It feels like forever ago, but the Dallas Cowboys current 11 game winning streak started after a season-opening loss to this week's opponent - the New York Giants. Now with a remarkable chance to lock up the NFC East with a revenge win at the Giants, I sat down with NJ.com Giants Beat Writer James Kratch to get his insight on this match up from a New York perspective.
Q: So let's start with the big injury news coming into this game on the Giants side of things. Most notably, Jason Pierre-Paul was injured in that Steelers game - going to be out for some time including this game of course. Who are the Giants really looking at to step up in his absence?
He's historically always been consistently good, but he's had his best games against the Cowboys. So who are they looking at not only in the long-term as far as who can rush off that edge opposite of Olivier Vernon, but here against the Cowboys knowing you have Doug Free at right tackle - probably the only potential weak spot on the Cowboys offensive line - who are they trying to put over there to get the same pass rush that they've gotten out of Pierre-Paul?
James Kratch (@JamesKratch): It's going to be tough. It's not going to be one person per say, it's going to be three main guys. Kerry Wynn, an undrafted free agent that's been in the league a couple of years. Really strong run defender. Not as much of a pass rusher - he's only got two sacks in his career. They also have two young guys, undrafted rookie Romeo Akwara - he's kind of emerged as the third end. Wynn maybe will start the game in the base package but you'll see Akwara in there on passing downs. He doesn't have a sack in his NFL career but he's flashed at times in the preseason, somewhat in the regular season. Then you have Owamagbe Odighizuwa, last year's third round pick. Basically missed his entire rookie season due to injuries. He had a good preseason but hasn't done a whole heck of a lot in the regular season -- and hasn't got a whole lot of opportunities. He missed last week's game against the Steelers with a knee injury. It looks like he should be able to play on Sunday but it's not 100% sure. He was kind of coming on strong before the knee injury, so they're going to look to those three key guys.
I think you'll also see SAM linebacker Devon Kennard also walk up a little bit in pass rush situations on the end. For the most part, it will be those three guys, and they readily admit that no one player will replace Pierre-Paul. It's really a devastating blow for this defense and this team, especially when you're going to go up against the Cowboys and that offensive line. They're kind of hoping that those three guys - and the sum of their parts - will be something equal to Pierre-Paul.
Q: Overall on this defense, how confident is this Giants team and defensive line as a whole that they can duplicate what they did in Week 1 against the Cowboys offensive line and against Ezekiel Elliott playing in his first game? They held Elliott to just 51 yards on 21 carries in this game and ever since we've all seen Elliott blossom into what we all expected him to be behind this Cowboys line when they drafted him at fourth overall. He's been great, Dak Prescott in the backfield as the other rookie has progressed as well. Obviously the Giants understand that they have a whole different test coming into this game facing those two, but how confident are they that what they did in Week 1 was something that can be duplicated here on Sunday night?
James Kratch (@JamesKratch): They are very confident. They have the league's 5th ranked rush defense. Johnathan Hankins and Damon Harrison in the middle, Vernon on the edge, I would expect them to be confident as an 8-4 football team. They've had a really good defense and they've done it before, but from an outsiders perspective I just look at this Cowboys team and see a team that is drastically different from what they were in week 1 especially in Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott. I think the Giants will have their hands full on Sunday.
Q: Ben McAdoo has really been giving a lot of praise to this Cowboys offense, and he even pointed out a couple of defenders that are playing pretty well for Dallas right now. You think back to this rivalry between the Giants and the Cowboys when it was Tom Coughlin over on the sideline for the Giants - coming into a game like this you would always be worried as a Cowboys fan that the Giants were going to get this win or at least make it your toughest game of the season. Always incredibly competitive, he always knew how to rally his guys for any big game and especially these against Dallas. Now under McAdoo, he's trying to get this team bounced back after a loss, he's still trying to stay alive in this NFC East race and trying to not let the Cowboys clinch the division on their home field, what's been his message to the team this week and what has he been emphasizing when it comes to understanding that they beat this team once but they can't get too far ahead of themselves if they want to prevent the Cowboys from winning their 12th straight game?
James Kratch (@JamesKratch): I really don't think they've spent much time externally projecting out on this game. I think their main focus is to take it week by week. With Pierre-Paul being out, the rally cry this week has been, "all hands on deck", and a whole bunch of players have been saying that. Clearly McAdoo is drumming that into their minds. He says they have to get better at getting better, this offense has struggled mightily recently and it's a major issue. Cruz isn't getting any targets, Shepard the week before struggled too.
