On March 4th I put out an article with the Cowboys' top-five needs as I saw them at the time. We have had several transactions since then which have shifted priorities now as we had into the second week of NFL free agency. Here's a quick reminder of those needs as I saw them nine days ago:
- Defensive End
- Defensive Tackle
Let's do a quick look at moves that gave impacted these positions and see how the rankings may have shifted.
UNSIGNED: Greg Hardy, Jeremy Mincey
Dallas has sat back while names like Olivier Vernon, Mario Williams, and Jason Pierre-Paul flew off the shelf quickly. There was rumored interest between the Cowboys and Chris Long but no visit was ever scheduled.
With no additions and two of their key players from last year remaining unsigned, plus Randy Gregory facing a four-game suspension to start the year, defensive end remains the team's biggest need. Long and Hardy are the two biggest names available but the Cowboys have yet to show any tangible interest in either. Much like we saw with the Cedric Thornton signing, Dallas could have their eyes on someone unexpected. I anticipate them signing someone with starting-level talent this week.
ADDED: Morris Claiborne, Josh Thomas, Jeff Heath
UNSIGNED: Danny McCray
So far the Cowboys have focused on talent retention over adding fresh faces. Not only have they brought back Claiborne and Thomas at cornerback and Heath at safety but, to the surprise of many, Brandon Carr remains under his existing contract.
Dallas had a visit with free agent Nolan Carroll, previously with the Eagles, on March 10th but then ended up re-signing Claiborne a day later. The visit with Carroll may have been a negotiating tactic to push Claiborne to accept their offer. Perhaps Carroll is who they'd like to sign if they end up releasing Carr. Either way, it doesn't seem Dallas is interested in any of the top names in the cornerback market.
If Dallas keep Carr or adds another corner upon releasing him then it would all but confirm that Byron Jones will be a safety next year. Dallas would still have flexibility at safety as they can cut Barry Church for solid cap relief or release Heath as his restricted free agent tender is non-guaranteed. There would also be a minimal penalty for cutting J.J. Wilcox, leaving their options fully open.
Eric Weddle is still out there and many fans are clamoring for Dallas to give the veteran Pro Bowler. The Cowboys have been linked to Weddle but you never know how much stock to put in that, since Dallas gets thrown into almost every discussion to attract an audience. Still, Weddle remains an intriguing option and the only major name out there who I think Dallas could possibly be looking to add.
LOST: Matt Cassel (Titans)
Veteran Matt Moore visited with the Cowboys last Thursday but remains a free agent. Despite still having Kellen Moore signed it appears Dallas wants to bring in another veteran to compete with him, as well as whoever they may add in next month's draft.
Much discussed before free agency began as a potential target for the Cowboys, Robert Griffin III is still unsigned. Ryan Fitzpatrick, who many thought would get a starting job somewhere, may be looking for any kind of work if someone doesn't call him soon. It appears likely that Dallas will add one of these veterans in the next few weeks.
ADDED: Cedric Thornton (Eagles)
UNSIGNED: Nick Hayden, Jack Crawford, Casey Walker
The Cowboys appear to have moved on from Hayden after three years with the addition of Thornton. After playing a 3-4 defensive end in Philadelphia Thornton will play inside in Dallas, having the size to play the one-technique but also some pass-rushing skills that could keep him on the field in nickel and other schemes.
Jack Crawford is a versatile lineman who can play both end and tackle, a role we've seen filled by both Mincey and Hardy over the last two years. I think Dallas could easily end up re-signing him after he's been able to test the market a bit, likely getting him for a minimal deal. The need may not be as much as before the Thornton signing but versatile reserves are never a bad thing at any position.
With the Thornton addition and the continued employment of Terrell McClain and David Irving, not to mention Tyrone Crawford, it would appear that the Cowboys are fairly set at defensive tackle. At most they will add depth options, such as the aforementioned Jack Crawford, or mid or late-round rookie talent.
ADDED: Rolando McClain, Kyle Wilber
After re-signing McClain and Wilber the Cowboys now have their entire 2015 linebacker corps returning. McClain will re-join Sean Lee as assured starters while Wilber will be in the mix with Andrew Gachkar, Anthony Hitchens, Mark Nzeocha, and Damien Wilson for the third starting spot and backup roles. The financial details of Wilber's deal are not yet known.
Dallas could still add talent in the draft but it would appear they are mostly done with the linebacker position in free agency. Not only are they bringing back all of their young prospects but Nzeocha is essentially a fresh face after missing most of last year with injuries. Compared to other positions, I think they will be content with the relative stability they have here.
