Three of the four teams remaining in the NFL playoffs -- a win away from the Super Bowl -- ranked within the top four defensively in yards per game allowed this season. The other is the defending-champion New England Patriots, who of course were expected to reach yet another AFC Championship game, thanks to Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.
Somewhere between this field, losing their 2017 hopes at a deep playoff run to injuries, suspensions, and just poor execution at times, are the Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys ranked eighth in yards allowed per game at 318.1 this season.
On the surface, all this provides hope that typically springs eternal around the league through the offseason.
It has been far too long since the Cowboys defense matched the skill level of the team's offense, but Rod Marinelli's unit (not exactly by design) outplayed that of Scott Linehan's at times through this 9-7 campaign.
This defensive rebuild in Dallas began with the admission that this group had reached their ceiling in the offseason, as the Cowboys let long-time starters like CB Morris Claiborne, CB Brandon Carr, S Barry Church (now with the Jaguars), and S J.J. Wilcox go in free agency.
For a team with Super Bowl aspirations, looking to turn over an entire secondary in a division featuring Carson Wentz, Eli Manning, and Kirk Cousins as quickly as the Cowboys did was a risky move. Their confidence in hitting on draft picks paid off though.
The Cowboys' bright future is predicated on the likes of CB Chidobe Awuzie, CB Jourdan Lewis, and S Xavier Woods.
With two young starters at cornerback, the sky truly is the limit the this Cowboys defense. And they'll play in support of an offense with more than enough talent to return to form in 2018.
As it stands now under Rod Marinelli, the Cowboys defense is built to keep everything in front of them, and get bodies to the football. This coverage-friendly approach could be taken to new heights with Lewis and Awuzie on the outside, along with Anthony Brown finding a home in the slot. All three cornerbacks have excelled at using their speed, length, and technique to get their hands on passes.
Of course, games are won in the trenches, where the idea of the Cowboys defensive line ever rising to the level of their offensive line was laughable until recently. Whether it's with the franchise tag or a long-term extension, sack-artist DeMarcus Lawrence looks to be an all-important member of this entire team moving forward.
A healthy Lawrence was a nightmare for opposing right tackles in 2017. He earned a national spotlight each week on his way to the quarterback 14-and-a-half times. Making it look easy at times, Lawrence is a refined rusher with the speed and power to win inside and out.
The RDE position remains a sore spot in need of talent as this Cowboys defense looks to take the next step, but there's hope for the likes of Randy Gregory, Charles Tapper, and Taco Charlton to get the job done, along with veteran starter Tyrone Crawford.
With Crawford at RDE for much of 2017, running the ball against the Cowboys front was a tall order. His ability to capture the corner against left tackles came as a pleasant surprise to many, and once in position, the defensive captain chased down plenty of plays.
Tyrone Crawford wasn't the only pleasant surprise on the Dallas Cowboys defensive line this season.
Rookie Taco Charlton looked like an entirely different player to close a first year in Dallas that began with completely uninspiring results. Charlton -- having the physical traits to play at the next level -- was never a question out of Michigan.
He may never be a player to take over games for a defense, which the Cowboys couldn't have expected to find at DE selecting 28th overall, but an improved player at DE and DT could be an incredibly valuable asset for the Cowboys in 2018 and beyond.
This leaves the Cowboys linebacker corps, where we find the best example of young potential on the entire defense. Amazingly playing in all 16 games, LB Jaylon Smith is in line to take a massive step forward in year two.
Smith closed his season looking enticingly close to the player he was at Notre Dame, an encouraging sign as the Cowboys look to become less dependent on Sean Lee on this side of the ball.
Lee and Smith paired together would give the Cowboys a middle-of-the-field presence to rival the best in the league. Both players have exceptional range and awareness to run down plays from sideline to sideline.
Anthony Hitchens, an impending free agent, is another valuable piece at LB with his ready ability to play all three positions at a relatively high level.
Stefon Diggs racing to the end zone with no time left to send the Vikings to the NFC Championship game will be the lasting image of this past Divisional Round weekend, an offensive play that will live on forever.
A closer look at these games and the teams that survived them reveals a collective trust in defenses, a trust the Cowboys could be blissfully close to with their own young defense.
