Entering the NFL as a rookie is never easy. Some guys get better situations than others, but adjusting to the speed and style of professional football is a challenge for almost anyone. For the 2017 rookies class of the Dallas Cowboys, it's an especially difficult task because they have a tough act to follow.
Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Maliek Collins, Anthony Brown; the 2016 class immediately gave the Cowboys two new franchise stars on offense and two studs on defense. All four players should be starters this year. Jaylon Smith is also looming as a new leader on defense, making a delayed debut after recovering from a major knee injury.
The Cowboys are also hoping for contributions from defensive end Charles Tapper and safety Kavon Frazier, who should be key backups and perhaps rotation players. Then we get to Rico Gathers, the tight end prospect who was having a fabulous preseason before suffering a concussion. He will hopefully be back sometime this year.
And running back Darius Jackson?
Well, they can't all be winners.
You get the point, though. The Cowboys already have one of their better draft classes of all time. If players continue on their current trajectories, it could easily be the best in franchise history. If these guys can win a few Super Bowls together, then it may be one of the best classes the NFL has ever seen.
That is the bar that Taco Charlton, Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, Ryan Switzer, and other 2017 rookies are now having to prove themselves against. As fans and analysts, it's easy to become a hypocrite without realizing it, calling 2016 an all-time great class but then also expecting this year's rookies to have the same immediate success. if it happened every year, 2016 wouldn't be special.
Comparative analysis is one of the great enemies of professional athletes. Their production is always going to be held up next to other players in the league, or past stars at their position. This analysis is often highly flawed, ignoring variables from one player or situation to the next. Still, that doesn't stop it from being common practice in sports journalism.
Charlton, Awuzie, and Lewis are already at a disadvantage just because of joining the Cowboys' defense instead of its offense. Dak and Zeke got to be replacement and upgrade parts to an already-working machine. These defensive rookies are being asked to be part of a whole new machine.
Switzer gets the easier gig, stepping into that great Cowboys offense and not being relied on for anything right away. Dallas still has Dez Bryant, Cole Beasley, Terrance Williams, and Brice Butler and can afford to work Switzer in slowly. His best opportunities to shine will come on special teams as the new return man, and the bar there is low enough that Ryan can impress fans by only making a few big plays this season.
Back to the defense; Taco Charlton at least gets to join rotation and not have too much expected right away. It's our young cornerbacks who face the toughest challenge, perhaps having to take on major roles quickly this year. What's worse, they barely go to play at all this preseason.
Chidobe Awuzie played in the Hall-of-Fame Game but then missed the rest of the preseason with hamstring problems. Jourdan Lewis, also dealing with a hamstring, missed all four preseason games. They have also been limited in practice due to this.
Cornerback is still one of the toughest positions for players to make the transition from college to the NFL. Nevertheless, despite this and the work they've missed, Awuzie and Lewis may still be forced into duty early.
Orlando Scandrick has struggled with injuries the last few seasons and is now 30-years-old. Nolan Carroll, also 30, could be suspended for a few games at some point this year for his DWI arrest last May. That would leave just Anthony Brown and newly-acquired veteran Bene Benwikere to play corner. We don't even know yet what Benwikere has to offer or where he'll be on the depth chart, let alone how long he'll even be on the roster.
After watching Anthony Brown have to play major minutes last year due to Scandrick and Morris Claiborne's injuries, it's easy to assume that Awuzie or Lewis, maybe both, will also have to step up and play a big role at some point in 2017.
Even on the defense, though, we saw Maliek Collins and Anthony Brown meet that challenge last year. Collins emerged as one of the team's best defensive lineman, pushing veterans like Tyrone Crawford and Cedric Thornton out of the spotlight. He enters 2017 expected to be one of the team's new defensive leaders, perhaps its best player after Sean Lee.
Anthony Brown not only held up but shined at corner, leaving little perceivable drop-off from Claiborne or Scandrick when he was playing for them. It was astounding for a sixth-round pick to be able to handle so much so quickly, and that speaks to even more of the challenge that our 2017 rookies face.
Collins was a third-round pick, Brown was sixth round; that didn't stop them from having instant success. Taco Charlton, Chidobe Awuzie, and Jourdan Lewis were taken in the first three rounds and won't have any excuse there for starting slowly.
Even though it was on the other side of the ball, Dak Prescott set a new standard in Dallas for rookie excellence. The fourth-round pick didn't expect to be starting and didn't even know he'd have to until after the team's third preseason game, a little over two weeks before the Cowboys' first regular season game. We know the rest of that story.
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This isn't to say that our 2017 rookies can't meet that standard. Nobody knew what Dak Prescott would be until he started showing it in September. Maliek Collins and Anthony Brown built their reputations in the regular season. Our new players will get their moments and opportunities, so perhaps the greatest surprise of all will be seeing yet another amazing draft class emerge.
This is just a dose of reality; a reminder that what we had last year was very special. To expect the same this year is really unfair to the 2017 class. We can't hold them to the 2016 class' standard, because arguably no draft class in Cowboys history measures up to that.
