Last year gave the Dallas Cowboys some conflicting evidence at the defensive tackle position. Strong play in the regular season didn't translate to the playoffs, and it's left the team with a quandary over how to handle the interior of the defensive line during this 2019 offseason.
The Cowboys entered the 2018 playoffs as one of the top run defenses in the NFL. They ranked fifth in the league in both rushing yards allowed (94.6 per-game) and yards-per-attempt (3.8).
The run defense even showed up in the playoff win over the Seahawks, with Dallas allowing just 73 rushing yards on 24 carries. Seattle was the NFL's top rushing team in the regular season.
But then came the ill-fated trip to Los Angeles, where the Rams decimated the Cowboys' defense with 273 rushing yards.
While they say first impressions are the most important, sometimes your last one is just as critical. The sting of that loss, especially how hapless the team was against the run, will have an impact on everything that Dallas does this offseason.
What could it mean for the defensive tackles?
There was some thought that veteran Tyrone Crawford could be a salary cap casualty this year. Dallas can save $5.9 million by releasing him now or $7 million by making him a post-June 1st cut. That's money which could be used to help re-sign DeMarcus Lawrence, add Earl Thomas, extend Dak Prescott, or many other moves.
But then about a week ago, reports came out that the Cowboys do not plan to re-sign David Irving. If that wasn't enough to help Crawford's job security, it was announced on Tuesday that Randy Gregory had been suspended indefinitely by the league for further substance abuse violations.
This almost assures that Tyrone will stick around in 2019, though he may be playing more on the outside than the interior. He will likely be a starting DE and then move inside on some passing downs.
Barring any offseason acquisitions, Maliek Collins and Antwaun Woods will return as the primary tackles. They come at a combined bargain of just around $2.8 million, with Collins making up most of that one
This duo was emerging nicely throughout last season, arguably playing their best ball by December. You could even give them a partial pass for the Rams game as Collins was battling illness and Woods played with a torn labrum after the 2nd quarter.
Both Maliek and Antwaun will be on expiring contracts, although Woods will only be a restricted free agent in 2020. Even if the Cowboys feel good about this pair as their 2019 starters, they may still want to prepare for the future with Collins soon headed into free agency.
The team faces a tough decision with Maliek Collins, both this year and next season. He's been solid for a third-round pick but inconsistent in his play, seemingly due more to always nursing some kind of injury than any lack of talent.
Maliek takes a lot of snaps, leading all defensive linemen in 2016-2017 and near the top last year in the games he played. He's produced an adequate 10.5 sacks in his career, but half of that came in his rookie season playing next to Terrell McClain.
If the Cowboys want to find an upgrade at defensive tackle, they may very well be giving away Collins' spot.
In that scenario, Dallas could look to find a trade partner. Maliek turns just 24 in April and would cost his next team just $850k in base salary for 2019. The Cowboys would save about $2 million off his scheduled cap hit.
The money isn't prohibitive; Dallas could keep Collins to compete with Woods for a starting role or even to just be a versatile backup. They have total financial flexibility.
Even if the team does look to add an upgrade it still makes sense to hang on to Maliek. The only other DT of consequence on the roster right now is Daniel Ross, who Dallas will almost surely re-sign as an exclusive rights free agent. Having Collins, Ross, and Woods with some free agent or rookie addition would round out the depth chart fairly well.
We mention potential upgrades in free agency because there could be several available. Many expect the Bucs to make six-time Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy a salary cap casualty, even though he's posted six sacks or more every season since 2013. While he just turned 31 in February, McCoy could bring a boost do the Cowboys' defensive front.
Dallas probably won't be looking to pay market price on a guy like Grady Jarrett, but they could also explore second-tier options like Darius Philon (Chargers) or Muhammad Wilkerson (Packers). They have the money, even if they retain Crawford and Collins.
The draft is another option. There could be a few solid DT prospects available when Dallas picks at #58, such as Jeffery Simmons from Mississippi St. or Miami's Gerald Willis III.
