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Cowboys’ Job Security: D-Line & LB

Jess Haynie

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Cowboys Blog - Cowboys' Job Security: D-Line & LB

With eight games in and at least eight to go, it seemed a fine time to evaluate the roster. There are many different perspectives you can go with, but if you know me at all then you know I love to put my General Manager hat on. Today we're going to look at players within the context of job security, the likelihood that they will still be Cowboys next season.

On Thursday we discussed quarterbacks, receivers, and tight ends. Yesterday we finished up the offense with running backs and the offensive line. Naturally, we now move on to the defense and will start with the front seven.

DEFENSIVE ENDS

Greg Hardy - 2016 Unrestricted Free Agent

We start off with quite doozy, huh?  Hardy's return will likely be the biggest topic this March, provided it isn't already decided before the end of the year. The Cowboys have already stated interest in signing Hardy to an extension but that was before the release of photos from his domestic violence incident and the flood of public outcry that came with it.

Hardy has certainly proven that he can still be on the most impactful defensive ends in the game. Given that they've already weathered the storm of signing Hardy and the most heated fallout from his past, it's hard to see Dallas not continuing to pursue a long-term relationship. They will certainly look to protect themselves in the terms of the contract, but ultimately I see a deal happening.

LIKELIHOOD TO RETURN: 90%

DeMarcus Lawrence - Signed through 2017

It's been a disappointing second year for Lawrence, but hardly enough for the Cowboys to not bring him back. He certainly needs to step his game up in the second half of the year, though, if he doesn't want to start falling back in the rotation. Lawrence could end up playing inside on nickel downs more if he doesn't start making more noise from left end.

LIKELIHOOD TO RETURN: 100%

Jeremy Mincey - 2016 Unrestricted Free Agent

I am totally on the fence with Mincey. He's a solid, reliable player and provides excellent flexibility as an end or tackle depending on the formation. However, Mincey turns 32 this December. Dallas will likely have a solid rotation with Hardy, Lawrence, and Randy Gregory next season. They also have Jack Crawford who can fill the same versatile role that Mincey does now. Will Mincey be willing to accept a minor contract to come back as a rotational piece? Given his age, the market make dictate that it's the best option for him.

LIKELIHOOD TO RETURN: 33%

Randy Gregory - Signed through 2018

Gregory's only going to get better this year as he fully recovers from his injury, and then especially next year after his first full offseason. I can't wait to see him back to form over the next few weeks.

LIKELIHOOD TO RETURN: 100%

Jack Crawford - 2016 Unrestricted Free Agent

I think Dallas would love to bring him back. Crawford is, essentially, a younger version of Mincey and has been an effective backup to Tyrone Crawford at inside tackle as well as at defensive end. He hasn't been exposed enough in games to where I think other teams will be paying much attention to him, so hopefully Dallas can secure him with a modest contract.

LIKELIHOOD TO RETURN: 60%

Ryan Russell - Signed through 2018

The fifth-round pick will certainly return for training camp and the preseason, but there's no guarantee he'll make it through final cuts. Dallas has left Russell inactive in all but one games this year. He will get every opportunity to compete but could be ousted by a new rookie or some other prospect who arrives in the offseason.

LIKELIHOOD TO RETURN: 60%

DEFENSIVE TACKLE

Tyrone Crawford - Signed through 2020

You could have a really good debate with someone on who's been more disappointing between Crawford and Lawrence. Both were expected to be breakout stars this year, and Dallas paid Crawford based on that expectation with his new deal. Rod Marinelli even admitted in a recent interview that Crawford had to be better. He's certainly not going anywhere with the new contract, but fans will turn on him pretty quick if he doesn't start living up to it.

LIKELIHOOD TO RETURN: 100%

Nick Hayden - 2016 Unrestricted Free Agent

I've never understood the team's seeming infatuation with Hayden. He's a 4-3 tackle who can't rush the passer and doesn't do much to stop the run. Where's the value, other than that he doesn't miss games?

