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Dallas Cowboys 2016 Needs: Assessing The Offense

Tommy Simon

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Cowboys Blog - Dallas Cowboys 2016: Unit Assessment 1 - Offense 1

If you are like me, your mind has already moved to 2016 and what the Boys need to get back to the playoffs. Let’s not kid ourselves; the Boys are more than a Tony Romo away from making the playoffs. They need upgrades in a lot of positions.

For example, Tyrone Crawford is a good three, but good doesn’t win Super Bowls. What if we signed a quick pass rushing three and moved Crawford to the one technique; would the Boys then upgrade two positions? This is just one example of the types of decisions and changes that the Boys will need to make.

The Cowboys are also losing several key players and will need to either re-sign or replace them. I could make a case that the Cowboys could have as many as five new starters on defense. So, as they say, change is a coming.

So rather than publish another scorecard that will primarily be a repeat of almost every grade from every other week, I want to begin looking at what positions and upgrades the Boys will need in 2016. I will keep the same unit by unit structure but in this three-part series, let’s start looking at the positions in the context of what will need to be filled and/or upgraded.

If you’re the Cowboys front office, you probably can’t upgrade every position that you would like to upgrade; hard choices and tradeoffs will be necessary. Information is the key to understanding these tradeoffs and before we can look at which tradeoffs the Boys should make, we first need a full inventory of the upcoming needs.

As we get ready to start a new year, why not clear the disappointment that this year brought and once again start building up our excitement thinking of the possibilities 2016 could bring (possibly a playoff)? In Part 1 of this series today, let's look at what we want to do for 2016 on the offense first.

Cowboys Blog - Dallas Cowboys 2016: Unit Assessment 1 - Offense 2

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Quarterback

Romo will be back and leading the charge, but who will be behind him? That is the million dollar question (or multi-million actually). I do not foresee Matt Cassel being back as the primary backup. I am sure the Boys will want to forget about this year altogether. That means clearing the backup QBs and bringing in someone new to back Romo up. But since Romo’s window is realistically still three to four years, I don’t see Dallas drafting anyone in 2016 or 2017 for that matter.

I don’t see the Cowboys keeping three QBs on the roster either. So I expect whomever they bring in to be someone who has won in the league before. That means the staff will go out in free agency or trade to grab their guy. Robert Griffin III anyone? The “who” is for another article so for now, let’s just list backup QB as a need.

Number of Positions: 2
Players: T. Romo, TBA
Upgrade Needed: Backup QB
Optimal Scenario: Sign a winning starting quality backup like Griffin or Chad Henne

Cowboys Blog - Dallas Cowboys 2016: Unit Assessment 1 - Offense 3

USA Today

Running Back

Running back is an interesting situation. I fully expect the Cowboys to draft a running back fairly early in the draft. And for all of the naysayers that talk about a running back not being an impact player, may I suggest they take a look at Todd Gurley and rethink that premise.

As I said, I expect the Boys to address the RB position in the first three rounds (assuming options are available and there are not significantly better options at other positions).

Lance Dunbar is a free agent though I assume the Boys will make a push to bring him back. Romo has finally developed chemistry with him. If Dunbar does return in his third-down role, how many positions will they keep? My guess is they will keep a primary backup (Darren McFadden), a third down back, and a fullback.

So if we have a rookie and McFadden, can we keep Robert Turbin as well? I don’t think so. There are just too many needs at other positions.

So to compensate, I think the Boys should train Lucky Whitehead to be the backup to Dunbar as insurance if Dunbar goes down. Doing it this way provides backup insurance for Dunbar without having to carry a fourth running back.

Now onto fullback, I believe there is absolutely a need of an upgrade. The Boys need a blocking back that can read where the hole is and move a linebacker out. It isn’t something they must address, but it would be nice to upgrade the position.

Number of Positions: 4
Players: TBA (Primary running back), D. McFadden, TBA (Dunbar hopefully?), TBA (fullback)
Upgrade Needed: Primary Running Back, Fullback
Optimal Scenario: Sign a game-changing RB in the first two rounds. Find a blocking fullback in rookie free agency.

