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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

Remembering the Cowboys NFC East Clinching Win Vs. Colts, 4 Years Later

Sean Martin

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Remembering the Cowboys NFC East Clinching Win Vs. Colts, 4 Years Later 1

The 2014 Dallas Cowboys season still feels like a landmark in the rich history of this team. Going deeper into Cowboys annuls is nothing more than a hopeless drift through wasted time that all of us are guilty of, though looking ahead at the 2018 team also leaves just distant memories of 2014.

Perhaps it was the memorable and painful way this season ended, with Dez Bryant's catch in the divisional playoffs at the Packers being played on loop ever since. This clip has surely overshadowed the way Dallas clinched the NFC East in 2014, with a 42-7 win over the Indianapolis Colts at AT&T Stadium.

The Cowboys find themselves in a similar position Sunday, beginning a stretch of three straight "win and you're in" games. The NFC East will belong to the once 3-5 Cowboys with a win over the Colts, Buccaneers, or Giants.

In that 42-7 drubbing of the Colts four years ago, Tony Romo threw three first half touchdowns to three different targets. At halftime, the Cowboys were on their way with a 28-0 lead, jumping out to a 42-0 advantage before Matt Hasselbeck would throw a garbage time touchdown (yeah, I feel old writing that too).

Just like in this match up, the Cowboys are fresh off a win over the Eagles, as they were in 2014 before rolling to the division title. Four starters from Jason Garrett's first NFC East clincher remain on his roster, though only two will play, speaking to the strides Garrett has made to salvage his reputation this year.

Left Tackle Tyrone Smith and Defensive End Tyrone Crawford will both be in the Cowboys lineup, with Travis Frederick and Zack Martin both ruled out.

The 2014 Cowboys established themselves as the run-first team that's very much still in tact thanks to Ezekiel Elliott. Only Giants rookie Saquon Barkey has more rushing yards over the last five weeks than Elliott. While Barkley continues to impress for a team that will not make the playoffs, Elliott is carrying the Cowboys closer to the postseason with every carry.

Unlike 2014, the path out of the Cowboys backfield to the top of the division hasn't been as straight. The '14 Cowboys featured a veteran lineup on both sides of the ball, focused on weekly improvements yielding a 12-4 record.

The only time the Cowboys have won more games under Garrett was in 2016, where the Cowboys altered the future of the franchise again with a new-look team that went 13-3 before losing in the divisional round to Green Bay again.

Neither 12 or 13 wins is attainable this year for the Cowboys, but the best of both recent divisional championship seasons is. Wins over the Saints and Eagles have brought back the miraculous 2016 feel Quarterback Dak Prescott's rookie season brought to Dallas. For going through both that season together, as well as a nine win campaign in 2017 that serves as Prescott's "down year", the Cowboys staffers that remember 2014 should be nostalgic at kickoff Sunday.

With the NFL being such a week-by-week, day-by-day, and even minute-by-minute experience, taking the chance to add perspective whenever possible is refreshing. The Cowboys arrival as perennial contenders in 2014 can come full circle with a new cast of players and familiar coaching staff here in week 15.

Remember just how much this team has been through to reach this point the next time you call for sweeping changes to America's Team, and if you're feeling lucky, a prop bet on Garrett having blue Gatorade dumped on him before night's end could go a long way.

Remembering the Cowboys NFC East Clinching Win Vs. Colts, 4 Years Later

(AP Photo/Brandon Wade)

Tell us what you think about "Remembering the Cowboys NFC East Clinching Win Vs. Colts, 4 Years Later" in the comments below. You can also email me at Sean.Martin@InsideTheStar.com, or Tweet to me at @SeanMartinNFL!



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Game Notes

Cowboys Wishlist: Connor Williams Turns It Around

Mauricio Rodriguez

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Could Connor Williams Be Option at Tight End for Cowboys? 1

The Dallas Cowboys are on the road again as they travel to Indianapolis to face a hot 7-6 Colts team that's trying to sneak into the AFC Playoffs. It will be a tough challenge for a team that's struggled when playing out of AT&T Stadium but the Cowboys have changed a lot since they were a 3-5 unit. This time, they're one of the hottest teams in the NFL and are one win away from clinching the NFC East.

We surely are in for a great game. Without further ado, I hope you enjoy this week's edition of "Cowboys Wishlist."

Wish #1: Leighton Vander Esch Outplays Darius Leonard

As impressive as Leighton Vander Esch has been for the Dallas Cowboys, he's not alone in the Defensive Rookie of the Year race. On today's game, he'll meet his match in Colts LB Darius Leonard. A second rounder himself, Leonard leads the league in tackles with 135. He also is responsible for 11 tackles for loss, seven sacks, four forced fumbles and one interception.

Vander Esch, otherwise known as "Wolf Hunter" doesn't have such incredible stats, but playing time is a big reason why. His play has been pretty impressive, though. Ranked as the top rookie linebacker by PFF, hell be out there to prove who's the better player. I really wish he outplays Leonard en rout to the DROY award.

Dak Prescott Clutch in 4th Quarter & OT in Win Over Eagles 3

Wish #2: No Turnovers From Dak

455 yards, three touchdowns and another game-winning drive were more than impressive from Dak Prescott. I really have faith in him as the Cowboys' QB. But we can't ignore the three turnovers he was responsible for in such a close game versus the Philadelphia Eagles.

