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Cowboys Options for the 4th Safety

Shane Carter

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Bottom Line: Are the Cowboys Better or Worse for 2018?
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Cowboys have traditionally gone into the regular season with four safeties, which has made it more puzzling why going into training camp, they only have three: Xavier Woods, Kavon Frazier and Jeff Heath. Byron Jones, one of last year's starting safeties, was switched back to his original corner spot. While that was a great move for the cornerback group, it created a huge hole at safety.

It seemed likely Dallas would sign one in free agency, but March came and went and the Cowboys didn't sign one. Despite there being quality names available, the Cowboys chose not to try their hands.

The next logical step was to address the need in the draft. There were plenty of quality safeties, or even corners who could switch to the position. After 256 picks, Dallas had nine of their own. None of them were a safety.

It's been reported that the team intends to add another safety at some point. There are a few routes the team can go, but it's not just a matter of who the player is, but how the Cowboys get him.

Sign a Free Agent Safety

The team currently sits on about $8 million in cap space, which may not seem like much but might be enough to get a quality player for an agreeable price. The most frequently heard names are Eric Reid, Kenny Vaccaro and Tre Boston. All three all have plenty to offer, and would make the team's depth better, and bring a sigh of relief going into the summer.

Eric Reid is the most talented of the bunch, who would actually come in and potentially be up for the starting spot. However, he is currently in the middle of a collusion case against the NFL, claiming he hasn't been signed to a team as a result of his kneeling for the national anthem. Given this and Jerry Jones's stance on the pregame kneeling, this isn't a likely pairing.

Tre Boston had a great season in 2017, with five interceptions and eight passes deflected. It's puzzling that he not only made it to free agency, but that he's still available. He may be searching for a long-term deal after his one-year prove-it deal with the Chargers worked out so well. Tre Boston may have to wait and see if another team gets desperate.

Kenny Vaccaro makes plenty of sense. Not only did the Cowboys have interest in drafting Vaccaro back in the 2013 NFL Draft, but it was reported that the Cowboys tried to trade for him last season. His skills have diminished over the last few seasons, but he would be great in rotation. He probably isn't a starter any more, but he's only 27 and has plenty left to offer.

Position Switch

The Cowboys just got done with one position change with Byron Jones, but what if they want to switch another? While this seems like the unlikeliest scenario, it has been brought up that Chidobe Awuzie, last year's second round pick, could play safety.

Chidobe Awuzie played fantastic once he was given the starting spot last season, and it looked as if he's going to be the number one corner, but his tackling skills and ability to play all over may make him an option to switch to safety.

Truthfully, I think the Cowboys like a cornerback group featuring Awuzie, Byron Jones and Jourdan Lewis, lead by secondary coach, Kris Richard. I also know the Cowboys won't be afraid to switch a player out of position if they feel it's what's best for the team and gives them the best chance to win. Don't sleep on this option just yet.

Undrafted Free Agent

The Cowboys didn't draft a single safety. However, they signed three undrafted free agents who all play the position: Kameron Kelly, Tyree Robinson and Kyle Queiro. One of the three have a great opportunity to make the team despite not being picked. This looks like the likeliest way the team will go.

Kameron Kelly was surprisingly not drafted out of San Diego State. He was expected to be a day three selection, or possibly go as high as the fourth round. He's 6'2" 205 pounds and has the flexibility to play both safety and corner. He plays well in coverage and is a solid tackler despite his lack of speed. Kelly looks like the possible favorite to take the fourth spot.

Tyree Robinson is like Kameron Kelly in size. He's 6'3" 200 pounds out of Oregon. He's not the greatest tackler, but plays well in zone coverage. He has the size you want in a safety, but he needs a bit more developing before he's ready, and is likely to be a practice squad player.

