PHOENIX -- The 108 official Super Bowl XLIX footballs will receive additional security this weekend amid an ongoing NFL investigation into the inflation of game balls in the AFC Championship Game, vice president of officiating Dean Blandino said Thursday.
"There will be some added security just because of the environment we're in for this game," Blandino said during a football operations news conference at the Phoenix Convention Center.
ESPN.com reported last week that, per longstanding NFL policy, an independent set of equipment managers and ball attendants will handle pregame preparation of game balls. This year, Chicago Bears equipment manager Tony Medlin was chosen to supervise the group.
The New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks will prepare 54 balls apiece to be used in Sunday's game; Blandino said the high number is due to charity commitments for game-used balls. Each team will hand over its footballs to Medlin and the NFL on Friday afternoon, where they will remain -- with the additional security -- until about three hours prior to the game. At that point, referee Bill Vinovich will test each ball to ensure it is within the NFL's allowable range of 12.5-13.5 PSI.
The NFL has hired attorney Ted Wells to investigate how 11 of the Patriots' 12 footballs were found to be underinflated at halftime of the AFC Championship Game. In the meantime, the league has already said it plans a full review of its policy regarding pregame football preparations this offseason. One possibility could be to discuss the legal range with Wilson, the league's official manufacturer. The 12.5-13.5 range has been in the NFL's rulebook for at least 75 years, Blandino said.
Blandino did say Thursday that the inspection of the footballs by referee Walt Anderson before the AFC Championship Game was handled properly.
"My major concern is did we follow proper protocol?" Blandino said. "Everything was properly tested and marked before the game. Walt gauged the footballs himself; it is something he has done throughout his career.
"Officiating is not part of the investigation."
Some other highlights of Blandino's news conference:
• Blandino clarified the protocol for referees if and when the Patriots' offense attempts to declare ineligible a player with an eligible number. Vinovich will point at the player, wave his arms in a manner similar to the signal for an incomplete pass, and then point at the player again when announcing he is ineligible. Blandino said the referee will not tell the defense not to cover the ineligible player, as Vinovich did when the scheme first surfaced during the AFC divisional playoff round.
• The NFL's competition committee has already received proposals from teams to expand instant replay, and Blandino said there is a growing movement in the league to capitalize in whatever way possible on emerging technology to correct more mistakes. The "process rule" that disallowed a key postseason catch by the Dallas Cowboys
Free agents: Bruce Carter, Rolando McClain, Justin Durant, James Anderson
A look back: It started out poorly last May when Lee was lost for the season because of a knee injury. He was their best playmaker on defense and the heart of the unit. It just added a question to a defense full of questions.
Throughout the season, linebackers coach Matt Eberflus mixed and matched his guys because of injuries, but as a group the linebackers performed well.
McClain was picked up in a next-to-nothing trade with the Baltimore Ravens and finished second on the team in tackles despite missing three games. Durant was having his best season before it ended because of injury. Carter was maddening at times, but led the Cowboys with five interceptions and played better down the stretch.
Hitchens proved to be a jack of all trades, starting games at all three linebacker spots. He finished with 100 tackles, according to the coaches’ breakdown. When he was picked, the Cowboys hoped the fourth-rounder could be a serviceable backup to Lee and play special teams. Wilber also had some moments in spot duty as a strongside linebacker.
A look ahead: Lee will be back in 2015, which is good news, but the rest of the group is in a state of flux because of free agency.
If the Cowboys re-sign McClain, then Lee can play the weakside spot. If not, he will return to his middle linebacker spot. It will be difficult to define how much McClain is worth because this was the first time he has had success at this level. The Cowboys got lucky with him and he might realize this is a good spot for him to remain and not just go to the highest bidder in free agency.
Carter and Durant are also interesting studies. Carter has all the athletic ability in the world, but there are stretches of play where you wonder how much he likes football. Durant was lighting it up but has durability concerns. Carter turns 27 next month. Durant turns 30 in September.
Hitchens showed incredible toughness playing through a high ankle sprain late in the season that earned him points throughout the organization. Is he a full-time starter or a fill-in replacement? What’s his best spot? It might be the Will linebacker, but he has some natural middle linebacker skills, too.
A look out: If they are unable to keep their free agents – or unwilling, depending on price level – the Cowboys have to find help.
Without McClain, Carter or Durant, the starters going into the season would be Lee, Hitchens and Wilber and plenty of questions with the depth. The answers would likely be low-cost free agents, such as Durant two years ago, and the draft, such as Hitchens in 2014. They had better be able to run and rally to the ball. That's what made the group successful in 2014.
