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.
Dallas Cowboys’ Starters Don’t Need to Play in Preseason “Dress Rehearsal”
The third game of the preseason has long been considered the "dress rehearsal" game for NFL teams. It's the game where teams generally played their starters for at least a half and sometimes into the second half so that coaches and players could practice communicating adjustments during half time. With the conversation about the future of the preseason focused on reducing the number of exhibition games teams play, it's time for the Dallas Cowboys to follow several other teams and sit their starters and principle role players for the third preseason game.
The Los Angeles Rams, among other teams, have made a conscious decision not to play their starters in the third preseason game for several years under Head Coach Sean McVay. And if you look back at how they've handled the preseason this offseason, Jared Goff and Todd Gurley, haven't played a single snap. They also haven't played Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods, or Cooper Kupp. The Rams have been one of the best offensive teams in the NFL but haven't played their primary skill position players in the preseason in two years.
The Dallas Cowboys and every other team in the NFL can take a lesson. But based on a report from Todd Archer of ESPN, the Dallas Cowboys have different plans. Even planning to play the oft-injured Sean Lee this weekend.
Linebacker Sean Lee has practiced the last three days, and anticipates he will play Saturday at least some against the Houston Texans. Lee suffered a slightly sprained medial collateral ligament in the first padded practice while in Oxnard, California,... https://t.co/zZ4KNvWdua
There's very little reason at this point to play your starters and risk injuries that could derail what the Dallas Cowboys hope is a Super Bowl run. Jason Garrett's an old school coach from an older way of thinking that believes it's important to get those reps against live competition. To an extent, it is important to work on things against a team that doesn't know you as well as your own players. On the other hand, does the benefit outweigh the risk?
Last night, with the Carolina Panthers facing the New England Patriots in their third preseason game, Cam Newton took several big hits that led to him having to leave the game with a foot or ankle injury. Now, for Carolina's sake, they better hope it's a minor thing that will heal with some rest, because if Cam Newton has to miss an extended period of time, they can go ahead and write off the 2019 season, especially in the NFC South.
With as effective as the first-team offense has looked in the first two preseason games, does it make sense to risk Dak Prescott or one of the other starters on offense to injury in order to get them more live competition?
The offensive line is already ailing a bit with Tyron Smith missing last week's matchup with the Los Angeles Rams due to yet another back issue. Zack Martin sat out the game in Hawaii as well with a bulging disc in his back that has held him out of practice as well. It's unlikely that either of these guys will play Saturday night along with any of the other players dealing with injuries right now. However, what's the point of playing the guys who aren't injured.
Sure, this game could give Dak Prescott and Michael Gallup some more reps to work on their chemistry or snaps for Travis Frederick and Jason Witten to get in game shape after a year layoff. However, there's so much more to be lost than gained if one of the starters or primary role-players is injured in this game. Prescott and Gallup have looked great in practice. Frederick and Witten will work into game shape.
You can't play football worried about players getting hurt, but you can save your risk-taking for a time when the games actually matter to your win-loss ledger. Let the back half of your 90 man roster get all the snaps they can get in this game and the next. Perhaps those extra snaps help the coaching staff separate those players on the bubble for the 53-man roster.
Though we will watch the game Saturday night to see what those Dallas Cowboys who do play are able to accomplish against the Houston Texans, we will be watching with bated breath. Hoping that the Dallas Cowboys don't suffer an injury that could derail their chances of contending for a Super Bowl.
Cowboys en Español: Extensión de Jaylon, Pronóstico Para Elliott
Los Dallas Cowboys han sido uno de los equipos más importantes a seguir este offseason. ¿El motivo? Tres super estrellas en espera de extensiones de contrato. Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott y Amari Cooper han sido el enfoque para medios y aficionados cuando se trata del equipo de Jerry Jones. Sin embargo, ninguno de ellos fue el primero en llegar un acuerdo con el equipo. El linebacker Jaylon Smith consiguió llevarse la primera rebanada del pastel.
Jaylon Smith se ha perfilado como uno de los mejores linebackers en toda la NFL después de una excelente temporada en 2018. Al recordar su historia, es increíble ver hasta donde ha llegado. Fue en 2016 cuando, jugando su último partido de football universitario con Notre Dame, el linebacker sufrió una lesión de rodilla lo suficientemente seria para poner en duda si volvería a jugar en su vida. Quien hubiera sido probablemente una de las primeras cinco selecciones en su respectivo NFL Draft, terminó cayendo hasta la segunda ronda, donde los Cowboys terminaron su desliz y lo llamaron a Dallas sabiendo que podría tardar hasta más de un año en regresar al campo.
