For several Dallas Cowboys, 2018 will be the fourth and final year of their rookie contracts. Coincidentally, this could be a big season for the draft class of 2015 as the Cowboys roster has undergone some major changes.
No player will get a bigger opportunity than Tight End Geoff Swaim, who is getting the first chance at replacing Jason Witten with the starting offense. The former seventh-round pick only has nine career catches, but those were hard to come by with the Hall-of-Famer never leaving the field.
While he's getting veteran deference early in OTAs and minicamp, Swaim will have to earn the starting job before Week One. The athletic Rico Gathers and rookie Dalton Schultz will also be in the mix, and even a dark horse like Blake Jarwin could make noise. It's wide open at tight end right now.
But these early reps as the starter are valuable, giving Geoff even more edge than his three years of experience already did. Swaim has flashed some receiving ability in the past and is a proficient blocker, which is critical for the run-focused attack Dallas' offense uses. At this point it's his job to lose.
If a seventh-round pick can be a solid starter for you, that's a huge boon for the overall quality of your draft class. But Geoff Swaim isn't the only guy that could make a leap this year.
While he's already been a starting safety for two seasons, Byron Jones' move to cornerback might take his career to another level. That is because of the arrival of Kris Richard as the Defensive Backs Coach, who brings the winning strategy of using bigger athletes at corner from the Seattle Seahawks.
Dallas has already picked up the fifth-year option on Jones' rookie deal, meaning he's locked in through 2019. That decision, which will pay him over $9 million next season, speaks to the potential the Cowboys see in Byron at corner.
Jones played CB in college and for part of his rookie season. It's the position where he shined enough to become a first-round draft pick. While Dallas had sound reasoning for thinking he could be a dynamic safety, that experiment never worked out the way anyone hoped
Byron's return to cornerback coincides with the rise of the Cowboys' pass rush. If DeMarcus Lawrence keeps excelling and the defensive front continues improving in its pressure on quarterbacks, guys like Jones will get increased opportunities to make plays.
While Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis are the hot new names at CB, Jones has just as much talent and potential. He's still just 25 and will hopefully be in the best position to succeed that he's had so far in the NFL.
Unlike Byron Jones, who has had a major role almost immediately since entering the league, Defensive End Randy Gregory has been almost invisible since he was drafted. That is largely due to his time away from the game due to suspension.
But with Gregory's reinstatement to the league probably imminent, the athletic pass rusher could finally be a huge addition to the Cowboys defensive line.
Randy is the edge rusher the Cowboys have needed for some time, with the agility and speed to take on NFL left tackles on the weak side. With DeMarcus Lawrence now a bonafide threat on the other side, Gregory may not see hardly any double teams or help in his pursuit of opposing QBs.
Of course, Randy has to prove he can still play and the long absence didn't do permanent damage. But given all the work he's put in to get his life back in order, I'm not worried about Gregory putting in the effort to maximize his football potential.
Even though guys like Taco Charlton and Kony Ealy are around, they're all best suited for the same role that DeMarcus Lawrence plays. If he's still got the talent that made him one of the top prospects in the 2015 draft, Randy Gregory is the best right end Dallas has. He could wind up being their biggest addition of the offseason.
While he wasn't technically a draft pick, La'el Collins joined the Cowboys in 2015. After several years of shifting spots on the offensive line, he should be returning as the right tackle and that could be big for his development.
Collins was solid last year but moving to a new position, and some health issues, were evident in his play. 2018 gives him a chance to finally build on what he's learned rather than having to relearn technique.
Remember, La'el was a right tackle in college. He was considered a potential first-round talent in the 2015 class before an undetermined legal problem kept him from being drafted.
If this new stability and hopefully a return to good health help Collins to take it to the next level this year, the already-great Cowboys offensive line will be truly special. Doug Free was better than he got credit for, but La'el has the potential to be just as good as his Pro Bowl teammates.
If Collins delivers, this may truly be the best offensive line in Cowboys history.
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While those four players will get the best opportunities, even guys like Damien Wilson or Chaz Green from the 2015 class are still hanging around. Wilson is always just an injury away from major responsibility at linebacker, and Green was getting first-team reps when Zack Martin was still sitting out during contract negotiations.
Clearly, this is a big season for this 2015 rookie class. Some guys like Gregory and Swaim are fighting for their NFL futures, and others like Jones and Collins are looking to prove they deserve their big salaries.
If the the Cowboys are going to reach their championship goals this year, these young players have to deliver.
Cowboys Face Latest Challenge Fighting for First Road Win at Redskins
The Dallas Cowboys 40-7 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars feels like just the introduction to this season's story. Whether or not the body of this story tells a disappointing tale or one of triumph can be revealed as early as this Sunday.
