When the Dallas Cowboys start training camp in July, there will be various feelings of job security throughout the 90-man roster. Throughout the NFL, players know when they're already locked in to a position or role on a team or when they're fighting for survival.
Today, we're going to look at how secure the Cowboys' players should feel in 2018. This not only applies to if they make the final roster, but also their position as a starter or key roleplayer.
The offensive players were covered earlier this week. So naturally, today we're going to focus on the defense.
Tier 1 - The Untouchables
DE DeMarcus Lawrence, LB Sean Lee
Immediately, you will notice a sizable difference in the number of players on certain tiers between offense and defense. For example, the top tier on offense had six players and there are only these two on defense.
That is to be expected when one of side of the ball is under renovation and the other is more established, as is the case in Dallas. The investments made in the offensive line have already paid off and there are clear starters in place at quarterback and running back.
The Cowboys are still waiting to see if recent picks like Taco Charlton, Maliek Collins, or their two young corners eventually become clearly entrenched starters. As it stands, they have only have two guys who have clearly defined starting roles in 2018.
One of them is the franchise-tagged DeMarcus Lawrence, whose breakout 2017 season has made him one of the premiere pass rushers in the NFL. He will be back next year, and hopefully for many more to come, as the crown jewel of the Cowboys' emerging defensive line. He will get as many reps as he can physically handle.
The veteran leader of the defense, Linebacker Sean Lee, will also return to his starting role. As long as his body holds up, Lee will be a fixture on nearly all defensive schemes and packages. We could see more rotation with Jaylon Smith or Leighton Vander Esch as the team prepares for the future, but Sean will be a clear first-teamer throughout the year.
Tier 2 - Slightly Touchable
LB Jaylon Smith, CB Chidobe Awuzie, CB Jourdan Lewis
These young players should all have significant roles on the team, and almost certainly as starters. However, their youth does leave the slightest room for questioning.
Every report you hear about Jaylon Smith right now is glowing, both his play on the field and his medical progress. If it holds through August, he should be a starter and major factor right alongside Sean Lee this season.
Any kind of injury setback with that knee, though, and Dallas could easily get scared into limiting his reps. Damien Wilson is still here if the Cowboys start wanting to limit Smith's reps again.
As for the corners, Awuzie and Lewis are looking like one of the best young tandems in all of football. But with Byron Jones moving back to corner, Dallas may elect to have him as a starter and move one of the sophomores into a nickel role.
That said, in the modern NFL there are essentially three starting cornerbacks on defense. Teams utilize their nickel scheme more than any other these days. So no matter what, Chido and Jourdan will both be on the field a lot next year.
Tier 3 - On the Team, But Where?
DE Taco Charlton, DE Dorance Armstrong, DL Tyrone Crawford, DL David Irving, DT Maliek Collins, DT Jihad Ward, LB Leighton Vander Esch, LB Damien Wilson, CB Byron Jones, CB Anthony Brown, S Kavon Frazier, S Jeff Heath, S Xavier Woods
These next two tiers are heavy, and that speaks to the ongoing makeover of the defense. Of these two groups, anywhere from 6-9 players won't make the 2018 roster.
There are a lot of options on the defensive line right now, but Taco Charlton's first-round pick keeps him safe in just his second year. His positive play to close 2017, and good reports out of the spring camps, cement his being on the team next year. Rookie Dorance Armstrong, drafted in the fourth round last April, should also make it on draft stock alone.
Veteran Tyrone Crawford is back for probably his last season, and his ability to play end or tackle gives him value despite a bad contract. Maliek Collins also returns, hopefully getting healthy and back to his rookie form after a slump last year. Jihad Ward, a former second-round pick that Dallas traded for during the draft, should also make it.
David Irving is too good to cut but his recent struggles and absence from camps and OTAs put a question mark on him. How big a role will Irving get next year if the team loses confidence in him over the remainder of the offseason?
Battling for playing time at linebacker will be first-round rookie Leighton Vander Esch and veteran Damien Wilson. One will start in the base defense and one will be a key reserve, but that competition should be fun to watch.
Byron Jones and Anthony Brown could challenge for starting roles given their experience edge on Awuzie and Lewis, but at the least they will be talented depth. Yesterday, I considered the possibility of Brown being traded before Week One but odds are he will be on the squad next year.
