I recently completed my sophomore year of college here in New Jersey at Montclair State University. You may have heard me chatting about sports on our campus radio station once a week and seen my Cowboys themed portion of my dorm room.
Now home for the summer and missing football like the rest of us, I started my "Cowboys Sophomores" series a few weeks ago to bring Cowboys Nation up to speed on the second-year players that will significantly impact the 2016 Cowboys' season.
Training camp is quickly approaching for the Dallas Cowboys, and with it will come plenty of heated position battles. To conclude my Sophomore Series, I decided to put all of these profiles in one place. Additionally, I have graded all ten players into categories based on their overall job security for the 2016 season.
Class is in session!
Honor Roll Cowboys
The following players are not only locks to make the roster this season, but players that will carry some high expectations with them. With most of my "Cowboys Honor Roll" players coming on the defensive side of the ball, it is safe to say that Rod Marinelli will be up to the tough task of preparing his unproven and youthful squad each and every week.
Jones, Russell, and Collins should all be starters come September 11th when the Dallas Cowboys host the New York Giants in their regular season opener. Jones' expectations may be the highest of this group, as the now full-time safety will be asked to cover up a lot of potential deficiencies around him in the backfield.
Russell has taken great strides early on this summer to put his name in the running at left defensive end. Even if he is not named the "starter" on that side of the field, with DeMarcus Lawrence set to return from his suspension in week five, we know that the Cowboys' pass rush is built around it's depth - and Russell seeing and making the most of a significant amount of snaps will help that depth get to the quarterback more.
Lastly, there is La'el Collins, who will be asked to make a seamless transition into his first full season as a starter at left guard for the Cowboys. Dallas' offensive line is going to get a lot of attention this season based on the performance of rookie Ezekiel Elliott, and Collins will have to prove with some consistency that he deserves to be the newest face starting alongside the likes of Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin.
With Rolando McClain suspended for the first ten games of 2016, the Cowboys' linebacker position has gone from a perceived strength to another uncertainty defensively. Wilson and Nzeocha will lead the young talent that Matt Eberflus has at his position to work with, as both will get opportunities in the middle of the field at MIKE, boosting them into spots on the "honor roll".
Wilson was one of my "pet cat" players last off season, so I'll be hoping that the sophomore can find some time at any of the three linebacker spots for the Cowboys this season. Likewise, Nzeocha could project well at SAM if he is not the starter at MIKE.
Cowboys with Passing Grades
The next group of four players that I chose to put together are Cowboys' who will all likely be with the team in 2016, but their role is relatively undefined.
Like DeMarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory will serve a four game suspension to start the 2016 season. Many in Cowboys Nation are already growing tired of the troubled edge rusher, and the reality is that you may not see him on the field a whole lot after week four.
Gregory has yet to do anything that proves he is an every down player (which is already rare in the Cowboys' current defensive scheme), and has opened the door for the likes of Benson Mayowa, Charles Tapper, David Irving, and others to take away more of his snaps on the edge.
If Gregory comes out of his suspension truly determined and ready to showcase all of his skills though, he is going to be an invaluable piece of the Cowboys' defense this season.
So much has been said about Chaz Green in his short time with the Dallas Cowboys. The most recent chatter about the 2015 third round pick came just before OTAs, where rumors spread that the coaching staff was going to push Green to beat out Doug Free as the starter at right tackle.
While I highlighted why this is far from a reality in the article, Green still can provide valuable and much-needed depth to the Cowboys offensive line. His focus must remain on staying healthy and furthering his development.
Lucky Whitehead is undoubtedly a fan favorite player, and has a chance to bring a special element to the Cowboys offense and return game in 2016. However, undrafted free agent WRs Andy Jones, Chris Brown, and Ed Eagan, are all also here to try to carve out their own niche roles in this offense.
While I personally think that Whitehead will earn his job on this team pretty safely, it is going to take a few weeks of training camp practices to see how Scott Linehan plans to really utilize all of his skills.
Cowboys In Need of Extra Credit
Of all the position battles that the above players find themselves in, the backup QB spot that Jameill Showers, Kellen Moore, and Dak Prescott will fight for is probably the most uncertain at the moment.
As you'll see in the article, I have a high level of respect towards Jameill Showers as a Cowboy, but unfortunately had to group him into a category of his own due to the steep competition ahead of him.
Which of these second year Cowboys are you particularly excited about?! Let us know! Share your thoughts on this entire series and the final rankings by commenting below or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org!
You can also talk Cowboys with me on Twitter at any time by following me @ShoreSportsNJ!
What Are Realistic Expectations for Cowboys LB Sean Lee?
For many years, Linebacker Sean Lee has been the face of the Dallas Cowboys defense. However, that's quickly changing. The young duo consisting of Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch have taken over the linebacker position by dominating the field from sideline to sideline with their explosive talent. As a rookie, Vander Esch filled in for Lee at the weak linebacker position when the veteran went down injured and never gave the job back.
Currently, uncertainty surrounds Sean Lee, who took a pay cut earlier in the year to stay with the franchise he's played for since the beginning of his professional career in 2010. What will his role be in a young fueled defense in the upcoming season?
As we've all been able to see throughout his career, Sean Lee is one of the best in the game when he's healthy. Unfortunately, that's not very often. His injury proneness led him to a position change years ago, when he was moved from the MIKE (middle linebacker) to the WILL (weak side linebacker) position. Now, those two spots are taken care of.
