The Dallas Cowboys dominant win last Sunday against the rival New York Giants included a seemingly improved pass rush. Considered the team's biggest weakness for the last several seasons, pass rushing was a focal point of the Cowboys offseason and will be heavily scrutinized throughout 2017.
Like most of you, I was elated to see the Cowboys take Eli Manning to the ground three times in last Sunday's game. I was especially thrilled to see those sacks come from DeMarcus Lawrence and Charles Tapper, two guys who joined the team with a lot of hype and have been held back by health issues.
Three sacks is a great number. If the Cowboys can average three sacks per game then that would give them 48 total for the year. The Arizona Cardinals defense led the NFL in 2016 with 48 sacks. With guys like David Irving and Damontre Moore not even in the mix yet due to suspension, there's certainly reason for optimism about what this year's defense might be able to accomplish.
However, as is generally the case in all life, optimism needs to be tempered. I'm not trying to be Debbie Downer with the rest of this article, just Reggie Reality.
Last year, the Cowboys had some three-sack games. Heck, they even had a few games with four sacks. You might be surprised to know that the Dallas defense actually finished 13th overall in the league with 36 sacks.
Sometimes we can overrate weakness based on a team's comparative strengths. Remember, this Cowboys team went 13-3 (and Week 17 was a giveaway). To say that the pass rush was its biggest weakness is accurate, but that's like saying Jason Bourne's biggest weakness is his memory. The total package is still pretty darn lethal.
That said, there's no denying that the Cowboys were vulnerable through the air. They finished 2016 ranked 26th in yards allowed (4,167) and 24th in opponents passer rating (94.1). Some of that is scheme-based; Rod Marinelli allows teams to chew up yards but then tries to choke them out in the redzone. Dallas was near the top of the league in denying opponent touchdowns.
If the Cowboys are really going to change the narrative about their pass rush then it's going to take a lot more. Last year they had four games in which the team only had one sack and two games with none. That's almost a third of your season with only four sacks; you won't move up the NFL leaderboard with those numbers. The production has to stay more consistent, and obviously we can't know that after just one game.
A big part of making that happen is for one or two individual players to take the lead. You've never heard of a great pass rush that didn't have at least one key player at the forefront, usually a guy with at least 10 sacks or more. "Spreading the wealth" doesn't work; there needs to be a guy who commands the focus of the blockers and opens up things for teammates. This is especially critical in those clutch moments when one play can swing a game.
If you really want to get excited about what happened Sunday, DeMarcus Lawrence could be your focus. Credited with two sacks against the Giants, Lawrence did something in Week 1 that only one Cowboy did all of last season. Only Maliek Collins had a game with two or more sacks; Week 9 against the Cleveland Browns. The most any other Cowboy had in a single game was 1.5 sacks, which happened a few times.
As I've written about more than once, DeMarcus Lawrence has the potential to be a catalytic player on this defense. He showed that in 2015 with a late-season tear that produced seven sacks in the final eight games. Unfortunately, that same guy didn't show up in 2016 due to a four-game suspension and nagging injuries.
If Lawrence can finally live up to his potential then the Cowboys will have something they haven't had since another DeMarcus played here. For several seasons, Dallas has been trying to produce sacks without that one guy who demands extra attention. That is a tough way to make a living in the NFL, which is made clear by our repetitive complaints about the team's pass rush.
A breakout season for DeMarcus Lawrence would do wonders for the entire defensive front. Now couple that with David Irving's potential when he comes back in Week 5, second-year development from Maliek Collins, new weapons like Charles Tapper and Damontre Moore.....
Yes, there's reason to be excited. This Cowboys pass rush may finally stop being a weakness. But one week against an awful offensive line is too soon to know. A larger sample is needed, and we'll get another case study this Sunday in Denver.
Cowboys & DeMarcus Lawrence Fail to Reach New Contract
DeMarcus Lawrence will definitely be a Cowboy in 2018, but now the future beyond that remains in question. The Dallas Cowboys and their star defensive end did not agree to a long-term contract by today's deadline for franchise-tagged players.
According to NFL rules, teams had until 4:00 pm EST today to reach contract extensions with free agents who'd been assigned the franchise tag earlier this offseason. Players who did not get new deals will have to play the 2018 season on their one-year franchise tenders.
DeMarcus Lawrence and the Cowboys were unable to work out a long-term contract by today's deadline. Lawrence will play the 2018 season under a one-year franchise tag that will pay him $17.1 million
This does not mean Lawrence will be a free agent in 2019. The two parties can still discuss the contract in the months to come, but the deal cannot be made until after the end of the regular season.
