The three weeks of "voluntary" OTAs have come to a close for the Dallas Cowboys, and this week starts the mandatory portion of the off-season practice program with minicamps getting started out at The Star. As the OTAs progressed, several players made cases to have their names etched on Jason Garrett's 53-Man Roster when they open up the 2018 NFL Regular Season.
With what we know now, here's what the 53-Man Roster could look like week one.
- Dak Prescott
- Cooper Rush
- Mike White
Dak Prescott is the starter. There is no competition and no debate. He's a good player that has a chance to be a great player. He's in need of a bounce-back start to the season after the way his 2017 season finished, but he's a hard worker and is capable of improving his game.
There was a time when I thought the backup quarterback situation would be a competition between Cooper Rush and Mike White, and it still might be. After what I've read about the two from OTAs, I'm ready to state that the backup quarterback position to Dak Prescott is Cooper Rush's to lose.
Now, I don't have the benefit of watching every practice, but from everything I've read -- mostly from Bryan Broaddus at DallasCowboys.com -- White has been behind on throws while Rush has been making good throws throughout OTAs.
Rush has the edge of experience, even if it is only one year.
Running Back (5)
- Ezekiel Elliott
- Rod Smith
- Jamize Olawale (FB)
- Tavon Austin (Web Back)
- Bo Scarbrough
The guys I've listed above are locks to make the team at this point. The only question with Austin is how do they see him. As a WR/RB hybrid, he will line up in both spots. He's either the fourth running back or the seventh wide receiver.
Jamize Olawale is a great fullback piece. He's averaged 3.7 yards per carry and 10.9 yards per reception for his career while scoring seven touchdowns over the last five years. You may not think much of those numbers, but for a fullback, it's pretty good. Like Tavon Austin, he's a chess piece that the offensive staff can get creative with.
There's a lot that could be said about Ezekiel Elliott as a player. One nugget I found the other day was pretty incredible:
Only 2 running backs averaged more yards per game through their first two seasons than Ezekiel Elliott's 104.6. Eric Dickerson: 122.3 Clinton Portis: 106.9 #CowboysNation
Make sure you read my 2018 stat projection for Ezekiel Elliott for more interesting notes on Elliott.
The final running back spot on the team will come down to Bo Scarbrough, the team's seventh-round draft pick in 2018, and Darius Jackson, the sixth-round pick from 2016.
What gives Scarbrough the edge is his style of play. It's different from anything else we have on the team. He's a straight-line and downhill runner who will find a role as a short-yardage back from time to time. Darius Jackson reminds me a lot of Rod Smith; capable at a lot of things, but not great at any one thing. Bo has great physicality and once he gets going, he's tough to stop.
Imagine dealing with Ezekiel Elliott for 20 carries and then in comes Scarbrough for a series in the fourth quarter.
These five give the team a very well-rounded group of runners that will keep defenses off-balance. Should be a lot of fun to watch them behind this offensive line.
Wide Receiver (6)
The odd man out here, Deonte Thompson, could very well still be on the roster if the legal situation with Terrance Williams turns into an NFL suspension.
With a suspension, the Dallas Cowboys could release him without any cap penalties for the remainder of his contract, which is set to run through 2020. A suspension for Williams could also mean Deonte Thompson gets a roster spot until Williams returns, should the team decide to keep him anyway. It's a bit of an albatross that I'm sure the Cowboys would like some flexibility with, but if there's no suspension, Williams will be on the roster.
Thompson seems very similar to the Nolan Carroll signing a year ago - veteran insurance in case the rookies aren't ready to step into a full-time role.
Michael Gallup and Cedric Wilson have both been making noise throughout the Rookie Minicamp and OTAs, and because of their route-running ability, they will be a part of the new-look Dallas Cowboys WR group.
The team loves Noah Brown's blocking ability and his ability to play special teams. They can use him as a small tight end in formations that motion him in-line like they tried to do with Vince Mayle a few years ago.
Allen Hurns and Cole Beasley are the veterans of the group and fully personify what a "Dak-friendly" receiver looks like. Quick route runners with the ability to line up in several spots on the field.
Tight End (3)
- Dalton Schultz
- Geoff Swaim
- Rico Gathers
The toughest decision for me came down to five running backs (including Tavon Austin) or four tight ends, and ultimately I decided that four tight ends was too much.
They have four guys who are very unproven NFL assets at tight end. Geoff Swaim has the most experience and Rico Gathers brings the most intrigue. Dalton Schultz and Blake Jarwin offer a lot of potential, but their ceilings may not be as high as Gathers if he can put together consistent performances as a blocker.
