Every year around this time, sports fans everywhere are reminded of just how dominant the National Football League is. The NFL schedule release is literally just the sharing of a calendar that has little meaning until after next week's NFL Draft, but still dominates headlines both before and after the event.
If the Dallas Cowboys are going to return to the playoffs in 2018, we now know the path they will take -- beginning on September 9th in Carolina against the Panthers.
Here are five of my initial thoughts on this team's schedule.
1. "Early" Bye Week Still Later Than Recent Seasons
The Cowboys' bye week falls in week eight this season, which is certainly nothing new. This team is used to having their bye earlier in the season, but week eight is actually the latest it's been over the last three seasons.
In Dak Prescott's rookie season, the Cowboys rolled to six straight wins following their bye week - all part of a longer 11 game win streak. In 2017, the Cowboys played their final three games with Ezekiel Elliott after the bye, improving to 5-3 and inspiring hope for a salvageable season before further injuries piled up.
This season, the Cowboys will come out of their bye week to host Monday Night Football at AT&T Stadium against the Tennessee Titans.
2. AFC South to Play A Huge Factor
Speaking of the Titans, it is the NFC East's year to face off against the AFC South. This has been an unpredictable division as of late, with the Jacksonville Jaguars emerging as early favorites following their improbable run to the AFC Championship Game.
Unlike the NFC East, the AFC South has been decided by who maintains stability at quarterback. The Colts are hoping to contend with Andrew Luck back on the field in 2018, as are the Texans with second-year QB Deshaun Watson.
The Titans overhauled their coaching staff in hopes of progressing QB Marcus Mariota further to make a run at the playoffs once again.
For the Cowboys, their meetings with the AFC South will carry extra weight - as all but one of them precedes a divisional game in some sense. Following back to back games at the Texans and home against the Jaguars, the Cowboys will visit the Redskins in week seven.
The first shot Dallas will get at the defending Super Bowl champions will be November 11th in Philadelphia, two weeks removed from their bye after facing the Titans.
Coming out of two games in 12 days through weeks 12 (Thanksgiving) and 13, the Cowboys will have little chance to come up for air against the Eagles in week 14. Their chance to regroup may come the following week, with a favorable December road game in Indianapolis against the Colts.
3. Revenge Against the Falcons
The Cowboys' week 10 game a year ago in Atlanta is truly where the 2017 season was lost. Playing without Ezekiel Elliott, the Cowboys looked lost on offense thanks to the added absence of All-Pro Left Tackle Tyron Smith.
The Cowboys' fight to carry on at 5-4 was buried into the Falcons' new turf, as was Dak Prescott that afternoon, sacked eight times.
Only a week removed on the calendar from meeting the Falcons on the same date, the Cowboys will again play at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in week 11 this season. The chance for revenge against the Falcons will also mark the only pair of consecutive road games this 2018 Dallas Cowboys team will play.
4. Running Through December
The national media may not want you to know that the Cowboys are a combined 6-2 in December over the last two seasons, as this team's fabled late season collapses remain a topic of conversation.
This point also stands as a great example of why breaking down team schedules in April is often a pointless exercise, but not obsessing over every twist and turn of the NFL as a yearly hobby is no fun. According to me.
It is no secret that the Cowboys will be relying heavily on Ezekiel Elliott in 2018, expecting their star running back to suit up for 16 games and carry the offense. If you believe that Prescott and Elliott paired together full-time again is enough reason for optimism about the Cowboys, their December schedule becomes even more favorable.
Aside from playing three of the four games indoors and away from the elements, the Cowboys will face three of the worst rushing defenses in yards per game allowed from last season in December. With the Eagles being the glaring exception (leading the league in this category), the Cowboys should have their way on the ground with the Colts, Buccaneers, and Giants over their final three games.
5. Thanksgiving Tradition
For the second time in three seasons, the Dallas Cowboys will host the Washington Redskins on Thanksgiving. The Cowboys were victorious on Thanksgiving in 2016 over the Redskins, 31-26.
The Cowboys have only lost to the Redskins once on Thanksgiving, facing them a total of eight times and dropping a 2012 bout with Washington 38-31 (Robert Griffin III's rookie season with the Redskins).
Riding a four game winning streak against the Redskins, the Cowboys get to face an Alex Smith led Washington team on Thanksgiving to wrap up their first series against the NFC East. Following week 12, the Cowboys will still have meetings with the Eagles and New York Giants.
Some may look at this year's division as a two-team race, but counting absolutely any team out of an NFC East race is foolish - even more so in April.
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By this time next week, the Dallas Cowboys have a chance to look entirely different - adding as many as ten players at the 2018 NFL Draft. Only then will we have a better feel for how they stack up against this 2018 schedule.
Stay posted right here to Inside The Star for draft coverage live from Dallas, as I will be at AT&T Stadium for all seven rounds of picks alongside Slant Sports Draft Analyst Nick Flaherty.
