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Dallas Cowboys Position Groups to Watch During OTAs

John Williams

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Less Is More For Sean Lee And Cowboys' LBs?

With the Dallas Cowboys set to begin their Off-season Training Activities (OTAs), there are still some questions to answer about a team trying to improve on a 9-7 record from 2017. There has been a lot of noise this offseason from The Star related to the Cowboys transaction wire, but during the draft is where you saw your favorite team make the most dramatic improvement.

As we get ready for OTAs, let's look at the most intriguing position groups to watch during the preseason for the Dallas Cowboys.

Are Dallas Cowboys Building A Championship Defense?

Dallas Cowboys CB Jourdan Lewis, CB Chidobe Awuzie, S Xavier Woods (AP Photo / Ron Jenkins)

Defensive Backs

With the addition of Kris Richard and immediate move of Byron Jones to cornerback, this defensive backfield is the group of players I'm most excited to see this season. Richard brings an energy that is contagious. If you watched the draft via DallasCowboys.com's The Draft Show, you got to see the excitement Kris Richard brings to the room.

Everyone from Rod Marinelli to Byron Jones has raved about Richard as a coach and person, but the thing that's exciting to me is the style that Richard is bringing from his days in Seattle.

Bringing an aggressive and in-your-face style to the coverage unit, Jones, Chidobe Awuzie, and Jourdan Lewis are going to be unleashed on NFL wide receivers. Those three bring some fight and edge to their game that will leave Cowboys Nation thoroughly satisfied. 

No longer will we be screaming at our televisions because the corners are playing 10 yards off the line of scrimmage on 3rd and 5. 

The players on the team have heard the message from Rod Marinelli about creating turnovers. Now they have a passing game coordinator asking them to be aggressive even before the football is snapped. Not allowing wide receivers much room will allow the corners to make more plays on the football. 

I believe this is the year we see the Dallas Cowboys take a step forward in the interception department. The DB group may not have the skins on the wall that the "Legion of Boom" does, but they have the potential to be that good. 

Linebackers

This group brings a lot of intrigue with Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith, and Leighton Vander Esch.

For two years we've been following along as Jaylon Smith has been recovering from the devastating knee injury he suffered in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl. After an up and down 2017, where he still required the use of a brace for foot drop, Jaylon has been working out this offseason without the brace. Word is he's continuing to progress in the health of his knee and the feeling in his foot. 

Watch: Jaylon Smith working out without his brace.

All good things for the most optimistic NFL player ever. 

Getting another year of Sean Lee should have Cowboys fans optimistic as well, though we're never sure what we're gonna get from the former All-Pro. The only thing that has ever held Sean Lee back is his ability to stay on the field. Hopefully this year The General gets a little bit of injury good luck on his side.

The Dallas Cowboys were 2-1 before losing back to back games in which the offense scored 30 points against the Los Angeles Rams and the Green Bay Packers. Had they split those two games, the team is probably 6-2 at the midway point. Even with a similar record in the second half, that puts them at 10-6 on the season and probably in the playoffs.

Sean Lee is a huge difference maker on this defense and they've potentially found some insurance if Lee isn't able to play 16 games in 2018 with their first round pick, Leighton Vander Esch. 

Vander Esch out of Boise State University, may not be the most physical player in this year's rookie class, but if you watch some of his work in college, the thing that's evident is the kid has a knack for coverage. 

You never know what a rookie is going to bring to the table until you see them with the pads on and in real games, but LVE certainly has the ability to be a difference maker. Coverage is as much about instincts and athletic ability as it is about technique and preparation, and Vander Esch has the instincts and athletic ability covered.

I'd bet that he and Jaylon rotate snaps at MLB with LVE being the second linebacker on passing downs next to Lee. We may see them line up in more 3-3-5 formations during passing situations. This is where they go with three defensive lineman, three linebackers, and five defensive backs. A formation like this allows them to mix up who the fourth rusher is and where they are coming from.

Lee, Smith, and Vander Esch all have proven rushing ability that could make for some fun packages deployed by defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli.

Now with better depth at each level of the defense, the personnel combinations are endless. However they deploy this trio is going to create problems for opposing defenses. 

