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Cowboys Backup QB Debate Taking Over Preseason

Jess Haynie

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Cowboys Backup QB Situation

We went into this preseason with Rico Gathers, Jaylon Smith, and the big names from our 2017 rookie class at the forefront of our minds. A few weeks later, the rising debate at backup quarterback between veteran Kellen Moore and undrafted rookie Cooper Rush has taken over the collective consciousness of Cowboys Nation.

You have seen and will continue to see opposing viewpoints. Some believe that no rookie, let alone an undrafted one who played in the MAC, could be ready for the speed and complexity of NFL football. Rush won't be getting first-team reps in practice or preseason, so could he really take on the responsibility of replacing Dak Prescott when the game's elite players, and most intense situations, are in front of him?

On the other hand, we've seen Kellen Moore's work. We saw his struggles in 2015 and we've seen his issues in these last two preseason games. He's getting many of the same vanilla defenses and low-end defensive talent that Rush is, so why isn't his experience shining through? What good is a veteran backup who can't even outperform an undrafted rookie?

Kellen Moore

QB Kellen Moore

We've all heard the same old lines about Kellen Moore, about how he's such a great asset in the quarterback room and to the offensive coordinator. It's the go-to defense for any Moore supporter; Kellen's value is more in game preparation than what he can do on the field. He's like an extra coach for Dak Prescott or whoever the starter is.

That's really neat and all, but doesn't Dak have enough coaches? He has Wade Wilson and Scott Linehan, two of the most experienced assistants out there. His head coach was a career backup quarterback. And if that's not enough, Dak himself is noted for his devotion to study and perfecting his craft.

It's great that Kellen Moore can contribute to all of this, but is that really more important than how he plays? Is he influencing wins and losses from the sideline as much as if he actually has to come into a game, or especially take over for an extended stretch due to injury? Does he really have the physical ability to play NFL football?

Moore's lack of arm strength is well known, but that's not just about being able to throw it deep. Passing windows are often tight and a quarterback needs to be able to zip the ball in there with accuracy. Kellen can't throw with zip, and if he tries that's going to affect accuracy. Anyone who's played golf knows that the more power you try to force into your swing, the more you open yourself up for a bad hit. It's no different for shooting a basketball, swinging a bat, or throwing a football.

Cooper Rush

QB Cooper Rush

That isn't to say Cooper Rush is out there slinging it like John Elway. A lack of arm strength was actually noted in his pre-draft scouting reports. But the proof is on the tape; Rush's passes simply look better and more professional grade than Moore's. On average, he will be in a better position to complete throws because of basic biological advantages. He's also three inches taller, and being able to see over your offensive linemen is never a bad thing.

The irony of this is that Rush was compared to Kellen Moore in his scouting report, prior to ever becoming a Cowboy. He got credit for the same things that Moore does when it comes to the mental side of the game. Essentially, he may be a taller, stronger version of Moore.

Of course, it will take time for Cooper Rush to catch up to Moore when it comes to experience and the off-field contributions. But if he has that potential and the clear physical superiority, do you really want to discard that asset? Do you even want to risk it on the practice squad?

The Cowboys have tried that in the past with promising preseason performers like Matt Moore and Alex Tanney. Moore didn't even make it past waivers in 2007, getting claimed by the Panthers after final cuts. Tanney got signed off the 2013 practice squad a few months into the season.

Dak Prescott, Kellen Moore, Wade Wilson

Cooper Rush, Kellen Moore, and Dak Prescott with QB Coach Wade Wilson. (Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News)

It doesn't happen often in sports or in life, but circumstances may allow the Cowboys to actually have their cake and eat it too. As was covered a few days ago by K.D. Drummond, Kellen Moore is still eligible for the practice squad. This surprising reality, given his years in the league, opens up the possibility to secure Cooper Rush with a roster spot, retain Moore's services with the off-field help, and keep a roster spot open for other positions. As Michael Scott would tell you, that's a "Win-Win-Win" scenario.

Of course, that scenario is contingent on Moore accepting the job. It may sound improbable that he'd be willing to take the demotion and drop to the practice squad, but keep in mind that he was a free agent last March and ultimately took a one-year, $775k contract to come back to Dallas.  Kellen was on the open market for two weeks and still took that nothing deal to remain a Cowboy, which probably tells you how much interest there was in him.

