Lost in the hubbub of the big awards at last Saturday's NFL Honors show was the Dallas Cowboys' offensive line being named Offensive Line of the Year. The glory may not last long for some of the league's best blockers, though, as the 2017 offseason should come with some roster changes.
2016 was the first year that this award has been given and they couldn't have picked better recipients . Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, Doug Free, and Ronald Leary were the foundation that helped the Cowboys' rookie stars on offense, quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott, have tremendous seasons.
With expiring contracts and salary cap concerns on the horizon, how might Dallas' award-winning offensive line look different in 2017?
Ronald Leary is set to be an unrestricted free agent. The Cowboys will likely let Leary go and give the job back to La'el Collins, who was the starter in 2015. There are a few reasons why this is the most logical move.
Some have argued that Leary is the better player. It's easy to look at the seasons DeMarco Murray had in 2014 and Ezekiel Elliott last year, with Leary starting at guard, and develop that perception.
However, La'el Collins not only had Darren McFadden carrying the ball in 2015 but the absence of a passing game when Brandon Weeden, Matt Cassel, and Kellen Moore were at quarterback. His two full games in 2016 were at the start of the year when Ezekiel Elliott was still adjusting to NFL speed.
Dallas needs to find out quickly what Collins is worth. This is the final year of his contract, although Dallas will be able to give him a Restricted Free Agent tender in 2018. Still, whether it's deciding what level of tender to give or maybe giving Collins a completely new contract, the Cowboys need to see how he performs.
Not only do the Cowboys need to find out more about La'el Collins but Ronald Leary may quickly plateau as an asset. As has been known throughout his career, Leary has a knee condition which puts his long-term future in question. He has already played more and longer than some thought possible.
If not for Collins, Dallas might be willing to keep giving Leary short-term contracts as long as his knees allow. However, Collins' potential is too great to leave on the bench and Leary is too good to be a backup again. He should easily find a starting job elsewhere and deserves that opportunity.
I wrote extensively a few weeks ago about why Dallas needs to part ways with Doug Free. To summarize, he has become too much of a liability in pass protection and still generates too many penalties. Free is still a great run blocker but at this point that doesn't outweigh his negatives.
Another big reason is financial. Dallas can create $5 million in cap space by cutting Free. Dallas is going to need some cash as they try to sort out Tony Romo's contract and find some needed upgrades on defense.
Of course, creating cap room is only worthwhile if you don't have to turn around and spend it all on a replacement. A quality free agent right tackle can cost about as much as we'd save by releasing Doug Free. That has led some to think he should just be retained for one more year.
I see it differently. For one, Dallas has a few in-house options with Chaz Green, a former third-round pick, and reserve Emmett Cleary. Both looked good in limited duty when playing for Tyron Smith at left tackle. In many cases, someone who can handle playing on the left is even better when they go to the right.
If a Cleary-Green battle for the job doesn't do it for you, Dallas could also look for a cheaper veteran option. Can we really say that Doug Free in 2017 would be much better than some other veteran, age 30-35, willing to play one a one-year deal for the veteran minimum? Free's play last year leaves that open to debate.
La'el Collins to Right Tackle?
Some have suggested that Dallas could solve both of their problems by moving La'el Collins to right tackle. Collins played left tackle at LSU but has been at guard since entering the NFL in 2015.
Collins started at right tackle when he joined the Cowboys but ended up at guard before the end of preseason. How much of that is due to Collins struggling at tackle has never been confirmed. Dallas may have simply felt his best position with the highest upside was at guard.
Could the Cowboys cut Doug Free, move La'el Collins into his spot, and then keep Ronald Leary? It's not out of the question, but it all comes down to three factors:
- Do the Cowboys think Collins can be effective enough at RT?
- Does Dallas feel moving Collins would stymie his development?
- Do the Cowboys trust Ron Leary to keep going?