McClain was a Pro Bowl alternate. With a full offseason of work and another year in the system, his play should improve. Putting him and Lee on the field together could give the Cowboys their best 4-3 linebacker pairing since Dexter Coakley and Dat Nguyen.
In Eberflus, the Cowboys have a coach who can develop players and teach new pickups on the fly. He might be a coordinator of the future for another team because he knows the 3-4 and 4-3 schemes.
Position: Tight end
Under contract: Jason Witten, James Hanna, Gavin Escobar
A look back: At some point you would think Jason Witten will slow down. He turns 33 in May but he is looking like another Tony Gonzalez, a player who can go at a high level well past what is reasonable.
So did Hanna, whose play was vastly underappreciated. He came to the Cowboys with the reputation as a pass catcher but has developed into a decent blocker. He caught four passes for 48 yards. His toughness is also unnoticed. He played the final few games with a sprained medial collateral ligament in his knee.
Escobar had four touchdown catches but caught just nine passes for 105 yards on the season. His blocking improved but he was not able to keep Hanna off the field. Rarely did he have his hand on the ground as the true tight end during the season.
A look ahead: Witten's production increased in the final month of the regular season and playoffs, almost as if the Cowboys went back to the script that had him catching 80-90 passes a season. He is remarkably durable and he consistently wins the offseason awards for the way he trains.
He is probably more fluid now than he was five years ago. Again, maybe there will come a time where he slows down, but it doesn't look like it'll happen in 2015 with the way he played in 2014.
It's not Escobar's fault he was picked in the second round in 2013. The Cowboys need more value out of a pick that high but Escobar looks more like a situational player than an every-down player. Again, that's not his fault. It's almost a product of the Cowboys' system. Tony Romo trusts him more, but there will only be so many chances with Dez Bryant, Witten, Cole Beasley, Terrance Williams and possibly DeMarco Murray around.
A look out: The Cowboys will need another tight end at some point in the offseason just out of numbers. They could conceivably carry a fourth tight end on the 53-man roster, but that would likely be at the expense of a fullback.
It will be hard to attract any significant free agents to Dallas because the depth chart appears set. Because Hanna will be a free agent after the season, looking late in the draft or at a priority undrafted free agent might make sense. But that tight end has to be able to do a lot of everything -- not just be a pass catcher or just a blocker.
Episode No. 42 will review ESPN.com's recent joint venture with Pro Football Focus, which broke down how many "above-average" players each team is from contending for the Super Bowl.
The crew will also preview the Super Bowl matchup between the defending champion Seattle Seahawks and three-time winner New England Patriots as well as break down how the Pro Football Hall of Fame's upcoming class may shake out Saturday.
Host Paul Gutierrez (ESPN Nation's San Francisco 49ers reporter) and co-hosts Coley Harvey (Cincinnati Bengals reporter) and Mike Wells (Indianapolis Colts reporter) will be joined by Jeff Legwold (Denver Broncos reporter) and ESPN NFL Insider Mike Sando, both of whom are among the Hall's 46 selectors.
He completed a league-leading 69.9 percent of his passes and led the NFL with a passer rating of 113.2.
Obviously, Romo has had plenty of outstanding seasons but this was the year Romo’s mental acumen and his physical skills morphed together perfectly.
But he didn’t do it by himself. No quarterback does.
1. It took two games, but Romo, coach Jason Garrett and the training staff finally figured out that it was better for Romo to use Wednesdays working on his back-strengthening exercises instead of practicing.
2. The Cowboys ran the ball 49.9 percent of the time this season, which meant Romo shared the offensive burden for the first time in his career. In the previous three seasons, the Cowboys ran the ball 35.1 percent (29th in the league), 33.8 percent (31st) and 40.1 percent (23rd).
3. Romo and first-year playcaller Scott Linehan quickly established a good relationship that allowed them to build the rapport every quarterback needs with the playcaller.
4. Rookie right guard Zack Martin gave Garrett and Linehan the confidence they needed to lean on the running game.
5. The primary offensive starters missed 10 games to injury. Right tackle Doug Free missed seven games.
6. DeMarco Murray carried a league-leading 392 times and recorded 12 100-yard games, which is why Romo threw a career-low 29 passes per game.
7. Romo made protecting the ball his top priority. He threw three interceptions in his first 14 passes, and six in his last 421 attempts.
