Last night, the National Hockey League held their expansion draft to welcome their 31st franchise - the Vegas Golden Knights. With football always on my mind, I immediately started thinking of the Dallas Cowboys' that are most important to this team's future - as Vegas picked through every team's roster to take players that were unprotected.
Rookies and second-year players did not need additional protection by their clubs, meaning that in a hypothetical NFL expansion draft following these same rules the Cowboys' core would remain mostly intact.
Thanks to Will McClay and Dallas' front office, franchise players like Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott won't have to worry about removing the star from their helmet in this scenario. Instead, here is the list of protected Cowboys I came up with - again using the NHL rule of seven protected offensive players, three defenders, and a goalkeeper (which will be a specialist here).
NFL Expansion Draft: Cowboys Offense Protected List
LT Tyron Smith Age: 26
Franchise left tackles are hard to come by, unless you're the Dallas Cowboys. Tyron Smith is already by far the best in the game, especially important to the Cowboys considering he signaled the beginning of their process in building the league's best offensive line.
(Spoiler alert: Measures will be taken to keep this offensive line together further down this list)
Aside from finding a franchise QB, hitting on a top pass rusher is the second hardest thing to do in building a NFL roster. Cowboys Nation knows all too well what this struggle is like, but fortunately their All-Pro left tackle makes mitigating any defensive end thrown his way much easier than it possibly should.
C Travis Frederick Age: 26
Remember when Travis Frederick was one of the worst picks of the 2013 NFL Draft, as the Cowboys' 31st overall pick? Four years later, one of the smartest and toughest players in the league has represented America's Team in three Pro Bowls and been named an All-Pro.
Protecting Frederick, like Smith, is simply a must in maintaining the Cowboys' integrity - which starts with their star-studded offensive line, in this case at the center.
G Zack Martin Age: 26
The best guard in the NFL, Zack Martin is about to get paid what he deserves by the Cowboys. Putting him on this protected list ensures that he could remain with Dallas in an expansion draft situation, and is as necessary a move as any team with a player of Martin's caliber should make.
RT La'el Collins Age: 24
The last of Dallas' offensive linemen I chose to protect, La'el Collins obviously does not have the accolades or experience that Smith, Frederick, and Martin do - making up for it with more than enough upside to warrant protection.
With Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott ineligible to be on this list, it is imperative to protect as many of the blockers that make them successful as possible, making Collins a needed member of this list as he will be transitioning to right tackle in 2017.
Collins was a first round prospect as a tackle out of LSU, and has already flashed immense talent at guard with the Cowboys, making his long-term projection with Dallas critically important to sustain.
WR Dez Bryant Age: 28
As if being this team's top WR wasn't enough to earn protection, Dez Bryant put up elite numbers down the stretch of his first season with Dak Prescott as his QB. The Cowboys' running game, and offensive continuity as a whole, expects to be even better in 2017 - meaning Dez Bryant could see a return to his healthy 2014 form that resulted in 1,320 yards and 16 touchdowns.
Bryant is also regarded by plenty as the heart and soul to this team, and is understandably a fan-favorite player that shouldn't be objected to having to leave the Cowboys in any expansion draft.
TE Jason Witten Age: 35
Protecting Witten may come as a surprise to some considering his age, but with the offensive line, quarterback, running back, and top receiver in place, it only makes sense to retain Jason Witten on his quest for that elusive Super Bowl with the Cowboys.
Any expansion team would love to add Witten's veteran presence, making it more important to secure his future in Dallas.
Aside from Witten, the Cowboys' depth chart at TE is full of uncertainty at the moment, and they certainly don't have another player at the position worthy of expansion draft protection.
WR Cole Beasley Age: 28
While now-protected TE Jason Witten was a security blanket for Tony Romo throughout his career, Cole Beasley was that type of target for Dak in his rookie year. With a career high in receptions and yards, Beasley is an invaluable part of Scott Linehan's offense predicated on creating mismatches across the field.
The Cowboys also drafted Ryan Switzer in the fourth round this year, an electrifying rookie that has received Beasley's reps as a similar player through OTAs, meaning that protecting Beasley keeps the dream of pairing these two slot WRs together a reality.
