by Mike Tanier
It takes five or six years to truly evaluate a draft class. Judging a team's rookie crop after just over half a season is usually a fool's errand.
But sometimes you know. Sometimes, late November arrives, and three rookies are starting, with others playing major roles. Even undrafted free agents are pitching in. And the top pick is drawing comparisons to a Hall of Famer.
The Cowboys rookie class of 2005 is shaping up to be a great one, the kind around which Super Bowl teams are built. Maybe that's why Bill Parcells hasn't been shy about playing so many of his youngsters. Or why a coach who throws around compliments like 100-pound sacks of flour is suddenly willing to compare raw recruits to living legends.
Demarcus Ware was a dominant force at Troy State. He recorded 10.5 sacks in his senior season, forcing four fumbles en route to earning Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year honors. He was the best athlete in the conference, and he earned his sacks while facing constant double teams.
After the Cowboys made Ware the 11th pick in the draft, Parcells was asked to compare him to pass rushers of the past. There was one name that Parcells wouldn't dare speak aloud.
"Well, it's the obvious, but I won't say his name. I forgot ... he lives in Florida now. I think a little bit like that 56 guy I had and a little bit like Willie McGinest. And I think Willie has turned out to be an outstanding player for New England."
The McGinest comparison captured no one's imagination; fans and writers immediately latched onto Parcells' other implication. Ware became The Next Lawrence Taylor. It's the kind of hype that would doom some rookies, but Ware welcomed the comparison. "I love Lawrence Taylor. I've been watching films on him and watching games on him," Ware said. "He's like a model for me. He's like a key to me for this season."
Parcells went so far as to invite Taylor to Cowboys camp, where Ware was already earning accolades with his quickness and strength. When the season opened, Ware was the Cowboys' starter at weakside linebacker. He stuffed LaDainian Tomlinson in the backfield for his first pro tackle in the season opener. Two weeks later, he recorded his first quarterback sack against Tim Rattay.
Ware registered a sack in four consecutive games; meanwhile, he steadily improved as an overall defender. Against the Seahawks, he stuffed Shaun Alexander for a two-yard loss and tackled Alexander for short gains on two other plays. He also raced into the flat to corral wide receiver D.J. Hackett after a short pass. Against the Eagles on Monday Night, he recorded six solo tackles. Ware's versatility gives Parcells and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer options: there's no guarantee that Ware will come off the blitz, as he is becoming effective against the run and in coverage.
The next Taylor? Let's not get carried away. Ware faces stiff competition for Defensive Rookie of the Year: San Diego's Luis Castillo and Shawne Merriman, Cincinnati's Odell Thurman, and Denver's Darrent Williams are among many players with a crack at that honor. Ware may not even shake out as the Cowboys' top rookie this year. But for a team that got very little out of first round sack specialists Shante Carver, Kavika Pittman, and Ebenezer Ekuban in the past decade, Ware's quick development has been a positive sign.
The Square Pegs
College football provides square pegs; the NFL only offers round holes.
Players like Ware are pegs: 235-pound pass rushers with the skills of a defensive end but the bodies of linebackers. Chris Canty and Marcus Spears were also square pegs: long, angular defensive linemen with bodies like power forwards. Put them at defensive tackle and they get beaten up and worn out. Put them at end, and they don't have the speed to pressure the quarterback. They're called end/tackle 'tweeners or rotation linemen; few teams place a premium on acquiring them.
Zimmer and Parcells decided to bore out some square holes this year by creating a hybrid 3-4 defense. In the 3-4 alignment, players like Spears and Canty can play end with faster pass rushers lined up behind them. Ware can concentrate on blitzing from an outside linebacker position. The Cowboys shift from the 3-4 to the 4-3, so opponents don't know what to expect on any given down.
All of the shifting would be impossible without adequate depth. Luckily, Spears (the 20th selection overall) and Canty (a fourth round pick), have developed quickly, allowing Zimmer to mix and match them with Greg Ellis, La'Roi Glover, Jason Ferguson, and other linemen. For variety, even seventh-round pick Jay Ratliff got into the act before getting injured.
While Ware was making a positive early impression on coaches, Spears was branded "Fats Domino" by Parcells for showing up to minicamp overweight. Spears quickly shed 20 pounds, but he battled injuries through camp and began the season on the bench behind Kenyon Coleman. He slowly worked his way up the depth chart, replacing Coleman in the starting lineup before the Seahawks game. Coaches have been impressed with his ability to occupy blockers and defend the run.
Canty, meanwhile, left college as a top talent with injury issues and a suspect work ethic. An ACL tear cut short his 2004 season at Virginia, so he lingered into the second day of the draft. An offseason nightclub incident forced Canty to have eye surgery. But when he took the field for the Cowboys in training camp, there were no signs of bad work habits. "I don't take things for granted any more," he said in August. "I know it's a blessing every time I come through that gate and run onto the field."
Like Spears, Canty has seen his role increase almost every week. When the Cowboys used a 4-3 package against the Redskins, Canty played defensive tackle and recorded his first career sack. When the Cowboys faced the bigger Raiders offensive line, they used Canty as a 4-3 end, replacing the smaller Ellis. Canty responded with five tackles.
A team can never have too many defensive linemen, and Parcells activated Ratliff when the Cowboys were facing Raiders and Eagles teams that like to throw the ball. Ratliff, an undersized lineman who made a name for himself at the East-West Shrine Game, recorded half a sack in each of those games before getting injured against the Cardinals.