8. The performance of the Cowboys’ role players played an integral part in several victories, whether we’re talking about tight end Gavin Escobar’s two touchdowns in a home win over the New York Giants or Cole Beasley’s two-touchdown performance in a road win over the Chicago Bears. Running backs Joseph Randle and Lance Dunbar combined for 26 plays of 10 yards or more in just 102 touches, while Terrance Williams, Beasley, Dunbar and Escobar combined for 1,363 yards and 16 touchdowns.
9. Dez Bryant is a touchdown machine, setting a franchise record with 16 touchdowns, including eight of 20 yards or more.
10. Jermey Parnell started seven games this season, while Free worked through two different foot injuries. Parnell played well enough that he was never a topic of discussion after a game.
Wade Phillips' staff coached the Pro Bowl and everybody had a grand old time in the Fort Lauderdale sun.
The feeling then was that the Cowboys were close to contending for a Super Bowl, that they would make the jump in 2010 after Tony Romo finally got the playoff monkey off his back.
And then 2010 happened.
The Cowboys finished 6-10, Phillips was fired at the midway point and it started a four-year run without the playoffs.
Yes, Romo broke a collarbone and started only six games, but the Cowboys were 1-5 in his starts.
The jump never came and it put the Cowboys on a re-tooling process -- remember, rebuild is a taboo word at Valley Ranch -- that finally paid off in 2014.
In 2014, the Cowboys won the NFC East, finished 12-4 and won a playoff game before losing in the divisional round to a team from the NFC North.
Jason Garrett's staff coached the Pro Bowl and everybody had a grand old time in the Phoenix sun.
The feeling now is that the Cowboys will contend for a Super Bowl in 2015 and make that jump after coming within possibly an overturned Dez Bryant catch of at least making it to the NFC Championship Game.
How do the Cowboys make sure 2015 is not like 2010?
Keep Romo healthy would be a good start, but the makeup of the team is different.
"It's about building," Garrett said. "This is about building, keep building, keep bringing in the right players, keep doing things the right way and building a program. Within that you're building a football team for the 2015 season."
The 2010 Cowboys did not sign an unrestricted free agent. Since the inception of the current system, the Cowboys did not sign an unrestricted free agent in 1993, 1997, 2001, 2004, 2008 and 2010. The 1993 team was so loaded it didn't need much help in winning consecutive Super Bowls. In the other five years, the Cowboys failed to make the playoffs.
Free agency is not the cure all. Teams are never a player away, but the Cowboys can make smart additions in free agency in 2015 to help grow the program.
In 2010, the Cowboys had seven starters 30 or older and three players at least 29. Four of the five starters on the offensive line -- Marc Colombo, Kyle Kosier, Leonard Davis and Andre Gurode -- were older than 30. Inside linebacker Keith Brooking was 35. Cornerback Terance Newman was 32.
With players under contract for 2015, the Cowboys have just three starters more than 30 years old: Romo, Jason Witten and Jeremy Mincey. Right tackle Doug Free (31) and fullback Tyler Clutts (30) are free agents to-be and could be re-signed.
The Cowboys will welcome linebacker Sean Lee back in 2015 after he missed last season with a knee injury. He turns 29 in July. They could also bring back defensive end Anthony Spencer (31). DeMarcus Lawrence figures to be a starter in 2015. He's turns 23 in April. Linebacker Anthony Hitchens also turns 23 in June.
Linebackers Rolando McClain and Bruce Carter are free agents as well. They will be 26 and 27 when the new season starts.
Looking back at 2010 with the perspective of what happened, that Cowboys team was one that was hanging on, not building.
"I think we're a better football team right now," Romo said. "At the same point, you've got to start over. To me, you just can't try and just recreate what you had. You're going to be a different team in certain areas. Each guy has to commit himself to being a better version of himself than he was the year before. If everybody does that, you'll come back as a whole better team than you were."
Free agents: Sterling Moore
A look back: Only four of the Cowboys’ 18 interceptions came from their cornerbacks in 2014. Scandrick had two. Claiborne and Patmon had one each.
Carr did not record an interception and struggled until late in the season. The turning point might have been Odell Beckham Jr.’s unbelievable one-handed catch for the New York Giants. Carr still gave up a big play or two and a touchdown, but he was more physical in all aspects of his game. He played more like the cornerback the Cowboys thought they were getting in 2012 when he signed as a free agent.
Scandrick’s season started with him suspended for two games for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy, but he had his most effective season. He remained one of the better slot corners in the league but did his best job on outside receivers and the coaches showed more faith in him by having him shadow wideouts all over the field.