NFL Expansion Draft: Cowboys Defense Protected List
Fortunately, with only three spots to protect defensive players with, the Cowboys' class of rookie defenders along with promising 2016 picks like Maliek Collins, Anthony Brown, and Jaylon Smith are already protected.
What makes this trio interesting still is that there aren't many normal "veterans" to hold onto along with these young players on Rod Marinelli's defense, instead enough potential in some developing stars to warrant building around for the future.
S Byron Jones Age: 24
Byron Jones has just two full years of experience at a variety of positions in Dallas' secondary, but suddenly finds himself as a necessary leader for this unit. Jones has made more and more plays on the ball with every game experience he gets, and means so much to the Cowboys' defensive identity.
Byron Jones' ceiling over the coming years in a new-look secondary for the Cowboys is best seen in the silver and blue, meaning he gets protected.
DL David Irving Age: 24
What does it say about the state of the Dallas Cowboys' defensive line that David Irving - facing a suspension for the first four games of 2017 - is the player that likely deserves protection the most.
With Taco Charlton already safe, Irving's age paired with his upside as a steal from the Chiefs in 2015 have been on full display at both DT and DE with the Cowboys. Defensive Coordinator Rod Marinelli prides himself on being able to develop any level of talent along his line, and David Irving is one of the few players in recent memory that has shown any form of quick development potential.
LB Sean Lee Age: 31
Linebacker Sean Lee has played in 14 and 15 games respectively over his last two seasons, shaking the "injury prone" label that may have caused the only sliver of doubt when it comes to protecting his future with the team.
Jaylon Smith's future is unfortunately still an uncertainty at the LB position, leaving Lee as the only experienced, sure thing this unit has to lead by example and make big plays.
NFL Expansion Draft: Cowboys Specialists Protected List
In place of the goaltender spot for NHL teams in their expansion draft, I decided to let the Cowboys specifically protect one of their specialists. This three-man unit has been one of the best and most consistent as of late, with K Dan Bailey, P Chris Jones, and LS L.P. Ladouceur all consistently doing their job at a high level.
K Dan Bailey
When it comes down to it, Bailey is the only Dallas specialist that puts points on the board. An extension of the offense, Bailey is 21 of 29 from 50 or more yards in his career and is the team's career leader in made field goals.
An undrafted success story, the Cowboys shuffled through some kickers before settling in with Bailey in 2011 - a process they do not have to go through again anytime soon.
It is truly amazing how well off the Cowboys appear on paper when you go through the exercise of protecting their future like all NHL teams were asked to do recently. Tough decisions had to be made on both sides of the ball, but the 11 players retained above paired with the already protected first and second year guys keep the Cowboys near the top of contenders in the NFL.
Best of luck, expansion NFL teams. You're going to have to get through Dallas.
Linebacker Group Key to Cowboys’ Defensive Success in 2018
In 2017, it was evident just how much the Dallas Cowboys were hurt by their lack of linebacker depth. When Sean Lee and Anthony Hitchens were injured, especially Lee, the defense struggled. Look to the games against the Green Bay Packers and Los Angeles Rams and it's easy to see just how ineffective the defense was without their top two linebackers.
With more and more teams employing RPO and read-option concepts, more is expected of linebackers as they read the quarterback.
With teams like the Carolina Panthers, Philadelphia Eagles, Houston Texans, Washington Redskins, Seattle Seahawks, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Tennessee Titans all on the 2018 schedule, the Dallas Cowboys' linebacker corp is going to have their hands full each and every week defending quarterbacks who are really good at utilizing these concepts.
While the edge defenders are instrumental in containing the run concepts in the read-option and RPO, the linebackers are the next line of defense against the run and their discipline in the run-pass action is monumental to defending the passing concept of the RPO.
Jeff Ratcliffe from Pro Football Focus broke down who the best and worst teams using RPOs were in 2017 by quarterback yards per attempt and quarterback yards per carry.
The Philadelphia Eagles ran the most RPOs and, as Ratcliffe described in his article, "For Doug Pederson, no run concept could not have an RPO attached to it."
The Kansas City Chiefs were second in the NFL in the amount of RPOs utilized with quarterback Alex Smith, now with the Washington Redskins, under center. Speaking of the Redskins, with Kirk Cousins at quarterback, they accrued the highest yards per attempt of any team in the NFL when throwing out of an RPO.
