Too Deep Zone: Raw Recruits

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.

Famous Fifty-Six

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.


23 comments, Last at 24 Nov 2005, 1:00am

1 Re: Too Deep Zone: Raw Recruits

Can a draft class be given credit where credit isn't really due?

DeMarcus Ware, like you said, is a tweener who is excelling because of the Cowboys' depth at defensive line and the ability to play a 3-4 defense. Marion Barber and Tyson Thompson had plenty of time to adjust to the offense while playing behind Julius Jones and Anthony Thomas. Without the two veterans, they'd probably be out in the cold.

I'd still call Rob Pettiti the weak link of the offense. He's only had one flawless game, and it was against a struggling Jevon Kearse. I'm not sure about that game in particular, but in most games Kearse has been double-teamed. If that was the case in the Dallas game, I'm not quite sure Pettiti deserves much credit.

2 Re: Too Deep Zone: Raw Recruits

Kearse was double teamed most of both games by Petitti and a Tight End.

3 Re: Too Deep Zone: Raw Recruits

Is it really helpful to break down the rookie class of just 1 organization? Although the Dallas rookies are good, I think that San Diego and Jacksonville have had equally immediate impacts from their rookie class.

Although perhaps this is timely based on the unsaid part of the article: Dallas is an older team, with many veterans, where San Diego and Jax have younger, more salary-cap friendly rosters. Without good draft classes, Dallas would be doomed to a Tenn. or Wash. salary cap nightmare.

4 Re: Too Deep Zone: Raw Recruits

Of course it's helpful, Bowman. I learned something, at any rate.

If you want to write an article that talks about the SD rookies or the Jax rookies, go nuts. No one is stopping you.

5 Re: Too Deep Zone: Raw Recruits

I guess I think this reads more like a press release than the usual articles on the site. There seems to be many superlatives, and not that much using the stats here. For example, Petitti starting at right tackle as a sixth round rookie. How do the adjusted yards per carrie compare to last year? How does that compare to other rookie linemen? Has the offense's numbers improved as he gains more experience?

For defense players, the stats don't give as much detail, especially for linebackers, but at least a comparison of NFL - type stats (games started, tackles, sacks, etc) of the 4+ tweener end/LBs would provide some objective basis of comparison for Ware.

I guess I don't care who the next LT is, because there seem to be 2 or more each year...

6 Re: Too Deep Zone: Raw Recruits

This is much more interesting than a report on the Bears rookies would be:
Cedric Benson - injured, may be healthy by week 16
Mark Bradley - IR
Kyle Orton - not good at football, but excellent at drinking Jack Daniels
Airese Currie - injured, hasn't played a down
Chris Harris - the bright shining star of our draft class
Rod Wilson - IR

7 Re: Too Deep Zone: Raw Recruits

Canty was a steal in the fourth round. He only dropped that far because of his injury issues, his talent was exceptional enough that he was supposed to go in the second round (at one point).

It's interesting that the Cowboys and Chargers had such a similar first round. Both had two draft picks, one in the early teens and then another later in the round. Both wanted front seven help and picked up a tweener LB and a 3-4 end. Personally, I'd take Merriman and Castillo over Ware and Spears, but I'm biased because I've seen them play more. The only thing that worries me is that Merriman's cover skills might not be sufficient.

8 Re: Too Deep Zone: Raw Recruits

7: From what I've seen, I would agree with you about Merriman and Castillo. They look to be exceptional players. I heard the Cowboys passed on Merriman because of his agent, Kevin Poston. Marcus Spears got off to a slow start, and has just started to make a contribution. I'm curious to see how much more he can develop.

9 Re: Too Deep Zone: Raw Recruits

Nice article, Mike. It's hard to evaluate rookies this early, but I've not been this encouraged about a Cowboys draft class since 1992.

And I've yet to hear anyone mention it, but I believe the recent improvement in Cowboy fortunes traces back to a change in Jerry Jones' management style. Until 2003, he operated under the delusion of being a competent general manager, which led the team to the verge of talent bankrupcy. The disasterous 2000 and 2001 drafts, the awful trade of two first round picks for Joey Galloway, and the final disappearance of talent acquired during the glory days of 1989-1993 finally forced Jones to confront his own inability to manage a professional football team. There was never any public mention, but the next three drafts, while not great, were a major improvement over those from 1994-2001. My sense is Jones finally loosened his grip and began listening to professional scouts. I think the francise started to pull out of its nosedive in the spring of 2002.