Claiborne’s season was spotty at best and ended after just four games because of a torn patellar tendon. He lost his job to Scandrick and left the team facility briefly. Things have not gone well for the No. 6 overall pick of the 2012 draft. He has a long comeback from the surgery and is in the final year of his contract.
Moore had his best season but struggled in the playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers. He did not have an interception, either, but he led the team with 14 pass breakups. He showed he can play in the slot and outside.
Patmon is an interesting find. He made the team off a rookie minicamp tryout and had a pick-six against the Arizona Cardinals.
A look ahead: Carr is slated to count $12.7 million against the cap in 2015. The Cowboys will ask him to take a pay cut or be cut. While it appears an easy decision, Claiborne’s health complicates the matter a little bit. The Cowboys simply can’t just get rid of corners when they don’t have enough corners. If he plays the way he did in the final month-plus of the season, the Cowboys would be happy.
In 2013, the Cowboys cut Doug Free’s pay in half and saw him perform well in the last two seasons. They can hope Carr can do the same if he chooses to accept less money.
There is no reason to believe Scandrick’s play will fall off. He is smart, tough and more athletic than people realize. His smarts will keep him out of trouble on the field. He understands offensive concepts more than most defensive backs.
Despite what Jerry Jones said at the Senior Bowl, the Cowboys simply can’t pick up Claiborne’s fifth-year option for 2016. He has not shown the ability to stay healthy or play at a level worthy of where he was picked. And he is coming back from knee surgery.
Moore is a restricted free agent. The Cowboys want to keep him but his presence on the roster won’t keep the Cowboys from looking to upgrade. Patmon might not be a future starter but he is a guy who can help in sub packages.
A look out: With the 27th pick in the first round, the Dallas Cowboys select … a cornernback? Sure. Teams long have said "you can never have enough corners." We mentioned Moore is a restricted free agent. Claiborne is going into the final year of his deal. Carr’s deal ends in 2016. Scandrick is signed through 2018.
The Cowboys not only need numbers at the position, they need more ability. A better pass rush would make the coverage guys better. An intriguing draft possibility could be Miami University’s Quinten Rollins, an intriguing candidate because of his basketball background. Oregon’s Ifo Ekpre-Olomu is coming off a major knee injury but could be had later than expected.
Do not look for the Cowboys to be players at the high end of the free-agent market for guys like Darrelle Revis, if he is available. But they could look for a stop-gap corner if they are not able to keep Carr.
Free agents: Dez Bryant, Cole Beasley, Dwayne Harris
A look back: Bryant was magnificent again with 88 catches for 1,320 yards and a single-season team record 16 touchdown catches. He made the big plays, but more importantly he made the boring plays.
With the way the Cowboys ran the ball in 2014, the opportunities were not the same for the other receivers. Williams, Beasley, and Harris had to fit in behind Bryant and Jason Witten. The Cowboys did a better job of moving Bryant around to make it more difficult for defenses to guard him, but he deserves credit for knowing how to handle different chances from different spots.
The Cowboys parted ways with Miles Austin, in part because they felt Williams was ready to assume the No. 2 role. He caught eight touchdown passes and showed a knack of finding open spots for quarterback Tony Romo when things broke down, but he has to do a better job with his route-running and making contested catches.
Beasley’s role increased as the season went on. Romo trusts him, but there were a handful of miscommunications and Beasley had two fumbles. Despite being a slot player, he still averaged 11.4 yard per catch and caught four touchdown passes. Harris’s chances were fewer than he would have liked, but he was a devastating blocker at times in the run game.
Actually, wide receivers coach Derek Dooley deserves credit for his group doing the dirty work down the field when running back DeMarco Murray broke long runs.
A look ahead: Bryant will be a free agent, but the Cowboys won’t let him leave. Without a long-term deal, they will put the franchise tag on him. It might not make Bryant happy, but if he wants to complain he can send them the union’s way for not doing a better job of getting rid of the tags in the most recent collective bargaining talks.
Regardless, the Cowboys want him for 2015 and beyond, but they will only do so if the deal makes complete sense for them. They don’t want to get out of whack with their salary structure in the future, and it’s entirely possible for them to use the franchise tag on Bryant in 2016 as well if necessary.
Beasley will be a restricted free agent. The Cowboys will have to determine whether it makes sense to put the low tender on him, which would not require compensation from another team since he was an undrafted free agent, or the second-round tender, which will be roughly $2.4 million. They could look into signing him to a multi-year deal before free agency begins to keep that cap figure lower. He has too much value to let walk, however, so the Cowboys will likely put the second-round tender on him.
