The Dallas Cowboys open training camp in less than two weeks, and yet there are still a ton of questions to be answered as the team gets ready for the 2017 season. While it may not be the spot of the most important question -- that goes to left guard -- the defensive line provides the most questions marks.
Think of it, who do we feel confident about as the Dallas Cowboys prepare for the upcoming season? Maliek Collins? That's about it for me.
The Cowboys have thrown numbers at the position for years now, with few solid answers as a result. Finally they invested draft capital in a player that doesn't seem to have question marks about his health or character, just his position fit.
So here are my list of questions that I will look to have answered during training camp.
Where Does Taco Charlton fit on the Defensive Line?
The Dallas Cowboys drafted Taco Charlton in the first round in 2017. They claimed he would be the answer at right defensive end. In this scheme, that side of the line is typically reserved for guys with speed and the ability to put pressure on the quarterback's blind side. But Charlton's size and athleticism make him a better fit for the left side.
As our own Sean Martin notes, Charlton has been more impressive from the left side.
Is Benson Mayowa Ready to Take the Next Step?
Relatively unknown before the Dallas Cowboys signed him to a restricted free agent tender that the Oakland Raiders declined to match, Mayowa has all the look of a dominant 4-3 edge rusher.
His career had been relatively quiet until joining the Dallas Cowboys, where he led the team in sacks in 2016. Collecting six sacks in 13 games isn't bad, but it isn't dominant either. Dallas needs someone to step up and be a dominant pass rusher. Can that be Mayowa?
He needs to show improvement for the Cowboys to step forward as a defense.
Can Cedric Thornton Return to "Big Money" Play?
Prior to the 2016 season, the Dallas Cowboys signed Cedric Thornton to a four-year deal with $6 million guaranteed, expecting him to be the starting 1-tech. He couldn't beat out Terrell McClain.
His first season with Dallas disappointed.
Thornton didn't start a game for the first time since his rookie season and suffered a career-low in tackles. He had half a sack more than his career average of one sack per season, but that isn't anything to get excited about.
Thornton will need to return to the form that earned him his contract, otherwise he may see another player take over the 1-tech.
Because Maliek Collins can play both defensive tackle positions, it's possible that Thornton is relegated to a backup role again.
Will Returning Proper Scheme Fit Help Stephen Paea?
In 2014, Stephen Paea experienced a breakout season for the Chicago Bears as the 1-technique defensive tackle. Here's a film review on Paea.
His six sacks were nearly three times that of his previous career high.
After playing defensive end in 3-4 schemes -- first in Washington in 2015 and then in Cleveland in 2016 and experiencing career-lows -- Paea returns to proper 1-tech in Rod Marinelli's scheme.
In fact, defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli is the primary reason for Paea coming to Dallas. He hopes to resurrect his career in his most natural position.
The question is, will he?
What is Charles Tapper?
I'm as excited to see Charles Tapper suit up for the Dallas Cowboys as anyone. He was a steal in the 4th round of the 2016 draft and has a chance to help this team. The question remains because we have yet to see him in a 4-3 defense and in the NFL no less.
At the University of Oklahoma, he played out of position as a 3-4 end, and still led the team in sacks with seven. That is no small feat in the quick passing league that the Big 12 is.
While I am optimistic about his ability and fit in Dallas, I'm cautious because we have yet to see him play. Like me, Brian Martin thinks Tapper will improve the pass rush in 2017.
Hopefully that question will be answered during preseason. I have high hopes for what Tapper could bring, but like many say, "hope isn't a strategy."
Will David Irving Find Consistency After His Suspension?
The knock on David Irving had very little to do with his potential or his ability; it all came down to his consistency.
He's already off to a rough start with a four-game suspension to start the season. Yes he'll be allowed to practice with the team during training camp and play in preseason games, but he won't be allowed to practice with the team during his suspension, which begins week 1.
A player with consistency issues needs reps to find a comfort level to make the plays they are capable of making on a week-to-week basis. Irving's 2017 campaign is already starting off on the wrong foot.
Will Damontre Moore Finally Realize His Potential?
Coming out of Texas A&M, Damontre Moore was initially projected as a top-10 pick in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft.
He had a productive career for the Aggies and showed versatility to play 4-3 defensive end or 3-4 outside linebacker. His poor combine performance saw him slide into the third round where the New York Giants added him to their stable of pass rushers.
In his second season with the Giants, he racked up a career-high 5.5 sacks. Not bad for a guy who didn't start a game and was primarily a situational pass rusher.
Immaturity and consistency have killed his career to this point.
