Offseason | 2021

Mick Shots: The Meaning Of Safety In Numbers

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FRISCO, Texas – It's continuing to look a lot like football around here, every passing day.

Guys continue to rehab out on the practice field, especially since spring has sprung in these parts with temperatures hitting the 70s and grass greening up after last month's winter blast.

Guys are out on the grass practice field getting in offseason conditioning work.

The Cowboys helicopter even made an appearance the other day.

And as another sign of progress these days, the very brave workers are dangling on their tethered ropes washing windows on the brand new Keurig Dr Pepper high rise office building stretching some 100 yards adjacent to the Cowboys grass practice field here at The Star.

Add in a flurry of signings here and around the league, many of late on the nouveau one-year deals, a product of the drop in salary cap leaving many teams in a lurch, there are shots raining down like those pea-sized hail stones piling up in some parts out this way early in the week.

So, let's go.

  • Achilles Heal: The Cowboys were scheduled to visit with three more safeties on Wednesday, even after coming to terms with strong safety Keanu Neal this week. These two are more free safeties, Damontae Kazee and Malik Hooker. But both are coming off season-ending Achilles surgeries, and still in the healing process, Kazee rupturing his in Atlanta's fourth game of the season and Hooker's occurring in the Colts' second game. Those rehabs are a good seven to nine months generally, and medicals on them are of utmost importance. At least Cowboys new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn coached Kazee the past four seasons and witnessed his 10 interceptions over two seasons (2018-19), with seven of those in 2018. The Cowboys also were to visit with Jayron Kearse, more of a special teams guy, first serving a three-game suspension to start last year in Detroit and then the seven-game starting box safety released by the Lions before the final game for breaking team rules.
  • Safety First: The Cowboys are taking another free-agency stab at a veteran safety after last year's failed attempt with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, the projected starter who failed to even make it out of training camp. This year's first stab has been safety Keanu Neal, Atlanta's 2016 first-round pick under then-Falcons head coach Dan Quinn, now the Cowboys DC. Neal started as a rookie for Atlanta, and was a 2017 Pro Bowler before a torn ACL in 2018 and a ruptured Achilles three games into 2019 cost him those two seasons. But Neal did return in 2020 to register 100 tackles, starting 14 of the 15 games he played for the Falcons, who found themselves in a salary-cap crunch with five players taking up 62 percent of their cap space and needing to restructure some contracts just to get under the cap maximum in time last week. Two things here. First, Quinn had to vouch for the guy. And secondly, it's a rather safe, one-year, $4 million deal that includes a $3 million signing bonus, a $1 million base salary and because of two voidable years tacked on to spread out the prorated signing bonus that void 23 days before the start of the 2022 league year, his cap hit in 2021 is just $2 million. This guy has strong safety written all over him and maybe a nickel linebacker of sorts.
  • Certain Surtain: If anyone is doubting Alabama cornerback Patrick Surtain II becoming a top-10 pick in this draft, they only need analyze his Alabama Pro Day on Tuesday, attended by Quinn and Will McClay, Cowboys vice president of player personnel. Rather impressive seeing a 6-2, 208-pound cover corner with three years of starting experience running 40 times ranging from 4.41 to 4.45, with a 39-inch vertical and bench pressing 225 pounds 18 times. And liked what he had to say afterward with NFL Network when asked about going up against teammate DeVonta Smith, Alabama's Heisman Trophy-winning wide receiver, in practices, saying, "Me and 'Smitty' had great battles each and every day in practice, and at the end of the day, we got each other better. The position we are in now, we look back at it as it was worth it." And both in a month will be able to define worth in more ways than one.