If the Cowboys sign Earl Thomas at safety and aren't looking to spend a high pick on TE after Jason Witten's return, then defensive tackle could very well be at or neat the top of their draft needs this April.
This could go any number of ways, and one of those includes just standing pat. Dallas might decide that Maliek Collins and Antwaun Woods were good enough to stick with for next year, seeing the Rams game as an anomaly and focusing on their play throughout the season.
Thankfully, to whatever extent they assess their need at defensive tackle, the Dallas Cowboys have plenty of options to address it. It's not a flashy position, but it's a very important one for them to consider this offseason.
Dallas Cowboys 2019 Draft Needs: Impact of Free Agency Moves & Rumors
With most of the marquee NFL free agents already off the market, many are already turning their eyes to the 2019 Draft. Whether a glaring need went unaddressed or the needs have simply changed, the draft offers the next big opportunity for teams like the Dallas Cowboys to stock talent for next season.
While they've been conservative so far this offseason, Dallas has been active in the last few days in covering bases and giving itself more flexibility for the draft. They don't want to have to reach on a talent because of a need, nor do they want to tip their hand too much to the rest of the league.
As of now there are still some significant acquisitions that could happen. Dallas has visited with veteran Safety Eric Berry and Defensive Lineman Malik McDowell, plus are reportedly in trade talks with Miami for Defend End Robert Quinn. Any of these moves could have a big impact on their need levels for the draft.
We've already seen some changes thanks to offseason activity. With Tuesday's signing of Randall Cobb, plus moves to retain Tavon Austin and Allen Hurns, Dallas may not be looking at a receiver as early as we might've thought. The same can be said for Jason Witten's return and the tight end position.
If the draft were today, without accounting for any of the players that the Cowboys have had talks with but remain unsigned, here's how I would rank the team's 2019 draft needs:
- Defensive End
- Defensive Tackle
- Tight End
- Running Back
- Wide Receiver
- Offensive Tackle
- Quarterback (Mike White is their drafted backup project for at least another year.)
- Punter (Could add someone to compete with Chris Jones and save some cap dollars.)
- Fullback (They re-signed Jamize Olawale, who they barely use anyway. Zero need here.)
I put safety on top because it's the spot that could most use an immediate upgrade and has some pressing future need. Dallas didn't make the big move for Earl Thomas that many hoped for and Jeff Heath's contract expires after this season. Hopefully, a second-round talent could compete for a starting job now and at least replace Heath in 2020.
Even with the Kerry Hyder signing defensive end has some major red flags. DeMarcus Lawrence has sworn he would holdout without a long-term deal. Randy Gregory is suspended again, and now Tyrone Crawford is now facing potential league action from an incident with police last week. Unless the Cowboys think Taco Charlton is going to make a big push in his third year, they could be hurting for a pass rush in 2019.
I expect things with Lawrence will get resolved, and I doubt Crawford will get suspended for more than a game or two if at all. But Dallas could still use another solid DE if they don't get this deal for Robert Quinn done.
Remember, the 2019 Cowboys aren't working with a first-round pick. Barring a trade, they'll be waiting until the 58th pick to make their first selection. That limits the impact potential of their picks and makes what they do with the Day 2 picks all the more critical.
So what if the Cowboys pull off these three potential moves, adding Berry, McDowell, and Quinn? Each player would help to address the top three needs on my list.
Eric Berry hopefully solves the immediate upgrade need at safety, though it may not do much for the future. He turns 31 this year and was released by Kansas City because of multiple injury issues. Dallas could still consider taking a rookie prospect, perhaps even releasing Jeff Heath for cap savings if needed.
Malik McDowell was considered a first-round talent in 2017 but has never played after a major ATV accident prior to his first training camp with Seattle. If he's finally recovered enough to return to football and play at his original potential, he could give Dallas a talent infusion that none of their draft capital could provide.
Robert Quinn has been around a while but will be just 29 in May, and is still putting up sacks at a solid rate. He's averaged 7.5 sacks the last two years with two different teams. He would go a long way to stabilizing things at defensive end and allowing Dallas look at guys like Gregory and Hyder as icing on the cake.
