With the 2018 NFL Draft and the signings of undrafted free agents now behind us, it's a good opportunity to look at the Dallas Cowboys roster and what they have in stock for the upcoming season.
There are still a lot of changes that could come between now and the start of training camp, let alone Week One of the regular season. But the vast majority of the 53-man roster is already here and preparing to participate in mini-camps and other activities in the coming weeks.
Yesterday, we projected 25 players for the offense. With three spots obviously going to Kicker Dan Bailey, Punter Chris Jones, and Long Snapper L.P. Ladouceur on special teams, that leaves 25 more roster openings for the defense.
What might the 2018 defense look like when the Cowboys head Charlotte, NC on September 9th for the season opener against the Carolina Panthers?
Defensive End (5)
DeMarcus Lawrence, Taco Charlton, Kony Ealy
Randy Gregory, Dorance Armstrong (R)
If nothing else, Lawrence is back for 2018 on his Franchise Player deal. In way, not having him signed long-term could be good as it keeps DeMarcus hungry for next year's free agency. But even if a new contract gets done, we should still expect "Tank" to keep excelling as one of the league's premiere pass rushers.
The progression of last year's first-round pick, Taco Charlton, will be heavily discussed in 2018. Whether you're rooting for him or trying to justify your criticism from the 2017 draft, Taco's play will be under plenty of scrutiny. He coming on at the end of his rookie year and should get a lot of playing time.
Dallas signed veteran Kony Ealy to bring some depth and some potential upside. Ealy was misused last year in the Jets' 3-4 scheme and now returns to the type of defense that suits him. The Cowboys wanted him last year but lost out on a waiver claim to New York.
I'm putting Randy Gregory here with the assumption that he gets reinstated. If he still has the potential that made him a second-round pick in 2015, Gregory could give Dallas the edge rusher that it sorely needs to go up against the left tackles. Coming back at all would be a success for Gregory, but hopefully he returns as more than just a depth player.
Another edge rushing option is rookie Dorance Armstrong, drafted in the fourth round a few weeks ago. He will need some physical development to hold up in a 4-3 scheme, but Rod Marinelli must have liked the potential to spend that mid-round pick.
Defensive Tackle (5)
David Irving, Tyrone Crawford, Maliek Collins
Terrell McClain, Jihad Ward
The Cowboys defensive line as a lot of versatile moving parts, so trying to declare anyone a "starter" could be a wasted exercise. In some cases, depending on schemes, guys who get that first snap don't have the highest counts by the end of the game.
Players like Irving and Crawford are really just defensive linemen, potentially playing end or tackle depending on the week, the series, or even each individual play. With some more options at DE now, we may not see them on the outside as much this year as in the past. Hopefully, more talent on the edges will let them wreak havoc up the middle.
Terrell McClain isn't officially a Cowboy again as of the writing of this article, but the veteran free agent is meeting with the team today and a reunion seems highly probably. McClain should walk in as a starting DT, as he was in 2016, and bring some stability to the base scheme and run defense.
Bringing McClain back will allow for Maliek Collins to get back where he belongs as the 3-tech DT, with less double teams and more ability to use his athleticism to get into the backfield. We hope to see him return to the exciting form he showed as a rookie.
Dallas traded WR Ryan Switzer for Jihad Ward, who was a second-round pick of the Raiders in 2016. Tall and athletic, Ward reminds you a bit of Jason Hatcher. In Rod Marinelli's first year in Dallas in 2013, Hatcher exploded for 11 sacks from the DT position. The Cowboys reportedly liked Jihad Ward in the 2016 draft, perhaps seeing the same potential.
The Cowboys have intriguing young talent at DT with guys like Richard Ash, Lewis Neal, and Brian Price. But these guys are all longshots given the numbers and the pedigree of the players above them.
Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch (R)
Damien Wilson, Joe Thomas, Justin March-Lillard
The Cowboys took Vander Esch 19th overall and that automatically puts him in the starting discussion. Damien Wilson has been solid the last few years, but Vander Esch needs playing time and should get a healthy piece of the rotation even if he isn't on the first team
Right now, the safest bets for the depth chart are veterans Joe Thomas and Justin March-Lillard. Along with Wilson or Vander Esch, they round out the position and can cover all three LB roles.
That said, those last two spots are where some unexpected things could happen. Thomas is probably safe after getting signed to a two-year, $3.6 million backup deal. But March-Lillard is on a minimum contract and could be ousted if an undrafted rookie or some other unknown emerges.
Obviously, all of this is secondary to the goal of having Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith stay healthy and blossom as a duo. Particularly in the nickel scheme, these two could become one of the league's most dangerous pairs of linebackers. If it happens, we won't be too worried about what's behind them.
Jourdan Lewis, Chido Awuzie, Byron Jones
Anthony Brown, Duke Thomas, Kameron Kelly (R)
When was the last time that Dallas felt this loaded at cornerback? You'd have to go back to 2012 after they added Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr to Orlando Scandrick and Mike Jenkins.
Hopefully, this turns out a lot better.