Cowboys Land Small School WR In Latest PFF Mock Draft

Dallas Cowboys WR Michael Gallup (Photo by John Leyba/The Denver Post)

Wide Receivers

Coke Beasley, Terrance Williams and Allen Hurns are the only wide receivers with skins on the wall on the Dallas Cowboys wide receiver depth chart. Aside from Hurns' 1,000-yard season in 2016 and Beasley's Cowboys-leading 2016, the skins are pretty thin. 

Now, considering Terrance Williams' recent run in with the law, his status with the team could be in jeopardy depending on what the NFL decides to do. They could suspend him under the personal conduct policy which would allow Dallas some cap relief if they were to release him.

If he isn't suspended, he'll be with the team as it will cost the Dallas Cowboys money to cut him. Inside The Star Staff Writer Jess Haynie took a detailed look at Terrance Williams' contract status with the team.

With Michael Gallup's selection at pick 81 in this year's draft, the Dallas Cowboys have begun overhauling their wide receiver group. Gallup has a chance to assert himself early and carve out a role as soon as week one, especially if Williams is suspended and/or released. 

They don't have Jason Witten or Dez Bryant to lean on -- it's arguable if they could lean on them last year -- and will be deploying players who have a knack for getting open.  

Seeing how the coaching staff deploys the wide receivers during OTAs will give us a hint at what the week one starting lineup looks like.

This doesn't even begin to touch on the addition of Sanjay Lal, whose philosophy is for guys to get open if they want the ball. Imagine every wide receiver on the roster being able to get open with Cole Beasley's type of efficiency...

✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭

There are still some questions to be answered, like tight end, the defensive tackle deployment, or -- for pure entertainment purposes -- the offensive line with second-round pick Connor Williams inserted in the lineup. There are several intriguing position groups to watch during the preseason, but these are the positions I'm most interested in following during OTAs and training camp.

What will you be watching for?



Dallas Cowboys optimist bringing factual reasonable takes to Cowboys Nation and the NFL Community. I wasn't always a Cowboys fan, but I got here as quick as I could.

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Star Blog

Does Darius Jackson Have A “Puncher’s Chance” Of Landing On Final Roster?

Kevin Brady

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Darius Jackson, Bengals

Remember Darius Jackson?

The sixth round running back was an instant fan favorite of Cowboys Nation, as the fanbase hoped Dallas had found the explosive RB2 behind Ezekiel Elliott they needed in the very same draft. Jackson, however, had an up-and-down preseason in 2016 and ended up being waived from the team to make room for Darren McFadden later in the year.

Jackson has bounced around the league a bit since then, joining both the Cleveland Browns and Green Bay Packers at different points. He's back with the Cowboys, however, looking to fight his way onto the team's final roster.

But does the fourth year running back have more than a puncher's chance to do so?

The Cowboys spent much of the 2019 NFL Draft rebuilding their running back depth. First, they drafted Memphis back Tony Pollard hoping to find a versatile and dynamic threat to compliment the workhorse that is Ezekiel Elliott. Then, in the seventh round, Dallas took another Ohio State running back in Mike Weber who fits more of the "traditional" running back form.

So with two new touted rookies behind the veteran Elliott, and fullback Jamize Olawale more than likely having a roster spot as well, there doesn't seem to be room for Darius Jackson on the Dallas Cowboys.

That didn't stop him from competing at OTAs, however. DallasCowboys.com named Darius Jackson one of their top ten "head turners" from the OTA practices, and considering that Mike Weber is banged up at the moment, Jackson will certainly have his opportunities to fight for that spot.

Still, the odds suggest that Darius Jackson will not be with the Cowboys come the Fall of 2019. Though he entered the league with some fanfare for a day three pick, his production has been more fitting of his draft grade than of his fan hype.

Jackson hasn't been the explosive player/receiving back that they're hoping Tony Pollard will be, nor has he been the every-down type backup runner that they seem to hope Mike Weber will be.

In the end, the Cowboys-Darius Jackson story is likely to close during this year's training camp.