Después de perderse la campaña del 2016, en 2017 fue apresurado al emparrillado y a pesar de verse prometedor, no brilló tanto como lo hizo el año pasado. Estando completamente sano, Smith se lució como el linebacker central de la defensiva de los Cowboys que sorprendió a toda la liga. Realmente vimos a la fuerza que todos esperaban ver de su parte cuando era un prospecto de Notre Dame.
Ahora, firma una extensión de contrato que realmente es amigable con el equipo. Después de un offseason en el que Bobby Wagner (Seahawks) recibió 18 millones de dólares en promedio al año y C.J. Mosley 17, el valor de Smith pudo haber estado alrededor de los 15. Sin embargo, el promedio de la extensión de 5 años de Jaylon es de 12.8.
Jaylon Smith al parecer le dio un descuento al equipo que creyó en el cuando su carrera era un signo de interrogación. Los Cowboys aseguran un gran talento para el futuro, y otro defensivo en torno a quien pueden construir una defensiva para el largo plazo. Tanto la directiva como el jugador se merecen un fuerte aplauso por esta noticia.
Mientras tanto, rumores sobre la situación de Ezekiel Elliott continúan. La historia, por el momento, sigue siendo la misma. Zeke no se ha reportado con el equipo y está de vuelta en Cabo después de haber viajado (e ilusionado a muchos fans en el proceso) a Dallas hace unos días.
Muchos se han dado a la tarea de entrar en pánico, pero yo los invito a que tomen un fuerte respiro. Sí, la temporada regular está muy cerca. Sin duda, Elliott estará en forma pero el no haber trabajado con el equipo en training camp podría resultar en el corredor super estrella tardando un poco en adaptarse.
Habiendo dicho eso, me sorprendería mucho si Zeke se pierde un segundo de temporada regular. Jeff Darlington, reportero de ESPN, comentó al aire que su predicción era que Elliott se reportará para la semana 1 y no podría estar más de acuerdo con él.
Se ha sabido que ambas partes siguen trabajando para acordar una extensión y que los Cowboys lo quieren para el futuro, incluso ofreciendo un contrato que lo convertiría en el segundo mejor pagado en su posición de la NFL.
Este equipo de los Dallas Cowboys realmente es un contendiente al Super Bowl y tanto la directiva como Elliott lo saben. Pueden estar pensando en Le'Veon Bell, pero no olviden lo diferente que estas situaciones son. Mi pronóstico coincide con el de Darlington y el de muchos otros: Zeke no se perderá ni un segundo de temporada regular.
How The Cowboys Can “Modernize” Their Offense
If there's one thing the national football world seemed to agree on last season, it's that Scott Linehan's offense had grown "stale."
After starting the Dak Prescott/Scott Linehan era off fast, with one of the league's best offenses in 2016 leading them to a 13-3 record, Dallas quickly fell down those offensive leaderboards. As pieces on the offensive line were forced to shuffle due to free agency, injury, or illness and Ezekiel Elliott faced suspension, the Cowboys offense sputtered during '17 and '18.
Though the Amari Cooper trade gave the unit a quick boost of energy en route to a division title a year ago, the Cowboys offense still seemed behind the curve when compared to the rest of the league.
Jerry Jones decided to fire offensive coordinator Scott Linehan this offseason, moving on from that "stale" offensive system. The man hired to replace Linehan? First year OC, and former backup quarterback in Dallas, Kellen Moore.
Much has been made about the hiring of Kellen Moore. Some believe he will be the one to bring much needed modern elements to the Cowboys offense, helping them compete with the loads of firepower around the NFC. Others see this as more of the same, as Jason Garrett is still the one ultimately in charge at The Star.
I decided to take a closer look at the Cowboys offensive efficiency numbers over the last three seasons to pinpoint exactly where they can improve. I also watched a bit of Kellen Moore from his quarterback days at Boise State, to see what aspects of that elite college offense he may look to incorporate with his new professional offense. The results were far from surprising, though they were certainly enlightening as we head into this 2019 campaign.
Play Action Passing
If you're on NFL Twitter as much as I am, you're probably sick of reading about play action passing. Analysts have been using the term as a sort of quick-fix for a struggling passing offense, pointing to the efficiency numbers of teams that do it well, such as the Los Angeles Rams.
The bottom line is, you need to have an efficient passing game to win in the NFL. And it's hard to be more efficient through the air than the Cowboys have been in their play action passing game.
Let's start back. In 2016, Dak Prescott dazzled all year long to earn himself Rookie of the Year honors. His best full season to date, Prescott immediately put himself into the conversation with top two picks Jared Goff and Carson Wentz for who will be the best young quarterback in that 2016 class. But, then, in 2017 things went a bit sour for Prescott, and stayed that way until Amari Cooper joined the Cowboys midway through the 2018 season.