Dallas Cowboys 2019 Training Camp Preview: Linebacker
The linebacker position went from liability to luxury in 2018, thanks largely to the emergence of a pair of dynamic young talents. Now seen as one of the strengths of the Dallas Cowboys' defense, what questions remain for the linebackers as we await the start of the 2019 training camp?
Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch are the nucleus now at linebacker, if not the the Cowboys' defense as a whole. The days of worrying if Sean Lee can stay healthy are over; we now have two players capable of elite play and the versatility to handle multiple spots.
Lee isn't gone; the longtime defensive captain accepted a pay cut and a lesser role to stay in Dallas this year. He is still expected to start in the base defense, moving to the strong-side LB role that Damien Wilson vacated.
Indeed, the top-three linebackers for 2019 are easy to project. Jaylon and Leighton are the new leaders and Sean will get as much playing time as his body can handle.
This year, which is unusual for reserve players, the second team is almost just as predictable.
Here's the projected Linebacker Depth Chart for the 2019 training camp:
- Leighton Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith, Sean Lee
- Joe Thomas, Justin March-Lillard, Chris Covington
- Kyle Queiro, Andrew Dowell, Luke Gifford, Nate Hall
There may not be a position on offense or defense with less x-factors than linebacker. Almost just as likely as the starters, Joe Thomas, Justin-March Lillard, and Chris Covington should have the second-team spots locked down.
Thomas is especially valuable, having the skills to step into a larger role if Sean Lee suffers from age or injury. If Lee were to go down, we might see Jaylon Smith move into the SAM spot and Thomas playing as WILL in the base defense.
Dallas re-signed Justin March-Lillard this offseason. He played in all 16 games last year as a backup and special teamer, and his experience will make him hard to oust.
Chris Covington was a 6th-round pick last year and has the body to play SAM but also experience at other spots in college. Dallas would love to see him grow into a larger role the way other recent 6th-rounders like Anthony Brown and Xavier Woods have.
One potential challenger could be Jalen Jelks, the 7th-round defensive end that Dallas just drafted last April. Jelks has the body and athleticism to play a hybrid LB/DE role, and could challenge as the backup SAM. We don't know if the Cowboys will give Jelks a chance at LB, but it may be the only way to keep him on the 53 given all the talent at defensive end.
It will be hard for any of the remaining LB prospects to work their way onto the roster. The top six have experience and upside that undrafted rookies will need to be exceptionally good to overcome. Only Kyle Queiro, who was on the practice squad last year, brings a little NFL experience to the table.
Of course, unexpected things can happen. The talent margin between late-round picks and undrafted guys can be slim; who knows if one of these prospects pushes March-Lillard or Covington out of the way?
But barring a surprise, we already have a good idea who the Cowboys' six linebackers will be in 2019. Will this year's training camp solidify that projection, or will we get some new evidence to consider?
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OTHER 2019 CAMP PREVIEWS
Tony Romo: Cowboys TE Jason Witten Will “Pick Up Right Where He Left Off”
There's no denying that the future holds a gold jacket for Dallas Cowboys Tight End Jason Witten. With everything he's done in his career, he'll go down as one of the three best tight ends in the history of the NFL when he finally hangs up his number 82 for good.
Most of the questions that have come surrounding the offense have focused on the tight end position this offseason. Even prior to Jason Witten announcing his return from the broadcast booth at ESPN to the NFL, tight end was one of the areas that was considered a draft need by most analysts. Since coming back, the questions may have altered, but they're there all the same. Now, we're wondering how much Jason Witten will play? Will Blake Jarwin and/or Dalton Schultz see significant playing time in the offense? Will Jason Witten be able to return to his pre-retirement form?
It's that last question that was answered pretty directly by Witten's former quarterback and NFL on CBS Analyst Tony Romo when he was on with Ben and Skin of 105.3 The Fan. In the way that only Tony Romo can, he illustrated what exactly will allow Jason Witten to return to the game without missing a beat.
"He'll pick up right where he left off. I don't think it's a big challenge for Jason (Witten). The reality of it is as long as, if you know the game the way he does, there are certain positions -- he plays one of them at tight end -- he's always going to have the nuance to get open. Let's say he runs the exact same he always did, to me , it's just that at that position, your ability to use leverage against somebody, make you think this and then do that. It's like the back pick in basketball. Just all of a sudden it gets you and you didn't even know it was coming and that guy is wide open. He's very intelligent with the game of football. I think he's going to pick up right from when he retired. I think you're going to see the same guy."
Tony Romo on 105.3 The Fan via Jon Machota of SportsDay DFW
Jason Witten has been one of the best route-running tight ends in the NFL during his time with the Dallas Cowboys. He's always been able to win with his intelligence and route running despite not ever being the quickest or most athletic tight end in the NFL.