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Cowboys Camp: Strong Safety Battle One to Watch

John Williams

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Sean's Scout: Secondary Play, Improved OL Play Stand Out in Cowboys Win Vs. Giants

When the Dallas Cowboys head to Oxnard, California for the start of training camp in late July, they'll have most of the roster settled. On paper, they're a team that doesn't have many holes on the depth chart.

They've added depth at every position and added playmakers on both sides of the football. On defense, there appears to be only one position where the starter heading into training camp may not be the starter come week one. Strong safety.

Veteran Safety Jeff Heath is currently running with the first team defense through the offseason portion of practices. George Iloka and Donovan Wilson were added to the strong safety depth chart featuring Heath and special teams ace Kavon Frazier.

While most teams would be excited about having a returning starter at the position, Heath's 2018 left a lot to be desired. Per Pro Football Focus, Heath missed 19 tackles on the season, which was second in the NFL. It seemed that Heath became more interested in attempting to strip the ball out of the ball carrier's hands than actually making the tackle, which became increasingly frustrating as he forced only a single fumble all season long. Though he had a lot of missed tackles, Heath did finish 15th in the NFL in Pro Football Focus' "stops," which are defined as a "play that results in a loss for the defense." Heath was third on the team in total tackles with 85 and tied with Jaylon Smith for third in tackles for loss with six.

The biggest competition for Heath at strong safety will be veteran George Iloka.

Signed to a one-year contract after spending time with the Cincinnati Bengals and Minnesota Vikings, Iloka comes to the Dallas Cowboys adding depth at free safety behind Xavier Woods. He also creates competition for Heath at strong safety, which should help Jeff Heath raise his game and get more consistent with his tackling. Iloka has experience and brings good size and length to the secondary, which should help them defend tight ends in the passing game.

Because of his injury, Kavon Frazier could see his playing time evaporate heading into 2019. If he's unable to get healthy and make an impression early, Frazier could miss out on the 53-man roster when the team makes their final roster cuts.

The player that stands to benefit the most from Kavon Frazier's injury, and the one I'm most interested in watching in the Dallas secondary the rest of the preseason is sixth-round draft pick, Donovan Wilson. The rookie from Texas A&M has made several plays in the secondary that stood out during OTAs. Here's what Bryan Broaddus of DallasCowboys.com had to say about Donovan Wilson during last week's minicamp.

"I haven’t written much about Donovan Wilson since rookie minicamp, but I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to mention a nice play he had during the two-minute drill. Kris Richard came with a blitz, which forced Cooper Rush to throw “hot” to Dalton Schultz. Wilson, from several yards away, saw Schultz look up and drove on the ball, arriving at the exact time it hit Schultz’s hands. With his left hand Wilson was able to drag the ball away, knocking it to the ground."

Bryan Broaddus - DallasCowboys.com

Wilson will be a player to watch in training camp. The Cowboys have had success finding defensive backs in the late rounds of the draft. Anthony Brown was a fifth-round pick in 2016 and Xavier Woods was a sixth-round selection in 2017. Now Wilson, with his aggressive and physical demeanor will have an opportunity -- this year or next -- to carve out some playing time in a secondary that needs more players who can create turnovers.

Strong safety is one of the few starting spots where there is actual competition for the incumbent starter. Pretty much every other position has returning starters locked into the starting lineup or, in Travis Frederick's and Robert Quinn's cases, a significant talent upgrade that makes them day-one starters.

The competition at strong safety should help everyone be better for the Cowboys in 2019. If Heath is able to hold off Iloka and Wilson to remain the starter, then he will have once again earned it. With the depth they have this season, including two guys who won't be liabilities in pass coverage, the Cowboys have options if Heath misses tackles in 2019 as he did in 2018.



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Dallas Cowboys Shouldn’t Add a Veteran Backup Quarterback

John Williams

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How Will Coaching Changes Impact Cowboys' Backup QB Battle?

With offseason training activities and minicamps coming to a close, now begins the wait for July 27th and the first day of training camp practice in Oxnard, California for the Dallas Cowboys. In my nearly 20 years following the Dallas Cowboys, this is the deepest and most talented roster I can remember the Cowboys taking to training camp.