"The way Coach sees things and the way he wants to substitute us in and out, that's just how we roll," Canty said after the Raiders game. "We had seven guys up yesterday and I thought we rotated pretty good. We all had an opportunity to contribute." With all of their linemen producing, including the the rookies, the Cowboys don't have to worry about opponents wearing them down.
Barber and Thompson
Julius Jones was supposed to be the Cowboys' starting running back this season. Anthony Thomas was supposed to be the durable power runner off the bench.
Fourth-round pick Marion Barber didn't come to the team with a defined role. Maybe he would fit in as a special teamer or a third down back. After he missed much of the preseason with a toe injury, it appeared that he wouldn't fit in at all.
Barber recovered from surgery quickly enough to earn an Opening Day role as the Cowboys' kick returner. He was unimpressive, and Parcells deactivated him for two games in favor of the more versatile Tyson Thompson.
Thompson was an undrafted rookie who seemed unlikely to make the team. He played just one year of major college football, rushing for 811 yards at San Jose State. Before that, he was a big fish in the small pond of Garden City Junior College. Parcells liked his mix of size and speed, and Thompson worked his way up from the inactive list to the special teams to (by Week 4) a regular role as a change-of-pace back.
But Barber wasn't buried. "I know he is a well-prepared player," Parcells said. "Plus, his experience of having pro football in his family was another thing that kind of made me think this kid will be down the road further than the average rookie. And really he is." Barber's father, Marion Barber Jr., was an all-purpose back for the Jets in the 1980s. Like his dad, Marion III can run, catch, and block. When Jones got hurt, Barber's role in the offense quickly expanded.
All three skills were on display when Barber had his breakout game against the Cardinals in Week 8. He rushed 27 times for 127 yards and two TDs. He caught two passes for 15 yards. And he did an exceptional job in blitz pickup, a crucial task with immobile Drew Bledsoe in the pocket.
The emergence of Barber and Thompson made Anthony Thomas expendable, and the Cowboys released him. Jones took a long time to recover from his injury, and he may have lost his role as a featured back: Barber was far more effective against the Eagles on Monday night. Jones, Barber, and Thompson are a committee backfield for now, and all three are versatile enough to keep the Cowboys from becoming too predictable on offense.
The Too Big Tackle
Rob Petitti was a freshman at Pitt in 2001, making his fifth career start, when he drew the type of assignment that can make or break a career: he battled face-to-face with Syracuse All American Dwight Freeney.
Petitti held Freeney sackless, and a legend was born. Petitti went on to earn All Big East honors three times. As a senior in 2004, he earned second-team All America notice from many major publications.
So what was he doing on the board in the sixth round of the draft? As is often the case with offensive linemen, the wait was caused by the weight. "He was really overweight there at the Senior Bowl, weighing 361 pounds," Parcells said. "Our personnel guy, Jeff Ireland, was sitting next to me and when he got on the scale at 361 he just elbowed me real hard to make sure I noticed what it was. Then, his toe hurt there at the Senior Bowl and he went home, which probably finished him in the draft for most people."
But Parcells took a chance on the New Jersey native whose father survived the World Trade Center attacks. Early in camp, Petitti broke a blood vessel in his leg and was told by team trainers that his season was over. Three days later, he was back on the practice field. He slimmed down to 325 pounds. He went on to beat Torrin Tucker for a starting spot at right tackle when the Cowboys broke camp.
Petitti was whistled for two false starts in his first game. A few weeks later, Seahawks DE Bryce Fisher picked on him for two sacks. Cowboys fans decried Petitti as the weak link of the offense, but they overlooked the positives: Petitti shut Jevon Kearse down, and while he allowed Michael Strahan to record two sacks, one was clearly a coverage sack.
"My confidence is building against guys like that, but I know I've still got a long way to go," Petitti said before facing Strahan. The Cowboys are helping his confidence by using TE Dan Campbell as an extra blocker against top pass rushers. With Flozell Adams injured and Tucker playing left tackle, Pettiti has no choice but to improve on the job. "I know I'm a rookie and all, but you don't want to hear that," Petitti said. He may not be hearing it for long.
The Cut 'n' Signed Kicker
Scott Suisham holds the all-time NCAA record for extra points. He holds the Bowling Green career scoring record. He kicked a 52-yard field goal as a senior.
You probably have never heard of him. After all, Wallaceburg, Ontario, Suisham's hometown, isn't a well-known football factory.
Suisham's efforts at Bowling Green led to a free agent contract with the Steelers. The Steelers cut him, but he was signed to the Cowboys practice squad. In early October, Parcells released him. But when Jose Cortez (himself a replacement for injured Billy Cundiff) had a terrible game against the Seahawks, Parcells axed the former XFL kicker in favor of the Canadian. Suisham was given another tryout and was the Cowboys kicker just days later.
''Of course I need to prove myself,'' Suisham said. ''I'm a rookie kicker who hasn't done anything. At the same time, I don't need to do all of that in one game. I just need to go one kick at a time here." His early performance has been encouraging, although he hasn't been asked to win the game with his leg yet.
Ironically, of all of the Cowboys rookies, Suisham may have the biggest impact. Ware will get his sacks, Barber his yards. The linemen will do their part. But as the playoffs approach, wins and losses may rest on the leg of a third option kicker.
Parcells isn't that concerned. He made a commitment to his rookies this season, even as he signed veterans like Drew Bledsoe, Marco Rivera, and Aaron Glenn to make the Cowboys more competitive this season. When the Cowboys drafted Troy Aikman, Daryl Johnston, Mark Stepnoski and Tony Tolbert in 1989, they didn't get immediate results.
That was one of the team's best draft classes ever. This class can only aspire to be that good. But they're already good enough to make the Cowboys a team with a very bright future.