  • Nick Sez: Alabama head coach Nick Saban had this to say yesterday of Surtain, certainly on the Cowboys' radar at No. 10, if indeed he lasts that long: "Pat's got great physical ability. He's got great length. But he's smart and very, very instinctive. So he always plays faster in the game. Because he is smart, he does a great job of preparing. We do this thing where each player has an assignment in terms of scouting report. I mean, he gives a better scouting report than I would give for what his part of it is, and I think that's really important when you're a pro player because preparation is really important because you know you're always going to play against a great player." Sounds good to me.
  • Back Issue: Caleb Farley, the Virginia Tech cornerback expected to rival Surtain in the draft order, has added some draft intrigue, having to undergo microdiscectomy surgery to repair a herniated disk in his back and will not participate in the Hokies' Pro Day workouts on Friday. Now, agent Drew Rosenahus says Farley should be ready for the start of training camp, the normal recovery around three months. As an example, Cowboys Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman had microdiscectomy surgery to repair a herniated disk on June 9, 1993. Aikman was throwing the football by the first week in August, participated in in a preseason game and was the Cowboys' starting quarterback for the team's Sept. 6 season opener against Washington. Aikman went on to play another eight seasons, winning two more Super Bowls. Be interesting if this causes Farley to fall in the draft, although some scouts might have been a tad hesitant to select a cornerback that high in the draft who last played a game on Nov. 23, 2019, after opting out of the 2020 season. And know, back issues cost him the final two games that 2019 season and did cost him the 2020 offseason. So, we'll see.
  • One-Year Deals: Just know, the signing of defensive linemen Brent Urban and Carlos Watkins weren't huge investments. Urban's deal is $1.75 million, with just his $500,000 signing bonus guaranteed. Same with Watkins, a $400,000 signing bonus guaranteed, with a $1.1 million base, along with per-game roster bonuses adding up to $1.75 million on the cap. Same with offensive tackle Ty Nsekhe, a $500,000 signing bonus and a $1.25 million base, adding up to $1.75 million. So if any of these guys are training camp busts, the signing bonuses would be the only dead money if sent packing prematurely.
  • Worth Noting: With the Cowboys still likely searching the free-agent field for an inexpensive backup quarterback with some experience, our Mick Shots podcast teammate Bill Jones came up with an interesting suggestion: A.J. McCarron. The former Alabama starting QB has been in the NFL seven years, four with Cincinnati, one with the Raiders and the last two backing up Deshaun Watson in Houston. He's played in only 17 games with four starts as a career backup, but those days appear over in Houston, the Texans having signed Tyrod Taylor for that backup duty. Bill, who is great at connecting the dots, realized quarterbacks coach Doug Nussmeier was the Alabama offensive coordinator McCarron's final two seasons (2012-13), Bama winning the national championship that 2012 season. McCarron played 2020 on a one-year $4 million contract, that included a $2 million signing bonus and a $2 million base salary, probably a tad rich for the Cowboys to match.
  • Spring Shots: With the signing of free-agent defensive end Tarell Basham, sounds as if the Cowboys are moving on from Aldon Smith after his redemptive 2020 season … A whole lot of folks seem obsessed with wide receiver DeVonta Smith's weight. Well, Smith weighed in during Bama's Pro Day at 170, telling NFL Network, just "what I've always been." … The Bengals deal with former Cowboys cornerback Chidobe Awuzie breaks down like this: three years, $21.75 million, with a $7.5 million signing bonus, a $1.35 million 2021 base for a doable $4.05 million cap hit as a projected starter, with future base salaries of $5.2 million and $6.05 million … With all of these safeties being either signed or brought in for visits, appears Xavier Woods might be out, although in one ranking of the top free agents, Woods ranked 66th, ahead of any of the aforementioned safeties, and now 14th among the top 34 still left unsigned.

And the last word this week goes to me. A tip of the hat to Cowboys' longtime director of video Robert Blackwell, who is retiring. Blackwell began working for the Cowboys during the 1981 season, meaning he has put in 40 seasons, having shot video under all nine Cowboys head coaches and officed at the last three franchise headquarters, from the old facility at Forest and Abrams to The Ranch and now The Star.

And I thought I've been around for a long time.

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