We made it. The Dallas Cowboys are preparing for their first regular season game of 2018, traveling to the Panthers for week one on Sunday. To get here, the team had to make some tough decisions on cut down day, moving on from players like Dan Bailey while seeing Running Back Darius Jackson and Defensive Tackle Brian Price poached from the practice squad.
The Cowboys roster build was also a conclusion to their overhaul at the skill positions. It's hard to believe that it's been just one offseason, but in a year's time the Cowboys have now lost Jason Witten, Dez Bryant, and Bailey.
Bailey's replacement is very clearly Brett Maher, the former CFL kicker who I profiled here.
As for who the Cowboys will look to catch passes and gain yards on the ground beyond Ezekiel Elliott, I believe the team made all the right decisions with the six receivers, four tight ends, and two running backs on the current 53-man roster.
Let's take a closer look at each position to see how the Cowboys got here, and who missed the cut along the way.
I think the day has finally arrived where I can introduce some analysis on the Cowboys receivers without the "here we go again" preface. This was easily the Cowboys most discussed position throughout training camp, and for good reason.
Michael Gallup's emergence as a rookie beyond his years really helped this receiving corps take shape for the Cowboys. It feels like Gallup is already close to a proven commodity, as the third-round pick has brought the same toughness and finishing ability that made him a heralded prospect out of Colorado State.
Fellow rookie receiver Cedrick Wilson lost his first season to a shoulder injury early in the offseason, an unfortunate break for the speedster out of Boise State. This likely had an impact on Deonte Thompson's presence on the final roster, as he was signed back after Noah Brown was placed on IR.
Brown was likely in danger of losing his roster spot to Lance Lenoir if both were on the 53, but with the Cowboys being able to stash Brown they moved Lenoir to the practice squad. Between Williams, Beasley, Gallup, and Hurns the Cowboys have enough receivers that are known contributors - making it hard for Lenoir to find the active roster.
Dres Anderson, K.D.Cannon, Darren Carrington, and Mekale McCay were the Cowboys receivers cut and are not back on the roster or practice squad. Anderson made the most flashes in the preseason, despite signing later than the other three, but certainly didn't do enough to upend a player like Tavon Austin - who rounds out this group of receivers.
On the roster: Ezekiel Elliott, Rod Smith
Two weeks ago, I wrote about how Rod Smith's strong preseason made the Cowboys competition behind him at running back much less important. This team wants the world to know that Ezekiel Elliott is their featured player on offense, and former Ohio State Buckeye Rod Smith is the perfect complement to Elliott.
Both players are capable pass catchers that run hard, yet have the ability to take any run the distance.
Gone are the days of Tavon Austin being considered a running back in the Cowboys offense, but this doesn't mean that Austin won't be targeted out of the backfield. The same can be said about Fullback Jamize Olawale, as the Cowboys are still as committed to their running game as always, just with different points of emphasis and roster numbers allocated elsewhere.
Playing in mop up duty against the Texans, Running Back Jordan Chunn was the Cowboys cut from this position along with Darius Jackson (signed by the Packers) and rookie Bo Scarbrough - who is back with the team on the practice squad.
Scarbrough's long-term potential as a depth option in the backfield makes him the perfect practice squad running back for the Cowboys, and with only two active running backs an injury to either will certainly give Scarbrough his day in the sun.
On the roster: Dalton Schultz, Rico Gathers, Geoff Swaim, Blake Jarwin
Replacing Jason Witten in the Cowboys locker room will take more than four players, and perhaps more than the team will ever have again. Witten traded in his star for a suit, joining the Monday Night Football broadcast team, and one day that suit will be gold as he walks into Canton.
In terms of replacing just Witten's on-field production, the Cowboys are in good position to do this thanks to their versatile group of tight ends. Second-year sensation Blake Jarwin has earned an expanded role all through the offseason, even being worked as an outside receiver once the Cowboys camp returned to The Star.
Jarwin's size makes him the match up nightmare against linebackers that the Cowboys are finally committing to also make Rico Gathers. The converted basketball player has gone from the practice squad to the active roster in year two.
