Since dominating the Seattle Seahawks in October of 2014, the Dallas Cowboys offensive line has been referred to as the best unit in football, almost by default. No matter the next opponent, everyone recognizes and acknowledges that the Cowboys have a chance to control the game on offense due to their powerful five up-front.
Well, this weekend, two of those five departed Dallas for good.
Ronald Leary, who started the entire 2014 season and much of the 2016 season, signed a nice contract with the Denver Broncos. And, Doug Free, a starting tackle for Dallas since 2009, announced his retirement.
Now, a unit which has been characterized by its continuity and dominance is facing some adversity.
Or at least it seems.
How Do the Cowboys Replace Ronald Leary?
This one is simple. Back during the 2015 NFL Draft the Cowboys made two moves which are proving to be incredibly important to their success in 2017. The second of those two moves was signing undrafted free agent offensive lineman La'el Collins.
The former LSU star tackle was projected to be taken during the first two rounds, before being tied in with a police investigation. As it turned out, Collins had nothing to do with the crime, but teams were still afraid to take him on draft day. Collins fell, and the Cowboys pounced.
After taking over the starting left guard job from Leary in 2015, Collins flashed the spectacular ability which draft pundits had predicted he'd have.
Though he certainly had his issues in year one, Collins' athletic ability and pure power put the entire league on notice, and had fans excited to watch him play in 2016. Unfortunately, Collins suffered a severe toe injury during the Cowboys' week three game against Chicago and missed the rest of the season. It has even been reported that Collins suffered this injury before the season, and he simply played until he couldn't play anymore.
If true, it would explain his inconsistent play through the first two games of the year.
While Collins was the starter for the first three games of the season, inserting Leary led to a clear improvement of the offensive line. The fact is, Leary was the better player in 2016, but that certainly doesn't mean that Collins won't surpass him next year, and beyond.
As long as he can stay healthy, I see no reason why Collins should not continue to improve and become the player everyone has envisioned he can be.
At LSU, Collins was a consistent force, and someone who rarely made mistakes. He played with incredible pass blocking technique, and ran block with an edge of nastiness that you love to see in offensive linemen. Now in year three, it's time for La'el Collins to bring that to Dallas, and become a force on the Cowboys' offensive line.
How Do the Cowboys Replace Doug Free?
This is where things get a bit trickier.
First thing's first, Doug Free's retirement frees up about $5 million in cap space in 2017. If any free agent tackles interest the Cowboys, even if just for depth/security, they will be able to make that move.
I, however, don't expect any rash decisions to be made through free agency. Apparently, the Cowboys knew of Free's plans to retire from the start of the free agency period, so if they haven't contacted any tackles by now, it is hard to imagine they're rushing to the phones at this point.
So instead, we look to two places; the current roster and the NFL Draft.
Chaz Green, Third Year, OL
The first of the two critical offensive line moves of the 2015 NFL Draft, former third round pick Chaz Green is now slated to be the starting right tackle for Dallas in 2017. Back in January, I discussed why Chaz Green was so critical to the Cowboys' roster. And, most importantly, why his health is absolutely critical.
When Tyron Smith was forced to miss some time earlier in the season, Green filled in and played rather well. The running game did not miss a beat, and in pass protection, the Cowboys remained stellar.
Of course, there was some drop off from the best tackle in football to a first-time starter, but overall I was pleased with Green's play. He seemed to be fluid in his kick steps, delivered better punches in pass protection than I had seen him deliver, and worked well with Ronald Leary on deuce blocks on zone running plays.
While he looked serviceable, Chaz Green certainly did not look like another All-Pro on the Cowboys offensive line. But that's okay. As a third round pick, however, he was drafted to be the successor to Doug Free. Now is time for him to either come through or potentially get labeled as a bust.
Emmett Cleary, Third Year, OL
After La'el Collins went down in September, the Cowboys signed little-known Emmett Cleary to fill some roster space on their offensive line. Nobody expected Cleary to ever take a game rep for the Cowboys offensive line, but when filling in for Tyron Smith during the season finale, Cleary was impressive.
Staff Writer Sean Martin reviewed Cleary's game tape from that loss to Philadelphia, and came away just as impressed as I was.
What stood out to me was Cleary’s intelligence at the position, knowing how to set up defenders when he was forced to compensate for a lack of physical skill. As a point-of-attack-blocker, Cleary controls blockers with a strong base and can move them off the line of scrimmage.
