The NFL preseason is only a few weeks away and not too long after that, the 2018 season officially begins. For the Cowboys, it's a year of progressions, extensions and questions.
Progressions for the year-two and three players like Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Jaylon Smith, Maliek Collins, Taco Charlton, Chidobe Awuzie, Xavier Woods, Jourdan Lewis and others. These are all cornerstone players who need to have a big impact this season. These players all had an impact on the 22-10 overall record the last two seasons and will have to be even better to take that next step.
Extensions for players of the present and future. Guard Zack Martin already received his extension and is now the highest paid player in the league at his position. For players like DeMarcus Lawrence, Byron Jones, Dak Prescott, Jaylon Smith, David Irving and others who hope to be in Dallas next season and in the foreseeable future, 2018 is the season to ball out.
Finally, questions. There are always more questions than answers at first, and the Cowboys have many at different spots.
- Will the health of Tyron Smith or Sean Lee be a big issue again?
- Who will play tight end?
- Who is the number one receiver?
- Can this defense play even better in 2018 and become elite?
One way or another, these will all be answered eventually.
As for the teams the Cowboys will play, Dallas has the 15th toughest schedule in 2018, according to CBSSports.com. A mixed bag of elite teams, teams on the rise and fall, and teams with more questions than Dallas currently has.
Most experts have the Cowboys winning anywhere from 8 to 11 games this year, and with the teams they'll face and the squad they have, it's all very possible. Talent won't be a problem.
It's not too hard to see this team being more like the 13-3 team from 2016, rather than the 9-7 team last season. If the team can stay healthy, adapt well to any injuries, and answer their questions as soon as possible, 2018 can be special. From 1 to 53, the Cowboys have as much talent as any team in the league, but they'll need to prove it against 13 teams in 16 games.
Week 1: @ Carolina Panthers
First thing you’ll notice is, “wait... it’s NOT the Giants?”
It's become something of a tradition to open the season on NBC's Sunday Night Football in Dallas against the Giants. But like Prince Akeem of Zamunda said, “it is also tradition that times must, and always do, change, my friend.”
Carolina is coming off of a playoff year, and starting against Dallas is Cam Newton, the x-factor.
Cam Newton’s career pattern has been, he’ll be good one year and fall off the next season. If that pattern continues, it means that Carolina could be in trouble.
Dallas 31 - Carolina 27 (1-0, 0-0)
Week 2: New York Giants
The last two home games against the Giants, the Cowboys have scored 19 points. Despite a much more evenly matched offensive game than we’ve seen in the past, this may actually be a defensive game.
This game will be billed as “Zeke vs. Saquon,” and for good reason.
We’re seeing the future of NFL running backs in this game, but it’s still September and Dallas is 9-4 in their last 13 games in September. They’ll continue that dominance.
Dallas 24 - New York 14 (2-0, 1-0)
Week 3: @ Seattle Seahawks
Dallas and Seattle always seem to play each other down to the final possession.
The Cowboys tried to obtain Earl Thomas in a trade with Seattle ever since Thomas made it clear he’d like to be in Dallas.
Despite the Legion of Boom starting to deteriorate with Richard Sherman now in San Francisco, and the uncertainty around Thomas’ future in Seattle, the Seahawks still posses one of the league's best defenses and an elite quarterback in Russell Wilson.
Plus, the game is in Seattle. Good luck with that.
Dallas 20 - Seattle 23 (2-1, 1-0)
Week 4: Detroit Lions
The battle of the silver and blue. Dallas has fared well against Detroit since Calvin Johnson retired, winning the last two matchups.
Detroit arguably features the best secondary in the league and also have a new, solid offensive line. However, with Detroit’s front seven not looking like a match for Dallas’ offensive line and fierce rushing attack, it doesn’t look like passing the ball will be how Dallas wins.
Dallas 35 - Detroit 24 (3-1, 1-0)
Week 5: @ Houston Texans
Watson vs Prescott. I can already see the promotional materials for this game, with both #4 young star quarterbacks, billed as the “Battle 4 Texas.”
Ironically, people may want this to be a rivalry, but all these teams share is a state. There’s no rivalry-level passion in this game, but plenty of talent.
The contingent for Houston this season is the health of their quarterback and the improvement of their offensive line. I like the Cowboys' chances, but I think Houston takes this one close.
Dallas 27 - Houston 30 (3-2, 1-0)
Week 6: Jacksonville Jaguars
Undoubtedly, Jacksonville was the surprise team in 2017. They posted one of the league's best defenses, and an exciting new running back in Leonard Fournette.
They have only one X-factor on their team who can cause a deterrent for their season: quarterback Blake Bortles.
An up and down career can not only cause concern but call into question their value. Despite his contract extension in the offseason, I think his inconsistency and loss of his Allen receivers (one of which is now a Cowboy) will hurt Jacksonville and possibly a backslide from 2017.
Dallas 28 - Jacksonville 20 (4-2, 1-0)
Week 7: @ Washington Redskins
The Washington Redskins have arguably the worst roster in the NFC East. It doesn’t matter who’s quarterback, even though Alex Smith looks to be a better option in their system.
The Redskins didn't do enough to help the team prepare for success.
The Redskins are in win-now mode with Alex Smith at quarterback, but don’t have the team in place to compete within their own division.
At least, not in 2018.
Dallas 35 - Washington 17 (5-2, 2-0)
Week 8: Bye Week
Despite there not being a game for week 8, it’s always important to acknowledge the bye week - a time to get players rested and healthy.