Unfortunately, we can't know the answers to those questions. Dallas will make it clear how they feel about all of these issues in how they handle the upcoming offseason.
For all that's unknown, though, it seems likely that at least one or two of the starting offensive line positions will change. Hopefully, even if some players leave, that award-winning level of play will not go with them.
LB Justin Phillips Making a Case to Become a Roster Lock With Cowboys
In Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch, the Dallas Cowboys arguably have the best linebacker duo in the entire NFL. They also have some pretty solid backups in Sean Lee and Joe Thomas, but the depth behind those four is completely up in the air. That is excellent news for an undrafted LB like Justin Phillips.
The former Oklahoma State Cowboy LB signed with the Dallas Cowboys as an undrafted free agent after the completion of the 2019 NFL Draft. To go from being an Oklahoma State Cowboy to a Dallas Cowboy must've been a dream come true, especially for a kid from Pearland, Texas who rooted for America's Team growing up. The dream probably won't be complete though unless a roster spot comes with it.
Surprisingly, Justin Phillips has put himself into contention to earn one of those coveted roster spots. The way he has played in the first two preseason games has caught the attention of quite a few people, which should make it extremely difficult for the Cowboys coaching staff when it comes to making roster cut decisions. Dallas Cowboys Staff Writer and former Scout Bryan Broaddus agrees…
"Justin Phillips is going to make it hard on this staff to put him on the street. Not only is his finish impressive, but the awareness he plays with in pass coverage is impressive. There is no way I thought he had a chance for that interception, especially with this initial step into the line, but his ability to turn and run to a spot saved him."
Here is the play/interception Broaddus is referring to:
The Dallas Cowboys have typically only carried six linebackers on their 53-man roster these past few years. With four spots already spoken for, Justin Phillips is doing his damnedest to lock down one of those final two up for grabs. That, of course, is easier said than done.
Phillips is likely competing with Justin March-Lillard, who led the team in tackles against the Los Angeles Rams last week and fellow undrafted rookie LB Luke Gifford. Gifford, of course, missed the game against the Rams with an ankle injury he sustained in Week 1 of the preseason against the 49ers. It was actually that injury that resulted in more playing time for Justin Phillips.
If you're doing the math here, that's three linebackers competing for two roster spots. March-Lillard probably has the upper hand right now over the two rookies, but I wouldn't say he's secured a job just yet. That leaves the door open for No. 44 (Phillips) and No. 57 (Gifford).
As much as I like Luke Gifford, and I do, I think the stars could be aligning for Justin Phillips to make it through roster cuts. He's playing really well right now, while all Gifford can do is watch from the sideline until he can get back on the field. Regardless though, it's a position battle worth keeping an eye on.
Do you think LB Justin Phillips has done enough to secure a roster spot?
How Kris Richard May Help CB Michael Jackson Make Cowboys Roster
Cornerback Michael Jackson, one of the Dallas Cowboys' 5th-round picks in the 2019 NFL Draft, has not been standing out so far in training camp or preseason. But despite the slow start, the influence of Defensive Backs Coach Kris Richard could help keep Jackson on the 53-man roster this year.
While no team likes parting with their drafted rookies, it certainly happens. That's especially true for Day 3 players, even 5th rounders, and particularly when a team is as deep with talent right now as the 2019 Cowboys.
The cornerback position is one of Dallas' most loaded. They go four-deep with starting talent in Byron Jones, Chidobe Awuzie, Anthony Brown, and Jourdan Lewis, which leaves just one or two roster spots for the remaining prospects.
Michael Jackson is in competition with veteran C.J. Goodwin and the intriguing Donovan Olumba. Both were with the team last year; Goodwin was a special teams contributor and Olumba was a valuable developmental asset on the practice squad.
So far this preseason, we've seen Goodwin shining on special teams and Olumba making plays at cornerback. Jackson hasn't stood out, unless you count jokes about thin he looks on the field.
