When you think about training camp battles, which ones are your favorites?
It's going to be a ton of fun to watch Sean Lee chase down Ezekiel Elliott all over the field in Oxnard next week. Lee's ability to navigate coverage combined with Zeke's innate feel for the play will set up a beautiful chess match between the pro bowl linebacker and rookie prodigy.
The usual offensive and defensive line match-ups will certainly have their share of moments, and may even help people reminisce about Tyron Smith's early days against DeMarcus Ware.
All of these battles are well and good, and will certainly make headlines throughout August, but I had another thought, and perhaps, one a little more fun.
A football team is a brotherhood
Just ask Denzel Washington (Remember The Titans, anyone?). When you walk out onto the field, if you have the same jersey on as another player, you protect each other, and do everything you can to beat the guy wearing a different color. But, in August, during training camp, long before those bonds are created, a few guys aren't quite in that mindset yet.
Just ask Tony Romo, Cole Beasley, Barry Church, Lance Dunbar, or Lucky Whitehead. Among other things, this small fraternity of players have something in common: all of their backs were up against a wall when they first walked out onto the field in California. But they scratched, and clawed, and made the team.
Having said that, them making the squad meant something else: another guy was sent home.
So I thought to myself, who could be those guys this year? More specifically, which battles on this team could result in only one of the two players making the squad? Which gauntlets will be so heated, that one guy can send another packing? Listed below are three match-ups that could end up being for the 53rd spot on the team.
J.J. Wilcox vs Geoff Swaim
It's no secret that several members of Cowboys Nation have been upset by the play of J.J. Wilcox since he was drafted in the third round of the 2013 NFL Draft. He was dethroned from his seat at free safety halfway through last season by a budding star in Byron Jones. Since then, many people feel that his better fit could be more of a box strong safety type player.
Having said that, there are some who feel that his spot on the team isn't so sure heading into camp this year. Because of his delegation to second team, we'll be seeing him have to guard Geoff Swaim, a second/third team tight end, a lot this August.
Swaim, if you'll recall, had an all-but-stellar preseason last year, making a name for himself as Jameill Showers' favorite target. However, this front office used their last pick in this year's draft on a talented project player in Rico Gathers, who will get snaps at tight end.
Swaim was initially brought in as a blocking tight end, but showed the ability to regularly haul in passes last preseason. He's going to need to show the ability to get open against man coverage and continue to be a reliable pass catcher. Wilcox hasn't shown the consistency that you look for out of a third round pick. He's going to need to carry Swaim on several different route combinations and work to make up for the four-inch height gap.
One of Wilcox's best attributes is his physicality and willingness to hit. While this might work against softer tight ends, it may have less impact against Swaim, who showed last season that he's not afraid to catch passes over the middle in the face of danger.
One of #87's better highlights was against San Francisco on a deep 25-yard seam pass. Right as he went for the catch, he got nailed in the back by the lurking safety. Still, the tight end out of Texas caught the ball, and gained the first down.
Swaim won't beat you with his athleticism, but neither will Jason Witten.
I honestly believe that both players will make this team, but I'm starting to think that Swaim may be more valuable, especially if Kavon Frazier, who the Cowboys had a fourth round grade on, can show cover abilities.
This team is one injury away from our 3rd string tight end getting starting time, because of the offensive formations we like to run. Therefore, if I had to choose one, I'm giving Swaim the edge here. It's not often you see a third round pick get cut before his rookie contract expires, but if he gets outplayed, it could happen.
Deji Olatoye vs Lucky Whitehead
Just a friendly reminder that Jeff Heath was the team leader in interceptions last season with a whopping two. He was followed closely by a few guys with one pick, but none of whom were an intended starting cornerback. I phrase it that way on purpose, because we did have one corner in particular to get his mitts on a pass: Deji Olatoye.
Remember Deji? The 25-year-old, 6'1" corner we signed in the middle of last season? Well, he's one of only two cornerbacks last season to tally an interception. The other, Terrance Mitchell, is no longer a Cowboy.