Many have said that Moore's future is in coaching, and accepting this arrangement could be the first step to securing long-term employment with the Cowboys. Wade Wilson is 58-years-old and perhaps Kellen could start a paid internship now to eventually become the new quarterbacks coach.

Even if the Cowboys keep both guys on the 53-man roster, there's still the matter of who is the primary backup. Cooper Rush came in before Kellen Moore in Monday's practice and is sharing second-team work. Dallas is clearly assessing their options now, which many have said would never happen given Moore's experience edge and relationship with Scott Linehan.

Coaches are like fans when it comes to their principles, priorities, and preconceived notions. Many don't budge easily. Cooper Rush was going to have to be pretty damn impressive to cause a shift and it looks like that's exactly what he's done. It's a pleasant surprise for the 2017 preseason, and perhaps a critical development at some point later this year.



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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6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Daniel Helms

    August 23, 2017 at 11:20 am

    Rush has not had one snap against a 2nd string defense. This is massive issue. You can’t compare the production. If you are looking at yardage Moore is blasting Rush by more than 100 yards. The defenses Rush faces wouldn’t be able to stop anything Moore throws. Rush has already thrown Int and Moore still has looked better in practice when playing at the same level.

    • Jess Haynie

      Jess Haynie

      August 23, 2017 at 12:05 pm

      Way to cherry pick those stats, Daniel. Unfortunately, you didn’t even get that right. It was Kellen who threw the interception, not Cooper. As for Moore “blasting” Rush in yardage, he’s thrown the ball 17 more times. Cooper actually has the higher YPA.

      Also, you forgot these stats. I can’t imagine why:

      TOUCHDOWNS – Rush 4, Moore 1
      COMPLETION % – Rush 68.4%, Moore 54.5%
      PASSER RATING – Rush 125.2, Moore 75.0

      • Matthew Harrell

        August 23, 2017 at 2:41 pm

        Haha wow. I wonder if that was Babe Laughenberg posting under a pseudonym. He is the only bone head arguing for Moore over Rush

  2. georgemachock

    August 23, 2017 at 1:18 pm

    The same initial arguments were used against Dak. Cooper is a QB and has an arm that your 2nd string needs for their development. If Moore had performed all these years at a better level there’d be no question. The fact that he hasn’t says it all. He may be a great guy but, this is a business and with injuries the way they are in the NFL, a lot of 2nd stringers need to be max ready.

  3. Randy Martin

    August 23, 2017 at 2:48 pm

    Lest we forget, one Dak Prescott, with not a shred of NFL experience was thrust into the limelight last year and proceeded to have arguably the best rookie season for a QB in NFL History. Now I’m not suggesting we have another Dak in Cooper Rush but watch him in the game. He stands poised, has pocket presence, delivers the ball on target, and commands the huddle. He will likely start this game against Oakland, unless Dak runs a series and we will all see what he can do. We know what Moore can do and it scares us all!

  4. Russ_Te

    August 24, 2017 at 7:30 pm

    I still think being out 1.5 years is showing up for Moore. Part of his game is getting out of the pocket and that looks hampered to me because of the leg recovery. Whether he gets more mobile, no real way to know.

    Old-days Bengals NT Tim Krumrie suffered a fractured leg in that Super Bowl they made it to with Esiason at QB. He came back, but never the same player. Joe Thiesman, done in by it.

    Dak should play the 1st half this week with the starters. That gives Moore 1 quarter and Rush 1 quarter (unless they decide that Rush earned both quarters).

    Then Dak sits and again Moore and Rush are likely to split halves in the last PS game. So Moore has 3 quarters left in this preseason. I think he will play better not worse, and remain the #2 QB.

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Dallas Cowboys 2019 Offseason Preview: Offensive Tackle

Jess Haynie

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La'el Collins

The Dallas Cowboys would seem fairly settled at offensive tackle for 2019, with last year's starters both still under contract and set to return. But the need for a reliable backup has become increasingly important, and Dallas may also want to use this offseason to start planning for the future.

Tyron Smith and La'el Collins return to their starting roles, but not without some concern. Smith has now missed three games in each of the last three seasons, though a few of those have been for veteran rest at the end of the year.

We all remember the Chaz Green debacle in 2017 Atlanta.  That led to the Cowboys paying veteran Cameron Fleming $2.5 million last season to come and play as the swing tackle, and Smith's ongoing issues with health will make his backup an offseason priority once more.

