As the Dallas Cowboys get ready to square off against the 8-1 Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday Night Football, Rod Marinelli's defense will se quite a bit of changes. With star linebacker Sean Lee expected to miss three games, it won't be an easy stretch for a Cowboys defensive squad that was looking surprisingly good before last week.
But the linebacker corp won't be the only part of the defense that'll see changes. The secondary will have to switch things up with Jeff Heath unlikely to play this Sunday.
Cowboys S Jeff Heath (concussion) is officially listed as questionable for Sunday, but he won't play. He hasn't even been cleared to practice. That means rookie Xavier Woods will make his first start at safety against the Eagles.
No fan should be happy about any injury, no matter who the player is. However, it's fair to point out that this might be one of those injuries in which the injured guy never gets his job back, and someone else takes his place by stepping up and performing.
Rookie safety Xavier Woods has been playing very well all season long, and will be starting for the first time in the biggest game of the season for Dallas.
Since the moment he was drafted, it was a common belief that Woods was a complete steal and that he'd be starting at some point in the season. Well, that time is now, and he better take advantage of the opportunity.
Looking at the tape, Woods has made the most out of every snap he's played and has flashed a lot as a play-maker. I'd be surprised if Heath still has his job once he's cleared to return.
But 25 isn't the only rookie defensive back that we'll see more tomorrow night.
After practicing for two weeks in a row, second-round pick Chidobe Awuzie is expected to make his return to action in the NFL. We've all been waiting for this moment for a long time now, and what better time to return but against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Awuzie is a guy who we expected to make an instant impact on this defense but his availability's been a big issue. Basically, he's played only in the season opener. In case you're wondering, here are his snaps on defense, per Pro Football Reference.
- 39 vs NY Giants.
- 5 @ DEN Broncos.
- 9 vs GB Packers.
Now in week 11, all members of Cowboys Nation are intrigued by how the rookie will perform. He's fully practiced for two weeks in a row, so there's enough reason to be optimistic about it.
Cowboys DC Rod Marinelli said today that if S Jeff Heath (concussion) isn't cleared to play Sunday that rookie Xavier Woods would start in his place. Also, 2nd-round pick Chidobe Awuzie will also see some time at safety Sunday vs. the Eagles.
One thing to keep an eye on is how the Cowboys use Chidobe Awuzie as they try to get him back into action. We all know that Chido is a versatile player and he'll more than likely see playing time as a cornerback and as a safety.
With a season that's been anything but easy, and with lots of adversity surrounding the team, an impressive performance by these two rookies could be a difference maker in the Cowboys' biggest game of the season.
Cowboys QB Dak Prescott Embraces Lack of No. 1 Wide Receiver
As I wrote exactly a week ago, in discussion of maligned Dallas Cowboys Wide Receiver Terrance Williams:
"...this won't be the first look we have at the status of the Cowboys receivers. I'm already on record having high expectations for Michael Gallup, and believe Cedrick Wilson was one of the steals of the draft for the Cowboys in the sixth round. The unproven nature of this pass catching unit (through to TE with rookie Dalton Schultz) is going to make for fascinating training camp battles, competing for spots in an offense that could still be one of the league's best".
Here we are again, with an emerging leadership voice of the Cowboys speaking about his wide receivers. Dak Prescott told Pro Football Talk that he, "doesn't know if any team in the league necessarily needs a No. 1 receiver".
This is a bold statement from a third-year quarterback that's already told Cowboys Nation this offseason that he wants to be the best to ever play for the franchise. Beginning the journey towards becoming a Cowboys legend must start with Prescott securing his status as the Cowboys franchise QB in 2018 - by throwing to Williams, Michael Gallup, Cole Beasley, Cedrick Wilson, and Allen Hurns.
This will be no easy task for Prescott, but the Cowboys have never wavered in their commitment to building this team around him. Left with no choice on personnel decisions like Jason Witten's retirement, the Cowboys are well-prepared to also deal with the loss of Dez Bryant.
If they weren't, Bryant would still be in Dallas, and as it stands now he remains a free agent. New to the Cowboys offense is not only Gallup, Wilson, and Hurns but also Tavon Austin as a pass-catching running back.