Amari Cooper Wins 2nd NFC Offensive Player of the Week Award of 2018
For the second time in just three weeks, Dallas Cowboys receiver Amari Cooper has been named the NFC Offensive Player of the Week.
Cooper scored three touchdowns, including the game winner in overtime, to lead the Cowboys to victory last Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles. He has 10 catches for 217 yards, which led all NFL receivers last week.
After his record-setting performance during week 14, @AmariCooper9 is the FIRST #DallasCowboys to win NFC Player of the Week twice in a season! → https://t.co/kvBDIeOgBd #ProBowlVote #ProBowlVote #ProBowlVote #ProBowlVote #ProBowlVote #ProBowlVote
As the official website stated, Cooper is the first Cowboy to win the award twice in the same year. He's also the first Cowboy to be named Offensive Player of the Week since Ezekiel Elliott in 2016.
Before this year, Elliott was the only Dallas player to win the Offensive award in three seasons. Cooper has now done it twice in three weeks.
Since being traded to the Cowboys, Amari Cooper has amassed 40 catches for 642 yards and six touchdowns.
His wasted time in Oakland may keep Cooper out of the Pro Bowl this year, but he's already become a fan favorite in Cowboys Nation. Congratulations to Amari for another well-deserved award!
Cowboys Playoff Scenarios: Week 15 Impact Games
It's hard to believe that we're looking at the Dallas Cowboys potentially clinching the NFC East this week, but that's how dramatic the turnaround has been over the last five games. Week 15 could lock Dallas into the playoffs and give them a lot of freedom over their final two games.
If the season ended today, these would be your NFC playoff standings:
- New Orleans Saints (11-2)
- Los Angeles Rams (11-2)
- Chicago Bears (9-4)
- Dallas Cowboys (8-5)
- Seattle Seahawks (8-5)
- Minnesota Vikings (6-6-1)
- Carolina Panthers (6-7)
- Philadelphia Eagles (6-7)
- Washington Redskins (6-7)
- The Cowboys lost to Seattle earlier this year, but still remain the 4th seed as a division winner over a wild card team.
- The Panthers are ahead of the Eagles thanks to a head-to-head tiebreaker.
- The Eagles are ahead of the Redskins thanks to a head-to-head tiebreaker. They play each other again in Week 17.
- The Redskins beat the Panthers earlier this year, but their loss to Philadelphia within their own division negates that tiebreaker.
In truth, there's not much intrigue left for the Cowboys in this regular season. One win gives them the NFC East, and it would take the Saints or Rams dropping all three of their remaining games for Dallas to have a shot at a top-two seed.
So, barring the nearly impossible, Dallas is locked into either the 3rd or 4th seed. They will host one of the Wild Card teams in the first round of the playoffs.
The biggest thing to watch now is how the seeding shakes among the bottom four playoff teams. The Seahawks seem a cut above the likes of Minnesota, Carolina, or one of our NFC East friends, so avoiding them in the first round would be lovely.
Here are this week's games involving the NFC playoff contenders:
Dallas Cowboys @ Indianapolis Colts
We've already discussed what the Cowboys need to do, so let's talk about the Colts. Not only do they have home field advantage this week, but they are fighting for their playoff lives.
Indianapolis is one of four teams with a 7-6 record battling for the final Wild Card spot in the AFC playoffs. The Broncos are also in the mix at 6-7, giving none of these teams any cushion for losing.
Dallas has its own incentive to win, though. If they want to avoid Seattle in the first round, they probably need to take the #3 seed from the Chicago Bears. They need to keep winning and hope for the Bears to drop a game or two.
Ultimately, getting into the playoffs and starting at home is a huge reward. But anything that can help make the road a little easier is worth pursuing. It's no time to rest on your laurels.
Green Bay Packers @ Chicago Bears
As we just discussed, we'd like to see Chicago drop a few games to give Dallas a shot at the #3 seed. This week isn't the worst opportunity, with Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay still not completely eliminated from playoff contention.
Expecting much from the Packers here is unwise. They've had a coaching change and appear to be in a state of organizational disarray. But they still have Rodgers, and crazy things always happens in rivalry games.
So while these are two teams seemingly headed in opposite directions, you never know what could happen given the variable elements. By all means, root for the Cheeseheads.
Miami Dolphins @ Minnesota Vikings
Your rooting interest here comes down to a simple question; who do you prefer to play among that last bunch of Wild Card teams? Who does Dallas match up best against between the Vikings, Panthers, and Eagles?
I think we'd all agree that we don't want to see the Eagles a third time. Beating a team three times in one year is tough to do, and especially given how close last week's meeting was.
The Panthers beat Dallas in the season opener, but that was in Carolina and well before the Cowboys were playing at a high level. A second meeting could go very differently, especially with the recent slumping by the Panthers.
Both Carolina and Minnesota are struggling, with one on a five-game losing streak and the latter having lost their last two. The Vikings just fired their offensive coordinator, so neither of these teams appear to be going into the postseason with any real momentum.
