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Cowboys Need DE Help, But Will the Salary Cap Cooperate?

Jess Haynie

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Cowboys Headlines - DeMarcus Lawrence Returns: How Much Can it Help? 1

Leading up to the March 9th start of NFL free agency, we will be looking at all Dallas Cowboys players under contract for 2017 and how much of the salary cap each position is taking up.

Position Breakdowns: SPECIAL TEAMS | RUNNING BACKS | SAFETIES | TIGHT ENDS | LINEBACKERS | GUARDS & CENTERS | DEFENSIVE TACKLES | OFFENSIVE TACKLES | QUARTERBACKS | CORNERBACKS | RECEIVERS

Cowboys Capology: Defensive Ends

Struggling to pressure opposing quarterbacks has been the Achilles heel of the Cowboys defense for several seasons. It has played a major role in early playoff exits in 2014 and 2016. Not since DeMarcus Ware has Dallas had a consistently great pass rusher at defensive end.

Given that this is a recurring weakness, it's no surprise that a pass-rushing DE remains at or near the top of everyone's offseason wish list. It could be hard to find in the draft at the 28th pick, so free agency may be the only way for Dallas to get immediate help. Unfortunately, that won't come cheap.

Before we dive into the specifics, let's look at the NFL's 2017 salary cap. The league announced that the cap would be set at $167 million for the upcoming season. Even though this is still a $10 million increase from last year, it's a few million short of what many were projecting.

Confirmed 2017 Salary Cap = $167 million
Cowboys 2016 Cap Rollover = $2.4 million

Dallas Cowboys 2017 Salary Cap = $169.4 million

Now, using that number as our foundation, let's look at how much the Cowboys' defensive ends are scheduled to cost against the 2017 salary cap.

DeMarcus Lawrence

2017 Cap Hit: $1.75 million

On the final year of his rookie deal, Lawrence needs everything to go right in 2017. His first three years in Dallas have had some highs but have been most disappointing. Lawrence only had one sack last seasons despite appearing in nine games.

Ongoing back problems limited Lawrence in 2016. There were several times that he was getting pressure or hitting the quarterback after the throw, but he just couldn't seal the deal on those all-important sacks.

Even if Lawrence finally has a breakout season, the Cowboys could be leery about signing him long-term. Their recent experience with Anthony Spencer was a good lesson about players who only show up in contract years. Lawrence needs to not only show up on the field but earn the coaches' trust with his character and work ethic.

Benson Mayowa

DE Benson Mayowa

Benson Mayowa

2017 Cap Hit: $2.6 million

Mayowa led the Cowboys with six sacks last season. That's not a great number on its own, but it helps to know that he got 3.5 sacks in just Weeks 13-16. If Mayowa's late-season production can translate to a full year in 2017, he could emerge as a major player on this Dallas defense.

The problem for Mayowa and the Cowboys is that he may not have done enough to discourage them from signing a big name in free agency. If Dallas does spend big on a pass rusher, it's Mayowa who might suffer the most from the lost playing time.

Benson wouldn't be released; still $2.2 million in dead money makes that worthless for the Cowboys. Still, getting buried on the depth chart is never good. Whether or not Dallas pursues a major DE free agent should have a lot to do with their belief in Mayowa's upside and how big a role they see him having next year.

Randy Gregory

2017 Cap Hit: $1.04 million

Hit with a one-year suspension following the Cowboys Week 17 game, Gregory won't be able to play at all during the regular season. That means his current cap hit will go down significantly; $782k in base salary will be voided by the suspension. By the end of the year, Gregory should have only counted a little over $200k against the salary cap.

Charles Tapper

DE Charles Tapper

Charles Tapper

2017 Cap Hit: $694k

Taken 34 picks before Dak Prescott in last year's draft, Tapper remains an exciting prospect. He has rare athleticism for his size, posting one of the fastest 40-yard dash times ever for a player who weighs 270 pounds or more.

Tapper never got to play in the regular season because of a spinal defect that was discovered during the preseason. He has reportedly done the work necessary to get past it and is fully cleared to play next year.