I don't need to draft a tackle in the first 4 rounds anymore. I'm perfectly happy with Cleary and whatever Green may be. Collins emergency. https://t.co/HyLpPER7eJ
To be honest, Cleary was the better of the two Cowboys tackles that day, with the recently retired Doug Free getting shredded by Brandon Graham snap-after-snap. Is Cleary going to make "top tackle" lists any time soon? No, probably not. But he can be a solid fill-in player who will be put in the perfect position to succeed here in Dallas. Playing next to three other Pro Bowlers, and directly beside Zack Martin (who may be the best offensive lineman in the entire league), the right tackle does not need to be another stud.
Considering that their other four linemen don't need much help at all in pass protection, Dallas can afford to give some tight end help, or chip with a running back on the right side.
Because of this, both Chaz Green and/or Emmett Cleary should be absolutely fine at right tackle. Similar to how people called Dallas the perfect place for a rookie quarterback to shine due to the weapons and security around him, it is also the perfect situation for a new right tackle.
So, despite all the flux on this Cowboys offensive line this past weekend, there is no reason to fret. Dallas still features stars Travis Frederick, Tyron Smith, and Zack Martin. They still have one of the best running backs in the league running behind them in Ezekiel Elliott. And, they have some pretty good replacements to fill-in for Ronald Leary and Doug Free.
The Cowboys' offensive line should be just fine.
How The Tables Have Turned for 2019 Dallas Cowboys
The 2018 season was a two-part tale for the Dallas Cowboys. The first is the story of a mediocre 3-5 team that couldn't get it going offensively. The second part is about a football team that turned its season around, made the playoffs, got a win in the postseason and ultimately lost to the team that ended up representing the NFC in Super Bowl LIII, the Los Angeles Rams.
Surely, 2018 didn't go as planned. The storylines leading to last season are actually very different from the ones we're hearing today. Let's take a look at a few examples of how the tables have turned for the Dallas Cowboys.
The need for a true WR1
Last season, Dak Prescott and the Cowboys preached the philosophy of not needing a #1 wide receiver. While that could've sound encouraging at the time, once the season began the team was proven wrong. They did need a WR1. Fortunately, this season we won't have to worry about it. This year, Dez Bryant shouldn't be a discussion topic among Cowboys' fans.
Amari Cooper is in the house. And he's been pretty good since he started playing with a Star on his helmet. If we have conversations about the WR position, they will not be about who's the #1 guy. With Michael Gallup showing up late in the season, it probably won't be about who is #2 either.
Back on top of the NFC East
Last year, the Dallas Cowboys were not really the favorites to win the NFC East. The Philadelphia Eagles had just made history by winning their first Super Bowl ever and it seemed like the Cowboys would have to get a wildcard spot to play in January. Now it's the Cowboys back on top after sweeping the Eagles and turning their once 3-5 season around.
That of course, means a tougher schedule next season. However, it's nice to be back on top of the division. These two teams will surely have an intense race for the division title next season. Maybe we even see them both in the playoffs for the second consecutive year.
Sean Lee's uncertain future
I'm pretty sure no one expected Sean Lee to be considered a potential cap casualty for the 2019 season. Even if he was, it would've probably been anticipating an injury or something like that. No one would've imagined that Leighton Vander Esch would be so good to take Sean Lee's job.
The Cowboys' first round rookie truly earned the starting role as the defense's weak linebacker and he should keep it. With Sean Lee set to return to the field, I'm sure we didn't expect him to be a backup by now. We'll have to wait and see if the Cowboys decide to part ways with him. As a fan, it would certainly be painful. But we can't deny it would be a move that makes sense.
It's a crazy franchise on a crazy league. Who knows how things will go from now on, but the Dallas Cowboys certainly look like a promising team heading into the 2019 offseason. Here at Inside The Star, we'll continue to update you with the latest on your favorite NFL team.
Cowboys en Español: Volviendo a la Idea de Earl Thomas
El año pasado, Earl Thomas fue uno de los temas de conversación más frecuentes para los aficionados de los Dallas Cowboys. Después de que los Seattle Seahawks no le dieran su deseada extensión de contrato, Thomas se convirtió en un candidato a ser intercambiado de su equipo. Entre los favoritos estaban los Cowboys, quienes tenían una necesidad en su defensiva secundaria. Ahora que la temporada 2018 llegó a su fin, la misma necesidad por un safety de calidad está presente en Dallas.
Sólo que en esta ocasión, Earl Thomas no está bajo contrato con ningún equipo. Su último momento con el uniforme de los Seahawks fue en un carro de lesiones, donde salía lesionado en dirección a su vestidor. Esto mientras se despedía de su equipo con el dedo de en medio extendido hacia sus entrenadores y compañeros. Así concluyó su temporada y su carrera en Seattle.
Ahora, listo para cumplir los 30 años en mayo, Earl Thomas probará la agencia libre cuando comience en marzo. Y sin lugar a dudas, uno de los equipos candidatos a firmarlo serán los Dallas Cowboys. Es un equipo que a pesar de tener una de las mejores defensivas la temporada pasada, se vería muy beneficiada con la llegada de un profundo del calibre de Thomas.
