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Cowboys 2018 Roster Projection: Post-Draft (Defense)

Jess Haynie

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Leighton Vander Esch

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?

DeMarcus Lawrence, Broncos

Dallas Cowboys DE DeMarcus Lawrence

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.

David Irving, Redskins

Dallas Cowboys DL David Irving

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

Dallas Cowboys LB Sean Lee

Linebacker (6)

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.

Sunday Morning Wishlist: DAL Cowboys @ NY Giants 1

Dallas Cowboys CB Chidobe Awuzie

Cornerback (6)

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.

Takeaway Tuesday: Cowboys' Defense Silently Shined, Jeff Heath Saved The Season 1

Dallas Cowboys Safety Jeff Heath forcing a goal-line fumble. (Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports)

Safety (3)

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.



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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1 Comment
  • Hector Espindola

    Enter DQ for McClain and with White in PS, you have an extra spot for the fourth safety or an extra DL in Dating Jones, cause Gregory depends on the Commissioner.

Player News

Maliek Collins Playing Excellent for Cowboys Defense

John Williams

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Maliek Collins

For the Dallas Cowboys on the interior, a lot of the news consistently surround the availability of Defensive Tackle David Irving, but Maliek Collins is playing excellent right now. While I'm willing to be very patient with Irving because of the elite talent he brings, Maliek Collins should continue to start for the Dallas Cowboys at 3-technique defensive tackle.

Collins has been a player that the Cowboys have bounced between the nose tackle and the 3T position with the hopes of getting their best players on the field, and because of the lack of a consistent presence at the 1-technique or nose tackle position. Well, with Antwaun Woods taking control at the 1T, Collins has been able to play at the position where he's at his best. The 3-tech.

He hasn't put huge numbers in the sack column this season, but that doesn't mean he's been absent from being the disruptive player he's been through his first two and a half seasons.

During the Dallas Cowboys five game winning streak, Maliek Collins has led the Dallas Cowboys defensive tackles in total pressures with 13, according to Pro Football Focus. PFF combines sacks, quarterback hits, and hurries into their "pressures." Collins hasn't recorded a sack during the winning streak, but he has four quarterback hits and nine hurries. He's tied with Tyrone Crawford for third in total pressures behind DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory over the last five weeks.

Over the last five weeks, Collins leads the defensive tackles in solo tackles with five and is tied with Crawford and Antwaun Woods with three run stops on defense, according to Pro Football Focus. Collins has also has two tackles for loss in the last five games and recovered Tyrone Crawford's force fumble on Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles.

Collins had six sacks in his rookie season when he played primarily as the 3T, which allowed him to see more one-on-one blocks against opposing interior offensive linemen. Especially with the way the rest of the defensive line is playing.

With the Cowboys on the road to face the Indianapolis Colts this week, Collins is going to have a tough matchup with a very good Colts offensive line, in particular, rookie Quentin Nelson. Collins ability to get pressure on Andrew Luck on the interior is a huge key for the Dallas Cowboys this week. We know that Gregory and Lawrence will get their pressures, but if Andrew Luck is able to step up into a clean pocket, it will make for a much more challenging game for the Cowboys secondary.

Collins has proved to be up to any task over the last five weeks and if he's able to keep playing at such a high level, he'll make the Cowboys coaching staff, and the rest of Cowboys Nation forget about using other defensive tackles. For the Cowboys to make a deep push in the playoffs, they'll need Collins to be a big time player for them moving forward.



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Game Notes

#INDvsDAL: Betting Preview, Trends, And Prediction

Kevin Brady

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Has RB Rod Smith Emerged As Ezekiel Elliott's Primary Backup? 2
Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

For once, the Cowboys are not playing what feels like a do-or-die game on Sunday, needing just 1 win over their final 3 to win the NFC East. This week the 8-5 Cowboys go on the road to face the 7-6 Colts, with each times vying for playoff spots in their respective conferences.

Both the Cowboys and Colts have turned around what looked like dead seasons, but there is no doubt the Colts need this one more than the Cowboys do to keep pace for the 6th seed in the AFC.

