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.
Maliek Collins Playing Excellent for Cowboys Defense
For the Dallas Cowboys on the interior, a lot of the news consistently surround the availability of Defensive Tackle David Irving, but Maliek Collins is playing excellent right now. While I'm willing to be very patient with Irving because of the elite talent he brings, Maliek Collins should continue to start for the Dallas Cowboys at 3-technique defensive tackle.
Collins has been a player that the Cowboys have bounced between the nose tackle and the 3T position with the hopes of getting their best players on the field, and because of the lack of a consistent presence at the 1-technique or nose tackle position. Well, with Antwaun Woods taking control at the 1T, Collins has been able to play at the position where he's at his best. The 3-tech.
He hasn't put huge numbers in the sack column this season, but that doesn't mean he's been absent from being the disruptive player he's been through his first two and a half seasons.
During the Dallas Cowboys five game winning streak, Maliek Collins has led the Dallas Cowboys defensive tackles in total pressures with 13, according to Pro Football Focus. PFF combines sacks, quarterback hits, and hurries into their "pressures." Collins hasn't recorded a sack during the winning streak, but he has four quarterback hits and nine hurries. He's tied with Tyrone Crawford for third in total pressures behind DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory over the last five weeks.
Over the last five weeks, Collins leads the defensive tackles in solo tackles with five and is tied with Crawford and Antwaun Woods with three run stops on defense, according to Pro Football Focus. Collins has also has two tackles for loss in the last five games and recovered Tyrone Crawford's force fumble on Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Collins had six sacks in his rookie season when he played primarily as the 3T, which allowed him to see more one-on-one blocks against opposing interior offensive linemen. Especially with the way the rest of the defensive line is playing.
With the Cowboys on the road to face the Indianapolis Colts this week, Collins is going to have a tough matchup with a very good Colts offensive line, in particular, rookie Quentin Nelson. Collins ability to get pressure on Andrew Luck on the interior is a huge key for the Dallas Cowboys this week. We know that Gregory and Lawrence will get their pressures, but if Andrew Luck is able to step up into a clean pocket, it will make for a much more challenging game for the Cowboys secondary.
Collins has proved to be up to any task over the last five weeks and if he's able to keep playing at such a high level, he'll make the Cowboys coaching staff, and the rest of Cowboys Nation forget about using other defensive tackles. For the Cowboys to make a deep push in the playoffs, they'll need Collins to be a big time player for them moving forward.
#INDvsDAL: Betting Preview, Trends, And Prediction
For once, the Cowboys are not playing what feels like a do-or-die game on Sunday, needing just 1 win over their final 3 to win the NFC East. This week the 8-5 Cowboys go on the road to face the 7-6 Colts, with each times vying for playoff spots in their respective conferences.
Both the Cowboys and Colts have turned around what looked like dead seasons, but there is no doubt the Colts need this one more than the Cowboys do to keep pace for the 6th seed in the AFC.
Cowboys +3, O/U 47 points.
The once 3-5 Cowboys are now head and shoulders above the rest of their division, after winning their fifth straight in thrilling fashion over the Eagles last Sunday. The team which seemed so disjointed and inconsistent through 8 games has found their identity, and is playing complete team football as of late.
Dak Prescott is coming off a career-best game in terms of yardage, and despite some poor turnovers is still playing some of the best football of his career. This is due in large part to two stars in Amari Cooper and Ezekiel Elliott, who have shouldered the production load of this offense the last 5 weeks.
And, of course, there is the defense which continues to make life a living hell for opposing offenses. Randy Gregory is coming into his own as a pass rusher, getting another sack last week and getting flagged for what should have been his second sack of the day.
Dallas is playing the brand of football they told us they would before the season, and are beginning to make their front office and decision makers look very smart in the process.
At 7-6 and fighting for the final AFC playoff spot, the Colts need this one more than the Cowboys do. Getting shut out by the lowly Jaguars two weeks ago may ultimately keep the Colts out of the playoffs, but a win this Sunday and a little help elsewhere could set them up nicely down the stretch.
Indy has quietly one of the best passing offenses in all of the NFL, with star quarterback Andrew Luck playing his best football in quite some time. Luck is healthy and looks like himself again, and the selection of Quenton Nelson to sure-up the offensive line has gone a long way to improving this offense as well.
Defensively the Colts have been even more impressive lately. Though they have a roster comprised of no-names nationally, the Colts defense is 11th in DVOA. Darius Leonard has been a revelation for the Colts at linebacker, and their young defense seems to be improving by the week.
The Colts are coming off of a big road victory over the Houston Texans a week ago, and will look to defeat the Texans' in-state rivals on Sunday to improve to 8-6.
- The Cowboys are 5-0 against the spread their last 5 games, and have won all 5 straight up.
- The score total has hit the over 4 of the Cowboys' last 6 games.
- But the score total has gone under 4 of the Colts' last 5 games.
- The Colts are 4-1 straight up their last 5 home games.
- Dallas is 6-3 their last 9 games against the Colts.
The Cowboys' winning streak has to end at some point, right?
Well, unlike Vegas, I don't expect that ending to happen on Sunday. The Cowboys have been playing desperate football over the last 5 games and they are well aware what a win over Indianapolis would mean.
A victory would clinch them a division title for the third time in five years, and just as they did in 2014, I expect the Cowboys to get that clinching victory over the Colts. Give me the Cowboys and the points this week.
Amari Cooper Wins 2nd NFC Offensive Player of the Week Award of 2018
For the second time in just three weeks, Dallas Cowboys receiver Amari Cooper has been named the NFC Offensive Player of the Week.
Cooper scored three touchdowns, including the game winner in overtime, to lead the Cowboys to victory last Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles. He has 10 catches for 217 yards, which led all NFL receivers last week.
After his record-setting performance during week 14, @AmariCooper9 is the FIRST #DallasCowboys to win NFC Player of the Week twice in a season! → https://t.co/kvBDIeOgBd #ProBowlVote #ProBowlVote #ProBowlVote #ProBowlVote #ProBowlVote #ProBowlVote
As the official website stated, Cooper is the first Cowboy to win the award twice in the same year. He's also the first Cowboy to be named Offensive Player of the Week since Ezekiel Elliott in 2016.
Before this year, Elliott was the only Dallas player to win the Offensive award in three seasons. Cooper has now done it twice in three weeks.
Since being traded to the Cowboys, Amari Cooper has amassed 40 catches for 642 yards and six touchdowns.
His wasted time in Oakland may keep Cooper out of the Pro Bowl this year, but he's already become a fan favorite in Cowboys Nation. Congratulations to Amari for another well-deserved award!
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