Jarwin would be a candidate for the practice squad if he doesn't make the team out of camp, but as you know there are always injuries in training camp, so there's still a good chance he makes the team.
Hopefully one of these guys steps up and asserts themselves as TE1 before training camp is completed.
Offensive Line (8)
- Tyron Smith
- Connor Williams
- Travis Frederick
- Zack Martin
- La'el Collins
- Cameron Fleming
- Joe Looney
- Marcus Martin
We know who the starters are before we even hit minicamp. This group of offensive linemen might be the most impressive group we've ever had with a Star on the side of their helmet. They've created a monster that is going to give Dak the protection that failed him in 2017 and blow open holes for Ezekiel Elliott.
Most importantly, the deal with Left Guard Zack Martin is done. He will be with the Dallas Cowboys through 2024 and will begin working with the team on the field during this week's minicamp. Kudos to the front office for getting this done and not letting it linger into training camp.
Joe Looney has been and will continue to be the backup center to Travis Frederick. He can also play some guard in a pinch.
While I think the team is going to give Chaz Green a chance to keep a job, I think the need to go long at WR, TE, and defensive line will prohibit the team from carrying nine guys on the 53-man roster. Though they won't be able to keep a lot of bodies for the offensive line, the depth has gotten better with the signing of Cameron Fleming as the swing tackle.
Defensive Line (10)
- DeMarcus Lawrence
- David Irving
- Maliek Collins
- Tyron Crawford
- Taco Charlton
- Datone Jones
- Jihad Ward
- Dorance Armstrong
- Randy Gregory
- Kony Ealy
Maliek Collins' injury and David Irving's family issues have me concerned that they may have to prepare to start the season without either of those guys.
Irving has stated he'll be ready for training camp when they go to Oxnard, California in July, but the stuff that he's dealing with can take time to sort out. As he stated, it's important to take care of the off-field stuff first so that he can focus on football.
Collins should be ready for week one, according to several reports, but with his history of foot issues now covering each of his first three seasons in the NFL, it's also possible he's not ready when the Cowboys travel to face the Carolina Panthers.
Jihad Ward and Datone Jones are going to get quite the opportunity on the interior to earn playing time with the absences of Collins and Irving. Going up against the All-Universe offensive line that the Cowboys have should only help them to improve.
At the moment, I'm going to say that Randy Gregory gets reinstated and is put on the 53-man roster out of training camp. They'll have to go long along the defensive line.
The odd man out at the moment looks like Charles Tapper, who hasn't really found his stride in the NFL due to injury. The last spot along the defensive line will come down to Tapper and Ealy. Ealy gets the nod at the moment because of his ability to move inside to rush from the 3-tech defensive tackle spot.
We know how this team loves position flexibility.
- Sean Lee
- Jaylon Smith
- Leighton Vander Esch
- Damien Wilson
- Joe Thomas
- Justin March-Lillard
Justin March-Lillard is the name that has been making the most noise so far in the OTAs, aside from Jaylon Smith. With Sean Lee being held out for precautionary reasons and Leighton Vander Esch spraining an ankle, March-Lillard took advantage of a tremendous opportunity to shine with the first-team defense in the last couple weeks of OTAs.
Damien Wilson has been a forgotten man this offseason with the spotlight on Jaylon's recovery and Vander Esch's draft selection. Though he looks like he's going to be moved to more of a reserve role, it's a great sign for the depth of the linebacking group. He's been a good run player for the Cowboys.
Last year they were really thin at the position and now they have four guys who can start for them and play significant snaps.
Joe Thomas is a nice depth piece who will contribute on special teams while being able to play the MIKE and WILL linebacker positions.
- Byron Jones
- Chidobe Awuzie
- Anthony Brown
- Jourdan Lewis
- Marquez White
The surprise of OTAs so far has been the usage of Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis.
We'd been hearing all offseason that Byron Jones and Chidobe Awuzie figured to be the outside cornerbacks for the Dallas Cowboys. We also figured that meant Jourdan Lewis would be the first cornerback off the bench to play in nickel situations. So far, that hasn't been the case as Brown has been playing with the first team defense more regularly.
In 2016, when Brown filled in for Orlando Scandrick in the slot, he was very good. Perhaps he's found his home there again in 2018.
We know that Lewis doesn't fit the long and tall profile that Defensive Backs Coach and Passing Game Coordinator Kris Richard prefers, but I'd argue it's only a matter of time until we see Lewis make his move up the depth chart.
This is a young, talented, and deep cornerback group. The top four guys have each started games in the NFL.
