The Dallas Cowboys open training camp on July 24th, just a few weeks away. Inspired by the NFL’s recent Top 100 list, I thought it would be interesting to try rank just the Cowboys players against one another. This should also give us a sense of who will make up the majority of the 53-man roster after final cuts.
The players are ranked based on a variety of factors. Overall talent and performance, legacy with the franchise, and the importance of their position (e.g. left tackle vs. guard/center) were all considered. I also looked at their projected role in 2017.
Today we move on to the players ranked #21-30. At this point, we're looking at players who will all significant roles with the team and will likely get credited with some starts, depending on the packages they're involved in.
30. Jonathan Cooper, G
Just four years ago, Cooper was the seventh-overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. Injuries marred his first three seasons in Arizona, leading to him being a thrown-in piece of the Cardinals' trade with New England for Chandler Jones. Last season, another injury caused him to miss time and fall out of the Patriots' plans. He then spent a couple of months with Cleveland, starting a few games but not finding a lasting home.
Immediately after being waived by the Brown in late December, Jonathan Cooper was signed by the Cowboys for an extended audition. He now enters the 2017 season as a front-runner for the starting spot at left guard, vacated by Ronald Leary's free agent departure and La'el Collins moving to right tackle.
Dallas reportedly coveted Cooper during the 2013 draft. He's still just 27 and has plenty of career ahead of him if he can finally stay healthy. It wasn't long ago that the Cowboys had another offensive line reclamation project in Marc Colombo, pulling him off the NFL discard pile and getting six seasons of solid play. Will Jonathan Cooper be another success story?
29. Anthony Hitchens, LB
I recently wrote a more extensive breakdown of Hitchens' status with the Cowboys in 2017. I discussed how, through Sean Lee's major 2014 injury and the various tribulations of Rolando McClain, Hitchens has proven to be a valuable and versatile player. Recent events for the Cowboys just may prove it again.
With the news this week of Damien Wilson's arrest on assault charges, Hitchens may once again be asked to take on a starting role. He may take over as the SAM linebacker, provided he can hold up having to player closer to the line of scrimmage. There's also the possibility of Jaylon Smith playing SAM, leaving Hitchens where he has the most experience in the middle.
The situation just reminds us of how steady and reliable, as well as versatile, Anthony Hitchens is. While it's not under great circumstances for the team, the opportunities for more playing time certainly have to be welcome for Hitchens as he prepares for 2018 free agency.
28. Chris Jones, P
Over the last few years Jones has developed into a very solid punter. He doesn't get the recognition of guys with big distance, but Jones is arguably more valuable because of how well he can aim kicks for the sideline. Not allowing teams to return punts on you is a major boon to the field position battle.
Chris Jones turns 28 in just a few weeks and is in the final year of his current contract. Another solid season should earn him an extension. However, the Cowboys typically bring in at least one young leg in training camp to give their veterans some breaks. There is always the possibility that the young guy impresses the team enough that they might make a switch, especially if the veteran is on an expiring contract.
27. Damien Wilson, LB
Until we know more about Wilson's legal situation and subsequent league discipline, all we can do is look at where he stood going into the season. It actually reinforces what a potentially big loss this is for the Cowboys, and for Damien, as he was starting to look like a breakout player.
Last year, Wilson emerged as a solid and sometimes flashy player as the starting SAM linebacker. He was headed into his third year fairly certain to retain that role and hopefully shine even more.
Now, it's almost assured that Damien will be suspended for some portion of 2017. It's impossible to know now how this will affect his starting role or even his contract with the Cowboys once all the dust settles. For now, we can only bemoan another promising player who the Dallas defense will have to do without.
26. Tyrone Crawford, DE/DT
With arguably the worst contract on the team right now, Crawford has become an afterthought on the Cowboys defensive line. He has been surpassed at tackle by Maliek Collins and isn't seen as a difference maker on the outside. Still, Crawford counts $9.1 million against the 2017 salary cap.