The Cowboys are likely losing one of the smarter minds behind their defense in recent years, with Matt Eberflus ticketed for Josh McDaniel's staff, and are still in need of a secondary coach after not retaining Joe Baker. In a league where better talent typically prevails though, the possibility of the Cowboys building a championship defense for next season and beyond may not be far off.
With defenses in Jacksonville and Philadelphia providing the hope that both teams can pull off the impossible and reach the Super Bowl on Sunday, will defensive potential be enough for Dallas to get through this long offseason and start the even longer path back to their first NFC Championship game in 21 seasons?
Could Loaded FA Safety Market Drive Down Earl Thomas’ Value?
It's no secret the Dallas Cowboys and Earl Thomas share a mutual interest in one another. Thomas has publicly stated his desire to join America's Team and the Cowboys did their darndest to make that happen last offseason. Nothing ever materialized a year ago, but it's looking as if the stars have finally aligned and a union between the two could merely be just weeks away.
Surprisingly enough, the Dallas Cowboys may have dodged a bullet last year when the Seattle Seahawks refused to part ways with their All-Pro safety. Not only would they have had to surrender a high draft pick, but they would've also had to extend Thomas' contract. Fortunately, timing is everything and now the Cowboys might just have to do the latter.
A potential contract between the Cowboys and Thomas is of course what I want to dive in today. I'm not going to get into numbers right now, because it's nearly impossible to project any kind of contract for any safety this offseason, especially for the former Seahawk, Earl Thomas.
Right now, it's a little difficult to know who might have the advantage in contract negotiations, Earl Thomas or the Dallas Cowboys. A lot of times the one that has the leverage, however slight, is the one that gets the better of the deal. As surprising as it may be, the Cowboys might just have the advantage here and I'll tell you why.
First off, this year's market for free agent safeties is pretty stacked with starting caliber players. See below:
- Earl Thomas
- Landon Collins
- Lamarcus Joyner
- Tyrann Mathieu
- Adrian Amos
- Clayton Geathers
- Ha-Ha Clinton Dix
- Glover Quinn
- Tre Boston
- Kenny Vaccaro
- George Iloka
- Jimmie Ward
- Adrian Phillips
Earl Thomas is obviously the headliner here amongst the free agent safeties, but having so many starting caliber players available could drive down Thomas' market value just a bit. This is especially true when you take into consideration the market for FA safeties just a year ago. It was almost a complete standstill last year, with only Kurt Coleman signing a three-year $16.5 million deal with the New Orleans Saints. Not even the "Honey Badger" Tyrann Mathieu could get more than a one-year deal.
With all of these safeties available in free agency, we could be looking at another stingy market. This of course could be good or bad news for the Dallas Cowboys, especially as it pertains to Earl Thomas. Since he is the top FA safety available, everything could once again be at a standstill until he is signed.
Of course, we all know this will ultimately come down to determining Earl Thomas' market value. There is no denying he is still arguably the best free safety in the game today, but there are concerns about his age (30) and the two lower leg injuries he's sustained in the past three years.
Even with the loaded free agent market of starting caliber safeties and Thomas' age and recent injury history, he's still likely to receive a contract that earns him $10 million annually, give or take. It wouldn't surprise me at all if he gets another four-year deal worth $40 million, $25.7 million guaranteed, with a $9.5 million signing bonus like he signed with the Seahawks back in 2014.
The Cowboys of course would probably find a four-year $40 million deal for Earl Thomas acceptable. They would more than likely frontload the contract with a lot of protection in the details. They have the cap space to make this happen and still be able to sign their own, so money shouldn't be a problem.
Now, whether or not Thomas' market value may dip a little due to all of the above mentioned reasons will be something we will have to wait and find out. Regardless, I'd be a little shocked if Earl Thomas doesn't finish his career with the Dallas Cowboys.
Do you think Earl Thomas' market value will take a little hit this offseason?
Acquiring Brown Will Give Dallas Twin Turbo Terrors
What a difference a receiver makes, right? As Dallas fans, we know the impact of a player who can shake coverage, get open, and catch the ball. How was the season going before the Cowboys pulled the trigger for Amari Cooper in the deal with the Raiders? Cooper proved to be the lightning rod and a turning point in a season that was growing increasingly dismal. Dak Prescott and Cooper went together like peanut butter and jelly, while the Cowboys stormed to a division title and a postseason berth.
