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Cowboys 2018 Preview: Which Defensive Starting Jobs Are Open?

Jess Haynie

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Jaylon Smith

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!

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BREAKING: Ezekiel Elliott Handcuffed After Incident with Security Guard

Jess Haynie

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No Preseason Work Hurt Ezekiel Elliott's Early Season Production?

TMZ has released footage of Dallas Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott being handcuffed and escorted by police after an altercation with security at a Las Vegas music festival over the weekend.

Elliott was not arrested and no charges have been filed.

ProFootballTalk on Twitter

Ezekiel Elliott handcuffed but not charged after incident at Las Vegas music festival https://t.co/NJQ6csGgnv

The video shows Zeke engaged in what appears to be an argument with a female companion. Elliott is seen following her through the crowd, and then security starts to get involved after Zeke moves his body to block her from walking away.

One of the security guards says something that attracts Elliott's attention, causing him to move in closer. The guard falls backward from minimal contact. It as soon after that police get involved.

There isn't much here that would cause trouble for the average player, but that's hardly Elliott's situation. He's one of the most prolific stars in the NFL and already has history with the league for domestic violence and personal conduct issues.

Remember, no charges were filed when the NFL gave Elliott a six-game suspension in 2017 after accusations from an ex-girlfriend of domestic violence.

We will have to wait and see how Roger Goodell chooses to treat this latest issue.



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Ezekiel Elliott ‘Excited’ About Dallas Cowboys ‘Promise’ in 2019

John Williams

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Dallas Cowboys Still Plagued by Red Zone Struggles

There's a lot to look forward to as the team gears up for offseason training activities and minicamp. The 2019 Dallas Cowboys look like a potential contender in the NFC after making it to the divisional round of the playoffs before falling to the NFC representative Los Angeles Rams by a score.

The offseason additions the team has made in addition to the draft have many in Cowboys Nation excited about the Dallas Cowboys heading into the 2019 season. That includes Running Back Ezekiel Elliott.

Jon Machota on Twitter

Ezekiel Elliott: "I'm just excited about the group of guys we have. I'm excited about the talent we have on this team. I'm excited about the leadership group we have. I think we have a lot of the right pieces. I think we have a lot of promise for this season.

I think the Cowboys are right to be optimistic about their team heading into the season. They had one of the top 10 defenses in the NFL and an offense that was trending in the right direction over the last half of 2018.

On both the offensive and defensive side of the football the Dallas Cowboys have gotten better as a team.

The offense sees the return of Travis Frederick to the middle of the offensive line and though Joe Looney was good, he's no Travis Frederick. Frederick's return will improve communication along the offensive line and improve their run blocking up the middle; an area where the Cowboys struggled with consistency in 2018.

Another veteran returning to the Cowboys for 2019 is Tight End Jason Witten. Though he's slowed down some at 38 years old, having his leadership and veteran presence on a team attempting to make a deep playoff run is very important. Witten's as steady a player as has been in the NFL and should still be able to make plays in the run and pass game.

The additions of Randall Cobb and Tony Pollard give the Dallas Cowboys a more versatile group of players for new Offensive Coordinator Kellen Moore to toy with. This versatility will allow them to keep teams off balance. With Randall Cobb, the Cowboys will be able to move Amari Cooper around the formation in order to find favorable matchups in the passing game. Tony Pollard gives the Cowboys a durable gadget option and big-play threat in the run and pass game. Pollard's ability as a returner could help the Cowboys get more favorable field position in 2019.

Ezekiel Elliott himself stands to benefit a great deal from the additions and changes the Cowboys made to the offense. Pollard is an upgrade as a running back to Rod Smith, so the Cowboys can cut Ezekiel Elliott's workload a little and keep him fresh by expanding on the two series a game the coaching staff used to give Smith.

On defense, they added Robert Quinn to a defensive line that already boasts one All-Pro pass rusher in DeMarcus Lawrence. Christian Covington, Kerry Hyder, and Trysten Hill provide depth to an interior that struggled against the Rams in the playoffs and the Indianapolis Colts during the regular season. The defensive line.

In addition to all that, the Cowboys will get to see what kind of progress their 2018 rookie standouts make in year two.

Leighton Vander Esch was a second-team All-Pro in 2018 and should have won defensive rookie of the year with his play. Connor Williams looks to have gained the necessary size and strength to play left guard in the NFL. A second offseason at guard should help him to improve at his new position. Michael Gallup was a revelation in the third round of the draft last year. After slowly being worked into the lineup over the first half of the season, he emerged as the Dallas Cowboys second wide receiver.