Well, going into his second season with the Cowboys, I wouldn't say Deji necessarily faces an uphill battle, and I'll tell you why. Our top 3 corners are set: Orlando Scandrick, Mo Claiborne, and Brandon Carr. After them, the depth chart is far from set. We generally go into the NFL season with 4-5 corners. That leaves two potential spots for Deji to make his mark.
In my opinion, his only real competition are Josh Thomas and 2016 sixth round pick Anthony Brown.
At this time last year, Lucky Whitehead had already started to become a fan favorite, due some in part to his dread-headed resemblance to the then-recently departed Dwayne Harris. Going into camp this year, the wide receiver depth chart, after the top three (arguably four), is far from set.
If the Cowboys opt to keep only five wide outs (and Brice Butler makes it), that only leaves one spot for Whitehead, Devin Street, and all other undrafted guys, including Andy Jones out of Jacksonville, who is making noise of his own.
So here we go.
Undrafted vs undrafted.
Wide receiver vs cornerback.
Good old fashion mano a mano.
Yes, Lucky lines up as a slot weapon, and Deji primarily sees action outside the numbers. But, to make the team, Lucky is going to have to prove himself as a full-time receiver, and not just a gadget player/kick returner. That begins on the practice field in the one-on-one match-ups against the defensive backs, including Olatoye.
Listed on the team's website at 5'9", 180 pounds, Lucky certainly has the disadvantage entering the battle, as Deji walks in at 6'1", 194 pounds. That's a 4 inch, 14 pound difference. The problem is, Deji represents the body type of what many team's currently employ in this league. Ever since Richard Sherman came onto the scene, teams love bigger corners. Because of this, Lucky's going to have to show early and often in camp that he's able to take on bigger defensive backs.
With the crowded queue ahead of Lucky, and his lacking physical stature (even with his added muscle), I'm just not sure he'll be able to consistently beat Olatoye on the field to prove he is a better option than other wide receivers on the team. Thus, I'm taking Deji in this bout.
Ryan Russell vs Charles Brown
When former second round pick Charles Brown was brought in by this front office last season, he was seen as nothing more than a simple plug-and-play offensive tackle in the event of an emergency. Now, heading into his first training camp in Oxnard, due to Chaz Green's stunted growth, Brown is considered to be right in the thick of things to make the squad as our swing tackle.
One has to wonder, though, if Chaz Green does step up his game, and we don't trade Ronald Leary, would this team really consider carrying nine offensive linemen (Tyron Smith, La'el Collins, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, Doug Free, Chaz Green, Charles Brown, Joe Looney, Ron Leary)?
Switching things over to the other side of ball, Ryan Russell certainly had a less than fantastic rookie year, as he didn't tally a single tackle or sack. However, if you'll recall, in Demarcus Lawrence's absence, he was receiving first team defensive end snaps in competition with David Irving during mini-camp.
Given the perceived lack of pass rush ability on this team, you have to think this front office would rather go deep at the defensive end position than offensive line. There's a reason why Charles Brown hasn't caught on to a team. His play is inconsistent, and he's never lived up to his second round status.
I've heard rumblings that Russell has made strides and I look for him to handle Charles Brown in their one-on-one match-ups. Thus, if the 53rd spot comes down to these two, I don't think the coaching staff would be too heartbroken to send Brown home.
That would still leave us with three solid backup offensive lineman, as long as we don't get rid of Ron Leary.
I'd love to hear your thoughts on these match-ups and who you think would take the final spot. Or, if you have another battle in mind, it would be great to hear that as well. Either way, I think we're all ready to finally see some hitting! Happy training camp season!
Takeaway Tuesday: Scott Linehan’s Job Shouldn’t Be Safe
The Dallas Cowboys didn't look like they did during their five game winning streak when they entered Lucas Oil Stadium to face a hot Indianapolis Colts team. In fact, they had one of their poorest showings of all season, failing to score a single point all game. Heading home after being shutout 23-0, there isn't much to be said about the Cowboys' performance.
Here's this week's Takeaway Tuesday. This time, instead of talking about many takeaways, I needed to get one big takeaway off my chest. I hope you enjoy. Make sure to let me know how you feel about this topic in the comments section below or tweet me @MauNFL.