Moore and the Cowboys are hoping that yet another fresh start will lead to the player realizing his top-10 draft potential. Still just 24 years old, Moore has age on his side and still has a knack for finding the quarterback.
You can read a film review on Moore by Kevin Brady here.
Will DeMarcus Lawrence be Healthy for 2017?
All indications are that DeMarcus Lawrence will be healthy entering the 2017, but coming off a second back surgery in as many years, one has to be a bit skeptical.
Back issues are no small thing. Ask a friend who deals with chronic back pain, ruptured disks, pinched nerves, etc., and they will tell you that simple things can be hard to do and activity level decreases.
I can't imagine what it would be like to play in the NFL with a bad back. Make no mistake, while he may be deemed healthy enough to play in 2017, Lawrence has a bad back. Like we saw with Tony Romo in the preseason of 2016, what is going to happen when Lawrence has someone land on him awkwardly?
After having eight sacks in the throw away season of 2015, Lawrence struggled to get going in 2016. He only played in nine games and recorded just one sack.
Getting back to form is going to be an uphill battle for Lawrence, who will have to get back in game shape even after getting back into football shape.
I think it's likely that Lawrence starts the season on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list.
Where will Tyrone Crawford Play in 2017?
Tyrone Crawford has been an enigma of sorts for the Dallas Cowboys.
Crawford finally seemed to find a home as the team's 3-technique defensive tackle in 2014, after playing defensive end in both 3-4 and 4-3 schemes. His 2013 season was lost to a torn Achilles.
In 2015, playing primarily at the 3-tech, he experienced a career-high in sacks with 5 and tied his previous high in tackles.
With the team struggling to stop the run and the emergence of Maliek Collins in 2016, the team moved Crawford to defensive end yet again.
While he did have 4.5 sacks playing out of position, it's left many to wonder: where does Crawford fit in 2017?
His best position by far is 3-tech, but the Cowboys will need players to step up on the edge so they can move him back inside full-time.
As you can see, the defensive line is loaded with question marks. Assuming that Maliek Collins is as good as he was in the second half of 2016, he is the only player that we don't need to worry about.
The Dallas Cowboys defensive line looks to have a lot of potential. But at the moment, with all the question marks surrounding it, potential is all it is.
That potential needs to be realized.
Ezekiel Elliott vs Byron Jones Part II: The Case For Paying Zeke
It's a debate that has raged on social media for some time now and it likely won't slow down as the offseason progresses and the Dallas Cowboys begin to hand out massive contracts to their top players. Pay Ezekiel Elliott? Pay Byron Jones? If you could only pay one, which would you pay?
This week fellow Inside The Star Staff Writer, Kevin Brady took to Twitter to poll the populous and his results were a bit surprising to me.
if you can only pay one it should be
The results inspired me to see what would happen if I put the same poll on my timeline.
Inspired by my teammate @KevinBrady88, if you can only pay one, which would it be?
On Monday, Kevin wrote a piece looking at one of the difficult decisions facing the Dallas Cowboys this offseason or next. If the Cowboys could only extend Byron Jones OR Ezekiel Elliott, who should they choose? Kevin, as am I, is a firm believer in Byron Jones ability and says the Cowboys should extend them, and I agree. But let's look at the other side of the argument.
To begin, the Cowboys should and probably will get both guys contract extensions either this offseason or next. It's not impossible with the cap continuing to increase at a rate of about $8-12 million per year that the Cowboys will have the space to get the deals done that they need to get done. Ezekiel Elliott and Byron Jones included.
Byron Jones settled in nicely at cornerback during his first full season at cornerback and knowing what we know about Jones, he won't be satisfied with a second team All-Pro appearance. Expect him to get better. However, if there's a single player that represents the current identity of the Dallas Cowboys, it's Running Back Ezekiel Elliott.
The Cowboys made him the fourth overall pick in 2016 and haven't looked back in their plan to establish the running game. For his career Elliott has averaged 26.9 touches per game over the course of his 40 games.
Here's a look at what Elliott's per game and per 16 game paces look like through the first three seasons of his career.
As you can see from the table above, Ezekiel Elliott is averaging 131.2 total yards per game for his career. In his rookie season he had 1,994 total yards and he sat out the week 17 game against the Philadelphia Eagles when the Cowboys had the NFC and home field advantage locked up. In 2017, Elliott sat out six games and still had nearly 1,000 yards rushing. In 2018, Elliott broke through the 2,000 total yard barrier after seeing a huge increase in his targets and receptions.
