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.
Ezekiel Elliott Continues to Haunt Eagles, has Best Game of the Season
The Dallas Cowboys came into their Week 7 matchup with the arch-rival Philadelphia Eagles on a three-game losing streak and were searching desperately for answers. With first place in the NFC East on the line, it was important for the Cowboys to set a tone and send a message at home in order to avoid going into their bye week with a fourth straight loss. That tone was set by the defense in the first quarter as they forced turnovers on the first two possessions of the game. Conversely, All-Pro Ezekiel Elliott led the offensive attack and continued the dominance he's had over the Eagles throughout his career.
After jumping out to a quick 7-0 lead following a fumble on the Eagle's first possession, the Cowboys made it a two-score game in a matter of seconds. In the video below, Elliott appears to score from 14 yards out but would be ruled down inside the one. What's important to notice is how he sought out Eagles Safety Malcolm Jenkins and ran him over. Complete "Bully Ball" tactic here and it again sent a message and establish a tone for this game. Elliott would score on the very next play to give the Cowboys a 14-0 lead.
Zeke TRUCKED him 😡 @EzekielElliott https://t.co/x2G4rF2cwU
Elliott had 65 yards on 13 carries and a touchdown as well as 25 yards on four receptions the first half. The Cowboys led 27-7 heading into the third quarter.
The second half saw more of the same as Elliott had 11 touches (9 carries, 2 receptions) for 57 all-purpose yards. In all, Elliott finished with 147 all-purpose yards (111 rushing, 36 receiving) as he spearheaded the Cowboys to a 37-10 beatdown of their most hated division rival.
This game was a continuation of what Elliott has done to the Eagles his entire career. His lowest rushing total against Philadelphia is 96 yards which came in his first-ever game in this historic rivalry back in 2016 as a rookie. He's rushed for least 103 yards every game since and averages 163 all-purpose yards every time he plays Philadelphia. Most importantly, the Cowboys are a perfect 5-0 with Elliott against the Eagles. The only games the Eagles have won against the Cowboys since Elliott came into the NFL was the 2016 season finale and the first of their two matchups in 2017, games Elliott did not play in. Needless to say, Elliott has a big appetite for Eagle meat.
This game also saw Elliott reach another milestone in his short but stellar career. He joined Le'Veon Bell and Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson as the second-fastest players (47 games) to reach 6,000 yards from scrimmage behind Edgerrin James (44 games) in NFL history. Now that's an elite group to be a part of.
The importance of this game was obvious for the Cowboys coming off at three consecutive losses and facing a heated rival for first place. Elliott spoke post-game about how critical this win was:
"This team needed this, especially in the fashion we did it," Elliott said. "Get some momentum for the season and before this bye week so we can close the season out."
Everything you would want to see from Elliott was on display against the Eagles. The speed, power, elusiveness, and ability to make plays in the passing game were all front and center in this game. From an overall standpoint, this was definitely his best performance of the 2019 season.
Now, the Cowboys head into the bye week in first place in the NFC East and regardless of next week's results, they will still be on top when they face the New York Giants on the road on Monday Night Football. The Cowboys will look to remain undefeated in division play and keep pace with the other NFC powerhouses once they return to action.
Where Does Ezekiel Elliott Stand in the 2019 Rushing Title Race?
The Dallas Cowboys finally looked like the team we've all expected them to be against the Philadelphia Eagles this past Sunday. They played a complete-game and absolutely dominated on both offense and defense. This is the kind of performance they needed heading into the bye week.
As stoked I am by the way the Dallas Cowboys played Sunday night against a divisional opponent, I was even more ecstatic to see Running Back Ezekiel Elliott look like the playmaker he has in the past. He showed excellent vision, speed, and burst, something I really haven't seen him do up to this point of the season.
I know quite a few of you may disagree with me, but No. 21 hasn't really looke2 like himself at any point this season. He did however look like the Zeke of old on Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles. It good to see and it actually started me wondering where he currently stood in the 2019 rushing title race?
Let's take a look…
I don't know exactly what I expected, but I was little surprised to see Zeke currently sitting at number five amongst the NFL's leading rushers. I don't know if I was expecting him to be a little higher or lower, but he currently finds himself within striking distance to claim his third rushing title in four years.
Ezekiel Elliott is only 123 rushing yards behind Minnesota Vikings RB Dalvin Cook right now. Unfortunately, that number will only increase in Week 8 with the Dallas Cowboys on their bye week. But, it could all even out since only Nick Chubb is the only RB ahead of Zeke whose team has also had their bye week. And with half of the season left there is still plenty of time to close the gap.
Ezekiel Elliott may be down right now, but he's definitely not out. He's going to play a huge role in the offensive game plan for the rest of the season and should be able to put himself into contention of earning his third rushing title in four years. But, it won't be easy. The Cowboys schedule only gets tougher from here on out.
What do you think? Will Ezekiel Elliott be the leading rusher in 2019?
Urban Meyer Says He’d “Absolutely” Take Cowboys’ Head Coaching Job
Typically, when a coach is asked about a potential future coaching job that is currently occupied, he'd never openly admit to eyeing that position. He'd dodge the question, lie, and say he's enjoying his time away from the game at the moment.
Former college coach Urban Meyer, however, was extremely clear in how he feels about the potential opening at head coach in Dallas with the Cowboys.
Fox Sports' Colin Cowherd asked Urban Meyer outright if he would take the job if offered, and Meyer made no mistake about it.
While it feels to me like Meyer is breaking some sort of unspoken code between coaches with these comments, it wouldn't be the first time he operated in shady waters.
But I digress.
Of course, Urban Meyer had incredible success at the collegiate level. He won multiple national championships and did a lot of winning at multiple programs. In addition, he was the college coach of Cowboys star running back Ezekiel Elliott, who the team just extended with a monster contract. Meyer also won with quarterbacks who can utilize similar skill-sets to Cowboys starter Dak Prescott, something Jerry Jones and company would want to see in any potential head coaching candidate.
With all that being said, though, it's important to mention the Cowboys head coaching job is not open. At least not yet.
Jason Garrett's contract expires at the end of this season, and unless he can make sure that he continues coaching this team through January, it's seeming increasingly likely that this will be his final contract with the team.
Garrett's Cowboys face their biggest test of the season on Sunday night, with the Philadelphia Eagles coming to Arlington and looking to take first place from their grasps.
This will be the first step of many that Garrett will need to take if he wants to keep the Urban Meyers of the world from coming for his job.
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