For the Dallas Cowboys to have a successful 2018 season they are going to need some of their young players step up and improve their game from a year ago. Keeping everyone healthy will be a huge help as well, but today I want to focus on a few players who I believe will have a breakout year this season.
In 2017 we saw DeMarcus Lawrence go from a player who a lot of Cowboys Nation was calling to get released, to a player who became one of the best at his position. It's rare to see someone take that kind of jump, but I don't think the Dallas Cowboys or their fans are complaining. The only real complaint I see now is how the Cowboys plan on keeping him around.
To say that Lawrence had a breakout 2017 season would be an understatement. He dominated all year and it's that kind of progress we are hoping from some of the Cowboys youngsters. But, who is ready to take that kind of jump?
Below I've identified three players who I believe are going to have breakout seasons in 2018.
Out of everybody on the Dallas Cowboys roster, I think Chidobe Awuzie is the most likely to have a breakout season like DeMarcus Lawrence did in 2017. Part of that has to do with the hiring of Kris Richard, who I believe will help him develop, but it mostly has to do with Awuzie's talent and how he performed as a rookie.
His rookie season didn't get off to the best start due to reoccurring injuries. He was only able to start six of 10 games and finished the year with 25 tackles, one forced fumble, and one interception. Not terrible numbers for a first year CB, but it could've been much better.
I believe with a full year in the Dallas Cowboys strength and conditioning program and a healthy offseason, Awuzie will without a doubt be the best cornerback on the roster. He has all the tools to succeed, now he just has to go out and prove it.
Hopefully changing from #33 to #24 doesn't jinx him. The 24 jersey hasn't been very kind to the last two CBs who wore it.
Out of the entire Dallas Cowboys 2017 draft class, Xavier Woods might have been the most impressive in his first year in the NFL. What makes it even more impressive is the fact that he was a sixth round draft pick, the 191st player selected. And I don't know about you, but I'm really looking forward to see him play this season.
As a rookie, Xavier Woods was used in a variety of roles in the Cowboys secondary and finished the season with 42 tackles and one interception. He played in all 16 games, but only started in for those contests.
I'm really expecting Xavier Woods to take a big jump in his second season with the Dallas Cowboys. I wouldn't be surprised if he is one of the starting safeties. A lot of people say that he's a little undersized to play the position, but he is almost exactly the same size as the safety everybody wants the Cowboys to trade for, Earl Thomas.
I believe if the Cowboys don't take a safety early in the 2018 NFL Draft it's probably because they like what they have in Xavier Woods.
I've actually been predicting a breakout season for Byron Jones these past several years, but unfortunately he hasn't really lived up to those aspirations just yet. I'm going to go out on a limb again and predict he finally proves why he was a first-round draft pick.
The Dallas Cowboys didn't do Byron Jones any favors by continuously having him play different positions in the secondary. I've always believed his best position was at CB, which is why am really excited the Cowboys are no longer going to play him at safety. He played safety out of necessity and has been average, but I think he will be an above average CB.
His size and athleticism should benefit him more at CB than it did at S. At safety he was asked to match up with bigger tight ends in coverage and was out physicaled from time to time, but I don't think that will happen when guarding receivers. I really think we will see a different player in 2018.
* Honorable Mention
Jaylon Smith - I thought about adding Jaylon Smith to the list due to his improved nerve regeneration in his knee/drop foot, but I think he had his breakout season last year. Hopefully he will be even better in 2018 though.
Jourdan Lewis - Jourdan Lewis is another player I contemplated adding to the list, but he is kind of being demoted a little bit and will likely be the Dallas Cowboys nickel cornerback in 2018. I'm still expecting big things from him.
Which Dallas Cowboys players do you think will have a breakout 2018 season?
PFF Ranks Cowboys Run Defense 13th In The NFL
The Cowboys duo of young linebackers took the NFL by storm in 2018.
Rookie Leighton Vander Esch and former second round pick Jaylon Smith played well above expectations, as for the first time in years Dallas did not face a significant drop off in defensive production when Sean Lee was out and injured.