The NFC East and the NFC is a tough place to play. Every year, it's an uphill climb to win enough games to win the division or make the playoffs, but the Cowboys have put themselves in a fantastic position to do just that. Though no team has been a repeat winner of the NFC East since the early 2000s, the Dallas Cowboys have built a team that will be able to compete with any team in the NFL.

From the roster to the coaching staff, the Dallas Cowboys have built a squad that should get anyone excited. Are there questions as the team heads to training camp? Of course. But every team has questions at one position or another. The Cowboys have done an excellent job to minimize those questions through free agency and the draft and have one of the best teams in the NFL on paper.

The excitement that Ezekiel Elliott feels is warranted. The Dallas Cowboys do have a lot of promise as we look ahead. Now as they get ready to start ramping up practices, it's time for Elliott and the rest of the team to go prove it.

And I have a feeling they'll live up to that "promise."



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DT Leonard Williams May be Available, Should the Cowboys Explore a Trade?

John Williams

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DT Leonard Williams May be Available, Should the Cowboys Explore a Trade?

Per a report by Rich Cimini of ESPN, the New York Jets may be exploring a trade for their star defensive lineman Leonard Williams. With Williams set to hit free agency in 2020, the theory is the Jets may not be interested in locking up Williams long-term after just drafting Quinnen Williams with their top five selection in 2019.

Here's what Cimini had to say in his report:

"There's already talk in league circles that Gase could be looking to move on from Williams, who will be a free agent after the season. He's due to make a guaranteed $14.2 million in the final year of his contract. Gase hasn't said anything about Williams that would spark speculation, but it's not hard to connect the dots when examining the defensive line situation."

Rich Cimini - ESPN.com

Williams has been a really good player for the New York Jets who has played 3-4 defensive end and some defensive tackle for the Jets in his four-year career. A former sixth overall pick has had as many as seven sacks and as few as two sacks a season, but he's played in all 64 games in his career, starting 63. He's stayed healthy and been productive on a Jets defense that hasn't been very good over the last few years.

Defense & Fumbles Table
Game Def Def Def Def Def Fumb Fumb Fumb Tack Tack Tack Tack Tack
Year Tm GS Int Yds TD Lng PD FF Fmb FR Sk Comb Solo Ast TFL QBHits
2015 NYJ 15 3.0 63 29 34 7 21
2016* NYJ 16 2 0 0 7.0 68 36 32 11 19
2017 NYJ 16 1 6 0 6 1 2.0 47 22 25 3 25
2018 NYJ 16 0 0 0 0 2 5.0 42 27 15 11 20
Care 63 1 6 0 6 3 2 0 0 17.0 220 114 106 32 85
Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 5/20/2019.

For the Cowboys defense, he would project as a 3-technique with the ability to be the Cowboys 1-technique in passing situations. Among interior defensive lineman, Leonard Williams finished 21st in run stops per Pro Football Focus and sixth in total pressures with 53. Williams was third among interior players in QB hits with 16 ahead of Kansas City Chiefs Defensive Lineman Chris Jones and Seattle Seahawks Defensive Tackle Jarran Reed. For reference, DeMarcus Lawrence had 63 total pressures and 11 QB hits in 2018, while Tyrone Crawford had only 37 total pressures.

The Dallas Cowboys have been working to reinforce their defensive line this offseason after struggling in the playoff loss to the Los Angeles Rams when the Cowboys gave up over 200 yards rushing. Though they like Antwaun Woods and Maliek Collins, they obviously weren't satisfied with the going into 2019 with just those two in the Dallas interior.

In free agency, the Cowboys added Christian Covington and Kerry Hyder and then drafted Trysten Hill with their second-round pick. They also added Daniel Wise, a player that was seen as a fourth or fifth rounder in most people's minds as an undrafted free agent and will compete for a roster spot.

As intriguing as Covington, Hyder, Hill, and Wise are in addition to Maliek Collins and Woods, Williams would be an immediate upgrade at 3-tech and the Dallas Cowboys should explore it, even if they don't plan on resigning him beyond 2019.

The Cowboys could swap expiring contracts by sending Maliek Collins to New York and a draft pick. Collins is unlikely to be resigned by the team in the 2020 offseason as they have plans for Hill as their 3-tech of the future.

The Dallas Cowboys showed with the trade for Robert Quinn that they're alright going after the one-year rental player. Leonard Williams would make their defense better for 2019 and while they have high hopes for Trysten Hill, Williams is a known asset right now and wouldn't prevent you from giving Hill snaps at 3-tech.

For a team hoping to make a Super Bowl run, adding a player like Leonard Williams makes a lot of sense. He's another disruptive player that would immediately improve your pass rush and also helps your run defense. The Dallas Cowboys have a team ready to win now, so now's the time to go get players that help you do so.



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