Geoff Swaim is somehow the "old man" in the TE room for the Cowboys, and also the most complete player at this position. Swaim will be the closest thing the Cowboys have to a starter at tight end, with the rest of this group working in on heavier packages.
As a more than willing run blocker, this is an area that rookie Dalton Schultz can help in, if given the chance.
David Wells was the lone cut off the Cowboys roster at tight end.
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Now that the Cowboys have their 53-man roster set, the next step will be to pick the 46 active players that represent them against the Panthers. While both running backs will be active, it's unlikely that the Cowboys carry six receivers and four tight ends into game day.
Sunday's game will provide further context into how the Cowboys feel about their depth at these skill positions, which has them set up for success. The Cowboys wide receivers should catch teams by surprise this year, and the same might be said about their tight ends as Swaim and Jarwin look to prove they're legitimate options for Dak Prescott in the passing game.
All of the players mentioned above will rely on a certain level of effectiveness from Ezekiel Elliott for the Cowboys to finish off drives this season. This is nothing new to the coaches that built this roster though, with new position coaches at WR and TE having a positive influence on the roster already.
Is Ezekiel Elliott is the Most Dominant Running Back in the NFL?
There's no player in football that is more hotly debated at the moment than Dallas Cowboys Running Back Ezekiel Elliott. Though much of the debate surrounds his potential contract extension, which would likely make him the highest-paid running back in the NFL, there's also been a lot of debate about his standing as the best running back in the NFL.
On Thursday, Bleacher Report's Kristopher Knox released his list of the most dominant players at each position. It's a fantastic read and not just because he listed Ezekiel Elliott as the most dominant running back in the NFL.
It's certainly easy to see where he's coming from despite the debate that rages across the NFL's fanbases. Ezekiel Elliott's lead the NFL in rushing two of the three season's he's been in the league. Both of those seasons, Elliott only played 15 games, getting the benefit of the Cowboys playoff positioning being solidified prior to week 17. In 2017, he would have probably ran away with the league's rushing title again, which would make him the three-time defending rushing champion heading into 2019.
In that 2017 season when he missed six games and had a game against the Denver Broncos where he only rushed for seven yards on nine carries, Elliott still finished in the top 10 in rushing.
In 2018, he bested Saquon Bakley by 127 yards rushing. Had Elliott played in the week 17 finale last season and rushed for his season average, he would have won the rushing title by more than 200 yards. And he did that in what many considered to be a down season for Ezekiel Elliott and the Dallas Cowboys rushing attack. Pro Football Focus even graded Elliott as the 30th best running back for 2018.
In 2018, Elliott had 2,000 total yards, besting his 2016 number of 1,994 total yards as a rookie. His rushing total was down in 2018 from 2016, but he still had an excellent season.
No disrespect to Todd Gurley, Saquon Barkley, Alvin Kamara, Le'Veon Bell, or Chrisitan McCaffrey, but they don't have the credentials that Ezekiel Elliott brings to the table. Those guys are great running backs in their own right, but Elliott has lead the NFL in rushing in two of the three seasons he's been in the league and would have probably lead the league in 2017 had he not been suspended.
Since 2015, only Le'Veon Bell has averaged more total yards per game than Elliott, but Elliott's close and he's not used as much in the passing game as Bell. Only Todd Gurley has a higher average of rushing touchdowns per game than Elliott.
Elliott's 3.4 receptions per game through the first three seasons of his career is only slightly better than Todd Gurley who ranks sixth among this group of players. The Dallas Cowboys attempted to get Elliott more involved in 2018 but didn't work him downfield enough in his targets for him to be anything more than a dump-off option. In 2019, the Dallas Cowboys should work to get him running more intermediate routes in the passing game because as we saw in the Detroit game last season, Elliott's got really good hands.
Historically, Elliott is off to a great start to his career. His first three years in the NFL compare quite favorably to two Hall of Famers and one of the most dynamic running backs of the early 21st century.
No player with more than 100 career attempts in the NFL has averaged more rushing yards per game than Ezekiel Elliott.