These young linebackers are the cornerstone of a run defense which should be among the league's best going forward, and Pro Football Focus agrees. Well, somewhat agrees.
PFF ranked all 32 run defenses heading into the 2019 season, slotting the Cowboys 13th overall. Better than half the league, but not quite top 10.
PFF's reasoning behind this ranking certainly makes sense, as they credit the young linebacker duo without mentioning much of what will be in front of them helping to stop opposing running games.
"The Cowboys’ run defense begins and ends with the league’s best young linebacker duo. Leighton Vander Esch ranked third in run-stop percentage as a rookie while Jaylon Smith checked in at 29th."
The playoff loss in Los Angeles has left a bad taste about the Cowboys' interior defensive line in a lot of mouths, but I do think they've improved the unit this offseason. Signing Christian Covington and drafting Trysten Hill was a nice start to do so, but having Maliek Collins healthy and Antwaun Woods back for a full season will also go a long way.
Interestingly enough, two of the Cowboys divisional foes came in ranked above them on this list. Washington was slotted as the 12th best run defense, while Philadelphia was placed at number 8. Both teams' units deserve respect, of course, but this further highlights how difficult it could be to run the ball in the NFC East this season.
While I hate simply throwing this term around, analytics suggest that passing is what wins games in the NFL. Passing and stopping the pass, I should say.
With strong run defenses in their division, the Cowboys will need to maximize their passing game efficiency if they want to repeat as NFC East champions.
3 Reasons Amari Cooper is Primed for an All-Pro Season
Amari Cooper changed life for the entire Dallas Cowboys offense in 2018. Finally, Quarterback Dak Prescott has the number one option at wide receiver he's desperately needed since his rookie campaign. Now, after half a season and multiple playoff games under his belt in Dallas, Cooper is set to have a monster year. Here are three specific reasons why.
Head Coach Jason Garrett has established a certain way of doing things in Dallas since taking over in 2010. His constant search for the RKG or "Right Kinda Guy" as he puts it has the culture in the locker room at a very positive and productive place. As criticized as he is, justifiably or not, he has his team all on the same page. This is something Cooper has been trying to find since he entered the league in 2015. An organization with the right mindset in order for him to perform and maximize his skill set. After being traded to Dallas, Cooper opened up in November about being unhappy during his days in Oakland.
"I wasn't really happy in Oakland or anything like that. But when I sat and thought about it [Monday} night, I thought about the fact that they traded me away. I don't know how to feel about it," Cooper told Yahoo Sports.
This may seem small to others considering these players make millions of dollars right? Well, it doesn't change the fact that they're human. When you feel unappreciated you don't play to the best of your abilities. Shortly after the trade, Cooper talked about how he's been different since putting a star on his helmet. "I feel like it did change me, as far as having that chip on my shoulder. Not that I wasn't passionate before, but playing with more passion, trying to intentionally have fun out there. It definitely has changed me, in terms of me going out there and just having fun with it," Cooper said. A change of scenery was just what the doctor ordered for Cooper and the Cowboys.
2. The other weapons around him
The Cowboys aren't just Amari Cooper or bust at the wide receiver position. Michael Gallup and Randall Cobb provide more challenges for defenses on a weekly basis. Gallup has firmly locked down the number two spot on the depth chart. It took a while for him to establish chemistry with Dak Prescott, as they would misfire on several big plays during the first half of the season. Nonetheless, by seasons end things started to pick up, and he finished with 33 receptions for 507 yards and 2 touchdowns. In the playoffs, he scored a touchdown in the Cowboys Wild Card win over Seattle. The next week against the Rams he performed well even in defeat, with 6 receptions for 119 yards. He's got speed, size, and versatility. Now with a full season and two games of playoff experience under his belt, I look for even more production from Gallup, as a possible breakout star.
