After two seasons of providing veteran depth for the Dallas Cowboys, running back Alfred Morris is about to be a free agent again. Does the 29-year-old still have value for the club, or will Dallas go with younger options in 2018?
Morris was signed in March of 2016. At the time, it was assumed he would be the backup to incumbent starter Darren McFadden and perhaps even split carries.
But a month later, Dallas drafted Ezekiel Elliott and drastically changed the landscape at the running back position.
If Alfred suddenly seemed expendable, that quickly changed in June when McFadden broke his elbow. Morris wound being the number-two back after all, but he was rarely used as Elliott immediately became the workhorse RB and held that role for all of his spectacular rookie season.
Last year, we all know what happened with Ezekiel Elliott. Morris became the primary RB during Zeke's suspension and had solid numbers, averaging 4.35 yards on his 99 carries during that six-week stretch.
By Week 16, though, not only had Zeke returned but Rod Smith had started to break out from the depth chart. In the Cowboys' pivotal game that week against the Seattle Seahawks, Alfred didn't even get a touch behind Elliott and Smith.
Considering Smith's emergence last year, and him only being 26, it's easy to see why Dallas may not be looking to bring Alfred Morris back. They seem to have their one-two punch already set at the top of the RB depth chart.
What's more, Morris isn't likely to settle for a likely third-place role. He may not be interested in coming back to Dallas given the situation.
Thankfully for Alfred, he enters the free agent market with some good tape from 2017 showing that he can still produce. It's not a loaded crop of free agents this year and, despite his age, Morris could still find a good job somewhere. He's earned an opportunity to compete, if nothing else.
That opportunity likely won't come in Dallas, though. As I wrote about last month, the Cowboys have enough power already and need to add a speed option in their RB rotation.
That said, Alfred Morris spent the last two years giving Dallas good value for the money. He was a solid free agent pickup and his time as a Cowboy should be remembered fondly. At this point, though, I doubt that relationship will continue.
#DALvsCIN: Bengals DL Gives Cowboys OL Formidable Test
During their preseason opener, the Dallas Cowboys offensive line faced its first test of the season. The young, athletic, and downright talented defensive line of the 49ers gave the Cowboys starting five a chance to gauge their offseason progress thus far.
I'd say the starting group passed the test, while the backups and depth players looked a bit more shaky. The good thing about football, though, is that they get a shot to do it all again this Saturday.
This week's opponent, the Cincinatti Bengals, feature some serious talent upfront. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins is one of the best interior defenders in all of football, terrorizing centers and guards since he entered the league.
On the edge is one of my 2017 draft favorites, Carl Lawson. Lawson was a draft target of mine for the Cowboys, but it appears the entire league missed on the stud edge rusher during that draft. During his rookie season a year ago, Lawson racked up 8.5 sacks and looked like the best rookie rusher in all of football. It's rare that a rookie defensive end tallies the sack total that Lawson did in 2017, but then again, Lawson is a rare type of player.
Opposite of Carl Lawson is veteran pass rusher Carlos Dunlap. Together, Atkins and Dunlap have been one of the more dangerous pass rush duos for quite some time, but the additions of Lawson and Jordan Willis make them an incredibly impressive group.
During the Bengals' preseason opener against the Chicago Bears, their defensive line looked to be in midseason form.
Though Geno Atkins had the team's only sack, the trio of Atkins, Lawson, and Dunlap looked as prolific as ever.
This deep and talented defensive line is a more-than worthy test for the Cowboys this Saturday. Rookie Connor Williams will likely have to block Geno Atkins at some point, and though he looked promising against the 49ers, this week presents a whole different challenge.
Many now expect veteran center Travis Frederick to miss Saturday's game as well, due to his shoulder troubles during training camp. If Frederick were to miss the start, Joe Looney would be thrown into the first against this first team defensive front of the Bengals.
A rookie at left guard and Looney at center might not be the best ingredients against Geno Atkins and company, but it'll be what they have to roll with.
Still, Saturday will give us another chance to see what the 2018 Dallas Cowboys offensive line is all about.
Cowboys DE Randy Gregory Has Breakout Day in Camp
The return of Defensive End Randy Gregory is already one of the best stories of the Dallas Cowboys 2018 training camp. If nothing else, his efforts to get to a better place in life and earn reinstatement from the NFL are a huge success. But if yesterday's practice was any indication, Gregory may be about to achieve even more.
According to the staff writers at DallasCowboys.com, Gregory was the standout performer during Wednesday's activities in Oxnard. Here is just a sampling of the praise heaped on the 25-year-old pass rusher:
"He was a beast. Didn’t matter if he was going up against Pro Bowl tackle Tyron Smith or his backups. Nor did it matter which side he was rushing from." (Mickey Spagnola)
"It doesn’t happen often, but tip of the cap to Randy Gregory getting around Tyron Smith twice in a span of three plays during team period. Smith’s pass set wasn’t poor it was just Gregory’s first step that gave him problems." (Bryan Broaddus)
"He’s so explosive off the line of scrimmage. It’s really something to see. But the thing that keeps impressing me is how he’s developed his upper body and added weight while away from the team." (Rob Phillips)
"In the blink of an eye, Randy Gregory had turned the corner and “downed” Dak Prescott for a sack. It happened so fast that Prescott didn’t even bother to throw the ball. To be perfectly frank, I did a double-take and assumed Gregory had beaten Cam Fleming on the rep. Nope — it was Tyron Smith." (David Helman)
That Randy was beating Tyron Smith out there is noteworthy. Aside from just Tyron's usual reputation and yearly trips to the Pro Bowl, he was recently praised by teammate Travis Frederick for having his best camp in several years.
