Looking to build a defense that matches the skill level of their star-studded offense, the Dallas Cowboys spent three of their nine draft picks on Rod Marinelli's side of the ball. Addressing arguably their biggest need at linebacker with the 19th overall pick, the Cowboys came away from the 2018 NFL Draft with two players for new LB Coach Ben Bloom to work with.
Leighton Vander Esch and Chris Covington will be joined by Kansas Defensive End Dorance Armstrong as a trio of rookie defenders in Dallas - all looking to solidify a deep and versatile front seven.
Here is my best projection of the roles these Cowboys rookies will play in 2018.
Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch
Scouting Report: "Sean's Scout: Leighton Vander Esch Adds Range, Instincts to Cowboys Defense"
A controversial first-round selection out of Boise State, figuring out where Leighton Vander Esch helps the Cowboys defense is obvious. Losing Anthony Hitchens to free agency, the Cowboys would be reckless to enter this season with Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith as their only true plan at linebacker.
This is where the team's fixation with Vander Esch comes from, although determining his actual fit with Dallas is not as clear-cut.
Sean Lee is the Cowboys starter at WILL for every game he's available in, often lining up with only one other LB next to him. In these Nickel packages, I believe the Cowboys are hopeful that their 19th overall pick can join Lee on the field.
Leighton Vander Esch's DC has already compared the rookie to former Chicago Bears great Brian Urlacher. With similar range and athleticism, LVE can help the Cowboys significantly in pass coverage.
Vander Esch's biggest weakness, his play strength against the run, can be covered up for by a healthy Jaylon Smith. Playing without his AFO brace and expecting to take another massive step towards stardom in 2018, Smith will reportedly do so from the SAM position.
Seen as a lesser role by some, Smith can excel as a strong side player in Dallas, earning more snaps as he progresses. Whether or not this also increases the Cowboys' usage of Base 4-3 looks is yet to be determined, and will directly play into how big of a role LVE can find.
The Cowboys have big plans for Vander Esch to step in right away and begin reaching his ceiling as a prospect. Following where he can best handle this responsibility as a rookie will be one of the biggest story lines of this offseason.
Defensive End Dorance Armstrong
On paper, the Cowboys are entering the 2018 season with one of their deepest defensive lines in years. Reinforcing this in the fourth round of the draft, the Cowboys took another defender ready to take the field in year one - DE Dorance Armstrong.
With last year's 28th overall pick Taco Charlton finding his home at left end near the end of his rookie campaign, the Cowboys have formidable depth on that side with franchise player DeMarcus Lawrence.
Framing Armstrong as the Cowboys solution at right end would be unfair for the rookie. With the team carefully preparing for a Randy Gregory reinstatement however, Armstrong could fit nicely into this pass rush rotation.
For the first time in a long while, roster spots will be hard to come by for just any defensive lineman working in Dallas this summer. Close to a top 100 pick, Dorance Armstrong's roster spot is likely secure, and I expect him to prove enough when the pads come on to get on the field.
Flashing the ability to win on the edge with speed and bend at Kansas, Armstrong has all of the traits needed to develop as a right end that will have no problem staying on the field as a run defender either - handling blocks with ideal leverage and power.
Linebacker Chris Covington
Scouting Report: "Sean's Scout: LB Chris Covington Likely Finds Home on Special Teams"
As far as value goes for their draft picks, Cowboys Linebacker Chris Covington is unfortunately near the bottom of this list. Partially due to the exceptional value the Cowboys found in Connor Williams and Michael Gallup on day two, there is a clear path ahead for Covington to help this team in 2018.
While I have a hard time believing it will be on defense as a LB that lacks the reactionary ability or strength to fit any of the three positions, Covington should be viewed as a replacement for both Keith Smith and Kyle Wilber.
Ready to contribute on special teams as both Smith and Wilber did so well, Covington is of course further depth entering the roster-building process for Dallas at one of their weakest positions (as of just a few weeks ago).
This is hardly a bad thing for a team that also grabbed Wide Receiver Cedrick Wilson 15 picks after drafting Covington.
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The level of competition on the Cowboys roster has only increased with each passing draft class, as the organization has shifted to primarily building with young talent. Acquiring three talented rookies to help their defense take the "next step", standing out and earning the star won't come easy for Vander Esch, Armstrong, or Covington.