However, the next three drafts were still populated with puzzling reaches and busts like Derek Ross and Jacob Rogers. Last year, long-time head scout Larry Lacewell was apparently asked to retire and Jeff Ireland took his place. The results have been dramatic. Every 2005 draft choice would have made the team (sixth round pick Justin Beriault was placed on IR before the start of the season), and three free agent rookies also made the team (deep snapper Jon Condo was later released).

Were Jones, Parcells and Ireland just lucky this year, and should we expect to have more drafts like 2004 in the future? This year's class is shaping as one of their very best, up there with 1992, 1989 and 1975, but that standard will be nearly impossible to repeat. But hitting on this many rookies in one year has to be more with just luck, and I think it bodes well for Dallas' short and middle term future.

10 Re: Too Deep Zone: Raw Recruits

#1: The plays of the first Eagles-Dallas game were reviewed on the Eagles Message Board and it was discovered that Kearse was consistently doubled on pass plays throughout the entire game.

11 Re: Too Deep Zone: Raw Recruits

It was a nice article, but sort of a light article. Lots of fluff. I'd be a lot more interested to hear an evaluation of a draft class from 4 years ago- because as you said, it takes several years to evaluate a draft class. How good was Dallas's 2001 draft class? Was there anything notable about the Pats' 2001 draft, other than that they selected seven straight players who are currently off the team, and to the best of my knowledge, OoF (Out of Football)? If I wanted to know how well rookies have been playing during the first 10 games of their careers, I'd turn on sportscenter and listen to the rookie of the year hype machine. Or listen to sportscenter during the preseason, when it's all rookies, all the time.

Remember, too, that Donte Stallworth was once the best rookie WR in the entire NFL. And that Michael Clayton was one of the three best rookie WRs of the past 20 years. I'd prefer to give them a little bit of time, first.

12 Re: Too Deep Zone: Raw Recruits

I think Canty is going to be a very good player. Those injury concerns cost him millions, but Dallas got a great pick. I was really hoping the Lions would take one of those defensive ends, Marriman, Spears or Ware. I'm not writing off Mike Williams yet, but I think any one of those three would have been a better choice. And what I really wanted them to do was try to convince the Cowboys that the Chargers were trying to leapfrog them in a trade so the Lions could get an extra pick for moving down one spot, like they did last year. Unfortunately, not everyone is as dumb as Butch Davis.

14 Re: Too Deep Zone: Raw Recruits

What about Lofa Tatupu in Seattle? Although a second round pick who was considered a consensus stretch of a pick by the media, his numbers are superior to Ware's, and he has had a much greater impact on his team's defense than Ware - who appears to be the real deal, but entered a situation with an already talented and well-established defense. Tatupu is playing MLB rather than an outside backer (far more responsibility), quickly grasped the reins as the defense's QB, and has produced at least as many impressive plays as Ware. All this with nothing near the physical gifts Ware brings to the table.

But he plays for Seattle, so his name is rarely mentioned in the ROY discussion. That's a shame.

15 Re: Too Deep Zone: Raw Recruits

Did Suisham play in 1-AA or at BG?

He played at BG. And, for what it's worth, his name's Shaun, not Scott.

16 Re: Too Deep Zone: Raw Recruits

14: Tatupu is having a standout rookie season. He's in the league top 25 in tackles, has three sacks and an interception. I realize there's more to a defensive player than just the stats, but from the limited amount I've seen, he's an excellent player. It's unfortunate the national media tends to ignore players in places like Seattle. The only way to overcome it, as I see it, for the Seahawks to start winning consecutive playoff games, which I expect them to do this year.

17 Re: Too Deep Zone: Raw Recruits

"Ware - who appears to be the real deal, but entered a situation with an already talented and well-established defense".... say what? The Dallas defense was terrible last year, so much so that they changed their entire scheme. They had all kinds of trouble putting pressure on opposing QBs - but that has changed completely, and Ware has had a lot to do with it - not always showing up with the numbers, as he often draws double teams.

Of course, this could have been an article about some other team with good rookies. But, come on, it's not like there has been a lot of Cowboys material on FO this year - Game Previews, Every Play Counts, even the new Audibles - not much at all has been mentioned until this article. And how many teams had all of their draft picks, plus two new undrafted free agents make the roster (although Berriault was placed on IR just before the season - that's 10 total)? Granted, though, some stat comparisons would have enhanced the article.