Harris has value as well, especially when factoring in his return ability. But he could be looking for more chances as a receiver and could get that elsewhere.
Williams’ playoff run suggests he is about to figure it out. He has shown he can make the big plays, but he needs to grow the way Bryant grew in making the boring plays that keep drives alive. Street has ability and was active for every game, but caught just two passes.
A look out: Let’s go with the premise that Bryant and Beasley will return. That would give the Cowboys their top three receivers back in 2015, with Street possibly moving into a larger role as the fourth receiver.
There does not appear to be a lot of room at the inn for another receiver, so early- or middle-round picks in the draft do not appear likely. The same would go with a veteran free agent. If Bryant somehow is not re-signed, then there could be options worth exploring in free agency. The Cowboys coached Randall Cobb at the Pro Bowl. But this is just a waste of breath considering how the Cowboys value Bryant.
The players will know more about what he does and doesn't want. He will have a better idea about what the players can and cannot do.
But the cast of characters could look vastly different. Of the starters who were in the base defense entering the divisional round of the playoffs against the Green Bay Packers, four are set to be unrestricted free agents: George Selvie, Nick Hayden, Bruce Carter and Rolando McClain. A fifth, Brandon Carr, could be a salary-cap casualty. Two key backups, Anthony Spencer (unrestricted) and Sterling Moore (restricted), could hit the market at varying levels.
The Cowboys finished 19th in yards allowed per game (355.1) and 15th in points allowed per game (22) in 2014.
But there is another factor to consider in how much the defense can improve: the level of opponents.
Using yards and points as the indicator, the Cowboys faced just five offenses that finished in the top half of the league in yards and six in the top half in points in 2014. While predicting success based on past results can be flawed, in 2015 the Cowboys will face 13 offenses that finished in the top half in yards and 10 that finished in the top half in points last season.
During his three-year run as coordinator with the Chicago Bears, the numbers in Marinelli’s second year slipped.
In 2010, the Bears were ninth in yards allowed per game (314.3) and fourth in points allowed per game (17.9). In 2011, they were 17th in yards (350.4) and 14th in points (21.3). In 2012, they rebounded in yards allowed (315.6, which was fifth-best) and points allowed (17.3, third-best).
In 2010, they played seven offenses that finished in the top half in yards and eight in the top half in points. In 2011, they faced 10 offenses that finished in the top half in yards and points. In 2012, there were nine offenses in the top half in yards and eight in the top half in points.
The Cowboys’ 2015 schedule features Seattle, Green Bay, Atlanta, New England, New Orleans and Miami out of the division. Those offenses are much better than the units the Cowboys faced in 2014 (San Francisco, Tennessee, St. Louis, Jacksonville and Arizona).
The one constant, however, in a Marinelli defense has been the ability to take the ball away.
In 2010, the Bears were tied for third in turnovers forced with 35. They had 31 in 2011 (tied for fifth), and they led the NFL in takeaways in 2012 with 44.
The Cowboys were able to take it away 31 times in 2014, ranked second in the league.
“There are a lot of different ways to measure your defense and a lot of people get caught up in yards and all the different ways that people use numbers in this game, but taking the ball away impacts the game,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said when the season ended. “It impacts the game like none other . . . You look at the correlation between takeaways and points scored and it’s a pretty direct correlation and has been for a long time. And points scored relates to winning.”
That term is normally reserved for college football, not the NFL. Generally, coaches don't have time to build. They need to win and win almost immediately. Garrett is the second-longest tenured coach in the NFC East and only four coaches in the conference have been with their teams longer: Tom Coughlin (2004), Sean Payton (2006), Mike McCarthy (2006) and Pete Carroll (2010).
This week, Field Yates and Mike Sando put together a look at how the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks have been built.
It got me to thinking about how the Cowboys have been built.
Below is a chart comparing the Cowboys to the Patriots and Seahawks as well as the league average in 18 categories. Using the 53-man roster going into the divisional-round loss to the Green Bay Packers, the Cowboys had just 21 of their own draft picks on the roster. The league average was 27.2. They had just five former first-round picks. The league average was nine.
The building has to continue, especially through the draft.
Yates and Sando put together a list of 10 critical moves for the Patriots and Seahawks to be where they are. Here are five the Cowboys have made to get in position to contend for a Super Bowl:
Building the offensive line: Before taking Tyron Smith in the first round of the 2011 draft, the Cowboys last used a first rounder on an offensive lineman in 1981. They have picked an offensive lineman with three of their last four picks with Travis Frederick and Zack Martin joining Smith. To get there, the Cowboys had to go with a mixed-and-matched group, and that played a part in three straight 8-8 finishes.
