Sunday, November 23, 2014

Bob Sturm scouts the opponent: Struggling Giants have lost their winning ways

Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray carries against the Giants (Louis DeLuca / Staff Photographer)
The Giants’ last victory was Oct. 5 against Atlanta. Since then, they have lost five consecutive contests during which they have been outscored 152-72, or an average final score of 30-14. It should be noted that the level of competition has been stiff, with all five opponents during that stretch currently boasting winning records.
The five straight losses have shown that the Giants are not up to the task in the trenches. They’ve been outrushed 955-398, have repeatedly lost the turnover battle and averaged 26:30 in time of possession.
In other words, they are not winning games the way successful Giants teams have done, and therefore are on the brink of missing the playoffs for the fifth time in six years. This fact goes largely unnoticed because they have also won two Super Bowls in eight seasons.
Feast or famine has been the theme under Tom Coughlin and Eli Manning, with no sign of the drought ending soon. Let’s look at some key components for the Giants’ present and future prospects.
WR Odell Beckham
The 2014 first-round pick from LSU started slow with hamstring issues and will play in his seventh game of the season Sunday. But, as he clearly showed when the Giants played at AT&T Stadium last month, Beckham is having no problem adjusting to the NFL.
He has a blend of blazing speed and fearless physicality that makes him a real threat in all situations. He has phenomenal ball skills, routinely makes the circus catch and in his last three games has 21 catches for 357 yards.
Beckham has huge hands that generally attack the ball, and he can mix in frightening return skills. In a season mostly without Victor Cruz, Beckham has grown quickly into the top option for Manning, as he has found big plays down the right sideline and underneath each week.
DT Johnathan Hankins
He has been a real find in his second year from Ohio State. He has taken over in the trenches for the Giants after Linval Joseph signed with Minnesota in free agency .
Hankins has been in on all base defense snaps, usually as the 1-technique (outside shoulder of the center). He has proved to be exceptional in his first year of heavy work, plugging the run effectively because of his massive frame that is listed conservatively at 6-2, 320.
But where he has really turned heads this season is when the Giants can isolate him on a guard from the 3-technique (outside shoulder of a guard) on early-down passes to provide a tremendous inside pass rush. Anytime a player who resembles a speed bump run-stuffer can rack up routine quarterback sacks and pressures on first and second down, you have something to get excited about.
CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie
It has been a difficult season for Rodgers-Cromartie after he signed a five-year, $35 million ($14 million guaranteed) deal in the offseason.
The speedy cover man, who had an excellent 2013 season in Denver following his disappointing stint in Philadelphia, has not been healthy in 2014. With hamstring and back ailments, he has missed large chunks of in-game action each week in which he’s had to sit out plays because he cannot physically perform.
When healthy, he would be an ideal matchup for Dez Bryant, but in Week 7, he played only 15 snaps in Arlington, allowing Bryant to feast on an overmatched Prince Amukamara (who is now on injured reserve with a torn biceps).