I think defensive tackle is going to be a key focus for the team next offseason. They will either look to make a splash signing there or spend a high draft pick. Hayden could certainly be back on a modest deal, with a chance to compete or at least be a key reserve. But he could also find himself squeezed out as Dallas looks to upgrade one of its most critical areas of need.

LIKELIHOOD TO RETURN: 50%

Terrell McClain - Signed through 2016

Dallas only saves about $1 million if they cut McClain. He should be worth more than that as a low-priced backup with the potential to compete for a starting job, provided he's fully healthy. The biggest threat to him, like with Hayden, will be the team electing to move to younger options or making a major free agent move.

LIKELIHOOD TO RETURN: 60%

David Irving - 2016 Exclusive Rights Free Agent

Irving has been the most exciting young player on the defense this year and could be getting some significant reps as the season goes on. Rod Marinelli has to be salivating at the idea of getting a full offseason to work with this kid.

LIKELIHOOD TO RETURN: 100%

Chris Whaley - Signed through 2016

Dallas held on to Whaley through 2014 while he recovered from a major knee injury in college, liking his potential as a pass-rushing tackle. He was fully healthy this year but then ruptured his Achilles early in preseason, costing him another season. He's still under contract, and Dallas has no reason not to bring him back after paying for two years of his medical bills.

LIKELIHOOD TO RETURN: 33%

LINEBACKERS

Sean Lee - Signed through 2019

Lee will miss his first full game of 2015 this week in Tampa, which is not too bad given his history. He's still such a dynamic player when on the field that you can put up with a lot. Hopefully these concussions don't become a chronic problem.

LIKELIHOOD TO RETURN: 100%

Rolando McClain - 2016 Unrestricted Free Agent

It's all going to come down to the asking price. McClain will still be just 27 by next season, which is fine age to sign a veteran to a multi-year deal. His reliability both in his health and personal life are significant problems, though. Of all the impending free agents on the team McClain's probably the one who can do the most to help or hurt his return chances by how he finishes the year.

If I were Dallas, based on the current evidence. I'd offer him a contract like Greg Hardy got in 2015. Not nearly as rich a deal, mind you, but with a similar mix of high incentives and minimal risk for the team. Make the guy keep his body and life in shape and earn every dollar he makes. If he doesn't like it, you've still got Hitchens and a whole offseason to find replacements. I just don't see any way you can commit to McClain long-term, though, given the last two seasons.

LIKELIHOOD TO RETURN: 50%

Anthony Hitchens - Signed through 2017

Hitchens should be starting in some capacity next year. He hasn't been as explosive this year as in his rookie season, but he's still a solid player and has that oh so valuable versatility that teams covet.

LIKELIHOOD TO RETURN: 100%

Kyle Wilber - 2016 Unrestricted Free Agent

Wilber has been one the major victims of Dallas' switch from the 3-4 to the 4-3. He was drafted in 2012, our last year in the old scheme, as a prototypical pass-rushing outside linebacker. Now he's a guy who's too small for 4-3 end and not ideally athletic enough for linebacker. I imagine a 3-4 team will look to add Wilber as pass-rushing depth and that he'll welcome a move back to what he's built to do.

LIKELIHOOD TO RETURN: 10%

Andrew Gachkar - Signed through 2016

He's been better than I'd have thought based on the scouting report from his Chargers days. Gachkar is a key special teams player and a reliable backup, so there's little reason to think he won't play out his contract. The only risk factor for him is the $1.3 million in cap savings Dallas could get from cutting him.

LIKELIHOOD TO RETURN: 90%

Damien Wilson - Signed through 2018

His opportunities to play are going up considerably as injuries start to hit the position. If Wilson can show up in relief like Hitchens did last year, as many have suggested he has the potential to do, he could be competing for a starting job next year.

LIKELIHOOD TO RETURN: 100%

Mark Nzeocha - Signed through 2018

Dallas drafted Nzeocha knowing he would need some physical rehab work from college injuries, which caused his stock to fall. He is an upside guy and I think will be around for at least another year or so.