If Dallas lands all three players then I would adjust the list as follows:
- Tight End
- Defensive Tackle
- Running Back
- Defensive End
- Wide Receiver
If you think about it, the safety and tight end positions would be kind of similar in this scenario. You'd have Eric Berry and Jason Witten as the veteran stopgaps, Xavier Woods and Blake Jarwin as intriguing young guys with starting potential, and Kavon Frazier and Dalton Schultz as other young depth.
However, at every step, safety would be deeper and have more upside. Berry should have more to often than Witten, Woods is more proven than Jarwin, and Frazier is more experienced than Schultz.
Plus, we didn't even mention that you'd have Jeff Heath for experience and versatility at safety. Meanwhile, TE Rico Gathers probably won't be on next year's team.
So yes, I'd vault tight end to the top of the need list. Dallas may like Blake Jarwin but they could find a far more polished and talented player with the 58th pick.
Even with McDowell and Christian Covington added to the mix, Dallas would still be wise to address the defensive tackle position. They have several contract issues coming up at once in 2020.
Covington and Maliek Collins will be unrestricted free agents next year. The Cowboys will also likely want to finally shed Tyrone Crawford's contract, with $8 million in cap relief possible. That would leave them pretty bare at defensive tackle.
Dallas could make a move now to solidify their rotation and prepare for the future. They'd have a little more stability at defensive end with assumed multi-year deals for Lawrence and Quinn, making tackle the more immediate concern.
The backup running back spot can't be ignored, with only Darius Jackson and Jordan Chunn currently signed behind Ezekiel Elliott. If Dallas doesn't bring back Rod Smith between now and the draft, they may want to spend a high pick for Zeke's relief man and an additional offensive weapon.
Elliott's own contract will be up for discussion as soon. Having a talented player with a four-year rookie deal behind him could give the Cowboys much-needed leverage in any future talks with their franchise back.
~ ~ ~
We'll see if Dallas lands any of the players we've hypothesized about. Any of them would help lessen the need at their positions, but those would still remain important areas for the Cowboys to look at in the upcoming draft.
Ezekiel Elliott vs Byron Jones Part II: The Case For Paying Zeke
It's a debate that has raged on social media for some time now and it likely won't slow down as the offseason progresses and the Dallas Cowboys begin to hand out massive contracts to their top players. Pay Ezekiel Elliott? Pay Byron Jones? If you could only pay one, which would you pay?
This week fellow Inside The Star Staff Writer, Kevin Brady took to Twitter to poll the populous and his results were a bit surprising to me.
if you can only pay one it should be
The results inspired me to see what would happen if I put the same poll on my timeline.
Inspired by my teammate @KevinBrady88, if you can only pay one, which would it be?
On Monday, Kevin wrote a piece looking at one of the difficult decisions facing the Dallas Cowboys this offseason or next. If the Cowboys could only extend Byron Jones OR Ezekiel Elliott, who should they choose? Kevin, as am I, is a firm believer in Byron Jones ability and says the Cowboys should extend them, and I agree. But let's look at the other side of the argument.
To begin, the Cowboys should and probably will get both guys contract extensions either this offseason or next. It's not impossible with the cap continuing to increase at a rate of about $8-12 million per year that the Cowboys will have the space to get the deals done that they need to get done. Ezekiel Elliott and Byron Jones included.
Byron Jones settled in nicely at cornerback during his first full season at cornerback and knowing what we know about Jones, he won't be satisfied with a second team All-Pro appearance. Expect him to get better. However, if there's a single player that represents the current identity of the Dallas Cowboys, it's Running Back Ezekiel Elliott.
The Cowboys made him the fourth overall pick in 2016 and haven't looked back in their plan to establish the running game. For his career Elliott has averaged 26.9 touches per game over the course of his 40 games.
Here's a look at what Elliott's per game and per 16 game paces look like through the first three seasons of his career.
