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.
Cowboys Have Had Quiet, Yet Successful, Free Agency
Yet another free agency without a big splash by the Dallas Cowboys. What a surprise. Despite entertaining Earl Thomas rumors for a long, long time, the Cowboys' front office has stuck with its philosophy of not overpaying free agents and building the team mainly through the NFL Draft. However, they've actually had some pretty good signings over the last few days that will really benefit the Cowboys when the season comes around.
They've done so with inexpensive free agents who will contribute at a high level on their respective positions. Sure, top free agent signings are fun. But many times, they end up backfiring to teams for spending so much money in one single player. At the end of the day, the Cowboys' way has gotten the team three NFC East Championships since 2014. Many factors come into play, but their team building philosophy can't be as bad as many claim it to be.
The most recent acquisition came in form of former Cincinnati Bengal and Minnesota Viking Safety George Iloka. The Cowboys had a desperate need at the defensive backfield and finally they've done something about it. On a heavy safety market, the Cowboys sat tight while watching the top free agents get top contracts around the league, including Landon Collins' record breaking deal with the Washington Redskins.
Now, they've gotten a guy who can play both safety positions. I'll be surprised if he doesn't take Jeff Heath's job. He's played as a free safety most of his career but being a good tackler, he should do a good job in the box. Iloka will also shine on special teams in Dallas.
So far, my favorite signing may be that of former Green Bay Packer, Randall Cobb. The Cowboys had an important need at the wide receiver position despite counting with Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup leading the room. Cole Beasley is a tough guy to replace and although Cobb may not be a better slot receiver than him, he certainly has the experience and the skill set to be a starting slot WR. What's more, he'll only cost the Cowboys five million while Beasley got a four year deal with which he'll earn $17M over the first two years.
Cole Beasley will be missed, but the good thing is the front office did a pretty good job at filling the concerning hole on offense. Cooper, Gallup and Cobb are definitely not a bad starting trio to have.
Other under the radar moves will also help the Cowboys. Kerry Hyder may not be a well-known in the NFL but he'll surely contribute to this defensive line as a rotational player. Hyder had eight sacks in 2016 with the Detroit Lions before suffering an Achilles injury in 2017 and dealing with a scheme change last season. Hyder will surely be happy about being back to a 4-3 defense in Dallas.
Christian Covington was another overlooked signing. Covington will help on the interior of the defensive line and although he'll likely not be a starter, he'll be an important piece in the rotation for a very reasonable contract ( also a one-year deal).
For a football team that's constantly criticized for not being active in free agency, the Cowboys have done something at pretty much every position where they need help. Safety, defensive end, defensive tackle, wide receiver and tight end have all been addressed this offseason prior to the NFL Draft. This will give them great flexibility in April and could lead to a pretty good "best player available" strategy.
Now granted, there are still concerns regarding the young "to be extended" group of players. DeMarcus Lawrence hasn't reached an agreement with the Cowboys and will continue to postpone surgery until he does. If the front office doesn't strike a contract with the star pass rusher, it won't be possible to consider this offseason a good one no matter what happens. Dallas can't let him leave.
In the meantime though, they've had a pretty quiet yet successful March. And they're not done yet. Robert Quinn could end up wearing the Star if a trade with the Miami Dolphins does end up taking place. We'll see if the Cowboys continue to build on an already pretty good free agency.
BREAKING: Dallas Cowboys Sign Free Agent Safety George Iloka
The Dallas Cowboys have reached a one-year agreement with Safety George Iloka, according to ESPN's Todd Archer. Iloka spent 2018 with the Vikings after six years with the Bengals.
He's started 79 of his 99 career games since being a fifth-round pick by Cincinnati in 2012. Iloka turns 29 years old next week.
The Cowboys have agreed to a one-year deal with safety George Iloka, according to a source. Iloka met with the Cowboys on Friday and was the third safety to meet with the club during the week along with Clayton Geathers and Eric Berry. The Cowboys have... https://t.co/JB5nJLWepc
This isn't the safety that most Cowboys fans wanted. After over a year of pining for Earl Thomas, sights turned to Eric Berry after his free agent visit in Dallas last week.
However, it makes sense that Iloka would be attractive to the Cowboys. At 6'4" and 225 lbs, he fits the physical mold of what Defensive Backs Coach Kris Richard likes in his players. He also is younger than Berry and Thomas without the same recent injury issues.
Iloka becomes one of many Boise St. products on Dallas' roster, joining Tyrone Crawford, DeMarcus Lawrence, Leighton Vander Esch, and others. He entered the league with college teammates Crawford and Kellen Moore, the Cowboys' new offensive coordinator, in 2012.
