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Cowboys Offseason Regrets: Offensive Line Shakeup

Jess Haynie

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Doug Free

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?

G Ronald Leary Heading to Mile High City, Signing With Broncos

G Ronald Leary

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.

Jonathan Cooper

G Jonathan Cooper

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.

Chaz Green

OL Chaz Green

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.

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Cowboys fan since 1992, blogger since 2011. Bringing you the objectivity of an outside perspective with the passion of a die-hard fan. I love to talk to my readers, so please comment on any article and I’ll be sure to respond!

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La’el Collins’ Toughness And Availability Earning High Praise

Brian Martin

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La'el Collins' Toughness And Availability Earning High Praise 1

The decision by the Dallas Cowboys to move La’el Collins from left guard to right tackle was met by some skepticism by quite a few members of Cowboys Nation during the off-season. I’m not ashamed to admit that I was one of those skeptical of the move, but I’m not afraid to admit he has exceeded my expectations.

In all honesty, I always believed that La’el Collins’ best position in the NFL is on the interior of the offense of line as a guard. I thought he could use his strength and athleticism to his advantage when working in a phone booth against slower and less athletic defensive tackles. That’s not to say I didn’t think he would make a good right tackle, I just thought he had Pro Bowl potential as a guard.

Strangely enough, Collins has probably put together a Pro Bowl caliber season in his first season starting at the right tackle position for the Cowboys. He has become an upgrade over the previous starter Doug Free, and is really starting to earn high praise from the brass. Stephen Jones in particular has been impressed with Collins, especially considering how he has played after missing two full weeks of practice.

Mark Lane on Twitter

DallasCowboys COO Stephen Jones told @1053thefan La’el Collins has answered the bell after his contract extension.

I personally agree with everything Stephen Jones said about La’el Collins. I’ve really enjoyed watching his progression this season, but I have been really impressed how he played the last two weeks after missing so much practice.

You might not of known, but Collins has missed two full weeks of practice due to a herniated disc in his back. This is put his availability to play against the Washington Redskins and New York Giants in jeopardy, but somehow he has toughened up and played considerably well.

This unfortunately will be something he has to continue to battle through the rest of the season, but I’m not going to bet against him playing. He absolutely makes this offensive line better and I would hate to see Chaz Green or Byron Bell back on the field after the way they played as feel-ins.

La’el Collins has without a doubt earned my respect and I think it’s about time we all recognize the player he is turning into. I know the Dallas Cowboys appreciate all that he does and believe that his recent contract extension is money well spent.

What do you think about La’el Collins?

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Game Notes

Takeaway Tuesday: Awuzie and Lewis Impress, Concerns Around Dez Bryant

Mauricio Rodriguez

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Takeaway Tuesday: Awuzie and Lewis Impress, Concerns Around Dez Bryant

The Dallas Cowboys headed to New York a couple of days ago with a mission: survive a potential trap game versus a 2-10 New York Giants team. Despite not getting most of the help they needed from other teams around the league, at least Dallas was able to do the job they could control.

Through three quarters, the Cowboys struggled a lot. It wasn’t until the fourth quarter when they decided to have a touchdown party, outscoring the Giants 20-0 in the final eight minutes of the game.

What did we learn from the Cowboys’ seventh win of the season? Here is this week’s edition of Takeaway Tuesday! 

Dak Prescott Bounced Back

Although the Cowboys are a team that’s barely breathing in the playoff race, the truth is there’re a lot of ways that Dak has improved as a QB. It’s easy to look at a team lose football games and blame the QB without hesitating. That’s been the case most of the season.

It’s fair to say that Prescott hadn’t had an awesome game in a long time, though. But this time, he did just that.

Film Room: How Dak Prescott Beat The Giants' Blitz

Dak Prescott needed a performance like this one. He threw for 332 yards and three touchdowns last Sunday. He made some key throws and key reads during the game and managed to beat the Giants’ blitz with ease. Glad to see you hush the haters, 4.

Certainly a good thing to see when you need to go 3-0 in order to stay in the postseason conversation.

Concerns Around Dez Bryant Continue to Increase

Listen, I love Dez Bryant. He’s been one of my favorite players to ever watch. But at some point, you have to start admitting there is a problem. Yes, Dez Bryant has been struggling this season. Whether you want to blame Dak or Dez about it, it’s fair. I think they both are to blame.

The thing about Dez is that he can have quite a few bad plays and makes you forget about it when he  does something awesome. A perfect example of this is his 50-yard TD against the Giants last Sunday. It came at a perfect moment, but he had dropped some easy balls earlier in the game.

Dez – Streamable

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Dez is getting paid like an elite WR, and despite some great moments on the field, he’s been having a lot of bad ones lately. If you have a $70M contract, you can’t frequently drop passes like that.

It may be about chemistry with his new QB, it may be about age, or it may be just about a couple of bad years for the guy. Whatever it is, as much as we hate to say it, Dez isn’t anywhere close to the “top receivers” conversation this year.

Sean Lee Proved to be Invaluable Once Again

Less Is More For Sean Lee And Cowboys' LBs?I’m constantly amazed by the difference the Cowboys’ veteran linebacker makes when he’s on the field. In his heroic return against the Giants, he finished the day with 18 total tackles, 10 of which were solo. With Sean Lee on the field, this defense has been able to be a headache for opposing offenses.

Sean Lee could easily be this team’s MVP. For Cowboys Nation, it’s been a season of constantly missing football players in Dallas. Out of everyone, I think Sean Lee is the player we missed the most. Including Ezekiel Elliott.

This defense transforms into a very capable one with Lee around. The Cowboys need Zeke back if they want to have success in their hunt for the playoffs, but without Lee, they wouldn’t stand a chance.

Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis Are Still Killing It

Coming into this game, one of the biggest question marks was the cornerback position for Dallas. Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis were going to get the start, and there’s always uncertainty around rookies going up against a QB like Eli Manning.

lewis – Streamable

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Look at that coverage by Jourdan Lewis. Look at him turn his head around when the ball’s coming. The way this secondary will grow is exciting to think about. The Cowboys have something special in these two guys. They’ll make for an amazing CB duo for years to come, and I’m excited about what they bring to the table.

Chidobe Awuzie has played the last two games, and he’s been very impressive. Throughout the entire game, his converge was pretty impressive. Eli only targeted him 5 times in the ballgame and was able to complete just two passes against him.

Sean Lee ended up with the interception late in the fourth quarter, but it was perfectly set up by Chidobe Awuzie.

Awuzie – Streamable

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It was a very fun fourth quarter for the Dallas Cowboys, and even though it looks difficult… this football team’s playoff hopes are still alive. Jason Garrett must keep this team focused in the Oakland Raiders for now, though.

Hope dies last, Cowboys Nation. Keep your head up.

Tell me what you think about “Takeaway Tuesday: Awuzie and Lewis Impress, Concerns Around Dez Bryant” in the comments below, or tweet me @PepoR99 and let’s talk football! If you like football and are looking for a Dallas Cowboys show in Spanish, don’t miss my weekly Facebook Live! show, Primero Cowboys!

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Dallas Cowboys

Playoffs Or Not, Cowboys Defense Showing Promise For Future

Sean Martin

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Playoffs Or Not, Cowboys Defense Showing Promise For Future 1

The New York Giants are not a good football team, but the Dallas Cowboys 30-10 win over the Giants in Eli Manning’s return to action left Cowboys Nation with plenty to be excited about as the team improved to 7-6.

In a stacked NFC, the Cowboys unfortunately did not get much help from scores elsewhere around the league Sunday, and the momentum they’ve built with two straight wins ahead of Ezekiel Elliott‘s return in week 16 has done little to improve their chances of reaching the playoffs.

The entire NFC East in 2017 has truly epitomized how quickly things can improve or fall apart in this league, as the Eagles clinching the title came at the cost of their franchise QB Carson Wentz – tearing his ACL to end his season.

Will Chidobe Awuzie's Return Benefit The Cowboys Defense?

Dallas Cowboys’ Jourdan Lewis (27), Chidobe Awuzie (33) and Xavier Woods (25) warm ups before an NFL football game against the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, Oct. 8, 2017, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)

Through all of this, including my own criticism of Defensive Coordinator Rod Marinelli, I can’t help but get excited about the potential this young Dallas defense is showing. The Cowboys got back in the win column two weeks ago against the Redskins, shuffling their secondary with great results.

Adding Sean Lee back to this winning formula against the Giants brought things even further into focus for the Cowboys defense though. Schematically, they were cohesive through all three levels. The longest play the Giants hit on was a 35-yard completion (against the blitz) to Evan Engram – one of their lone remaining offensive threats.

When the Cowboys dropped three straight games in weeks 10-12, the defense was desperate for Dak Prescott and the offense to play up to their potential. Prescott’s career day at MetLife Stadium was perhaps the most unsurprising development from this week, as the Cowboys found out early in this season that Prescott is in fact their franchise QB, and soon the complimentary performance turned in by this scrappy defense will be just as regularly expected.

Will Chidobe Awuzie's Return Benefit The Cowboys' Defense?

Cornerbacks Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis continue to live up to their draft status, two lengthy defenders with ball skills that have not been seen in the Cowboys secondary for some time. Sixth round pick Xavier Woods has proved valuable at every spot these coaches play him at, contributing at Nickel CB against the Giants’ Sterling Shepard and looking comfortable.

Jeff Heath came up with an interception on what may have been Eli Manning’s last pass as a Giant against the Cowboys, and played well throughout the afternoon in his rotational role alongside Byron Jones.

At linebacker, Sean Lee’s 18 tackles with an interception only further highlighted how well Anthony Hitchens has played at the other primary LB spot. I wrote in my immediate post game Sean’s Scout that I also thought Jaylon Smith could have been utilized more in this game, but the fact that he’s played in 13 straight games for the Cowboys without additional injuries is incredible enough.

Simply put, the biggest reason the Cowboys have salvaged a shot at contending for the playoffs this season is because they’ve found a way to get back to playing complimentary football on offense and defense – even with some key absences on both sides of the ball.

The game plan is a proven one. When the Cowboys run the ball, control the clock, and allow their defense to play from ahead against hurried, one-dimensional offenses they can beat anyone.

Whether or not that means 10 wins to close this roller coaster of a season – good enough for the playoffs or not – the Cowboys are doing well to prove they’ll have staying power in the NFC for years to come.

This fate was very debatable a few weeks ago, and any team that commits to turning over their defense as much as the Cowboys did in one offseason should expect something of a regression, but the Cowboys’ future is now being written in front of us by young stars on offense and defense.

Playoffs Or Not, Cowboys Defense Showing Promise For Future

Getting more than three remaining kickoffs for guys like Awuzie, Lewis, Woods, Jaylon Smith, and Lewis Neal would certainly be ideal for the end of this season. Should the Cowboys miss out on the playoffs due to circumstances past their control though, we can all spend a few months getting very excited about what these defenders will have to say about taking matters into their own hands at the very next possible opportunity.

Tell us what you think about “Playoffs Or Not, Cowboys Defense Showing Promise For Future” in the comments below. You can also email me at Sean.Martin@InsideTheStar.com, or Tweet to me at @SeanMartinNFL!

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