Kyle Queiro comes from Northwestern and plays like a linebacker. He's 6'3" 220 pounds, and has played both the up and down safety spots. His skills are much like Kavon Frazier, and he's like a new type of safety/linebacker hybrid such as Mark Barron or Deone Bucannon. He plays well in zone coverage, but is not as refined in man like Kameron Kelly. If he doesn't make the transition to safety, he looks like he could be a good linebacker project.

Trade

Finally, what you've probably been waiting for me to get to -- the Earl Thomas to Dallas scenario is probably never going to be dropped until both sides definitively say it's not happening. However, it almost makes too much sense to NOT do it.

In 2019, Earl Thomas will be a free agent, and at that point he can go to Dallas of his own free will. Seattle would lose him for nothing. Earl Thomas has made clear his love for the Seahawks but would also love to play for his favorite team growing up. If the Seahawks want to avoid losing Thomas for nothing, they need to trade him this year.

If the Cowboys are able to trade for Thomas, they would have to give up either a reasonably high draft pick, like a third, or a late round pick plus a player Seattle is interested in. This is most Cowboys fans' favorite possibility, and would be a great add for Dallas.

Thomas will be 30 next May, and there's no telling what his value is. He was an All-Pro a season ago, so his skills haven't diminished and his price hasn't been affected. If an Earl Thomas trade can happen, it should happen. The Seahawks need to get younger and save some money, and the Cowboys have a squad that's ready to compete now. This might not be the likeliest way to go, but it would be the best.



Lifelong Cowboys fan, who doesn’t mind telling the harsh truth. I’ve got a Bachelors Degree in Electronic Media and Communications from Texas Tech University. I welcome all opinions but I will shut down any troll.

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Dallas Cowboys

Dallas Cowboys 2019 Training Camp Preview: Linebacker

Jess Haynie

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Leighton Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith

The linebacker position went from liability to luxury in 2018, thanks largely to the emergence of a pair of dynamic young talents. Now seen as one of the strengths of the Dallas Cowboys' defense, what questions remain for the linebackers as we await the start of the 2019 training camp?

Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch are the nucleus now at linebacker, if not the the Cowboys' defense as a whole. The days of worrying if Sean Lee can stay healthy are over; we now have two players capable of elite play and the versatility to handle multiple spots.

Lee isn't gone; the longtime defensive captain accepted a pay cut and a lesser role to stay in Dallas this year. He is still expected to start in the base defense, moving to the strong-side LB role that Damien Wilson vacated.

Indeed, the top-three linebackers for 2019 are easy to project. Jaylon and Leighton are the new leaders and Sean will get as much playing time as his body can handle.

This year, which is unusual for reserve players, the second team is almost just as predictable.

Here's the projected Linebacker Depth Chart for the 2019 training camp:

  1. Leighton Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith, Sean Lee
  2. Joe Thomas, Justin March-Lillard, Chris Covington
  3. Kyle Queiro, Andrew Dowell, Luke Gifford, Nate Hall

There may not be a position on offense or defense with less x-factors than linebacker. Almost just as likely as the starters, Joe Thomas, Justin-March Lillard, and Chris Covington should have the second-team spots locked down.

Joe Thomas, Cardinals

Dallas Cowboys LB Joe Thomas

Thomas is especially valuable, having the skills to step into a larger role if Sean Lee suffers from age or injury. If Lee were to go down, we might see Jaylon Smith move into the SAM spot and Thomas playing as WILL in the base defense.

Dallas re-signed Justin March-Lillard this offseason. He played in all 16 games last year as a backup and special teamer, and his experience will make him hard to oust.

Chris Covington was a 6th-round pick last year and has the body to play SAM but also experience at other spots in college. Dallas would love to see him grow into a larger role the way other recent 6th-rounders like Anthony Brown and Xavier Woods have.

One potential challenger could be Jalen Jelks, the 7th-round defensive end that Dallas just drafted last April. Jelks has the body and athleticism to play a hybrid LB/DE role, and could challenge as the backup SAM. We don't know if the Cowboys will give Jelks a chance at LB, but it may be the only way to keep him on the 53 given all the talent at defensive end.

