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Where Cowboys Need New Starters the Most in 2018

Sean Martin

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Where Do Cowboys Need New Starters the Most in 2018? 1

With the rival Philadelphia Eagles overcoming major injuries at QB, LB, and along the OL to reach Super Bowl LII, it is understandable for Cowboys Nation to feel like the Dallas Cowboys have never been further from an elusive sixth Lombardi trophy. Since their last Super Bowl, the Cowboys haven't even reached the NFC Championship Game -- a contest the Eagles just dominated 38-7 with their backup quarterback.

A more even-headed look at the Cowboys roster tells a different story, though. Devastated by key injuries of their own in 2017, the Cowboys' young core of talent is still just a year removed from winning 13 games and the NFC East in 2016. Stringing together consecutive successful seasons remains a struggle for Dallas, and finding stability in the NFL requires a critical evaluation of your entire roster and coaching staff each offseason.

Knowing already that Head Coach Jason Garrett, Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan, and Defensive Coordinator Rod Marinelli will all return in 2018, I've already turned my attention to this Cowboys roster, and ways they can improve.

With ten picks in the fast-approaching 2018 NFL Draft, the Cowboys may be in prime position to add depth to an already talented squad, with few glaring needs for new starters. As things stand now, here are the areas I could see rookies or free agent acquisitions coming in to start right away on America's Team next season.

Left Guard

Yesterday here at Inside The Star, I discussed if it was time for the Cowboys to add another first round talent to their offensive line with the 19th overall pick they currently hold. Jonathan Cooper is a free agent after starting 13 games and looking better than he has at any point in his injury-plagued career. Cooper would start 2018 recovering from yet another injury though, as he left the field in Philadelphia during week 17 -- with the Cowboys playing starters despite being eliminated from playoff contention.

In a move that would go against their recent philosophies on team building, if the Cowboys allow Jonathan Cooper to walk in free agency, it would surely open the door for a new starter to come in at left guard.

Byron Bell has experience at both guard and tackle -- a "swing" ability the Cowboys could desperately use for depth on the offensive line -- but is also a free agent who didn't perform well in place of Tyron Smith at LT this season.

The only players with experience at guard and not on expiring contracts with the Cowboys are Chaz Green and La'el Collins, as Joe Looney is also a free agent.

With Collins firmly locked in as the starter at RT, and Green moving from LG to a backup OT position before the season, the Cowboys could very well find themselves in the market for a new starter to slide between Smith and Travis Frederick in 2018.

David Irving, Redskins

Dallas Cowboys DL David Irving

Defensive Tackle

David Irving and Brian Price are set to hit free agency as well. Irving's 2017 season was derailed by a four-game suspension, and followed by a concussion that kept him out of all but eight games. Claimed off of waivers by the Cowboys in September, Price showed some flashes at the 1T position through eight games of his own before having his first season in Dallas end on IR with a knee injury.

For a defensive line that exceeded expectations in 2017, thanks almost entirely to DE DeMarcus Lawrence, defensive tackle remains one of the Cowboys' biggest overall needs.

Identifying the Cowboys need for bodies on the defensive interior begins with finding the best spot for third-year player Maliek Collins.

Excelling as the 3T in 2016, Collins was asked to play as a 1T in 2017. Seeing his production dip with this position change, I believe Collins projects best as the Cowboys long-term starter at 1T. When he isn't shooting a gap with good initial quickness, Collins is limited as a refined pass rusher. Keeping him as an athletic, space eating 1T will allow him to play to his strengths more often.

There's no doubt David Irving's best plays with the Cowboys have come at the 3T DT position, and if the Cowboys are preparing to move on from this match-up nightmare, they'll need to add a starting-caliber DT to the rotation.

The 3T position has been called the most important in Rod Marinelli's entire defense, and the impact a DT consistently pushing the pocket could have on the rest of the front seven is hard to understate.

Defensive tackle appears to be a relatively deep position in the draft this year, which will show just how much the Cowboys value a position they've neglected for too long.

Though he was not used in this role much as a rookie, Taco Charlton showed the ability to kick inside to 3T at Michigan, and may be an in-house option for the Cowboys here, along with mid-season pick up Datone Jones.

