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.
✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭
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 Sign WR Devin Smith, Former 2nd-Round Pick
The Dallas Cowboys have reportedly signed Receiver Devin Smith, previously with the New York Jets, to a futures contract. Smith was a 2nd-round pick, 37th overall, in the 2015 NFL Draft.
Before going pro, Devin was a college teammate of current Cowboys Ezekiel Elliott, Rod Smith, and Noah Brown. They were all members of the 2014 Ohio State Buckeyes team that won the National Championship.
Smith's agent, Jason Bernstein, tweeting the following earlier today:
Congrats to WR Devin Smith @dsmithosu for signing with the #DallasCowboys! Welcome back. https://t.co/hCMYoE8fEh
Thus far, Smith's NFL career has been marred by injuries. He has suffered two ACL tears in the same knee and only been able to appear in 14 games. He was waived by the Jets last summer and was not with any team last season.
Overall, the 2015 class of receivers has been disappointing. Amari Cooper has been a star and other later-round picks like Tyler Lockett, Stefon Diggs, and Jamison Crowder have been good. But the other big names of the class, such as Kevin White, Breshad Perriman, and DeVante Parker, have not lived up to the hype.
The Cowboys are known for trying to reclaim players who once had high draft status and bad starts to their careers. They are clearly hoping to cash in on Smith's previously perceived potential, which had him projected as a possible first-round talent at one time.
For both Devin and Dallas' sake, we hope it's a success!
DeMarcus Lawrence Named Top Free Agent Of The 2019 Class
Much has been made about the Dallas Cowboys 2019 free agent class. Dallas has a ton of cap space moving forward, but they are going to "have" to pay many of the key players on their roster over the next two offseasons in order to keep their young core together.
Of course, when you're drafting, that's the goal. To draft so well that when your own players become free agents, you go ahead and pay them to keep them around, rather than overpay on the free agent market for external players.
One of the major pieces the Cowboys will have to retain this offseason is defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence. And while Cowboys Nation often thinks of Lawrence as underrated around the league, the NFL has caught onto his importance as he enters free agency this Spring.
ESPN.com ranked their top 10 free agents for 2019, with DeMarcus Lawrence clocking in at number one, over elite players like Jadeveon Clowney and Le'Veon Bell.
ESPN's top 10 free agents for 2019 and what Le'Veon Bell should be looking to command based on previous measures. https://t.co/aJ7H1n001t
DeMarcus Lawrence is going to command big time money, likely even Khalil Mack-type money. But the fact of the matter is that he has earned it. Lawrence has been the heart and soul of the Cowboys defensive line the last two seasons, and the most consistent edge player on the team as well.
Not only has he been an effective pass rusher, but DeMarcus Lawrence also plays with a relentless motor against the run that can sometimes be rare to find in those premier pass rushers. He really is a jack of all trades at defensive end, and should be priority number one for the Cowboys this offseason.
Thankfully, I can't imagine the Cowboys not retaining DeMarcus Lawrence and extending him in the coming months.
When it Mattered Most, Cowboys Offensive Line Protected Dak Prescott
Throughout the 2018 NFL season, one of the major story lines surrounding the Dallas Cowboys was how frequently Dak Prescott was taking sacks. It's an area that the Cowboys will have to look at in the offseason to better protect their franchise quarterback moving forward. In the playoffs, however, Dak Prescott and the offensive line were much better at keeping their prized possession upright than they were in the regular season.
In the regular season, Dak Prescott was sacked 56 times for an average of 3.5 times a game. There was only one game where he wasn't sacked at all, way back in week two against the New York Giants. Four times this season, the Cowboys' quarterback was sacked five or more times. The New Orleans Saints got him for a season high seven times.
According to Pro Football Focus, Dak was "kept clean" -- not pressured -- on 63% of his drop backs during the regular season, which ranked 25th in the NFL. When kept clean, Prescott completed 74.1% of his passes, which was good for 5th in the NFL during the regular season. He was under pressure 37% of the time, which was the sixth highest rate in the NFL and his completion percentage dropped to 52.6%, still good for 10th in the NFL. It was better than Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, Patrick Mahomes, Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, and Baker Mayfield.
During the playoffs, Prescott's "kept clean" percentage rose from 63% to 68% and he was only sacked once in each game. The one sack against the Los Angeles Rams probably shouldn't have been called a sack as the referee blew the whistle because Prescott was "in the grasp"...
...of his offensive lineman.
During the playoffs, the Cowboys offensive line kept the pressure off of Prescott at a better rate, allowing him to be pressured on only 31.9% of his drop backs. Meaning he was kept clean at an improved rate from the regular season at 68.1% of his drop backs. This while playing against two teams that are really good at rushing the passer. The Los Angeles Rams and the Seattle Seahawks both finished in the top half of the league in sacks this season and feature players like Aaron Donald, Jarran Reed, and Frank Clark who all had double-digit sacks.
As we know, pressure rates and sacks aren't all completely on the offensive line. The quarterback, wide receivers, and the play calling all factor in, but the Cowboys are trending in the right direction with their pass protection. A full offseason for Connor Williams in the Dallas Cowboys strength and conditioning program, better health for Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, and -- fingers crossed -- Travis Frederick, should all help the offensive line play at a higher level heading into the 2019 season.
It can't be overstated how important it will be to get Travis Frederick back into the fold this season. Joe Looney was good, and that might be overstating it a bit. He was not noticeable on most plays during the season, but getting your All-Pro center back will tremendously help the offense in every facet of the game. Frederick's one of the smarter players in the NFL, who helps everyone on the offense to see the blitzes and calls out the protections. Both his mental and physical ability will be a welcomed site when the Cowboys begin practicing in the offseason.
With another year of growth for the quarterback and for the young pieces along the offensive line, and with a full offseason for Dak Prescott to grow with Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and Blake Jarwin, the Cowboys should be better next season at keeping the quarterback clean.
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