Because of Jason Witten's knowledge and feel for the game, it's easy to see why a player like that could walk back into the NFL after taking a year off and remain a productive player for the Dallas Cowboys. It's why they didn't hesitate to bring him back in the offseason. Though it's been relayed that he'll have a somewhat reduced role, he'll be the starting tight end week one against the New York Giants.
While it's uncertain exactly how much Jason Witten can play, you know that he'll be available to play. Prior to his retirement, Witten played in 235 straight regular-season games. Not only is Witten's availability great to have, but so is his ability to win on third down and in the red zone. It will be a welcomed addition to a Dallas Cowboys offense that struggled in both of those areas in 2018.
In 2018, they were 10th in third-down conversion percentage in the NFL at 41.4%. That's down from ranking fifth in the NFL in 2017 at 42.9%. 1.5% may not seem like a huge difference, but that's two to three more first downs on the season. Being able to convert on third downs increases your chances of scoring. Scoring more helps you win.
They were 29th in red-zone scoring rate at 48% in 2018. The only teams in the NFL that were worse than the Dallas Cowboys were the New York Jets, Jacksonville Jaguars, and San Francisco 49ers. Only one other team in the bottom 10 in the league in red-zone scoring rate made the playoffs; the Houston Texans. In 2017, the Dallas Cowboys were sixth in the NFL in red-zone scoring percentage at 59.6% and that was without Ezekiel Elliott for six games and without Tyron Smith for three games.
Having Jason Witten's ability to get open in confined spaces will help everyone on the offense. Even after having a year off, Witten is a player that will have to be accounted for in those high-leverage situations.
There isn't a person in the world that knows Jason Witten the football player better than Tony Romo does. Their careers have been so intertwined that it's hard to think of one without thinking of the other. It's why one day when they're inducted into the Dallas Cowboys Ring of Honor, that it would be fitting for it to happen together.
If, as Romo believes, Jason Witten can pick up right where he left off, his veteran presence, leadership, and on-field ability are going to be a huge asset for a team that has Super Bowl aspirations in 2019. For the Cowboys to reach the Super Bowl and win their sixth Lombardi Trophy, they're going to need "Gold Jacket" Witten to return to his pre-retirement form.
And if Tony Romo believes he will, there's no reason to doubt Jason Witten. Do so at your own peril.
Position Flex of Connor Williams, Connor McGovern Gives the Cowboys Options
The Dallas Cowboys find themselves facing an interesting situation heading into training camp later this month. They've stockpiled enough talent on the offensive line that now they have multiple players who can play multiple positions. This is better known as "Position Flex" around the Cowboys team facility, and it's highlighted by Connor Williams and rookie Connor McGovern.
Williams was drafted in the second round in 2018 out of Texas. Even though he logged 28 starts at left tackle during his days in Austin, he was brought in to play left guard opposite All-Pro Zack Martin. As a rookie, he started the first eight games before suffering a knee injury Week 10 against the Titans. He struggled due to his smaller size and being a natural tackle, showing he definitely needed to bulk up if he wanted to start on the interior of the offensive line. His back up Xavier Su'a-Filo was serviceable in his absence.
However, he did start two games at right guard in place of Zack Martin and performed pretty decent. This gave him much-needed experience in case of an injury in the future. He's shown he can adjust and be a solid lineman at more than one spot.
When All-Pro Tyron Smith had veterans day off during OTAs, Williams was seen taking snaps at left tackle, his natural position. La'el Collins is the starter at right tackle but is currently in a contract year. Set to be an unrestricted free agent in 2020, and with uncertainty, that he'll perform to the level needed to keep him as the starter or garner a big payday, the Cowboys have some insurance. This could create a situation where Williams is flexed outside if Collins hits the open market next year, only time will tell.
McGovern comes into the NFL with an advantage over his fellow lineman Williams. He was able to gain experience at multiple positions on the offensive line at Penn State. He started 21 games at right guard (9 as a freshman, 12 as a junior) and 14 games at center (13 as a sophomore, 1 as a junior). He's ideal to play on the interior seeing as he is naturally a little bigger than Williams, who had to pack on the pounds this offseason to deal with the responsibility of playing guard.
Now, the Cowboys can really see, if this is their thinking, who the five best guys are on the offensive line. If it were up to me, I would put Williams in direct competition with Collins for the right tackle position. This would allow McGovern to battle Su'a-Filo for the left guard spot. Also, with the health of All-Pro Center Travis Fredrick still up in the air, until the pads come on, McGovern's flexibility has added more insurance along with back up Joe Looney in case there's a setback before the season starts.
Multiple players with the skill set to move across the line if called upon. What more could you ask for as an offensive line coach? Plus, neither will be over the age of 22 during the season. The Cowboys have masterfully built the line of scrimmage on offense through the draft since 2011. Their dedication to dominating the trenches has them loaded with talent in said area. The only thing left is to wait for training camp to see where the chips fall.
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