The Dallas Cowboys 2017 Training Camp opens two weeks from tomorrow, meaning you're about to get bombarded with various "season preview" articles from this site and many others. Various players will be spotlighted as key figures in this year's camp, be it for their star status or for being part of an intriguing position battle.
Today, I thought we'd look at a few guys who seem to be flying under the radar as camp approaches. Despite this, I think any of these five guys could wind up with spots on the 53-man roster and perhaps even significant roles on this year's team.
Emmett Cleary, OT
Signed last September to replace an injured Chaz Green, Cleary was the swing tackle for 13 games and then started in the Week 17 finale. He had to come in for Tyron Smith during the Week 16 game against the Detroit Lions, playing very well in an important game against a playoff team.
Cleary is a massive 6'7" and has been floating around the NFL for four seasons. He went undrafted in 2013 and was with five different teams before finally landing in Dallas. Now, with real game experience and plenty of moving parts on the Cowboys offensive line, Cleary shouldn't be ignored as a contender for a roster spot.
As it stands, Cleary should be very competitive for the swing tackle role. Many are focusing on Chaz Green or veteran Byron Bell, but Cleary didn't look at all like a liability in the snaps he played last season. That alone should keep him in the conversation through final cuts, if not beyond.
Brice Butler, WR
Some are projecting that Butler won't even make the team, losing his roster spot to seventh-round rookie Noah Brown or some other younger player. However, Butler's experience, 6'3" frame, and exceptional top seed will make him hard to beat if he has a strong camp and preseason.
The one-year, $1.1 million contract that Butler got from the Cowboys last March speaks to his tenuous status with the team and why people think he could be expendable. At age 27, Brice is certainly in danger if younger players make noise. But with Dez Bryant missing 10 games over the last two seasons, Dallas won't be quick to cast aside veteran depth.
What's more, Butler's role in the offense could be enhanced by the development of Dak Prescott. If the playbook gets opened up and Prescott is willing to take more shots down the field, Butler's speed could be put to better use. He could provide a vertical threat that compliments the work of Bryant, Jason Witten, and Cole Beasley in the short and mid-range passing game.
Cedric Thornton, DT
Last year, Dallas gave Thornton a four-year, $17 million contract to join the defensive line. His playing time was cut short because of the unexpected rise of Maliek Collins and the sudden health of Terrell McClain. With McClain now in Washington, Thornton could finally have the larger role that the Cowboys anticipated when they signed him.
As always with Rod Marinelli's defense, Thornton will be rotating with other players. One will be free-agent signing Stephen Paea, a former Marinelli pupil in Chicago. Money talks, though, and Paea only got a one-year deal for $2 million to become a Cowboy. That may not mean much depending on how camp unfolds, but it at least shows what Dallas was willing to pay to acquire both players.
Terrell McClain played 500 total snaps last year, leaving plenty of work for new guys to take on. Thornton has the size to play the one-tech role and the athleticism to stay on in the nickel, meaning he could form a nice partnership with Maliek Collins. The Cowboys thought enough of Thornton last year to pay him well, and he should be a major factor in the 2017 plans.
Mark Nzeocha, LB
Held back the last two years with injuries, Nzeocha is a big and athletic player who could be called on for significant duties in 2017. The recent news about Damien Wilson's legal troubles only increases the potential need.
Last preseason, Nzeocha was looking a dominant player against the Rams' second-team offense. He followed the ball everywhere and even had an interception. He reminded you of Sean Lee, and there's no greater praise for a linebacker.
If Nzeocha can finally stay healthy, he could compete for the starting job SAM linebacker. If nothing else, he should be a primary reserve at other positions and appears to have the ability to play any LB spot. With the departures of Justin Durant and Andrew Gachkar, there is less veteran depth to contend with. Now in his third year, Nzeocha will hopefully be ready to become a contributor.
Kavon Frazier, S
It feel like Frazier has become an afterthought at safety, with many enamored over sixth-round rookie Xavier Woods. While Woods may be the shiny new toy, we're only a year removed from Frazier being a similarly-hyped rookie and inspiring hope of a late-round steal.
Along with cornerback Anthony Brown, Frazier was praised by Stephen Jones as being a player that the team had a fourth-round grade on in 2016. We saw what happened with Brown; injuries thrust him into significant playing time right away and Brown performed about as well as the veterans he was replacing. Frazier didn't those same opportunities with a loaded depth chart at safety.
If Frazier has the same talent and upside as Brown, and now a year of experience, he should be a real factor at the safety position. Dallas signed veteran Robert Blanton for insurance, but he could be the odd man out if Frazier and Woods both live up to their early expectations.
Sean’s Scout: Resilient Prescott Inches Cowboys Closer to NFC East Title
If an overtime win over the defending Super Bowl champions that ends their dreams of repeating while increasing your own playoff odds can be both ugly and beautiful, then the Dallas Cowboys 29-23 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles was certainly that - and a whole lot more.