LIKELIHOOD TO RETURN: 75%

Keith Smith - 2016 Exclusive Rights Free Agent

Just added back to the 53-man roster today from the practice squad, Smith has clearly kept the team's interest. His experience, however limited, only become more valuable as a potential backup and he should be in the mix for next year's camp.

LIKELIHOOD TO RETURN: 50%
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Thanks for reading! I'll be wrapping it up tomorrow morning with the secondary and special teams players.



Cowboys fan since 1992, blogger since 2011. Bringing you the objectivity of an outside perspective with the passion of a die-hard fan. I love to talk to my readers, so please comment on any article and I'll be sure to respond!

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Dallas Cowboys

Dallas Cowboys 2019 Offseason Preview: Linebacker

Jess Haynie

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Wolf Hunter: Leighton Vander Esch's Pass Coverage Skills Rising to Occasion

One of the brightest spots on the Dallas Cowboys' projected 2019 roster is linebacker. The young pair of Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch have already emerged as one of the league's best duos. But that doesn't mean that the Cowboys have no work to do at the position this offseason.

Having Jaylon and Leighton does take a lot of pressure off. Most teams utilize their nickel scheme more than any other these days, which generally utilizes just two linebackers, in the increasingly pass-focused NFL. And thankfully, both Smith and Vander Esch have shown great skills in pass defense.

But there's still a semi-starting role to get figured out in the base 4-3 scheme. Damien Wilson has held the strong-side or "SAM" position for the last few years and has an expiring contract.

What's more, Dallas has a big decision to make regarding the contract of Sean Lee, which is ripe for terminating with $7 million in salary cap savings possible.

It's highly unlikely that the Cowboys would keep both Lee and Wilson. If they decide to re-sign Damien, Lee will be cut to help fund that move and others. If Sean is kept on, Wilson will almost surely be looking for a starting role somewhere else in free agency.

Even if the Cowboys do make Lee a cap casualty between now and March 13th, they may still allow Wilson to test free agency and then try to re-sign him later at a discount. He's unlikely to attract the same attention that Anthony Hitchens got last year.

How Does LB Joe Thomas Fit Into Cowboys' 2019 Plans?

Dallas Cowboys LB Joe Thomas (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Another factor in all of this is Joe Thomas, a free agent addition last year who provided good depth and could potentially start in 2019. He is scheduled to count $2.2 million against the cap, which is fine for a primary reserve but a bargain for an occasional starter.

A core of Smith, Thomas, and Vander Esch gives the Cowboys a good foundation to build from. Smith can play the SAM in the base scheme and Thomas can be the primary backup to Jaylon and Leighton in the nickel.

However, going that route would deplete the depth chart. Chris Covington, a sixth-round pick last year, would be the only noteworthy player under contract. Dallas would need to find at least two more guys to fill out the group for 2019.

They could look at re-signing backup Justin March-Lillard, who would at least bring some familiarity and veteran experience. But that might still leave them looking for more of a primary reserve, which would be especially vital if Thomas is promoted to a starting role.

The projected LB free agent pool for 2019 should make it a buyer's market. Dallas may be able to re-sign Damien Wilson or even add an upgrade, like perhaps the Vikings' Anthony Barr, at a relative bargain. There should be ample options for depth as well.

Barring an extremely favorable value opportunity, don't expect the Cowboys to spend a significant draft pick at linebacker. The fourth-round is the earliest I could see one going based on other needs, and even then it would need to be someone they really like.

Good drafting is why Dallas has flexibility and leverage this offseason. The picks they invested in Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch appear to have made LB a strength of the team for the next several years.

There is still business to attend to, but the Cowboys won't have to be too concerned with linebacker in 2019 thanks to their young stars.



