With each offseason milestone, more and more information comes out that gives us a hint of the product the Dallas Cowboys are going to put on the field in 2019. Though they’re only practicing in shorts and helmets during the offseason training activities, certain things can be gleaned from those practices.
Most practices were closed to the media and the practices that were open to the media only offer a glimmer of what we’ll see come September, but let’s attempt to unwrap some of what happened over the last couple of weeks.
Dak Prescott’s Deep Ball is Progressing
Much has been made, and possibly exaggerated, of Dak’s ability to throw deep in the passing game from 2018.
In 2018, Prescott ranked 16th in attempts that traveled 20 yards or more down the field. He was 19th in completions and 18th in adjusted completion percentage among players with at least 46 attempts., per Pro Football Focus. Though Dak was middle of the pack in those stats, he was fourth in passer rating on throws greater than 20 yards.
It’s an area that definitely required some improvement, but not nearly as bad as some would make it out to be.
One of the constant themes from these practices were the reports of Dak Prescott’s deep passing ability. On Wednesday in particular, it sounded like every throw he completed was going deep down the field. Now, that’s not the case, but from the reports, it sounds like he’s gotten more accurate and more confident with his deep ball.
Dak Prescott doesn’t have to become Patrick Mahomes when throwing deep, but improvement should always be the goal. Even if he’s only marginally better throwing deep in 2019, it’s going to make the offense a lot better as teams can’t sit on the underneath stuff or stack the box against Ezekiel Elliott.
Waves and Waves of Rushmen
With DeMarcus Lawrence (rehabbing his shoulder surgery), Taco Charlton (rehabbing his shoulder and foot injuries), and Randy Gregory (suspension) out of team drills, there have been more snaps for players like Kerry Hyder and Dorance Armstrong behind Robert Quinn and Tyrone Crawford.
The Cowboys could easily take six or seven defensive ends on the 53-man roster, and I predicted as such in my recent 53-man roster projection. From the observations made by media that was present, Quinn, Hyder, and Armstrong all made positive impressions during these practices.
For Armstrong, getting more snaps with those guys out could be huge for his second-year development in the NFL as he gets to go against better competition that he might otherwise with top of the depth chart options available. He played well during training camp and the preseason, but was limited in his snaps during the regular season and played fairly well considering he wasn’t getting regular snaps.
Armstrong is a guy who can play both defensive end spots and could be vying for time at left defensive end if DeMarcus Lawrence isn’t available week one of the regular season.
This defensive line is going to be really fun to watch the rest of the offseason as they have so many options on how to mix and match the personnel to get the best out of their defensive line. With a handful of guys on the roster with at least five sacks in a season, it’s going to be fun seeing them keep consistent pressure on quarterbacks in 2019.
Jason Witten’s Still Going to Play A Lot
The thought from the team and from the coaches upon Jason Witten’s return is that he’s coming back in a more limited role than he’s played in the past, which would allow Blake Jarwin and Dalton Schultz to see more snaps at tight end in single tight end personnel groupings. After a couple of weeks of practice, it appears that Jason Witten is going to be on the field a lot more than has been reported.
Per Jon Machota of the Dallas Morning News, Witten took every snap with the first-team offense on Wednesday.
Jason Witten had the last two Wednesdays off. He practiced today for the first time in front of reporters. He took every snap today with the first team
I’ve been an advocate for Blake Jarwin getting more snaps and on days when Witten hasn’t practiced, he’s gotten most of the run with the first-team, but that change quite dramatically with Witten present for the media portion of practice this week.
Witten is still a threat in the passing game, even if he’s not a downfield threat. He’s always been able to win with his intelligence and route running and those are skills that don’t really fade, even if things like athleticism and speed do. Witten gives Dak Prescott another security blanket along with Amari Cooper, Randall Cobb, and Ezekiel Elliott that can help him pick up first downs and be a threat in the red zone.
While I’d like to see Blake Jarwin play, Witten can still contribute.
Ezekiel Elliott’s Still Going to Touch the Ball A Lot
This offseason, the Dallas Cowboys invested two draft picks at the running back position in selecting Tony Pollard in the fourth round and Mike Weber in the seventh. The idea is to take a bit of the workload off of starter Ezekiel Elliott’s shoulders.
Elliott’s touched the ball more than 350 times in two of his three seasons and was on pace to do so in 2017 when he sat six games due to suspension. At his touch pace in 2017 prorated over 16 games, he would have seen 428 touches that year.
Amazingly, he’s been one of the more durable players in the NFL despite such a heavy workload. While other running backs of his caliber have dealt with nagging or serious injuries, Elliott’s been a consistently healthy player.
When Offensive Coordinator Kellen Moore spoke to the media, he was asked about reducing Elliott’s touches and he said this:
“We want to get him as many carries, touches as we can. At the same time, you gotta recognize what a 16 plus game season is… At the end of the day, we want the ball in Zeke’s hand. We want it in his hand whether we get it in the backfield a little bit more… If we can get it to Zeke, we’re going to get it to Zeke.”
Kellen Moore – via DallasCowboys.com
If that doesn’t sound like a plan to give Ezekiel Elliott at least another 350 touches in 2019, I don’t know what does. Elliott’s the best running back in the NFL and so, they’re going to give him the ball. Though they threw to him a lot in 2018, they need to increase his depth of target moving forward. He’s a good enough receiver to throw to down the field that you don’t need to only throw to him in dump off situations.
Most Talented Team of Jason Garrett Era
When I was putting together my 53-man roster projection earlier this week I seriously struggled with what to do on the offensive line, the wide receiver position, and the defensive line. Those position groups are insanely deep.
At wide receiver, you have three guys in Amari Cooper, Randall Cobb, and Allen Hurns who have produced a 1,000 yard season. Toss in Michael Gallup and Tavon Austin and you’ve got a pretty awesome group of receivers before you even begin talking about Noah Brown, Cedric Wilson, Lance Lenoir, Jon’vea Johnson, and Jaylon Guyton.
The offensive line and defensive lines could literally field two groups of starters. On the offensive line, you have nine guys that could start games for you in the NFL and feel at least okay about it.
The Cowboys may have the best linebacker group in the NFL among 4-3 teams. Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch, Sean Lee, and Joe Thomas could all start somewhere in the NFL. Because of the amount of talent they have, they’re adjusting the way they deploy their strongside linebacker to make him more of an off-ball player, which is a change from how they used Damien Wilson when they were in their base 4-3 defense.
Throw in Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott as well as the solid and ascending play in the defensive backfield, you’ve got a team that looks like one of the best in the NFL.
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The Dallas Cowboys will hold their mandatory minicamp June 11th-13th and that will be our next opportunity to learn a little something about this team moving forward. Then it will be a long break until the start of training camp July 27th.