If 2017 was any indication, injuries can take a tremendous toll on a team. The Dallas Cowboys are no different. In the first half of the season they struggled to keep people healthy in their linebacking corp, losing Anthony Hitchens in the preseason and Sean Lee just a few games into the regular season, which forced Jaylon Smith into a role he wasn’t quite ready for in 2017.
Seeing how the team fell apart in the second half of the season with the loss of All-Pro Left Tackle Tyron Smith showed Dallas that the options they had at backup tackle weren’t good enough. As we look to the 2018 season, there are still places where the Dallas Cowboys can’t afford an injury.
Here are five players they need for all 16 games.
Dak Prescott, Quarterback
Like every other team that has eyes for playoff and Super Bowl contention, the Dallas Cowboys need Quarterback Dak Prescott to stay healthy in 2018. Prescott, entering his third year in the NFL, hasn’t missed a start in two seasons and has been a durable player — see the Atlanta Falcons game from 2017.
He’s a big quarterback who can take hits, but with his running ability — and sometimes the play caller’s stupidity — Prescott sometimes gets put into some really vulnerable positions.
Yes, the Philadelphia Eagles won a Super Bowl with a backup quarterback, but that’s an aberration, not the norm. That just doesn’t happen. We can’t expect that backup Quarterback Cooper Rush or Mike White to be able to step in and carry the Cowboys to their sixth Lombardi Trophy.
Say what you want about Prescott’s final eight games of the 2017 season, but you need him on the field leading this team with the departures of Jason Witten and Dez Bryant. He may not be in the elite group of quarterbacks, but he’s a good quarterback who can win you a lot of football games in the NFL.
Tyron Smith, Tackle
The Dallas Cowboys went to work in the offseason to get themselves a better insurance policy at tackle after the debacle of the 2017’s second half of the season. Chaz Green and Byron Bell were for the most part awful at keeping Dak Prescott’s blind side clean.
The Dallas Cowboys signed Cameron Fleming, who started at right tackle for the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl last season, to be their swing tackle. They then spent their second round pick on Connor Williams, who they plan to play at left guard but also has a lot of experience as a left tackle in the college ranks. He was an All-American selection his freshmen and sophomore years at the University of Texas.
If necessary, the Dallas Cowboys have two options to replace Tyron Smith, but in all honesty, we should hope that Fleming never has to see the field and that Williams never has to slide over from left guard.
The 2017 points per game numbers should be indicative of the impact felt by Tyron Smith’s absence.
Cowboys offense in 2017 with Tyron Smith = 28.5 pts/game (ranked 4th) Cowboys offense in 2017 without Tyron Smith = 8.0 pts/game (ranked last) Poor chemistry with Dez, no Zeke…those things hurt, but there is no greater Dak-friendly piece than your All Pro left tackle.
While the Dallas Cowboys may have much better depth on the offensive line this season, I don’t want to go through another season of Dallas Cowboys football without Tyron Smith.
DeMarcus Lawrence, Defensive End
If not for the first two mentioned on this list, Defensive End DeMarcus Lawrence might be the most important piece to a team that wants to get back into the playoffs and make a deep run. Pass rushers don’t grow on trees, and while DeMarcus Lawrence has had his issues with injury and consistency, 2017 should leave no doubt that he is one of the elite pass rushers in the NFL.
For the Dallas Cowboys, they don’t have anyone else who comes close to what Tank can do on a football field.
He’s a three down player who plays the run as well as rush the passer.
Lawrence has two seasons in which he played 16 games and in those two seasons (2015 and 2017), he recorded eight and 14.5 sacks, respectively.
Aside from David Irving’s 2017 and Maliek Collins’ 2016, the Cowboys don’t have a lot of proven pass rushers on the roster. Sure, they have potential with guys like Taco Charlton, Dorance Armstrong, and Randy Gregory — if he’s reinstated — but at the moment, that’s all it is, potential.
Lawrence takes a lot of pressure off the rest of the guys on the defensive line and his absence would put that weight right back on their shoulders. His is an absence they can’t afford.
Sean Lee, Linebacker
He’s entering his age-32 season, but 2016 All-Pro Sean Lee is still a great player for the Dallas Cowboys.
