This week we'll be looking at five decisions the Dallas Cowboys made in the 2017 offseason that, in hindsight, they may now regret. These moves, or non-moves, are ones that have clearly helped cause the team to struggle this year. Dallas currently sits at 6-6 and only has a slim chance of still making the playoffs.
The first area we'll look at is the heart and soul of this Cowboys team, its offensive line. The Cowboys had two big changes in the starting lineup from the retirement of right tackle Doug Free and the departure of left guard Ronald Leary in free agency. They did not add any new talent and instead looked to returning players such as La'el Collins, Jonathan Cooper, and Chaz Green to fill the gaps.
Were the Cowboys right to let Leary go? Did they do enough to replace their lost starters? How much did these changes impact the season?
Should Dallas Have Kept Ronald Leary?
Leary, who turned 28 in April, signed a four-year deal with the Denver Broncos for $36 million. It averages at about a $8-9 million cap hit each year. The guaranteed money was front-loaded in the contract, leaving an easy out in 2019 with only $1.75 million in dead money left.
The logic of letting Leary go so that La'el Collins could take over at guard made sense to me. Collins projected as a future stud at guard with his mix of athleticism and power. However, Doug Free's retirement pulled Collins over to tackle and left LG uncertain.
The timeline here is important. Ron Leary signed with Denver on March 9th and Free didn't announce his retirement until March 11th. However, rumors that Doug was considering retirement started back at the NFL Scouting Combine. So Dallas probably had a good indication of what their needs would be when they decided to let Leary go.
It's also important to remember Ron Leary's health issues. He went undrafted in 2012 because of a degenerative knee condition that most felt would shorten his career. Dallas may have felt like they'd already gotten more out of Leary than most had anticipated, and that it was time to stop rolling the dice.
The financial implications of trying to keep Leary would have been difficult. Dallas was already thinking about having to sign Zack Martin to a long-term extension and then gave La'el Collins a two-year, $15 million extension through 2019. They needed to save some money somewhere and hoped left guard would be a spot where they could go cheap.
Part of the plan was veteran Jonathan Cooper, a failed first-round pick who'd bounced around the league since 2013. Dallas had coveted Cooper as a rookie but couldn't take him as he went seventh overall in that draft. The Cowboys added Cooper late in 2016 to kick the tires and then kept him for 2017.
The other option was Chaz Green, the 2015 third-round pick who'd been battling injuries for most of his short NFL career. Green had looked good last year as a backup tackle when Tyron Smith went out, but that was short-lived as Chaz also got hurt. The team wanted to give him a shot at guard to see if they could get a return on their third-round pick investment.
The end result of having Collins move to right tackle and then Green being tried at left guard was a pedestrian running game. After averaging 5.1 yards-per-carry in 2016, Ezekiel Elliott's productivity dropped to just a 3.7 average in Weeks 1-5. This includes the abysmal eight yards on nine carries that he had in Denver. The Cowboys went 2-3 in these games to start their season in a hole.
To be fair, the Cowboys didn't know back in March that their time with Ezekiel Elliott in 2017 would be precious. There was no anticipation of a lengthy suspension, if any, from Zeke's domestic violence investigation.
However, in this hindsight discussion, the reality is that Dallas wasted their early time with Elliott in the lineup in part because of the offensive line transitions and growing pains. While the Denver game was a total blowout, the losses to the Rams and Packers were only by five and four points each. A fully functioning rushing attack may have tipped those games in Dallas favor, changing 2-3 to 4-1 and perhaps the current 6-6 to 8-4.
Perhaps the biggest regret isn't that they let Ronald Leary go, but rather that they didn't commit to Jonathan Cooper sooner. The switch from Chaz Green to Cooper in Week 4 started to turn things around for the run game. After the bye week, things really took off and the Cowboys went on a three-game win streak before Elliott's suspension finally took hold.
Had Cooper been the starter from the beginning of training camp, the chemistry the team found in Weeks 7-9 might've been there all along. Trying to get something out of a younger Chaz Green is understandable, but that experiment's failure may have been directly responsible for two of the Cowboys' six losses so far this year.
Ultimately, I don't blame Dallas for not re-signing Ronald Leary. The financial side just didn't make sense given the considerable cost of keeping just Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin together. Once they were committed to La'el Collins as well, there just was no way to pay another handsome salary to the fifth guy.
I don't even blame them for hoping for something out of Chaz Green. Third-round picks are no small thing and you hate to see one wasted. But now that Green couldn't catch on as a starting guard or even as the backup swing tackle in his third year, it's looking like a busted pick.
These hindsight arguments should be more about the merits of the strategy or reasoning behind a decision rather than the result. I think the Cowboys made the right call with not spending to keep Leary, but then overdid it by also moving La'el Collins to tackle. That created two positions of uncertainty and change; 40% of the offensive line transitioning instead of just 20%.
Unfortunately, they may not have had much choice. If you look at the free agent offensive tackles from the offseason, those of any real value signed deals for even more money than Ronald Leary got from Denver. If finances are why Leary had to go, then Dallas wasn't going to be able to pay for Doug Free's replacement in free agency.
Despite free agency and draft picks, sometimes there just aren't the right pegs for every hole on your team. The Cowboys were in a bad spot with their available cap space, current assets, and Free's retirement. I think they did they best they could with the resources available, but unfortunately some of those moves just didn't go as well as they'd hoped.
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.
How Will Cowboys Handle Sean Lee’s Return?
For the first time in what feels like forever, the Dallas Cowboys' defense is still dominant without Sean Lee on the field. For many years, Lee's injuries have shown us the worst of this defense but finally that's not the case. Thanks to Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch, the Cowboys should feel just fine without #50 wearing pads on gameday.