When the Cowboys travel to Washington, they'll be looking for their first road win of the season, and with it the NFC East lead over a Redskins team that would fall to 3-3 and 0-1 inside the division.
Early season losses at the Panthers, Seahawks, and Texans do little in predicting the Cowboys faith at the Redskins. These three teams are a combined 6-2 at home this season, with the Cowboys most recent loss in Houston falling much more on coaching than it did on-field execution.
Making their week six win over the NFL's top defense look extraordinarily easy, the Cowboys continued on a seemingly timeless trend under Jason Garrett. Returning to AT&T Stadium at 2-3, the Cowboys won their 12th game at one under .500 under Garrett.
Their 378 total yards on offense against the Jaguars brought their average in three home games up to 363.3, nearly 88 yards better than their road performances this season. The Redskins have allowed 326.2 yards per game this season, ranked fifth in the league just behind the Cowboys at 315.2 yards a game.
Garrett has gone 11-4 in his head coaching career against the Redskins, winning his last five at FedEx Field by an average of less than 10 points a game. The Redskins have turned the ball over just five times this season and allow a stout 90.2 rushing yards per game, meaning this game has all the makings of another classic between historic NFC East rivals.
In an ongoing effort to learn just who these 2018 Cowboys really are, a close win on the road would go a long way, beyond the slack they were afforded earlier this season to tighten up their game and make a serious push for the division.
The Cowboys will be on their bye week following Sunday's game. It comes at the perfect time for players like Sean Lee, Chidobe Awuzie, and Tavon Austin. With Austin struggling to make a sustained impact in the Cowboys offense, Awuzie conceding snaps to Jourdan Lewis, and Lee looking on at Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch dominate at LB, these three Cowboys among plenty of others know how important this game is for remaining relevant down the stretch.
Shortening this rivalry's history to just the games quarterbacked by Dak Prescott, the Cowboys are 3-0 with Prescott completing 65.3% of his passes - easily his highest mark against any NFC East foe.
The Cowboys confidence in getting to 4-3 should rest in Prescott using both his arm and legs to give the Cowboys the lead, than force Alex Smith to beat this defense.
The Redskins aren't a team that will beat themselves, leaving this one for the taking of a Cowboys team buried after week five's loss and crowned NFC East leaders 'elect' by week seven. A funny game this NFL is, and one the Cowboys don't want to play around with too much when considering Sunday's opponent - as well as the task at hand of earning a win on the road the latest in a season since 2013 for Dallas.
Cowboys Defense Getting Players Back at the Right Time
The Dallas Cowboys have played really well on defense this season allowing the seventh fewest rushing yards per game, the third lowest yards per carry, and the eighth fewest passing yards per game this season. They've done it for most of the 2018 season without Defensive Tackles Maliek Collins and David Irving, and Linebacker Sean Lee, who's missed the last three games with a strained hamstring.
This week the Cowboys play the NFC East leading Washington Redskins, making this a very important matchup for the Cowboys playoff chances. The Dallas Cowboys are 2-2 in the NFC in 2018, so a win against the Washington Redskins on Sunday carries much more importance. If the Cowboys have hopes of making the playoffs, they're going to have to improve their record against the NFC and they can on Sunday with their defense getting back to (nearly) full health.
Still awaiting word on Chidobe Awuzie's availability for this week.
Antwaun Woods, Tyrone Crawford, and David Ross have held up really well on the Cowboys defensive interior without Irving and Collins, which makes their return even more important. Better depth along the defensive interior is only going to help those guys have more productive snaps. Both Collins and Irving are explosive penetrating defensive tackles that give interior offensive lineman fits with their combination of strength and quickness. They play the run and pass with equal effectiveness and make life a lot easier for the linebackers and the defensive ends.
In their first game back in week six, Irving and Collins combined for two quarterback pressures, a quarterback hit (Irving) and a sack (Collins). Irving also drew a holding call on a punt.
Getting them back takes so much pressure off the defensive ends to generate pressure in passing situations. With better pressure from the interior of the defense, DeMarcus Lawrence and the other defensive ends will have better opportunities for sacks because opposing quarterbacks won't be able to step up in the pocket with as much ease as they have through the first five games of the season.
The linebacker duo of Jaylon Smith, and Leighton Vander Esch have been one of the best position groups for the Cowboys this season. As good as they've been, Sean Lee is still one of the better linebackers in the NFL. Though he's leading the Cowboys in solo tackles with 43, Leighton Vander Esch probably sees a decrease in his snaps with Lee returning. They'll all play, however, and the Cowboys will look for ways to have them all on the field together.
Getting Lee, Irving, and Collins on the field at the same time with the defensive parts that the Cowboys already boast in Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith, DeMarcus Lawrence, and Byron Jones is going to make playing offense nearly impossible.