Think about that for a second. Through his first three seasons, he's averaged more rushing yards per game than Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders, Terrell Davis, Eric Dickerson, Adrian Peterson, Tony Dorsett, Walter Payton, and the list goes on and on.
If you look at what he's done compared to other players during their first three years. Only Eric Dickerson, Earl Campbell, and Edgerrin James averaged more rushing yards per game than Ezekiel Elliott in the first three seasons of their respective careers.
One of the things that people have used to knock Ezekiel Elliott has been the volume of carries that he's received, but there's a reason that the Dallas Cowboys lean on him so heavily. They've created a run-first identity and though at times it has made the offense somewhat inefficient, it's not because the player they're handing to is not a good player, but because every team in the NFL is expecting the Dallas Cowboys to run the football with Ezekiel Elliott.
In 2018 in particular, the Cowboys offensive coaching staff, namely the departed Scott Linehan, didn't do enough to create favorable matchups in the running game. Too often it was a first down run out of heavy personnel that the defense was expecting.
With two rushing titles already in the bag, there's no reason to expect anything different from Ezekiel Elliott in 2019. It's anticipated that the offensive gameplan and execution will be better in 2019 than it was in 2018. The offensive line will be better and with Kellen Moore as the offensive coordinator, there's a thought that the Dallas Cowboys are going to be less predictable moving forward.
The debate will continue to rage over the value of extending Ezekiel Elliott with a contract that will carry him to his age 28 or 29 season, but there is no debating that Ezekiel Elliott is the best and most dominant running back in the NFL.
Is DeMarco Murray a Factor in Ezekiel Elliott’s Rumored Holdout?
There's been a lot of talk this week about a rumored training camp holdout by Ezekiel Elliott, with the Dallas Cowboys' star running back seeking a renegotiated contract. If Zeke does actually hold out, I can't help but wonder if the Cowboys' handling of DeMarco Murray a few years ago isn't a factor in his decision.
Quick history lesson; in 2014, Murray ran for the most yards (1,845) in Cowboys history for a single season. But that was also the final year of his rookie contract, and Dallas chose to let DeMarco leave in free agency when the two sides were unable to agree on new contract.
Murray had just turned 26 when he hit free agency, and his four years Dallas had not had consistent production or availability. 2014 was the first time he was able to play at such a high level, or played a full 16-game season.
As you might remember, Murray left and joined the Philadelphia Eagles under Chip Kelly. As with most things during Kelly's time in Philly, it proved to be a disaster. DeMarco was released after one year and then had a couple of seasons in Tennessee before retiring.
The way it all turned out seemed to validate the Cowboys' decision. Perhaps Murray's big year in 2014 was more about adding Zack Martin and Ron Leary to the offensive line than DeMarco himself. He certainly didn't look like the same player at any other point in his career.
But Ezekiel Elliott and his agent may not be too worried about all of those nuances. They may be looking at the simple fact that the Cowboys allowed one of the most productive RBs in football in 2014 to just walk away in free agency.
Zeke may be worried that Dallas will allow him to do the same.
There are some important differences to note between Ezekiel Elliott and DeMarco Murray. For one, Elliott's been elite every season. He's led the NFL in rushing yards-per-game the last three years.
Zeke has also been faultlessly durable, missing no games due to injury. Murray had already missed 11 games his first three years before we even got to 2014.
However, there are some similarities that can't be ignored. While Elliott's never missed time for health reasons, he missed six games in 2017 due to a suspension for a domestic violence accusation. He also came dangerously close to missing more time this year due to an incident with a security guard in Las Vegas during the offseason.
Availability is availability, whether it's for behavioral issues or injuries. The team assumes the same risk either way.
Also, Elliott has had the same benefit of running behind this great Cowboys offensive line for the last three years. It hasn't been quite as good as 2014, with Ron Leary never being completely replaced, but he hasn't lacked for superior blocking compared to most NFL running backs.
Another factor; Zeke is due to turn 24 next week. That means he'd be 25 next year when playing on the 5th-year option, and about to turn 26 when he hits unrestricted free agency in 2021.
DeMarco Murray was also 26 when he hit free agency in 2015. And he'd only played four NFL seasons, while Zeke would have just finished his fifth.