Marquez White, who was seen as a project when drafted in 2017, does fit the profile for Richard and will be the fifth cornerback on the squad this year. He's very athletic and profiles as an outside corner.
- Jeff Heath
- Xavier Woods
- Kavon Frazier
- Tyree Robinson
Xavier Woods is probably the most intriguing player on the defense after Jaylon Smith.
The Dallas Cowboys felt so good about what they had in him that they didn't pull the trigger on draft day to trade for All-Pro Safety Earl Thomas of the Seattle Seahawks. I wouldn't completely rule out a trade however, if Earl continues his hold-out into training camp and the preseason.
I really like Woods' ability to cover and play the run. In his rookie season he was really good as a slot cornerback for the team early on when they were dealing with injuries. His cover ability allows the defense a ton of flexibility when lining up. They can stay in their base 4-3 on early downs more frequently, even when opposing offenses want to go with 11-personnel.
Kavon Frazier really came on at the end of the season as a run-stuffing "box safety." He helped bring an edge to the defense that struggled for much of the year against the run.
Barring any unforeseen deals for a certain safety from a certain team in the Northwest US, Tyree Robinson is my fourth safety. Robinson is a center-fielder type of safety. While Woods also can do that, Robinson will have a shot to earn that spot with his natural instincts to play the position.
From Bryan Broaddus' notes during the rookie minicamp:
"Of the undrafted rookie free agents, Tyree Robinson appears to be the one guy that’s a true free safety. If there was something that stood out about him today was his ball skills. There were a couple of different snaps where he did a nice job of reading the quarterback and putting himself in position to make interceptions."
Bryan Broaddus - DallasCowboys.com
Special Teams (3)
- Dan Bailey
- Chris Jones
- L.P. Ladouceur
Dan Bailey needs to rebound from a slump he experienced in the second half of the season. His field goal percentage of 75% was the worst of his career. He missed some games in the middle of the season due to injury, but had been perfect until the second Giants game when he missed two out of three attempts.
No need to panic yet, but if he gets off to a slow start in the preseason games or the regular season, the Cowboys will have to think about making a change.
Chris Jones remains one of the best punters in the NFL. Not only does he kick it well, but his physical presence helps as a safety valve for the team. What also makes him great is his ability to convert on fakes. It's a weapon that has been quite useful.
L.P. Ladouceur will be the Dallas Cowboys' long snapper for as long as he wants to be the Dallas Cowboys' long snapper. He's that good.
✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭
Obviously, a lot could change between now and September when the regular season opens up, but here's my best guess at the 53-man roster as we sit in June.
We're now 44 days till the first day of practice in training camp, 58 days from the first preseason game, and 89 days from the start of the regular season.
Is Ezekiel Elliott the Most Dominant Running Back in the NFL?
There's no player in football that is more hotly debated at the moment than Dallas Cowboys Running Back Ezekiel Elliott. Though much of the debate surrounds his potential contract extension, which would likely make him the highest-paid running back in the NFL, there's also been a lot of debate about his standing as the best running back in the NFL.
On Thursday, Bleacher Report's Kristopher Knox released his list of the most dominant players at each position. It's a fantastic read and not just because he listed Ezekiel Elliott as the most dominant running back in the NFL.
It's certainly easy to see where he's coming from despite the debate that rages across the NFL's fanbases. Ezekiel Elliott's lead the NFL in rushing two of the three season's he's been in the league. Both of those seasons, Elliott only played 15 games, getting the benefit of the Cowboys playoff positioning being solidified prior to week 17. In 2017, he would have probably ran away with the league's rushing title again, which would make him the three-time defending rushing champion heading into 2019.
In that 2017 season when he missed six games and had a game against the Denver Broncos where he only rushed for seven yards on nine carries, Elliott still finished in the top 10 in rushing.
In 2018, he bested Saquon Bakley by 127 yards rushing. Had Elliott played in the week 17 finale last season and rushed for his season average, he would have won the rushing title by more than 200 yards. And he did that in what many considered to be a down season for Ezekiel Elliott and the Dallas Cowboys rushing attack. Pro Football Focus even graded Elliott as the 30th best running back for 2018.
In 2018, Elliott had 2,000 total yards, besting his 2016 number of 1,994 total yards as a rookie. His rushing total was down in 2018 from 2016, but he still had an excellent season.
No disrespect to Todd Gurley, Saquon Barkley, Alvin Kamara, Le'Veon Bell, or Chrisitan McCaffrey, but they don't have the credentials that Ezekiel Elliott brings to the table. Those guys are great running backs in their own right, but Elliott has lead the NFL in rushing in two of the three seasons he's been in the league and would have probably lead the league in 2017 had he not been suspended.