Cowboys Blog - Dallas Cowboys 2016: Unit Assessment 1 - Offense 4

Getty Images

Wide Receiver

The receiver position is fairly set. There is really only one question and one need.

The question is whether Devin Street or Brice Butler makes the team. One of them is going to be gone. I can envision a scenario where the Boys cannot find the right veteran receiver and so they stand pat with both of them. But even then it would be 50/50 that the Boys would just keep five receivers in that scenario. But in all likelihood either Street or Butler will be gone. So who stays?

I know the Boys receiver coach likes Street, but Butler has top-end speed and could be the primary backup to Terrance Williams; same type of receiver. Whitehead can back up Cole Beasley, so the slot position should be good too.

Problem - the Boys do not have anyone to back up Dez Bryant if he goes down. Williams is a different type of receiver so he cannot. Street has not shown he can do it. So I believe the Boys will bring in a proven veteran receiver as insurance if Dez goes down again. Someone like Houston got with Nate Washington or Charlotte got with Jerricho Cotchery this year. A solid veteran that has proven they can get 4 or 5 grabs a game when called upon.

Number of Positions: 6
Players: D. Bryant, T. Williams, C. Beasley, L. Whitehead, B. Butler (or Street), TBA (Veteran Receiver)
Upgrade Needed: Backup to Dez
Optimal Scenario: Sign a solid, proven vet that can play behind Dez and also steal some snaps from Williams

Cowboys Blog - Dallas Cowboys 2016: Unit Assessment 1 - Offense 5

Getty Images

Tight End

Jason Witten and Gavin Escobar will be on the team.

I don’t think they kept Geoff Swaim on the team all year to then cut him (I think he is Witten’s replacement in two years). So he should be on the roster too.

But James Hanna is a free agent. While he is primarily a blocking back here, he does have talent and could be utilized more with other teams. Because of that, I think the Boys will have a hard time keeping him. I just do not think there will be enough cap space to match other contract offers.

This will be a big blow to the Boys. It is no coincidence that the Boys running game got better when Hanna got healthy. So if the Boys cannot bring him back, they at least need to replace him with a solid blocking TE.

Number of Positions: 4
Players: J. Witten, G. Escobar, G. Swaim, TBA (Blocking TE)
Upgrade Needed: No upgrade, just replacement
Optimal Scenario: Re-sign Hannah, but if not, then sign a veteran blocking TE at a veteran minimum salary.

Cowboys Blog - Dallas Cowboys 2016: Unit Assessment 1 - Offense

AP Photo/James D Smith

Center & Guard

Well, Ronald Leary is gone. Wish they had traded him and gotten something in return, but I understand why the Boys didn’t trade him. As they say, hindsight is 20/20 and now knowing how the season would wind up, they should have.

The only scenario in which I can envision keeping Leary is if La’el Collins moves out to tackle. That would move Doug Free to swing tackle and allow the Boys to sign Leary to play guard.

If Collins is a better tackle than Free then this is the perfect scenario. I would love to see the Boys experiment with Collins at tackle in the last two games of the year, now that they know they are eliminated in the playoffs. It should give them a couple of games against quality D-lines to determine if Collins has a future at right tackle.

It may be the best thing for the line in the long run because Leary brings a little nasty with him and gives the Boys an attitude. Collins is more athletic than I thought so he might be an upgrade at tackle. This also allows time for Chaz Green to season and get stronger.

But assuming the probable that Leary is gone, then what? You have your starters in Collins, Zack Martin, and Travis Frederick, but you lose two reliable backups Leary and MacKenzy Bernadeau. So this is clearly a position of need. Drafting a rookie too early doesn’t make sense because of the future investments in the three starters. But there is the concern a later round pick will not be ready to be the primary backup. So I think the Boys will have to sign a veteran backup and draft a rookie with potential and develop him. This is with an eye of eventually - probably in 2017 - of moving Collins to tackle and having this pick replace him. So I could see them drafting a guard in their first five picks.