How do you attack these guys?
The Washington Redskins rank in the bottom third in passing yards, yards per attempt, and are 18th in the NFL in passer rating. Washington ranks in the top half of the league in rushing yards per game, but rank 23rd in yards per attempt.
If there's an area where the Dallas Cowboys defense has been susceptible this season it's against the pass and having all of their best defensive players available for this week seven NFC East matchup is going to make all the difference. They'll be able to generate pressure with fewer blitzes because of the ability of Irving and Collins to generate pressure from the interior.
Though the Redskins have had some success on the ground in 2018, it's going to be tough sledding for Adrian Peterson and the Redskins run game. Lee, Vander Esch, and Smith all play the run extremely well and with the improved talent at defensive tackle, Peterson is going to find very few open lanes against the Dallas Cowboys defense.
The elite defense that we imagined this team could be may be right around the corner. Having everyone healthy and on the field together as the Dallas Cowboys get ready for the stretch run of the NFL season is huge.
Get ready NFL. Points are going to be really hard to come by.
Report: Austin Heading to IR: Deonte Thompson is the Next Man Up
Tavon Austin's stint with the Dallas Cowboys has been up and down through six games. He's provided some big play ability on the outside, but hasn't really had the running room on jet sweeps that the Dallas Cowboys would have hoped for when they acquired Austin from the Los Angeles Rams during the 2018 NFL Draft.
Now it's being reported by Brandon George from the Dallas Morning News that Austin may be headed to injured reserve for a groin tear suffered in the Dallas Cowboys week six win over the Jaguars.
Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said WR Tavon Austin will be getting a second opinion on his injured right groin in the next day or so. He didn't discount possibility of him being placed on injured reserve.
Whether Austin goes to injured reserve or not remains to be seen, but we do know that he'll miss week seven and likely won't be able to suit up for a while. Though Austin hasn't been relied upon much, he has been a threat that opposing defenses have had to account for in both the passing and running game. Tavon Austin leaves a bit of a hole.
Enter Deonte Thompson.
Deonte Thompson, who was signed by the Dallas Cowboys this past offseason, hasn't been the same type of rushing threat that Austin has been in his NFL career. Thompson's only carried the ball two times in his career for -5 yards. However, Thompson has some skills that could bode well should the Dallas Cowboys decide to use him in the jet sweep role that Austin is vacating.
He's been a return threat in his NFL career, averaging 24.8 yards per return. He's had returns of 47, 64, and 74 yards. He's also had some good moments running after the catch in his career, though he hasn't gotten many opportunities.
Thompson's a former track athlete and before the 2012 NFL Draft ran a 4.30 40 yard dash. He has the speed and a bit more size than Austin to make some things happen if given the opportunities.
The jet sweep has become an important staple in the Dallas Cowboys offense. Even when they don't hand it off on the sweep, they use it in play action, to set up screens, and even to get the defense thinking about it on direct hand offs to Ezekiel Elliott. They aren't going to want to scrap that part of the playbook just because Austin will be sitting out. Deonte Thompson can be that guy. Much like Marquise Goodwin in San Francisco, Thompson has elite speed.
He's not just football fast. He's fast-fast.
When I was in high school, I played baseball. In the baseball program I was fast. The fastest on the team. That was my game. Infield singles. Stretching doubles to triples. Stealing bases. I was fast. I went out for track my senior season because I thought, "hey I'm fast, let's see what would happen if I ran the 100-meter-dash." I found out really quickly that there is a difference between baseball fast and track fast.
The same applies to football and track. Deonte Thompson is track fast. He's a guy that the Dallas Cowboys need to get the ball to on those jet sweeps to continue to threaten defenses sideline to sideline. When it's working, as we've seen with Lucky Whitehead in the past and Tavon Austin this year, it opens up a lot for the Dallas Cowboys offense.
It's likely that Cole Beasley gets those first jet sweep attempts, and as a trusted veteran for the Dallas Cowboys, he probably should. But, if Jason Garrett and Scott Linehan want to continue to use the jet sweep to the offense's maximum benefit, they need to start showing it with Deonte Thompson. He has the speed to get to the corner and take it to the end zone from any where on the field.
Here's an example of what Thompson can do with the ball in his hands.
109 YARDS TO THE HOUSE!!! Deonte Thompson returns the missed field goal and runs it all the way back for a @ChicagoBears TD! #CHIvsAZ https://t.co/k9IfkZMoIY
With Tavon Austin set to be out -- possibly for the season -- it's time to see what Deonte Thompson can do. The Dallas Cowboys need to get a win here to get above .500 for the first time this season and set themselves up to make a run at the divisional crown. Deonte Thompson's ability with the ball in his hands will give them a good opportunity to do just that.
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