At this point, I'd say it's a toss-up between the Panthers and Vikings. Both are much preferable to seeing the Eagles again, so I would just keep rooting for both to win. In either case, they knock out Philadelphia.
We'll reassess the threat level of Carolina and Minnesota as playoff opponents in a few weeks.
Washington Redskins @ Jacksonville Jaguars
I didn't mention the Redskins among those last three teams because they may not win another game this year. Their QB situation is so bad that even the Jaguars look good by comparison.
Granted, Jacksonville is lousy right now. Washington might be able to go down there and get a win, but neither team has anything to play for now. This one may come down to whether or not the Jaguars have gone into tank mode.
Seattle Seahawks @ San Francisco 49ers
Seattle just walloped the Niners 43-16 a couple of weeks ago, and changing venues is unlikely to make that much difference. The Seahawks are a legit NFC contender and San Francisco is already thinking about the offseason. A Seattle loss would be great, but it ain't happening this week.
Philadelphia Eagles @ Los Angeles Rams
While catching the Rams and getting a top-two seed would be great, it's barely plausible. The far more concrete benefit here is seeing the Eagles lose and getting them further away from a possible Wild Card spot.
In fact, an Eagles' loss this week would give Dallas the NFC East even if the Cowboys fall in Indianapolis. That's not the way we want to win the division, but you take what you can get.
With the breaking news that Carson Wentz is unlikely to play this week with a back injury, you'd generally think this suits the Cowboys' interests. But Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles is still the backup in Philadelphia, so is anything really for certain?
New Orleans Saints @ Carolina Panthers
We have every reason to root for Carolina here. For one, it helps the Panthers stay ahead of the Eagles in the Wild Card race. Also, it brings the Saints one loss closer to possibly being caught by Dallas. A Saints win doesn't really benefit us all.
Ezekiel Elliott has Huge Day vs Eagles Thanks to Receiving Prowess
The Dallas Cowboys came away with a huge win against their division rival Philadelphia Eagles, putting them in a commanding position in the NFC East. They're up two games in the division and one of the more underrated story lines from the victory is Ezekiel Elliott's game. He had a huge day that no one is talking about.
Elliott had 28 carries for 113 yards and then caught 12 passes on 13 targets en route to his big performance in the 29-23 win over the Eagles. That's probably the quietest 40 touch, 192 total yard game you'll ever hear about. And yet, that's where we are. Please read that stat line again, because in all of our talk about Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper, and the defense, Ezekiel Elliott's stat line is absolutely ridiculous.
The receiving element that Elliott is providing the biggest difference to the offense this season. He's been a huge asset to Dak Prescott in the passing game as both a primary target and a check down option in the short part of the field. If Elliott isn't showing that he's the best running back in the league, with what he's doing with a broke down offensive line, then people will never give him the credit he's due.
For the last three years, the Dallas Cowboys and their fan base has known what an elite player the Cowboys have in Elliott. He's easily one of the best runners in the NFL, but if you talk to the general NFL fanbase or analysts around the league, Elliott doesn't get the same kind of love as players like Todd Gurley and Le'Veon Bell receive from the national media. The knock against Elliott has been that he doesn't bring the same value as a receiver. With what he has done over the last six weeks, and really all season long, it's safe to say, that won't be a knock against the Cowboys All-Pro running back.
Among running backs this season, Ezekiel Elliott ranks sixth in targets (77), fifth in receptions (65). seventh in yards (502), and is tied for 12th in receiving touchdowns with three. Elliott is the seventh highest rated running back when targeted among running backs with at least 50 targets this season.
Over the last six weeks, since the Amari Cooper trade, only Christian McCaffrey has more targets, receptions, and yards than Ezekiel Elliott.
Elliott's previous career high was in 2016 when he caught 32 passes on 39 targets. With three games left in the season, Elliott has more than doubled his previous career high from that season. Over the last six weeks, he's caught 40 passes with an average of 6.7 receptions per game.
Ezekiel Elliott is on pace for his best total yardage season in the NFL. If he continues at his current per game averages, Elliott would finish the season with 330 carries for 1,553 rushing yards, 80 catches on 100 targets for 618 yards and 10 total touchdowns. He's been great this year, but he's been even better over the last six games. At his per game averages for the last six games, over a 16 game season, Elliott's numbers would look like this; 363 carries for 1,715 yards rushing, 107 receptions on 120 targets for 872 yards, and 13 total touchdowns.
It's rare that Ezekiel Elliott has a game like he did on Sunday and it goes largely unnoticed by Cowboys Nation, but that's just how tremendous Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper were. In a game where the Cowboys got big games and big plays through the passing game, it was Elliott's steadiness that held things together and helped sustain drives like the fourth and one conversion in overtime. Even with Amari Cooper elevating his game since coming to the Cowboys, there's no question that Ezekiel Elliott is the Cowboys best skill position player. Expect more big games for Elliott as the Cowboys continue to "Feed Zeke."
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