My guess is that the Boys will try to bring back Bernadeau. He has more value to the Boys than most other teams. Bernadeau is proven, knows the offense, and can be center and guard. I would not be surprised to see the Boys offer him a three-year deal around 5 million.

Number of Positions: 5
Players: L. Collins, Z. Martin, T. Frederick, TBA (Free agent, possibly Bernadeau), TBA (probably a draft pick)
Upgrade Needed: No upgrade needed, just replacement of backups
Optimal Scenario: Re-sign Bernadeau for three years and draft a solid backup within first five rounds

Cowboys Blog - Dallas Cowboys 2016: Unit Assessment 1 - Offense 6

USA Today

Tackle

Assuming the probable happens and Leary is gone and Collins is at guard then we have starters with Free and Tyron Smith. But like the guard position, we are pretty thin on backups. We have Green, but honestly I am not convinced he is the answer yet. He did not look good in camp before his injury. Not sure I am willing to bet on him being the primary swing backup just yet. So that means we need a veteran swing tackle. Charles Brown is a free agent and might be worth signing for a 1mil contract as insurance. But honestly, unless Brown has looked really good, if I am the Boys I would try to upgrade the position. Free is an okay right tackle, but he makes a great backup swing tackle. So if I am the Boys this is one starting position I would try to upgrade. By signing a starter, both the backup and starting position is better for two or three years.

Number of Positions: 4
Players: D. Free, T. Smith, C. Green, TBA (Proven free agent)
Upgrade Needed: Right Tackle
Optimal Scenario: Either sign Leary and move Collins to tackle or sign a free agent starting right tackle and have Free be the swing tackle until Green is ready (probably two years)

In summary, the Boys do not have a lot of need for starters in the offense. They need a starting running back and possibly a starting tackle. They look good from a starting perspective. However, they do have some critical backup positions that they need to address. In addition to the two starting positions mentioned, the Boys will need to address the backup QB, 3rd guard, swing tackle, 3rd receiver, blocking TE and developmental 4th guard.

Check back tomorrow for Part 2 of this series. I’ll put the defense into perspective with some looks at the key needs on that unit. I’ll wrap up this series with Part 3 this Thursday.



Tommy Simon is an entrepreneur, writer, speaker and sports enthusiast. He is currently CEO of TechBAA, an investor and board member of TPC Technical and CommunitesFIrst, and acting CFO for ALS Communities. In addition to investing and advising companies, Tommy is also a Sales Management coach and is working with companies as a Fractional CMO/CSO. Tommy is a life long football player, coach and Cowboy fan. He currently coaches and sponsors several 7 on 7 teams. He manages/coaches an adult flag football team that is the top team in Florida one of the highest ranked teams in the country. Tommy's hobbies include international travel, fantasy football, reading, and engaging in intelligent political discourse. He is married to a wonderful women for 18 years; which is the best thing he has ever accomplished. He has a dog that is the best dog ever. He also has 9 siblings and roughly 30 nieces and nephews. For more information about tommy, or to request him to speak, please contact him at info@techbaa.com

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4 Comments
  • Randy

    You are inane to state the Boys are set at WR! Devin Steer is either a lost cause or Dallas doesn’t know how to use him. I don’t have much hope for him. Occasionaly Terrance Williams makes a big play but he is not and may never be a #2. He can’t catch with his hands and has way too many drops to be dependable. I think he should be on the roster but we need a #2 That can take the heat off Dez. I think Lucky Whitehead is just scratching the surface on what he can do for this team. Yeah I think you missed it on this one. Also in talking about the QB situation you didn’t even mention Kellen Moore. How is that? Despite his 3 INT’s he looked petty sharp for his first game. Command of the offense, command in the huddle, good pocket awareness, went through progressions well. I think it was a disservice to not include him in the conversation.