Meanwhile, Collins has started every game since taking over as the right tackle in 2017. He's been solid but not a star, which is a disappointment after his draft year hype and some of the talent he flashed at left guard during his first two seasons.

2019 is a contract year for La'el. He will turn just 27 by the 2020 season, making him an attractive potential free agent. But his play has arguably not lived up to his current salary, which has him as one of the higher-paid right tackles in the NFL already.

Anyone who has the privilege of playing next to Zack Martin has no excuses.

Cowboys Place LT Tyron Smith On IR Before Week 17

Dallas Cowboys LT Tyron Smith

Even with his many trips to the Pro Bowl, Tyron Smith isn't immune to contract talk. The 2020 offseason presents Dallas with about an $8 million cap relief opportunity by releasing Smith. It would only leave them with about $5 million in dead money, which is less than they've had when releasing stars like DeMarcus Ware, Tony Romo, and Dez Bryant in recent years.

While still just 28 years old, Tyron has been getting increasingly bothered by nagging injuries. Bad backs and necks tend to become lifelong issues, and we've already mentioned the games he's missed over the last few seasons.

When healthy, Smith is still about as good as they come at left tackle. But could his health issues spark an early decline in skill? And if it happens as soon as 2019, could Dallas start looking at that cap space more intently?

With Cameron Fleming now a free agent and these 2020 question marks looming on both starters, there's a good argument for the Cowboys to spend their second or third-round pick at offensive tackle.

Ideally, a "Day 2" rookie would be able to take over as the swing tackle this year. Dallas could still sign a veteran insurance policy to compete in camp and the preseason, or even carry both players next season.

But more important aspect would be taking a player now to groom for 2020, when you might need to make a big decision on either Collins or Smith's future. Or, at the very least, have a solid swing tackle in place for the duration of his four-year rookie contract.

Cameron Fleming

Dallas Cowboys OT Cameron Fleming

That said, free agency starts a month-and-a-half before the NFL Draft. The Cowboys can't really afford to wait for the draft to find a swing tackle, or else they may wind up with nothing.

The simplest move would be to just re-sign Cam Fleming. He is an adequate player with plenty of experience, and could likely be retained for about the same salary as last year.

But given Fleming's age (26) and experience, which includes starting in playoff games and even a Super Bowl for the Patriots, he could attract teams looking for even more than just a backup. Thankfully, there a still a number of veterans out there if Dallas has to find a replacement.

One guy to consider, especially for just a one-year deal, is Ty Nsekhe from the Redskins. He's a native of Arlington, TX and has started 14 games over the last three seasons, backing up the oft-injured Trent Williams. On the negative side, Nsekhe turns 34 next October.

As a whole, this 2019 offseason doesn't present any immediate dangers. The Cowboys will need to figure out their swing tackle situation by either re-signing Fleming, adding a different veteran, or drafting a replacement.

But given the contract situations of Tyron Smith and La'el Collins in 2020, Dallas could make a move in the next few months to help prepare for a potential big change a year from now.



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Dallas Cowboys 2019 Offseason Preview: Linebacker

Jess Haynie

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Wolf Hunter: Leighton Vander Esch's Pass Coverage Skills Rising to Occasion

One of the brightest spots on the Dallas Cowboys' projected 2019 roster is linebacker. The young pair of Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch have already emerged as one of the league's best duos. But that doesn't mean that the Cowboys have no work to do at the position this offseason.

Having Jaylon and Leighton does take a lot of pressure off. Most teams utilize their nickel scheme more than any other these days, which generally utilizes just two linebackers, in the increasingly pass-focused NFL. And thankfully, both Smith and Vander Esch have shown great skills in pass defense.

But there's still a semi-starting role to get figured out in the base 4-3 scheme. Damien Wilson has held the strong-side or "SAM" position for the last few years and has an expiring contract.

What's more, Dallas has a big decision to make regarding the contract of Sean Lee, which is ripe for terminating with $7 million in salary cap savings possible.

It's highly unlikely that the Cowboys would keep both Lee and Wilson. If they decide to re-sign Damien, Lee will be cut to help fund that move and others. If Sean is kept on, Wilson will almost surely be looking for a starting role somewhere else in free agency.

Even if the Cowboys do make Lee a cap casualty between now and March 13th, they may still allow Wilson to test free agency and then try to re-sign him later at a discount. He's unlikely to attract the same attention that Anthony Hitchens got last year.

How Does LB Joe Thomas Fit Into Cowboys' 2019 Plans?

