The Dallas Cowboys used free agency's second wave to add three experienced veterans to the offensive line. In so doing, they have created more leverage and flexibility for themselves in the upcoming NFL Draft.
Over the last week, Dallas has signed offensive tackle Cameron Fleming and guard-center Marcus Martin. They also re-signed Joe Looney, who has been a backup center and guard for the Cowboys the last two seasons.
Fleming and Martin have started 20 and 24 games, respectively, since both entered the NFL in 2014. Unlike some other young reserve players, the Cowboys had plenty of film to look at to measure their interest in these linemen.
That interest was also fueled by need. Last year's starting left guard, Jonathan Cooper, left in free agency to join the San Francisco 49ers.
The four key names on the Cowboys' offensive line are all returning: Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, and La'el Collins. But that opening at guard is a major concern for Dallas as they continue through the offseason.
Finding a new starting guard through the draft has been a hot topic in Cowboys Nation. UTEP's Will Hernandez and Georgia's Isaiah Wynn have been heavily discussed, and there is plenty of reason that Dallas might consider using their first-round pick to shore up the offensive line.
With the 19th pick, whatever player the Cowboys draft will get a modest rookie contract. Last year's 19th pick, Bucs' tight end O.J. Howard, got a four-year deal for about $11 million. That's just $2-3 million for four years of having another likely Pro Bowl talent.
One dilemma is how you eventually keep all of these former first-rounders financially compensated, but the timing of this would work out fairly well.
By the end of that contract in 2022, Dallas would have Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick at 32-years-old. They could likely move on from one, shedding a big contract to open up space to re-sign whatever player they draft this year.
But still, that means you've tied up for first-round picks in just your offensive line. How long can you keep loading resources into that spot while neglecting your receivers, defensive line, or linebackers?
That's where the free agent signings we discussed before come in handy. If the Cowboys decide to address other position in the draft, they now have three guys with starting experience who might be able to serve as a band-aid starter in 2018.
Joe Looney has been here for two years and started a few games in that time. He knows the system and should be serviceable playing between Smith and Frederick.
While not having the same familiarity, Marcus Martin is younger and is a former third-round pick. Perhaps there's some upside there that basement-dwelling teams like the 49ers or Browns weren't able to tap into.
If it's Cameron Fleming, he would likely take the right tackle spot and La'el Collins would move back to guard. Collins played guard his first two years before moving to RT last year, filling in after Doug Free's retirement.
That was a reactionary move, though. Even though Collins played OT in college, Dallas liked him better as a guard when they acquired him. Free's retirement was unexpected and Dallas had to scramble, and Collins did well there all things considered.
Fleming has been a swing tackle for four years and part of a highly successful franchise coming from New England. He was trusted in big games, including a Super Bowl, to help protect one of the league's oldest and most immobile quarterbacks. If the Patriots could rely him with Tom Brady at risk, the Cowboys could do the same with Dak Prescott.
After last season's problems, the Cowboys will likely rely on their run game all the more in 2018. Ezekiel Elliott's legal issues are behind him and he should be ready for a heavy workload. That will help Dak Prescott get back to his rookie form, hopefully alleviating pressure and working out whatever issues developed during his sophomore slump.
Naturally, these issues mean the offensive line can't be taken lightly. Dallas would be justified in spending another first-round pick there.
It would be far nicer to have a young WR or TE stepping into a larger role in his second season, rather than as a rookie. The same goes for a linebacker who might need to replace Sean Lee. These present and future needs should have Dallas looking at lots of players and positions with their early picks this April.
That's why these offensive line signings are so helpful. No, you may not love the idea of Looney or Fleming starting 16 games next year. But there's only so much cap space and so many draft picks to address an entire roster, and you can't develop tunnel vision about the offensive line and leave yourself too vulnerable elsewhere.
Ideally, the only game these guys would start next year is Week 17 after we've clinched a first-round bye. We'll have to wait and see if these signings, and 2018 as a whole, work out that well.
Jaguars Waive Barry Church; Could Cowboys Bring Him Back?
Veteran safety Barry Church was released today by the Jacksonville Jaguars. Could he return home to the Dallas Cowboys, where he spent his first seven seasons?
Despite his leadership and consistency on defense, Dallas allowed Church to leave in free agency when Jacksonville gave him a lucrative deal. But if he clears waivers, could the Cowboys consider bring him back for depth and support during their likely playoff run?
Jane Slater of the NFL Network reported on this potential reunion:
Cowboys haven't reached out to S Barry Church but I'm told they are discussing the possibility of bringing him back to Dallas according to a source informed. Church, 30, was released by the Jags today and is familiar with the system having played there from 2010-2016.
The Cowboys have had solid play from their current starting safeties, Jeff Heath and Xavier Woods. Neither is a star, but the duo has not been a liability during the team's current five-game winning streak.
Church was a similar player, reliable if never exceptional, during his time in Dallas. He could be a nice insurance policy for the playoffs if something happened to one of the starters.
Barry knows the system. He never played for Kris Richard, but he was with Rod Marinelli for three seasons before leaving in free agency.
According to reports out of Jacksonville, Church is being released because the team wants to go with younger, cheaper players now that their season is over. There is no known injury keeping Barry from playing.