I don't think the Giants are worried about the Cowboys, I'm sure they want to beat them and they would prefer to not have the Cowboys clinch the East at MetLife Stadium, but I think the Giants are more focused on themselves. The division hasn't been on the table realistically for weeks now, this team has got to make a push for the Wild Card. You have Tampa Bay and Washington and teams below them that they've already lost to getting themselves back into the playoff picture. The Giants needs to focus on themselves and getting their offense right these last four games.
Q: Getting into the Giants offense, they had their six game winning streak snapped at the Steelers as Manning thew two interceptions in that game. The Cowboys defense has forced just two turnovers in their last five games overall. Looking at this Giants offense, knowing the names that are probably going to have a big game - we know Manning is going to bounce back, we know Beckham is going to get his targets and make the explosive plays that we've all seen - who else outside of those expected named do you really need to step up for the Giants offense to potentially stick with the Cowboys in what could be a shootout type of game?
James Kratch (@JamesKratch): I think the running game has to step up. It remains to be seen if Shane Vereen will be active from IR for the game. If he is, they need him, Paul Perkins, and Rashad Jennings. I also think Will Tye is a guy that has proven he can make plays, they need to him to make plays consistently, and him and Jerell Adams need to block to help the run game. The Giants offense is juts not getting the job done 12 games in, and it's been a surprise given what they expected to be. They have to get this ship righted fast with four games left and a crowded NFC Wild Card mix. I think the Giants would be devastated if they started 8-3 and missed the playoffs, but I think that's very much on the table if they don't get their act together.
Q: Another sore spot for the Giants offensively not only in the Steelers game but ongoing is left tackle Ereck Flowers. This is an interesting match up talking about who Flowers is going to line up against defensively. The Cowboys have shuffled through some guys at that RDE position. They don't really have a true speed rusher. They've moved DeMarcus Lawrence back and forth a bit to try to get production from that spot. What do you see coming out of this match up if anything, can Flowers step up and help the Giants running game and really have his best game of the season to get himself right down the stretch or do you see any Cowboys defenders that can have their way against Flowers surprisingly?
James Kratch (@JamesKratch): Flowers had a really bad game against the Packers earlier in the season, and he bounced back the next week pretty well. I would not go as far to say he'll have his best game of the season, but given the fact the Cowboys don't have a tremendously productive pass rush this could be a bounce back performance from Flowers. I definitely think that's one of the key things for the Giants giving them a shot to win on Sunday night, the Cowboys don't have a tremendous pass rush, their offensive line can adjust although they've been banged up.
Q: How closely are you personally expecting this game to resemble the week 1 match up between these two teams where it was kind of sloppy on both ends? On the Cowboys side of things you could tell that Prescott and Elliott weren't in their preseason form, they were a little bit uptight, allowing the Giants defense to make plays. Manning threw the game winning touchdown to hand the Cowboys their only loss so far this season.
James Kratch (@JamesKratch): I think this will be pretty much what we saw in week 1. There may be at least some snow on Sunday Night in East Rutherford. This will be a slug fest. The Giants offense isn't that great, and the Giants defense will have some success against the Cowboys. I don't think they'll have all the success they need to have to win the game but I do think they'll be able to get to Elliott and the run game and get to Dak to a point. I do think they'll generate some pass rush, and it will be a close game in the fourth quarter. I think Dallas will eventually wear the Giants down and pull away.
Q: In your opinion, is there a better team that is more fit to win a game that might be played in the snow on the road than the Cowboys with this offensive line traveling and their comfort with Ezekiel Elliott touching the ball like a workhorse back that nobody else really has?
James Kratch (@JamesKratch): No. I think this Dallas team has it drawn up how you want it to be to win these games in December on the road. In terms of the best team in the NFL, I think the Cowboys have to be considered that now. I do wonder what will happen down the road if they play Seattle, New England, Kansas City, or Oakland. If those defenses force Dak to make all the plays to beat them it will be interesting. This team is built for December football which is unique because they play indoors, and they have most of their games down the stretch indoors. The Giants are built like a dome team that plays outdoors. The Cowboys have the edge if the elements are a factor on Sunday night.
Q: Janoris Jenkins, another big off-season acquisition, still getting a feel for how New York fans respond to having such a high paid player at defensive back going up against some of the top WRs that we have here in the NFC East and around the league. What are you hearing from Jenkins and his teammates coming into this game on his match up with Dez Bryant? A lot of Cowboys fans are certainly aware of Landon Collins coming into this game as the Giants secondary has played well, he can help out along with the pass rush effecting Prescott - but overall Jenkins against Bryant is a game within this game.