With Dallas having yearly injury concerns to some of their key players, like Sean Lee and Tyron Smith, the bye helps immensely.
More importantly, it’s a mid-season bye.
Teams who have an earlier bye, they’ll get healthy too soon and flatten later on. Teams with a late-season bye just keep taking punches for weeks at a time, gasping for air.
Luckily, Dallas has one right in the very center.
Week 9: Tennessee Titans
The Titans barely squeaked into the playoffs last season, and pulled off a terrific comeback in the wild card round. Marcus Mariota looks like a franchise-level quarterback, and Derrick Henry is a beast of a running back. The titans have nowhere to go but up, but Dallas is winning this game.
As I previously stated about Jacksonville, there are teams that take a step back after having success and making it to the playoffs. I think the Titans are another one of those teams.
The Titans' offensive line and running game is impressive, but their passing game is almost nonexistent. The cowboys are very good against the run and are as deep along the defensive line as they have been in years.
If the Titans can’t throw the ball on Dallas, I don’t see a way that Tennessee leaves this game with a victory.
Dallas 27 - Tennessee 17 (6-2, 2-0)
Week 10: @ Philadelphia Eagles
I believe the Cowboys and Eagles will split their season series, and that these victories will come on the road. For whatever reason, the Cowboys and Eagles always seem to do better when they’re not home.
Carson Wentz versus Dak Prescott is going to be one of the key quarterback matchups for the next decade, and it looks like the Eagles and Cowboys are going to be perennial NFC contenders for the foreseeable future.
In their first contest, Wentz will get the better of an improved Cowboys defense, and be an MVP candidate. This will be one of the games the MVP voters will look at. Close game, Cowboys pull it off.
Dallas 27 - Philadelphia 20 (7-2, 3-0)
Week 11: @ Atlanta Falcons
It’s amazing that three players can have as big an effect as they did, but not having Sean Lee, Tyron Smith and Ezekiel Elliott had a disastrous effect last season against Atlanta. One of the worst games the Cowboys played in 2017 and none of it looked good.
This season, I expect a better game out of the Cowboys.
Barring injury, the Cowboys look like a more evenly matched team with the Falcons.
Atlanta's new receiver toy, Calvin Ridley, looks like an unfair, very talented companion of Julio Jones and, despite an improved Dallas secondary, Matt Ryan will still be Matt Ryan. For now, Falcons win in a much closer game than last season.
Dallas 21 - Atlanta 27 (7-3, 3-0)
Week 12: Washington Redskins
The result will only differ in score. Washington is betting the farm on Alex Smith but doesn’t have the team to back him up. Aside from the team's offensive line, Washington doesn’t offer much to worry about.
Their defense is full of talent, but too much potential. If the Cowboys can block Ryan Kerrigan, and get past Josh Norman, the offense will be fine.
Aside from Jordan Reed, whose health is suspect, the team doesn’t have any weapons worth worrying about. Dallas sweeps the series.
Dallas 31 - Washington 21 (8-3, 4-0)
Week 13: New Orleans Saints
The Saints are like cousins to the Cowboys.
The fans all share a space and there’s always trash talk.
It’s all in love, until they play each other.
Native Texan Drew Brees has made a career of making defenses look bad, no matter who. After a heart-breaking end to the season against Minnesota, the already stacked Saints look even better.
Both the Cowboys and the Saints will be contenders, and feature some of the most complete teams in the league, but New Orleans will show why they're elite.
Dallas 31 - New Orleans 35 (8-4, 4-0)
Week 14: Philadelphia Eagles
As I said before, this series will split and each team wins on the road. After going 2-2 in the previous four games, the race for the NFC East will come down to this game.
Wentz and Prescott again have a battle, but what will affect the outcome the most will be the defense of Philadelphia.
While in their first meeting Dallas will have the upper hand offensively, the Eagles will have since adapted and dominate that side of the ball while Carson Wentz pushes for MVP.
Dallas 24 - Philadelphia 28 (8-5, 4-1)
Week 15: @ Indianapolis Colts
With Andrew Luck back, the Colts are a better team, especially with their revamped and much improved offensive line. However, no team on the Cowboys' schedule has more questions and more holes than the Colts.
Despite having Andrew Luck back, they have holes on offense at receiver and running back and all across the defense.
Indianapolis will be a better team this year, just not against the Cowboys.
Cowboys 38 - Colts 24 (9-5, 4-1)
Week 16: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
With the concerns around Jameis Winston, the confidence should be all on the Cowboys.
This will be a late season push for the playoffs and Tampa Bay may be all but eliminated from contention at this point in the season.
Aside from receivers and tight ends, there's really no position group that Tampa Bay holds a bigger edge on.
The Buccaneers may have improved in a lot of areas but probably not enough to take that next step. Cowboys clinch a playoff spot with the win.
Dallas 33 - Tampa Bay 17 (10-5, 4-1)
Week 17: @ New York Giants
The Giants at this point will be much better off than they were a season ago. They may be in contention for a final playoff spot, and Dallas could be playing for the divisional crown.
Giants and Cowboys games are usually well played and fought to the last snap and I don't think this game will be any different.
Whoever is the healthiest at this point in the season will win, and in that case, the Cowboys have the advantage. Even if they aren't as healthy as New York, they have better depth to acclimate to any injuries the season may throw at them.
Dallas 27 - New York 24 (11-5, 5-1)
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?
~ ~ ~
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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