It will be hard for any of the remaining LB prospects to work their way onto the roster. The top six have experience and upside that undrafted rookies will need to be exceptionally good to overcome. Only Kyle Queiro, who was on the practice squad last year, brings a little NFL experience to the table.

Of course, unexpected things can happen. The talent margin between late-round picks and undrafted guys can be slim; who knows if one of these prospects pushes March-Lillard or Covington out of the way?

But barring a surprise, we already have a good idea who the Cowboys' six linebackers will be in 2019. Will this year's training camp solidify that projection, or will we get some new evidence to consider?

~ ~ ~

OTHER 2019 CAMP PREVIEWS



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Tony Romo: Cowboys TE Jason Witten Will “Pick Up Right Where He Left Off”

John Williams

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Did a Year Away Help Rejuvenate TE Jason Witten's Game?

There's no denying that the future holds a gold jacket for Dallas Cowboys Tight End Jason Witten. With everything he's done in his career, he'll go down as one of the three best tight ends in the history of the NFL when he finally hangs up his number 82 for good.

Most of the questions that have come surrounding the offense have focused on the tight end position this offseason. Even prior to Jason Witten announcing his return from the broadcast booth at ESPN to the NFL, tight end was one of the areas that was considered a draft need by most analysts. Since coming back, the questions may have altered, but they're there all the same. Now, we're wondering how much Jason Witten will play? Will Blake Jarwin and/or Dalton Schultz see significant playing time in the offense? Will Jason Witten be able to return to his pre-retirement form?

It's that last question that was answered pretty directly by Witten's former quarterback and NFL on CBS Analyst Tony Romo when he was on with Ben and Skin of 105.3 The Fan. In the way that only Tony Romo can, he illustrated what exactly will allow Jason Witten to return to the game without missing a beat.

"He'll pick up right where he left off. I don't think it's a big challenge for Jason  (Witten). The reality of it is as long as, if you know the game the way he does, there are certain positions -- he plays one of them at tight end -- he's always going to have the nuance to get open. Let's say he runs the exact same he always did, to me , it's just that at that position, your ability to use leverage against somebody, make you think this and then do that. It's like the back pick in basketball. Just all of a sudden it gets you and you didn't even know it was coming and that guy is wide open. He's very intelligent with the game of football. I think he's going to pick up right from when he retired. I think you're going to see the same guy."

Tony Romo on 105.3 The Fan via Jon Machota of SportsDay DFW

Jason Witten has been one of the best route-running tight ends in the NFL during his time with the Dallas Cowboys. He's always been able to win with his intelligence and route running despite not ever being the quickest or most athletic tight end in the NFL.

Because of Jason Witten's knowledge and feel for the game, it's easy to see why a player like that could walk back into the NFL after taking a year off and remain a productive player for the Dallas Cowboys. It's why they didn't hesitate to bring him back in the offseason. Though it's been relayed that he'll have a somewhat reduced role, he'll be the starting tight end week one against the New York Giants.

While it's uncertain exactly how much Jason Witten can play, you know that he'll be available to play. Prior to his retirement, Witten played in 235 straight regular-season games. Not only is Witten's availability great to have, but so is his ability to win on third down and in the red zone. It will be a welcomed addition to a Dallas Cowboys offense that struggled in both of those areas in 2018.

In 2018, they were 10th in third-down conversion percentage in the NFL at 41.4%. That's down from ranking fifth in the NFL in 2017 at 42.9%. 1.5% may not seem like a huge difference, but that's two to three more first downs on the season. Being able to convert on third downs increases your chances of scoring. Scoring more helps you win.

They were 29th in red-zone scoring rate at 48% in 2018. The only teams in the NFL that were worse than the Dallas Cowboys were the New York Jets, Jacksonville Jaguars, and San Francisco 49ers. Only one other team in the bottom 10 in the league in red-zone scoring rate made the playoffs; the Houston Texans. In 2017, the Dallas Cowboys were sixth in the NFL in red-zone scoring percentage at 59.6% and that was without Ezekiel Elliott for six games and without Tyron Smith for three games.