Defensive End

Finally, finding a suitable starter at RDE to rush opposite DeMarcus Lawrence should be a top priority for the Cowboys this offseason. Benson Mayowa was the team's sack leader from this spot in 2016, but proved expendable this season with just one sack.

Taco Charlton started his Cowboys career at RDE, but was quickly moved into a role that played to his strengths in rotation at LDE.

There's been some buzz that troubled-DE Randy Gregory could return to the Cowboys in 2018, but even still, he's far from an every-down rusher -- nor a player who can be relied upon.

Tyrone Crawford will remain with the Cowboys in 2018, serving as their utility man while amazingly finding ways to contribute at RDE out of desperation this season.

The Cowboys defense showed a ton of potential near the end of 2017, and is a unit that could do great things moving forward, assuming this team fixes their offensive woes. Turning the corner to become an elite defense may be as simple as that, as the Cowboys should be in the market for an immediate starter to come at opposing quarterbacks with speed from the right edge.

Cowboys en Español: Proyectando el Roster de 53 Jugadores 2

Dallas Cowboys S Byron Jones (James D. Smith via AP)

Safety

Perhaps the biggest positive to come out of the Cowboys' 9-7 season is the progress of their young secondary. Starting rookies Jourdan Lewis and Chidobe Awuzie at cornerback paid off throughout the year. Awuzie battled injuries to make a positive impact, while Lewis proved every bit the elite cover man he was on tape at Michigan.

Where things were not as clear in this new-look Dallas secondary was at safety.

Boosting Jeff Heath into a starting role was supposed to create even more turnovers and big plays from this group, but instead Heath looked lost in coverage far too often alongside Byron Jones. Per usual, Jones was asked to do a little bit of everything for the Cowboys, looking his best when playing at depth, as opposed to being outmatched against the run down in the box.

In a box-safety role, rookie Xavier Woods flashed a lot of potential, adjusting to having a lot thrown his way with the Cowboys even asking their sixth round pick to play some nickel CB. This is also a role Kavon Frazier was productive in with limited opportunities, and the Cowboys don't seem to be in any hurry to give their special teams ace a larger role at safety.

Ideally, both Jeff Heath and Xavier Woods are not on the field for every snap at safety. In a scheme that wants to keep every pass in front of them, Dallas absolutely needs a solid rotation of safeties that can provide contrasting looks. This is where Heath and Woods can excel as second or third level defenders, creating an opening for a true starting safety to come in this offseason.

A safety that can play the run, but more importantly play with sideline-to-sideline range and instincts should see plenty of snaps right away with the Cowboys.

✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭

If you agree with the majority of this list, two things become clear about the Cowboys outlook for the future.

  1. Their needs remain on defense, and
  2. this is a great sign of just how close the roster is -- with a defense that already has a solid foundation in place.

Lacking the depth needed to overcome injuries to starters and make a deep run into the playoffs, the Cowboys may not be in the market for many new starters this offseason. Instead, with the coaching staff mostly still intact, the team can focus on further improving areas of strength to become a force in the NFC sooner rather than later.

Tell us what you think about "Where Cowboys Need New Starters the Most in 2018" in the comments below. You can also email me at Sean.Martin@InsideTheStar.com, or Tweet to me at @SeanMartinNFL!



Born January 28th, 1996- Cowboys Super Bowl XXX. Point Boro Panther, Montclair State Red Hawk, and most importantly a proud member of Cowboys Nation! I host "Upon Further Review" on 90.3 WMSC FM and wmscradio.com every Friday from 1-4 PM ET. Twitter: @SeanMartinNFL.

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Is Ezekiel Elliott the Most Dominant Running Back in the NFL?

John Williams

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Safe to Say, Ezekiel Elliott Not an Offensive Line Product

There's no player in football that is more hotly debated at the moment than Dallas Cowboys Running Back Ezekiel Elliott. Though much of the debate surrounds his potential contract extension, which would likely make him the highest-paid running back in the NFL, there's also been a lot of debate about his standing as the best running back in the NFL.