Patience, patience and more patience: Jerry Jones is not considered a patient owner and general manager but he was patient with Garrett, living through growing pains that could have cost the Cowboys a playoff spot or two. That patience was rewarded in 2014 with a 12-4 finish and a playoff win. Garrett was rewarded with a five-year contract worth $30 million after the season ended.
Hiring Scott Linehan, Rod Marinelli: Garrett could not divorce himself from the offense until he was able to bring Linehan aboard. Because of his past with Linehan, Garrett's trust in what was being done on that side of the ball was unquestioned, unlike in 2013 when Bill Callahan was calling the plays. Garrett also pushed for the ascension of Rod Marinelli to defensive coordinator and the Cowboys' unit was much better than many could have expected.
Cutting the cord: It wasn't easy to part ways with trusted veterans like Leonard Davis, Marc Colombo, Andre Gurode and Kyle Kosier in 2011 and '13, but it had to be done. Just as the Cowboys had to say goodbye to DeMarcus Ware and Miles Austin in the 2014 offseason. Those players were successful and played big parts in the Cowboys' success, but they were on the wrong side of 30 and/or cost a lot against the cap. The Cowboys also didn't attempt to re-sign defensive tackle Jason Hatcher. With Ware's departure, the Cowboys chose to go with numbers at the position rather than tying up too much money in one player.
Smarter signings: In 2012, the Cowboys paid Brandon Carr a five-year, $50 million deal as a free agent. At the time it was considered a good move because of the need at the position, but the cost has not equaled production. Since, the Cowboys have been wiser with their dollars (perhaps because they had to be) and the production has been greater. Jeremy Mincey (two years, $3 million) led the Cowboys with six sacks in 2014. Nick Hayden was a "futures" signing after the 2012 season. George Selvie was signed early in training camp in 2013. Justin Durant received just a $400,000 signing bonus in 2013. Henry Melton's big money kicks in this year, but the Cowboys won't pick up the $9 million option.
Last year, Dallas Cowboys rookie Zack Martin made that same transition, going from left tackle at Notre Dame to right guard in the NFL. And he wound up as a first-team All-Pro.
“There are trends, and you look at that and say, ‘OK, this kid [Martin] just did it and he played really well for Dallas. And he was great.’ But you’ve gotta also look at the individual player,” said ESPN/Scouts Inc. draft analyst Steve Muench, who said that neither Scherff nor Collins is as “quick on his feet” as Martin was last year.
But Muench described both as worthy first-round picks and “plug and play” guards – meaning he believes they could step right in and start at guard in the NFL.
I chatted with Muench last week at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, where he said he was impressed by what he saw from the 6-foot-5, 308-pound Collins during the week of practices while Collins took turns playing left tackle, right tackle and left guard.
Scherff (6-5, 320) elected not to play in the Senior Bowl. He is projected slightly higher than Collins on most draft boards right now – often in the top 10 overall.
Muench said he has Scherff graded slightly higher right now as a guard prospect – though he believes Collins has a better chance to play right tackle in the NFL than Scherff if that’s what teams are looking for.
“I still really like Collins and thought he had a good week, but Scherff is a little more consistent with more explosive power. Both players should be good, though,” said Muench, who described Collins as a “mean run blocker” and said his only knock on him during Senior Bowl week was a few technique issues, like opening up a little too much with his feet during 1-on-1 pass-rush drills.
“Outside of the technique, I think he’s a really good player. He’s got a lot of talent. He’s got good hands, good feet, good balance. He doesn’t overreact to things in pass pro, lets it develop, stays in front of guys,” Muench said. “And then you don’t see it as much here [at Senior Bowl practices] because guys don’t fire off like they do on game film, obviously. But he’s a mean run blocker on tape, who’s got the power to move guys off, in addition to having enough athletic ability to seal guys, seal a defensive end, get up to the second level, cover up linebackers.”
Scherff was a first-team All-American and Collins a second-teamer in 2014, according to the Associated Press. But Collins, a Baton Rouge native, seems to have helped his draft stock by deciding to return for his senior season at LSU, where he won the Jacobs Blocking Trophy as the SEC’s top blocker and was named as the Tigers’ Most Valuable Player.
Collins said between practices last week that it doesn’t matter to him whether he plays tackle or guard in the NFL.
“I’m comfortable playing anywhere on the offensive line,” Collins said. “You’ve just gotta be ready to fit in wherever you need to be. So a guy like me, I feel like I can play inside and outside.”