At safety, there are three guys competing for two starting spots. Will veteran Jeff Heath be able to fight off the young prospects Kavon Frazier and Xavier Woods? No matter what, all three will be on next year's team. And that's even if a certain safety from Seattle gets added, too.
Tier 4 - Bubble Players
DE Kony Ealy, DE Randy Gregory, DE Charles Tapper, DL Datone Jones, DT Richard Ash, DT Lewis Neal, DT Brian Price, LB Chris Covington, LB Justin March-Lillard, LB Joe Thomas, CB Kam Kelly, CB Duke Thomas, CB Charvarius Ward, CB Marquez White, S Marqueston Huff
You might think of veteran Kony Ealy as a roster lock, but his minimal one-year deal means Dallas could go with younger players if they ultimately decided to. Ealy should make it on his experience and the upside Dallas still sees in him, but $200k is the only thing guaranteed for him right now.
If he gets reinstated, Randy Gregory's return to football will be one of the most interesting stories this year. He could be exactly what this team needs as an athletic edge rusher, or his absence from the game may be too much to overcome. The same goes for Charles Tapper, whose ongoing injuries have kept the fourth-round pick from securing a role on the team.
There are several interesting prospects for the remaining defensive line spots; more than Dallas can keep. Datone Jones was an emerging force last year and should make the team, but guys like Richard Ash and Brian Price are younger and still growing. Lewis Neal was a preseason darling last year but has a lot of competition at that 3-tech tackle spot.
Rookie Chris Covington was a sixth-round pick and we've seen those guys not make the team before. There is a lot of opportunity at linebacker, though, so hopefully he can find work against more experienced depth options. Justin March-Lillard and Joe Thomas may be competing for the sixth and final LB spot this year.
Who will round out the CB depth chart? Rookies Kam Kelly and Charvarius Ward are getting buzz now, but last year it was Duke Thomas and Marquez White drawing interest. With only one or two spots for these four talents, the competition will be strong.
If Dallas keeps four safeties this year, Marqueston Huff has a leg up with his experience. He has played in 41 professional games for other teams since being a fourth-round pick 2014. Given the youth of Frazier and Woods, Dallas may lean toward a veteran over the far younger prospects competing with Huff.
Tier 5 - Longshots
With so much talent already on the bubble, it's going to be hard for any dark horse player to break through this year. However, almost every season sees someone come from nowhere to make a roster. 2018 could be no different.
Some guys have experience, like Defensive Tackle Daniel Ross. He was in the CFL from 2015-2016 and then bounced around a few NFL teams last year. He got some playing time last year after being a late-season addition by the Cowboys, but has an uphill battle against younger prospects this offseason.
Many of you likely have your own rooting interest among the longshots. Perhaps they went to your college or you just got intrigued by something you saw or read. We wish them all the best, but predicting any of them to make the team this year would be a stretch.
Cowboys Face Latest Challenge Fighting for First Road Win at Redskins
The Dallas Cowboys 40-7 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars feels like just the introduction to this season's story. Whether or not the body of this story tells a disappointing tale or one of triumph can be revealed as early as this Sunday.
When the Cowboys travel to Washington, they'll be looking for their first road win of the season, and with it the NFC East lead over a Redskins team that would fall to 3-3 and 0-1 inside the division.
Early season losses at the Panthers, Seahawks, and Texans do little in predicting the Cowboys faith at the Redskins. These three teams are a combined 6-2 at home this season, with the Cowboys most recent loss in Houston falling much more on coaching than it did on-field execution.
Making their week six win over the NFL's top defense look extraordinarily easy, the Cowboys continued on a seemingly timeless trend under Jason Garrett. Returning to AT&T Stadium at 2-3, the Cowboys won their 12th game at one under .500 under Garrett.
Their 378 total yards on offense against the Jaguars brought their average in three home games up to 363.3, nearly 88 yards better than their road performances this season. The Redskins have allowed 326.2 yards per game this season, ranked fifth in the league just behind the Cowboys at 315.2 yards a game.
Garrett has gone 11-4 in his head coaching career against the Redskins, winning his last five at FedEx Field by an average of less than 10 points a game. The Redskins have turned the ball over just five times this season and allow a stout 90.2 rushing yards per game, meaning this game has all the makings of another classic between historic NFC East rivals.