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Xavier Woods Versatility Key in Dallas Cowboys FA Safety Pursuit

John Williams

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Cowboys Safety Xavier Woods Is Getting Better By The Week

There has been a debate going on among Cowboys Nation for more than a year now about the prospects of bringing in Seattle Seahawks Safety Earl Thomas. Now with free agency approaching, there are several other names that the Dallas Cowboys could consider when looking to upgrade the safety position. Landon Collins, Tyrann Mathieu, and Tre Boston are several of the many quality and really good safeties that are hitting the free agent market in a few weeks. It's a group with varied skill sets and abilities, which makes the debate even more interesting. The Dallas Cowboys, however, will be able to take a look at all of them when free agency opens March 13th because of one player; Xavier Woods.

Xavier Woods, the Cowboys fifth round draft pick from the 2017 NFL Draft just finished his first full season as a starter for the Cowboys and played really well. In two years he's shown the ability to cover from the slot, play deep, play in the box, be a force over the middle, and make plays on the football. He's one of the more versatile players on the defense with his ability to play all over the field. That versatility allows the Dallas Cowboys' front office an advantage when approaching the names mentioned above.

The Dallas Cowboys don't have to be locked in to one particular type of safety. When people talk about Landon Collins, they label him a "box safety." Earl Thomas is a traditional free safety. Tre Boston is a similar player to Earl Thomas and Tyrann Mathieu is like Collins. The Cowboys can go into free agency with the freedom to explore their options and do their due diligence when it comes to these players.

That's a distinct difference from this offseason to last.

Last offseason, the feeling was that the Dallas Cowboys had to go get Earl Thomas. The safety position was so weak that the Cowboys were going to be playing at a disadvantage in the high-flying, pass-heavy NFL. Xavier Woods proved in his first full season that he can be a productive, play making starter in the NFL and should only continue to improve.

According to Pro Football Focus, Xavier Woods was sixth in the NFL in passer rating against among safeties with at least 352 coverage snaps. His 62.8 passer rating allowed in his coverage was tied with Eric Weddle, better than Derwin James, Reshad Jones, Adrian Amos, and Maliek Hooker. Of the safeties drafted in the 2017 draft class, only Eddie Jackson from the Chicago Bears had a better passer rating against than Xavier Woods.

The Dallas Cowboys got a really good player in Xavier Woods and as they get ready to potentially make a run at a big name safety, they can feel confident that whoever they end up signing will be a good fit with Woods. He can play in the box or cover receivers and tight ends. You can run more two deep safety looks, because he has the range to play it.

This year, as opposed to last, they have more certainty at the safety position because of Xavier Woods and the strides he took in 2018. There's no reason to believe that he can't continue to take a step forward for the Dallas Cowboys. His ability to play all over the field allows the Cowboys to be smart and patient in their pursuit of a safety upgrade this offseason.



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3 Free Agent Targets From Cowboys NFC East Rivals

John Williams

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3 Free Agent Targets From Cowboys NFC East Rivals

The free agency period in the NFL will be here in a little more than three weeks and the Dallas Cowboys will begin the annual tradition of trying to put together the best 53-man roster that they can come up with. Free agency is just one part of the equation that includes the draft, the signing of undrafted free agents, adding and subtracting from the roster during training camp, and picking up players after the final cut down day.

You can rest assured that Will McClay and the entire pro scouting department is doing their due diligence in anticipation of the March 13th start to the 2019 free agency period. They'll look high and low for players that can come in and be contributors for the Cowboys. Even within their own division.

Between the New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, and Washington Redskins, there are some interesting names to consider as the Cowboys peruse the free agent aisles of the NFL superstore. Some of those players like Landon Collins, Ronald Darby, Nick Foles, and Brandon Graham will be new releases that will cost you a pretty penny at the check out stand. Others like Haloti Ngata will be in the used and refurbished section. And then there are those who could be had at a reasonable or discounted rate.

Here are three from within the NFC East that the Cowboys could have their eye on.

Mario Edwards, Defensive Line, New York Giants

The former Oakland Raiders second round pick out of Florida State University has already played for two teams in his young four-year career. That isn't a good sign for Mario Edwards as he approaches free agency for the first time. You don't generally see many top 100 picks get released from the team that originally drafted as they usually wait as long as they can to see if the player is going to hit.