~ ~ ~
So with those moves, how have the rankings changed? Here is my updated top five:
- Defensive End
- Running Back
- Another Defensive End
We've already discussed the first two in detail. I put defensive end on here twice because the Cowboys are ridiculously thin at the position right now. Their Week One starters would be Demarcus Lawrence and Ryan Russell, who was active in just one game all last year. They clearly have to add some bodies and still need a starter opposite Lawrence who they can count on for a full year.
At running back, the situation behind Darren McFadden right now isn't great. Lance Dunbar is visiting other teams and Robert Turbin remains unsigned, leaving some guy named Rod Smith as the only backup. My free agent of choice is Alfred Morris, formerly of Washington, who has the kind of one-cut running style that suits our line very well. There are several other options out there but nobody jumps off the page as an upgrade to what Dallas would have by just re-signing Turbin. Whoever they add, we can all agree that significantly better depth is needed before entering a second year with McFadden. His history for performance and health problems after a big year is consistently ugly.
The departure of Mackenzy Bernadeau to Jacksonville leaves backup center as another important consideration. Ronald Leary is coming back but has not impressed when Dallas has tried him there before. There is talk that Zack Martin could play it in an emergency but that means impacting two positions. Another player with Bernadeau's versatility would be great but, with Leary re-signed, Dallas can afford to add just a pure center as well.
Could the Cowboys be more active this week now that the first wave and the big contracts have passed? We'll find out soon.
Geoff Swaim Needs Surgery, Should the Cowboys even use a Tight End?
Well, the injury woes continue to mount for the Dallas Cowboys with news coming down this evening that Tight End Geoff Swaim broke a bone in his wrist in the 22-19 win over the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday. The injury will need surgery which will mean Swaim will be out a while, if not for the rest of the season.
Geoff Swaim broke a bone in his wrist yesterday and is going to need surgery. Sounds like it might not be season-ending, but he won't be available Thursday #cowboyswire
In previous seasons this wouldn't be much of a blow to the offense, but Geoff Swaim has been the only tight end that the Cowboys have ben able to rely on this season. Dalton Schultz is a rookie, Blake Jarwin's been inconsistent, and Rico Gathers still isn't fully trusted. With the Dallas Cowboys and Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan's insistence on using a tight end, it seems there's a huge hole at the position heading into Sunday's first place showdown with the Washington Redskins.
But in reality, is there?
For weeks, I've been screaming for this team to use more 10 personnel (one running back and zero tight ends) as its primary passing formation because it gets their best pass catching weapons on the field at the same time. Swaim has been solid and consistent in his first year as a starter, but the rest of the tight end group has disappointed. So why even run a tight end out on the field.
The Dallas Cowboys have options that could replace the tight end in the passing game without actually using a tight end.
First, they could use Noah Brown as the de facto tight end. He's been one of the best blockers on the team in his first two seasons with the team and this is the type of role he's made for. Split him out wide and motion him in tight when you want to run. He can be a threat down the seem and in the red zone with his athleticism. He'd be a mismatch for the linebackers that try to cover him and could open space underneath for Cole Beasley. Brown is also a really good run blocker, so having him on the field doesn't negate what you want to do in the run game.
The other player the Cowboys coaching staff could work into more of the tight end route responsibilities is Allen Hurns. Hurns is a really good route runner, especially in the middle of the field, where the Dallas Cowboys haven't received a lot of production. You can put Hurns in as the fourth wide receiver and split him a couple of yards off the tackle to give him a cleaner release than a TE might get and have him run "Y-option," shallow post routes, or drags. He can be a threat in the passing game if put in situations where he can excel. See below for something Allen Hurns does really well.
In fact, by going four wide receivers with Brown or Hurns on the field, it's possible the opposing defense is forced to run more of dime packages against the Dallas Cowboys 10 personnel.
Why would you want to get teams into dime packages?
Most NFL teams have two pretty good linebackers that they can deploy in nickel situations, but teams rarely have four corners that they can put on the field and feel really good about. So, if you can force teams to remove one of their 11 best players for a backup corner back or safety, you are already winning that matchup.
That matchup would also get you into much more favorable defensive fronts to run against. Even if the opposition put seven or eight in the box, it would be against smaller personnel like corners and safeties instead of a second linebacker.
Running 10 personnel as their base offense moving forward would be unconventional, but with an opportunity to take control of first place in the NFC East on Thanksgiving, now is not the time for conventionality.
Cowboys WR Michael Gallup on Personal Leave; Team Offers Support
Dallas Cowboys rookie receiver Michael Gallup suffered a personal tragedy on Sunday, being informed that his brother committed suicide. He is now on personal leave away from the team, and both Jerry Jones and Jason Garrett have given their full support to Gallup during this difficult time.
According to reports, Gallup was unaware of his brother's death until immediately after the Cowboys' win over the Atlanta Falcons. Michael did not return with the team to Dallas and remained in Atlanta to be with his family.