The ability to play multiple positions gives Crawford some sustained value. However, Dallas was expecting him to be a breakout star as the three-tech DT in Rod Marinelli's scheme, getting close to double-digit sacks each year. He's never lived up to that expectation or the contract that came with it.
Next year, Dallas can clear roughly $6 million in cap space by releasing Crawford. Barring a major upswing in his performance in 2017, this will probably be his last season with the Cowboys. He will get plenty of playing time, though, so the opportunity is there to change things.
25. Jourdan Lewis, CB
If not for an ongoing legal issue, Lewis might have gone in the late first round of last April's NFL Draft. Instead he slipped to the third round and corner-needy Cowboys snatched him up.
The waters are murky at the CB position right now. Veterans Orlando Scandrick and Nolan Carroll will be competing with Lewis, Anthony Brown, and fellow rookie Chidobe Awuzie for playing time. If Dallas' recent history with CB injuries is any indication, all will probably have to play some significant snaps at some point this year.
What is clear, though, is that Lewis' talent should keep him around for some time. He may quickly pass Awuzie, taken one round ahead, on the depth chart. If he's a quick learner, Jourdan could have a big role much sooner than you think.
24. Chidobe Awuzie, CB
Nobody was surprised when Dallas took a defensive back in the second round last April. The real question was if they'd go with a cornerback or safety, and in Awuzie they found a guy who might be able to play either spot.
For now, Chidobe is expected to play at CB and could be playing a lot early. Nolan Carroll's DWI arrest in May will likely cost him a few games at the start of the year, putting pressure on Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis to be ready for Week One.
The long-term view on Awuzie is that he could become a tremendous slot corner and eventually replace Orlando Scandrick there. This year, personnel may dictate that Scandrick has to play outside and Chidobe could find himself in the slot role immediately. Clearly, these young cornerbacks in Dallas aren't going to be waiting long for their opportunities.
23. DeMarcus Lawrence, DE
As I wrote a few weeks ago, Lawrence is in a contract year and the situation couldn't be more unsure. After a season marred by back issues and a four-game suspension, DeMarcus watched the team draft his possible replacement and could already be out of their future plans.
That said, this is still a 25-year-old who has displayed his pass-rushing talent more than once. Whether it was his big plays in the 2014 playoff game against the Detroit Lions, or his eight sacks in 2015, Lawrence has kept hope alive that he might finally push through for a true breakout season. It would appear to be now or never, at least as far as the Cowboys are concerned.
Even with Taco Charlton and Charles Tapper in the mix now, Lawrence can still make his case. The Cowboys are going to go with the hot hand and, as we saw in 2015, DeMarcus can put together a consistent streak when healthy. Whether it's to extend his Dallas career or get a good deal elsewhere, Lawrence will have no motivation problems this season.
22. Jeff Heath, S
The Cowboys did not sign or draft any major contenders at safety this year, which was a clear vote of confidence in Heath's ability to handle the job. Rising up the depth chart with Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox both moving to Florida, one of the Cowboys' cult heroes will now get to prove just how great he really is.
All "G.O.A.T." jokes aside, nobody expects Heath to be Darren Woodson. Ho doesn't have to be, though, to improve on what Dallas has had at the position. Church was a solid player but never exceptional. He was especially lacking with turnovers, getting just five interceptions in seven seasons. Heath already has four picks despite his limited playing time in four years.
All it takes is a few big plays to become a star in the secondary. Heath has already experienced a taste of that, and now he will get a full-time opportunity to do even more.
21. Taco Charlton, DE
The Cowboys addressed their biggest need by drafting the 6'6" Charlton. That always comes with the pressure of being expected to solve that need, and Taco will have a tough road to satisfy the expectations of the sack-starved Dallas fans. Whether you grew up with Randy White, Charles Haley, or DeMarcus Ware, Dallas fans long to have another dominant pass rusher emerge.