As you can see from the table above, Ezekiel Elliott is averaging 131.2 total yards per game for his career. In his rookie season he had 1,994 total yards and he sat out the week 17 game against the Philadelphia Eagles when the Cowboys had the NFC and home field advantage locked up. In 2017, Elliott sat out six games and still had nearly 1,000 yards rushing. In 2018, Elliott broke through the 2,000 total yard barrier after seeing a huge increase in his targets and receptions.
Ezekiel Elliott has been everything the Dallas Cowboys could have hoped for and more. With the leadership role he's taken with the team, he's a player that leads both vocally and by example. There are few players on the Dallas Cowboys that give as much effort as he does each snap. How many times has it looked like Elliott was about to get dropped for a two or three yard loss only to grind through tackles to pick up a four yard gain? How many times has he bounced off tacklers to get to the first down marker? Ezekiel Elliott is the human personification of dirty yards, but don't let that fool you into thinking that Elliott can't take it to the house every time he touches the ball. Elliott's is a game breaker who threatens the defense every time he steps on the field.
In 2018, Elliott led the NFL in yards after contact, per Pro Football Focus. His 949 yards after contact in 2018 would have ranked 13th in the NFL in rushing, which was better than David Johnson's 940 yards rushing last season.
Not many running backs effect a football game like Ezekiel Elliott does.
Few players outside of the quarterback position are as much of a focal point for their offense while being an attention grabber for opposing defenses like Ezekiel Elliott is. In 2018, he saw eight or more men in the box on nearly 25% of his carries in 2018. Some of that is related to the Dallas Cowboys insistence on using two tight ends on 50% of their running plays (per Sharp Football), but the other aspect is related to how much they respect the Dallas Cowboys running game. Since the 2014, the Cowboys have been synonymous with running the football. DeMarco Murray, Darren McFadden, and now Ezekiel Elliott have been the faces of that running game behind the Cowboys elite offensive line.
Even in a down year for offensive line play from the Dallas Cowboys, Elliott still managed to lead the NFL in rushing for the second time in three seasons. Elliott made the Pro Bowl for the second time in three years as well. Were it not for the railroad job done by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in 2017, there's a really good chance that Elliott leads the league in rushing three years in a row and that the Dallas Cowboys make the playoffs all three seasons.
Sure, the running back position is undervalued in the NFL and rushing yardage can be replaced, but there are intangibles to Elliott's game that are very difficult to replace. His ability to grind out the dirty yards, break big plays, create yards after contact, pass protect, be a threat as a receiver, and his leadership make him a player that is difficult to replace.
Yes, Byron Jones was really good in 2018 and deserves to get paid by the Dallas Cowboys as well, but you'd be hard pressed to find a player on the Cowboys roster who has been as consistent and dominating week in and week out as Ezekiel Elliott has been over the last three years.
BREAKING: Cowboys Sign Ex-Packers WR Randall Cobb
According to multiple sources, the Dallas Cowboys have signed former Green Bay Packers Wide Receiver Randall Cobb to a one-year deal to help bolster their depth at the WR position and potentially become Cole Beasley's replacement.
Cowboys are giving former Packers' WR Randall Cobb a one-year, $5 million deal, per source. https://t.co/8KWFPjSP8T
The Dallas Cowboys met with Randall Cobb earlier this week, but he eventually left Dallas without a contract. He must've had a change of heart or just needed time to ponder the Cowboys offer, but regardless of what transpired in that short time he is now part of America's Team.
During his time with the Packers, Cobb accumulated 470 receptions for 5,524 receiving yards and 41 touchdowns. The eight-year veteran will now be expected to replace some of Cole Beasley's production out of the slot for the Dallas Cowboys.
After years of watching Beasley as the Cowboys slot WR, it will be really interesting to see Randall Cobb in that role. He's not as quick twitched as No. 11, but can be just as dangerous due to his ability to be more of a down the field receiver. He also brings added value in the return game and could compete with Tavon Austin to become the return specialist.
This could mean the Cowboys forgo drafting a wide receiver early in the 2019 NFL Draft, but I wouldn't put it past them. Regardless of what happens, this is an excellent addition.
Welcome to Cowboys Nation Randall Cobb!
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