This game will be different. The Colts are a legit threat in the NFL right now and the Cowboys won't be the home team. Without Martin on the field, Prescott is likely to be pressured. If that's the case, he needs to watch out and avoid fumbles in the pocket.

It's really important the team takes care of the ball if they want the win versus Andrew Luck and company. I specifically wish Dak Prescott has a good game and does something he's done fairly well throughout his career:  take care of the ball.

Wish #3: Connor Williams Turns It Around

Expectations were sky-high for second round pick Connor Williams. A starter in week 1, injury and poor play sidelined him in favor of Xavier Su'a-Filo. With Zack Martin out for the game, Williams has another opportunity to shine. This time he'll be lining up as the team's right guard between C Joe Looney and RT La'el Collins.

It's very important to remember Williams is only a rookie. Just because we're used to offensive line rookies to have immediate success for Dallas doesn't mean every one the team brings in will be as great starting off. A rough start is not the end of the world for Williams. Also worth noting, the majority of his playing time came under now-fired OL coach Paul Alexander. I'm convinced he'll turn things around and will become an important player for the Cowboys soon.

For now, I wish he takes advantage of the opportunity to play and does a great job to be considered again for the LG spot once Martin returns.

Sean's Scout: Resilient Prescott Inches Cowboys Closer to NFC East Title

Dallas Cowboys WR Amari Cooper (Richard Rodriguez / Getty Images)

Wish #4: Amari Cooper Keeps It Up

The impact Amari Cooper has had on this team is quite frankly unbelievable. He should really be seen as this season's savior for the Cowboys. While the defense is winning games, without Cooper the offense would still be terrible and results wouldn't be the same. He has more than justified the first round pick the Jones traded away to get him.

In a big, road game like this one, I hope he keeps it up and has another huge performance. Whether it is multiple scores or a 100-yard game, I simply want to see him shine again.

Tell me what you think about "Cowboys Wishlist: Connor Williams Turns It Around" in the comments below, or tweet me @MauNFL and let’s talk football! If you like football and are looking for a Dallas Cowboys show in Spanish, don’t miss my weekly Facebook Live! show, Primero Cowboys!



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Game Notes

Cowboys, Colts Week 15 Injury Report

Jess Haynie

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Less Is More For Sean Lee And Cowboys' LBs?

The Dallas Cowboys can clinch the NFC East with a win this week, while the Indianapolis Colts are fighting to stay alive in the AFC wild card race. Only one team can accomplish their goal, and both have some big names on the Week 15 injury report.

We'll begin with the visiting Cowboys, who could be getting at least one star player back while another is already confirmed to miss the game.

Dallas Cowboys

  • TE Geoff Swaim (wrist) - OUT
  • G Zack Martin (knee) - OUT
  • DL David Irving (ankle) - OUT
  • WR Tavon Austin (groin) - Questionable
  • WR Lance Lenoir (illness) - Questionable
  • OT Tyron Smith (neck) - Questionable
  • DE Randy Gregory (personal) - Questionable
  • LB Sean Lee (hamstring) - Questionable

Yes, sadly, Zack Martin will be out tomorrow. The good news is that Connor Williams got the entire week to practice with the starters at right guard. You can read much more about this situation and it's impact on the game here, courtesy of our own Sean Martin.

Also ruled out, as they have been for a while now, are TE Geoff Swaim and DL David Irving.  Swaim is still recovering from wrist surgery but has not been placed on injured reserve, so the team must feel he could be back for the playoffs. Irving could return as soon as next week.

Speaking of returns, Sean Lee may be back on the field this Sunday. It's unknown yet how he'll rotate with Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith, but Dallas has the luxury of working him in slowly thanks to the play of their young duo.

Tavon Austin could also return this week, creating another new offensive wrinkle. Austin has been injured since the Jacksonville game and has yet to play since the Cowboys acquired Amari Cooper. Not only could Tavon do some interesting things in the offense, but he should bring some additional sizzle to special teams.

While appearing on the injury report, Randy Gregory missed practice this week for "family reasons" according to Jason Garrett. He could still play tomorrow.

Indianapolis Colts

  • G Mark Glowinski (ankle) - OUT
  • LB Skai Moore (neck) - OUT
  • S Mike Mitchell (calf) - OUT
  • WR T.Y. Hilton (ankle) - Questionable
  • TE Ryan Hewitt (ribs) - Questionable
  • S Clayton Geathers (knee) - Questionable

The big name here is Hilton, the star receiver who missed all practice this week with an ankle injury. Indianapolis has not ruled him out, wanting to give Andrew Luck's favorite target every opportunity to play. But it's not looking good, and a bad ankle could limit Hilton's effectiveness even if he goes.

Also hurt among the passing options is starting TE Ryan Hewitt, but he did practice full on Friday and should go. Not playing, however, is starting right guard Mark Glowinski. That means third-year player Evan Boehm should start, who just joined the team in October.

Indy's hurting at safety this week. Not only did starter Clayton Geathers miss the whole week of practice, but veteran backup Mike Mitchell is already ruled out. The Colts would have to rely on undrafted rookie George Odum if neither plays.

Fun fact before we go; former Cowboy Jihad Ward was picked up by the Colts after Dallas included him in their roster cuts to start the season. However, he landed on injured reserve back in October so won't get a chance at revenge.



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