As the Cowboys get ready to play the Washington Redskins on the road in their quest for a winning record, Sean Lee is expected to return to the field. He was a full participant on practice on both Thursday and Friday and should make his way back to the field today.
But how much will he play?
Usually, we would be talking about this defense being desperate for his help. He's been rushed back to the field on many occasions simply because the team's linebackers weren't doing enough without him. This year though, the narrative is different.
Even before he got injured in week 3 playing against the Seattle Seahawks, Lee had been struggling. Now granted, he wasn't looking bad, but we were watching him miss a few tackles here and there which simply isn't something you'd expect from a player such as himself.
The rookie out of Boise State has made a really good job justifying why the front office decided to invest a first round pick on him. So far, Leighton Vander Esch has accounted for 49 tackles, 40 of which have been solo. The kid can play, period. He's done nothing but get better and better by the week and the snaps he's gotten replacing Lee have helped him a ton.
With the veteran returning, what's in store for this linebacker rotation?
Honestly, with the bye week so close, I think this will depend a lot on how this game starts off. If it comes to a point in which the Cowboys are comfortably leading and have no concerns of losing the match, why not rest Lee as much as possible?
It's clear that the defense is far from desperate for having #50 back on the field and it's also clear that Lee is a player who could get injured at any given time.
Thanks to Smith's and Vander Esch's play, the Cowboys can afford to limit Lee's snaps versus the Redskins today. Rest him as much as possible and throw him on just a few plays out there. Lee has suffered injuries on both hamstrings, which is another reason to take it slow with his return.
If they're able to limit him today and then take advantage of the upcoming bye week it could pay Lee big dividends down the road. Dallas needs to realize they're in a very comfortable position regarding Sean Lee. They have the option to take things slow.
Not only that but once he's healthy, he doesn't have to be on the field every single snap. It might be hard getting used to watching Lee slowly become a "situational" player because he's so good to be only played on specific situations but that might be the way to make his availability improve.
It will be interesting to see how they handle the situation starting today as Lee is slated to play football against an NFC East rival.
Cowboys Wishlist: Big Return on Special Teams?
The last time the Dallas Cowboys played a football game, they made many of their fans' dreams come true. This happened by beating the Jacksonville Jaguars 40-7 in a dominant performance against a top NFL defense. Can they make our wishes come true in back-to-back weeks? I don't know about walking away with another 33-point win, but we're obviously putting up a Cowboys Wishlist as every gameday.
Let's hope they come true. As always, I hope you enjoy this week's edition of Cowboys Wishlist!
Wish #1: First Road Win of the Season
I mean, we obviously are wishing for a win. But this one right here would be a very important one, so I'm including it as a wish. The Cowboys haven't won any game on the road this year and doing so in Washington against a hated NFC East rival like the Redskins will be huge for this 3-3 Dallas Cowboys team.
Last Sunday's victory over the Jaguars might have been the moment when the Cowboys "turned the corner" to become a winning team in 2018. It's time to go on the road and beat a 3-2 divisional foe to prove that is the case.
Wish #2: Beasley Keeps It Up
The Cowboys' MVP last weekend was Cole Beasley. He was the only wide receiver on the team with more than one catch, ending his day with nine receptions for 101 yards and two touchdowns. It was one of the best performances in his career yet.
The Cowboys need a WR to step up. Other than Cole, no one else is stepping up in the passing game. Beasley did so last Sunday but, can he consistently perform well enough to keep the offense going throughout the year? It remains to be seen.
For the long term, it might be better to have an outside, taller receiver be your #1 guy, but in the meantime, Beasley is the guy Dak Prescott should be targeting the most.
Wish #3: The Sack Hat Trick
Ok, I might be asking for too much here. But hear me out. The Dallas Cowboys defensive line is getting stronger and stronger. Just last week, David Irving returned to the field and got limited playing time. Although he didn't get a sack, his impact was felt since his first snap on the field.
Randy Gregory also saw limited playing time but was able to sack Blake Bortles once. And well, DeMarcus Lawrence is still playing at an elite level this year. How epic would it be for each of these three great pass rushers walk away with a sack?
Three headhunters, three sacks. Let's go!
Wish #4: Keep Redskins Under 10 Points
The Cowboys' defense is no joke. They're allowing 17.2 points per game, which is second best in the entire NFL right now. They're ready to face a Redskins' team that is ranked as the 25th offense in scoring. On top of that, the Redskins' receivers are pretty banged up.
3 of Washington's top 4 receivers (Chris Thompson, Paul Richardson, Jamison Crowder) not expected to play vs. Cowboys https://t.co/9uOkA7Pzhv
This could end up being the second consecutive big win for the Cowboys, specially because the defense should have a very good day.
Wish #5: Big Return on Special Teams
The last time the Dallas Cowboys played the Washington Redskins, Ryan Switzer returned a punt 83 yards into the end zone in what will remain his biggest highlight from his short career with the Dallas Cowboys.
We haven't seen much excitement on special teams this year. Switzer is now a Pittsburgh Steeler, so Tavon Austin has gotten most of the punt returns. However, that's bound to change after he sustained an unfortunate injury. Deonte Thompson has taken care of the kick returns but nothing special has happened either.
I wish that changes today. With Austin out, I wonder if it'll be Cole Beasley or someone else fielding punts for Dallas but whoever it is, things will be spiced up. Through 6 weeks, the Cowboys longest punt return has been for 22 yards and the longest kick return for 35.
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