Of course, there are areas of weakness, especially when you compare them to other position groups. Unfortunately, there isn't always a simple fix to said area of weakness. If you're looking for one area of complaint, you could point to backup quarterback.

Cooper Rush and Mike White have a combined three regular season attempts between the two of them. I wouldn't hold that against them though, because the reason they only have three attempts between them -- and really it's just Cooper Rush has three attempts -- is because Dak Prescott has been such a durable quarterback that those other guys aren't getting into games.

The only time Cooper Rush has appeared in a game was during lopsided wins against the San Francisco 49ers in 2017 and the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2018 and a blowout loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in 2017.

The reports coming out of OTAs and minicamp are that Cooper Rush and Mike White haven't had very good practices. Reports of interceptions have a portion of Cowboys Nation concerned about the quarterback position after their franchise quarterback.

Those reports can offer some insight into how things are going, but they should hardly be taken completely at face value. Remember what Allen Iverson said, "We talkin bout practice." Just like we shouldn't get too hyped about what Dorance Armstrong or Dak Prescott are doing in practice, we shouldn't overreact to some bad practices by your backup quarterbacks. Remember, they're largely throwing to guys who are undrafted free agents and are likely to be released when the team trims their roster to 53.

So much of where the concern about the backup quarterback position comes from is because of the recent history this team has had with losing its starting quarterback to injury. Tony Romo missed games in 2008, 2010, 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016. That's six out of 11 seasons where he was the starting quarterback heading into training camp in which he missed at least one game in a season.

Dak Prescott hasn't missed a start since his sophomore season at Mississippi State in 2013. That's five straight seasons between college and the NFL that Dak Prescott has been available for his team. In 2013, he was splitting snaps with the Bulldogs senior quarterback, but since 2013, has been available for 88 of his team's 90 games. Dak's started 51 straight games for the Dallas Cowboys in three seasons and has the strength and durability to continue to do just that.

Dak Prescott isn't Tony Romo. According to DallasCowboys.com, Dak Prescott measures at 6-2, 238 pounds. That's huge for an NFL quarterback. Romo was 6-2, 230. Romo, however, never looked as strong or thick as Dak Prescott. He always looked more slender playing the quarterback position and his durability was a concern. So far in Dak's career, durability hasn't been an issue, therefore the quarterback position is less of an issue.

The recent history of 2015, when Tony Romo went down and the season went with it, has many leery of going into a season with unproven commodities. But in that 2015 season, they had "proven" commodities at the quarterback position and those players went 2-11 in the starts that Tony Romo missed.

The free agent quarterback market doesn't look all that enticing at this point in the offseason. And that should be obvious. Any quarterback that was worth signing is already on a team. What you're left with is a who's who of bad quarterback options that wouldn't give you much more confidence in that Rush or White if necessary.

  • Matt Cassell - Been there, done that.
  • Brandon Weeden - See above.
  • Mark Sanchez - See Above.
  • Brock Osweiler - Miami, Denver, and Houston did that, chose to go another direction.
  • Derek Anderson - not a terrible option, but not necessarily better than what you have.
  • Josh Johnson - Pass.
  • Geno Smith - The New York Giants didn't want him. Very Hard Pass.

There isn't a free agent quarterback that makes sense. They're either old descending quarterbacks or young retreads that have been through a few different organizations and haven't been able to find a landing spot. Let's get into training camp and the preseason and see what Mike White and Cooper Rush do in a game-like situation before making a definitive evaluation.

With Kellen Moore and Jon Kitna as Dak Prescott's main coaching influences in 2019, there's no need for a veteran backup quarterback to "mentor" Prescott at this point in his career. Moore was always considered a very smart player that was viewed as a future coach. Kitna was one of the better backup quarterback options during his career and has spent time coaching in the high school ranks. Dak couldn't have two better guys in his ear during the week or on gameday. A veteran quarterback doesn't really add anything to what these two already bring.

The Cowboys are content to see how the backup quarterback battle plays out between Mike White and Cooper Rush. Let these guys get as many snaps as they can in training camp and the preseason and if, for some reason, neither guy steps up and you feel like you need to add a veteran, then go grab Mark Sanchez since he knows the offense and has a good relationship with Dak Prescott.



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