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Cowboys 2018 Preview: Which Defensive Starting Jobs Are Open?

Jess Haynie

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3 Reasons Why Jaylon Smith Will be Even Better in 2018

We're still about a month away from the start of the Dallas Cowboys 2018 Training Camp. However, even now, we have a good sense of what starting jobs are open and which ones have already been decided for the upcoming season.

Before we get into the open positions, let's look at the ones that appear to already set. Barring injuries or some other unpredictable occurrence, here are the guys who you can bet on starting this season:

DEFENSE

Even with these probable and assured starters, there are a few considerations to be made.

Jaylon Smith will start if he's healthy through training camp and preseason, but how big is that "if?" Until we see just how well his recovery has gone, there's always room for concern.

At cornerback, Awuzie appears to have a starting job locked up but he's still just a second-year player. The trio of Chido, Byron Jones, and Jourdan Lewis will all contend for those two starting spots. Even Anthony Brown could be in the mix.

There's room for change at any position, but these four players appear firmly entrenched in their starting roles on defense.

What about the other seven spots?

Taco Charlton, Rams

Dallas Cowboys DE Taco Charlton

Defensive End

While franchise-tagged DeMarcus Lawrence has one side of the line locked down, the other starting position is wide open. This year there are several guys competing for the job.

Taco Charlton enters his second year after being the first-round pick in 2017. He started to come on late last season and has reportedly been solid so far in practices. Every team wants their draft picks to excel, especially the Thursday night guys, so Dallas is probably rooting for Taco to earn the starting role.

If it's not Taco, veteran Kony Ealy may be the next man up. Dallas has liked Ealy since the 2014 draft and even tried to claim him off waivers last year, but got blocked by the Jets. The Cowboys clearly think Kony will be more effective in their scheme than the 3-4 defense he played in New York last year. He's still just 26, and hopefully with more upside to be unlocked.

The best story would be if Randy Gregory can become a defensive star after winning his personal battles and being reinstated to the NFL. Gregory was one of the most dynamic talents of the 2015 draft class but dropped due to the personal red flags, which were obviously proved true early on. But if Randy still has that talent, the duo he could form with Lawrence could be lethal for opposing quarterbacks.

There are other prospects like Dorance Armstrong and Charles Tapper, but the starting job is likely to go to one of the three we've mentioned. Even Gregory may be used more as a situational pass rusher than typical starter.

The truth is that any position in a Rod Marinelli defensive line is subject to heavy rotation, making starting positions less important. The guy with the most snaps may not have been a starter.

The same goes for our next position.

Tyrone Crawford

Dallas Cowboys DT Tyrone Crawford

Defensive Tackle

For at least the first four weeks, we know David Irving won't be starting as he's been suspended for using banned substances. While his freakish potential will be missed, there are plenty of other guys who the Cowboys can turn to.

Veteran Tyrone Crawford has moved between end and tackle a lot the last few years, but 2018 may see him more at his original position. The Cowboys once thought he would be a breakout star as a DT in the Cover 2 scheme, and payed him accordingly. We could see Tyrone used most in that role during Irving's suspension, and hopefully it will suit him well.

Maliek Collins may get to move back to the 3-technique spot he played as a rookie, where he was far more effective than as the 1-tech DT last year. Still, Collins could start at either spot and that gives him tremendous value.

If Dallas wants to get Maliek back to 3-tech, it means finding a new 1-tech out of Richard Ash, Brian Price, or Jihad Ward. Ash and Price both played it at times last year and have flashed good things despite limited experience.

Ward, a former second-round pick, was acquired in a trade for WR Ryan Switzer and has been standing out in the recent OTAs and minicamp. At 6'5", Ward has the frame to add weight and could wind up as the 1-tech by Week One. He also has the athleticism to play the spot, giving Dallas lots of options even without David Irving.

Clearly, nothing is certain at defensive tackle. Even with Irving, we were going to a lot of rotation and variation in the use of players. But right now there are no guarantees how any of these DTs will be deployed, and who will get the starts, in the regular season.

Is 2018 LB Sean Lee's Last Season with Cowboys?

Dallas Cowboys LB Leighton Vander Esch

Linebacker

Dallas spent a first-round pick on LB Leighton Vander Esch, adding an important new element to the group. But will the rookie immediately earn a starting role?

The current projection for the base defense is that Vander Esch will start in the middle with Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith outside. That pushes fourth-year veteran Damien Wilson to the bench.

That works if Leighton is ready for all that comes with being the MIKE, but is that reasonable to expect from any rookie?

As we saw for years from Sean Lee, that middle linebacker's ability to read what's going on behind the line of scrimmage and make adjustments is critical. Will Vander Esch be able to provide that kind of leadership early on?

Dallas may elect to start Jaylon Smith in the middle, and keep Wilson as the starting SAM, while Vander Esch gets work in over time.

Sean Lee should have WILL locked down, but everything else in the LB group is open for discussion.

