The Kind of Defensive Tackle Coordinator Rod Marinelli Looks For

Rod Marinelli was named the Cowboys new defensive coordinator at the end of the season, a season which saw the Cowboys defense hit some new lows as they tried to adapt to the Tampa 2 version of the 4-3 defense. Marinelli was the Defensive Coordinator with the Bears (under Lovie Smith) from 2010-2012, where he coached the same defense Dallas runs now.

To fix the Dallas 4-3 defense, I’m convinced Dallas must draft a Warren Sapp type defensive tackle that can make things happen up front. Past decisions are often a good predictor of future decisions so with that in mind, I looked back to see if Marinelli drafted a defensive tackle during his time with the Bears.

In 2011, the Bears drafted DT Stephen Paea in the 2nd round. At the time, Marinelli described Paea as the “full package”.
“The first thing that jumped out at me was he fits our defense,” Marinelli said. “He’s a great penetrator. He’s got really good feet and that’s something you really look for in the down [linemen]. They’ve got to have movement and he can penetrate. He’s strong in there. He finishes plays really well.

At 6-1 and 303 pounds, Paea had a very productive college career and Marinelli was impressed with his non stop motor regardless of the game circumstances. Paea was very strong as he benched 225 for a ridiculous 49 times! Now that’s just crazy.

Looking at the approaching 2014 NFL draft, is there a DT prospect that Marinelli might have an eye that can help turn things around for the Cowboys struggling defense? A Stephen Paea type strong enough to play the one technique while quick enough to play the 3 tech. as well?

Yes, as a matter of fact, I believe DT Aaron Donald would be the kind of defensive lineman that could really be the piece Marinelli needs to get the Cowboys defense back on track. At the recent NFL combine, Donald displayed his outstanding speed, which really stands out on film, as he ran a 4.68/40 best among defensive tackles. He also displayed excellent strength benching 225 for 35 reps and while not as sick as the 49 reps Stephen Paea did in 2011, it was 2nd best among all defensive linemen. (Kaleb Ramsey of Boston College did 36).

At 6-1 and 285, Donald has similar size as Paea and like Paea, Donald had a very productive career in college football.

It was reported that Dallas was interviewing Donald at the Combine HERE. I believe Marinelli has got to be impressed with Donald and would love to have him on that defensive front next year.

In 2011, Paea was considered a first round pick however he injured an ankle at the Senior Bowl practices and that’s likely how the Bears were able to get him in the 2nd round. In 2014, Aaron Donald is healthy and ready to go so I don’t think they can wait until the 2nd round to get Donald who should be an excellent fit for their defense.

Aaron Donald is moving up the draft board after a solid Senior Bowl and Combine performance. Currently he is considered about a mid first round pick (ranked 22 overall by CBS sports) which is about where Dallas picks (16).


Top 5 Worst First Round Draft Picks for the Cowboys

bobby_carpenter_interception_cowboys_week_4_2011Today by coin toss, Dallas secured the 16th pick of the 2014 draft. As the draft approaches, a look back at 5 first round picks that didn’t work out for the Dallas Cowboys. In some years, the Cowboys did not have a first round pick so I only focus on players actually picked in the first round. I count down to the number one proverbial “bust pick”. I also look for lessons to be learned from the picks. But let’s face it, no team gets them right every time.

Spoiler alert– Not all of these bust picks can be blamed on GM Jerry Jones. On the other hand, he isn’t finished yet.

5. Bill Thomas- Running Back drafted 26th in 1972 draft
The idea was to replace RB Duane Thomas but a shoulder injury from college play, prevented Bill Thomas to ever get going. He only touched the ball twice that season returning kick offs. In 1973, Dallas cut him before the season due to his injury.

Draft Lesson– Be cautious using a first round pick on a player that suffered a major injury in college. I believe in drafting healthy players in at least the first 3 rounds.

4. Rod Hill- Corner back drafted 25th in 1982 draft
Prior to the arrival of Jimmy Johnson as coach in 1989, the Dallas Cowboys had some dreadful teams during the 1980’s so it goes to figure that they had some missed draft picks. Hill was drafted to play as a nickel cornerback and as a kick returner on special teams. Neither duty worked out for him.