Extending their winning streak to five didn't come without the Cowboys toying with a total collapse, as Quarterback Dak Prescott turned the ball over three times. Fresh off a win against the New Orleans Saints where the Cowboys managed just 13 points, the Eagles pushed this defense to the edge thanks to continued struggles on offense.
In overtime, Prescott made sure Carson Wentz and the Eagles would never see the ball, putting four indescribable quarters behind him to lead a game-winning touchdown drive. The Cowboys are a win away from claiming the NFC East. The full scope of how this season has turned on its head goes well beyond this most recent Cowboys win, at least back to their first win at the Eagles five weeks ago.
For now, my first attempt at sorting out what we saw at AT&T Stadium on Sunday will have to do, with another post game edition of Sean's Scout.
- With both Tight Ends Blake Jarwin and Dalton Schultz setting new career highs in receptions, I was waiting for the Cowboys patience on offense to pay off with a big play on the outside, finally provided twice by Wide Receiver Amari Cooper.
In the Cowboys previous win over the Eagles, their receivers had their way with a depleted Philadelphia secondary. Dealing with injuries at cornerback mid-game that are still effecting this group, the Eagles were in no position to line up against Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and Cole Beasley.
The counter for the Cowboys offense this week was to use heavier formations, pound Ezekiel Elliott, and get their tight ends involved more than they've been all season. Perhaps the only normal thing to come out of this game was Elliott's 40 touches.
Despite it being a career high, there's no reason Elliott shouldn't be this involved in the Cowboys offense. The Cowboys patience with Elliott was eventually rewarded when Cooper scored from 28 yards out to break a 6-6 tie, and again from 75 yards to put Dallas ahead 23-16 in the fourth quarter.
If not for a few missed shots to Michael Gallup and a missed Brett Maher field goal, the Cowboys efforts on offense could have kept this game out of overtime, though their execution on the winning drive is hard to dispute.
- The Cowboys are last in the league at scoring touchdowns in the red zone over their last three wins, something that has to change quickly in preparation for the playoffs.
The Cowboys were 3 of 5 in the red zone in the win that started this streak in Philly, and 2 of 3 the following week at the Falcons. Their decline on offense has been a recent trend that must come back up over the last three weeks of the regular season.
Only six of Elliott's 40 touches came in the red zone, which feels inexcusable from Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan, considering also it was an adjusted play call by Cooper and Prescott that created their long touchdown to force overtime.
Perhaps the trust the Cowboys showed in Schultz and Jarwin will lead to more red zone opportunities for tight ends, of which the Cowboys have no true middle-of-field threat.
- There is no reason for Prescott to be falling away on his first interception in the end zone, targeting an open Cooper to the back corner.
Prescott never saw Rasul Douglas break off his man and end up under a throw to Cooper that was placed in a horrible spot. Cooper was open, but thrown into coverage on a ball he never really came close to.
After another look at the play, it's even more disturbing to see Prescott's mechanics. Sliding in a clean pocket, Prescott was falling away slightly when he released the ball. The Cowboys defense would bail out Prescott after probably his most egregious turnover, forcing a three and out.
This was not the case after Prescott's second interception that turned into the Eagles first touchdown, or fumble that lead to a tying field goal.
- For as good a pass rushing duo as DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory are, Defensive Tackles Maliek Collins and Tyrone Crawford don't get enough credit for their all-around game.
Before kickoff, I wrote about the Cowboys not needing David Irving, who missed his sixth straight game. This is a compliment to not only Collins and Crawford, but Antwaun Woods as well. All three played their part in keeping the Eagles offense in check once again.
Crawford may be playing the best football of his seven-year career. No longer struggling to fit in as either a defensive end or tackle, Crawford is simply a leader by example for the Cowboys defense wherever he lines up.
Carson Wentz is a quarterback you have to make reset his feet defensively, and Crawford was able to force this a number of times. His speed rush ability paired with the power of Collins and Woods on the inside is incredibly disruptive for Dallas.
Following Maher's missed field goal, Crawford turned in one of the hustle plays of the season for the Cowboys to strip Wentz. Beating the left guard off the snap, Crawford dipped Jason Peters at left tackle on his way to a forced fumble that produced another field goal before the half.
This game was that close to having a first half all about the Cowboys taking advantage of Eagles mistakes, instead leaving points on the field and letting the Eagles punish second half mistakes on the way to overtime.
✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭
With a win at the Colts, vs. the Buccaneers, or at the Giants the Cowboys will have gone from 3-5 to NFC East champions for 2018. The merits of just how good this division is will be worth discussing prior to the playoffs, but with two wins over the Eagles and one over the Redskins within an ongoing five game win streak, the Cowboys are objectively one of the hottest teams in the league right now.
Amari Cooper has probably made six or seven plays "better" than his miraculous overtime touchdown, proving his worth more and more each week, though his winning score will surely be a lasting moment from the Cowboys week 14 win.
#DALvsPHI: Evaluating Jason Garrett’s 4th Down OT Decision
It's no secret that Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett is the victim of much criticism among Cowboys Nation. Often called too conservative, or called out for "coaching scared," Garrett has gotten killed by the media throughout much of the 2018 season.