I'm not saying that Murray and Elliott are the same player. Zeke has proven himself better over a long period of time and with less talent in front and around him. He's carried the offense without Tony Romo's passing or Jason Witten and Dez Bryant still in their prime, like DeMarco had in 2014.
But in 2015, with the prospect of competing for a Super Bowl well in reach, the Cowboys decided to gamble on the shaky Darren McFadden rather than pay DeMarco Murray market value. They trusted their system and offensive line to produce a successful running back.
Zeke may be worried that Dallas is preparing to take that same approach with him. They can keep playing him at a discount this year and in 2020, when even his raise to $9 million is still a bargain compared to guys like Todd Gurley and Le'Veon Bell.
In 2021 the Cowboys could then hit Elliott with the franchise tag. He'd make a ton that year, but without any of the long-term security that other elite RBs are currently enjoying.
In that scenario, Zeke would now be turning 27 the next time free agency rolled around. And the window for getting a multi-year contract may have passed.
That's three more seasons for a major injury to finally find him. If nothing else, it's about 45-50 more games of NFL mileage that could scare other teams off.
Again, this notion of Ezekiel Elliott holding out is just a rumor right now. It may have been floated just to get some easy clicks at Pro Football Talk, which is hardly a new strategy for them.
But in all fairness, you can see why Zeke might be considering it. There's a fair reason to question the Cowboys long-term loyalty, and it goes back to how they handled their last star running back.
History Suggests a Contract Extension for Ezekiel Elliott is a Crapshoot
If rumors are true, Running Back Ezekiel Elliott and Melvin Gordon could be following in the footsteps of Le'Veon Bell by threatening to hold out not only training camp, but the 2019 season if they're not rewarded with contract extensions from their respective teams. It's a bold strategy, especially considering the history of long-term extensions previously given to running backs.
Contract extensions for running backs is always a controversial topic. It's not only one of the easier positions to replace, but the shelf life for a NFL RB is a short one due to the physical nature of the position. Players bodies break down quicker, meaning their lifespan in the league on average is between just 3 to 5 years.
For the most part, the market value for running backs around the league would suggest the position isn't one teams like to invest a lot of resources in. Although, there was an uptick in the market last year when Todd Gurley signed a four-year deal worth $14.375 million a year and then David Johnson signed for three years worth $13 million a season. Those two contracts could be the starting point for Ezekiel Elliott.
Ezekiel Elliott's camp knows all of this and so do the Dallas Cowboys. But, handing out upwards of $14 million to a position that has such a short shelf life in the league is a crapshoot at best, even to a player as talented as Zeke. History hasn't been kind to running backs who receive a long-term extension. In fact, it's really hard to put a finger on one single RB who has lived up to their contract extension.
Take Todd Gurley and David Johnson for instance. Gurley already has long-term concerns about his health, and Johnson missed nearly all of the 2018 season due to an injury. Both players are currently the top paid at the position right now, but they're not the only examples of why the Cowboys should be cautious offering Zeke a contract extension.
The RB tier below Todd Gurley and David Johnson are making around $8 million a year after receiving a contract extension. Unfortunately, the results are about the same. Devonta Freeman ($8.25 M) and Jerick McKinnon ($7.5 M) missed nearly all of the 2018 season due to injuries after being rewarded with long-term deals. Only LeSean McCoy ($8.01 M) has come close to living up to his deal, but even he has struggled off-and-on with injuries.
Need more convincing?
Let's take this back a little bit further. Chris Johnson, Johnathan Stewart, DeMarco Murray, DeAngelo Williams, Ray Rice… I can go on and on. Even players such as Arian Foster who remained productive after receiving an extension struggled with injuries. If you haven't yet, you may start to see a trend here.
Now, I'm not saying the Dallas Cowboys shouldn't extend Ezekiel Elliott. Personally I'm on the fence about it and would be fine with them going either direction. But, they absolutely have to be cautious with the way they handled this. History is a good indicator they may not get the same kind of production from Zeke as they have previously.
Do you think the Cowboys should give Ezekiel Elliott a contract extension?
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