We've waited three years to see Gregory finally realize his potential. The Cowboys spent a second-round pick on Gregory in 2015, despite huge red flags about his drug issues, because of that upside. On talent alone, Randy likely would've been a first-round pick that year.
It's still August, of course, and Gregory will have to keep it up in the regular season to truly arrive on the NFL scene. But reports like these out of camp are so encouraging, and particularly when you know the story of this kid and what he's had to do to even make it this far.
With DeMarcus Lawrence now a franchise star on one end of the defensive line, Randy Gregory's ascension could give the Cowboys the best pass-rushing duo they've had since at least DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer, or perhaps even the 1990s.
As good as the flashes now against Tyron Smith and others in practice are, perhaps the best news from those reports were Rob Phillips' comments about Gregory's physical development.
With so much time away from football, Randy's conditioning and body composition were an initial concern when he came back. Clearly, Gregory was putting in the work even while away from the team to be physically ready to resume his career. It will also help him to keep performing through the year, and not wearing down as he has in the past.
Hopefully we'll see Randy Gregory make his preseason debut this Saturday evening when the Cowboys host the Cincinnati Bengals. Again, that will be a wonderful achievement for him on its own merit.
But if he can put on a show for long-waiting Cowboys fans, even in the preseason, then it could be a very special night.
Travis Frederick: Left Tackle Tyron Smith “Playing Better Than He Has in Years”
Starting Dallas Cowboys Center Travis Frederick wasn't only in the news because of a shoulder injury yesterday. Providing the team with a bit of a scare, Frederick was evaluated in Los Angeles for stingers in that shoulder, but returned to Oxnard without further concern. The Cowboys are understandably being cautious with their offensive linemen in training camp - knowing how quickly injuries up front can derail a season, as it did in 2017.
Missing three full games last year (and exiting in the first quarter against the Seahawks in week 16), Left Tackle Tyron Smith has been one of the Cowboys most important players for years. This is why it's so incredibly comforting to see Smith performing at a new level so far in camp.
Travis Frederick was VERY complimentary of how Tyron Smith is playing in camp: "He's playing better than he has the last couple of years. He's taken another step. We didn't even know that step was available." This is arguably the best news a Cowboys fan could hear right now.
All of the changes the Cowboys made on offense for this season won't matter if the protection for Quarterback Dak Prescott doesn't hold up. Without Smith at left tackle, the Cowboys allowed 13 sacks in three games and failed to score more than nine points.
This haunting stat doesn't even include the one game that will stick with the 2017 Cowboys, their playoff hopes dashed with a flat performance at home against Seattle. Smith played just three snaps, and the Cowboys failed to find the end zone even with Running Back Ezekiel Elliott back in the lineup.
Dorance Armstrong is doing something right. Garrett called him into the Compete Period against Tyron Smith - and he won. Smith won the next two reps, though, winning the series 2-1. #cowboyswire
It's arguable that Smith is excelling in year eight against the best field of pass rushers the Cowboys have fielded since 2011. Randy Gregory's triumphant return, rookie Dorance Armstrong's fast start, and veteran Tyrone Crawford's continued experienced at right end have given Smith all he can handle at left tackle.
Smith is still rarely beaten in his pass sets, raising the level of expectation for the Cowboys defensive line to match the intensity of the offense with every compete period win. Thanks to Rod Marinelli and Kris Richard, the Cowboys defense is doing just that.
For his starting center to notice Smith's progress is even more noteworthy given the player starting between them. Rookie Connor Williams is expected to slide in flawlessly between a LT and C with nine combined Pro Bowl appearances. Impressive against the 49ers in his preseason debut, Williams has always idolized Smith as a top tackle prospect out of Texas.
Perhaps the rookie has even inspired Smith a bit, to be an even bigger part of the Cowboys success in 2018. This team has been at its best when given the chance to sneak up on opponents, and with a cohesive offensive line plus 16 games of Ezekiel Elliott they'll have a chance to do just that - given the attention their changes at wide receiver has garnered.
The Cowboys do not need any further reminders that back injuries tend to be a lingering problem with players.
Some pressure off the shoulders of Tyron Smith can only help though, with the Cowboys offense finding its rhythm in Oxnard while watching their offensive line continue to shine as bright as the sun in Oxnard. Fortunately, the team will be out of the California heat after this week, seeing a slew of players leave practice early due to injury on Wednesday.
The Cowboys return to AT&T Stadium on Saturday for another preseason game, and conclude the rest of the offseason at The Star.
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