Of course, Dallas would have to make room on the roster to pick Church up. They could third-year prospect Darian Thompson, who is the current fourth man at safety.
Barry Church must now go through the 24-hour waiver process. A team may claim him, including the Cowboys. We'll see what the future holds.
How the Dallas Cowboys Can Win the NFC East This Week
It's only Week 15, but the Dallas Cowboys could become the 2018 NFC East Champions this week through a couple of scenarios. I thought we'd take a moment today to break down how the Boys can win their division and assure their spot in the playoffs.
With three weeks left in the regular season, most of the divisional games have already been played. The only two left to play are the Week 17 finales; Cowboys at Giants and Eagles at Redskins.
Here are the current standings:
- Dallas Cowboys 8-5 (4-1 in division)
- Philadelphia Eagles 6-7 (3-2 in division)
- Washington Redskins 6-7 (2-3 in division)
- New York Giants 5-8 (1-4 in division)
The Giants have been scrappy lately, winning four of their last five, but it's too late for them to try to win the division. Even if the Cowboys were to fall to 8-8, the best New York could do is tie them in overall record. They would have also split their head-to-head series, negating that tiebreaker.
At that point, it would come down to the record within the division. New York would improve to 2-4 with a win over Dallas in Week 17, but the Cowboys would still be 4-2 against the NFC East. Dallas would still be the division champion.
So, that knocks out New York. Technically, the Eagles and Redskins are still alive. But their margin is about as slim as it gets.
Both Philadelphia and Washington need the Cowboys to lose their last three games, and then to also win out themselves, to steal the NFC East crown.
For the Redskins, it's about their record against division opponents. The best they can finish is 3-3, assuming they'd win their last game against the Eagles. With the head-to-head series against Dallas split this year, they would have to finish 9-7 overall and have the Cowboys drop to 8-8 to become NFC East Champions.
The Eagles also need to finish one game ahead of Dallas, but for a different reason. Philadelphia lost both their games with the Cowboys this year, so Dallas has the head-to-head tiebreaker.
So that really makes thing simple for Dallas; win just one of your last three games and you're the division champion.
Not only that, but even if Dallas were to fall this week against the Indianapolis Colts, they could still clinch the division with losses by the Eagles (@ Rams) and Redskins (@ Jaguars).
It would certainly behoove the Cowboys to get the division locked up now. They could then use the last two weeks of the season to get ready for the playoffs.
Dallas would have the freedom rest banged up players like Ezekiel Elliott and Zack Martin. It would also allow them to work in returning players such as Sean Lee and Tavon Austin and figure out their new rotations without pressure to win.
Beating the Colts on Sunday isn't a given; they're at home and desperate to stay alive in the AFC playoff picture. They are the toughest opponent Dallas has left until January.
But despite that, with the Eagles facing a juggernaut team and Washington trying to play football without a quarterback, there's a great chance that the Cowboys will be the NFC East Champions by Sunday night.
#INDvsDAL: How The Game May Be Decided In The Red Zone
In many ways the Dallas Cowboys offense has found their stride in recent weeks. Over this five game win streak they have "found their identity" playing ball control offense and trusting their quarterback to make big throws when needed most. Of course the defense has been the star most weeks, but this offense should not be slept on either.
This doesn't mean the offense has been without their fair share of struggles, however, particularly in the red zone. Struggles that the numbers say could cost the Cowboys this weeks' game in Indianapolis if they don't get it cleaned up.
In terms of red zone offensive efficiency the Cowboys have been downright horrendous. In fact, they are dead-last in the league in success rate inside the 10 yard line, last in first-and-goal success rate, and 21st in success rate between the 11 and 20 yard lines.
There's no sugar-coating those numbers, they are bad. Especially when you consider that this team has arguably the league's best running back and a quarterback with the size and athleticism you might expect from a linebacker.
For as bad as the Cowboys are inside the red zone, the Colts are equally as good. Indianapolis is top 10 in terms of success rate inside the 10, at the goal line, and in first-and-goal success rate. They are also 11th in success rate between the 11 and 20 yard lines.
Despite not having the individual running back the Cowboys have, the Colts offensive line and skill players as a whole set them up a bit better when the field is shortened. Tight end Eric Ebron has been rather incredible in terms of production this season, catching 12 touchdowns on 58 receptions. Andrew Luck is also a more accurate quarterback than Dak Prescott, though Prescott should be a much more dangerous red zone threat than he currently is.
I am working on the Cowboys 32nd ranked Goal-to-Go offensive numbers. They have run 35 of their 59 total plays out of Shotgun-11 Personnel. In those 35 plays, the average gain per snap is....12 INCHES. I am not kidding. They could out-gain that by running QB sneaks. I am amazed.
Of course, some of the Cowboys red zone struggles can be pinned on offensive coordinator Scott Linehan. Linehan has failed to scheme open the "easy" red zone touchdowns we see so often around the league. As pointed out by Bob Sturm on Twitter this week, the Cowboys' personnel groupings and play calls when in goal-to-go situations have been questionable to say the least. But while blame does fall on the coaches' shoulders, the players need to execute better as well.
Games in the NFL often come down to just a handful of plays, and red zone efficiency plays a key role in deciding the outcome of close games every week. If this is once again the case on Sunday, based on past performance, the Dallas Cowboys could be in trouble against the efficient Colts.
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