    • https://insidethestar.com/ Bryson Treece

      Gotta read past the first line of the section, like the second one, too. And I quote… “The receiver position is fairly set. There is really only one question and one need. The question is whether Devin Street or Brice Butler makes the team.” Everything else you said about the WR is addressed subtly after establishing that point first, including the Williams remarks.

      But personally, I sort of agreed with you about Tommy not even mentioning Moore, but then I remembered that we’re talking about 2016 here. Moore is doing fine right now (3 quarters of play to his 4-year career) and may play out the rest of the season in a way that warrants him being the backup net season. But as of right now, he’s statistically no better than Cassel or Weeden. I think he’s got some promise, but he needs to demonstrate it these next 2 weeks. Veteran experience is extremely important for a backup QB, and Moore quite literally has none. He’ll have to play great this season to have a shot come training camp next year. Even if you disagree with that, the Cowboys front office definitely sees the backup QB this way – they’ve demonstrated it for years.

      Thanks for reading!

      • Randy

        Bryson, thanks for the comment. I went back and read it again and no he did not really address it in a subtle way. He said we need a backup to Dez. I said we need a replacement for Williams. That’s a big difference. There has been some talk about taking Laquon Treadwell whom I like a lot but I don’t know if the need is so great we have to use our top pick for him but there are some great choices with a #2 pick. Williams is a #3 and nothing more. Butler may or may not be part of the future. He is a deep threat for empty backfield formations but I don’t see him getting much more than 25-30 receptions. He could be a weapon if he can stay healthy but he couldn’t break in at Oakland in 2 seasons when they needed receivers.

        I really don’t care about Moore’s stats and how they compare. Just watch any game of each of those 3 QB’s (Weeden, Cassel and Moore) and there is a very clear difference in the way they look. Yes, in 3 quarters Moore showed me more than any of those other two guys. I do think Dallas will get a veteran QB as a backup, but my point was simply that leaving Moore out of the conversation was an oversight and he “might” even be the future behind Romo. Or he might not. We have 2 full games to see what he can really do getting first team reps. And I’m not the guy that is going to quote his college stats…that doesn’t mean anything other than what he did at a different level.

  • https://insidethestar.com/ Bryson Treece

    On Moore: Exactly. I don’t mean to throw stats out there as some sort of shield. I just meant 3 INTs, 1 TD, and a loss isn’t any better production than Cassel has had in Dallas. Both Cassel and Moore have done better than Weeden did; though Weeden has found a friendly scheme in Houston. Cassel reminded me of old Cassel (NE/KC). He starts out well as long as the rest of his unit performs well, but when things go wrong, he loses control rapidly. So yeah, Moore is a guy I have hopes for. He should’ve been mentioned.

    On WRs: To each his own. I read that line about needing a backup to Dez as condemnation of Williams and his played-out body-catching style that doesn’t work in today’s NFL. If he were fast enough to get separation consistently then it could be okay, but he’s not. In my mind, I would fantastic with the following depth chart at WR these next 2 games – Dez, Butler, Beasley (because he’s the slot guy, technically #3), Williams, and Whitehead.

    Devin Street is a freaking bum that I haven’t liked since after his 2nd catch last year. Whitehead bugs me. He strikes me as the type of guy who always has that potential but never reaches it. It’s early for him so I don’t know, but I do like getting an opportunity to see what he can do on offense these last couple of weeks. Now if they’d just throw him the ball instead of running reverses with him.

    Taking a wide out with mid-round pick is good for me, as things stand now. If Butler can’t stay healthy then maybe a 2nd/3rd if the right guy is out there. But Williams? Nah. T. Mitchell used his hands better on that INT last week than Williams ever has.

Game Notes

Byron Jones Has Been The Cowboys’ Best Player, And Here’s Why

Kevin Brady

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Byron Jones
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

For a former first round pick, Byron Jones has had to prove himself to the Cowboys fan base quite a few times.

As a rookie Jones was impressive, flashing just how high a ceiling he had. Jones split some time between cornerback and safety due to injury and inconsistencies of his secondary mates, but he excelled in both roles.

