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.
Will DeMarcus Lawrence Be Franchise Tagged Again in 2019?
The deadline for extending players under the franchise tag has come and gone last Monday, in a day in which none of the remaining tagged players reached an agreement with their respective teams. That includes Dallas Cowboy Defensive End DeMarcus Lawrence, who's set to earn $17M in 2018.
The front office and the 26-year old defensive end failed to agree to a new contract before the season's start, but we saw that coming. After all, there was never a point in which we had the classic "X player and his team are close to a new deal" headline.
All of this makes the future of the Cowboys' promising "War Daddy" very uncertain. What lies a head of the player that put on an impressive show in 2018?
Since 2017 was Lawrence's breakout year, racking up 14.5 sacks trough the season, we have leaned towards the narrative of last season being his only good one. His performance last season was impressive and clearly his best one yet, but we tend to overlook 2015.
In his sophomore season, the only other year in which he has played 16 games, he finished the campaign with eight sacks and 35 tackles (55 combined). Really, the idea of 2017 being his only good year is not as accurate as we might think.
That being said, I think it's more likely that we see another great year from him this upcoming season than seeing a disappointing one. This, of course, will end up being the main thing that determines his future in Dallas.
The Dallas Cowboys front office really took a risk by tagging Lawrence this offseason. #90 was reportedly asking for an average of $17M per year in his long-term contract, which is Olivier Vernon kind of money.
So what if he puts a similar season or an even better one? Lawrence and his agent could end up asking for even more money. Perhaps in the 18 or 20 million dollars per year range. If that ends up being the case, the team will find itself in a tough position when trying to reach an agreement with its promising pass rusher.
Which leads us to the possibility of seeing the Cowboys franchise tagging Lawrence for the second consecutive season. Dallas will already be negotiating a contract extension with QB Dak Prescott, and things will get complicated. Even more if they decide to pursue a big-time free agent in March, such as Earl Thomas.
It would make sense, from a financial perspective, to hand the tag twice in consecutive years to D-Law. However, it shouldn't be the priority. If he plays like he did in 2017, the front office will be more than wise to extend him for good.
According to OverTheCap.com, the Cowboys will have approximately $50.6M. Seemingly, the team's cap woes will be over soon.
Fortunately, Lawrence didn't become a headache by threatening to holdout for offseason programs and even training camp. However, don't expect that to happen if he finds himself under the tag next year.
Careers in the NFL are short, so DeMarcus will surely want to get paid. If he keeps it up, he'll deserve it. As much as he deserves it, though, football is a cold business. If the Jones need to tag him, they will.
Do you think the Cowboys will franchise tag Lawrence in 2019?
Without Looming Suspension, RB Ezekiel Elliott Should Shine In 2018
NFL Films typically does a good job of exposing some truths around NFL teams. Whether through "Hard Knocks" or Amazon's new "All or Nothing" series, these documentaries do an excellent job of giving fans an inside look of their favorite teams.
If anything was revealed through the Cowboys' All or Nothing series on their 2017 season, it's that Ezekiel Elliott's suspension weighed heavy on his mind all year.
The Pro Bowl running back did not look, act, or play like himself while awaiting decision on his incoming suspension. And, once it was finally announced he would serve the six games, the entire team collapsed in Atlanta.
Despite the clear and detrimental effects Elliott's suspension had on the Cowboys' season, Zeke still put up more-than-respectable numbers; rushing for almost 1,000 yards and averaging a league leading 98.3 yards per game.
Now, Ezekiel Elliott enters a season with no doubts about his own availability. Scott Linehan gets to coach an offense that knows they will have their best player for the entire season barring major injury. And, Jason Garrett can lead his team without addressing questions about Elliott's future day in and day out.
Of course, these effects aren't quantifiable. We can't sit here and say that without the pressure of court appearances and suspensions that Elliott will be worth "X" amount of more yards and "Y" more touchdowns.