Strength in numbers must be the message for the Cowboys offense this season. Relying heavily on Ezekiel Elliott and a punishing offensive line will be what keeps opposing defensive coordinators up at night, but so too must be the diverse nature of how the Cowboys can line up on the outside.
Allowing Prescott to serve as a "point guard" like QB could lead to the Cowboys turning plenty of heads with their all-around play in 2018. Anybody writing them off simply because of unproven wide receivers lacks a complete understanding of the roster and how Scott Linehan plans to change his offense.
Sure, it's possible that Linehan fails to prove himself as a play caller worthy of the talent the Cowboys possess on offense - but the talent is there. In Prescott's rookie year, Cole Beasley emerged as his go-to receiver, only to regress in 2017.
With the Cowboys shipping Ryan Switzer to Oakland during the draft, Beasley has a clear path back towards developing this chemistry with Prescott out of the slot. The same should go for Allen Hurns, despite arriving in Dallas as a free agent this year.
Hurns has talked about holding himself to a high standard, despite joining the Cowboys to play with Dez Bryant initially.
"I felt it was a big opportunity to come to Dallas to play with Dez. But with him not being here, it’s a bigger opportunity. It's a matter of me making the most of the opportunity"
Plenty of Cowboys receivers will have a chance to make the most of the opportunity to play in this offense. Hurns' spot as an outside starter feels safe, as he could be the big "No. 1" target Prescott needs to either find in the red zone or distribute the ball elsewhere.
The amount of change the Dallas Cowboys have gone through since drafting Dak Prescott is a cruel reminder of how difficult reaching the pinnacle of sports can be. The Cowboys biggest challenge to reach the playoffs again in 2018?
Silence the doubt that a declining Dez Bryant no longer being with the team will derail the efforts of this deep and eager-to-compete WRs room.
Despite Going Undrafted, Kameron Kelly A Welcome Addition to Cowboys Secondary
The Dallas Cowboys best move of the offseason may very well be hiring Kris Richard as their new passing game coordinator. Despite not signing any free agents or drafting added talent for Richard to work with in the secondary, the Cowboys have plenty of reasons to feel great about their current starters - along with an intriguing class of UDFAs.
The prospects of Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, Byron Jones, and Xavier Woods working with Richard to sharpen their skills with Seattle's "Legion of Boom" fabricator is as good as it gets. In a very short period of time, the cornerback position has turned into one of the hardest spots for fringe players to make the Dallas Cowboys roster.
Don't tell this to San Diego State's Kameron Kelly. Neither Richard or Kelly may be household names around the NFL, but San Francisco 49ers Cornerback Richard Sherman certainly is. Sherman also happens to be the player the Cowboys are looking for Kelly -- an undrafted free agent that didn't receive a single college offer from "power five" schools -- to emulate.
Given all that Sherman meant to Richard's defenses since being drafted by his Seahawks in the fifth round of the 2011 NFL Draft, these feel like impossible expectations for Kelly to live up to.
The 6015 (6' 1 5/8") defender didn't even play the same position as Sherman until his final collegiate season, slowly making the transition from WR to DB at SDSU by starting as a Sophomore and Junior at safety.
Now just another player in a blue jersey with white numbers at The Star, Kelly is looking to earn the star on a team that may look to remain young, deep, and most importantly versatile in the secondary by keeping one or more UDFAs.
That is, if any of these long shot players deserve a spot on the final 53-man roster. Kelly already has an edge on this field, blessed with the length and daunting frame that allows Richard and the Cowboys to dream of featuring their own Richard Sherman.
"I think he’s trying to turn me into his next Richard Sherman or something". - Dallas Cowboys Cornerback Kameron Kelly
Kris Richard is going to coach everybody he comes across hard. He knows no other way. Kam Kelly is already embracing this, seeing the Cowboys vision for him and not backing down from the challenge.
Turn on the tape for this "diamond in the rough" prospect, and you'll see a player that carries this same competitive toughness onto the field.
Will a DB compete / tackle ? Top of screen- flat footed read on bubble- trusts eyes and goes ! Just checking boxes- I see you, kameron Kelly of SDSU.... https://t.co/fJM4s16Eq1
Kelly joins Charvarius Ward, Donovan Olumba, and Tyree Robinson as the Cowboys class of UDFAs at both cornerback and safety. An athletic DB out of Oregon, Robinson has made a strong initial impression with several plays on the ball in drills so far.