You could easily argue that Garrett cost the Cowboys the game against the Houston Texans, and even the first match up with Washington, but how this team has rallied over the last 5 weeks is a direct reflection of their head coach's character.
Last Sunday the Cowboys faced another one of those late game, fourth down decisions. It was fourth and 1 in overtime with just about 4 minutes left to play in the extra period. Dallas had driven the ball down the field for a potential field goal, but you know the fans wanted more.
The overtime rules state that if Dallas, who possessed the ball first, were to make a field goal, the Eagles would get the ball and a chance to score. This made the decision all-the-more interesting for Jason Garrett, who decided to pound the ball with Ezekiel Elliott for a first down. Elliott made a great individual effort on the play to dive forward for the conversion without much push from the offensive line.
Just a few plays later Dak Prescott would find Amari Cooper for the game winning touchdown, further vindicating Jason Garrett for his "gutsy" fourth down call.
Back when Garrett decided to punt in overtime against Houston, we all killed him, and I did so with my win probability numbers. But, with the decision going the other way against Philadelphia, let's examine what that same probability model says, and give Garrett credit where it is due.
Before any decision was made, with the Cowboys facing fourth and 1, the model had Dallas at a 72% chance of winning the game. Had they kicked the field goal, and made it, their win probability would have moved to just 73% (with decimal rounding). Basically, the kick, although it would put Dallas up 3 points, would have no change on their win probability.
If they had missed the fourth down conversion, their probability would have dropped down to 53%. Clearly this is a steep drop of nearly 20 percentage points, but they still wouldn't be in terrible position to win or tie the game. But, since they went for it and converted, their win probability jumped to 77%.
ESPN's win probability model was much more bullish on the Cowboys' chances, bringing their win probability to 95% after the fourth down conversion. Regardless of the model you use, converting that fourth down clearly made it very unlikely for Philadelphia to win the game.
So credit to Jason Garrett for making the call, and credit to Ezekiel Elliott for making good on the conversion.
Amari Cooper has Final Say on Trade Compensation in Cowboys Win
The big debate that occurred when the Dallas Cowboys made the move to acquire Amari Cooper from the Oakland Raiders, revolved around the trade compensation required for the Cowboys to complete the deal. Many thought that sending the Oakland Raiders a first round pick for Cooper to be too much, especially after it was rumored that the Philadelphia Eagles had offered a second round pick the week before. Well, after a huge game that saw Amari Cooper completely dominate the game, we can once and for all put this conversation to rest.
On the night, Amari Cooper caught 10 passes on 13 targets for 217 yards and three touchdowns including the game winner in overtime. He came up with huge catches for first downs and touchdowns throughout the game and continues to show an important ability to get open at will. Even on Dak Prescott's first interception, Cooper was open heading into the end zone, but Dak left the ball a bit short allowing Rasul Douglas to make the play and take points off the board.
The Dallas Cowboys offense was listless for most of the game until Dak Prescott and Cooper hooked up for their first touchdown of the game, a 28 yard score that brought life to the offense. Cooper was left alone in man coverage. Cooper wasn't in the best position to catch the ball when it was released, but he used his elite speed and ball tracking skills to get into a better position and make the catch for the first of three go-ahead touchdowns.
Dak and Amari had to continue to hook up throughout the second half and overtime in order for the Cowboys to pull out the win and take a commanding two-game lead in the division. Cooper followed up his first score with a 75-yard touchdown reception to again give the Dallas Cowboys a seven point lead. After the game, Cooper talked about the play with the media.
After the game Amari Cooper talked about his 75-yard touchdown and how he originally had a stop route but Dak Prescott gave him a hand signal to run a go instead.
Again, Cooper gets a one on one matchup. Cooper is able to get down the sideline in a hurry and again use his ball tracking skills to find the ball in the air and get into a great position to make the catch and then hurry away from the defensive backs.
From the get go, you could tell that Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper have had a nice chemistry this season and that 75-yard touchdown reception is just further evidence of their connection. Amari Cooper took full advantage of a depleted Eagles secondary on Sunday and made some nice moves after the catch.
Sometimes being lucky is just as important as being good. On third and eight in overtime, Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys were extremely lucky to come away with the victory on Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles. Cooper's concentration on the game-winning touchdown reception was really good, but this play could have gone a few terrible ways, but it didn't and the Cowboys came away with a victory that puts them in a commanding position in the NFC East.
Since he's come over from the Oakland Raiders, he's caught 40 passes on 50 targets for 641 yards and six touchdowns on the season. He's averaging 16 yards per reception and has caught 80% of his passes on the season. He also hasn't had a drop this season and is getting open with tremendously regularity.
Since the Cowboys acquired Amari Cooper, they are 5-1 and are a win away from clinching the NFC East with three games to go. The offense has looked much more explosive in the last five games and have moved the ball more consistently over the last six games. In pretty much every way that you can evaluate the move, Amari Cooper has been excellent for the Dallas Cowboys and for the price of a first round draft pick, he's far exceeded his price tag.
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