The Dallas Cowboys have a lot going right for them at the perfect time, entering December on a four game win streak that's put them in the NFC East driver's seat. The 7-5 Cowboys will host their third straight game next Sunday against the Eagles. Having already won in Philadelphia for their first of these four in a row, the Cowboys will have the added benefit of facing the Eagles off just six days rest.
The 5-6 Eagles will play the 6-5 Washington Redskins on Monday Night Football. Both teams currently sit behind Dallas, which is expecting some key players back on the field as early as next week.
Linebacker Sean Lee, Defensive Tackle David Irving, and Left Tackle Tyron Smith are the three most likely candidates to rejoin the Cowboys lineup in week 14. All three have been important starters at their respective positions, while also seeing their replacements perform well.
Just how the Cowboys handle this late-season infusion of talent will go a long way in determining if they're primed for a playoff run or not. While some returning players have an obvious fit on the field, others will force difficult decisions for a Cowboys front office and coaching staff that's been proven right at every turn so far.
Here is my perspective on how the Cowboys should handle having Lee, Irving, and Smith available on game day.
Left Tackle Tyron Smith
Smith has missed the shortest amount of time out of this trio of players, and also faces the least resistance to regain his starting job at left tackle. Elsewhere on the Cowboys offensive line, backups like Joe Looney and Xavier Su'a-Filo have done their absolute best in rescuing this season, but this won't remain the case with Cam Fleming at LT.
Though the standard set from a year ago for Fleming to live up to was low, the Cowboys veteran swing tackle has kept Dak Prescott upright in wins over the Redskins and Saints.
Amazingly, the Cowboys pulled off their upset over the Saints despite allowing seven sacks. The time is now for the OL to return to full strength - or as close as possible. Using the extra days off to clear Smith of his shoulder stinger is a great way for Dallas to do just this, with Fleming returning to an all-important backup position once Smith is ready.
Ezekiel Elliott suspension aside, the Cowboys didn't stand a chance in 2017 without Smith and Sean Lee. Passing their first test without Smith has been much easier than winning consistently without Lee, though the reason for the latter is much more remarkable.
Linebacker Sean Lee
Does the "hot hand" debate apply to off-ball linebackers? Is Sean Lee a potential victim of surplus wolf hunting, and more importantly why is this a question that makes sense?
Leighton Vander Esch is the answer to all these inquiries and then some for a Cowboys team that absolutely nailed their first round pick. Vander Esch is so much more than a fill-in for Lee, playing at an All-Pro level in just his first season.
The Cowboys drafted the raw defender out of Boise State for his potential, watching in awe with the rest of us as Leighton reaches this potential rapidly. Every week, Vander Esch does something new and impressive, Thursday night being no exception.
If there ever was going to be a game for the Cowboys defense to need a long look in the mirror afterwards, this week's against the Saints should have been it. Vander Esch's body of work would still stand as one of the best for a rookie defender in Dallas in years, opening the door for Lee to overtake his starting job.
Instead, the legend of the wolf hunter grew even more as LVE and Jaylon Smith led a Cowboys defense that allowed just one touchdown to New Orleans.
Simply experimenting with a lineup that features Lee and Vander Esch together is problematic for the Cowboys, as the two have played just 19 such snaps this season. Lee was last seen in the Cowboys most recent loss to the Titans, and the team's need for him much earlier than that thanks to Vander Esch.
Lee has always served as a coach on the field when healthy, and one without the title when unfortunately reduced to street clothes on the Cowboys sideline. The Cowboys don't have to keep things exactly as they are in regards to Lee almost superstitiously ending this elite stretch of play on defense, but any extended time off the field for Leighton Vander Esch would be malpractice.
Perhaps this dilemma is best left to Passing Game Coordinator Kris Richard, credited for moving Byron Jones to cornerback before this season and changing the entire complexion of the Cowboys defense. What is certain is that Lee will be all for whatever conclusion is reached by the Cowboys to keep their surplus of linebacker talent happy.
Defensive Tackle David Irving
For as much as Sean Lee's teammates rave about playing with "The General", the same is said of David Irving by the Cowboys front four. Irving has become something of an afterthought for a Cowboys defense that can reach new heights should he make his season debut against the Eagles.