Dallas also has the option of giving DeMarcus a second franchise tag next year. However, that would come at a considerably higher price for a second-straight season.
This year, Lawrence will still make plenty with one of the highest cap hits of any DE in the league. He earned the franchise tag last with 14.5 sacks in a breakout season.
Today's news may not really be a big deal in the long run. As long as Tank wants to stay in Dallas after this, the two sides now have over five months to keep talking and will hopefully agree on a new deal for 2019 and beyond.
There is risk on both sides, of course.
Lawrence's leverage could be less if his productions drops or he gets injured. On the other hand, his position could be even stronger with a second-straight year of strong play.
Now everyone, from the team to player to fans, is in wait-and-see mode until the end of the season.
Cowboys DE Randy Gregory Reinstatement Decision Due Soon
The Dallas Cowboys should know by the end of this week if Defensive End Randy Gregory will be reinstated by the NFL from his indefinite suspension.
Gregory, who has missed nearly two seasons with drug-related bans, requested in May for Roger Goodell to allow him to return to football. The exact date of the request isn't known, but multiple sources put it somewhere around May 18-20.
According to the Collective Bargaining Agreement, the NFL has 60 days to rule on a reinstatement request. That would put the approximate deadline no later than this Friday, July 20th.
Gregory was a second-round pick for Dallas in 2015. He was considered to have potentially elite pass-rushing skills but red flags about behavior and drug use hurt his draft stock.
Obviously those warning signs were warranted. Over three seasons, Randy has missed 30 out of 48 games due to suspension.
But reports from around the Cowboys organization and others who've dealt with Gregory rehabilitation efforts are positive. His appeal request appears strong, backed up by several testimonials that he's turned his life around.
Will Roger Goodell agree? Will Randy Gregory return to the Cowboys 2018?
We should know the answer soon.
Dak Prescott Ranked as Third Least Consistent QB in NFL
Last season could've gone a lot better for Dak Prescott. After a remarkable rookie season, he wasn't able to meet the very high expectations put on him after leading the Dallas Cowboys to the #1 seed in the NFC in 2016.
Inevitably, the "sophomore slump" managed to get to Dak, even though the numbers make it seem worse than it really was. From his 13 interceptions in 2017, not even half can be completely blamed on him. However, even though he made improvements in his game, it's fair to admit that there was indeed, a slump in his second year in the NFL.
Earlier this week, NFL.com published an article listing the most and the least consistent quarterbacks in the league last season. The way the list works is measuring "their average 2017 swing in week-to-week passer rating." In the list, Dak Prescott is listed as the third least consistent QB in the league, with only Cam Newton and Derek Carr behind him.
Just like the Dallas Cowboys' had a roller coaster for a season, constantly shifting between winning and losing, Dak Prescott also struggled at remaining consistent. It makes a ton of sense, of course, for the Cowboys' 9-7 season had a lot of swings throughout the year.
At times, the team was missing its most important defender in Sean Lee. At others, Tyron Smith and/or Ezekiel Elliott weren't on the field either. This is not an attempt to excuse Dak, for he is partly at fault here, as is the entire team.
From week 10 to 12, Dak failed to throw for a touchdown but ended up throwing five interceptions. Later in the season, failing once again to get a TD pass in two straight weeks, he threw for two interceptions at Oakland then another two when hosting the Seahawks in Dallas.
In a season that will likely determine his future with the Dallas Cowboys, Dak needs to find a way to be more consistent week after week regardless of circumstance. Hopefully, with an improved offensive line and with Ezekiel Elliott leaving every suspension drama behind him, his offense will put him in position to have his best year yet.
In 2016 and in 2017, his Total Quarterback Rating has been in the top 4 among all quarterbacks, per ESPN. Now, this is not a stat that tells the whole story, but it does give you an idea of each quarterback's play. In a run-first offense and with a safe passer like Dak, I'm sure consistency will not be hard to deal with for the young QB next season.
As long as he takes advantage of the new set of targets he'll have at his disposal and his offense's powerful running back with recently-signed draftee Connor Williams, this offense will look a lot more like the one we saw in 2016.
We know Dak Prescott has a lot to prove. He has to make longer throws, throw more aggressively to get his receivers open, and more. But consistency is just as important. In order to be continuously successful and to be a contender year after year, you need that in your signal-caller. Even if key players on the team are down, he needs to be able to shine. It's a sixteen-game season, after all.
It's time for Dak to prove he can handle that.
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