As his career continued, Byron Jones continued to do what he does best. Jones became the Cowboys' tight end eraser, matching up with some of the best in the league and downright shutting them down. Over time, however, the coaching staff began to misuse Jones a bit. Moving him to safety full time but still wanting him to use those tight end coverage skills, Dallas started to move Jones into the box more often.

That, especially in 2017, is where Byron Jones struggled the most. Being utilized as a box safety put Jones' weaknesses as a physical tackler on full display, and left him open for fans' criticism.

Luckily for both Jones and the Cowboys, new passing game coordinator Kris Richard values him as a cornerback, where he will spend the rest of his career in Dallas. And, thus far, the returns on that move have been fantastic.

PFF DAL Cowboys on Twitter

After 3 weeks, Byron Jones has the highest season defensive grade among CBs with a 91.0. Jones is tied for the 7th highest defense grade among all defensive players with at least 50 snaps. #CowboysNation Be a PFF ELITE member to check out stats and more: https://t.co/qEKU85c6bI

Pro Football Focus has graded Byron Jones out as the league's best cornerback through three games, and the 7th best defensive player overall. Against the Seahawks last week, Jones allowed just 3 catches for 10 yards when he was the primary defender. He also came away with two pass breakups against veteran wide out Brandon Marshall, and was one of the few positives from the horrible loss.

dalvssea2018 byron jones first

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On the Seahawks' opening drive they faced a third down and five deep in their own territory. Seattle has a bunch formation to the right with Marshall locked up in man coverage at the bottom of the screen.

The Cowboys bring a blitz, leaving Jones on an island against Marshall. Russell Wilson initially looks towards the bunch side of the formation, but quickly works back to Marshall on a shallow crosser. Byron stays sticky in coverage on his backside hip, and deflects the ball away at the catch point.

Even if Marshall were to catch this, Jones was right there to stop him short of the sticks.

dalvssea2018 byron jones

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Later in the game the Seahawks tried to allow Marshall to beat Jones with his size. Marshall tries to get physical with Jones here, and wants to body him on a back shoulder fade. Jones shows no backdown, trading blows with Marshall at the line of scrimmage and effecting his get-off.

Still, Marshall is bigger than Jones and is able to create some separation towards the sideline. Jones does a nice job of recovering from this physicality, however, and gets himself back into a position to make a play on the ball. Even though he was initially boxed out, Jones's awareness to get a hand on the ball shines through here.

This goes down as Jones' first of two pass breakups on the day.

dalvssea2018 byron jones 2

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Here's the second one, once again on a back shoulder fade. Byron Jones uses his length to jam Marshall off the line, and quickly turns his hips to keep up in coverage. Once he reads Marshall's eyes, Byron gets his head around and is able to deflect the pass away.

This is textbook coverage of the back shoulder fade, and Jones' athletic traits and length aid him greatly in covering the larger Marshall on this route.

dalvssea2018 byron jones odell

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You may be thinking to yourself, "sure, Byron Jones was great against Brandon Marshall, but what about an elite receiver like Odell Beckham?" Well do I have some news for you.

Jones did an excellent job against Beckham during their week two match-up, as did the entire Cowboys secondary. On this play, Jones is locked up in man coverage with Beckham at the top of the screen. He allows Beckham to get a clean outside release, but trusts his hips and speed to recover in coverage with inside leverage.

Jones shows off just how fluid an athlete he is running stride for stride with Beckham down the sideline. Eli Manning puts the ball on Beckham's shoulder, giving him a shot at the 50/50 ball. Jones uses his length and ball skills to get up and deflect the pass away, even against the talented Beckham.

Byron Jones has done a nice job covering this route, using the sideline as an extra defender and minimizing the available area for the receiver. His arm length also help him shrink the catch point in the air.

dalvssea2018 byron jones odell 2

Check out this video on Streamable using your phone, tablet or desktop.

