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 2019 Playoff Scenarios: Week 11 Impact Games
With all NFL teams now having just six or seven games left in their 2019 schedules, this seems a fine time to start looking at the potential playoff seeding. The Dallas Cowboys are barely hanging on to a winning record and control of the NFC East right now, adding plenty of intrigue to the happenings around the conference and likely through the end of the regular season.
If the season ended today, these would be your NFC playoff standings:
- San Francisco 49ers (8-1)
- Green Bay Packers (8-2)
- New Orleans Saints (7-2)
- Dallas Cowboys (5-4)
- Seattle Seahawks (8-2)
- Minnesota Vikings (7-3)
- Los Angeles Rams (5-4)
- Philadelphia Eagles (5-4)
- Carolina Panthers (5-4)
- The Cowboys currently hold a head-to-head tiebreaker over the Eagles. They play again Week 16 in Philadelphia.
- The Rams (3-3) are ahead of the Eagles (3-4) and Panthers (2-4) based on a superior record against NFC opponents.
- The Eagles are ahead of the Panthers based on a superior record against NFC opponents.
This weekly feature will focus on teams with winning records or those who are clear contenders in division or wild card races. So while a team like the Chicago Bears may be 4-5 and still capable of going on a run, we won't worry about them until they start to rise in the standings.
Here are this week's games involving the current NFC playoff contenders. The Packers and Seahawks are on bye.
Dallas Cowboys @ Detroit Lions
The Cowboys badly need this win for all sorts of reasons. Creating some distance with the Eagles, picking up a win against an NFC opponent, and just general morale boosting after an ugly loss to Minnesota; this is a must-win game on many levels.
Detroit isn't a contender in their own right and that may actually serve Dallas will this week. Matthew Stafford missed last week's game with a back injury and was held out of practice yesterday. If the Lions don't believe they can be a factor in the 2019 postseason, they may get extra conservative with their franchise QB and sit him again against the Cowboys.
New England Patriots @ Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles' remaining schedule is more favorable than the Cowboys so this is a critical game for Philly to lose. Really, there is no scenario the rest of the way where an Eagles win could help Dallas.
Obviously, winning the NFC East is the best road for Dallas to take into the playoffs as it provides home field advantage in the first round. And realistically, given their overall record and head-to-head losses to the Packers, Saints, and Vikings already this year, the Cowboys would have hard time getting a Wild Card spot. They just need to take the division and then hope to get hot in January, and every Eagles loss helps toward that goal.
Denver Broncos @ Minnesota Vikings
Still in striking distance of Green Bay in the NFC North and two wins ahead of the Wild Card outsiders, Minnesota has a solid playoff position right now. They just need to keep handling their business throughout the season, which certainly included a home win against the lowly Broncos, to control their destiny and make the tournament.
New Orleans Saints @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Saints just suffered a shocking loss to Atlanta and fell out of one of the top two spots in the NFC playoffs. They are about to hit Tampa like a hurricane, and the 3-6 Bucs may not be able to put up much of a fight. New Orleans should pick up another win here and pull even again with Green Bay.
Atlanta Falcons @ Carolina Panthers
The Falcons, despite being mostly out of the race, just upset the Saints and could be looking for another stunner over Carolina. The Panthers have remarkably hung on to their season despite losing Cam Newton,; can Kyle Allen keep them afloat to the point of claiming a Wild Card spot?
Arizona Cardinals @ San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers are going to be angry after their first loss of the year, making this a predictable one-sided affair against one of the league's worst teams. Crazy things can happen in division rivalry games, but this is setting up to be a major blowout as the 49ers keep building their lead over the conference.
Chicago Bears @ Los Angeles Rams
The Rams' 5-4 record this year may be an even bigger surprise/disappointment than the Cowboys'. They get a great chance to pick up a win, and another critical NFC victory, this week as they host the Bears.
While Chicago is still mathematically alive they feel like dead men walking. They have one of the worst QB situations in football and it won't get any better this year. However, their strong defense gives them the ability to play a spoiler any given week. Tacking another loss to the Rams here could help Dallas in any potential Wild Card scenario.
Lions’ Pass Catchers Will Provide Big Test for Cowboys’ Defense
The Dallas Cowboys week 11 opponent is reeling a bit after a 2-0-1 start with wins over the Los Angeles Chargers and the Philadelphia Eagles, the Detroit Lions have lost five of their last six and now sit in last place in the NFC North at 2-5-1. It's been a weird season for the Lions and now may play the Dallas Cowboys this week without Matthew Stafford who's been playing some of the best football of his career in 2019.
Though Stafford may not be available, the Lions have a plethora of targets for backup quarterback Jeff Driskell to throw to.
Wide Receivers Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones, Danny Amendola, Tight End T.J. Hockenson, and Running Back J.D. McKissic provide Detroit with a bounty of players who will challenge the Cowboys secondary in the passing game.
Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones are one of the more underrated receiving tandems in the NFL. The Lions are just one of four teams that have two players with at least 600 receiving yards on the season.
Golladay and Jones have been excellent this season. Both have made big plays in the passing game and if you along with Hockenson, Amendola, and McKissic, the Lions have a deep group of pass catchers that could give the Cowboys fits this Sunday.
The Cowboys defense has been up and down this season in both the run and pass game. They've been hit for big plays on both sides of the field and by a variety of positional players through the first nine games of the season. The linebackers have struggled with play-action and in the screen game. Chidobe Awuzie has had difficulty finding the ball and giving up big plays. Byron Jones, who is generally one of the better cover corners in the NFL, but had difficulty with Stefon Diggs last week.