James Kratch (@JamesKratch): Dez had one catch for eight yards in the opener. I don't think the Giants are going to hold Dez to one catch again on Sunday night. Every time Jenkins has faced an elite receiver - Antonio Brown last week had a TD catch on a circus grab, AJ Green earlier in the year, Jenkins did relatively well against Pryor too - he's proven to be worth his money as a lock down corner against #1 wide receivers.
I do expect Dez to make plays on Sunday night, it would be pretty hard to keep him 0 for the season in two games. The Giants are going to try to make it so Dez doesn't wreck the game for them. Tight end has been a major issue for the Giants, so Jason Witten could wreck the game and he's a guy that you have to take care of. Cole Beasley has beat them up on third down at times out of the slot. Overall Jenkins has played well and the secondary is a bright spot for the Giants going up against the Cowboys, but I do expect Dez to do something on Sunday Night - I have a hard time thinking they'll shut him down for two games.
You can follow me on Twitter for more @ShoreSportsNJ, and feel free to use the comment section below to discuss your thoughts on the Giants and Cowboys!
Cowboys OT La’el Collins Could Become Major Bargain
When you talk Cowboys offensive line, you always think of Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin first. Right Tackle La'el Collins still has to prove he belongs in the same sentence with his elite teammates. If he does that in 2018, Collins could become one of the best bargains on the roster.
Making the move from left guard to right tackle last year, Collins improved with time and was playing his best football at the end of the year. This was despite ongoing back issues that had him on the injury report most weeks.
La'el started all 16 games at right tackle and did enough that the Cowboys committed to keeping him there in 2018, even despite a big hole back at left guard. They are hoping consistency and stability will allow Collins to really blossom this season, building on the strong progress shown last year.
For 2018, Collins has a $5.76 million cap hit. According to Spotrac, that makes him the 13th-most expensive right tackle in the NFL this year.
That middle-of-the-pack expense is consistent with where La'el currently rates among NFL right tackles. Bleacher Report ranked Collins as the 16th-best RT in football last year.
But that ranking was based on the season as a whole. If La'el plays all of 2018 the way he was playing towards the end of last year, he will have emerged as one of the better right tackles in the game.
If Collins develops as we hope, that salary suddenly becomes a major bargain. The most expensive right tackles in the NFL are making $7-$9 million this season.
But this can go a couple of ways. With his 2019 cap hit rising to $7.9 million, La'el needs to next step forward.
If Collins were to struggle this year, it could make him a potential cap casualty next offseason. Dallas can save $6.5 million in cap space if Collins is released or traded in 2019.
Dallas could elect to give Connor Williams, their second-round pick this year, a look at right tackle next season. It's the position he played in college.
They could also consider veteran backup Cameron Fleming, who will still be just 26-year-old. Fleming has two Super Bowl rings and several starts, including in the postseason, from his time with the Patriots.
While we think of La'el Collins as a first-round talent, it's important to remember that he was ultimately an undrafted free agent. Dallas did not have to invest anything to acquire him, and ultimately that makes it easier to let him go.
Naturally, we prefer the other side of this coin. If Collins builds on 2017, he will join the upper echelon of right tackles in the league. And if the Cowboys' offensive line isn't already the best in the NFL, that would only cement them as the best unit in football.
If La'el makes the leap, it could mean huge things for the Cowboys' offense and team success this year.
How Cowboys Could Benefit From Randy Gregory’s Suspension
Randy Gregory is back! His suspension is officially over and he will be able to join the Dallas Cowboys in Oxnard, California when training camp gets underway less than a week from now.
Speculation has already started as to what this could mean for the Dallas Cowboys defense this season, and shockingly expectations are rather high for a player who hasn't stepped foot on the field in over a year. But, that's not what I want to talk about today. Today I want to focus on Gregory's mess of a contract, because it is rather interesting.
Randy Gregory was signed to a four-year contract after being drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in the second-round of the 2015 NFL Draft. Gregory's rookie deal was set to expire at the conclusion of the 2018 season, but his multiple suspensions have now changed that expiration date.
You see, Gregory has only played in a total of 14 games in his career, 12 as a rookie and two in Year 2. His third year in the NFL was completely wiped out due to his year-long suspension. If you were to add that all up, it equates to just one accured season in the NFL. Remember that, because it could have a huge impact on his contract down the road.