Since 2015, only Le'Veon Bell has averaged more total yards per game than Elliott, but Elliott's close and he's not used as much in the passing game as Bell. Only Todd Gurley has a higher average of rushing touchdowns per game than Elliott.
Elliott's 3.4 receptions per game through the first three seasons of his career is only slightly better than Todd Gurley who ranks sixth among this group of players. The Dallas Cowboys attempted to get Elliott more involved in 2018 but didn't work him downfield enough in his targets for him to be anything more than a dump-off option. In 2019, the Dallas Cowboys should work to get him running more intermediate routes in the passing game because as we saw in the Detroit game last season, Elliott's got really good hands.
Historically, Elliott is off to a great start to his career. His first three years in the NFL compare quite favorably to two Hall of Famers and one of the most dynamic running backs of the early 21st century.
No player with more than 100 career attempts in the NFL has averaged more rushing yards per game than Ezekiel Elliott.
Think about that for a second. Through his first three seasons, he's averaged more rushing yards per game than Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders, Terrell Davis, Eric Dickerson, Adrian Peterson, Tony Dorsett, Walter Payton, and the list goes on and on.
If you look at what he's done compared to other players during their first three years. Only Eric Dickerson, Earl Campbell, and Edgerrin James averaged more rushing yards per game than Ezekiel Elliott in the first three seasons of their respective careers.
One of the things that people have used to knock Ezekiel Elliott has been the volume of carries that he's received, but there's a reason that the Dallas Cowboys lean on him so heavily. They've created a run-first identity and though at times it has made the offense somewhat inefficient, it's not because the player they're handing to is not a good player, but because every team in the NFL is expecting the Dallas Cowboys to run the football with Ezekiel Elliott.
In 2018 in particular, the Cowboys offensive coaching staff, namely the departed Scott Linehan, didn't do enough to create favorable matchups in the running game. Too often it was a first down run out of heavy personnel that the defense was expecting.
With two rushing titles already in the bag, there's no reason to expect anything different from Ezekiel Elliott in 2019. It's anticipated that the offensive gameplan and execution will be better in 2019 than it was in 2018. The offensive line will be better and with Kellen Moore as the offensive coordinator, there's a thought that the Dallas Cowboys are going to be less predictable moving forward.
The debate will continue to rage over the value of extending Ezekiel Elliott with a contract that will carry him to his age 28 or 29 season, but there is no debating that Ezekiel Elliott is the best and most dominant running back in the NFL.
Is DeMarco Murray a Factor in Ezekiel Elliott’s Rumored Holdout?
There's been a lot of talk this week about a rumored training camp holdout by Ezekiel Elliott, with the Dallas Cowboys' star running back seeking a renegotiated contract. If Zeke does actually hold out, I can't help but wonder if the Cowboys' handling of DeMarco Murray a few years ago isn't a factor in his decision.
Quick history lesson; in 2014, Murray ran for the most yards (1,845) in Cowboys history for a single season. But that was also the final year of his rookie contract, and Dallas chose to let DeMarco leave in free agency when the two sides were unable to agree on new contract.
Murray had just turned 26 when he hit free agency, and his four years Dallas had not had consistent production or availability. 2014 was the first time he was able to play at such a high level, or played a full 16-game season.
As you might remember, Murray left and joined the Philadelphia Eagles under Chip Kelly. As with most things during Kelly's time in Philly, it proved to be a disaster. DeMarco was released after one year and then had a couple of seasons in Tennessee before retiring.
The way it all turned out seemed to validate the Cowboys' decision. Perhaps Murray's big year in 2014 was more about adding Zack Martin and Ron Leary to the offensive line than DeMarco himself. He certainly didn't look like the same player at any other point in his career.
But Ezekiel Elliott and his agent may not be too worried about all of those nuances. They may be looking at the simple fact that the Cowboys allowed one of the most productive RBs in football in 2014 to just walk away in free agency.
Zeke may be worried that Dallas will allow him to do the same.
There are some important differences to note between Ezekiel Elliott and DeMarco Murray. For one, Elliott's been elite every season. He's led the NFL in rushing yards-per-game the last three years.
Zeke has also been faultlessly durable, missing no games due to injury. Murray had already missed 11 games his first three years before we even got to 2014.
However, there are some similarities that can't be ignored. While Elliott's never missed time for health reasons, he missed six games in 2017 due to a suspension for a domestic violence accusation. He also came dangerously close to missing more time this year due to an incident with a security guard in Las Vegas during the offseason.
Availability is availability, whether it's for behavioral issues or injuries. The team assumes the same risk either way.