Hill muffed a punt at the goal line against the Redskins in a playoff game which probably sealed his fate as a Cowboy. After being cut, he bounced among three NFL teams.

Draft Lesson– Hill was primarily drafted because of his athletic ability. A great athlete does not always translate to a good football player. In other words, don’t get too carried away at the combine.

3. Billy Cannon Jr.- Linebacker drafted 25th in the 1984 draft.
The poor picks of the 80s continued with the pick of Billy Cannon Jr. who was the son of a Heisman Trophy winning star running back. Cannon Jr. played 8 games when he suffered a severe neck injury making a tackle against the Saints in Texas Stadium. It proved to be a career ending injury and he went on to sue the Cowboys claiming he told the staff of numbness experienced while tackling before the injury occurred.

Draft Lesson-Tough to see this kind of injury coming but be careful drafting players because of a strong blood line. He came from a long line of great athletes but it did not guarantee success. This lesson pops up again later and again it involves a linebacker who had a famous running back father.

2. Shante Carver- defensive end drafted 23 in the 1994 draft.
After parting ways in March 1994, this would be Jerry Jones first attempt at a draft without Jimmy Johnson who proved to be excellent at evaluating college players. Jerry however wasn’t so good at it and he wasted no time demonstrating his ineptitude. Jerry would also demonstrate his uncanny ability to not only pick a bust, but also one who had character issues too.

Carver was injured most of his rookie season and when he got the opportunity to play in 1995, he wasn’t very productive. In 1996 he was suspended for violating the league’s anti drug policy. In his rookie season after an automobile accident, he abandoned the vehicle and reported it stolen. Can that Jerry pick ’em or what?

In 1997, Carver had 6 sacks but was cut at the end of the season. He went on to play in the arena football league for the Dallas Desperados.

Draft Lesson– Don’t be too proud to ask for help. If you are a NFL GM, and evaluating talent and character isn’t your thing, then find someone who can do it better than you can. This lesson has gone unlearned for a while now in Dallas.

1. Bobby Carpenter- Linebacker drafted 18 in the 2006 draft.
Super Bowl winning coach Bill Parcells didn’t miss on many picks but he missed on this one. Bobby was the son of Rob Carpenter who played running back for the Giants under Parcells.

It started bad for Bobby Carpenter during preseason on the HBO show “Hard Knocks” when OT Colombo referred to the rookie as “Barbie Carpenter”, because of a lack of toughness and the long blonde hair.

In May 2010, Jerry traded Carpenter to the Rams for Alex Barron and then Carpenter was cut before the season. He ended up playing with the Lions and in a game against Dallas in 2011, intercepted a Tony Romo pass for a TD. That began a Dallas collapse which most likely kept them out of the post season.

That seals the deal for me with Carpenter as the worst 1st round pick ever for Dallas. Not only did he do little to help them but he played his only outstanding game against them. And that “Barbie” nickname too.

Draft Lesson– Probably another case of drafting based on the famous father of a player. Since Parcells coached Bobby’s dad, he took a good look at Carpenter and pulled the trigger. Perhaps a lesson to consider in this year’s draft when looking at talented Texas DE Jackson Jeffcoat, who is the son of former Cowboys DE Jeff Jeffoat.

Should Dallas Cowboys Draft a Free Safety?

Safety JJ Wilcox drafted in the 3rd round.

Safety JJ Wilcox drafted in the 3rd round.

When it comes to the safety position, let’s face it the Cowboys have been searching for the answer for years now. Drafting a safety in 4 of the last 5 years but little to show for it. Recently, I have noticed several mock drafts have Dallas drafting a safety even in the first round. Is it their biggest need?

I have also noticed some confusion out there when it comes to the difference between a strong safety, and a free safety. Before looking at the Cowboys needs at safety in 2014, let’s get a clear picture of the difference.

Strong Safety– In general the strong safety is expected to be a solid run defender and able to cover a TE in man coverage. They typically line up on the strong side of the formation (dictated by where the TE lines up). Think of them as a lot like a linebacker in that they need to be large enough and physical enough to take on blockers and make tackles. But will be asked to help in coverage at times too. Strong safeties usually make a lot of tackles.

Dallas CowboysBarry Church has played strong safety for Dallas and he is a very good fit at that position in my view. He led the defense in tackles in 2013. He has the size and certainly plays physical. Church is decent in coverage, as it isn’t his strength, but he excels in run support.

