In more ways than one, the Dallas Cowboys are going in a new direction with their linebackers this season. Ben Bloom has taken over as the primary coach at the position, while Passing Game Coordinator Kris Richard also expects to heavily influence the unit. Short on numbers and proven talent prior to the draft, the Cowboys added 19th overall pick Leighton Vander Esch and 193rd overall pick Chris Covington.
Also signing veteran Joe Thomas to join projected starters Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith, one journeyman player has caught the eye of those around The Star for the Cowboys OTAs. With only mini camp standing in the way of the Cowboys and another competitive training camp, Justin March-Lillard has made a strong impression in staking his claim for a fringe roster spot.
March-Lillard was a mid-season addition by the Cowboys in 2017, as Dallas became his fourth team since the start of last September. Appearing in seven games, more than he ever did in one season for the Chiefs, Dolphins, or Seahawks since 2015, March-Lillard was exclusively a special teams player for the Cowboys.
This role bodes well for a spot on the current Cowboys roster, as their 90-man squad still leaves plenty of intrigue for who will replace former ST aces like Keith Smith and Kyle Wilber. Both players were of course also backups at linebacker.
Going all the way back to my original scouting report on March-Lillard, his Sean's Scout described him as follows:
"Not a player that is going to overwhelm with his physique or powerful play, March-Lillard puts himself in position to make plays on the ball by diagnosing plays quickly and consistently playing with his eyes, feet, and hands in sync."
Shaking off the rust of a long offseason without pads on during OTAs is the perfect time for a player like March-Lillard to shine, and he was able to do just that before the competition ramps up.
It may not be the other linebackers on the Cowboys roster that March-Lillard is competing with, so much as any fringe players on the roster, all working towards spots on a final 53-man team. If March-Lillard makes the 53, there is no reason not to think he doesn't continue making the 46-man active roster for the Cowboys on game days.
OTA 9. Shouts out Justin March-Lillard, who had himself a day running with the first-team D. Recovered a Dak Prescott fumble in the red zone, and broke up a goal line pass to get a big stop for the defense #cowboyswire
A linebacker that can cover ground in a hurry and react against the pass with sound tackling form, March-Lillard's skill set is ideal for the Cowboys developing approach at the position. As mentioned, both coach Bloom and Richard will mold this unit led by Sean Lee - who simply does it all when available for this Cowboys defense.
The same will hopefully be said about Jaylon Smith for the remainder of the offseason, as the Notre Dame product is off to a solid start in his continued return from injury.
Hinting at a move to the strong side, while working Smith as a pass rusher in practices too, the Cowboys are honing in on how to best utilize the physical specimen that is Jaylon.
If this means a reduced role for Smith, playing as an enforcer against the run while conceding Nickel snaps to first-round pick Leighton Vander Esch, it means only good things for Justin March-Lillard.
Comparing the 19th overall pick of this draft to an undrafted player out of Akron from 2015 would be unfair to both, but when the Cowboys deploy just two linebackers there will be plenty of players fighting for one spot.
Instinctive athletes like LVE or March-Lillard lining up alongside Lee is an ideal way for the Cowboys to improve their overall passing defense -- consistently expecting to create pressure with their front four while keeping everything in front of Richard's talented back seven.
It is a linebacker and secondary group with so much talent for the Cowboys that good players, with a real chance to stick elsewhere, will undoubtedly have to be moved on from. Such would be nothing new for Justin March-Lillard, who is also set on making Dallas his first real landing spot in the NFL.
March-Lillard will be fighting for this at the perfect time, entering his fourth season in the league for a team whose only other LBs with as much experience are Sean Lee and Damien Wilson.
We're still a long way from knowing what most of the Cowboys roster will look like for the 2018 season. With a first round pick invested at linebacker, this is going to be a group that gets extra attention from now until week one though - as players like Justin March-Lillard fight to keep their name in contention.
Cowboys Interest in Raiders WR Amari Cooper Increases Ahead of Trade Deadline
This week, Stephen Jones discussed the difficulties of making a trade, saying "it just seems like in the NFL trades are hard to make, to make it all come together for two teams".
The two teams that could be lining up to change that are of course Jones' Cowboys as well as John Gruden's Oakland Raiders. Yet another Raiders player has been in the headlines as a trade target, 24-year old Wide Receiver Amari Cooper.
WR-needy Cowboys doing their due diligence on Raiders' WR Amari Cooper: https://t.co/pE2wmrzCXu
Playing at the Washington Redskins on Sunday, the Cowboys will have yet another reshuffled lineup at wide receiver, playing without Tavon Austin. Their biggest offseason addition to this unit was Allen Hurns, and he's been underwhelming with just eight catches.
Thus the Cowboys are reportedly doing their "due diligence" on Cooper, sensing the need for a mid-season acquisition at WR for the right price. The Cowboys ability to potentially find that price in a deal advantageous to them, given how the Raiders handled the departure of Khalil Mack in a trade to this Chicago Bears, is what makes this story relevant.