On Thursday, Bleacher Report's Kristopher Knox released his list of the most dominant players at each position. It's a fantastic read and not just because he listed Ezekiel Elliott as the most dominant running back in the NFL.

It's certainly easy to see where he's coming from despite the debate that rages across the NFL's fanbases. Ezekiel Elliott's lead the NFL in rushing two of the three season's he's been in the league. Both of those seasons, Elliott only played 15 games, getting the benefit of the Cowboys playoff positioning being solidified prior to week 17. In 2017, he would have probably ran away with the league's rushing title again, which would make him the three-time defending rushing champion heading into 2019.

In that 2017 season when he missed six games and had a game against the Denver Broncos where he only rushed for seven yards on nine carries, Elliott still finished in the top 10 in rushing.

In 2018, he bested Saquon Bakley by 127 yards rushing. Had Elliott played in the week 17 finale last season and rushed for his season average, he would have won the rushing title by more than 200 yards. And he did that in what many considered to be a down season for Ezekiel Elliott and the Dallas Cowboys rushing attack. Pro Football Focus even graded Elliott as the 30th best running back for 2018.

In 2018, Elliott had 2,000 total yards, besting his 2016 number of 1,994 total yards as a rookie. His rushing total was down in 2018 from 2016, but he still had an excellent season.

No disrespect to Todd Gurley, Saquon Barkley, Alvin Kamara, Le'Veon Bell, or Chrisitan McCaffrey, but they don't have the credentials that Ezekiel Elliott brings to the table. Those guys are great running backs in their own right, but Elliott has lead the NFL in rushing in two of the three seasons he's been in the league and would have probably lead the league in 2017 had he not been suspended.

Per Game Table
Rushing Receiving
Rk Player From To Att Yds TD Rec Yds TD
1 Saquon Barkley 2018 2018 16.3 81.7 0.7 5.7 45.1 0.3
2 Le'Veon Bell 2015 2017 21.1 94.4 0.6 5.6 42.6 0.1
3 Ezekiel Elliott 2016 2018 21.7 101.2 0.7 3.4 30.0 0.2
4 Todd Gurley 2015 2018 18.0 78.4 0.8 3.2 32.5 0.2
5 Alvin Kamara 2017 2018 10.1 52.0 0.7 5.2 49.5 0.3
6 Christian McCaffrey 2017 2018 10.5 47.9 0.3 5.8 47.4 0.3
Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/18/2019.

Since 2015, only Le'Veon Bell has averaged more total yards per game than Elliott, but Elliott's close and he's not used as much in the passing game as Bell. Only Todd Gurley has a higher average of rushing touchdowns per game than Elliott.

Elliott's 3.4 receptions per game through the first three seasons of his career is only slightly better than Todd Gurley who ranks sixth among this group of players. The Dallas Cowboys attempted to get Elliott more involved in 2018 but didn't work him downfield enough in his targets for him to be anything more than a dump-off option. In 2019, the Dallas Cowboys should work to get him running more intermediate routes in the passing game because as we saw in the Detroit game last season, Elliott's got really good hands.

Historically, Elliott is off to a great start to his career. His first three years in the NFL compare quite favorably to two Hall of Famers and one of the most dynamic running backs of the early 21st century.

No player with more than 100 career attempts in the NFL has averaged more rushing yards per game than Ezekiel Elliott.

Think about that for a second. Through his first three seasons, he's averaged more rushing yards per game than Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders, Terrell Davis, Eric Dickerson, Adrian Peterson, Tony Dorsett, Walter Payton, and the list goes on and on.

If you look at what he's done compared to other players during their first three years. Only Eric Dickerson, Earl Campbell, and Edgerrin James averaged more rushing yards per game than Ezekiel Elliott in the first three seasons of their respective careers.

One of the things that people have used to knock Ezekiel Elliott has been the volume of carries that he's received, but there's a reason that the Dallas Cowboys lean on him so heavily. They've created a run-first identity and though at times it has made the offense somewhat inefficient, it's not because the player they're handing to is not a good player, but because every team in the NFL is expecting the Dallas Cowboys to run the football with Ezekiel Elliott.