Come week one in Carolina though, I expect all three to be active players for the Cowboys against the Panthers, with Vander Esch and Armstrong playing key roles in an incredibly deep front seven.
Stay posted here to Inside The Star throughout the week, as I'll have a similar breakdown for the Cowboys draft picks on offense.
Cowboys en Español: Evaluando la Administración
Entre los aficionados de los Dallas Cowboys, pocas cosas son criticadas tan frecuentemente como la administración de la franquicia que no ha ganado ningún Super Bowl en más de dos décadas. Se ha convertido en un equipo que, a pesar de ser el más valioso en el mundo deportivo, no ha sido nada relevante en el emparrillado. Lo que alguna vez fue una dinastía se ha convertido en una unidad que rompe frecuentemente los corazones de los fans.
Jerry Jones y Stephen Jones, siendo los operadores del ámbito deportivo del negocio familiar, son criticados semana tras semana y en gran parte por justa razón. Pero en gran parte, por cosas no muy válidas.
Cambios de Coach
A mi parecer, lo más criticable para la administración de este equipo viene cuando hablamos de los coaches. Muchos se burlan de los Cincinnati Bengals y de la manera en la que están atascados con el Head Coach Marvin Lewis. Con Jason Garrett al volante, la situación para los Cowboys no es nada diferente.
A mediados de la temporada 2018, no parece que esta narrativa vaya a cambiar. Una vez más, los Cowboys arrancaron de una manera muy inconsistente y ya no sabemos que esperar de ellos. Gran parte de las derrotas, la mayor parte, es el coacheo.
Sin duda el equipo no será exactamente el mismo en 2019, pero ¿serán suficientes los cambios como para decidir quedarse con el mismo capitán que no ha podido mantener el barco navegando por años?
A diferencia de como se manejan muchos equipos en la liga, los Jones fungen como general managers de su propio equipo. Con la ayuda de Will McClay han logrado superar varios de los fracasos de los Jones de antaño, pero actualmente, siendo sinceros no han hecho un mal trabajo.
A pesar de las critícas de Abril, Leighton Vander Esch está probando haber valido más que la pena. Siendo objetivos, aparte de Taco Charlton en el 2017, todas las selecciones de primera ronda de los Cowboys han sido valiosas. La línea ofensiva, el corredor, un cornerback que por fin se está perfilando como uno de los mejores en la liga.
En cuanto a la segunda ronda, ha habido varias críticas, muchas con razón. Pero el mejor caza cabezas del equipo, DeMarcus Lawrence, el linebacker Jaylon Smith, Randy Gregory y más están teniendo un impacto muy fuerte en el equipo.
La administración se ha visto en la necesidad de tomar decisiones bastante difíciles después de una temporada de nueve victorias en 2017. El LB Anthony Hitchens fue liberado, Dan Bailey se fue inesperadamente, se confió en Byron Jones para tomar su opción de quinto año.
Hasta ahora, pura decisión digna de aplaudirse. Pero ninguna como la más reciente de todas: Amari Cooper.
Por más caro que haya salido, los Cowboys merecen bastante crédito por haber mejorado muchísimo su posición de WR. Si el equipo llega a tener una oportunidad esta temporada, será en gran parte por él.
No cabe ninguna duda en mi cabeza de que los Jones han cometido errores a lo largo de los años, el más evidente siendo la resistencia de dejar ir a Jason Garrett. Pero a pesar de esto, la administración ha tomado excelentes decisiones y ha realizado el draft muy bien. En ese aspecto en específico, les aplaudo.
Sack Numbers Don’t Tell DeMarcus Lawrence’s 2018 Story
Coming off of a career year in 2017, many fans expected DeMarcus Lawrence to continue his ridiculous sack production this season. After all, he is once again in a "contract year" due to the franchise tag, and fans are hoping the Cowboys can secure him longterm this offseason.
Through the first four games of 2018, Lawrence looked as ridiculous and unstoppable as ever. He had 5.5 sacks, tied for the league lead, and was dictating the pass protection schemes of every offense the Cowboys were facing.