A pesar de su edad y las lesiones, Thomas continúa siendo uno de los mejores en la liga. Su talento es innegable y tendrá toda la disposición de demostrar lo que vale cuando tome el campo la próxima temporada. Cuando llegue el momento, podríamos ver una guerra de ofertas entre varios equipos de la NFL para llevarse al veterano a sus respectivas ciudades.
La pregunta es: ¿estarán los Dallas Cowboys en esa guerra de ofertas?
Los Cowboys tienen espacio en el tope salarial. Sin embargo, este no durará mucho considerando que DeMarcus Lawrence está esperando su merecida y cara extensión después de jugar bajo la etiqueta franquicia en 2018. Además, jugadores que aún están bajo contrato también estarán buscando ofertas este offseason.
Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Amari Cooper, y Byron Jones están en la lista de quehaceres de la administración. Eso sin mencionar a Cole Beasley, cuyo contrato ya expiró y podría llegar a la agencia libre en marzo.
A pesar de esta complicada situación, los Dallas Cowboys deberían buscar conseguir a Thomas. Siendo sinceros, la defensiva tiene mucho talento y podría mantener su nivel en 2019. Pero hace falta un jugador en la posición de safety para llevar a esta unidad a otro nivel. Un nivel realmente capaz de ganar en postemporada enfrentándose a cualquier tipo de ofensiva. Sin importar que tan explosiva sea. Y además de esto, un jugador que sea capaz de robar el balón y hacer jugadas de impacto constantemente.
Cuando los Cowboys se enfrentaron a Seahawks en temporada regular, Thomas dio un buen ejemplo de esto interceptando en dos ocasiones a la ofensiva de Dak Prescott.
A pasos de un equipo de campeonato, un movimiento agresivo para obtener a Earl Thomas sería algo genial para Dallas. Vimos como los Rams de Los Angeles fueron agresivos al construir su equipo y llegaron hasta el Super Bowl este febrero. Quizá es tiempo de que Jerry Jones y compañía sean igual de agresivos y vayan por ese safety elite que la afición lleva pidiendo desde el offseason del año pasado.
Slot Machine: Amari Cooper in the Slot Could be Even More Dangerous
Amari Cooper was a dangerous man with the Dallas Cowboys after he arrived via trade from the Oakland Raiders last season. He was one of the big reasons why they were able to turn around a season that looked as if it was circling the drain and I don't think anybody would argue the point. But, I think he could be even more dangerous in 2019, especially if Cole Beasley departs via free agency.
Unless you've been living under a rock, you pretty much know the topic of the Cowboys offseason so far has centered around Cole Beasley and his future with the organization. He has been invaluable in Dallas since arriving as an undrafted free agent in 2012, but it's looking more and more as if he could be taking his talents elsewhere in 2019.
With Beasley more than likely moving on, the Cowboys will need to find someone who can replace his production in the passing game, especially in the slot. Everybody assumes Dallas needs to go outside the organization to find that player, but I'm not so sure. I think they already have a wide receiver more than capable of stepping in, and he just so happens to be there first-round draft pick this year.
In case you haven't figured it out already, I'm talking about Wide Receiver Amari Cooper. He has mostly been used as an outside receiver in his professional career, but he does have the skill set and route running ability to be a really dangerous out of the slot. I'm not talking about a full-time move into the slot or anything, just a marginal increase in snaps.
According to Rotounderworld.com, only 12.6% of Amari Cooper's snaps in 2018 were out of the slot. For comparison sake, Cole Beasley's snaps in the slot was 85.9%, the highest of any receiver in the NFL last season. That's a huge difference, not one the Cowboys should try to match with Cooper or any other potential slot WR replacement.
Personally, I'd like to see Cooper's snaps playing out of the slot increased to around 20%. That would put him in Odell Beckham Jr. territory (19.9%), and we all know how difficult he is to cover all over the field. It would likely do the same for Amari Cooper.
I just really like the idea of him having the entire field to work with and the favorable matchup it creates with slot/nickel cornerbacks around the league. Can you imagine opposing defensive coordinators trying to figure out how to contain a player that has the kind of speed and route running ability that Amari Cooper has? They better stock up on Tylenol, because that is a surefire way to get a headache.
This is course is just speculation at this point, especially since we don't know what the Cowboys offense will look like with Kellen Moore taking over the playcalling duties. But if it was me, I'd be doing everything in my power to get the ball in the hands of my best WR, Amari Cooper, and that might mean increasing his snaps out of the slot.
What do you think about using Amari Cooper out of the slot more often in 2019?
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