Having Jason Witten's ability to get open in confined spaces will help everyone on the offense. Even after having a year off, Witten is a player that will have to be accounted for in those high-leverage situations.

There isn't a person in the world that knows Jason Witten the football player better than Tony Romo does. Their careers have been so intertwined that it's hard to think of one without thinking of the other. It's why one day when they're inducted into the Dallas Cowboys Ring of Honor, that it would be fitting for it to happen together.

If, as Romo believes, Jason Witten can pick up right where he left off, his veteran presence, leadership, and on-field ability are going to be a huge asset for a team that has Super Bowl aspirations in 2019. For the Cowboys to reach the Super Bowl and win their sixth Lombardi Trophy, they're going to need "Gold Jacket" Witten to return to his pre-retirement form.

And if Tony Romo believes he will, there's no reason to doubt Jason Witten. Do so at your own peril.



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Position Flex of Connor Williams, Connor McGovern Gives the Cowboys Options

Matthew Lenix

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Position Flex of Connor Williams, Connor McGovern Gives the Cowboys Options

The Dallas Cowboys find themselves facing an interesting situation heading into training camp later this month. They've stockpiled enough talent on the offensive line that now they have multiple players who can play multiple positions. This is better known as "Position Flex" around the Cowboys team facility, and it's highlighted by Connor Williams and rookie Connor McGovern.

Williams was drafted in the second round in 2018 out of Texas. Even though he logged 28 starts at left tackle during his days in Austin, he was brought in to play left guard opposite All-Pro Zack Martin. As a rookie, he started the first eight games before suffering a knee injury Week 10 against the Titans. He struggled due to his smaller size and being a natural tackle, showing he definitely needed to bulk up if he wanted to start on the interior of the offensive line. His back up Xavier Su'a-Filo was serviceable in his absence.

However, he did start two games at right guard in place of Zack Martin and performed pretty decent. This gave him much-needed experience in case of an injury in the future. He's shown he can adjust and be a solid lineman at more than one spot.

When All-Pro Tyron Smith had veterans day off during OTAs, Williams was seen taking snaps at left tackle, his natural position. La'el Collins is the starter at right tackle but is currently in a contract year. Set to be an unrestricted free agent in 2020, and with uncertainty, that he'll perform to the level needed to keep him as the starter or garner a big payday, the Cowboys have some insurance. This could create a situation where Williams is flexed outside if Collins hits the open market next year, only time will tell.

Position Flex of Connor Williams, Connor McGovern Gives the Cowboys Options 1

McGovern comes into the NFL with an advantage over his fellow lineman Williams. He was able to gain experience at multiple positions on the offensive line at Penn State. He started 21 games at right guard (9 as a freshman, 12 as a junior) and 14 games at center (13 as a sophomore, 1 as a junior). He's ideal to play on the interior seeing as he is naturally a little bigger than Williams, who had to pack on the pounds this offseason to deal with the responsibility of playing guard.

Now, the Cowboys can really see, if this is their thinking, who the five best guys are on the offensive line. If it were up to me, I would put Williams in direct competition with Collins for the right tackle position. This would allow McGovern to battle Su'a-Filo for the left guard spot. Also, with the health of All-Pro Center Travis Fredrick still up in the air, until the pads come on, McGovern's flexibility has added more insurance along with back up Joe Looney in case there's a setback before the season starts.

Multiple players with the skill set to move across the line if called upon. What more could you ask for as an offensive line coach? Plus, neither will be over the age of 22 during the season. The Cowboys have masterfully built the line of scrimmage on offense through the draft since 2011. Their dedication to dominating the trenches has them loaded with talent in said area. The only thing left is to wait for training camp to see where the chips fall.



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