Byron Jones, #31

Dallas Cowboys CB Byron Jones

Cornerback

It would have been easy to assume second-year studs Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis would walk into starting jobs this year. But then Dallas decided to move Byron Jones back to corner, and make a change in the Defensive Backs Coach, that brings things more into question.

Kris Richard comes over from Seattle with his preference for big, physical corners. That, plus more overall NFL experience, gives Jones some advantages over Lewis for the starting role.

Even if Awuzie moves into the slot when three CBs are used, he is expected to start in the base defense. In truth, all three guys will get starts at times depending on what formations opposing offenses come out in.

Even Anthony Brown factors into things here. Now in his third year, Brown's game is more suited to the outside and he has lots of experience already. If he makes a leap this offseason, Anthony could make his own push for a starting spot.

It's a wonderful problem, and a rare one, to have so much talent at cornerback. This is one of the few times when not having clear starters in June is a good thing.

Could Jeff Heath Be The Starting Safety Next Byron Jones In 2017?

Dallas Cowboys safety Jeff Heath

Safety

Should veteran Jeff Heath feel secure in his starting role? With youngsters Kavon Frazier and Xavier Woods around, Heath can't assume anything.

Both Woods and Frazier were showing up last year, and all of these players are probably better suited to the strong safety role. Who gets the start at free safety, vacated by Byron Jones going to cornerback, will be decided after plenty of camp and preseason evaluation.

The idea that Dallas might trade for Seattle's Earl Thomas is still out there, too, and the All-Pro's recent holdout from Seahawks minicamp only threw some new gas on the fire. That move would obviously occupy one of the two starting positions.

But even without a Thomas trade, there are three guys competing for two jobs. Heath's experience is valuable but doesn't promise him anything with a new position coach arriving.



Cowboys fan since 1992, blogger since 2011. Bringing you the objectivity of an outside perspective with the passion of a die-hard fan. I love to talk to my readers, so please comment on any article and I'll be sure to respond!

Game Notes

Monday Morning Hangover: Cowboys Dominate Jaguars Top-Ranked Defense

Brian Martin

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Monday Morning Hangover: Cowboys Dominate Jaguars Top-Ranked Defense 1

After watching the Houston Texans defeat the Dallas Cowboys in the Week 5, I decided to lower my expectations heading into this week's matchup with the Jacksonville Jaguars. After all, the Cowboys offense has been one of the worst in the league this season and they were going up against the top-ranked Jaguars defense. Boy was I surprised at what took place Sunday afternoon.

I don't know how you started off your football Sunday, but I decided to watch the Texans take on the Buffalo Bills. I didn't have much of a choice since I live in the Houston area and it was the only game on TV, but I still wanted to see how they played after beating my Cowboys in overtime a week prior. I was disgusted at what I saw and unfortunately took it out on my cold beverage.

The Texans looked nothing like the team we saw against the Cowboys. They were pretty much dominated by the Buffalo Bills, which I'm ashamed to say put me in a rather foul mood ahead of kickoff time in Dallas. I was expecting another sloppy performance, but what we all witnessed was anything but that.

The Dallas Cowboys offense pretty much moved the ball at will against the Jacksonville Jaguars top-ranked defense. I don't think anyone could have predicted that, especially considering the Jaguars were the best overall defense in the league and where the top-ranked in the passing game as well. I thought if the Cowboys were going to have any kind of chance it was against their 14th ranked run defense.

Ezekiel Elliott

Dallas Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott

Well, the Cowboys ended up dominating on the offensive side of the ball and completely exploited the Jaguars defense both on the ground and through the air. Quarterback Dak Prescott, Running Back Ezekiel Elliott, and Wide Receiver Cole Beasley all raised the level of their game and were big contributors to the 40 points the offense put on the board.

Prescott may have thrown for little less than 200 yards, but he was able to connect with Beasley nine times for 101 yards and two touchdowns. With all of the struggles in the passing game for the Cowboys, these two need to continue to connect like this.

Where Prescott was the most impactful against the Jaguars was with his feet. He was really close to being the Cowboys leading rusher with 82 yards and a TD on just 11 carries, but Zeke ended up surpassing him in the end with 106 yards and a TD on 24 carries. Regardless, the Jaguars defense didn't have an answer for Prescott's feet Sunday afternoon.

I have hope once again that this offense is clicking, but I've gone down this road once before. The Dallas Cowboys are still right in the mix of things in the NFC East division and will have a chance to distance themselves next week when they take on the Washington Redskins.

Now, here's the difficult part of all of this. The Cowboys now need to carry over this impressive offensive performance against the Jaguars into next week against the rival Redskins. We've all seen them riding on a high before this season, only to crash back down to earth the following week. They can't afford to do that with a division foe up next on the schedule.

What did you think about the Dallas Cowboys offense against the Jaguars?



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Game Notes

DAL 40, JAX 7: Cowboys Answer The Bell In Dominant Win

Kevin Brady

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DAL 40, JAX 7: Cowboys Answer The Bell In Dominant Win

It seems like a pattern is developing here during the 2018 Dallas Cowboys season.