Since that hot start, though, DeMarcus Lawrence has recorded just 1 sack, falling behind some of the league leaders he was once ahead of. This has some people scratching their heads and wondering if Lawrence's career year in 2017 was just that, a career year. One which he will never replicate again, and one which the Cowboys should factor out when talking contract extensions.
Here's why those people are wrong.
Let's first talk about what makes DeMarcus Lawrence so good, and then we'll get into the full context of the Cowboys defense and how that explains some of the drop in sacks.
Lawrence, unlike some of the league's other top pass rushers, is a complete 4-3 defensive end. He is one of, if not the best run defending defensive ends in football, as shown by his 12 tackles for loss on the season (only Aaron Donald and Danielle Hunter have more).
Much of the year, the Cowboys run defense has boiled down to Lawrence making splash plays, as we saw against the Washington Redskins. Adrian Peterson was gashing the Cowboys during that game, and the only one who did anything to stop him was DeMarcus Lawrence, as indicated by his 3 tackles for loss that Sunday.
There's also the point that 6.5 sacks through half the season is, well, good. It's really good! And when you couple his sack numbers with his solid pressure and QB hit stats, you can see that Lawrence is having a very good season.
Then there is the context of this entire Cowboys defense, specifically their defensive line and pass rush. To put it bluntly, DeMarcus Lawrence has been their only consistent rusher this season. Though we came into the year with high hopes for Randy Gregory, and cautious optimism about first round pick Taco Charlton, neither have been all that impressive this season.
Somebody, anybody, has to step up and become a threat opposite of Lawrence. David Irving could help matters with his interior pass rush ability, but he has been unavailable for basically the entire season.
Without another pass rusher for offense's to even think twice about, Lawrence is getting double teamed and/or chipped by a tight end or running back on just about every rush. It's becoming rare that Lawrence is in a true one-on-one pass rush situation.
Of course, if you are elite, offenses are going to shift protections to you in this way and you still have to find ways to be productive.
And thus far in 2018, DeMarcus Lawrence is doing just that.
Can QB Dak Prescott Steal Back His Mojo From Atlanta?
When the Dallas Cowboys last traveled to Mercedes-Benz Stadium they were completely throttled by the Atlanta Falcons. It's a game a lot of Cowboys Nation would like to forget, but no one more so than Quarterback Dak Prescott. That game could very well be where his struggles really began.
It's almost exactly a year later and the Dallas Cowboys still find themselves haunted by that brutal beating the Atlanta Falcons handed them in Week 10 of the 2017 season. The Cowboys seemed to lose all confidence in themselves after that game, but it was almost as if it was the exact point in time where Dak Prescott lost all of his mojo as well.
Before that match up against the Falcons, Prescott was still playing at a pretty high level. But since then, he has been in a slump and there have been very few signs of recapturing any of that magic he once had. Heading back to Atlanta maybe the key for him finding and stealing back his mojo.
Things could definitely go a little differently this time around. The Cowboys will have Ezekiel Elliott and Tyron Smith in the lineup this week. Zeke missed the game last year due to the league mandated six-game suspension, and Tyron missed due to an injury. Having those two back in the lineup could pay huge dividends, especially for Prescott.
Without his starting left tackle and running back, Dak was pretty much beaten to a pulp by the Falcons defense a year ago. They applied relentless pressure, hitting and sacking him on a number of occasions. Unfortunately, I think that's where he started seeing ghost in the pocket and its haunted him ever since.
The beating he took at the hands of the Falcons has really thrown off his entire game. His mechanics, accuracy, and effectiveness as a scrambler can all be traced back to that one matchup. He just hasn't been the same QB he was prior to that game.
Prescott's stats prior to the Falcons game:
66.7 completion percentage
102.4 passer rating
Prescott's stats since the Falcons game:
63.3 completion percentage
83.1 passer rating
As you can see, that's a notable difference. His passer rating has shockingly dropped nearly 20 points since last playing the Falcons and it's really hurt the entire offensive production. It's time for that to change.
Prescott has no choice this week. He has to get back up on the horse that bucked him off and hopefully regain that mojo he left in Atlanta a year ago. Fortunately for him, his confidence might be is as high as it's been since that last meeting after pulling off the upset against the Philadelphia Eagles last week.
Now, he just has to go out and prove it!
Do you think Dak Prescott can regain his mojo against the Atlanta Falcons?
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