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Xs and Os - Tyrone Crawford

Sometimes, having statistics to prove your points is a very valuable tool in this business, but I would argue that there are occasions you just have to watch the games to fully understand.
That is a problem, of course, because we like to compare one player to another who plays elsewhere in the league.  And, the realities that you can never follow players on other teams as closely as you follow your own team suggests that there will never be apples to apples discussions.  Usually, then we all just google stats to see who is better.
Well, what if I told you that the most impressive player on the Cowboys defense this season for me has 0 sacks, is 11th in tackles, and really doesn't have much statistically to verify what my eyes see every week?
Because that is exactly what I want to do today.
My premise is that Tyrone Crawford has been unbelievable this year, and I think you can make the case that he has been the defensive MVP through 10 weeks.  But, I don't have much to verify it with traditional stats - other than a handful of tackles for losses.
Now, I will say that he does lead the team in "Splash Plays" which is a stat I created in 2011 to track the contributions of individual players beyond sacks and interceptions and tackles.  Splash plays include sacks, pressures that lead to poor passes, batted balls, tackles for loss, run stuffs, and holding penalties drawn (as well as a number of other defensive accomplishments that apply to linebackers and defensive backs).  And when you add all of those numbers up Tyrone Crawford has a 1-splash lead over Rolando McClain for the team lead.  So, I guess, with my created stats, he does have statistics on his side, but I know it is certainly not recognized or kept league-wide.
Splash Plays Through Week 10
Crawford is a very interesting story in that he was an important 3rd round pick in 2012 as a 5-technique in a 3-4 defense.  The Cowboys loved the versatility and very high motor that he had as a defensive linemen who might be able to do all sorts of things, despite not really having a whole lot of moves or technique as a pass rusher.  He played 200 plays or so in 2012, with really nothing remarkable happening on any one of them for his ledger.
Then, to start 2013, he opened training camp with a season-ending Achilles injury that represented a real crossroads for the man's career.  Combine that with the scheme change to the Kiffin 4-3 Under, and who knew what to expect next?
I am happy to report a few things happened next: 1) it appeared that he returned in 2014 with absurd gains in strength, while regaining his quickness that made him such an interesting prospect in the first place.  2) the Cowboys decided to push him to the 3-technique despite Henry Melton's arrival.
It helped that Melton was not at full speed when the season started.  This gave Crawford a chance to show promise in September, but as Melton has returned to health, Crawford has actually looked more impressive as he has settled into the position.  He leads the team in QB hits, is 2nd in QB hurries, but still sits at 0 official sacks.  But, on a game by game basis, I think he has been there best player and absolutely the most impactful based on what was expected from him (a rotational contributor) to what he is (indispensable interior destroyer).
But, now the burden goes to me to give you 10 plays from this season to demonstrate his excellence.  Let's go to the eye-ball test on #98 for your Cowboys, Tyrone Crawford:
Here is one of the best plays of the season against the Saints.  The forklift move on Jahri Evans - Yes, one of the best guards in the league - where he gets under his pads, and rides him right back before tossing him to the side and pouncing on Brees.  Drew gets rid of it, but Crawford won that play big.
Crawford here against Houston RG 79-Brandon Brooks and momentarily is off balance.  But he drops anchor, contorts his body, and gets Arian Foster for a loss.  Can your tackle stand up to the run?  Can he penetrate and stop a play to the edge?
This might be my favorite of them all.  Just watch Crawford here.  Full double team and he is getting pushed hard.  But, he stays alive, stays relentless and ends up chasing Russell Wilson into a bail-out throw.  You will never see anyone play harder or cover more ground from a DT spot than this.
Inside give to Percy Harvin.  Crawford is not getting blocked here as he jumps the snap count so quickly that nobody gets a hand on him. Then, he corrals Harvin and hangs on by a hand until help arrives.  Harvin is slippery, but Crawford was not letting him out of his grasp.
Big strong 77-John Jerry wants to ride Crawford out to the right but Crawford shows his absurd strength/quickness combo to beat him to the hole and make the tackle of Andre Williams all by himself.  This is pro-bowl stuff right here as he stops a decent gain in its tracks.
Defensive tackles are not supposed to be this agile.  Look at how he moves - like a defensive end, but he still overpowers a guard who gets to high and then sheds to track down Eli.  He even got his hand on this pass.   Very nice work.
Giants try another inside run on the Cowboys, but Justin Pugh is not strong enough to deal with Crawford here.  He rams his way through traffic and makes the tackle himself.
On zone plays, you want back-side pursuit, but usually tackles are not doing this.  That is big Trent Williams who just wants to ride Crawford out of the play, but relentless effort comes up with the ball carrier yet again.  This is common place for Crawford, but you don't see this much from most DTs when you watch film.
This play is made available by the Redskins not all running the same play, but it is fun to see the Redskins RG 66-Chris Chester try to stay in front of Crawford.  Guards cannot deal with 98 one on one.  Every week he destroys another one.
Here is Arizona's RG, 74-Paul Fanaika and Crawford's same move which is power to set up quickness to the inside.  Again, the sacks aren't there, but as a DT, he is very tough to slow down and I am confident they are coming and coming soon.
Here, I said 10 plays, but here is a bonus, #11 is a pressure that might have helped seal the Seahawks win.  Notice that on passing downs, they don't go with Melton or Crawford.  They go with both rushing from inside, because one is going to get 1-on-1 and he will win.  Here, giant James Carpenter gets shoved back by Crawford and Wilson throws a duck as his pocket collapses.
Tyrone Crawford is a very well kept secret in the NFL right now.  Others are getting way more regard and I doubt he can be fully appreciated unless you are breaking down the Cowboys games every week.  But, for those of us who are, the defense has found a real piece of the puzzle here.
Rolando McClain and Orlando Scandrick have been great.  Henry Melton is coming on and JJ Wilcox has shown great progress.  But, Tyrone Crawford?  Easily, the biggest surprise and key contributor that they needed to make this defense work.

