Dallas Cowboys: Biggest Surprise of 2014 NFL Season

demarco-murray-cowboys-2014Before the 2014 NFL season started, most experts and analysts didn’t expect the Dallas Cowboys to be very good. We at GTBets.eu were admittedly in this crowd, ranking the Cowboys 25th to start the year. Our concerns certainly weren’t about an offense that was led by Tony Romo, DeMarco Murray and Dez Bryant, but rather a defensive unit that looked to be even worse a year after giving up the third-most yards in NFL history. The losses of DeMarcus Ware, Jason Hatcher and Sean Lee appeared to weaken an already weak unit.

Our suspicions appeared to be confirmed when the Cowboys looked like bumbling morons while going down 21-0 to the San Francisco 49ers. They would eventually put some points on the board and end with a semi-respectable 28-17 loss, but it was an ominous start to the 2014 campaign.

Fast-forward to now, though, and Dallas is the talk of the league. They boast a 3-1 record and are coming off a 38-17 dismantling of the New Orleans Saints. Their other two wins have come against the subpar Tennessee Titans and St. Louis Rams, but keep in mind that these were both road contests. So what changed for the Cowboys that has them being discussed among the league’s best?

A Killer Running Game

The first thing that people notice when looking at the Cowboys’ strong play in the early going is DeMarco Murray. The fourth-year running back has always been considered talented, but what he’s doing this year is just ridiculous. Through four games, Murray has put up the following numbers: 534 yards and 5 TD’s on 99 carries.

If Murray were to continue this pace, he’d easily eclipse 2,000 yards by the end of the season. Of course, it’s a big stretch to assume that this would happen. However, it’s not a stretch to think that Murray could win the MVP if he continues playing this well.

The 2011 Draft Class is coming through

As a highly visible team, Dallas, their owner Jerry Jones, and head coach Jason Garrett are often criticized by fans and media members. However, it’s becoming obvious that what the organization did in the 2011 NFL Draft is really paying dividends now.

They picked Tyron Smith in the first round, who’s arguably the best left tackle in the league. In the second round, they took linebacker Bruce Carter, who’s made some huge plays in the first four wins. Dallas’ third-rounder was Murray, whom we’ve already covered. And sixth-round receiver Dwayne Harris has also contributed to the team’s success.

Moving to last spring’s NFL Draft, the Cowboys made another smart move by picking up Notre Dame right guard Zack Martin. Many fans were hoping that Jones would take Johnny Manziel in the first round to be Romo’s successor. However, Jones and his organization resisted the popular pick and went with the more demure Martin, who’s helped open huge running lanes for Murray.

Tony Romo can do Less

tony-romo-cowboysIn the past, Dallas was often thought of as a team built around Tony Romo and his receiving options. And these expectations often left Romo trying to do everything himself as the game clock wound down. But with the emergence of this running game, the Cowboys signal caller isn’t forced to do as much.

His numbers include a modest 936 passing yards, 7 TDs and 4 INTs. And while this is off pace from his loftier numbers last year, Romo’s quarterback rating is currently 98.7 – higher than last season’s 96.7. As long as Murray can keep pushing the chains behind this offensive line, Romo can pick and choose his spots better.

The Team has More Heart

Okay, so this point may be a little hokey, but it reigns true – the Cowboys are playing with more heart, rather than high-priced free agents who make highlight reel plays. They’ve brought in a number of blue-collar guys like Jeremy Mincey, a journeyman defensive end who brings leadership to the field.

“I’m not (DeMarcus) Ware,” Mincey said. “I’m not as physically gifted as he is. But I do have heart. This team doesn’t have the greatest athletes. But it does have skill, plus hustle, plus heart.”

Mincey is just one of the guys working behind the scenes and headlines to make this Dallas Cowboys team a tougher and more successful group. Will it all culminate in a run to the Super Bowl? That might be going a little too far at this point, but a potential NFC East title isn’t out of the question.

Don’t Laugh – Brandon Weeden could start for Dallas in 2015

brandon-weeden-brownsEarlier today, the Dallas Cowboys signed former Cleveland Browns starting quarterback Brandon Weeden to a two-year deal worth $1.23 million. This seems pretty insignificant in an offseason where players like Michael Johnson and Jairus Byrd have signed much larger and meaningful contracts. But when you look deeper into the matter, Weeden’s deal may have a greater impact on the Cowboys than what meets the eye.