Scott Linehan's Job Shouldn't Be Guaranteed Going into the Playoffs
As tough as it is to fire one of your three main coaches when your team is headed into the postseason, the Dallas Cowboys should not rule out moving on from Scott Linehan. One win away from clinching the NFC East, it's not something you easily pull off but Linehan's play calling has been terrible all year long.
The truth is, despite Dak Prescott's struggles and a disastrous offensive line, the offense shouldn't be as inefficient as it is.
Watching a unit that counts with Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and Ezekiel Elliott run a screen pass to Allen Hurns on fourth down and 14 was truly a microcosm of what this year has been for the offense.
Despite having a playoff berth practically clinched, the Cowboys should consider a change at offensive coordinator. Even if they don't fire Linehan, it's clear his play-calling is not good and could cost this team a real opportunity at a legit shot in the postseason. It would be an aggressive measure, without a doubt. The Minnesota Vikings did something similar by firing John DeFillippo a week ago. Based on their 41-17 win over the Miami Dolphins last Sunday, being aggressive sometimes pays.
The Cowboys have arguably the best running back in the NFL in Ezekiel Elliott and yet they continue to misuse him. Whether it's turning their backs on their star tailback or over-using him, this offense has a hard time reaching balance. Dak Prescott's strengths could be exploited even more, but this OC refuses to do so.
As hard as it is to make a drastic change in coaching two weeks before the regular season ends, it truly could end up being a great move by the front office. Sure, Amari Cooper has had monster games since joining the Cowboys, but he could be even more dangerous under another coach.
Cowboys versus Colts was a coaching battle between Scott Linehan and former Dallas Cowboys LB coach, Matt Eberflus. It was the matchup of the week, and one we expected to be fun. Instead, we saw one side completely dominate the other. In the NFL, coaching matters. Probably even more than talent on a roster.
The biggest problem would be, who'd take over play-calling?
Since there isn't a promising candidate within the team, the team's only option would probably be letting HC Jason Garrett take over. It may not be ideal, but it could end up being an improvement over Linehan. Of course, it could also let the front office see what Garrett has to offer as a play caller and consider that when deciding how this coaching staff will look like in 2019.
It's unlikely that we see such a thing occur for the Cowboys, but if the offense has another letdown game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, I don't see how the front office doesn't at least consider this. They should.
Ezekiel Elliott Productive in Cowboys Blowout Loss to Colts
It was as ugly of a performance as we’ve seen from the Dallas Cowboys in the Jason Garrett era. For the first time in a decade and a half, the Cowboys were shut out and it was a game full of bad pretty much everywhere you looked. Everywhere accept Ezekiel Elliott.
What a waste!
Elliott and the Cowboys offensive line played well for much of the game even with All-Pro Right Guard Zack Martin missing his first career start and losing starting Left Guard Xavier Su’a-Filo went out with an eye injury.
On the day, Ezekiel Elliott carries the ball 18 times for 87 yards and added another seven receptions for 41. 25 touches for 128 total yards is a good game, but with nothing else going right for the Cowboys it was a game that ultimately didn’t matter.
The one play where Elliott and the offensive line failed to come through was early in the game in a fourth and one that the Colts defense seemed to have snuffed out and blew up from the start. Elliott was able to convert a fourth and one later in the game. It looked like Elliott was close to breaking one for a long run several times but got tripped up at the end of the runs. He was his typical self this week. Taking runs that looked to be going for a loss and turning them into positive gains.
In the race for the NFL's rushing title, Elliott has extended his lead on Todd Gurley to nearly 100 yards rushing. At 1,349 rushing yards on the season, Elliott will have a great shot to set a career high in rushing yards with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New York Giants remaining on the schedule. The Bucs have allowed the sixth most rushing yards and the fourth most rushing touchdowns in the NFL this season while the Giants have allowed the fifth most rushing yards and the seventh most rushing touchdowns in 2018.
It was a horrendous loss at a time when the Cowboys could have locked up the NFC East and there is zero excuse for it. They got out coached, out played, and were beaten physically on both sides of the ball and that doesn't happen very often, especially to the defense.