Decoding Linehan - Bye Week - Season To Date

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo (9) and Cowboys Passing Game Coordinator Scott Linehan talk before the NFL football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Wembley Stadium, London, Sunday, Nov. 9, 2014. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
With a few more days before the Giants game arrives, our Decoding Linehan series has a chance to summarize what we have seen from the first 10 weeks of the season.
From pretty much every perspective, the offense has performed at a very high level.  If anybody had suggested at training camp that the very worst rushing performance of the first 10 weeks would have been a game in which the Cowboys only ran for 92 yards on 25 carries (as they did against Arizona), and the worst rushing performance in a game in which Tony Romo played would be 23 carries for 126 yards (San Francisco), then I believe we would have had that person examined by a physician.  Just to be clear, there were eleven (11!) games in 2013 where the Cowboys rushed for fewer than 92 yards.
In fact, look at the Rushing output per-game in the last 5 seasons here in Dallas.  I think stunning is a reasonable adjective here:
You can suggest that you saw this coming all along, but that would put you in the vast minority.  It has been suggested that, "of course, they drafted 3 OL in the 1st round in the last 4 years", but you can see that the first several years of Tyron Smith and even the first year of Travis Frederick had not caused the running game to approach the tipping point.
Was it the hiring to Scott Linehan?  Was it the health of Tony Romo?  Was it someone at Valley Ranch popping in a tape of the 1992 Cowboys?
Everyone will have their story, but if you want to know what the Cowboys have done this year that has put them in a spot to win the NFC East in the 3rd week in November - despite almost nobody thinking they could 3 months ago - it has to be the ability for this team to run you into the ground.  They have moved to 2nd in the league, behind only Seattle, in rushing yards and with Russell Wilson averaging almost 60 yards on the ground a game, you can see how the Cowboys have the traditional run domination category to themselves.  Ground and pound with no misdirection or sleight of hand.
Add that to the very efficient 3rd Down situation, which has been down recently, but still has them 2nd in the NFL (only slightly behind New Orleans).  So, the Cowboys are running to 3rd Down, and then having less yardage to overcome.  At that point, with "3rd and manageable", the offense has moved the chains with great precision.  They outperform the league from nearly every distance when it comes to 3rd Downs as this graphic will show:
Please note the above numbers are all the percentage of success.
Anytime you can consistently outperform the league average on 3rd Down from pretty much every distance, you have to be excited.
Could the Cowboys fix 2 major offensive problems from the last several 8-8 seasons?  Run the ball and convert 3rd Downs?  Yes and Yes.
Meanwhile, their giveaways are near league average and their red zone conversions are well above league average.  So, in summary, the Cowboys offense has been fantastic and has sustainable characteristics that suggest they are not doing this by smoke and mirrors or fluke.  This style should work in the cold weather of winter and they should be suited to finish the season as they have started.
On top of that, they are also enjoying near-perfect offensive health.  We hesitate to celebrate that because disaster could be one snap away, but compared to many teams, the Cowboys' offense has been a picture of health.  Let's hope that continues.
The other thing I wanted to look at today was the Cowboys season production by personnel grouping.  This shows us their identity, and again, the findings are pretty impressive.
But, to look at them, I did something I don't always do.  I subtracted all "2-Min Drill scenarios" from the totals.  That is because the 2-min drill for me should be treated as its own entity.  It is only one personnel grouping and only used during he final minutes of each half and in the rare situations where you are down big.  Incidentally, according to my figures, the Cowboys have had 64 snaps in the 2-minunte offense for 453 yards.  They are all from Shotgun-11 personnel, so if you want to see the total picture, just add 64-453 to the S11 columns.
I decided to take them out just because I want to see the offense without that effect to see what they like to run when the situation is neutral.  Or in other words, when the clock nor the score dictate play-calling, what is Scott Linehan calling?
Here is the season total (minus 2-minute offense) to show you what we are talking about (Before you study the data below, I would recommend that if the numbers for the groupings are unfamiliar, that you spend some time reading a more expanded definition of the Personnel Groupings here.):
And then the same numbers, but instead of total yards, we assembled them by Yards Per Snap:
I think both of the above charts demonstrate that again, the Cowboys may have finally figured out "12" personnel.  We can be cynical about how many years they have been trying this and how many picks they have spent to make it happen, but the proof is now arriving each week that Jason Witten plus James Hanna and Gavin Escobar is crossing defenses into unfavorable situations.  The idea behind tight ends were versatile players who on some plays are pass catchers (WRs) and on other plays they are blockers (OL).  They will never be as dangerous as a great WR not never as effective a blocker as a proper linemen, but they can do both well enough to stress a defense.
12 or 13 personnel (multiple tight ends) makes the defense wonder what is coming at them.  If they defend the pass by putting more defensive backs on the field, the offense can run right at an undersized defense.  If they leave the LBs on to try to run with tight ends, then you try to throw them out of that.  It is balance and it is how your play action game can feed, too.
Here is a pie chart that shows how the pie is cut up by personnel group based on snaps - look how 3WR sets are about 42% and multiple tight end sets are 40%.  Balance!!!
And the same goes for the pie chart as sliced by yards accumulated so far this season (minus 2-minute offense).  Again, everything seems rather balanced and the shotgun/under center numbers are in the preferred spots:
This is the part of the entry where I would normally make radical suggestions on how to fix things and areas that need massive improvement.  But, the fact is that in 2014, the only advice this team needs for the offense in the final 6 weeks is to A) keep doing what you are doing and B) keep your QB upright.
Everything else is working well and it is a question of maintaining the excellence.  In other words, from an offensive standpoint, this is a group that should be able to get into the postseason and be very dangerous to anybody who wishes to take them on.  I do believe the Cowboys should aspire to deal with blitzing better and avoid having to use their backup QB, but overall, there is little to complain about on this offense.  They have really knocked it out of the park in the first 10 weeks.
Scott Linehan has been the fresh set of eyes on the offense and if there was a coordinator of the year in the NFL, I would be running his campaign for the award.  He has made sense of an offense that has frustrated observers for years and their inability to perform on all cylinders.
Now, keep it going down the stretch is the big test.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