They are a different team with him on the field, especially in the running game. The three games that stand out to me are the Los Angeles Rams, Green Bay Packers, and the Atlanta Falcons game.
In the Rams and Packers games, Lee didn’t even play a snap. The Dallas Cowboys lost both games despite the offense scoring 30 points. They got gashed on the ground and through the air by the opposition’s running backs.
Sean Lee started the Atlanta Falcons game and played eight snaps, all in the first quarter. Here’s what the Atlanta Falcons offense did during Lee’s eight snaps:
- The Dallas Cowboys forced a three and out on their first defensive possession.
- On four first quarter carries with Lee on the field, the Falcons were held to minus one yard rushing. In case you missed it, let me say it another way, 4 carries for -1 yard rushing.
- Matt Ryan went three of four for a healthy 75% completion percentage, but averaged only 6.25 yards per attempt.
- Atlanta had to settle for a 50 yard field goal at the end of the possession in which Sean Lee was injured at the end of the first quarter.
After Lee went out, Ryan threw 25 more times for 190 more yards, averaging 7.6 yards per attempt. The running game got a boost as well, even though star Running Back Devonta Freeman went out with a concussion on the first series of the game.
After only managing minus one yard on their first four carries, Falcons’ running backs and wide receivers, led by Tevin Coleman, combined for 131 yards on 30 carries to the tune of 4.3 yards per carry.
That’s a significant difference.
Now, the offense didn’t do the defense any favors in the now-infamous “Chaz Green game,” but the defense wasn’t able to hold up its end of the bargain either.
The Dallas Cowboys hope Jaylon Smith takes another step in his recovery from the knee injury that has kept him limited so far in his NFL career. They also drafted Leighton Vander Esch in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft for insurance at the position as well.
Joe Thomas and Justin March-Lillard are nice depth, but at the moment you don’t want to be counting on those guys to play 95% of your defensive snaps.
The fact remains that until Jaylon Smith or Leighton Vander Esch show they are capable of handling a full workload, you need Sean Lee on the field.
Just like Jack Nicholson told Tom Cruise in the movie A Few Good Men, You want him on that wall. You need him on that wall.
Ezekiel Elliott, Running Back
Before you tell me that the Dallas Cowboys can win games without Ezekiel Elliott, I just want to leave this here for you.
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Not only does Ezekiel Elliott churn out the “dirty yards,” as Head Coach Jason Garrett likes to say, but he’s a game-breaker. Anytime he touches the ball, he’s a threat to take it for a touchdown. He has amazing patience and vision to find the hole, and the burst to get from the first to second levels in a hurry.
Only two running backs have averaged more yards per game in their first two seasons than Ezekiel Elliott’s 104.6: Eric Dickerson (122.3) and Clinton Portis (106.9).
Elliott, through 25 games, has averaged a touchdown per game.
A couple of weeks ago, I gave you my projection for Ezekiel Elliott in 2018. I’m expecting big things for the third-year running back out of Ohio State University.
Rod Smith, Bo Scarborough, Darius Jackson, and Tavon Austin are fine players, but none of them combine the speed and physicality that Elliott brings to the table. Elliott is as complete a running back as there is in the NFL, running, receiving, and blocking. It’s hard to find a running back that is elite in all three of those traits, but Zeke Elliott is.
Maybe the running back position has devalued in the NFL, but the value of Ezekiel Elliott is greater than any other running back on the Dallas Cowboys roster. By a lot.
If he were to miss extended time during the 2018 NFL season, the Dallas Cowboys offense would look a lot different.
With Elliott on the field, opposing defensive coordinators have to get eight or nine guys in the box against the Dallas Cowboys’ run game. When he’s not available, coordinators can have less guys in the box knowing that anyone else carrying the ball for Dallas is nowhere near as explosive. This makes things much harder on Dak as play action becomes less effective and teams will leave more guys in coverage for Prescott to beat.
Elliott is one of the three best running backs in the NFL and the best skill-position player the Dallas Cowboys have.
On an offense with a lot of unproven skill players and with a game plan designed to Feed Zeke, they can’t afford to have Elliott missing from the dinner table.
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Who else must the Dallas Cowboys have available to make a run at their sixth Lombardi?