Ezekiel Elliott has been everything the Dallas Cowboys could have hoped for and more. With the leadership role he's taken with the team, he's a player that leads both vocally and by example. There are few players on the Dallas Cowboys that give as much effort as he does each snap. How many times has it looked like Elliott was about to get dropped for a two or three yard loss only to grind through tackles to pick up a four yard gain? How many times has he bounced off tacklers to get to the first down marker? Ezekiel Elliott is the human personification of dirty yards, but don't let that fool you into thinking that Elliott can't take it to the house every time he touches the ball. Elliott's is a game breaker who threatens the defense every time he steps on the field.
In 2018, Elliott led the NFL in yards after contact, per Pro Football Focus. His 949 yards after contact in 2018 would have ranked 13th in the NFL in rushing, which was better than David Johnson's 940 yards rushing last season.
Not many running backs effect a football game like Ezekiel Elliott does.
Few players outside of the quarterback position are as much of a focal point for their offense while being an attention grabber for opposing defenses like Ezekiel Elliott is. In 2018, he saw eight or more men in the box on nearly 25% of his carries in 2018. Some of that is related to the Dallas Cowboys insistence on using two tight ends on 50% of their running plays (per Sharp Football), but the other aspect is related to how much they respect the Dallas Cowboys running game. Since the 2014, the Cowboys have been synonymous with running the football. DeMarco Murray, Darren McFadden, and now Ezekiel Elliott have been the faces of that running game behind the Cowboys elite offensive line.
Even in a down year for offensive line play from the Dallas Cowboys, Elliott still managed to lead the NFL in rushing for the second time in three seasons. Elliott made the Pro Bowl for the second time in three years as well. Were it not for the railroad job done by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in 2017, there's a really good chance that Elliott leads the league in rushing three years in a row and that the Dallas Cowboys make the playoffs all three seasons.
Sure, the running back position is undervalued in the NFL and rushing yardage can be replaced, but there are intangibles to Elliott's game that are very difficult to replace. His ability to grind out the dirty yards, break big plays, create yards after contact, pass protect, be a threat as a receiver, and his leadership make him a player that is difficult to replace.
Yes, Byron Jones was really good in 2018 and deserves to get paid by the Dallas Cowboys as well, but you'd be hard pressed to find a player on the Cowboys roster who has been as consistent and dominating week in and week out as Ezekiel Elliott has been over the last three years.
BREAKING: Cowboys Sign Ex-Packers WR Randall Cobb
According to multiple sources, the Dallas Cowboys have signed former Green Bay Packers Wide Receiver Randall Cobb to a one-year deal to help bolster their depth at the WR position and potentially become Cole Beasley's replacement.
Cowboys are giving former Packers' WR Randall Cobb a one-year, $5 million deal, per source. https://t.co/8KWFPjSP8T
The Dallas Cowboys met with Randall Cobb earlier this week, but he eventually left Dallas without a contract. He must've had a change of heart or just needed time to ponder the Cowboys offer, but regardless of what transpired in that short time he is now part of America's Team.
During his time with the Packers, Cobb accumulated 470 receptions for 5,524 receiving yards and 41 touchdowns. The eight-year veteran will now be expected to replace some of Cole Beasley's production out of the slot for the Dallas Cowboys.
After years of watching Beasley as the Cowboys slot WR, it will be really interesting to see Randall Cobb in that role. He's not as quick twitched as No. 11, but can be just as dangerous due to his ability to be more of a down the field receiver. He also brings added value in the return game and could compete with Tavon Austin to become the return specialist.
This could mean the Cowboys forgo drafting a wide receiver early in the 2019 NFL Draft, but I wouldn't put it past them. Regardless of what happens, this is an excellent addition.
Welcome to Cowboys Nation Randall Cobb!
REPORT: Dallas Cowboys Re-sign Long Snapper L.P. Ladouceur
L.P. Ladouceur is returning for his 15th season as the Cowboys' long snapper. The veteran free agent was re-signed by Dalals today to a one-year deal.
Thanks to Jason Witten's one-year sabbatical with Monday Night Football, Ladouceur has now been with the Cowboys for more consecutive seasons than any current player. He just turned 38 last week, but Louis-Philippe remains one of the top long snappers in football.
The Cowboys have signed long-snapper L.P. Ladouceur to a one-year deal worth $1.03 million and $90,000 in bonus money, but he will count $735,000 against the cap. This will be Ladouceur's 15th season with the Cowboys, tying Ed "Too Tall" Jones, Mark... https://t.co/2iDsi6RX7e
Retaining Ladouceur is an underrated move for the Cowboys given their situation at kicker.
Brett Maher was only 80% accurate overall on field goals last year. The team could be considering an upgrade in free agency.
Whether they bring Maher back or try someone new, having a long snapper with Ladouceur's performance perfection will make things much easier for them.
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