Here we see Byron Jones in man coverage with Beckham again, this time at the bottom of the screen. The Giants are looking to utilize play action to take a deep shot to Beckham, anticipating he will defeat Jones' coverage and find a soft spot over Awuzie's head.

Instead, Jones runs step for step with Beckham across the middle, and stays sticky to his backside hip. Manning is forced to hold the ball longer than he expected to due to Jones's coverage, and ends up taking a sack for a big loss.

There's no question that Byron Jones has been a bit of a controversial figure among Cowboys Nation throughout his young career. But, since moving to cornerback full time this season, he has been flat-out awesome.

Byron Jones looks like the shutdown corner the Cowboys have been looking for since trading up for Morris Claiborne back in 2012.



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Game Notes

Takeaway Tuesday: Cowboys Coaches Should Be on Mid-Season Hot Seat

Mauricio Rodriguez

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Doug Pederson's Success Will Make Jason Garrett's Seat Hotter 1
Bill Streicher / USA TODAY Sports

A loss in week in week 3 is subject to overreactions from NFL fans everywhere, something we should always be careful with. But as the Dallas Cowboys head to work after another terrible offensive performance, it's tough to imagine the conversation going on in Cowboys Nation is an overreaction. I imagine I'm not alone in wishing that's what it was. But it isn't.

The Dallas Cowboys have opened their 2018 NFL season with a 1-2 record, and even though other teams (such as the New England Patriots) unexpectedly have the same record, or that other crazy stuff is going on around the league, the Jason Garrett-led Cowboys haven't given us much reason to believe they can turn the offense around.

Without further ado, let's get to another Takeaway Tuesday. As always, feel free to share your takeaways from last Sunday's loss to the Seattle Seahawks in the comments section below or tweet me @MauNFL!

Coaches Must Be on Mid-Season Hot Seat

OK, it's high time we have this conversation. Dak Prescott and the rest of the Dallas Cowboys' offense has been struggling. Although the defense has been playing surprisingly well, there are simply no excuses for the way Scott Linehan's unit has been playing.

There has been trouble at every single aspect of the offensive side of the ball, which was supposed to be this team's strength heading into the season. As much as the future at the quarterback position is uncertain, the biggest problem is coaching. Sure, Prescott isn't living up to the expectations so far, having terrible stats in the first three weeks of the season but the coaches could definitely be putting him in better positions to succeed.

Playing to his strengths. Prescott is at his best when the team runs play-action plays or lets him throw on the run or use his legs to hurt opposing defenses on the ground as well. Prescott could thrive on RPOs and read option runs, but that's not how they're utilizing him.

Jake Kemp on Twitter

per @PFF, Dak Prescott play action percentages by week. week 1 - 17.9% week 2 - 44.0% week 3 - 12.5%

As much as it pains me to say it, it honestly feels like the Cowboys are stuck with Scott Linehan and Jason Garrett at the wheel. Although there aren't big names in the pass-catchers positions, the offense is talented enough to keep the ball moving. Even still, they aren't.

Right now, it's not even about the offense not being the best unit for the team, but a unit that is costing them games and will continue to do so unless some drastic changes are made.

Not that the coaches are the only ones that should be accountable, just about every player should be, including QB Dak Prescott, who might be playing for his job the rest of the year. But if this mediocre performances continue into week 8, for instance, it might just be time to move on from the current coaching staff. What will change in the next seasons that can makes us believe Garrett and Linehan are the answer for the franchise's future?

And yet, no changes will be made as far as the Cowboys' play-caller is. Right now, it's tough to imagine where this season is headed. But two things might be for sure. 1) It won't be good. 2) We'll see some RB screens on third and long and three tight end sets on first downs.

Wish List for Dallas Cowboys 1st Preseason Game

Dallas Cowboys LBs Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch, and Sean Lee

Defense Might Just Be Fine With Vander Esch Filling in for Sean Lee

Sean Lee hurt his other hamstring playing in Seattle last Sunday, which usually would have us freaking out about the linebacker position. However, as we've discussed since the preseason, Jaylon Smith is looking pretty amazing and healthy. But now, it's not only Smith that's been showing off his football skills.