Thankfully, Tapper still got all of the summer practices and training camp last year to build on. He'll still be a rookie in some ways, but that foundation should help him to hit the ground running.

Zach Wood

2017 Cap Hit: $465k

Wood appeared in three preseason games for Dallas and then spent all year on their practice squad. He is not only capable of playing DE and DT but even has experience as a long snapper. He will almost certainly be back to compete in this year's training camp.

Lenny Jones

2017 Cap Hit: $465k

An undrafted free agent of the 49ers last year, Jones started as a 3-4 outside linebacker in their scheme. He has since spent time with both the Raiders and Rams before Dallas added him in January. The former Nevada Wolf Pack player will hopefully get a chance to show the Cowboys something this offseason.

Free Agents

David Irving - As an Exclusive Rights Free Agent, Irving can't go anywhere as long as Dallas offers him some kind of deal. Arguably the most exciting prospect on their defensive line right now, Irving is sure to get a contract. We'll go into more detail about what that might look like below.

Jack Crawford - The versatile Crawford was re-signed in 2016 to a one-year, $1.1 million contract. As always, he was a solid reserve and even had 10 starts as part of the base defense. A reliable player who can work inside or out on the line, I wouldn't be surprised if Dallas brought Crawford back again one a similar deal.

Ryan Davis - Signed after Week One for depth, the veteran never really got a chance to show much due to injuries. Even when healthy Davis failed to give the Cowboys much boost in their pass rush, which was why they brought him in. He is highly unlikely to return.

2017 Salary Cap Impact

Total Defensive Ends Cap Hit = $7.01 million
Percentage of 2017 Salary Cap = 4.14%

These numbers will change in the coming month, though maybe not much. The first big question is how much Dallas will pay David Irving to return. His ERFA status gives the Cowboys nearly all of the leverage.

David Irving

DE/DT David Irving

Dallas could give Irving the league minimum if they wanted to. However, if they see Irving as a potential long-term player for them, preserving a good relationship is also important. David just played on a $525k salary for 2016 and out-performed it, so Dallas might bump him up to the $1-$2 million range.

Remember, though, that Randy Gregory's cap number is going to drop from the suspension. That should offset some, if not most, of what Irving will make in 2017. Even if Jack Crawford is also re-signed, the total cap hit for the DE position shouldn't be much more $10 million.

If Dallas is going to make any "splash" signing in this free agent market, a pass-rushing DE is the first thing most would expect. The Giants' Jason Pierre-Paul is a name many are floating. Arizona's Chandler Jones and the Chargers' Melvin Ingram are also possible, though they may wind up getting the franchise tag.

The scary thing is that the market for a top name DE is very pricey. Last year, Olivier Vernon got a five-year, $85 million contract from the Giants. The first year of that deal counted $13 million against their cap.

Dallas can find ways to make a big signing work, but they would have to have supreme confidence in that player to take the financial risk. It could also mean being unable to re-sign DeMarcus Lawrence next year if he does have a big season, which could leave you back in the same position of needing help.



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!

Game Notes

Cowboys, Colts Week 15 Injury Report

Jess Haynie

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Less Is More For Sean Lee And Cowboys' LBs?

The Dallas Cowboys can clinch the NFC East with a win this week, while the Indianapolis Colts are fighting to stay alive in the AFC wild card race. Only one team can accomplish their goal, and both have some big names on the Week 15 injury report.

We'll begin with the visiting Cowboys, who could be getting at least one star player back while another is already confirmed to miss the game.

Dallas Cowboys

  • TE Geoff Swaim (wrist) - OUT
  • G Zack Martin (knee) - OUT
  • DL David Irving (ankle) - OUT
  • WR Tavon Austin (groin) - Questionable
  • WR Lance Lenoir (illness) - Questionable
  • OT Tyron Smith (neck) - Questionable
  • DE Randy Gregory (personal) - Questionable
  • LB Sean Lee (hamstring) - Questionable

Yes, sadly, Zack Martin will be out tomorrow. The good news is that Connor Williams got the entire week to practice with the starters at right guard. You can read much more about this situation and it's impact on the game here, courtesy of our own Sean Martin.