When asked why he played in the Senior Bowl despite being projected as a top-20 draft prospect, Collins said, “Because I’m a competitor, and I look to get better. This is another chance for me to elevate my game, with NFL scouts out here. Who wouldn’t want to be here? …
“Why would you pass up on chance to work with great coaches and play against great competition?”
Collins said it would be great to play for the Saints, just an hour away from home, but he stressed, “Anyone that wants to give me an opportunity, I’ll definitely be there with open arms and that will be my new home.”
Under contract: Barry Church, J.J. Wilcox, Jeff Heath, Jakar Hamilton, Keelan Johnson
Free agents: C.J. Spillman
Church led the Cowboys with 110 tackles, according to the coaches' breakdown. He had two tackles for loss, a quarterback pressure, two interceptions, six pass breakups, a forced a fumble, and a recovered fumble. Wilcox finished fourth in tackles, according to the coaches’ breakdown, with 89. He had three interceptions and eight pass breakups.
Like the defense as a whole, their play was solid at times and lacking at others. Wilcox has been a safety for just three seasons -- two at the NFL level. He is still learning the position and angles. Church is a decent open-field tackler, and knows how to keep himself in good spots on the field.
Heath played a backup role for most of the season, but missed two games with a broken thumb. He saw some time when the Cowboys went to a dime defense, and he covered tight ends. He is also a top special teams performer.
Spillman was picked up before the season started, mostly for his special teams’ skills. Hamilton was suspended the first four games for violating the league’s substance abuse policy and was active for just two games.
A look ahead: Church and Wilcox will return in 2015, and the Cowboys have not had the same pairing start the majority of games in back to back seasons since Roy Williams and Darren Woodson (2002-03). That should be a benefit for them and the defense.
But there remains room to grow for both. Wilcox has some playmaking skills, but he needs to see the field better. Church is solid, but there are times you want more. He is good enough to win with.
Heath takes grief for a lot of things unnecessarily. He was forced to play more as an undrafted rookie in 2013 and was exposed. He is a backup safety who can be a stop-gap performer while also playing a key role on special teams.
Spillman’s ability on special teams brings value, but he will only be back on a short-term deal, probably at the veteran minimum. Hamilton was having a decent training camp before a concussion and hamstring injuries kept him off the field. Then he was suspended. He has to show the coaches he can be trusted before they give him a role on defense. The Cowboys signed Johnson to a futures contract with the hope he could develop.
A look out: Whenever people talk about upgrading the safety position, they always mention how the Cowboys need a Troy Polamalu or Ed Reed in their prime. Now it’s an Earl Thomas or Kam Chancellor.
It sounds great, but there aren’t too many of those available on the planet. (And this might be a bad time to remind folks the Cowboys took Akwasi Owusu-Ansah in the fourth round before Chancellor was picked in 2010). The Cowboys were highly interested in Kenny Vaccaro in 2013, but the New Orleans Saints took him with the 15th overall pick. He was a disappointment in 2014.
Sometimes solid is good enough. The Cowboys could look to the draft for upgrades, but the more pressing need defensively is finding pass-rushers. If they can find more players to affect the quarterback, it would make their safety play better.
Under contract: Joseph Randle, Lance Dunbar, Ryan Williams
Free agents: DeMarco Murray, Tyler Clutts
A look back: In a word, Murray was phenomenal. The Cowboys wanted to be a physical team and Murray allowed that to happen. He led the NFL in rushing with 1,845 yards, setting a single-season franchise record. He also scored 13 touchdowns and opened the season with eight straight 100-yard games.
When the MVP and offensive player of the year awards are announced later this week, Murray should be in the conversation.
Because Murray was so good, the Cowboys did not give Randle or Dunbar much work. Randle, however, managed to average 6.7 yards per carry and scored three touchdowns on 51 carries. He had runs of 38, 40 and 65 yards. He ran hard and his pace was different than Murray's and caught defenses off guard. Dunbar did a decent job as a third-down back. His opportunities will be lacking just because of the depth of the Cowboys' offense but he has a good feel for setting up screens.
Clutts didn't have a carry during the season and caught just one pass in the regular season. He added his first touchdown in the playoffs. Williams' comeback from injuries was a good story in training camp and he spent the year on the practice squad.
A look ahead: What happens to Murray will be the story of the Cowboys' offseason. Do the Cowboys pay him a nice reward or do they let him walk as a free agent? Depending on the day, hour, minute that answer can change.