In contrast, fellow 5th-round rookie Joe Jackson has been showing up at defensive end. Even if there were no suspension concerns with Robert Quinn and Randy Gregory, Joe Jackson has made himself very difficult to cut.
But despite not having that same momentum or energy around him yet, Michael Jackson may still find his way onto the 53-man roster. And that may have something to do with his position coach.
Since arriving in Dallas during the 2018 offseason, Kris Richard has quickly gained prominence beyond just his official role as the Defensive Backs Coach. He was working as the defensive play-caller last year and is expected to take over fully in 2020, assuming Rod Marinelli retires and Richard doesn't leave for a head coaching opportunity.
When Dallas selected Michael Jackson in the last draft, Jackson became the first cornerback or safety drafted by the Cowboys since Richard arrived. Given that it happened this year, with Richard's influence clearly high on the defense, one would assume that Kris had a big say in the decision to draft Jackson.
No, Richard certainly can't veto any decision made by the Joneses, Will McClay, Jason Garrett, or even Marinelli when it comes to roster management. But if he has any bias towards Jackson as his first draft pick in Dallas, Kris may fight for the rookie more than someone else.
We're all human; agendas come into play. Kris Richard may be more passionate about seeing Michael Jackson succeeding for a variety of reasons. He may pound the table for the team to keep Jackson louder than anyone else in the room.
That doesn't necessarily mean keeping Jackson over some other cornerback, either. The argument could be to go long at CB at the expense of another position; maybe only keeing two quarterbacks or eight offensive linemen to free up a roster spot.
This is purely speculative, of course. For all we know, Richard could be the first one who loses faith and votes to let Jackson go.
But given the situation and all factors involved, it's more likely that Kris Richard will be invested in seeing Michael Jackson succeed and sticking with the Cowboys in 2019. Hopefully, it's in the best interest of the team overall.
DL Kerry Hyder Impressive In Cowboys Week 2 Preseason Win
Kerry Hyder joined the Cowboys this offseason on a one year deal, and while the four-year NFL veteran has put up some solid tape in his time around the league, it was hard to project just what he could bring to the Cowboys defense.
Listed at 6'2" 270 pounds, Hyder is a bit of a tweener on the defensive line. Though the answer to "will he play tackle or end" seems to be "both" to this point in the preseason.
As he fights for his life on this deep defensive line, Kerry Hyder had himself a day in the Cowboys 14-10 victory over the Rams last weekend.
Hyder made an excellent play defending a screen pass in the first quarter, reading the play perfectly and reacting quickly to running back Darrell Henderson coming out of the backfield. Hyder also created some pressure on the quarterback, and finished with 3 combined tackles in very limited playing time.
Hyder's versatility is working well for him as he looks to make the final roster. Like a Tyrone Crawford type player, Hyder will be able to move inside and out depending on the situation. This allows the Cowboys to be flexible in how they structure their depth chart on defense, and in how they decide to rush the passer on third down.
A pass rushing package involving Robert Quinn and DeMarcus Lawrence on the edge with the combination of Hyder and Maliek Collins on the inside could turn out to be a very dangerous one for opposing offenses to deal with.
Rod Marinelli spoke to this versatility a couple of months ago, showing just how much he values what Kerry Hyder can bring to this team.
"Maybe you adjust him sometime, once in a while – in a one-on-one pass rush situation, stick him over a guard and start to get a feel for it.” - Rod Marinelli
Earlier this offseason, I wrote that Kerry Hyder could end up being Rod Marinelli's next great under-the-radar find on the defensive line. And if he continues to play with the hustle and awareness that he had on Saturday, he's going to make Rod look very smart in his evaluation.
Kerry Hyder is making it very difficult for the front office to let him go. And, at the end of the preseason, I do expect Kerry Hyder to find himself on the Cowboys' active roster. Especially considering how Mike White is playing at quarterback, and how his release could open up an extra spot at a different position group.
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