For Mario Edwards, he found himself caught in a numbers game and outplayed by two rookies in Oakland's training camp in 2018, leading to his release. It also sounds like the Raiders couldn't quite figure out where to put him on their defensive line.

We know that the Dallas Cowboys love looking around the league for those reclamation projects. Edwards could be the next David Irving or Antwaun Woods. A player that isn't highly thought of, but in the right situation and with the right coaching could flourish.

Edwards has played 14 or more games in three of his first four seasons, missing his second season with a hip injury. He totaled more than two sacks a season in those three seasons. He isn't by any stretch of the imagination someone who is going to come in and replace DeMarcus Lawrence or Randy Gregory, but he could be a nice depth piece with potential to see significant snaps both at defensive end and 3-technique defensive tackle.

Edwards could be the next Rod Marinelli special.

Jordan Matthews, Wide Receiver, Philadelphia Eagles

The Dallas Cowboys could be in the market for a slot wide receiver this offseason if Cole Beasley is allowed to walk in free agency, which seems like a near certainty. There are several intriguing options on the roster in Allen Hurns and Cedric Wilson that could play in the slot some, or play on the outside allowing Amari Cooper to play in the slot. They could also look to the draft for Beasley's replacement as well. In the free agent pool, there are several interesting names, one of which is Jordan Matthews.

Jordan Matthews just finished his second stint in Philadelphia and while he didn't have huge production in Philly in 2018 -- 20 receptions on 28 targets for 300 yards and two touchdowns, he's a player with a track record in the NFL and could be a "big slot" option.

In Matthews first three seasons in the NFL, he averaged 75 receptions on 115 targets for 891 yards and 6.3 touchdowns in his first stint with the Philadelphia Eagles. In 2014, Matthews caught 64 of his 67 receptions from the slot, which was second in the NFL that season. In 2015, he led the NFL in receptions from the slot with 81, while also scoring eight touchdowns. In 2016, his final year with the Eagles, he was ninth in the NFL with 53 receptions. So, in those first three seasons in the league, he averaged 67 receptions, 796.3 yards, and six touchdowns. He caught eight touchdowns in each of his first two seasons for the Eagles in the slot.

He's not the same player that Cole Beasley is, but he's a player that knows how to win in the slot and because of the past couple of years could be a cheaper option to try and replace Cole's production.

Jamison Crowder, Wide Receiver, Washington Redskins

If Jordan Matthews is the inexpensive option for the Dallas Cowboys in the slot, Jamison Crowder would require paying a pretty penny. Spotrac.com estimates that Crowder could be worth $8 million per year over four years on the open market.

Interestingly enough, he's never been as productive as Cole Beasley or Jordan Matthews, but because of his age and his work the last couple of seasons, injuries not withstanding, he's seen in a more positive light than Matthews.

Crowder is cut from a similar cloth as Beasley. Smaller in stature and uses quickness and speed to win games. As Cowboys fans, we know all to well the effect that he has in game. Crowder, however, has never had more than 66 receptions in a season and has only scored more than three touchdowns once in his four seasons in the NFL; back in 2016 when he scored seven.

Crowder is coming off of an injury this season that limited him to just nine games, 29 receptions for 388 yards and two touchdowns. In his three full seasons prior to 2018, Crowder averaged 64 receptions on 93 targets for 746 yards and four touchdowns.

If for some reason, his market comes in less than the $8 million per year that Spotrac.com is projecting, I'd be very interested in bringing Crowder to Dallas.

✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭

Each of these guys offers something intriguing that the Dallas Cowboys could use. Whether it's a defensive lineman or a slot wide receiver, they all bring something to the table. The Dallas Cowboys need to approach this offseason with a "go for it" mentality, but if they continue to follow their free agency philosophy, Mario Edwards and Jordan Matthews could be nice pieces to add to the team that offer a lot of upside.



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