2015 NFL Draft Top 100 Watch List - Version 3

Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones (left) and his son, Stephen Jones, walk on the field before their game against the Seattle Seahawks Sunday, October 12, 2014 at CenturyLink Field in Seattle, Wash. (G.J. McCarthy/The Dallas Morning News)
Today's exercise during the bye week is draft related.  So, for some of you, this is either a topic that is not interesting at all and for others, it is not interesting at this moment.  I totally understand both groups who either ignore the draft until that weekend or at least wait until the Cowboys season is done.
But, for the many of us who really love the draft and try to follow it throughout the year, today's list will hopefully be of interest to you.
Every year, I go through the exercise of trying to really study the top half of the draft.  That means trying to formulate a personal opinion (not read a magazine review) by watching at least 3 games of each of the "Top 100" players.  You could try to do all 250, but I have too many other responsibilities to go deeper than the 1st 3 rounds.
Personally, I pick a player a day and try to see 200 snaps or so of him doing his job and then compare and contrast him with others in his positional group and by April, I hope to have some level of comprehension about the significant names in a draft.  There are players on this list who will not get drafted, but we want to try not to miss to many who will.
So, in the previous summer and fall, all I am trying to do is collect names.  This requires a fair amount of using resources - both available to the public and not - to cast a very wide net and list every player who seems to be in the mix for Rounds 1-3.  Then, between the Bowl games and the NFL combine, we will chisel things down to eliminate those who are no longer on that radar (by consensus) and that is when we start breaking each player down as much as possible.
Again, it may not be the perfect system and I may not be a scout, but it doesn't mean it isn't worth learning these players for yourself (too many in the media just parrot what they read) and seeing if you can learn anything about what type of player they might be and how they might fit on your favorite team.
So, below, find the 165 players right now who at least one of my resources have indicated need to be considered for the "Top 100" list.  This is very early and players will come and go.  Some on this list (Devonte Fields, Dorial Green-Beckham are two) haven't even played this year.  Others have played poorly.  Others have been injured.  Still others won't enter the draft this spring and will stay in school.  But, this is a very early rough draft of the names I will be looking at as we get to the Senior Bowl and beyond.
I also realize that there are other names who will be in the Top 100 who are not listed below, but not many.  This is a pretty large group.  And to this point, I have not started to work on more than 25 of these players, so we are far from rankings. But, this is a starting point for those of you who wish to browse the database while watching college football.  Feel free to add more to the bottom and I will give them consideration for the December update.
Here are the 165 names we are looking at, listed by position:
Quarterbacks - 9
Petty, Bryce - Baylor
Carden, Shane - East Carolina
Winston, Jameis - Fla State
Cook, Connor - Mich St
Prescott, Dak - Miss St
Mannion, Sean -  Ore State
Mariota, Marcus - Oregon
Hogan, Kevin - Stanford
Hundley, Brett - UCLA