So, if you do the math, you can bet that the Washington Redskins will utilize a lot of RPO and read-option concepts in their offensive game plan.
Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers, the Cowboys' week one opponent, ran RPOs the fourth most of any team in the NFL and had 5.5 yards per carry when Cam Newton kept the ball himself. Cam is one of the best running quarterbacks in the history of the NFL. Newton is the only quarterback since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970 to rush for double-digit rushing touchdowns twice in his career. Before he did it in 2011, no quarterback had accomplished the feat since Daunte Culpepper in 2002. The Dallas Cowboys and their front seven will have their hands full containing Newton in week one.
Also according to PFF's Ratcliffe, the New York Giants were the fifth best team in 2017 when the quarterback decided to keep the ball and run as they averaged 5.5 yards per carry out of RPOs. That has to be the most shocking element of his post. When you think of Eli Manning, you don't think of a running quarterback.
That just shows you how effective the RPO and read-option can be in the NFL.
With the speed of the game light years faster than it was 20 or 30 years ago, teams are having to use more and more misdirection to gain an edge in the run and pass game.
Another team on the Dallas Cowboys schedule was very effective throwing out of RPOs: the Jacksonville Jaguars. In the AFC Championship Game, they made a lot of headway against the New England Patriots using this concept.
Will be interesting to see how the Pats gameplan for the Eagles RPOs. Jaguars shredded them with same RPO 4 times in first half last week https://t.co/gYJWIPYIjj
In 2017, the Jaguars averaged 8.2 yards per attempt, the fifth best number in the NFL, just 0.3 yards per attempt behind the Philadelphia Eagles, who were fourth in the league when throwing out of RPOs.
This note from Jeff, I found particularly interesting:
"When the quarterback did pull, league-wide last year, the average yards per attempt was 6.52 and there was a 78.8 completion percentage. Once again, easy money."
Jeff Ratcliffe - Pro Football Focus
Most of the NFL is beginning to employ more and more RPO and read-option concepts into their offensive game plans, making the defense's job a lot more challenging. Especially at the linebacker level.
No longer can the linebacker just simply read run or pass based on the way the quarterback drops or turns to hand off, but they have to determine:
- Is the quarterback giving the ball to the runner?
- If the quarterback kept it, is he looking to run?
- If he's going to pass, where's the ball going?
All of that has to be decided within one to two seconds of the play. A linebacker is taught to read and react to the play as quickly as possible, which can create a significant advantage for the offense if the linebacker reads wrong.
The whole point of the read-option and the RPO is to create a lose-lose situation for the defense.
No matter what they do, it's a wrong choice.
If they read pass and drop into coverage, the ball carrier gets an advantage as he begins to go downhill. If the linebacker reads run and begins to attack the line of scrimmage, the QB pulls it and throws it to the spot vacated by the linebacker.
Having linebackers with elite athleticism, range, and coverage ability, like the Dallas Cowboys do in Sean Lee and potentially Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch, will help them minimize the damage potential as they face increasing RPO usage.
Even if we talk about standard run and pass play calls, the defense was a much better unit when Sean Lee and Anthony Hitchens were in the game. Points per game, rushing yards per game, and passing yards per game were all lower when those two were available. When the team had to rely on Jaylon Smith and Damien Wilson as their top two linebackers, they were lit up like a pinball machine.
The Cowboys hope Jaylon Smith can return to the All-American type of player he was with Notre Dame, but if he doesn't, Vander Esch is a good insurance policy for 2019.
The Boise State product is good in the run game, but he excels in the passing game when he drops into coverage.
Having three linebackers that can play the run and pass like these three potentially can will be a huge key to the Dallas Cowboys success on defense in 2018. They will make life a lot easier for the rest of the defense if they are able to maintain play discipline against the read-option and the run-pass option.
Having these three linebackers and their dual-threat ability in the run and pass game will help the Dallas Cowboys be in far less lose-lose situations than they might otherwise be. And for the Dallas Cowboys to achieve the goals the hope to achieve, namely a sixth Lombardi Trophy, these three will be the key to that success.