The fact that the Lions have so many good players to throw to means they can avoid throwing to Byron Jones' side of the field and target Awuzie, the Cowboys' biggest weakness in pass defense. The Lions will be able to mix and match their receiver alignments to put the Cowboys in difficult positions with their scheme. From front to back, everyone will have to stay disciplined in their man and zone coverages to not get beat for any big plays.
The Cowboys may want to scheme some extra help to Chidobe Awuize's side of the field as he's struggled to find the ball in 50-50 situations, where Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones excel. The other key will be for Jourdan Lewis, who will likely end up in coverage against Amendola most of the time. He and the linebackers will need to tackle Amendola and McKissic better than they did Dalvin Cook in the open field as Driskell will likely be forced to dump it off quickly to avoid being affected by the pass rush.
11 of Driskel's 27 completions against the Chicago Bears were at or behind the line of scrimmage and 48% of his passing yardage came after the catch. For comparison, in week 10 against the Cowboys, Kirk Cousins completed eight of his 23 passes at or behind the line of scrimmage and an insane 65% of his yards came after the catch.
The Lions record hasn't been able to run the ball very effectively this year, even before Kerryon Johnson. They rank 20th in the NFL in total rushing, but fifth in the NFL in passing, so the Cowboys will have to be more disciplined in coverage and have to team tackle to get off the field.
It's a huge game for the Dallas Cowboys if they want to improve their chances of making the playoffs. They don't have the luxury of dropping a game like this to a team they should absolutely beat. In a tie with the Philadelphia Eagles atop the NFC East and with only seven games left of the season, pretty much every game from here on out is a must-win game.
Defensive Inconsistencies Hurting Cowboys Playoff Chances
The Dallas Cowboys have had an up and down season, to say the least. One minute they look like one of the best teams in the NFL, and the next, they look as if they just started playing football a week ago.
A lot of that can be attributed to the inconsistent play of their defense. The numbers say they have one of the best units of it's kind in the league. They rank 14th vs the run, sixth vs the pass, and seventh overall while only allowing 18.9 points per game. The problem is, their performance from game to game hasn't always matched these numbers.
In Week 5 when the Green Bay Packers came to town they had the difficult task of dealing with their biggest nemesis the last half-decade in Aaron Rodgers. His primary target Davante Adams was out because of a toe issue. The Cowboys were only allowing 14 points per game at the time, however, this game would see the scoreboard light up with regularity for the Packers.
Another Aaron would be the star of this game, Running Back Aaron Jones that is. He picked up nine of the Packers 24 first downs by himself on the ground and in the passing game. This helped the Packers control the clock for almost 37 minutes which kept the Cowboys playing a game of catch up.
He finished with 182 all-purpose yards and scored four rushing touchdowns, a record for a Cowboys opponent. What made this particular game a head-scratcher was the fact that the Packers were without their number one receiver and Rodgers failed to throw a single touchdown pass, and the Packers still scored 34 points. Not an ideal outing for the Cowboys defense.
In Week 6 the Cowboys visited Metlife Stadium to take on the New York Jets. At the time, they were 0-4 and arguably the worst team in the NFL. Also, Quarterback Sam Darnold was making his return after being out five weeks due to mononucleosis. All signs pointed to a dominant performance by the Cowboys defense. Unfortunately, it didn't quite work out that way.
If Darnold had any effects of his illness he didn't show it. He surgically dissected the Cowboys defense all game long to the tune of 338 yards (career-high) and two touchdowns. The Jets jumped out to a 21-3 lead and never looked back, holding on to win 24-22.
The most mind-blowing thing in this game was the fact that Running Back Le'Veon Bell was held to only 50 yards rushing. Even with the Jets being pretty much one dimensional all game they still managed to move the ball up and down the field. Inexcusable performance by a defense as talented as the Cowboys vs one of the worst offenses in the NFL.
Last Sunday's matchup vs the Minnesota Vikings presented a big challenge for the Cowboys defense. Not only did they have to deal with league-leading rusher Dalvin Cook but also Stefon Diggs who came into the game eighth in receiving yards.
Tight End Kyle Rudolph, who only had two touchdowns all year prior to this game, reached the end zone on back to back drives putting the Vikings up 14-0 entering the second quarter.
The star of this game, however, was the aforementioned Cook. The Cowboys had no answer for him as he gashed them continuously in the screen game as well as on the ground. Cook finished with 183 all-purpose yards (97 rushing, 86 receiving) and a touchdown on 33 touches. Yes, Cook is dynamic and the Vikings offense is formidable but the lack of discipline on assignments and poor tackling wasn't exactly a pleasant sight to see by this defense at home.
This is not to say that the Cowboys haven't had good performances defensively this season. In Week 4 they held the New Orleans Saints, albeit without Drew Brees, to just 12 points in a tough two-point loss. Three weeks ago, they held the Philadelphia Eagles to 283 yards of offense and forced four turnovers in a blowout 37-10 victory. Their second trip to Metlife Stadium was dominant as they registered five sacks and forced three turnovers in a 37-18 beat down of the New York Giants.
The inconsistency of this unit has been frustrating and downright confusing at times. There's too much talent on this defense to be so up and down. If this doesn't change, and quickly, this defense could be the reason the Cowboys find themselves on the outside looking in when the playoffs start.
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