Also, Elliott has had the same benefit of running behind this great Cowboys offensive line for the last three years. It hasn't been quite as good as 2014, with Ron Leary never being completely replaced, but he hasn't lacked for superior blocking compared to most NFL running backs.
Another factor; Zeke is due to turn 24 next week. That means he'd be 25 next year when playing on the 5th-year option, and about to turn 26 when he hits unrestricted free agency in 2021.
DeMarco Murray was also 26 when he hit free agency in 2015. And he'd only played four NFL seasons, while Zeke would have just finished his fifth.
I'm not saying that Murray and Elliott are the same player. Zeke has proven himself better over a long period of time and with less talent in front and around him. He's carried the offense without Tony Romo's passing or Jason Witten and Dez Bryant still in their prime, like DeMarco had in 2014.
But in 2015, with the prospect of competing for a Super Bowl well in reach, the Cowboys decided to gamble on the shaky Darren McFadden rather than pay DeMarco Murray market value. They trusted their system and offensive line to produce a successful running back.
Zeke may be worried that Dallas is preparing to take that same approach with him. They can keep playing him at a discount this year and in 2020, when even his raise to $9 million is still a bargain compared to guys like Todd Gurley and Le'Veon Bell.
In 2021 the Cowboys could then hit Elliott with the franchise tag. He'd make a ton that year, but without any of the long-term security that other elite RBs are currently enjoying.
In that scenario, Zeke would now be turning 27 the next time free agency rolled around. And the window for getting a multi-year contract may have passed.
That's three more seasons for a major injury to finally find him. If nothing else, it's about 45-50 more games of NFL mileage that could scare other teams off.
Again, this notion of Ezekiel Elliott holding out is just a rumor right now. It may have been floated just to get some easy clicks at Pro Football Talk, which is hardly a new strategy for them.
But in all fairness, you can see why Zeke might be considering it. There's a fair reason to question the Cowboys long-term loyalty, and it goes back to how they handled their last star running back.
History Suggests a Contract Extension for Ezekiel Elliott is a Crapshoot
If rumors are true, Running Back Ezekiel Elliott and Melvin Gordon could be following in the footsteps of Le'Veon Bell by threatening to hold out not only training camp, but the 2019 season if they're not rewarded with contract extensions from their respective teams. It's a bold strategy, especially considering the history of long-term extensions previously given to running backs.
Contract extensions for running backs is always a controversial topic. It's not only one of the easier positions to replace, but the shelf life for a NFL RB is a short one due to the physical nature of the position. Players bodies break down quicker, meaning their lifespan in the league on average is between just 3 to 5 years.
For the most part, the market value for running backs around the league would suggest the position isn't one teams like to invest a lot of resources in. Although, there was an uptick in the market last year when Todd Gurley signed a four-year deal worth $14.375 million a year and then David Johnson signed for three years worth $13 million a season. Those two contracts could be the starting point for Ezekiel Elliott.
Ezekiel Elliott's camp knows all of this and so do the Dallas Cowboys. But, handing out upwards of $14 million to a position that has such a short shelf life in the league is a crapshoot at best, even to a player as talented as Zeke. History hasn't been kind to running backs who receive a long-term extension. In fact, it's really hard to put a finger on one single RB who has lived up to their contract extension.
Take Todd Gurley and David Johnson for instance. Gurley already has long-term concerns about his health, and Johnson missed nearly all of the 2018 season due to an injury. Both players are currently the top paid at the position right now, but they're not the only examples of why the Cowboys should be cautious offering Zeke a contract extension.
The RB tier below Todd Gurley and David Johnson are making around $8 million a year after receiving a contract extension. Unfortunately, the results are about the same. Devonta Freeman ($8.25 M) and Jerick McKinnon ($7.5 M) missed nearly all of the 2018 season due to injuries after being rewarded with long-term deals. Only LeSean McCoy ($8.01 M) has come close to living up to his deal, but even he has struggled off-and-on with injuries.
Need more convincing?
Let's take this back a little bit further. Chris Johnson, Johnathan Stewart, DeMarco Murray, DeAngelo Williams, Ray Rice… I can go on and on. Even players such as Arian Foster who remained productive after receiving an extension struggled with injuries. If you haven't yet, you may start to see a trend here.
Now, I'm not saying the Dallas Cowboys shouldn't extend Ezekiel Elliott. Personally I'm on the fence about it and would be fine with them going either direction. But, they absolutely have to be cautious with the way they handled this. History is a good indicator they may not get the same kind of production from Zeke as they have previously.
Do you think the Cowboys should give Ezekiel Elliott a contract extension?
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