Can TE Rico Gathers be More Than a Just Receiving Threat?
Rico Gathers is trying to follow in the footsteps of Tony Gonzales, Antonio Gates, and Jimmy Graham as someone who has successfully made the transition from college basketball player to tight end in the NFL. Unfortunately, that transition hasn't gone quite as smoothly as he probably would've hoped.
To date, Gathers really hasn't been able to put a lot on tape. He spent his rookie season on the practice squad with the Dallas Cowboys, but did gain some valuable experience working with Tony Romo. Last year he was just beginning to show what kind of threat he could be in the passing game when he unfortunately sustained a concussion in practice, pretty much ending his season.
As you can imagine, Rico Gathers still has a lot to prove heading into the 2018 season. In no way is his roster spot guaranteed right now. He may still be the most talented and physically gifted TE on the Cowboys roster, but that will only get him so far.
I for one think Gathers can be a tremendous threat in the passing game. I think the flashes we saw in preseason a year ago are exactly the kind of weapon he can turn into for Dak Prescott. He is even working a route running guru, David Robinson, to become even better in the passing game. But, we all know the Cowboys coaching staff demands a lot more from their tight ends.
In the Cowboys offensive scheme, the tight end is an important position. They have to be able to block in several different areas depending on the formation, especially at the point of attack as an in-line blocker, sometimes being left one on one against a defensive end. That means they have to be assignment sound pre and post snap, with the ability to make the right adjustments in a split second.
For Rico Gathers, this is the area of his game holding him back the most right now. We all know what kind of threat he can be in the passing game, but the Cowboys coaching staff wants someone they can trust to leave on the field down after down. This is where Gathers will have to prove himself the remainder of the offseason.
The Dallas Cowboys knew Rico Gathers was a developmental prospect when they drafted him in the sixth-round of the 2016 NFL Draft. They didn't know how long it would take for him to be be able to contribute, but that time may be running out. Year 3 could be his last chance to prove himself in Dallas.
Gathers is a mismatch player in the passing game against smaller defensive backs, but that might not be enough for the Cowboys coaching staff to keep him around. I would personally get him involved in the receiving game, especially with all the new faces Prescott will be throwing to this season, but unfortunately I'm not making those decisions.
Do you think Rico Gathers is more than just a passing game threat?
Tony Romo Documentary in the Works
If you've missed seeing Tony Romo on the field, an upcoming documentary may be the cure. The former Dallas Cowboys quarterback is reportedly the subject of a film chronicling his football career going all the way back to high school.
"Now or Never" will tell Romo's incredible story, going from undrafted to one of the top passers in the history of the Cowboys' storied franchise. It's being produced by a Texas-based company run by Christian Hanna (no known relation to James).
According to an article from MyRacineCounty.com, Romo's hometown newspaper, the tale of Tony's football career will be told going back to his days at Burlington High School in Wisconsin. It will follow him to Eastern Illinois University, the same QB hotbed that more recently produced Jimmy Garoppolo.
But what most of us will want to relive is Tony's amazing NFL career, which stands out among the most unexpected rises to stardom of any player in league history.
Romo, who was an undrafted free agent signed by the Cowboys in 2003, didn't play in a game for three seasons. He rose the QB depth chart through practice and preseason play, eventually becoming the backup and earning the respect of then-coach Bill Parcells.
In Week 7 of 2006, Parcells pulled struggling starter Drew Bledsoe at halftime and went with his intriguing young prospect. Tony's first pass in the NFL was one to forget; an interception.
About a decade later, Romo would retire as the Cowboys' all-time leader in passing yards and touchdowns. He currently ranks fourth all-time in NFL history for passer rating.
Tony's career never saw the playoff and Super Bowl success of predecessors Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach, but he remains a beloved figure in team history. The controversial end to his football career, losing his job to rookie phenom Dak Prescott in 2016, created a major rift among Cowboys fans.
While no longer playing, Romo remains one of the hottest names in football. His charisma and football acumen have him in a featured role with CBS Broadcasting.
From obscurity to "anointing oil" to one of the most discussed names in sports, Tony Romo's story is fascinating. This documentary crew picked a great subject, and we look forward to enjoying their work and revisiting the Romo Era once the film is released.
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