The Cowboys have stuck with Irving for a reason, and they'll be ready to show off these reasons as soon as Irving prioritizes his own return to the field. Starting the season with a four game suspension, Irving has recently dealt with a high ankle sprain, the status of which is unknown as he's been absent from team meetings and practices with a personal issue.
Defensive tackles like Irving are nearly impossible to find. Those with pass rush skill and a high motor to play in Rod Marinelli's defense are more common, and fortunately the Cowboys have Maliek Collins and Tyrone Crawford fitting this bill right now.
Crawford is excelling as an interior defender again, but would readily bounce between the 3T position and defensive end if the Cowboys feel the need for Randy Gregory or Taco Charlton to play reduced snaps.
Irving's length, quickness, and finishing ability has helped everyone around him when he's on the field. The Cowboys already deploy their defensive line in waves, and the impact of these waves would be much more consistent with Irving at DT.
Collins, Crawford, Caraun Reid, and even rookie Dorance Armstrong are all defenders still deserving of playing time at Irving's position, but David has a 6'7", 290 pound hole punched out and waiting for him upon return.
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The Cowboys have been the best team in the NFC East since trading for Amari Cooper. Staking their claim as one of the best teams in the conference began with a 13-10 win against the Saints, and likely needs to end with the Cowboys getting fully healthy over the next four weeks.
An already elite defense's biggest problem over the next ten days before game day is how to use two established, eager-to-contribute talents. On offense, where the Cowboys must improve the most still, Tyron Smith is on track to join Sean Lee and David Irving as the most important players Dallas can move onto the active 46-man roster next Sunday.
Cowboys to Use 5th-Year Option on Ezekiel Elliott’s Contract
To nobody's surprise, the Dallas Cowboys intend to exercise the fifth-year option on star Running Back Ezekiel Elliott's contract. This will keep Zeke signed with the Cowboys through the 2020 season.
The deadline for teams to use the options years on the draft class of 2016 is Thursday, May 2nd, just a few days following the 2019 NFL Draft.
Cowboys VP Stephen Jones on the team eventually exercising the fifth-year option on Ezekiel Elliott's contract: "Obviously we're gonna do it.
It's appropriate that Stephen said "obviously," because there is no reason for the Cowboys not to utilize this provision. It's one of the perks of drafting a player in the first round; the option does not apply to any other rookie deals.
Right now, the 2020 option year projects to pay Elliott around $10 million. That is a bargain considering other franchise backs like Todd Gurley, Le'Veon Bell, and David Johnson are all now averaging $13-$14 million per season.
In fact, it may be more of a discount than Zeke is willing to give. He may very well holdout if the team doesn't give him a new contact closer to his market value.
For all we know, the Cowboys have every intention of doing just that. This move is little more than a formality; a placeholder that prevents Elliott from entering unrestricted free agency in 2020 and secures his rights while a new deal is negotiated.
Connor Williams Adding Size and Strength Huge for Cowboys OL
It's no secret that heading into the 2018 NFL Draft, the book on Connor Williams coming out of Texas was that he didn't have enough length to play tackle in the NFL and didn't have enough bulk to play guard. At least not at first.
It was an issue we saw play out early in the 2018 season as he struggled with some of the more powerful defensive tackles. He struggled so much that the team went to Xavier Su'a-Filo during his injury and for a couple games after he was healthy, thinking they had a better option. After having a bit of time to sit back and watch, Williams came back into the starting lineup with a better feel for that power and was much improved over the last half of the season, including the playoffs. He never relinquished his job again.
Though he played better, it was obvious what his number one offseason focus would be; adding size and strength. According to Dallas Cowboys Vice President Stephen Jones, he's done just that.
Speaking to 105.3 The Fan in Dallas on Tuesday afternoon, Jones gave us some insight into how Williams is looking this offseason.
Cowboys VP Stephen Jones on offensive lineman Connor Williams, last year's second round pick: "My understanding is that he's taken some huge steps in terms of his strength and size. My understanding is that he's put on some really good weight.
Jones then added some lofty expectations on the second year guard from the University of Texas.