Now, imagine all of that times two… maybe even two and a half if Antonio Brown could be had from the Steelers. Scary right? We understand there’s only one ball to go around but that didn’t stop Kevin Durant from joining the Warriors, did it?
As of this writing, the best online sportsbooks like Intertops, are dealing Dallas as the seventh of 16 choices to win the NFC championship at odds of 12-1. Imagine how those odds would shrink if Brown wore a Cowboys uniform next season, giving Prescott the luxury of not one upper echelon wideout but that plus an elite receiver. Hut, hut, hut and a few clouds of smoke later the Cowboys would be moving the chains or celebrating in the endzone.
Brown and Cooper would be a devastating combination with Ezekiel Elliott coming out of the backfield. Brown was made for Dallas, it gives him an even grander stage than the one he shared with Ben Roethlisberger and Le’Veon Bell in Pittsburgh.
Despite the fact that the 'Boys haven’t won a Super Bowl since Barry Switzer was roaming the sidelines in the mid-90s, America’s Team still resides in Dallas. But we need a game-changer and Brown is just such an athlete. But what do we give in return and will that cost be worth whatever productive years Brown has left after this one? Let’s not forget that the mercurial Miami native will be 31 when the season begins and men who make a living with their legs don’t get better at that age. But Brown is so good and so unique that, even if he drops half a click, he's still amongst the best in the game.
That level of talent is hard to replicate and it could be the missing piece which allows Dallas to be a legitimate Super Bowl contender next season and the year after.
However, up to this point, we’ve been very good at dreaming of a Brown to Dallas trade but haven’t quite worked out the details. It takes two to tango and if we expect to get the Steelers’ attention we need to give them something valuable in return. Dallas surrendered their first-round pick (27th) this season when they traded for Cooper so that’s no longer an asset.
Pittsburgh would be vying for a first-round pick (and likely more) for Brown's services but some have speculated Dallas would consider dealing rookie-standout Leighton Vander Esch.
Wait... what? We know, you’re clutching your pearls, and the words are stuck in your gasp. We get it. The kid was a home run this past season, leading the Dallas defense in tackles and earning a Pro Bowl invitation in his inaugural NFL season. But this would be a Faustian deal.
The Cowboys give up a player who is poised to be a stud for years to come for a playmaker in Brown that could render a Super Bowl in the immediate future. Brown's expiration date will surely turn his milk sour sooner rather than later, but in the here and now, Antonio Brown could be the bell cow who leads the Cowboys to the promised land before he’s put out to pasture.
Just something to think about...
2018 In Review: CB Anthony Brown Bounces Back
To say it's been an up-and-down start to the career of young cornerback Anthony Brown would be an understatement.
As a sixth round pick in 2016, everything Brown contributed during his rookie season was a plus. Due to injury he was asked to step into a greater role as the season went on, and he performed well enough to make the front office comfortable allowing multiple veterans to walk for nothing in free agency the following Spring. Brown looked like a legitimate starting cornerback in the league, and when Dallas brought in Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis during the next draft, the young secondary seemed set.
Then 2017 happened. And Anthony Brown struggled. Really struggled.
These struggles, coupled with the emergence of both Lewis and Awuzie during their own rookie seasons, made Brown's status heading into 2018 rather uncertain. Some wondered if they would trade him for a day three pick, others thought Brown could even end up being cut. Jourdan Lewis and Anthony Brown were slated to compete for the nickel cornerback job in training camp, and as it turned out, all Brown needed was that one extra chance to compete.
Brown won the job outright during the preseason, and began 2018 as the starting nickel. A fan favorite, most thought Lewis would reclaim his rightful spot on the depth chart sooner or later, but Anthony Brown's play (and Kris Richard's preferences) kept Lewis on the bench for much of the season.
Simply put, Anthony Brown balled in 2018, and was the Cowboys' second best corner for most of the year. By the end of the season Chidobe Awuzie had regained form, but Brown and Byron Jones were the most consistently reliable corners on the roster all of 2018.
Brown tallied 44 tackles, 2 sacks, and an interception in 2018, and finished third on the team in pass breakups with 8. As the slot corner Brown had an excellent season, especially for a former sixth round pick.
Now he enters a contract year, and with the Cowboys having so many guys to pay over the next two offseasons, he could find himself as an unrestricted free agent in 2020. And if he can keep up his play from last year moving forward, he could be in for a nice payday that Spring.
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