Draft– Finding a strong safety in this draft, or in about any draft, is not difficult at all. There are many safeties that do a good job in run support however this area is really not a big need for Dallas. Why mocks keep showing Dallas drafting a strong safety is a mystery to me. Ignorance I suppose because trust me, they got it covered.

Free safety– A free safety is the last line of defense and is expected to cover a lot of field in a hurry. Sometimes referred to as a “centerfielder”. They need to be very good in coverage and will be asked to cover WRs at times. Usually their responsibility is keeping all the receivers in front of them and assisting with anything thrown deep.

They need to be a “ball hawk” in the Tampa 2 which Dallas runs, and having good ball instincts is essential. It is beneficial for them to be over 6 feet tall and the longer their arms, the better. Being a good open field tackler is helpful but if they have superior cover skills, then weak tackling can be overlooked. Ed Reed is a good example of an ideal NFL free safety.

Dallas Cowboys FS– This is the type safety that Dallas needs and has been trying to find for a while now. They drafted Matt Johnson in 2012 and JJ Wilcox in 2013. They also brought in undrafted Jeff Heath and Jakar Hamilton last season to fill this position. Johnson has been injury prone and went out for the 2013 season after the preseason HOF game.

Wilcox and Heath saw significant playing time last season with mixed results. There were “growing pains” for the rookies one might say. Free safety is definitely one position where experience is very helpful in recognizing offenses and having familiarity with both NFL level receivers and QBs.

Wilcox had only one year experience at safety in college and that was at Georgia Southern which doesn’t exactly play big time college football. Heath came from Saginaw Valley State and Johnson came from Eastern Washington again, not exactly playing against NFL caliber talent. Just keeping it real.

To expect these rookies to excel playing safety at the NFL level in their first year goes beyond unrealistic, it’s simply delusional. A word that pops up often when talking about GM Jerry Jones, but I digress. I thought Heath had the better performance last season of the Dallas free safeties, with 60 tackles, 1 INT and 1 FF.

Both Heath and Wilcox have the size and speed to succeed in the NFL eventually. Heath displays some instincts needed for free safety while Wilcox appears better suited for a strong safety in my view.

Draft– Finding a NFL ready free safety with solid cover skills in the draft, can be challenging. In last year’s draft, the best ones available were Kenny Vacarro (Saints) and Eric Reid (49ers) but Dallas didn’t get either. They moved out of their 18th spot to allow the 49ers to take Reid. Did I mention that Dallas GM already?

Looking at the 2014 draft, the highest rated FS prospects would be Clinton Dix of Alabama and perhaps Calvin Pryor of Louisville. I have seen both names mentioned as first round picks in some mock drafts for Dallas. But can Dallas really afford to invest a first round pick in a safety? They need to address that defensive line too right?

I don’t think Dallas is quite ready to give up on Wilcox or Heath as possible solutions at free safety. With a year of experience, their play could improve significantly this season. It’s just too soon to come to the conclusion that neither are the answer and drafting another rookie safety means starting all over again with that guy and throwing out the experience of Wilcox and Heath. I look for Dallas to perhaps draft a safety late but I doubt they draft one early.

The Cowboys are in good shape at strong safety with Barry Church but they do need to lock down that important free safety spot. Picking up an experienced NFL safety who is familiar with playing safety in a 4-3, should be an option Dallas considers. With salary cap restrictions, Jerry can’t afford to go out and buy the best safety money can buy, but there should be some affordable free agents available who can help the young guys develop while playing effectively next season too.

Will the Cowboys Draft a Defensive Tackle in the First Round?

It’s the time of year where fans focus on the plethora of NFL mock drafts that are available in anticipating who will be the Cowboys first pick. Several mock drafts have Dallas selecting a defensive tackle in the first round but they don’t all agree which DT that might be.

It’s easy to make a case that their defensive front needs help after a season where the Cowboys allowed record breaking yards and weren’t particularly effective at pressuring opposing QBs. In an earlier blog, I looked at the 2014 draft needs on defense by position and ranked defensive tackle number one.

“I like linebackers. I collect ’em. You can’t have too many good ones.”
-Bill Parcells

While Dallas hasn’t drafted that many DTs, they have drafted plenty of linebackers over the years as I noticed in the past 30 years every draft has included at least one LB except for two drafts (2004 and 2002).