A formal statement was made by owner Jerry Jones yesterday regarding Gallup:
“Our team and our entire organization are deeply saddened by the news of Michael’s loss. His family is our family. We share in the grief and pain that comes with something so personal and tragic. We offer our support, care and comfort for Michael, and we ask that all of those who have sons and daughters and brothers and sisters join us in keeping Michael and his wonderful family in their thoughts and prayers.”
Throughout his time owning the Cowboys, Jerry has built a reputation for personal loyalty and compassion with his players. His head coach is no different.
As he addressed the media Monday, Jason Garrett did not get into football matters when addressing Gallup's situation:
“This is a very challenging time for him. We’ll take it moment by moment, day by day, and give him all of our love and all of our support.”
While Michael is certainly dealing with something far more important than football, his availability for Thursday's Thanksgiving game against the Washington Redskins does come into question.
The Cowboys have a short week to prepare for Washington, and Gallup has started their last five games. If the rookie has to sit, which seems probable given the timeframe, we can expect more playing time for Allen Hurns and Noah Brown.
Whatever happens happens on that front. Our focus is on Michael Gallup during this sad time, with him and his family in our collective thoughts as Cowboys fans and fellow humans.
Wolf Hunter: Leighton Vander Esch’s Pass Coverage Skills Rising to Occasion
The Dallas Cowboys know what they're doing when it comes to the NFL Draft. Not to be outdone by Philadelphia, the Cowboys brought the 2018 Draft to AT&T Stadium, marking the first time the event's been held in an NFL stadium. This made Boise State Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch the first player to be drafted on the field he now calls home. Returning home this week after two straight interceptions against the Eagles and Falcons, Vander Esch is far from the controversial pick that drew jeers inside AT&T Stadium on draft night and every bit the star the Cowboys projected him to be.
The ascension of Leighton "Wolf Hunter" Vander Esch as one of the best young linebackers in the game has happened rapidly. LVE played eight man football in high school, tasked to do everything on both sides of the ball before settling into defense as a walk onto the blue turf.
For the first time in what seems like forever, the Cowboys have more than just a plan to play defense without Sean Lee. Thanks to their 19th overall pick they're thriving as one of the best units in the league, making Lee an afterthought.
Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith have changed the entire makeup of the Cowboys defense, two young and athletic linebackers that should be roaming the middle of the field for a long time in Dallas.
This is exactly what LVE was able to do on his interceptions of both Carson Wentz and Matt Ryan. Vander Esch defending well against the pass is probably the least surprising part of his development, as his coverage skills always overshadowed his strength against the run in college.
It just so happens that Vander Esch tallied 63 tackles in eight games before recording his first career interception, establishing himself as an all-around linebacker with no true weakness. Vander Esch has played with the power and block shedding ability that matches his sideline to sideline range and instincts, as opposing offenses have done little to slow the Cowboys new leader on defense.
Check out this video on Streamable using your phone, tablet or desktop.
This is Vander Esch's first interception, which set up a Cowboys field goal against the Eagles. Watch as Leighton reads the eyes of Wentz through the play, first angling towards his check down throw and then gaining depth to intercept the pass.
The subtle yet effective movements from Vander Esch to undercut Wentz's throw is a fine example of how quickly LVE has picked up on Kris Richard's defense, as well as the next level game speed.
Check out this video on Streamable using your phone, tablet or desktop.
Sunday's interception from Vander Esch was the type of game breaking play the Cowboys needed to separate from the Falcons in hostile territory. Although the Falcons would rally to tie the game after this point, the Cowboys defense became the first to hold Atlanta under 20 points at home this season, thanks in large part to LVE as always.
The smoothness from Vander Esch on this play is exceptional, stepping up into coverage against the running back before sprinting back in position for the turnover. Calvin Ridley, drafted seven picks after Vander Esch, helps Leighton by letting Ryan's pass go through his hands.
Give Vander Esch credit for being in the right place at the right time and finishing the play. Every week, the rookie finds a way to do something memorable, and in helping the Cowboys earn their first two road wins of 2018 he finally flashed in pass coverage.
The next challenge for the Cowboys defense comes on a short week, against the division leading Washington Redskins. Though they lost starting Quarterback Alex Smith for the season on Sunday, expected to start Colt McCoy on Thanksgiving, it was Running Back Adrian Peterson that gashed the Cowboys for 4.13 yards a carry and 99 total yards in the Redskins week six win over Dallas.
Given what not only Leighton Vander Esch but the rest of the Cowboys defense has shown against the run in recent weeks, all without David Irving and most recently without either Antwaun Woods or Daniel Ross, the Cowboys should certainly be prepared to play for first place in the NFC East on Thursday.
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