For a team and an offense which has looked absolutely horrid on the road, the Cowboys appear to be one of the better teams in the conference when playing at home.

That trend continued today as the Cowboys dominated the now 3-3 Jacksonville Jaguars from start to finish, en route to a 40-7 home victory over last year's AFC semi-finalist.

Quarterback Dak Prescott had possibly his best game of the season, making up for his poor performance in Houston a week ago. While Prescott only threw for 183 yards on 17 completions, it was his 82 rushing yards on 11 carries which put this offense over the top. Plus, the Cowboys were in "kill the clock" mode for basically the entire second half.

The real story here was the offensive line, however. The o-line which has been heavily criticized by the fan base during the season, and has shouldered a heavy amount of the blame for the poor offensive production, finally stepped up and played to their standards this afternoon. Prescott had great pass protection all day, which was evident in his passing numbers and Cole Beasley's receiving performance.

Dallas is now 3-3 on the season, tied with the defending champ Eagles and a half game behind Washington for first place in the NFC East. Next week the Cowboys have a huge game in Washington with first place on the line.

Other Notes

  • Cole Beasley proved once again why he's worthy of the pay day he'll get (probably somewhere else) this offseason. Beasley caught 9 balls for 101 yards and 2 touchdowns, dominating man coverage all game long.
  • These linebackers are legit. Both Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith were all over the field today, anchoring a group which was impressive yet again.
  • Brett Maher simply can't miss, going 4 for 4 on field goal attempts including a 55 yarder in the second half.
  • Ezekiel Elliott went over 100 yards rushing again this week, and it was somehow still a quiet day for him in the grand scheme of things.
  • Byron Jones was the best cornerback on either team today, deflecting 3 passes and staying sticky to the Jacksonville wide outs all day. He's been incredible this season and Sunday's game was no different.
  • Oh, and Randy Gregory sack alert! Party!



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Player News

David Irving Ready to “Be Put Through Ringer” in First Action with Cowboys

Sean Martin

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David Irving Ready to "Be Put Through Ringer" in First Action with Cowboys
(AP Photo/Brandon Wade)

The Dallas Cowboys patience in Defensive Tackle David Irving is set to pay off on Sunday, as Irving will play in his first game of 2018 after being suspended for the first four weeks. Irving was eligible to play last week in the Cowboys overtime loss at the Texans, but did not make the trip to Houston as he dealt with off-field concerns.

The Cowboys defense has performed admirably without Irving, but in a needed game against the Jaguars, it could be up to this defense to win the game for Dallas - something a disruptive player like Irving has the ability to do on any given snap.

While the plan is for the Cowboys to ease Irving into this game, his impact from the DT position might be enough to leave him on the field as much as needed in a tight game.

Kate Hairopoulos on Twitter

Irving said the coaches want to play him 10-15 snaps Sunday. "That's what they say now but if it's a close game, I know good and well Marinelli is going to be sending me out there & putting me through the ringer. I'm ready for it.

Like a good left-handed pitcher in baseball or three-point specialist in basketball, the Cowboys have afforded Irving a long leash despite his unreliability thanks to a 6'7" and 290 pound frame that makes him a menace for opposing guards.

The 3T-DT position is a pivotal one in Marinelli's scheme, and one the Cowboys have afforded Irving every opportunity to fill, yielding results whenever the former Chiefs practice squad steal suits up.

Filling in for Irving through the Cowboys first five games of the season has been reliable veteran Tyrone Crawford. Expected to play at defensive end this season, Crawford has recorded 14 tackles and one sack from the 3T position.

With Irving back in the "Hot Boyz" rotation, it will be interesting to see if Crawford once again goes out to right defensive end, where Randy Gregory has struggled to make the most out of his own return from suspension.

Defensive Coordinator Rod Marinelli is not expecting similar struggles from Irving, prepared to put him "through the ringer".

Where Passing Game Coordinator Kris Richard calls the Cowboys defense, Marinelli is still one of the most respected coaches at The Star, demanding a lot of his defensive line in particular. It's the pairing of Marinelli's motivation and Irving's intangibles that have the Cowboys defense on the brink of taking another step toward's one of the league's best.

With their own offense set to line up against perhaps the best overall defense in Jacksonville on Sunday, Irving's return is just in time. The NFC East is far from out of reach for the Cowboys, who will be at full strength on defense once Sean Lee returns as early as next week.

The Cowboys have never lost a game in which Lee, Irving, and Defensive End DeMarcus Lawrence play at least 20% of the team's snaps on defense. Perhaps this stat will have to be adjusted to include rookie Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch in short time, but for now the Cowboys are hours away from fighting for a 3-3 start to 2018, doing so with one of their most important defenders back in the lineup.

Tell us what you think about "David Irving Ready to “Be Put Through Ringer” in First Action with Cowboys" in the comments below. You can also email me at Sean.Martin@InsideTheStar.com, or Tweet to me at @SeanMartinNFL!



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