Murray has value to the Cowboys for more than just his ability to run the ball. Finding how to come to a financial agreement with all those things considered will be difficult. It won't be impossible. The Cowboys can certainly afford Murray, Dez Bryant and make plays in free agency with their salary cap. If they don't keep Murray, it will be a decision that they don't want to overpay for a running back.
If that happens, then Randle will get a chance to prove he can be effective as a full-time back. There are those at Valley Ranch who believe he can be a 1,400-yard rusher, but they also acknowledge there is more to the position than running the ball.
Clutts could be brought back at a decent price as well.
A look out: If Murray walks, then the Cowboys would figure to be players in the running back market. While everybody wants to connect the dots between the Cowboys and Adrian Peterson, who remains under contract with the Minnesota Vikings, the cost of business with a running back will be a factor. Peterson won't come at a discount and the Cowboys would have already passed on keeping Murray because they didn't want to fork over a lot of cap space to a running back.
The draft would figure to be the more logical spot. Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon looks to be a good fit for what the Cowboys want to do in the running game and with the 27th pick in the draft, they might be in a good spot to get value. There will be other runners that will gain attention between now and May as well.
Remember, Murray was a third-round pick.
The Dallas Cowboys were deemed to be the closest of the 30 teams not in the Super Bowl. PFF graded the Cowboys with four elite players, eight good players, 16 average players and just two bad players.
But close is a relative term. Thirteen of the 30 players rated by PFF are set to be either restricted or unrestricted free agents. Teams change. Opponents change. What is true today won’t be true in September when the season begins.
“But I don’t think that says next year just roll the ball out and we’re going to do it again. No, you’ve got to do it all over again. I do think we’re good at the right positions that will allow us to have a chance to be successful.”
The Cowboys should have the best offensive line in the NFL with Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin leading the group. Tony Romo had his best season. Dez Bryant, who is set to be a free agent, is among the best wide receivers, as is Witten among the best tight ends.
But then there’s DeMarco Murray. Like Bryant, he is set to be a free agent but there is no guarantee he will be back. If they have to use the franchise tag, it will be on Bryant.
If Murray leaves, the dynamics of the offense are sure to change. Maybe Joseph Randle can replace Murray. Or maybe Adrian Peterson, in fact, ends up a Cowboy. Or Mark Ingram. Or maybe some rookie. Maybe doesn’t fit into an equation.
And this is where "close to the Super Bowl," talk is not necessarily realistic. Thirteen of the 30 Cowboys graded by PFF are free agents, either restricted or unrestricted.
Eight of those 13 players are on the defensive side of the ball, including the leading tackler (Rolando McClain), leading interceptor (Bruce Carter) and second-leading sacker (Henry Melton). Key contributors like Anthony Spencer, Justin Durant and Sterling Moore (restricted) could hit the market to some degree.
When Garrett’s five-year extension was announced shortly after the Cowboys' season ended, he mentioned the word "build" in his opening statement.
“I think teams make mistakes when they say, ‘OK, we’re one player away,’” Garrett said. “I just think you’re continuing to try and build a football team. If we do that, right guys, the right way, that’s what gives us our best chance.”
The quick fix in free agency is sometimes never quick or a fix because the cost is so prohibitive. The Cowboys signed Brandon Carr in 2012 to a five-year, $50 million deal but he has not played to that level and entering his fourth year with the team he is looking at a pay-cut-or-be-cut scenario.
There is also the element of luck. Was it lucky that Tony Romo spun away from J.J. Watt and found Terrance Williams for a touchdown in the overtime win against the Houston Texans? Was it good fortune that the Cowboys were matched up with the dreadful AFC South?
The Cowboys saw a bit of bad luck in the playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers when Bryant’s catch was overturned.
“Sometimes it’s the way the ball bounces,” Frederick said. “You’re on the sideline and you drop one and it might bounce out of bounds or it might bounce back in and the other team picks it up. There really is a bit of luck in there.”
Each year is a delicate balance of skill, luck, health and chemistry mixed in with a team’s ability.
The 2014 Cowboys were close to contending for the Super Bowl. That doesn’t mean the 2015 Cowboys will be close to competing for Super Bowl L.
“One of the things you learn early on in this game is if we brought back the exact same team, the exact same players, the exact same coaches and we got together on April 20 for the start of the offseason program, we have to start all over again,” Garrett said. “So I do believe that you get yourself to a point and the experiences that we’ve had up to this point are real ones and we can benefit from those experiences, actual game experiences, success and adversities and all that, so we start from that point but we have to get back to work.
“We have to put our socks back on and start from the ground floor and do it all over again. That’s an exciting thing.”