Running Backs - 10
Yeldon, TJ - Alabama
Ajayi, Jay - Boise St
Williams, Karlos - Fla State
Gurley, Todd - Georgia
Coleman, Tevin - Indiana
Johnson, Duke - Miami
Abdullah, Ameer - Nebraska
Davis, Mike - So Carolina
Allen, Javorius -  USC
Gordon, Melvin - Wisconsin

Wide Receivers - 23
Cooper, Amari - Alabama
Hill, Austin - Arizona
Strong, Jaelen - Arz State
Coates, Sammi - Auburn
Goodley, Antwan - Baylor
Norwood, Levi - Baylor
Davis, Titus - Central Mich
Hardy, Justin - E Carolina
Greene, Rashad - Florida State
Harper, Josh - Fresno St
Waller, Darren - Georgia Tech
Greenberry, Deontay - Houston
Lockett, Tyler - Kansas St
Parker, Devante - Louisville
Diggs, Stefon - Maryland
Dorsett, Phillip - Miami
Green-Beckham, D - Oklahoma
Montgomery, Ty - Stanford
Shipley, Jaxson - Texas
Agholor, Nelson - USC
Anderson, Dres - Utah
Williams, Kasen - Washington
White, Kevin - West Virgina

Tight Ends - 5
O'Leary, Nick - Florida State
Funchess, Devin - Michigan
Koyack, Ben - Notre Dame
Heuerman, Jeff - Ohio St
Kroft, Tyler - Rutgers

Center - 4
Dismukes, Reese - Auburn
Galik, Andy - Boston College
Finney, BJ - Kansas St
Grasu, Hroniss - Oregon

Guards - 8
Kouandijo, Arie - Alabama
Tomlinson, Laken - Duke
Jackson, Tre - Florida State
Matias, Josue - Florida State
Humpheries DJ - Florida
Cann, AJ - South Carolina
Harrison, Jarvis - Texas AM
Walker, Aundrey - USC

Tackles - 15
Drango, Spencer - Baylor
Sambrailo, Ty - Colorado State
Erving, Cameron - Florida State
Schreff, Brandon - Iowa
La'el Collins - LSU
Flowers, Ereck - Miami
Stanley, Ronnie - Notre Dame
Thompson, Tyrus - Oklahoma
Williams, Daryl - Oklahoma
Fisher, Jake - Oregon
Clemmings, TJ - Pittsburgh
Robinson, Corey - So Carolina
Hickey, Sean - Syracuse
Peat, Andrus - Stanford
Ogbugei, Cedric - Texas AM

