53-man roster through Tuesday in order to be placed on the short-term IR. With this designation, he would miss the first eight games of the season but be eligible to practice starting in Week 6.
See you in a month: Cornerback Orlando Scandrick and safety Jakar Hamilton cannot have contact with the Cowboys for the next month now that they are on the suspended list. Both players will miss four games with Scandrick violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy and Hamilton violating the substance abuse policy. They will be allowed back on Sept. 29 and eligible to play Oct. 5 against the Houston Texans. Despite losing Scandrick, the Cowboys opted only to keep four corners on the roster: Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Sterling Moore and Tyler Patmon.
Changes coming: The Cowboys kept 11 defensive linemen, but by Tuesday that number is expected to be 10 when rookie defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence is moved to short-term injured reserve as he returns from foot surgery. Lawrence will have to miss the first eight games, but can start practicing after six weeks. The Cowboys hope Lawrence will be able to be a designated pass rusher over the final eight weeks of the season. When he broke his foot in training camp, he was close to becoming the starting right defensive end. By putting Lawrence on short-term injured reserve, the Cowboys would not be able to use the designation on another player this season.
What’s next: A word to the wise for those on the bottom of the Cowboys’ roster: don’t celebrate. The Cowboys will be active in adding players either through trades, waivers or free agency. It’s not just about upgrading the bottom of the roster. The Cowboys need to upgrade starters and key backup roles at every level of their defense. Last year the Cowboys added four players after the final cuts before the season opener. They could potentially add more players this year, so dire is the state of the defense.
Cowboys moves: RB Ryan Williams, RB Phillip Tanner, RB D.J. Adams, WR LaRon Byrd, WR Jamar Newsome, WR Dezmon Briscoe, TE Asa Watson, T Josh Aladenoye, G Uche Nwaneri, G Stephen Goodin, C Ronald Patrick, DT Zach Minter, DE Kenneth Boatright, DE Caesar Rayford, DE Dartwan Bush, LB Will Smith, LB Orie Lemon, LB Keith Smith, LB Dontavis Sapp, CB Terrance Mitchell, S Keith Smith, Orlando Scandrick (suspended), Jakar Hamilton (suspended)
- Jerry Jones, the general manager
- Wondering about Michael Sam
- Predicting the record
- Josh Brent's production
@toddarcher: I don't think Michael Sam would fit on this defense even with the need for pass-rushing help. Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli wants speed. That's the No. 1 trait. Sam is not a speed player. He plays faster than he is timed and he had an excellent college career, but the Cowboys were dubious about his pro chances entering the draft and nothing really changed their opinion in the preseason. At the time of this writing, Sam is still with the Rams, so it's a moot point. But the Cowboys' decision (should it come up) would have nothing to do with Sam's sexual preference and everything to do with the position he plays. He's a left defensive end and the Cowboys have enough of those.
@toddarcher: Can I get a do-over? I've predicted an 8-8 finish, which is always something of a copout, but at the time I made the prediction I though this team would be able to overcome enough of the defensive shortcomings to win half of their games for the fourth straight season. Now I'm not so sure. Let me use a baseball analogy: The Cowboys have a bunch of fourth and fifth pitchers in first- and second-pitcher roles. You like some of these guys as role players, but the Cowboys need them to play way above their heads and need almost all of them to do so. If I had to do it over again, I'd probably say 6-10.
@toddarcher: It's hard to imagine he would be anything but a bit player, a backup. He hasn't played since 2012. He hasn't been in a team's conditioning program in two years. He was a solid player in a 3-4 scheme, but hardly a star. He was functional. If he can do that again, then the Cowboys would be happy. But I don't think he would appreciably change the Cowboys' defense. If/when he is reinstated, he will face a suspension, so he would need even more time to get on the field. Once he is ready to play, then maybe he takes the spot of a Ken Bishop, but the rookie seventh-round pick has done nice things this summer to see what he can become.
If Josh Brent does make it back to the team, what would his role be and who would be the odd man out? #cowboysmail— Nate D (@NateDxxx) August 29, 2014
When you rank dead last in the league in total defense, there’s only one way to go, he figured. Of course, it’s completely possible for the Cowboys to have the worst-ranked defense again and give up more yards than last season’s franchise record, but Jones would rather not view the situation that way.