Also ruled out, as they have been for a while now, are TE Geoff Swaim and DL David Irving.  Swaim is still recovering from wrist surgery but has not been placed on injured reserve, so the team must feel he could be back for the playoffs. Irving could return as soon as next week.

Speaking of returns, Sean Lee may be back on the field this Sunday. It's unknown yet how he'll rotate with Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith, but Dallas has the luxury of working him in slowly thanks to the play of their young duo.

Tavon Austin could also return this week, creating another new offensive wrinkle. Austin has been injured since the Jacksonville game and has yet to play since the Cowboys acquired Amari Cooper. Not only could Tavon do some interesting things in the offense, but he should bring some additional sizzle to special teams.

While appearing on the injury report, Randy Gregory missed practice this week for "family reasons" according to Jason Garrett. He could still play tomorrow.

Indianapolis Colts

  • G Mark Glowinski (ankle) - OUT
  • LB Skai Moore (neck) - OUT
  • S Mike Mitchell (calf) - OUT
  • WR T.Y. Hilton (ankle) - Questionable
  • TE Ryan Hewitt (ribs) - Questionable
  • S Clayton Geathers (knee) - Questionable

The big name here is Hilton, the star receiver who missed all practice this week with an ankle injury. Indianapolis has not ruled him out, wanting to give Andrew Luck's favorite target every opportunity to play. But it's not looking good, and a bad ankle could limit Hilton's effectiveness even if he goes.

Also hurt among the passing options is starting TE Ryan Hewitt, but he did practice full on Friday and should go. Not playing, however, is starting right guard Mark Glowinski. That means third-year player Evan Boehm should start, who just joined the team in October.

Indy's hurting at safety this week. Not only did starter Clayton Geathers miss the whole week of practice, but veteran backup Mike Mitchell is already ruled out. The Colts would have to rely on undrafted rookie George Odum if neither plays.

Fun fact before we go; former Cowboy Jihad Ward was picked up by the Colts after Dallas included him in their roster cuts to start the season. However, he landed on injured reserve back in October so won't get a chance at revenge.



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Game Notes

Zack Martin Out, Connor Williams In at Right Guard for Cowboys at Colts

Sean Martin

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Zack Martin Out, Connor Williams In at Right Guard for Cowboys at Colts

The Dallas Cowboys offensive line depth will be tested as they play for a chance to clinch the NFC East on Sunday at the Indianapolis Colts. Suffering a knee injury last week against the Eagles, Right Guard Zack Martin will not be able to play. In missing his first career start, rookie Connor Williams rightfully returns to the starting lineup as Martin's replacement.

The 50th overall pick from this year's AT&T Stadium hosted Draft has started eight games this season at left guard. Williams' last start happens to be in the last game Dallas lost, a week nine defeat to the Tennessee Titans. This opened the door for Xavier Su'a-Filo to become something of a sensation for Cowboys Nation as the starting left guard throughout the team's current five game win streak.

David Moore on Twitter

Pro Bowl guard Zack Martin has been ruled out of Sunday's game with a sprained knee. Rookie Connor Williams will start in his place.

Zack Martin being unavailable is hardly how Marc Colombo wants to prepare for the Cowboys first road game since week 11. Having both Su'a-Filo and Williams in the lineup will be valuable for the Cowboys moving forward though, as Williams could earn his job at left guard back from the right side.

While he won't nearly be expected to play at the level of Martin, Williams looked poised coming off the bench against the Eagles and helping the Cowboys offense score their final three touchdowns. Williams was on the field for all three of Amari Cooper's scores, as Dallas rushed for 34 yards on 11 carries with him in the game.

Williams flashed some of the traits that made him a top left tackle prospect out of college, flowing to the second level with ease and creating movement with quick feet at the point of attack. The Cowboys have forced him to remain game ready despite losing his starting position by finding a few emergency snaps for him in recent weeks, as well as special teams looks. The team has every reason to believe Williams is an ascending young player still.

The same cannot be said of Su'a-Filo, who simply has to focus on continuing to hold up at left guard again this week. With each passing win, Su'a-Filo's LG spot has become more of a liability in a Cowboys offense in need of a jump-start late in this 2018 season.