In an ongoing effort to learn just who these 2018 Cowboys really are, a close win on the road would go a long way, beyond the slack they were afforded earlier this season to tighten up their game and make a serious push for the division.
The Cowboys will be on their bye week following Sunday's game. It comes at the perfect time for players like Sean Lee, Chidobe Awuzie, and Tavon Austin. With Austin struggling to make a sustained impact in the Cowboys offense, Awuzie conceding snaps to Jourdan Lewis, and Lee looking on at Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch dominate at LB, these three Cowboys among plenty of others know how important this game is for remaining relevant down the stretch.
Shortening this rivalry's history to just the games quarterbacked by Dak Prescott, the Cowboys are 3-0 with Prescott completing 65.3% of his passes - easily his highest mark against any NFC East foe.
The Cowboys confidence in getting to 4-3 should rest in Prescott using both his arm and legs to give the Cowboys the lead, than force Alex Smith to beat this defense.
The Redskins aren't a team that will beat themselves, leaving this one for the taking of a Cowboys team buried after week five's loss and crowned NFC East leaders 'elect' by week seven. A funny game this NFL is, and one the Cowboys don't want to play around with too much when considering Sunday's opponent - as well as the task at hand of earning a win on the road the latest in a season since 2013 for Dallas.
Cowboys Defense Getting Players Back at the Right Time
The Dallas Cowboys have played really well on defense this season allowing the seventh fewest rushing yards per game, the third lowest yards per carry, and the eighth fewest passing yards per game this season. They've done it for most of the 2018 season without Defensive Tackles Maliek Collins and David Irving, and Linebacker Sean Lee, who's missed the last three games with a strained hamstring.
This week the Cowboys play the NFC East leading Washington Redskins, making this a very important matchup for the Cowboys playoff chances. The Dallas Cowboys are 2-2 in the NFC in 2018, so a win against the Washington Redskins on Sunday carries much more importance. If the Cowboys have hopes of making the playoffs, they're going to have to improve their record against the NFC and they can on Sunday with their defense getting back to (nearly) full health.
Still awaiting word on Chidobe Awuzie's availability for this week.
Antwaun Woods, Tyrone Crawford, and David Ross have held up really well on the Cowboys defensive interior without Irving and Collins, which makes their return even more important. Better depth along the defensive interior is only going to help those guys have more productive snaps. Both Collins and Irving are explosive penetrating defensive tackles that give interior offensive lineman fits with their combination of strength and quickness. They play the run and pass with equal effectiveness and make life a lot easier for the linebackers and the defensive ends.
In their first game back in week six, Irving and Collins combined for two quarterback pressures, a quarterback hit (Irving) and a sack (Collins). Irving also drew a holding call on a punt.
Getting them back takes so much pressure off the defensive ends to generate pressure in passing situations. With better pressure from the interior of the defense, DeMarcus Lawrence and the other defensive ends will have better opportunities for sacks because opposing quarterbacks won't be able to step up in the pocket with as much ease as they have through the first five games of the season.
The linebacker duo of Jaylon Smith, and Leighton Vander Esch have been one of the best position groups for the Cowboys this season. As good as they've been, Sean Lee is still one of the better linebackers in the NFL. Though he's leading the Cowboys in solo tackles with 43, Leighton Vander Esch probably sees a decrease in his snaps with Lee returning. They'll all play, however, and the Cowboys will look for ways to have them all on the field together.
Getting Lee, Irving, and Collins on the field at the same time with the defensive parts that the Cowboys already boast in Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith, DeMarcus Lawrence, and Byron Jones is going to make playing offense nearly impossible.
How do you attack these guys?
The Washington Redskins rank in the bottom third in passing yards, yards per attempt, and are 18th in the NFL in passer rating. Washington ranks in the top half of the league in rushing yards per game, but rank 23rd in yards per attempt.
If there's an area where the Dallas Cowboys defense has been susceptible this season it's against the pass and having all of their best defensive players available for this week seven NFC East matchup is going to make all the difference. They'll be able to generate pressure with fewer blitzes because of the ability of Irving and Collins to generate pressure from the interior.