It's first round draft pick Leighton Vander Esch who's having a pretty nice start to his career. At least, it's been way better than what some expected (myself included) from his rookie season.

In just three weeks and limited snaps, Vander Esch has had 18 tackles and a tackle for loss. He's been around the football a lot, just like Lee when healthy. If the Boise State product continues to play this week, one has to wonder about Sean Lee's future in Dallas.

The Jury is Still Out on K Brett Maher

Kicker Brett Maher kicked a 50-yard field goal last Sunday as Cowboys' fans at home breathed a huge sigh of relief. After letting Dan Bailey go, it was time for something positive to say about the kicker position in Dallas.

Maher was pretty good on the field last week, but there's no denying his kicks were sort of scary and not perfect attempts right down the middle. Cowboys Nation should be more comfortable with the cut of Dan Bailey, but the jury should still be out on his replacement.

Tell me what you think about "Takeaway Tuesday: Cowboys Coaches Should Be on Mid-Season Hot Seat" in the comments below, or tweet me @MauNFL and let’s talk football! If you like football and are looking for a Dallas Cowboys show in Spanish, don’t miss my weekly Facebook Live! show, Primero Cowboys!



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Game Notes

LB Leighton Vander Esch Rare Bright Spot In Cowboys’ Disappointing Loss

Kevin Brady

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LB Leighton Vander Esch Rare Bright Spot In Cowboys Disappointing Loss

Sunday in Seattle didn't go nearly as well as anticipated for the Cowboys, as they fell to the Seahawks in embarrassing fashion, 24-13. While the final score looked close, the fact of the matter is that Dallas was dominated for much of the game.

Offensively they looked lost, unable to create any downfield passing threat or sustain scoring drives. Defensively they played okay, but not up to the standard they had established the first two games of the season. With the offense being as pedestrian as it has been, though, there is a ton of extra pressure placed upon the young defense's shoulders.

One of the youngest members of that young unit shouldered the pressure just fine on Sunday, however. Rookie linebacker Leighton Vander Esch had himself a heck of a day, leading the team in tackles with 11 including 9 solo ones and a tackle for loss. He flashed his speed, pursuit, tackling ability, and overall athleticism as he worked laterally to make plays and contain the Seahawks running game on the edge.

Wish List for Dallas Cowboys 1st Preseason Game

Dallas Cowboys LBs Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch, and Sean Lee

His performance built upon an impressive first two games, including a solid home opener against the New York Giants where he tallied 7 tackles in just 28 defensive snaps. Vander Esch hadn't seen the snaps that Jaylon Smith and Sean Lee saw prior to Sunday, but when Lee was forced to miss chunks of the game with injuries, Vander Esch shined.

A key knock placed on Vander Esch's game during the draft process was that he wasn't physical enough as a player. He tended to struggle when taking on blocks and wasn't as sure a tackler when things got muddied up as you'd like to see from a first round pick.

While these were legitimate concerns from his college tape, Leighton Vander Esch looked as comfortable and refined as you can expect from a rookie against the Seahawks. He was a top 3 player on the Cowboys' defense on Sunday, and the Cowboys should be ecstatic about his progress moving forward.

On Monday it was announced the the veteran Sean Lee is expected to miss a few weeks with yet another injury, allowing for Vander Esch to likely be the starter. Lee has been unreliable when it comes to his injury history, and you have to wonder if Vander Esch could supplant him as the full time starter earlier than anyone expected due to those injuries.

I, like many, questioned the Cowboys' selection of Leighton Vander Esch in the first round of last year's draft. The lack of comparative position value combined with the questions about Vander Esch's game made me value a pass rusher like Harold Landry much higher than Vander Esch at 19.

So far, though, Leighton Vander Esch is proving the Cowboys right in their selection, and looks to be the starting WILL and three-down backer of the future in Dallas. With Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch playing how they have with limited experience, that future looks very bright defensively.



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