“I think the defense is much improved, much improved,” Jones said after the preseason finale. “Awareness, the player we’re going to ask to do the job, I think we’re much improved from the team that was on the field the last four games when we ended the season. This is a better defense.”
Jones attempts to muster hope for a defense that lost arguably its three best players from last season with linebacker Sean Lee tearing up his knee, defensive tackle Jason Hatcher leaving in free agency and defensive end DeMarcus Ware being released. Plus, Orlando Scandrick will serve a four-game suspension to start the season after performing the best among the Cowboys cornerbacks last season.
The Cowboys certainly upgraded at defensive coordinator by demoting Monte Kiffin, who the game has clearly passed by and promoting Rod Marinelli. The Cowboys have recent evidence that Marinelli is a quality coordinator from his tenure with the Chicago Bears before coming to Dallas last year.
But Marinelli is no miracle worker. Just look at the Detroit Lions defensive rankings from his tenure as head coach: 28th, 32nd and 32nd in yards and 30th, 32nd and 32nd in scoring.
Marinelli needs playmakers to make his scheme work. Where are they on the Dallas defense?
The reality is this defense is in even worse shape than anticipated when training camp opened. They lost rookie defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, who they desperately needed to develop as an edge pass-rushing threat, for several weeks due to a broken foot. Defensive tackles Henry Melton and Terrell McClain didn’t play a down in the preseason due to injuries, with Melton still working to chip off rust after missing the last 13 games last season with a torn ACL. Defensive end George Selvie is dealing wth soreness in his surgically repaired right shoulder. Cornerback Morris Claiborne sat out the entire preseason -- again -- and will need to take pain-killing injections to play with a sprained AC joint in his shoulder. Scandrick is suspended four games.
“We know our limitations,” Jones said. “We know our scheme better, and we got players [who] can execute. We’ve got better players, healthier players to execute the scheme.”
That's the hope for the Dallas defense. But it’s definitely not the reality as they get ready for the regular season.
The fact of the matter is McClain, the twice-retired eighth overall pick of the 2010 draft, might not be ready for such a prominent role as he continues to chip off the rust and work his way into football shape.
Owner and general manager Jerry Jones has heaped praise on McClain throughout training camp and the preseason, but Jones dialed down the hype after the preseason finale, which McClain started and played two series.
“You’re a little excited when you see some of the things he does physically, but he hasn’t played for a year and a half. Let’s let him just come in here and when he gets in a game, he may be the fifth guy in or he may be coming in after we’ve had a couple of series, but let’s watch him come in here and let us play. I say that because I don’t want him or anybody else to think that we think he’s the savior of our defense. That’s not the way it is.”
Justin Durant, fourth-round pick Anthony Hitchens and McClain have all taken first-team reps at middle linebacker this summer as the Cowboys attempt to replace Lee, who will miss the season with a knee injury. Bruce Carter, Kyle Wilber, Durant and Hitchens have worked with the starters at the outside linebacker spots, with Carter seeing time at both the strong side and weak side.
Asked which linebacker combination will start Week 1, coach Jason Garrett said, “We haven’t made that decision yet.” Jones is braced for it not to include McClain.
At the same time, Garrett spends a lot of time talking about building a program and how the process of building a team with staying power takes time.
Garrett is 29-27 as a head coach and has missed the playoffs each of his three full seasons as head coach.
For now, Jerry Jones isn’t interested in committing to Garrett beyond this season.
“Well if I said that, I’d be giving him a contract and that’s not how we’re operating here,” Jones said of committing to Garrett beyond this season.
“I have in no way shut that door, but I have already decided that we were going to operate this year with his contract status the way that it is.”
As you would expect, Jones declined to rule out altering Garrett’s contract status during the season.
“I’m just saying as we sit here right now and as we enter the season, then I thought it was in the best interest of the team for us to keep the status of the coaches’ contracts the way that they generally are across the board,” Jones said. “And I haven’t changed that from the way you started training camp.”