But I do believe we can say, without question, that playing with a clear mind and without a looming suspension will breed the type of production we saw from Zeke his rookie year.
We can say that Elliott has had a weight lifted off his shoulders, and could be looking for revenge on a league he feels did him wrong.
And, for the Cowboys sake, I hope this is true. Because they are going to need Ezekiel Elliott to be even better than he ever has been if they hope to make a run at the Super Bowl in 2018.
Cowboys en Español: El Regreso de Randy Gregory
A sólo días de que los Dallas Cowboys aterricen en Oxnard, California para dar inicio a su training camp como todos los años, el equipo recibió excelentes noticias respecto a la selección de segunda ronda del 2015: Randy Gregory. Después de pasar todo el 2017 suspendido, el ala defensiva ha sido oficialmente reintegrado por la NFL.
Gregory, quien tuvo muchos problemas debido al uso de marihuana, ha pasado los últimos meses rehabilitándose para poder volver a vestir la estrella y volver al emparrillado. Los Cowboys, quienes siempre apoyaron a su joven jugador, sin duda estarán felices de verlo de vuelta en el equipo por motivos más allá que el football americano.
Sin duda alguna, antes de estar emocionados y felices por verlo en el campo intimidando a quarterbacks rivales, deberíamos estar alegres por el logro personal de Randy como un ser humano. Realmente hizo un esfuerzo consciente en un lugar en el que muchos se hubieran rendido y dejado sus sueños de ser parte de la NFL. Pero no lo hizo, y ahora, todos sus esfuerzos han valido la pena.
El siguiente paso en su lista por-hacer, es volver al campo y poco a poco, ganarse su puesto en el equipo y después, la titularidad. La última vez que vimos a Gregory en el campo, fue contra Philadelphia, en el final de temporada del 2016.
En este juego, Gregory mostró muchos destellos de lo que sería capaz de hacer semana tras semana en la liga y porque valió la pena nunca dejarlo ir, lo cual no hubiera tenido sentido hacer, dado que los Cowboys no les costaba nada (literalmente) mantenerlo en el equipo.
Sean Martin escribió un artículo recientemente en el que analiza este partido a fondo.
El potencial de Gregory es inmenso, suficiente incluso, para aventurarse a decir que se convertirá en el defensive end (ala defensiva) derecho antes de lo esperado. El reto más grande para el jugador de 25 años será regresar a una condición física óptima para la NFL.
Afortunadamente, a diferencia del 2016, Gregory no estará regresando a media temporada. Su llegada toma lugar justo a tiempo para el training camp, dándole tiempo para regresar a la forma en la que tiene que estar.
Una vez ahí, ¿qué tanto le tomará ganarse un rol más importante que el de Tyrone Crawford y Taco Charlton? A pesar de que prácticamente no lo hemos visto jugar en Dallas, sabemos el potencial que tiene para convertirse en un defensivo de suma importancia para los Cowboys.
Un año después de ver la mejor temporada en la carrera de DeMarcus Lawrence, los Cowboys tendrán el potencial de una estrella similar en el lado derecho de su línea defensiva. Gregory tiene una montaña que escalar para cumplir las expectativas de los aficionados, pero no será una sorpresa si lo logra.
Vaya, no olvidemos que si no fuera por sus problemas fuera del campo, hubiera sido seleccionado en el Top 10 del Draft del 2015. Tiene el potencial de conseguir diez sacks por temporada.
Con un poco de suerte, no nos equivocaremos en tenerle fe al jugador que ha tenido un gran viaje para llegar a este punto. El punto de ponerse el casco e ir a trabajar con su equipo.
Incluso si sólo llega a ser un jugador de rotación, sin duda será importante para el éxito del equipo. Entre DeMarcus Lawrence, David Irving, Randy Gregory y el resto del talento que los Cowboys tienen en la línea defensiva, el equipo podría tener un frente de muy buena calidad.
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