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.
✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭
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.
Cowboys Wishlist: Dress Rehearsal Edition
In the NFL, the third preseason week is often referred to as the "Dress Rehearsal." It's usually the week in which starters get the most playing time. That has changed lately, with plenty of teams deciding to take care of their key players instead of risking them on the field. However, the Dallas Cowboys have played their starters on their first two games and there's no reason to believe that will change versus the Texans today.
Here is my wishlist for the Cowboys vs Texans "Dress Rehearsal!" Let me know what your wishes for tonight's game are in the comments section below or tweet me @MauNFL!
Wish #1: Justin Phillips Locks Up a Roster Spot
Phillips has been one of the most surprising players this offseason and preseason. The Cowboys are set at linebacker, but Phillips has made sure to be a tough guy to cut. Last week, he had a remarkable interception against the Rams. Despite making a first step toward the line, he managed to adjust and made the play. He has followed it up with more plays in practice.
If he keeps it up, the Cowboys won't be able to cut him. He has the potential to be a force on special teams and a quality backup.
Wish #2: Devin Smith Makes Things Interesting
The battle for the final wide receiver spots is at full-go. Devin Smith has shined lately, and has risen as a serious candidate to make the roster. However, it seems like other wide receivers have the upper-hand as of now. Earlier this week, I made my Cowboys WR Power Rankings and had Devin Smith at #7.
His TD catch versus the Rams last week was pretty impressive, and I wish he makes a few more plays to make the debate all the more interesting.
Wish #3: Tony Pollard Does It Again
Fifth-round rookie Tony Pollard
stole was the show last weekend as he racked up 51 total yards (five carries, one catch) and a touchdown on Dallas' first offensive drive. He looked impressive as the starting running back, giving us just what we wanted to see.
While many have advertised him as a gadget player, Pollard proved he can actually be a "standard" RB. He ran between the tackles, showed power, balance and great vision. I'm ready to watch it again, this time versus the Texans.
Wish #4: Taco Charlton Shines Rushing The Passer
Taco Charlton has made a couple of plays in preseason on his third year with the Dallas Cowboys. Against the Rams, he batted down two passes and looked good separating from opposing offensive linemen. Charlton has gotten praise from some analysts during these first two preseason weeks.
But I want to watch some quality pass rush from his part. Right now, the Cowboys' roster counts with some promising players, including rookies Jalen Jelks and Joe Jackson. While they're currently below Taco, he must prove he belongs on the roster.
Cowboys’ Tight End Marcus Lucas with Huge Opportunity vs the Houston Texans
With only two preseason games remaining, opportunities to make a statement are growing thin. The Dallas Cowboys have very few spots on the roster available, especially at the tight end position where Jason Witten, Blake Jarwin, and Dalton Schultz appear to have the depth chart locked down. The problem is, Jarwin and Schultz have been dealing with injuries and missed the second preseason game against the Los Angeles Rams and probably won't play against the Houston Texans tonight.
Enter Marcus Lucas.
Marcus Lucas hasn't been a member of the Dallas Cowboys for very long, but he's already made an impact.
In his first preseason game with the Dallas Cowboys, Lucas caught four passes on four targets for 20 yards. His receptions went for two, seven, five, and six yards for an average of five yards per reception. He did have a holding penalty that cost the Dallas Cowboys 10 yards on a first down play that didn't go anywhere anyway.
Though Lucas has bounced around NFL practice squads, he's never really found a home. After going undrafted in 2014, Lucas was signed by the Carolina Panthers in May of that year but wasn't able to stick on the 53-man roster and was released and placed on the practice squad. In 2015, he was on the Miami Dolphins and Chicago Bears practice squads. In 2016, the Panthers brought him back in the summer after the Bears released him from their 90-man roster. That September after cut-down day, the Seattle Seahawks signed Lucas to their practice squad where he spent all of 2016. From 2017 to the end of 2018, Lucas spent time with the Indianapolis Colts, Oakland Raiders, Detroit Lions, the Seattle Seahawks again, and the San Francisco 49ers. He was with the 49ers in 2019 before joining the Dallas Cowboys about two weeks ago and will get an extended run in these final two preseason games.