Consistent offensive line play is one of the few things that's clearly hurting the Cowboys as contenders in the NFC behind a stellar defense and game breaking wide receiver.

The Cowboys won't be at full strength against the eighth best rushing defense and 15th ranked passing defense in yards per game. With three separate chances to clinch the NFC East starting at the Colts and extending until the end of the regular season, the Cowboys stand to learn all they need to know about the offensive line that will start in the playoffs.

Martin, who's elevated his game to a new level this season despite this lingering knee injury, should be on track to return when the Cowboys come home to play the Buccaneers in week 16.

Tell us what you think about "Zack Martin Out, Connor Williams In at Right Guard for Cowboys at Colts" in the comments below. You can also email me at Sean.Martin@InsideTheStar.com, or Tweet to me at @SeanMartinNFL!



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Dallas Cowboys

Final Thoughts and Prediction for Cowboys vs Indianapolis Colts

John Williams

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#DALvsPHI: Amari Cooper, Ezekiel Elliott Key to Clipping the Eagles Wings?

Over the last five weeks, the Dallas Cowboys have put themselves in a position in week 15 to clinch the NFC East with a win over the Indianapolis Colts or a loss by the Philadelphia Eagles vs the Los Angeles Rams.

My how things have changed.

Just six weeks ago, the Cowboys were coming off an embarrassing two touchdown loss on Monday Night Football at the hands of the Tennessee Titans and looked dead in the water sitting at 3-5. A month and a half later they are in position to win the division and potentially have little to play for the final two weeks of the season. That's an amazing turnaround. One that should have Jason Garrett in the Coach of the Year discussions.

As we get ready for the Colts on Sunday, let me give you my final thoughts on the week 15 matchup.

Will Key Injuries Tell the Tale?

By week 15 of the NFL season, pretty much everyone is dealing with injuries and most teams are dealing with injuries to key players. The Dallas Cowboys and the Indianapolis Colts are no different.

All-Pro Right Guard Zack Martin has already been ruled out of Sunday's contest, as he's been battling a knee injury for several weeks. It was worsened on Sunday vs the Eagles when he took a bull rush from Fletcher Cox and fell awkwardly. This will be the first start that Zack Martin has missed in his illustrious five-year career. He's been an iron man for the Cowboys at a position that makes it extremely difficult to stay healthy.

On the plus side, it looks like the Cowboys mat get All-Pro Linebacker Sean Lee and Wide Receiver Tavon Austin back for Sunday. Both Lee and Austin will likely be in reserve/rotational roles if they suit up this week, but if they're active, they'll make important impacts to their respective units.

Indianapolis is struggling with an injury to a very important player in their own right as Wide Receiver T.Y. Hilton has not practiced this week. He's dealing with an ankle injury and Colts Head Coach Frank Reich doesn't sound optimistic about his chances of playing.

The Colts will also be missing their Right Guard Mark Glowinski, who has started the last eight games for Indianapolis. Glowinski suffered an ankle injury during the Colts win over the Texans last Sunday. That's a key loss for an offensive line that has played as well as anyone in the NFL this season.

Can the Cowboys Limit Andrew Luck?

The Cowboys defense has been one of the best units in football in 2018 as they've put on a show against really good offensive teams like the Atlanta Falcons and the New Orleans Saints. They'll have another tough test this week against Andrew Luck and the Colts.

According to Pro Football Reference, Luck sits second in the NFL in touchdown passes, sixth in passing yards, third in completions, second in attempts, 12th in quarterback rating, and ninth in QBR. At 7.1 yards per attempt, he sits 22nd in the NFL in and 20th in the NFL in air yards per attempt at 7.3.

Luck has been one of the best passers in the NFL, but he's also thrown the second most interceptions this season. On the flip side, among quarterbacks who have started 13 games, Luck has been sacked the second fewest times. Only Drew Brees has taken less sacks. Luck has only been sacked 16 times in 13 games and has been sacked multiple times in only five games. Over the last three weeks, Luck has taken an average of two sacks a game.