With Byron Jones moving back to CB, you have an exciting young foursome with Jourdan Lewis, Chidobe Awuzie, and Anthony Brown. With Lewis and Awuzie already looking like studs, second-year progression could mean Dallas has one of the better CB tandems in the NFL this season.
Duke Thomas was an emerging player last summer before an injury ended his year. If he's healthy, he should hold down that fifth position on the depth chart.
As you'll see below, I'm only keeping three safeties to open up a sixth CB spot. Right now I'm giving it to Kameron Kelly, an undrafted free agent with the size and style that Defensive Backs Coach Kris Richard likes. His experience as a safety in college also lends itself to a roster spot.
If not Kelly, last year's late-round pick Marquez White could get the job. He's also got prototype size and maybe could be looked at for a safety conversion at some point.
Jeff Heath, Xavier Woods, Kavon Frazier
With two corners who have safety experience in Byron Jones and Kameron Kelly, plus some potential use there with Chidobe Awuzie, Dallas can afford to go thin. They still have nine total defensive backs, which is typical for many teams.
Barring that Earl Thomas trade you keep hearing about, two of these three guys will be your starters. Heath is the veteran but has likely tapped out his potential. Woods and Frazier bring the upside and intrigue.
Much of this will come down to the new Defensive Backs Coach Kris Richard and what he likes in these players. Not only is he bringing a different philosophy to the secondary, but Richard is likely a year away from being the Defensive Coordinator. He will have some serious pull in the roster decisions.
No matter how it shakes out, you'll have your starters and a quality backup. You'll also have several options from the corners who could move over in a pinch. If Dallas does acquire Thomas, the roster spot would come from that sixth CB rather than anyone from this group.
Todd Gurley Leaps Ezekiel Elliott on NFL Rushing Leaderboard
After several weeks as the NFL's rushing leader, Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott has been bumped to second place. With a 208-yard explosion last week against the Broncos, Todd Gurley of the Los Angeles Rams has leaped Zeke on the leaderboard.
Elliott was no slouch himself in Week 6, putting up 106 yards on the vaunted Jaguars defense. But Gurley nearly doubled that in Denver, and now leads Zeke by 37 yards.
Here are the current NFL rushing leaders, :
- Todd Gurley, Rams - 623 yards
- Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys - 586 yards
- Melvin Gordon, Chargers - 466 yards
- Kareem Hunt, Chiefs - 456 yards
- James Conner, Steelers - 453 yards
- Saquon Barkley, Giants - yards
- Matt Breida, 49ers - 430 yards
- Isaiah Crowell, Jets - 430 yards
- Sony Michel, Patriots - 400 yards
It's still early in 2018, but it's already starting to look like a two-horse race for the rushing title. And it's no surprise that those two would be Elliott and Gurley.
Last year, Zeke and Todd were the top two in the NFL for yards-per-game. Gurley missed one game that year and finished second in total yards behind Kareem Hunt. Elliott was held back by his suspension.
Week 7 could allow Elliott to retake the lead. He'll see a Washington defense that he ran for 150 yards on last season in a single game. However, they are currently sixth in the NFL in rushing yards allowed.
Gurley gets a slightly softer opponent in the 49ers defense, who are just 13th in run defense. Both games will be on the road.
While these stats certainly aren't as important as wins and losses, they do matter to the players. Rushing titles come back into the conversation when Hall of Fame credentials are being considered.
If things stay at their current pace for Ezekiel Elliott and Todd Gurley, we may be tracking this race all the way through the end of the regular season.
Michael Gallup Showing Signs of a Breakout
We're only six games into the career of Rookie Wide Receiver Michael Gallup who was selected 81st overall by the Dallas Cowboys in the 2018 NFL Draft. It's been a slow start to his career, mostly because of usage. On Sunday, he took a step toward what many thought he could be for the Cowboys when he was drafted; Wide receiver one.
The numbers, one reception on two targets for 27 yards, may not indicate a breakout is coming, but if you look at the two targets he saw and the quality of the corner he faced, they're more impressive.
Look at this catch by #Cowboys rookie WR Michael Gallup https://t.co/lD1xJ2WemD
On the Dallas Cowboys first drive of the day, Cowboys Quarterback Dak Prescott looked Michael Gallup's way down the left sideline and hit him on a nice back shoulder fade that looked an awful lot like a Dez Bryant-like contested catch. It was a key play on 3rd-and-9 to get the Dallas Cowboys into Jacksonville territory on a drive that led to a Brett Maher field goal and a 3-0 lead.
Later in the game with the Cowboys driving to score a touchdown, Gallup made a tremendous catch when he got perfect depth behind All-Pro Corner Back A.J. Bouye and in front of the safety help. It looked to be an impressive touchdown catch just inside the end zone, but was overturned on replay. On review, Gallup wasn't able to get his second foot down after he made contact with the defender. Though the touchdown didn't stand, it was an impressive effort for Michael Gallup.