When Dallas has drafted DTs early, it really has paid off for them. The very first draft pick ever for Dallas back in 1961, was a defensive tackle named Bob Lilly. Dallas can only hope to find a DT in the 2014 draft that plays anywhere near the level that the Hall of Famer Lilly played.

The last time Dallas drafted a DT was Sean Lissemore in the 7th round of the 2010 draft. He proved to be a pretty productive defensive lineman for a 7th round pick but he was sent to the Chargers last season after it was decided he wasn’t a good fit in their new 4-3 defense. Last year with the Chargers, Lissemore had 31 tackles (5 for loss) and an interception returned for a TD. Put his name on the rather lengthy list of former Cowboys who went on to have success with other teams. Sure seems with Dallas scrambling around looking for guys to play the defensive line last season, they could have used Lissemore.

DT in First Round:
Back in 1991, Dallas selected DT Russell Maryland not only in the first round, but with the first pick in the entire draft. The Cowboys went on to win the first of three super bowls starting in 1992 and the pro bowler Maryland, played a huge part on those successful teams. Safe to say they had no regrets making that draft pick. In the same draft, they picked DT Leon Lett who now is on the Cowboys coaching staff. It was perhaps the cornerstone of building that defense in the 90’s that was so successful harassing QBs.

The season prior to drafting those two DTs, the Cowboys record was 7-9 in 1990. After drafting them, in 1991 they finished 11-5 and made the playoffs. It helped turn things around.

Carolina Panthers:
After finishing 7-9 in 2012, the Panthers used their first two picks in the 2013 draft on DTs Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short. Last season they finished 12-4 and made the playoffs. I would say those two picks made a difference on their defense since they did not draft a defensive back at all but finished 2nd only to the Seahawks in total defense in the NFL . Funny, how all of a sudden their secondary played better with an improved defensive line.

2014 Draft
Whether Dallas can keep free agent 31 year old Jason Hatcher, last season’s most productive defensive lineman, is not clear. But regardless, it is clear that Dallas needs to get younger and quicker on the defensive line. They don’t have all the pieces in place to make the 4-3 defense work and that needs to be addressed in the 2014 draft.

In my January blog looking at the defensive needs, I mentioned a DT prospect named Aaron Donald who at the time was considered a 2nd round pick but after an impressive Senior Bowl performance, has moved up into the first round. Would Jerry pull the trigger on a DT like Donald with the first pick? More and more mocks are pointing to Donald as an ideal fit for the Cowboys 4-3 defense.

I won’t attempt to predict what Jerry Jones will do on draft day which in the past, has proven to be unpredictable. I honestly don’t think he knows what he is going to do, until he is on the clock. Drafting a DT in the first round may not be considered a “sexy pick” but it just might be what is needed to get Dallas over that 8-8 hump they’re stuck on.

Want To Be an NFL Playoff Team? DON’T THROW INTERCEPTIONS 2.0

At the end of the 2012 season, I pointed out in a blog that an NFL team’s number of interceptions was a strong indicator of whether or not they make the playoffs. BLOG INT’s

At the end of the 2013 season, I take another look at the interceptions and it tells a very similar story.

High number of INTs
In 2013, 14 out of 15 teams who led the NFL in interceptions thrown, failed to make the post season. The only exception was the Bengals who threw 20 INTs. I think their strong defense can be credited for helping over come those picks. If Dalton can get those numbers in line next season, the Bengals will be a strong contender.

Low number of INTs
In 2013, 8 out of 8 teams who threw the least number of interceptions, made the post season. The Chiefs were tied with the 49ers for the least with 8. The other 6 playoff teams with the least INTs were Eagles, Seahawks, Colts, Broncos, Patriots and Chargers.

The two super bowl teams (Seahawks and Broncos) combined to throw only 19 for the season which is exactly the same number the two super bowl participants (Ravens/49ers) combined for last year. If your team wants to get to the super bowl, 10 interceptions seems to be about the maximum number allowed for the season.

Perhaps in the NFL it’s more what you don’t do instead of what you do, that can lead to success. I think it’s what coach Bill Parcells was referring to when he talked about having his QB “just drive the bus”.