In that four week stretch, the Colts have gone 3-1, and Luck has averaged 321 yards passing, two touchdowns and an interception per game.

The Dallas defense has come on strong and is finding ways to get pressure with four rushers. Taking advantage of the injury at right guard and getting to Luck with their front four is a huge key to the game as it is against most quarterbacks. Randy Gregory and DeMarcus Lawrence are playing as well as any defensive end duo in the NFL this season and I expect that to continue this week.

Big Games from Explosive Duo?

The Dallas Cowboys have been getting huge games from their two most important skill position players; Running Back Ezekiel Elliott and Wide Receiver Amari Cooper. Over the last five weeks, Elliott has averaged 116 rushing yards a game, 55 receiving yards, and at least one touchdown per game. During the same stretch, Cooper has averaged seven receptions for 116 yards and a touchdown per game.

Elliott and Cooper may find it difficult to reach their respective 100 yard milestones against the Colts. As Patrick Conn of WFAA.com illustrates below.

Patrick Conn on Twitter

Colts haven't given up 100 yards to a single rusher. 2-100 yard receiving games vs Texans in first matchup (Hopkins/Coutee). Other than that, no other 100 yard performances

Now, it could be argued that the Colts have only played three games against teams with good to great offenses. The Houston Texans (twice), and the New England Patriots. They went a combined 1-2 in those three games and the defense allowed an average of 32 points per game. The Colts have played better defense over the last seven games than they did earlier in the season. Over the last seven, they went 6-1 and allowed an average of 17 points per game. Of course that stretch of games doesn't feature any offensive juggernauts. They played the Buffalo Bills, Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Dolphins, Tennessee Titans, and the Oakland Raiders. The best team they played in their last seven games was the Houston Texans and they allowed 21 points. The Cowboys only allowed 16 points in regulation to the Texans.

Only one team on the Colts schedule to this point is in the top 10 in rushing; the Houston Texans. And only one team on their schedule is in the top 10 in passing; the New England Patriots. Again, in three games against those teams, they went 1-2.

They haven't faced an offense this season that is playing as well, and as balanced, as the Cowboys have over the last five weeks.

Rookie Linebackers Dominating

We've all witnessed the standout play of rookie Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, as the "Wolf Hunter" has taken the NFC by storm during Sean Lee's absence. Vander Esch is third in the league in solo tackles this season. The two players in front of Vander Esch are perennial All-Pro Luke Kuechly and the guy who will probably run away with Defensive Rookie of the Year award, Indianapolis Colts rookie Darius Leonard.

Leonard is leading the NFL in solo tackles and combined tackles per Pro Football Focus. He's tied for the lead league among linebackers with seven sacks and is second in the NFL in Pro Football Focus' "stops" metric. Leighton Vander Esch is fourth.

Both linebackers have been huge contributors for their teams, at times taking over games and coming up with big plays to turn the tide. Throw in Fred Warner in San Francisco and 2018 has been the year of the rookie linebacker.

Prediction

Since I've been writing this column, the Dallas Cowboys have enjoyed a bit of a win streak. I haven't always picked them, as you can see in the New Orleans Saints edition of Final Thoughts, but when I have picked the Cowboys, they've made me look smart and I'm going to go with them again this week on the road.

Indianapolis isn't really known as a tough place to play and in the Jason Garrett era, the Cowboys have generally been a really good team away from AT&T Stadium. I believe this game will be a close one, as most have been this year, but I think that Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott continue their impressive string of performances and are able to do enough to keep Andrew Luck on the sideline and limiting his impact on the game. If T.Y. Hilton is limited in the game or unable to go, that gives the Cowboys a huge advantage as they then can focus on touchdown maker Tight End Eric Ebron and we know what Byron Jones does to tight ends.

This is going to be a tough game, but I like the Cowboys to come out on top. Randy Gregory continues his sack streak and they get to Luck multiple times in the game and are able to force at least one turnover. Dak Prescott is efficient and doesn't turn the ball over this week and finds ways to beat the blitz. So, I've got it...

Cowboys 24 - Colts 20

Be sure to leave us your prediction in the comment section. 



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