We'll have to wait and see how George Iloka fits into the current mix at safety with Jeff Heath and Xavier Woods. He spent most of 2018 as a backup with Minnesota, but Dallas will likely give him a chance to start.
What to Expect from Dallas Cowboys Wide Receiver Group in 2019
In a span of a week, the Dallas Cowboys have solidified their wide receiver group with the resigning of Tavon Austin to a one year deal and the signing of former Green Bay Packers Wide Receiver Randall Cobb. Despite the loss of Cole Beasley, the Cowboys have a created a really good group of receivers for Quarterback Dak Prescott to throw to.
Cobb joins a really nice group of players that includes incumbent starters on the outside in Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup as well as solid depth players in Austin, Allen Hurns, and Noah Brown. Throw in Cedric Wilson, the Dallas Cowboys sixth round pick from the 2018 NFL Draft and the Cowboys may have one of the deeper receiving corps in the NFL.
The question is, how will the Dallas Cowboys coaching staff delineate the roles?
Let's take a look.
As I mentioned before, the Dallas Cowboys are returning their top two options on the outside in Amari Cooper, who is the X wide receiver and Michael Gallup, the Z receiver. Both players will go into week one as the starters at their respective positions in two-wide receiver formations.
Despite some of the overthrows from Dak Prescott to Michael Gallup, Gallup had a really nice rookie season and got better as the year went along, even leading the Cowboys in receiving in the playoff loss to the Los Angeles Rams. In that game, Gallup recorded the first 100 yard game of his career. Sure, it was in an attempt to comeback by the Dallas Cowboys, but it is impressive nonetheless. His touchdown catch against the Seattle Seahawks the week before was clutch. The Cowboys needed that to take the lead at the end of the first half. 2018 was only the beginning for Michael Gallup. He showed an ability to win with a full offseason to work with Dak Prescott, their chemistry and connection should only improve.
As for Cooper, his presence was felt right away as the offense just looked different once he stepped on the field. It's no coincidence that Dak Prescott's two best career games in terms of passing yardage came with Cooper in 2018. He's such a threat that he opens up space for the rest of the wide receiver group. His route running, speed, ability to run after the catch make him a threat to score any time he's targeted.
Behind Cooper and Gallup, you have options in the event that one of them gets hurt. Allen Hurns, Tavon Austin, and Noah Brown are all players who took snaps on the outside for the Dallas Cowboys in 2018 and did so with effectiveness. Hurns best game of the year came just before the Cooper deal was made as he went for five receptions for 75 yards.
Tavon provided down field speed on several occasions and provides some gadget quality that the Dallas Cowboys love to have. Noah Brown is a player that the Dallas Cowboys love to deploy as a blocker in the running game. While it looked like he might get more run in the passing game in 2019, the depth additions will limit him again to a specialty role. If needed, though, he could be an option to take snaps on the outside as his big frame allows him to box out defensive backs down the field.
There will be snaps on the outside for someone when the Cowboys go to 11 personnel, because of Amari Cooper's ability to slide into the slot.
Obviously, the writing is on the wall with who the Dallas Cowboys are planning on deploying in the slot as things stand right now, and that's Randall Cobb.
While Cobb should be penciled in as the starter in the slot, I doubt that he's going to get 100% of the snaps there in 11 or 10 personnel groupings. Amari Cooper, Allen Hurns, Tavon Austin, Noah Brown, and Cedric Wilson could all push for playing time from the slot.
Last month, I wrote a piece about Allen Hurns and his effectiveness in the slot and why the Cowboys should feature him there. With Cobb coming off an injury laden season, the Cowboys would be wise to give some snaps to Hurns along with Tavon Austin.
In Jacksonville, Hurns was incredibly effective from the slot running posts, slants, and ins and outs. His size and route running made him an effective mismatch against linebackers, safeties, and cornerbacks alike. Remember, it wasn't long ago that Hurns had a 1,000 yard season with Blake Bortles at the helm.
Tavon Austin's quickness is an asset that could be very effective in the slot as well. Though he lacks size, he's a player that opposing defenses have to account for because of his ability to make big plays once the ball's in his hands.
✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭
The Cowboys haven't been shy about carrying seven wide receivers on their 53-man rosters and it's possible, though unlikely that they could do it again in 2018. As things stand now, I see Noah Brown and Cedric Wilson as the potential odd men out. Of course, this could all get reshuffled if the Dallas Cowboys use a top 100 pick on a wide receiver in the draft.
With Amari Cooper, Allen Hurns, Tavon Austin, and Randall Cobb only under contract through the 2019 season, the Dallas Cowboys would be wise to invest at the position despite the strength of the position in 2019.
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