Though the Redskins have had some success on the ground in 2018, it's going to be tough sledding for Adrian Peterson and the Redskins run game. Lee, Vander Esch, and Smith all play the run extremely well and with the improved talent at defensive tackle, Peterson is going to find very few open lanes against the Dallas Cowboys defense.
The elite defense that we imagined this team could be may be right around the corner. Having everyone healthy and on the field together as the Dallas Cowboys get ready for the stretch run of the NFL season is huge.
Get ready NFL. Points are going to be really hard to come by.
Report: Austin Heading to IR: Deonte Thompson is the Next Man Up
Tavon Austin's stint with the Dallas Cowboys has been up and down through six games. He's provided some big play ability on the outside, but hasn't really had the running room on jet sweeps that the Dallas Cowboys would have hoped for when they acquired Austin from the Los Angeles Rams during the 2018 NFL Draft.
Now it's being reported by Brandon George from the Dallas Morning News that Austin may be headed to injured reserve for a groin tear suffered in the Dallas Cowboys week six win over the Jaguars.
Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said WR Tavon Austin will be getting a second opinion on his injured right groin in the next day or so. He didn't discount possibility of him being placed on injured reserve.
Whether Austin goes to injured reserve or not remains to be seen, but we do know that he'll miss week seven and likely won't be able to suit up for a while. Though Austin hasn't been relied upon much, he has been a threat that opposing defenses have had to account for in both the passing and running game. Tavon Austin leaves a bit of a hole.
Enter Deonte Thompson.
Deonte Thompson, who was signed by the Dallas Cowboys this past offseason, hasn't been the same type of rushing threat that Austin has been in his NFL career. Thompson's only carried the ball two times in his career for -5 yards. However, Thompson has some skills that could bode well should the Dallas Cowboys decide to use him in the jet sweep role that Austin is vacating.
He's been a return threat in his NFL career, averaging 24.8 yards per return. He's had returns of 47, 64, and 74 yards. He's also had some good moments running after the catch in his career, though he hasn't gotten many opportunities.
Thompson's a former track athlete and before the 2012 NFL Draft ran a 4.30 40 yard dash. He has the speed and a bit more size than Austin to make some things happen if given the opportunities.
The jet sweep has become an important staple in the Dallas Cowboys offense. Even when they don't hand it off on the sweep, they use it in play action, to set up screens, and even to get the defense thinking about it on direct hand offs to Ezekiel Elliott. They aren't going to want to scrap that part of the playbook just because Austin will be sitting out. Deonte Thompson can be that guy. Much like Marquise Goodwin in San Francisco, Thompson has elite speed.
He's not just football fast. He's fast-fast.
When I was in high school, I played baseball. In the baseball program I was fast. The fastest on the team. That was my game. Infield singles. Stretching doubles to triples. Stealing bases. I was fast. I went out for track my senior season because I thought, "hey I'm fast, let's see what would happen if I ran the 100-meter-dash." I found out really quickly that there is a difference between baseball fast and track fast.
The same applies to football and track. Deonte Thompson is track fast. He's a guy that the Dallas Cowboys need to get the ball to on those jet sweeps to continue to threaten defenses sideline to sideline. When it's working, as we've seen with Lucky Whitehead in the past and Tavon Austin this year, it opens up a lot for the Dallas Cowboys offense.
It's likely that Cole Beasley gets those first jet sweep attempts, and as a trusted veteran for the Dallas Cowboys, he probably should. But, if Jason Garrett and Scott Linehan want to continue to use the jet sweep to the offense's maximum benefit, they need to start showing it with Deonte Thompson. He has the speed to get to the corner and take it to the end zone from any where on the field.
Here's an example of what Thompson can do with the ball in his hands.
109 YARDS TO THE HOUSE!!! Deonte Thompson returns the missed field goal and runs it all the way back for a @ChicagoBears TD! #CHIvsAZ https://t.co/k9IfkZMoIY
With Tavon Austin set to be out -- possibly for the season -- it's time to see what Deonte Thompson can do. The Dallas Cowboys need to get a win here to get above .500 for the first time this season and set themselves up to make a run at the divisional crown. Deonte Thompson's ability with the ball in his hands will give them a good opportunity to do just that.
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