Defensive Ends - 26
Flowers, Trey - Arkansas
Oakman, Shawn - Baylor
Beasley, Vic - Clemson
Crawford, Corey - Clemson
Edwards, Mario - Florida State
Fowler, Dante - Florida
Orr, Leon - Florida
Jenkins, Jordan - Georgia
Dupree, Alvin - Kentucky
Smith, ZaDarius - Kentucky
Mauldin, Lorenzo - Louisville
Hunter, Danielle - LSU
Chickillo, Anthony - Miami
Calhoun, Shilique - Michigan St
Golden, Markus - Missouri
Ray, Shane - Missouri
Gregory, Randy - Nebraska
Gwacham, Obum - Oregon State
Armstead, Arik - Oregon
Anderson, Henry - Stanford
Fields, Devonte - TCU (not '2014)
Reed, Cedric - Texas
Odighizuwa, O - UCLA
Williams, Leonard - USC
Orchard, Nate - Utah
Kikaha, Hauoli - Washington

Defensive Tackles - 14
Wright, Gabe - Auburn
Jarrett, Grady - Clemson
Goldman, Eddie - Florida St
Davison, Tyeler - Fresno St
Davis, Carl - Iowa
Bennett, Michael - Ohio St
Tapper, Charles - Oklahoma
Covington, Christian - Rice
Raciti, Travis - San Jose St
Surratt, JT - So Carolina
Hunter, Chucky - TCU
McCarthy, Ellis - UCLA
Shelton, Danny - Washington
Brown, Malcom - Texas

Linebackers - 17
Depriest, Trey - Alabama
Floyd, Leonard - Georgia
Wilson, Remik - Georgia
Hodges, Zach - Harvard
Perryman, Denzel - Miami
Jones, Taiwan - Mich St
Ryan, Jake - Michigan
McKinney, Benardrick - Miss St
Spence, Noah - Ohio St
Grissom, Geneo - Oklahoma
Striker, Eric - Oklahoma
Washington, Tony - Oregon
Johnson, AJ - Tennessee
Kendricks, Eric - UCLA
Pullard, H P - USC
Tavai, JR - USC
Thompson, Shaq - Washington

Cornerbacks - 23
Jones, Byron - Connecticut
Darby, Ronald - Florida State
Williams, PJ - Florida State
Smith, Djoun - Florida Atlantic
Gaines, Charles - Louisville
Collins, Jalen - LSU
Mills, Jalen - LSU
Waynes, Trae - Mich St
Golson, Senquez - Mississippi
Riggs, Cody - Notre Dame
Russell, Keivarae - Notre Dame
Grant, Doran - Ohio St
Nelson, Steve - Oregon State
Ekre-Olomu, Ifo - Oregon
Carter, Alex - Stanford
Lyons, Wayne - Stanford
Diggs, Quandre - Texas
Doss, Lorenzo - Tulane
Shaw, Josh - USC
Rowe, Eric - Utah
Johnson, Kevin - Wake Forest
Peters, Marcus - Washington
Thomas, Cam - West Kentucky

Safeties - 10
Collins, Landon - Alabama
Smith, Derron - Fresno St
Holliman, Gerod - Louisville
Drummond, Kurtis - Michigan St
Prewitt, Cordy - Mississippi
Richards, Jordan - Stanford
Eskridge, Durrell - Syracuse
Harris, Anthony - Virginia
Joseph, Karl - West Virgina
Tartt, Jaquiski - Samford
That should keep you plenty busy as we start the long march to April 30th in Chicago. 165 names and 163 days to go!  No problem, right?