No matter what you think of the Boys, the more you learn about Ware, the harder it is not to root for him. My favorite story was reading how he kept on his with his coursework even after being drafted so high, making the 4+ hour round trip between mini-camp and classes, completing his degree on time. Even if Merriman ends up with the better career, I'll be happy with the Ware selection, and the chance to cheer him on.

Canty wans't so much of a risk for the Cowboys: they knew the character concerns weren't legit because of Parcells's relationship with Virginia coach Al Groh. Wouldn't surprise me if Canty winds up (along with Castillo) as the best lineman from this draft class. Given another season or two, he should become our version of Richard Seymour.

Petitti didn't originally win the RT job, but when 2004 pick Jacob Rogers again injured himself, Petitti stepped up and beat out Tucker. While he hasn't been very good, he has shown enough at times, to think that he could be a very good RT in the future.

Suisham probably should have been left off this article, though, as he wasn't there in training camp, only filled in for two weeks, looked awful at times in warm ups, and was released yesterday to make way for Billy Cundiff who is back from his injury and reportedly looks the best he has in some time. (BTW, that just looks like a typo, it should be, of course, 1-AA that Suisham holds the record for.)

19 Re: Too Deep Zone: Raw Recruits

17. And how many teams had all of their draft picks, plus two new undrafted free agents make the roster (although Berriault was placed on IR just before the season - that’s 10 total)?

A quick comparison of NFL's draft page and current rosters on teams' home pages.


Thats 4/4 that I've checked. (Of course that assumes you think the "practice squad" and "IR" = a roster spot.)

20 Re: Too Deep Zone: Raw Recruits

Practice Squad isn't the same as the Roster. Granted, IR isn't exactly the same either, but Berriault was a last minute decision and he had earned a spot on the 53 if was able to go.

21 Re: Too Deep Zone: Raw Recruits

darrent williams has made several big plays to help win games. Foxworth also had a huge interception agianst the eagles. With corners being so hard to find it a great job by denver to get a starting corner and a nickelback with only 2nd and 3rd round picks. In my opinion corners much harder to find then a tweener like ware.

22 Re: Too Deep Zone: Raw Recruits

So as one of the two Dallas Cowboys fans posting here I'll try to clear up a few things too.

First lets not excuse the influence of these rookies on the Dallas defensive improvement. It was certainly not decided before the draft to switch to a 3-4 front. Parcells said numerous times after the draft and during camp that the rookies ability to contribute early was the primary reason he was able to make a full switch instead of the transition defense Dallas ran in 2004. Further Ware should be given much of the credit for that switch. While NT and DL depth were concerns, the biggest weakness for Dallas on the 3-4 switch was at LB, specifically OLB where without our rookies we'd have an ageing vet (Al Singleton) and an underwear model (Eric Ogbogu). Neither could provide any pressure to opposing QBs and we'd be forced to keep 4 linemen on the field at all times. Ware has been huge.

Second lets ease off on the Petitti critism a little. I'm not at all saying that he hasn't been protected much of the year, but you are giving him sacks that were not his assigment. Not all sacks by the LDE are given to the RT. For instance Strahan blew to the inside of Petitti untouched to get one of his two sacks. On this play Rivera was supposed to pick up Strahan while Petitti was to take the outside rusher. Rivera missed the assigment and likewise the man. Parcells commented on this as well in his daily press conference.

Larry Allen gave up a sack that was given to Petitti as well. On this play the D-Line stunted. Rob picked up the lineman from the outside while Larry completely opened the door for the DE to the inside.

Parcells keeps play by play numbers on the "mental errors" of his linemen. From what he has said in his statements, Petitti has not been significantly worse than anyone else on the line. Best of all he's played through injuries. In addition to the blood vessel break mentioned earlier he also played through a concusion this sunday. He's been a huge upgrade for the Cowboys this year.

By the way Thompson should get some credit too for his ST play. He's been a very good kick returner for us and has been solid in coverage as well. Dallas could start any one of it's three RBs and get equal production. Considering the weakness of our line in run support, that is quite a compliment.

I'd love to see some stats in this too.

23 Re: Too Deep Zone: Raw Recruits

Hey Playit, there's at least three of us Cowboys fans here. I was posting here all by my lonesome last season, and enduring the overconfident, gloating posts of Eagles fans. For some reason, they're not nearly so numerous this year. And all the gloating is gone.

Funny how that works.