But if we're looking for something positive to take away from this game, it's that with all the offensive line injuries and the poor play of the passing game, Ezekiel Elliott and the running game continues to find ways to shine. With as bad as the loss was, that's something to hang your hat on.
All the Cowboys need to do moving forward is Feed Zeke!
Sean’s Scout: Cowboys Can’t Finish Drives, Division Clinch with Shutout Loss at Colts
What is there to say about the Dallas Cowboys week 15 performance? After five straight wins, the last three coming at home, the Cowboys have only a return home to look forward to, facing the 5-9 Buccaneers on Sunday after a 23-0 defeat at the Colts.
Shutout for the first time since 2003, the Cowboys playoff hopes didn't take a hit despite the Redskins and Eagles winning on the road. Washington's last-second win went final just before the Colts ran the clock out on a game the Cowboys simply weren't ready for.
The Cowboys moved the ball well at times but failed to ever come away with points, opening the door for the Colts to expose this defense like it hasn't been all season. The Cowboys front four was hardly a factor on defense, allowing Colts Running Back Marlon Mack to average 5.1 yards a carry. Scoring the Colts only touchdowns, Mack and Andrew Luck assured the Cowboys running game wouldn't be a factor with their 10-0 halftime lead. Down to three backups at LG, C, and RG, Quarterback Dak Prescott stood little chance to bring the Cowboys back as the second half quickly got away from Dallas.
Internally, the Cowboys will have much more to say about their effort on Sunday, but here are just a few of my observations in the first somber edition of Sean's Scout since week nine.
- The Cowboys defensive problems up front extended well into the second level, with Linebackers Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith both playing one of their worst games of the season.
The Colts took a blocked Brett Maher field goal 44 yards for the game's opening score. Mack accounted for 34 of these yards and the touchdown. On his seven yard run to set up first and goal, Smith was caught taking a poor angle on Mack. The Cowboys were aggressive rushing up the field on the play, with Smith ending up being in the best position to slow Mack.
Vander Esch was sealed and couldn't fight to get off, which happened again three plays later on third and goal. Leighton looking like a rookie for the first time was just the start of the Cowboys problems, and with Sean Lee being active yet conceding starting snaps to him, it shouldn't take long for Vander Esch to figure things out again.
- Jamize Olawale's dropped touchdown on third and goal to bring up a failed fourth and one was the moment the Cowboys were taken out of this game.
This sequence was particularly deflating because the Cowboys did a great job getting down the field to have an opportunity to score. The fourth down decision to run out of a heavy formation, inviting extra defenders to the line of scrimmage, looks especially egregious when stacked against the Amari Cooper rush that picked up the Cowboys initial first down. Rookie Tight End Dalton Schultz got involved, Elliott ripped off a 24 yard run, and the Cowboys still came away empty on this drive.
A year removed from coaching the Cowboys linebackers, Colts Defensive Coordinator Matt Eberflus had his way with Scott Linehan's offense all afternoon, stymieing their most promising drive after Olawale should have scored easily.
- The Cowboys only chance to get back in the game was taken away from them by a Joe Looney holding call, just another example of players that had carried them through a winning streak not playing up to standard.
The Colts took the second half kickoff down the field to extend the lead to 17-0. On fourth and two on the ensuing possession, Prescott hit an injured Cole Beasley for 18 yards to the Colts' 23-yard line. The Cowboys red zone offense certainly doesn't provide the confidence that Dallas would finish the drive, but Looney's hold negated Beasley's catch and forced a punt.
The Colts tacked on a field goal and finished out the game without the Cowboys threatening again. Looney played down to the level of Adam Redmond to his left, who replaced Xavier Su'a-Filo, and Connor Williams in for Zack Martin - though I thought Williams held up fairly well and should be in play to earn more snaps wherever needed.
✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭
The Cowboys can regroup and still accomplish everything they set out for this season, forced to make this loss to the Colts and afterthought like their last one to the Titans became. A five game win streak as a response is out of reach, but a streak of just one is all Dallas needs to clinch the NFC East and focus on improvements for the playoffs.
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