Cowboys VP Stephen Jones on @1053thefan: "I think Connor Williams is gonna be a mainstay in our offensive line for many years to come. ... I think we'll be talking about him just like we do several of the other players on our offensive line.
Connor Williams was already proving himself capable of standing up to powerful defensive lineman as late in the season and in the playoffs, but this is very encouraging to hear as we look to 2019.
Against the Seattle Seahawks and the Los Angeles Rams, Williams and the rest of the Dallas Cowboys interior offensive line had big challenges in front of them. Seattle's Jarran Reed and Los Angeles' Aaron Donald were two of the better defensive tackles in 2018. Donald, is considered by many, the best defensive player in the NFL because of his brute strength that is matched by his quickness.
Against both players, Williams performed well. Not perfect, but well enough to be encouraged about what Williams could bring in 2019. Per Pro Football Focus, he only allowed five total pressures during the playoffs, including one in the divisional round against the Rams. There's a reason that everyone is so high on Williams heading into his second year.
The front office included.
Stephen Jones praise is significant. The Dallas Cowboys feature three All-Pro offensive lineman. To say that "we'll be talking about him just like we do several of the other players on our offensive line" is very high praise. There aren't many teams in the NFL that boast as much talent along the offensive line as the Dallas Cowboys do in Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, and Travis Frederick. For Jones to think Williams cold be that level of player doesn't sound like generic front office speak.
With a full year under his belt, including two playoff starts, Williams should be confident heading into his second year. Adding strength and weight will help him anchor better against the strong interiors he'll face weekly in the NFL. Getting Center Travis Frederick back in the lineup will help him with the mental aspect of the game.
There's a lot to be excited about with the Dallas Cowboys in 2019 and the offensive line remains one of those things. How Connor Williams improves from year one to year two will be one of the major storylines throughout the offseason heading toward week one. The Cowboys offensive line remains a focal point for America's Team and all eyes will be on Williams as he looks to make the second year jump.
La’el Collins Has Surgery Ahead of Contract Year
The list of injured Dallas Cowboys players getting surgery keeps getting larger. DeMarcus Lawrence and Byron Jones will welcome La'el Collins to the "surgery recovery" group chat after Collins had a procedure to repair a torn rotator cuff. According to the report from Forth-Worth Star Telegram, Collins suffered the injury at the end of the 2018 season.
La'el Collins expects to be ready for training camp, but don't expect much from him in the upcoming offseason program.
For Collins, this is a very meaningful season. At 25 years old, he's heading into a contract year in 2019. So far, his career has been decent at best. He began playing at guard, where he showed some pretty impressive flashes before moving to right tackle, where he's started since 2017.
Even before it was reported that he would have surgery, many in Cowboys Nation have wondered about his future. The truth is, since he signed as an undrafted free agent in 2015, his career hasn't lived up to the hype. Prior to the 2015 NFL Draft, an off-the-field misunderstanding made every team pass on him. However, he was seen by many as a top prospect in the class and was a projected first round pick.
Although he improved when Marc Colombo took over as the OL coach, Collins has struggled during his time at right tackle. At this point, he hasn't earned a long term deal.
Right now, the Cowboys should see offensive tackle as a need in the NFL Draft. Not a priority one, but definitely one to watch out for in the later rounds. Tyron Smith is 28 years old, but his injury history doesn't look promising at all. I can definitely see this team addressing the lack of depth at the position at some point in Day 3.
This whole discussion raises yet another question. Would the Cowboys trade La'el Collins? I don't think it would happen, but it doesn't sound like a terrible idea either. At the moment, Cameron Fleming is on the roster and he isn't a bad starter. Now granted, he might be a downgrade from Collins. However, if you're able to get a good draft pick in exchange, it's worth considering. Use Fleming as a bridge player between for a younger one down the line.
Connor Williams could also move over to tackle, although I doubt they want to try experiments like this with a young player just like they did with La'el Collins. Let Williams grow as a guard and keep him there.
La'el Collins or not, the Cowboys have a need at offensive tackle and Collins' makes it even more evident. The good news is he expects to be back by training camp and doesn't seem like a huge question mark for week 1 as DeMarcus Lawrence and Byron Jones do.
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