Where does this leaves Lee? The main question is whether or not he'll move to the strong side. Many question if this would be the correct call, given that he could be at even more risk of suffering yet another injury in a position that leads to more contact. The other option would be for him to be Vander Esch's backup at WILL.
Lately, it seems like the Cowboys will indeed move him to the strong-side. After all, it only makes sense to have your best three players on the field at the same time. On minicamp, the Cowboys have been playing the veteran at SAM, letting him get reps and grow comfortable in what seems to be his new job.
But even if Sean Lee starts lining up on the strong side, what can we expect from him next season? The way the NFL offenses operate now leads to teams sending their nickel packages to the field more often than not. For the Cowboys 4-3 defense, that means three cornerbacks, two linebackers. When that's the case, it will be Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith who we see out there, not Lee.
Damien Wilson was the team's "starter" on the strong side, and he only managed to get 286 snaps, according to Pro Football Reference. That represents 28% of the team's total snaps. Even if Sean Lee becomes the starting strong side linebacker, we likely won't be seeing him as much.
Even still, I'd expect Sean Lee's experience to play a big factor when the team needs Jaylon Smith or Leighton Vander Esch to catch their breath. Lee could jump in and play a few snaps at any LB spot and do a good job at it.
After all, we can't forget that despite his injuries, Lee is a remarkable player on defense. He should still be one of the smartest linebackers with extraordinary instincts. There's a reason why, before Vander Esch arrived to America's Team, the defense crumbled without him. Last year, despite losing the starting gig, Lee still had 118 tackles, 13 tackles for loss and an interception. The longtime veteran can still play.
It will be odd for Cowboys Nation to watch Lee on a completely new role. It's also hard to put the finger on what his production will look like at the end of the year. If there's one thing we know though, is that the veteran will work hard every practice trying to get the most playing time he can. We should be excited about the team's top three linebackers.
Dak Prescott Impresses, Draws Compliments All Minicamp Long
Dak Prescott stood before the media Thursday in a Stetson Cowboy hat, answering questions about his upcoming contract extension.
“I’ve got my cowboy hat on, so I’m a Cowboy, we’ll say that.”
Prescott has cemented himself as the franchise quarterback of America's Team, and now it's time for the franchise to pay him like it. Set to earn roughly $34 million per year (according to recent rumors/reports), Prescott is going to be a very rich and comfortable man in the near future.
But, for now, he still plays under his fourth round rookie contract. You wouldn't be able to tell by watching him on the field, however. Though it was just minicamp, Prescott was impressive as ever over the last couple weeks of practice, earning praise from all levels within the organization.
Veteran Jason Witten complimented both Prescott's anticipation and accuracy, saying his throws have been "off the charts" at minicamp. Prescott himself said that this is the best he's felt since he's entered the league, and it certainly makes sense for this to be the case.
"Is it three years under my belt or just seeing defenses a whole lot more clear, being quicker and faster in everything I want to do, having great teammates around me? Who really knows the answer, but I feel great. I feel confident, and my teammates do, as well.” - Prescott to DallasCowboys.com
If Prescott was ever going to be comfortable, hungry, and ready to go, this is likely the time that it would happen. He has three relatively successful seasons under his belt, and ended 2018 on the best stretch of his career. He is the unquestioned starting quarterback for this team, and has the backing of every key decision maker in the building.
Prescott now has an offensive coordinator who he has not only worked closely with (in some capacity) since he entered the league in 2016, but is also being lauded for his creativity as an offensive mastermind. His quarterbacks coach, Jon Kitna, has been receiving similar praise for how he can coach up Prescott and get his footwork consistent, to help him "throw it through a Fruit Loop."
The time is now for Dak Prescott, and it's encouraging to see how he is responding to this increased pressure and responsibility. Then again we should have no doubt that he will respond positively, as he as throughout his entire young career.
Whenever faced with adversity, Prescott has answered the bell. Now he has all the supporters he needs, and just needs to prove them right.
Does RB Ezekiel Elliott Have A Chance At NFL MVP?
Who is the Cowboys best player?
As a running back, it's quite possible that Elliott is both the best of that bunch and the least important to the team's overall success. NFL.com's Adam Schein disagrees with the latter statement, however, placing Ezekiel Elliott among his top ten contenders for 2019 NFL MVP.
"I think the Cowboys are going to challenge for the Super Bowl in 2019 -- and I think Zeke fuels this team. When Elliott runs for 95-plus yards, the Cowboys are 19-4; when he falls below that benchmark, they're 9-8." - Adam Schein
Schein's prediction will no doubt make Cowboys Nation swoon, but does Elliott really have the opportunity to compete for an MVP award?
For one, this would require the Cowboys be among the best teams in the league this season. It's quite possible, as they did win 10 regular season and 1 playoff game a year ago, but it will have to happen once again for Elliott to be considered.
Next, Ezekiel Elliott would have to put up incredible numbers. Well, it's safe to assume this will likely be the case if condition one is met. Elliott is going to get a lot of opportunities to touch the ball each game, and finding himself among the league's rushing leaders has never been an issue for the young running back. Especially if the team has a lead and is running the ball to kill clock.
Even if both these conditions prove true, though, Elliott will still have trouble getting himself in the real MVP discussion. These awards tend to go to certain positions, and running back is not among that list. If Dallas has such a successful 2019, and their offense is clicking, it's more likely Dak Prescott will be the one contending for that MVP honor.
I know to some it sounds crazy, but Prescott will likely need to be closer to MVP level than Elliott if the Cowboys are to contend in the way Adam Schein suggests in his article.
So, likely, Schein should have named Prescott among his top ten MVP contenders, not Elliott.
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