Monday, November 17, 2014

A Contract For Dez Bryant That Both Sides Can Agree on

Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant smiles on the bench during the second half of Dallas' 31-17 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars Sunday, November 9, 2014 at Wembley Stadium in London. (G.J. McCarthy/The Dallas Morning News) 11162014xSPORTS
The Cowboys enjoyed a very successful bye week and were accommodated by losses from all divisional foes - Philadelphia, New York, and Washington - as well as Seattle and Detroit.  That means that although they did not even play, they picked up games on almost everyone in the NFC.  Of course, the exceptions were Green Bay, San Francisco, and Arizona who all won, which means that the latter two teams that have head-to-head tie-breakers with Dallas are now bigger concerns than they were.
What we don't know is whether the Cowboys spent the bye weekend trying to sew up the details for the Dez Bryant contract.  I assume that most of us are not stressing out about this as you would if your best player was about to be a free agent in any other sport because in the NFL if you want to keep your version of LeBron or Cliff Lee, you simply lock him down to the Franchise Tag and he is powerless to leave.  It is an amazing tool that has been negotiated by the teams to make sure that a franchise player - especially a QB that is considered elite - doesn't change teams unless for some reason the franchise itself decides to cut him loose (like Drew Brees from San Diego or Peyton Manning from Indianapolis).
Meanwhile, a player - like Bryant - who has performed at an elite level for an extended period of time and feels like he should be paid accordingly, has very little leverage to avoid being given the franchise tag other than giving the impression that he would get very, very angry.  That or a training camp holdout and the festering media swarm that would follow are the only real weapons that someone like Dez has at his disposal.  And that is why he has carefully navigated the last several months with calculated media sessions, rumors of unrest on the agent front, and even the occasional hint delivered while in uniform that he would take it personally if the team tried to find "financial common sense" at his expense.
In 2014, the "Franchise Tag" for a WR was the 3rd highest position in the sport at $12.3 million for the season, behind only QB ($16.1m) and DE ($13.1m).  It pays a player an average of the top 5 players at the position, but it is also a 1-year tag that resolves nothing but kicking the overall problem down the road a bit.  Of course, during that 1-year, players know that entire career paths may become diverted or even stopped.  So, while you might find very little sympathy for a player who would make about $770k for each of the 16 games in 2015 (after he made $130k a game in his first 5 seasons), Bryant would feel that his chance for the monster payday that puts him in the same class as Mike Wallace, Dwayne Bowe, and Percy Harvin may have to come elsewhere as it did for Wallace (Miami from Pittsburgh) and Harvin (Seattle from Minnesota and then on to New York).
It would be incorrect, I believe, to argue that the Cowboys don't want to extend him out and get this behind them.  They have no plans of letting him wear another uniform during his prime and are simply trying to accomplish the #1 employer objective in any walk of life: to get the employee to work at as small a pay rate as possible.  This, of course, flies directly in the face of the #1 employee objective: which is to get as much from the employer as possible to perform said job.  We all deal with it as well, albeit with considerably fewer zeroes on our pay-stubs.
So, today, my hope is to arrive at a deal as an independent arbiter.  I want to consider both sides and the going rate and project a total deal that will get this to the finish line.  The Cowboys have every right to drag their feet on this and can certainly exercise their negotiated right to a franchise tag, but it seems that in this particular case, unless they know something we don't know about off-field conduct, there is no reason that Bryant wouldn't be thought of as a franchise cornerstone from now until 2020 or so.
In other words, it seems obvious that this is a deal that both sides really want, so using those assumptions, let's find a number that makes sense.
I know we get caught up in the total value of a deal and the number of years used to inflate the contract, but for this exercise, let's limit the discussion somewhat.  I want to focus on the numbers that are interesting to a player ultimately - guaranteed money and average per year.
The guarantee is an interesting topic in itself, because Dez is the type of guy to bet on himself and in a world where Tyron Smith received $22m of his roughly $100m as guaranteed dollars.  That means that there will come a time (basically after 2016) where Smith will have almost all of his money on a pay-as-you-play basis.  Yes, he is extended through 2023, but when people talk about how Tyron agreed to a team-friendly contract (that also was called the largest deal ever given to a offensive linemen in the history of the sport), that is what they are talking about.