The Line

Cowboys +3, O/U 47 points. 

Dallas Cowboys

The once 3-5 Cowboys are now head and shoulders above the rest of their division, after winning their fifth straight in thrilling fashion over the Eagles last Sunday. The team which seemed so disjointed and inconsistent through 8 games has found their identity, and is playing complete team football as of late.

Dak Prescott is coming off a career-best game in terms of yardage, and despite some poor turnovers is still playing some of the best football of his career. This is due in large part to two stars in Amari Cooper and Ezekiel Elliott, who have shouldered the production load of this offense the last 5 weeks.

And, of course, there is the defense which continues to make life a living hell for opposing offenses. Randy Gregory is coming into his own as a pass rusher, getting another sack last week and getting flagged for what should have been his second sack of the day.

Dallas is playing the brand of football they told us they would before the season, and are beginning to make their front office and decision makers look very smart in the process.

Indianapolis Colts

At 7-6 and fighting for the final AFC playoff spot, the Colts need this one more than the Cowboys do. Getting shut out by the lowly Jaguars two weeks ago may ultimately keep the Colts out of the playoffs, but a win this Sunday and a little help elsewhere could set them up nicely down the stretch.

Indy has quietly one of the best passing offenses in all of the NFL, with star quarterback Andrew Luck playing his best football in quite some time. Luck is healthy and looks like himself again, and the selection of Quenton Nelson to sure-up the offensive line has gone a long way to improving this offense as well.

Defensively the Colts have been even more impressive lately. Though they have a roster comprised of no-names nationally, the Colts defense is 11th in DVOA. Darius Leonard has been a revelation for the Colts at linebacker, and their young defense seems to be improving by the week.

The Colts are coming off of a big road victory over the Houston Texans a week ago, and will look to defeat the Texans' in-state rivals on Sunday to improve to 8-6.

Trends

  • The Cowboys are 5-0 against the spread their last 5 games, and have won all 5 straight up.
  • The score total has hit the over 4 of the Cowboys' last 6 games.
  • But the score total has gone under 4 of the Colts' last 5 games.
  • The Colts are 4-1 straight up their last 5 home games.
  • Dallas is 6-3 their last 9 games against the Colts.

Prediction

The Cowboys' winning streak has to end at some point, right?

Well, unlike Vegas, I don't expect that ending to happen on Sunday. The Cowboys have been playing desperate football over the last 5 games and they are well aware what a win over Indianapolis would mean.

A victory would clinch them a division title for the third time in five years, and just as they did in 2014, I expect the Cowboys to get that clinching victory over the Colts. Give me the Cowboys and the points this week.



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Player News

Amari Cooper Wins 2nd NFC Offensive Player of the Week Award of 2018

Jess Haynie

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Amari Cooper

For the second time in just three weeks, Dallas Cowboys receiver Amari Cooper has been named the NFC Offensive Player of the Week.

Cooper scored three touchdowns, including the game winner in overtime, to lead the Cowboys to victory last Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles. He has 10 catches for 217 yards, which led all NFL receivers last week.

Dallas Cowboys on Twitter

After his record-setting performance during week 14, @AmariCooper9 is the FIRST #DallasCowboys to win NFC Player of the Week twice in a season! → https://t.co/kvBDIeOgBd #ProBowlVote #ProBowlVote #ProBowlVote #ProBowlVote #ProBowlVote #ProBowlVote

As the official website stated, Cooper is the first Cowboy to win the award twice in the same year. He's also the first Cowboy to be named Offensive Player of the Week since Ezekiel Elliott in 2016.

Before this year, Elliott was the only Dallas player to win the Offensive award in three seasons. Cooper has now done it twice in three weeks.

Since being traded to the Cowboys, Amari Cooper has amassed 40 catches for 642 yards and six touchdowns.

His wasted time in Oakland may keep Cooper out of the Pro Bowl this year, but he's already become a fan favorite in Cowboys Nation. Congratulations to Amari for another well-deserved award!



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