In 2018 in particular, the Cowboys offensive coaching staff, namely the departed Scott Linehan, didn't do enough to create favorable matchups in the running game. Too often it was a first down run out of heavy personnel that the defense was expecting.

With two rushing titles already in the bag, there's no reason to expect anything different from Ezekiel Elliott in 2019. It's anticipated that the offensive gameplan and execution will be better in 2019 than it was in 2018. The offensive line will be better and with Kellen Moore as the offensive coordinator, there's a thought that the Dallas Cowboys are going to be less predictable moving forward.

The debate will continue to rage over the value of extending Ezekiel Elliott with a contract that will carry him to his age 28 or 29 season, but there is no debating that Ezekiel Elliott is the best and most dominant running back in the NFL.



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Dallas Cowboys

Is DeMarco Murray a Factor in Ezekiel Elliott’s Rumored Holdout?

Jess Haynie

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DeMarco Murray Expects Ezekiel Elliott to Rewrite Cowboys' Record Book

There's been a lot of talk this week about a rumored training camp holdout by Ezekiel Elliott, with the Dallas Cowboys' star running back seeking a renegotiated contract. If Zeke does actually hold out, I can't help but wonder if the Cowboys' handling of DeMarco Murray a few years ago isn't a factor in his decision.

Quick history lesson; in 2014, Murray ran for the most yards (1,845) in Cowboys history for a single season. But that was also the final year of his rookie contract, and Dallas chose to let DeMarco leave in free agency when the two sides were unable to agree on new contract.

Murray had just turned 26 when he hit free agency, and his four years Dallas had not had consistent production or availability. 2014 was the first time he was able to play at such a high level, or played a full 16-game season.

As you might remember, Murray left and joined the Philadelphia Eagles under Chip Kelly. As with most things during Kelly's time in Philly, it proved to be a disaster. DeMarco was released after one year and then had a couple of seasons in Tennessee before retiring.

The way it all turned out seemed to validate the Cowboys' decision. Perhaps Murray's big year in 2014 was more about adding Zack Martin and Ron Leary to the offensive line than DeMarco himself. He certainly didn't look like the same player at any other point in his career.

But Ezekiel Elliott and his agent may not be too worried about all of those nuances. They may be looking at the simple fact that the Cowboys allowed one of the most productive RBs in football in 2014 to just walk away in free agency.

Zeke may be worried that Dallas will allow him to do the same.

Ezekiel Elliott Already Has Second Rushing Title Locked Down

Dallas Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott

There are some important differences to note between Ezekiel Elliott and DeMarco Murray. For one, Elliott's been elite every season. He's led the NFL in rushing yards-per-game the last three years.

Zeke has also been faultlessly durable, missing no games due to injury. Murray had already missed 11 games his first three years before we even got to 2014.

However, there are some similarities that can't be ignored. While Elliott's never missed time for health reasons, he missed six games in 2017 due to a suspension for a domestic violence accusation. He also came dangerously close to missing more time this year due to an incident with a security guard in Las Vegas during the offseason.

Availability is availability, whether it's for behavioral issues or injuries. The team assumes the same risk either way.

Also, Elliott has had the same benefit of running behind this great Cowboys offensive line for the last three years. It hasn't been quite as good as 2014, with Ron Leary never being completely replaced, but he hasn't lacked for superior blocking compared to most NFL running backs.

Another factor; Zeke is due to turn 24 next week. That means he'd be 25 next year when playing on the 5th-year option, and about to turn 26 when he hits unrestricted free agency in 2021.

DeMarco Murray was also 26 when he hit free agency in 2015. And he'd only played four NFL seasons, while Zeke would have just finished his fifth.

Cowboys Blog - Cowboys CTK: DeMarco Murray Dominates #29 2

Former Dallas Cowboys RB DeMarco Murray (AP Photo/Brandon Wade)

I'm not saying that Murray and Elliott are the same player. Zeke has proven himself better over a long period of time and with less talent in front and around him. He's carried the offense without Tony Romo's passing or Jason Witten and Dez Bryant still in their prime, like DeMarco had in 2014.