At Thursday's practice, Lucas was the only tight end available with Jason Witten getting a rest day and Jarwin, Schultz, and fellow Tight End Cody McElroy dealing with injuries.
With Jason Witten getting a day of rest, Blake Jarwin, Dalton Schultz and Codey McElroy injured, the Cowboys have one tight end practicing today: Marcus Lucas, who has been with the team for about two weeks.
It's possible that Lucas may get an extended amount of playing time tonight with an opportunity to show the Dallas Cowboys and the rest of the NFL that he's ready to land on a 53-man roster. With likely only Jason Witten being the only other tight end active for the game against the Houston Texans, Lucas will get a lot of playing time. If his last preseason exposure is any indication, he'll get the chance to display his receiving prowess.
At 27, Lucas likely has few opportunities left to make his mark for an NFL franchise. On a team that proclaims the "next man up" as a battle cry, after Witten, Lucas is the next man up for tonight and depending on his performance could make the Dallas Cowboys front office or another front office around the league take notice.
Depending on the long-term health of the Dallas Cowboys' tight end position, Lucas may find his path to a roster spot simply dependent upon the health of Blake Jarwin and Dalton Schultz. Though a job may not come with the Dallas Cowboys, tonight is an extremely important audition for his next suitor. How he performs tonight could land Marcus Lucas a job after the Dallas Cowboys trim the roster to 53 next week.
They say "preseason games don't matter," but to Marcus Lucas, this might be the most important game of his career.
Don’t Forget Special Teams Value in Cowboys Roster Decisions
Building a 53-man roster in the NFL is a complex formula, requiring balance between numerous positions on each side of the ball. But what often gets overlooked in our analysis as outsiders is special teams, and that's a huge factor for many of the Dallas Cowboys players hoping to make it past final cuts.
Some players have survived in the league by being just good enough at their listed positions but excelling in special teams roles. You may think of former Dallas safety Bill Bates, who was personally responsible for a special teams player being made part of the annual Pro Bowl roster. A more recent example would be Keith Davis, who was an adequate safety but a special teams ace for several seasons.
To be sure, someone is going to be on this 2019 Cowboys more for their special teams value than their actual offensive or defensive ability. Who might he, or they, be?
One candidate is veteran Cornerback C.J. Goodwin. He is considered an exceptional talent in coverage on punts, which is probably the only reason he's still in the NFL today. At age 29, Goodwin has never really emerged as a consistent contributor on defense.
Young players like Donovan Olumba or rookie Michael Jackson, if not already superior cornerbacks to Goodwin, have far more upside to keep on the roster. But
considering how little they may get on the field anyway as the fifth or sixth corners, you can see why special teams value becomes so important. It may be the only time you actually see them in the game.
If the Cowboys don't want to lose a young prospect but can't let go of Goodwin's special teams ability, it may prompt them to go long at the CB position. But that means taking a roster spot from some other position, and thus the balancing act continues.
Another player to watch in this discussion is second-year an Running Back Jordan Chunn. He doesn't have Alfred Morris' experience or maybe Mike Weber or Darius Jackson's rushing talent, but he has been showing up on the special teams units.
Yesterday, Cowboys insider Bryan Broaddus called Chunn "a better Rod Smith" in analyzing his chances of making the roster. If you don't recall, Jaylon's older brother was a solid RB but a standout special teams player in his few years with Dallas.
As we just mentioned with the 5th/6th CB slots, the third running back is not a guy you expect to see much on offense. That will be especially true this year as Dallas will be struggling just to give rookie Tony Pollard the touches he deserves as the number-two RB.
Given that, special teams play becomes vital for the value of whoever is behind Zeke and Pollard on the depth chart. If Jordan Chunn is superior to his competition in that regard, it could negate whatever he lacks as an actual running back.
This same conversation can be had throughout the roster. It's why Noah Brown might make the team over more traditionally gifted receivers, or why a certain linebacker or safety might be more valued than others.
We make the common mistake of referring to "both sides of the ball" when we talk about football teams. There are three sides; special teams can't be underestimated. It will certainly play a part in how the Dallas Cowboys finalize their 53-man roster this season and in years to come.
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