Now, the obvious point to consider here is that Dallas still has Tony Romo, their starting QB for the past nine seasons. Critics love to point out Romo’s lack of success in winning big games and taking the Cowboys deep in the postseason. But you can’t argue with the guy’s career numbers: 29,565 passing yards, 64.6% completion rate, and 208 touchdown passes against just 101 interceptions. And Romo restructured his deal so that his signing bonus counts as most of this year’s salary, leaving Dallas to take just a $1 million cap hit. So there’s nothing changing under center for Dallas this season, but what about 2015…

The Cowboys are off to a very bad start in free agency this offseason after failing to re-sign DE Jason Hatcher. They also let DeMarcus Ware go because they didn’t want $16 million worth of cap space taken up by a guy who only managed six sacks last season. Given that they were already bad on defense, Dallas looks to be even worse in 2014. Throw in the bad contracts that Jerry Jones has been approving for the past several years and you have a team that doesn’t seem capable of filling too many defensive holes.

tony-romo-cowboysSo now we enter into the conversation of if Dallas is on the verge of a rebuilding phase. Sure, they’re not about to throw in the towel on 2014 already, especially with weapons like Romo, DeMarco Murray, Dez Bryant and Jason Witten on offense. But if America’s Team fails to make the postseason yet again, it’s a very realistic possibility that they’ll look to get younger and less expensive.

Romo is slated to make $27.7 million in 2015, which is a tremendous cap hit. He’s also coming off of his second back surgery in two years, so it’s not like he is getting any younger. Seeing as how Dallas wasn’t afraid to let Ware go this offseason, it’s not unfathomable to think that they’d release Romo and his massive contract.

Relating this all back to Weeden, he projects to be Romo’s immediate backup if Kyle Orton does indeed retire like he’s been discussing. Hopefully for the Cowboys, Romo makes it through this entire season without another major injury, leaving Weeden relegated to the bench. But there’s always the possibility that Tony could get hurt, leaving Weeden to play some snaps.

Next year is even more up in the air due to the contract issue that we discussed. And if the Cowboys ultimately decide that they can’t build a winning team around a 35-year-old quarterback who’s counting $27.7 million against the salary cap next year, Weeden might get his second chance to run a team.

This would no doubt leave some Dallas fans rolling their eyes. But Weeden may not be a total lost cause. Drafted 22nd overall out of Oklahoma State, the former minor league baseball player has all of the physical tools that you’d want from a pocket passer. However, he just never displayed the on-field results to convince Cleveland that he was their quarterback of the future.

In two seasons with the Browns, Weeden threw for 5,116 yards, 23 touchdowns, 26 interceptions and had just a 71.8 passer rating. Throw in his 5-15 record as a starter and it’s no wonder why Cleveland chose to start over at the position. Now, Weeden also gets a chance to start over, which could mean good things for him next season.

Free Agents who could Really Impact 2014 NFL Futures Bets

michael-vickIf you’re into making NFL futures bets, some experts suggest that you do it as early in the offseason as possible to get good value before lines shift. However, if you’re somebody who likes to wait and see how free agency impacts teams’ odds of winning the Super Bowl, this is never a bad decision either. Keeping in mind that some players have already been re-signed or franchise tagged, let’s look at some game-changing free agents who are still on the market this year and where they might go (based on rumors and/or teams actively seeking position upgrades).

Quarterbacks

1. Michael Vick (possible destinations: NY Jets, San Francisco) – After Vick played in just seven games last year due to injuries/losing his job to Nick Foles, we have to wonder if the 33-year-old’s best years are behind him. Still, Vick is a name that stands out in a subpar crop of free agent quarterbacks, and there are plenty of teams that would love to see if he’s got one or two good years left.

2.  Josh McCown (possible destinations: Chicago, Detroit) – Although it seems like McCown came out of nowhere last year with his 13 TD’s and one interception, he’s actually been in the league since 2002. At 34, he’s even older than Vick, but McCown should still find a few suitors who need a solid backup.

3. Josh Freeman (possible destinations: Oakland, NY Jets) – Between the fiasco in Tampa Bay and his stop in Minnesota, last year was Freeman’s worst as a profession. But before this, he was a four-year starter who was having a pretty decent career. Given the fact that Freeman is only 26, somebody will sign him as a backup to compete for the starting role.

Running Backs

ben-tate-free-agent1. Ben Tate (possible destinations: Cleveland, NY Giants) – Injuries and a timeshare with Arian Foster have always held Tate back from emerging as a star. But we fully expect him to get a big deal somewhere since he’s only 25 and runs a 4.43 forty. Tate could definitely go over 1,000 yards for the first time in his career.