A lot has been said about Cooper since his name emerged as the latest player potentially out of the Bay Area. Whether you believe he's still an impact receiver with the potential to regain his Pro Bowl form of 2015 and 2016 or one that "doesn't love football," as some have been inclined to say, the former fourth overall pick represents an investment into the WR position that the Cowboys have not made in some time.
In those Pro Bowl seasons, Cooper averaged over 77 catches a season while putting up over 1,000 yards in both. The Raiders have used this to justify their reported asking price of a first-round pick for Cooper, something the Cowboys are not alone in their reluctance to give.
With Cooper, the Raiders are holding onto their last bit of relevancy. A reeling 1-5 football team that needs to maximize their return on trading Cooper, the Colts and Redskins are also following in the Cowboys footsteps by preparing as much as they can on the player.
Cooper has caught 22 passes for 280 yards and a touchdown through six games this season.
For as desperate as the Raiders are to jump-start their organization, the Cowboys should be just as desperate to add a threat like Cooper to their passing attack. Unlike the Raiders, they're in the hunt for a division title, something much harder to put a price on when it comes to the Jones' finalizing any deal for Cooper in the coming days.
The NFL trade deadline is Tuesday, October 30th, at 3 PM Central Time. The Cowboys will be two days into their bye week, not in action again after Sunday until November 5th.
Cowboys WR Tavon Austin Skipping Surgery, May Return in 2018
A groin injury sustained last week against Jacksonville won't send Tavon Austin to injured reserve, at least for now. The Dallas Cowboys receiver has elected to forego surgery at this time, giving him a chance to return to action in 2018.
There was concern that Austin could land on IR initially following the Jaguars game, but he sought a second opinion this week. It appears that this new information was enough for Tavon and the Cowboys to decide that surgery can wait.
Sounds like WR Tavon Austin will not have surgery at this time after getting a second opinion on his groin injury. He could miss a few weeks, however. #cowboyswire
Austin should miss this Sunday's game with the Washington Redskins. He has been the team's punt returner this season and a useful tool on offense, playing mostly receiver but also lining up the backfield at times.
Despite his limited opportunities, Tavon is tied with Cole Beasley for the team lead with two receiving touchdowns in 2018.
How long Austin will remain out is unknown at this time. After the Washington game, Dallas will have their bye week and then host the Tennessee Titans on Monday Night Football.
Both of these are games that the Cowboys, feeling good after a blowout victory over Jacksonville, should be able to win without Austin. But they would certainly like him back for the Week 10 road game with the Philadelphia Eagles.
In Tavon's absence, Cole Beasley will likely field punts. We may see more of Deonte Thompson in the speed routes that Austin ran on offense, though Dallas could also finally see what recently returned Brice Butler has to offer.
With an expiring contract this year, Tavon will likely want to get back soon and trying to improve his stock for the 2019 offseason. Hopefully, he can still have a positive impact on his value and the Cowboys season in the weeks ahead.
Terrance Williams: Details, Impact of 3-Game Suspension
Terrance Williams was already missing games on injured reserve, but now the Dallas Cowboys receivers is going to lose some money as well. Williams was finally hit with a three-game suspension by the NFL, starting immediately, for his public intoxication arrest last May.
Dallas placed Terrance on IR in Week 5 just a day before their game against the Houston Texans. Williams had been struggling with a foot issue since the offseason, which included a surgery that he hadn't fully recovered from.
Many were surprised that Williams wasn't suspended to start the season, given that his arrest occurred several months prior. But when charges were eventually dropped after Terrance took part in some required alcohol education courses, it appeared the league might be letting the issue go.
However, as Cowboys fans know all too well, Roger Goodell's NFL operates its own judicial system.
In Williams' case, the suspension will only result in lost game checks. Players still get paid when on IR, but Terrance will lose that amount of his $3.5 million base salary.
Because he can serve the suspension while injured, Terrance will still be eligible to be recalled from injured reserve in December after sitting the mandatory weeks.
The real issue for Williams now is how this event, and his general fall from grace in the Cowboys offense, will affect him in the next offseason.
Terrance is in just the second season of a four-year, $17 million contract he signed in 2017. If he's released after this year, Dallas would save $2.25 million of his scheduled $4.75 million cap hit in 2019.
Williams' cap hit isn't the issue by itself. That would be a bargain for a significant contributor in your offense, even if he was just the third receiver.
But Terrance appears to have fallen well below that spot on the depth chart. Cole Beasley, Allen Hurns, and Michael Gallup are the top three receivers these days, and veteran Deonte Thompson has also been getting looks. Dallas also brought back Brice Butler a few weeks ago, though he hasn't really been worked in yet.
Not only that, but the Cowboys will have the option to recall Noah Brown from IR in just a few more weeks. He was one of their more intriguing young prospects prior to getting hurt.
Dallas could let Terrance come back next year to compete, hopefully with full health and less personal baggage. But after six seasons, they may be ready to move on to players with more room to grow.
For now, though, Terrance Williams is out of action and out some money. We'll see what the future holds.
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