Michael Gallup with a near circus catch to ALMOST haul in his first NFL TD. Ruled incomplete. #cowboys #jags @CSUFootball https://t.co/SePSc3n1Yp
Michael Gallup led the Dallas Cowboys wide receiver group in snaps (81% of the offensive snaps) on Sunday, and according to Mike Clay from ESPN, he led the Dallas Cowboys in routes run as well. Both of Gallup's targets came against Bouye, showing an ability to beat one of the best corners in the NFL.
Michael Gallup paced the Cowboys in pass routes (25) for the first time in his career on Sunday.
As Michael Gallup sees more opportunities to play, his opportunities to make plays are going to continue to grow. With news coming down that Tavon Austin is unlikely to play for several weeks because of a groin injury, more snaps are opening up at the wide receiver position. Tavon played 18 snaps before getting injured on Sunday, so there will be increased opportunities for Gallup moving forward.
Gallup's only seen about 3 targets a game, but with the increased snaps he saw in week six and the potential for even more with Austin coming, the opportunities should grow. As he continues to come down with impressive catches like he did on Sunday (even if only one of them counted), it's going to increase Dak Prescott's and the coaching staff's level of trust in the rookie.
It's safe to say that more big time catches are coming for Michael Gallup and a breakout is coming sooner than later.
Takeaway Tuesday: Cole Beasley is Your Interim WR1
Watching the Dallas Cowboys beat the Jacksonville Jaguars 40-7 was undoubtedly fun for Cowboys Nation. There were not many positive expectations for the Cowboys heading into this game but both the defense and offense put on impressive performances at home in an attempt to remain serious contenders within the NFC East.
We learned a few things about the Dallas Cowboys last Sunday as they beat one of the top defenses in the NFL. Let's talk about in this week's edition of Takeaway Tuesday!
Cole Beasley Is Your Interim WR1
The Cowboys have yet to find their #1 wide receiver, but Cole Beasley is making a serious statement looking like the most reliable target in Dallas. Being 5'8 and a slot receiver doesn't really help Beasley's case to be the #1 guy, but he's making plays.
Last Sunday, he was the only wide receiver on the team with more than one catch. The other player with more than one reception was Geoff Swaim, who only got his hands on the ball twice. Beasley finished the day with nine receptions for 101 yards and two touchdown catches. The Cowboys need other WRs to step up but in the meantime, let Beasley put the sauce on opposing defenses. Hopefully he continues to hurt defenses like he did versus the Jaguars' feared secondary.
The team still needs a guy who can be a consistent threat on the outside, though. Third-round rookie Michael Gallup could develop into that, but he isn't there yet. We'll have to wait and see. Meanwhile, it's all Beasley.
Bright Future for the Defensive Line
Blake Bortles was sacked three times by the so-called "Hot Boyz" last weekend. To be quite honest, the future for this defensive line looks brightest than it ever has. The return of Maliek Collins and David Irving to the field were desperately needed for this defense to take the next step. Collins and Irving were somewhat limited, but their snap counts will surely increase as the season continues.
A lot of little details went into this sack from Maliek Collins. From his alignment pre-snap to his timing on the spin, it was a beautiful display of rushing the passer by @SavageSevv. https://t.co/CYcfLH6AfB
Randy Gregory also got limited snaps versus the Jaguars, but he was able to make an impact either way. He finished the day with one sack, two hits and one QB hurry. I can't wait until these guys' snaps increase. This should be a very scary unit for opposing quarterbacks.
Dak Prescott's Stats Don't Reflect His Performance
The Jaguars are the best defense this team has faced and yet it's been the offense's best performance. Dak Prescott's passing stats may not look great, but his play was. Even though he failed to cross the 200 yard mark on the air, he rushed for 82 yards and kept Jacksonville's defense honest. Dak has faced a lot of criticism this year and will likely continue to do so.
Even still, we've seen him ball out on various occasions now. Dak can play. He may not be an elite passer, in fact he's far from being that, but he can make this offense work if they play to his strengths.
We've heard players talk about "turning the corner" in Dallas. Cowboys Nation should hope that is the case. What's more frustrating than watching an offense being unable to move the chains and score touchdowns, is knowing they could do it with a better execution and play-calling. Thanks to players like Dak, Ezekiel Elliott and Cole Beasley, there's a silver lining for the Cowboys' offense.
Inconsistency is the Problem for Cowboys
Simply put, this is not the team we had witnessed in the first five weeks of the season. Even in the two prior wins this year, the Dallas Cowboys had not looked dominant at all. Specifically the offense. They hadn't faced a defense as tough as the Jaguars', but they were able to drop 40 on them. Now granted, they did it with the help of the defense, but still. We hadn't seen this version of the Cowboys.
Even with a 40-7 win over the Jaguars, it is tough to imagine Dallas will keep this up as the season continues. Hopefully, they do and I'm wrong about this. They need to be more consistent if they want to end up surprising the NFC East and walk away with the division title.
Although they got the big win, they still left points on the field and fail to execute for touchdowns in the second half. Even when the defense forced turnovers. In close games, this cost you wins in the NFL. The Cowboys can't afford to lose many more games, even in a weak division.
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