I believe that is what the Cowboys have in mind.  Pay Dez handsomely and competitively, but keep the onus on him to still be elite or close enough each year to validate their paychecks beyond the first 2 years of the deal.
So, now let's examine the guaranteed money and average yearly salaries to the Wide Receivers in this discussion:
Calvin Johnson, 29 (today's ages) - $48.7m g/$16.2 per year - March 2012
Larry Fitzgerald, 31 - $27m/$16.1m - August 2011
Mike Wallace, 28 - $27m/$12m - March 2013
Vincent Jackson, 31 - $26m/$11.1m - March 2012
Andre Johnson, 33 - $20.5m/$9.7m - August 2010
Dwayne Bowe, 30 - $20m/$11.2m - March 2013
If we are to believe reports, the Cowboys are offering a $20m guarantee to Bryant (26 years old, by the way) as part of a deal that sounds like it is about 6/$60m with a number of extra years and larger figures on it to help them have flexibility and to make the player feel good, even though he won't see years 9-10 no matter what.
So, now the conversation turns to what the Cowboys think are reasonable comparable to Dez in the other direction:
Antonio Brown, 26 - $8.5m g/$8.3m per year - July 2012
Victor Cruz, 28 -  $15.6m/$8.6m - July 2013
Jordy Nelson, 29 - $11.5m/$9.7 - July 2014
Marques Colston, 31 - $17.7m/$7.2m - March 2012
Those 4 can all claim to have accomplishments that are in the neighborhood (or superior) to Bryant over the period of time from 2011-2014.  The ages don't work perfectly, but when Jordy Nelson accepted a deal of 4 years, $39m with $11.5 guaranteed back in July, that wasn't very good news for the Bryant camp.  The ages aren't the same, but the on-field impact is close.  Bryant has 16 more yards during that span and has played in 3 more games.  He has 3 more touchdowns but has 105 more targets during that 4 season sample.
The problem with this group being used as a comparable is that either the player had not shown elite productivity (Brown) or they were past the age of elite contract status (26-28).  Dez is in the rather unique situation of proven and only 26.  That is a key to really focus upon.
There is a 3rd group that is all looking on carefully at this situation and will either get their deals after Bryant or they could actually set the market for Dez if we wait into the next offseason:
DeMaryius Thomas, 26, Denver
AJ Green, 26, Cincinnati
Jeremy Maclin, 26, Philadelphia
Michael Crabtree, 27, San Francisco
Julio Jones, 25, Atlanta
Green and Jones have one more year of their rookie deals, but Thomas, Maclin, and Crabtree are already to go free this March.  DeMaryius - drafted right before Bryant - has apparently turned down a deal in the $13m per year range.  That is about where I would think Bryant would want his floor, but maybe Thomas' stance should have me thinking $15m is the end goal for these guys.  And make no mistake, this group - at least Thomas, Green, and Jones all see Bryant as a comparable and therefore it is likely when one sets the market, they will all be looking for that level.
So, considering the ages of the players above, the level of performance Bryant has offered, and the relative values of those around him, it seems he has every right to want to get to the levels above Wallace/Bowe/Jackson and below Fitzgerald/Johnson.  He may not want to slate in below them, but based on a salary cap world, it seems Calvin Johnson also set a ceiling where teams realized paying a WR that level ($1m per game) hamstrings the entire roster and therefore I don't foresee another team going that high anytime soon.
I think the deal that gets this done would be in the 6 year-$84m total with $28m guaranteed.  I am sure that Bryant wants to break $30m guaranteed and might be able to if he let's DeMaryius Thomas' situation play out, but the Cowboys better be careful if they wait.  They can put the franchise tag on him, but I imagine he would negotiate a settlement that the following year he would hit the market and the Cowboys would lose their tagging leverage altogether.  By then, AJ Green and Julio Jones will have their new deals and $14m a year may not seem absurd.
So, there is where I see it.  6 years, $84m, and $28 guaranteed.  He is happy and so are they at have this done and then they can even consider using the tag elsewhere (RB?).  But, if the Cowboys are dug in with a Jordy Nelson/Victor Cruz type deal, then they better be prepared to ultimately lose Bryant.  I imagine their fan base would not look kindly on that after the last few seasons has has put together.
The Cowboys are simply trying to be responsible and should be congratulated for that.  But, for a number of reasons, after all of the deals they have written, this would be an odd one to take a stand on.  What is really working against them - beyond their payment of $55m guaranteed to Tony Romo - is the Brandon Carr deal.  Carr's contract included $25.5m guaranteed, and I would assume Bryant is well aware of that.  So, any guaranteed money that comes in below Carr is likely rejected on principle.  And frankly, that is understandable if you mean as much to Dallas as Dez has.
That said, the Cowboys are trying to get him for as little as possible. In the end, I wouldn't be shocked if it all gets done soon, to be honest.
Then again, I had them 6-10 this year so what do I know?