While injuries, suspensions, and regression can all explain what has happened to the Cowboys passing offense since that miraculous rookie year, play action passing rate might do a better job than any of them. In 2016 the Cowboys finished with a 24% play action rate, placing them 3rd in the NFL in terms of usage. They averaged 9 yards per play on play action passes, with a DVOA of 45.8%. They were really good at it, and compared to the rest of the league, they did it a lot.
As play action rates around the league rose, however, the Cowboys stayed the same. They went from efficient and "smart" in 2016, their best offensive year with Dak Prescott, to outdated and stale. And they did so quickly.
In 2017 Dallas used play action just 22% of the time. While not a big dropoff from a season ago, they fell in the league rankings from 3rd to 19th. And while they remained a positive passing team in terms of DVOA overall, their passing efficiently rose 19.8% when using play action as compared to standard drop-back passing.
Then, in 2018, the Cowboys were once again in the middle of the pack in terms of play action rate at 25%. Despite their relatively low usage to the elite teams around the league, the Cowboys were 10th in play action passing DVOA. When they didn't use play action and decided to use the traditional drop-back passing, they were 27th in DVOA. In terms of DVOA differential, Dallas had the 5th biggest drop-off in the league, and were +37.7% when using play action.
In other words, the Cowboys were really good passing the ball after the play fake. Yet, for whatever reason, they didn't utilize it nearly enough last season.
If they are going to become "modern" or "cutting edge," they should be joining teams like the Rams, Eagles, and Patriots at the top of the play action rate leaderboards. Especially when the data suggests there are no diminishing returns with increased play action usage.
So, this would suggest the Cowboys have to pay Ezekiel Elliott, right?
Well, not exactly.
As discussed by Ben Baldwin in this Football Outsiders article, no relationship between rushing frequency or success and play action passing success has been found. Running the football does not set up more successful play action passes, despite what traditional football knowledge would suggest.
You can run and succeed at play action pass plays without running the football well, or much at all.
Ah, another favorite term of NFL nerd Twitter, pre-snap motion. As a former college offensive lineman (yeah, division three, whatever) the infatuation with pre-snap motion at the NFL level is sort of funny to me.
At the high school and college levels, pre-snap motion is used all the time. I can't even count how many pre-snap flops or shifts, jet motions, sprint motions, fly motions/sweeps, etc. get used on a daily basis at practice. So how come the NFL is so far behind these lower levels of football?
Well, to be honest, they tend to be behind more often than not. But that's besides the point.
In 2018 the Cowboys used pre-snap motion 31% of the time, ranking 24th in the NFL according to Sports Info Solutions. New quarterbacks coach Jon Kitna, however, spoke to The Ringer about changing that in 2019.
“We want to spread it out and make the defense have to cover the full field,” Kitna says. “We’re going to try to use formations and shifts and movements to our advantage. I think a lot of people have that idea coming in, but we’re going to emphasize that.” - Jon Kitna
Incorporating more motions would be huge for the Cowboys offense. These motions can create that space Kitna is speaking to, especially considering how often opposing defenses will use man coverage against the Cowboys.
Everything you do as an offense should be done to put the defense in a bind. Make the defense choose between two bad options on every snap. Not only do motions indicate opposing coverages pre-snap, but when combined with stack and bunch formations and a variety of splits they also often force defenses to choose between two bad options.
Putting It Together
What would an offense like this look like? Let's take a look at Kellen Moore's college days for a couple examples.
Check out this video on Streamable using your phone, tablet or desktop.
On this play above, the Broncos bring their tight end in motion across the formation. Kellen Moore snaps the ball as the tight end reaches the outside shoulder of the tackle. Then, they use both the play action fake and the motioned tight end to draw the defenders' eyes into the backfield/flats.
The hesitation from the linebackers and safeties gives Kellen the chance to take a deep shot down the field for a huge completion and a touchdown.
Check out this video on Streamable using your phone, tablet or desktop.
Here's another example of Kellen Moore executing a touchdown pass off play action. This time, it's a wide receiver who goes in motion across the formation until he gets outside the far hash. The defense is forced to indicate their coverage because of the motion, so Kellen Moore knows exactly what look they are giving pre-snap.
The play action fake draws the linebackers up further towards the line of scrimmage, and Moore drops it over there heads to the previously motioned receiver for a touchdown.
Honestly, the plays themselves shouldn't be all that different. It's about dressing the packaging up in unique ways while still running the same base type plays they've always run. Every team runs inside and outside zone. Some do it better than others, though, and a lot of that has to do with the packaging.
The Cowboys can still, if they must, "establish the run." They can just do so in ways that keep the defense guessing, rather than pounding their heads against the wall against unfavorable box counts.
It's not about trick plays or gadgets, it's about creativity and variety.
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