Randall Cobb is a much-needed upgrade in the slot for the Cowboys. Unlike former receiver Cole Beasley, Cobb can line up inside or outside. Giving new Offensive Coordinator Kellen Moore a bigger bag of tricks at his disposal. Now, he can lineup Cooper inside or outside and play with a plethora of different looks, keeping defenses off balance because of the uncertainty of how the Cowboys will attack through the air.
Then, of course, there's Ezekiel Elliott. The two-time rushing champion is the tone-setter on offense and dictates how defenses will attack. With Cooper being such a threat in the air you basically have to pick your poison. 8-9 man fronts against the run can make you vulnerable to play action down the field or quick slants with Cooper's exceptional route running. The more productive Elliott is the more honest it keeps opposing defenses, opening up more opportunities in the passing game. Averaging 101.2 yards per game for his career, second all-time to Hall of Famer Jim Brown, Elliott can make create even more opportunities for Cooper in 2019 with a full season of playing time together.
Amari Cooper is currently looking to sign a long-term deal with the Cowboys. Preferably, both sides would like to get this deal done before the season starts considering he's in the last year of his rookie contract that is set to pay him 13.9 million in 2019. However, it isn't just a new deal that motivates Cooper heading into the new season.
"It's kind of a weird situation, just being that I've never been in this situation before, talking about a contract. But also, I'm under a fifth-year option, so I'm not too familiar with it. I really don't ask my agent many questions. I'm not really worried about it that much. I'm more focused on actually playing and really earning the respect and then the contract," Cooper said.
Being motivated by earning respect is a very mature approach from Cooper. Now, add that to the fact that I'm sure he wants to firmly put his name alongside Julio Jones, Antonio Brown, DeAndre Hopkins, Odell Beckham Jr, and Michael Thomas as the best receivers in the game, you have a fully motivated number one option heading into the new season.
Amari Cooper has already made three pro bowls, but now there's another level for him to reach. In just nine games last year with the Cowboys he caught 53 passes for 725 yards and 6 touchdowns. Also, he caught another 13 on 18 targets in the playoffs for 171 yards and a score. He's in the right culture, he has a number of other weapons around him and he has multiple reasons to be motivated heading in the new season. With a full offseason of building chemistry with Dak Prescott, I see Cooper taking that leap to the All-Pro level in 2019.
Is La’el Collins Playing For A Contract On A Different Team?
How good is La'el Collins?
This is a question that Cowboys fans have disagreed on since his rookie season. Collins, who originally joined the team as their left guard replacing an injured Ronald Leary in 2015, moved out to right tackle in 2017, starting all 32 games there the last 2 seasons.
Collins' play has been somewhat up-and-down, as should be expected when a lineman not only switches from guard to tackle, but from the left side to the right side as well. Still, he's been a solid right tackle and a stable presence for a Cowboys offensive line which has struggled with major injuries at other positions over the last couple of years.
While Collins has not been the "elite" level player fans had hoped for when signed after the 2015 draft, he's been a solid player nonetheless. Dak Prescott has faced more pressure from the right side of the line than the left, but a good portion of that pressure has to do with him struggling to sense pressure from that right side.
The Dallas Cowboys seem rather undecided about La'el Collins' future with the team themselves, though. Dallas went out and draft guard Connor McGovern in the third round of the 2019 draft, starting the whirlwind of rumors that McGovern will be the starting left guard in 2020. This would kick second year player Connor Williams out to right tackle, allowing Dallas to let Collins walk without too much worry.
While this is well and good on paper, on the field the transition will likely not be as smooth. We've already seen how tough it is to move from left guard to right tackle in just one offseason, even if you were a college tackle once upon a time. Connor Williams could face these same struggles, despite possibly even anticipating the change a year out.
Regardless, La'el Collins is now in a contract year and is playing for that new deal come 2020. Dallas may not be looking to extend him, mostly due to the plethora of new deals they'll be handing out to other players, but he will be a hot commodity come free agency if and when he hits the open market.
Collins could very well be playing for a new contract elsewhere this season, as his days in Dallas look to be numbered.
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