But in 2015, with the prospect of competing for a Super Bowl well in reach, the Cowboys decided to gamble on the shaky Darren McFadden rather than pay DeMarco Murray market value. They trusted their system and offensive line to produce a successful running back.

Zeke may be worried that Dallas is preparing to take that same approach with him. They can keep playing him at a discount this year and in 2020, when even his raise to $9 million is still a bargain compared to guys like Todd Gurley and Le'Veon Bell.

In 2021 the Cowboys could then hit Elliott with the franchise tag. He'd make a ton that year, but without any of the long-term security that other elite RBs are currently enjoying.

In that scenario, Zeke would now be turning 27 the next time free agency rolled around. And the window for getting a multi-year contract may have passed.

That's three more seasons for a major injury to finally find him. If nothing else, it's about 45-50 more games of NFL mileage that could scare other teams off.

Again, this notion of Ezekiel Elliott holding out is just a rumor right now. It may have been floated just to get some easy clicks at Pro Football Talk, which is hardly a new strategy for them.

But in all fairness, you can see why Zeke might be considering it. There's a fair reason to question the Cowboys long-term loyalty, and it goes back to how they handled their last star running back.



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Dallas Cowboys

History Suggests a Contract Extension for Ezekiel Elliott is a Crapshoot

Brian Martin

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Contract Extension With Ezekiel Elliott a Crapshoot at Best

If rumors are true, Running Back Ezekiel Elliott and Melvin Gordon could be following in the footsteps of Le'Veon Bell by threatening to hold out not only training camp, but the 2019 season if they're not rewarded with contract extensions from their respective teams. It's a bold strategy, especially considering the history of long-term extensions previously given to running backs.

Contract extensions for running backs is always a controversial topic. It's not only one of the easier positions to replace, but the shelf life for a NFL RB is a short one due to the physical nature of the position. Players bodies break down quicker, meaning their lifespan in the league on average is between just 3 to 5 years.

For the most part, the market value for running backs around the league would suggest the position isn't one teams like to invest a lot of resources in. Although, there was an uptick in the market last year when Todd Gurley signed a four-year deal worth $14.375 million a year and then David Johnson signed for three years worth $13 million a season. Those two contracts could be the starting point for Ezekiel Elliott.

Ezekiel Elliott's camp knows all of this and so do the Dallas Cowboys. But, handing out upwards of $14 million to a position that has such a short shelf life in the league is a crapshoot at best, even to a player as talented as Zeke. History hasn't been kind to running backs who receive a long-term extension. In fact, it's really hard to put a finger on one single RB who has lived up to their contract extension.

Ezekiel Elliott, Le'Veon Bell, Todd Gurley

RBs Ezekiel Elliott, Le'Veon Bell, Todd Gurley

Take Todd Gurley and David Johnson for instance. Gurley already has long-term concerns about his health, and Johnson missed nearly all of the 2018 season due to an injury. Both players are currently the top paid at the position right now, but they're not the only examples of why the Cowboys should be cautious offering Zeke a contract extension.

The RB tier below Todd Gurley and David Johnson are making around $8 million a year after receiving a contract extension. Unfortunately, the results are about the same. Devonta Freeman ($8.25 M) and Jerick McKinnon ($7.5 M) missed nearly all of the 2018 season due to injuries after being rewarded with long-term deals. Only LeSean McCoy ($8.01 M) has come close to living up to his deal, but even he has struggled off-and-on with injuries.

Need more convincing?

Let's take this back a little bit further. Chris Johnson, Johnathan Stewart, DeMarco Murray, DeAngelo Williams, Ray Rice… I can go on and on. Even players such as Arian Foster who remained productive after receiving an extension struggled with injuries. If you haven't yet, you may start to see a trend here.

Now, I'm not saying the Dallas Cowboys shouldn't extend Ezekiel Elliott. Personally I'm on the fence about it and would be fine with them going either direction. But, they absolutely have to be cautious with the way they handled this. History is a good indicator they may not get the same kind of production from Zeke as they have previously.

Do you think the Cowboys should give Ezekiel Elliott a contract extension?



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