Dallas Cowboys LB Joe Thomas (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Another factor in all of this is Joe Thomas, a free agent addition last year who provided good depth and could potentially start in 2019. He is scheduled to count $2.2 million against the cap, which is fine for a primary reserve but a bargain for an occasional starter.

A core of Smith, Thomas, and Vander Esch gives the Cowboys a good foundation to build from. Smith can play the SAM in the base scheme and Thomas can be the primary backup to Jaylon and Leighton in the nickel.

However, going that route would deplete the depth chart. Chris Covington, a sixth-round pick last year, would be the only noteworthy player under contract. Dallas would need to find at least two more guys to fill out the group for 2019.

They could look at re-signing backup Justin March-Lillard, who would at least bring some familiarity and veteran experience. But that might still leave them looking for more of a primary reserve, which would be especially vital if Thomas is promoted to a starting role.

The projected LB free agent pool for 2019 should make it a buyer's market. Dallas may be able to re-sign Damien Wilson or even add an upgrade, like perhaps the Vikings' Anthony Barr, at a relative bargain. There should be ample options for depth as well.

Barring an extremely favorable value opportunity, don't expect the Cowboys to spend a significant draft pick at linebacker. The fourth-round is the earliest I could see one going based on other needs, and even then it would need to be someone they really like.

Good drafting is why Dallas has flexibility and leverage this offseason. The picks they invested in Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch appear to have made LB a strength of the team for the next several years.

There is still business to attend to, but the Cowboys won't have to be too concerned with linebacker in 2019 thanks to their young stars.



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Xavier Woods Versatility Key in Dallas Cowboys FA Safety Pursuit

John Williams

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Cowboys Safety Xavier Woods Is Getting Better By The Week

There has been a debate going on among Cowboys Nation for more than a year now about the prospects of bringing in Seattle Seahawks Safety Earl Thomas. Now with free agency approaching, there are several other names that the Dallas Cowboys could consider when looking to upgrade the safety position. Landon Collins, Tyrann Mathieu, and Tre Boston are several of the many quality and really good safeties that are hitting the free agent market in a few weeks. It's a group with varied skill sets and abilities, which makes the debate even more interesting. The Dallas Cowboys, however, will be able to take a look at all of them when free agency opens March 13th because of one player; Xavier Woods.

Xavier Woods, the Cowboys fifth round draft pick from the 2017 NFL Draft just finished his first full season as a starter for the Cowboys and played really well. In two years he's shown the ability to cover from the slot, play deep, play in the box, be a force over the middle, and make plays on the football. He's one of the more versatile players on the defense with his ability to play all over the field. That versatility allows the Dallas Cowboys' front office an advantage when approaching the names mentioned above.

The Dallas Cowboys don't have to be locked in to one particular type of safety. When people talk about Landon Collins, they label him a "box safety." Earl Thomas is a traditional free safety. Tre Boston is a similar player to Earl Thomas and Tyrann Mathieu is like Collins. The Cowboys can go into free agency with the freedom to explore their options and do their due diligence when it comes to these players.

That's a distinct difference from this offseason to last.

Last offseason, the feeling was that the Dallas Cowboys had to go get Earl Thomas. The safety position was so weak that the Cowboys were going to be playing at a disadvantage in the high-flying, pass-heavy NFL. Xavier Woods proved in his first full season that he can be a productive, play making starter in the NFL and should only continue to improve.

According to Pro Football Focus, Xavier Woods was sixth in the NFL in passer rating against among safeties with at least 352 coverage snaps. His 62.8 passer rating allowed in his coverage was tied with Eric Weddle, better than Derwin James, Reshad Jones, Adrian Amos, and Maliek Hooker. Of the safeties drafted in the 2017 draft class, only Eddie Jackson from the Chicago Bears had a better passer rating against than Xavier Woods.

The Dallas Cowboys got a really good player in Xavier Woods and as they get ready to potentially make a run at a big name safety, they can feel confident that whoever they end up signing will be a good fit with Woods. He can play in the box or cover receivers and tight ends. You can run more two deep safety looks, because he has the range to play it.

This year, as opposed to last, they have more certainty at the safety position because of Xavier Woods and the strides he took in 2018. There's no reason to believe that he can't continue to take a step forward for the Dallas Cowboys. His ability to play all over the field allows the Cowboys to be smart and patient in their pursuit of a safety upgrade this offseason.



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