What all of this means is that the Cowboys can pretty much stretch out Gregory's contract now that they are three years in on the deal and have only gotten one accured season out of the agreement. That basically means they can push his contract back a year, meaning his 2017 salary ($731,813) gets pushed back to 2018, his 2018 salary ($955,217) gets pushed to 2019. That would essentially make him a Restricted Free Agent (RFA) in 2020.
Or does it?
Depending on how the Dallas Cowboys handled paying Randy Gregory during his suspension could actually make him an Exclusive Rights Free Agent (EFA). This is a similar situation in which David Irving found himself in after the 2017 season. The Cowboys placed a second-round tender on him in order to secure his services for another season, albeit at a $2.91 million price tag.
As you can see, the Dallas Cowboys pretty much hold all the cards when it comes to Randy Gregory's contract situation. It's all a little confusing, but that's what makes it such a unique and interesting situation.
Of course, the Cowboys could decide to extend Gregory early if he completely dominates upon his return this season. It's highly doubtful though considering his past suspensions, but still technically a possibility. If it does happen, you can go ahead and ignore everything I've written previously.
Earl Thomas: Age is Just a Number Part II
Yesterday, I wrote a piece attempting to assuage the fears that many in Cowboys Nation have about handing a contract extension out to Earl Thomas, who is 29 years old as we enter the 2018 NFL season.
In the comment section, a reader posed a very good question that is the basis for the rest of this article:
It's a great question that certainly required some research, but Cowboys fans all across the world should be encouraged by my findings.
Just to refresh, here are the players we looked at as favorable comparisons to Earl Thomas at this point in his career. I searched Pro Football Reference for safeties who had at least three All-Pro First Team selections and at least six Pro Bowl appearances.
The average age of the players listed at the time when they reached their third All-Pro was 31 years old. I'm removing Deion Sanders and Roger Wehrli from the equation as most of their work was done at cornerback.
Let's look at a chart that outlines what these guys careers looked like at age 29 and beyond to get a better picture. Remember, Earl Thomas already has three All-Pro selections and six Pro Bowls. Many of these guys didn't reach those kind of accolades until their 30s.
The first thing I noticed as I looked into this question is that only two players had three or more All-Pro First Team selections prior to age 29, like Earl Thomas has. Those players were Rod Woodson and Ronnie Lott. Every other player on this list didn't hit their third All-Pro selection until age 29 or later.
Only one player reached his sixth Pro Bowl prior to his age 29 season, that player is Ronnie Lott, who many NFL Analysts consider to be the greatest safety of all-time. Most of the players didn't achieve their third All-Pro selection until their age 29 season or later. Earl Thomas reached his third All-Pro selection at age 25.
Here's a hot take for you: Earl Thomas, when it's all said and done could be considered the greatest safety of all-time. I'll just leave that there to marinate and if a trade does happen, we'll come back to that.
Back to the chart.
Another thing I want to point out is that none of these players were 100% healthy. Such is the life in the NFL, especially as you get older, but they were available for at least 14 games a majority of their seasons aged 29 or later. Health is an unpredictable animal in the NFL, but the safety position allows for much more longevity than many other positions. And as the chart depicts, it's a position that ages well.
So, as you can see in the chart, players who were highly productive prior to their age 29 season were also highly productive for several seasons after. These players went onto average almost seven more years in the league from their age 29 seasons.
Most players continued to average a healthy amount of interceptions. The player that saw the biggest decline from the early part of his career to the post-29 part of his career was Brian Dawkins. The former Philadelphia Eagles and Denver Broncos safety went from three interceptions per season prior to 29 to 1.9 interceptions per season 29 and after.
When it comes to the safety position, the elite seem to be able to get the most of their bodies and their abilities and can prolong their prime. The position relies as much on intelligence and awareness as it does quickness and athleticism. Earl Thomas has the mental capacity to play the game for many more years and there's been zero evidence to suggest that he is experiencing any physical decline.
At the rate of his career that he's on, Earl Thomas is destined for the Hall of Fame. He's one of the faces of the Legion of Boom defense that propelled the Seattle Seahawks into the elite category of teams in the early part of this decade.
If and when an Earl Thomas trade does occur, don't sweat an extension for Thomas.
Thomas' credentials put him in an elite group of players who played the game for a very long time and there's no reason to believe he won't continue to do so.
The Dallas Cowboys aren't that far off from having a Super Bowl contending defense built in the image of the Seattle Seahawks. Going to get the All-Pro, future Hall of Fame safety is the final piece to the to the Dallas Cowboys completing construction on "Doomsday III."
Everything else is there for the Dallas Cowboys, now all they have to do is: Go. Get. Earl!
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