2. Knowshon Moreno (possible destinations: NY Giants, Tennessee) – The former first round pick had his best year as a pro with 1,038 rushing yards, 548 receiving yards and 13 total TD’s. At 26 years old, he could be a long-term option for many teams. But can he produce the same numbers without Peyton Manning taking the pressure off?

3. Maurice Jones-Drew (possible destinations: NY Jets, Houston) – It took Jones-Drew a while to get going last year, but he did come up with 803 yards and 5 touchdowns on a bad team. Unfortunately, his career is at a decline, but he could still provide some nice power running in a committee.

Wide Receivers

1. Eric Decker (possible destinations: Indianapolis, San Francisco) – With 2,342 receiving yards and 24 touchdowns in the past two seasons, Decker has more than enough on his resume to land a big deal. Much like Moreno, the question now becomes if he’ll be able to live up to a big deal without Manning.

julian-edelman-free-agent2. Julian Edelman (possible destinations: Baltimore, Cleveland) – Last year couldn’t have gone any better for Edelman, who stepped in amidst New England’s receiver injuries and produced with 105 catches, 1,056 yards and six touchdowns. Now heading into free agency, he’s looking at millions of dollars.

3. James Jones (possible destinations: Minnesota, Seattle) – Often playing in a crowded Packers receiving corp, Jones still managed to produce 1,601 yards and 17 touchdowns over the past two years. It’s especially impressive that he posted his highest career yardage total last season, despite Aaron Rodgers’ lengthy injury layoff.

Tight Ends

Garrett Graham (possible destinations: Houston, NY Giants) – Despite all of the quarterback turmoil in Houston, Graham still managed to post 545 yards and five touchdowns on 49 catches – and he only played in 13 games. He heads up an unimpressive crop of unsigned free agent tight ends this offseason.

Defensive Linemen

michael-johnson-cincinnati1. Michael Johnson (possible destinations: Atlanta, Tampa Bay) – After tallying 11.5 sacks in 2012, Johnson had a down season last year when he managed only 3.5 sacks. But at 6’7″ and just 27 years old, Johnson figures to draw tons of attention from teams wanting a tough defensive end – especially now that Greg Hardy is franchise tagged and Michael Bennett re-signed with Seattle.

2. Jason Hatcher (possible destinations: Atlanta, Dallas) – He’s 31 right now, but most teams will be concentrating on the 11 sacks he had last season. Hatcher definitely picked the perfect time to have a career year for an otherwise dismal Cowboys defense.

3. Henry Melton (possible destinations: Dallas, Jacksonville) – Melton tore his ACL and only appeared in three games for the Bears. But with just four seasons under his belt, Melton should make a comeback and remain a strong defensive tackle for whichever team signs him.

Linebackers

karlos-dansby-interception1. Karlos Dansby (possible destinations: Cleveland, Tennessee) – The 32-year-old Dansby won’t fetch any long-term deals. But he’s a huge reason why the Cardinals contended for a playoff spot in the brutal NFC West. Don’t expect him to score two touchdowns again or even pick off four passes. But do expect him to give the next team that signs him another 100-plus tackles.

2. Brandon Spikes (possible destinations: Buffalo, Cleveland) – After four years in New England, Spikes will probably be taking his run-stopping talents elsewhere. He’s racked up 178 combined tackles over the last two years and is still just 26.

3. Shaun Phillips (possible destinations: Green Bay, Tennessee) – 11 seasons in the league and Phillips is still producing. Last year he gave Denver’s defense a much-needed boost by tallying 10 sacks. He’ll likely go to a Super Bowl contender who’s looking to fill a pass-rushing hole.

Defensive Backs/Safeties

1. Aqib Talib (possible destinations: New England, Washington) – Following this offseason, Talib should send the Seahawks a thank you letter for making big cornerbacks so sought after. If the Patriots don’t tag him, the 6’1″, 205-pound corner is likely looking at an 8-figure deal.

tj-ward-free-agent2. T.J. Ward (possible destinations: Denver, Detroit) – Although he’s not the best coverage safety, Ward is a hard-hitter who’s great at finishing tackles. If he doesn’t re-sign with the Browns, Ward will definitely be highly valued somewhere else.

3. Jairus Byrd (possible destinations: Cleveland, Miami) – Byrd missed the beginning of the season with a foot injury and contract holdout. But in the 11 games that he played, the 27-year-old had a productive year with 48 tackles and four interceptions. Buffalo doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to re-sign Byrd, so expect this elite-coverage safety to test the waters.