However, it was Kam Kelly that set up an interception for Jameill Showers in yesterday's practice by getting in the face of rookie Wide Receiver Michael Gallup.
Projecting anything that resembles a starting lineup for the Cowboys defense in the last week of May is silly. So too is realistically expecting Kelly, Ward, Olumba, or Robinson to ever crack this lineup.
The Cowboys could find themselves without enough practice snaps to go around for starting caliber players like Awuzie, Lewis, Jones, Anthony Brown, and even Marquez White. This does not bode well for Kam Kelly, who is only going to continue generating buzz from fans and the Dallas media.
For now, Kelly is getting his chance though. The Cowboys are ever-so-slowly getting back into form for 2018 - doing so with many familiar faces no longer on the roster. This team is going to look different on both sides of the ball come September, and Cowboys Nation can only hope it's for the better given the impressive amount of depth all over the field.
Kam Kelly won't back down from the depth the Cowboys have at CB, expecting to impress his new coach Kris Richard in the mold of three-time All-Pro Richard Sherman.
Rico Gathers’ Absence in 2018 Wasn’t About Health
A sixth-round pick out of Baylor University, Rico Gathers was supposed to be one hell of a football story. A basketball superstar, Gathers hadn't played college football at all, but the traits he had were enough for the Dallas Cowboys to take a chance on him during the final day of the 2016 NFL Draft to find a potential heir to Jason Witten.
After spending his entire rookie season developing in the practice squad, it felt like Gathers would have his chance in 2017. However, after suffering a concussion in the preseason, he never saw the field during the regular season. Despite initially making the 53-man roster, he was quickly placed on injured reserve.
Cowboys Nation hoped to see him back after the mandatory eight weeks in IR, but the much-anticipated comeback never took place.
The narrative was that the concussion was more serious than previously thought and that there was also a jaw injury involved. And through it all, there were some whispers about Gathers' absence being more coaching related than health related.
Last Wednesday, the former Baylor basketball star talked to the media about his situation and brought some very interesting responses to the table.
Cowboys TE Rico Gathers said he was cleared from his concussion after Week 7 last year to return to practice. "But I could just tell by the drift of the season and the drift of the coaching staff that I probably wasn't going to play this last year anyway.
If his comments are true, it really confirms that the fact that Gathers didn't get any playing time at all last season wasn't only concussion-related. If he was truly ready to go since week 8, then him not being on the field shows how the Cowboys coaching staff isn't sold on the player like the fans are.
Sure, it'd be one hell of a story. And of course, he seemed to make a statement during the preseason. However, it's not like Dallas had very special backup tight ends behind Jason Witten. As much as it hates to admit it, maybe Gathers simply isn't as good as some thought he was.
This was not the only interesting comment from Rico as he also said that the jaw injury never happened, claiming that was something media-related. This obviously brings up an even more interesting question: Was the team lying about Gathers' health to keep him on IR and avoid having to get him on the practice squad and risking him being pouched by another team?
We might never get to know the absolute truth in this case, but it's still worth noting.
Right now, Gathers' fight is all about making it to the regular season.
Rico Gathers: "The biggest thing for me this year is just making it to the regular season. I have to make sure I'm healthy and make sure I'm able to be on somebody's 53-man roster.
"Somebody's 53-man roster" is the quote that sticks out from this comment. If Gathers makes it to a roster for the 2018 season, it just might not be with the Dallas Cowboys. Perhaps it's for the best. The team has a chance to give Dalton Schultz an important role from day 1 and continue with Geoff Swaim's and Blake Jarwin's development going forward.
Rico Gathers may still be in the picture, for sure, but don't be surprised if he's shown the door before expected. I think every fan out there agrees that having a kid who hadn't played football since he was 13-years old turn into a quality starter in the league would've been remarkable.
But it's time to realize that that doesn't look to be the case.
Right now, Gathers is fighting for a spot on the roster. He's going to have to put up a big fight if he's to prove he's worthy of wearing the Star. Luckily for the Dallas Cowboys, with a deep TE room, they won't be desperately relying on his success to find the new starting tight end of the franchise.
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