There will be plenty of contenders in 2017. Charlton will be joined by the aforementioned DeMarcus Lawrence, Benson Mayowa, and Charles Tapper at defensive end. David Irving and Tyrone Crawford may also get time outside and even Damontre Moore could be a factor. The rotation may be good for the line but it could limit individual players' ability to really build their own reputation.
All that being true, being a first-round pick comes with the perk of coaches and scouts wanting you to prove them right. If Charlton can at least match his veteran teammates, he will get extra opportunities based on the hope of further growth and upside.
Wolf Hunter: Leighton Vander Esch’s Pass Coverage Skills Rising to Occasion
The Dallas Cowboys know what they're doing when it comes to the NFL Draft. Not to be outdone by Philadelphia, the Cowboys brought the 2018 Draft to AT&T Stadium, marking the first time the event's been held in an NFL stadium. This made Boise State Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch the first player to be drafted on the field he now calls home. Returning home this week after two straight interceptions against the Eagles and Falcons, Vander Esch is far from the controversial pick that drew jeers inside AT&T Stadium on draft night and every bit the star the Cowboys projected him to be.
The ascension of Leighton "Wolf Hunter" Vander Esch as one of the best young linebackers in the game has happened rapidly. LVE played eight man football in high school, tasked to do everything on both sides of the ball before settling into defense as a walk onto the blue turf.
For the first time in what seems like forever, the Cowboys have more than just a plan to play defense without Sean Lee. Thanks to their 19th overall pick they're thriving as one of the best units in the league, making Lee an afterthought.
Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith have changed the entire makeup of the Cowboys defense, two young and athletic linebackers that should be roaming the middle of the field for a long time in Dallas.
This is exactly what LVE was able to do on his interceptions of both Carson Wentz and Matt Ryan. Vander Esch defending well against the pass is probably the least surprising part of his development, as his coverage skills always overshadowed his strength against the run in college.
It just so happens that Vander Esch tallied 63 tackles in eight games before recording his first career interception, establishing himself as an all-around linebacker with no true weakness. Vander Esch has played with the power and block shedding ability that matches his sideline to sideline range and instincts, as opposing offenses have done little to slow the Cowboys new leader on defense.
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This is Vander Esch's first interception, which set up a Cowboys field goal against the Eagles. Watch as Leighton reads the eyes of Wentz through the play, first angling towards his check down throw and then gaining depth to intercept the pass.
The subtle yet effective movements from Vander Esch to undercut Wentz's throw is a fine example of how quickly LVE has picked up on Kris Richard's defense, as well as the next level game speed.
Check out this video on Streamable using your phone, tablet or desktop.
Sunday's interception from Vander Esch was the type of game breaking play the Cowboys needed to separate from the Falcons in hostile territory. Although the Falcons would rally to tie the game after this point, the Cowboys defense became the first to hold Atlanta under 20 points at home this season, thanks in large part to LVE as always.
The smoothness from Vander Esch on this play is exceptional, stepping up into coverage against the running back before sprinting back in position for the turnover. Calvin Ridley, drafted seven picks after Vander Esch, helps Leighton by letting Ryan's pass go through his hands.
Give Vander Esch credit for being in the right place at the right time and finishing the play. Every week, the rookie finds a way to do something memorable, and in helping the Cowboys earn their first two road wins of 2018 he finally flashed in pass coverage.
The next challenge for the Cowboys defense comes on a short week, against the division leading Washington Redskins. Though they lost starting Quarterback Alex Smith for the season on Sunday, expected to start Colt McCoy on Thanksgiving, it was Running Back Adrian Peterson that gashed the Cowboys for 4.13 yards a carry and 99 total yards in the Redskins week six win over Dallas.
Given what not only Leighton Vander Esch but the rest of the Cowboys defense has shown against the run in recent weeks, all without David Irving and most recently without either Antwaun Woods or Daniel Ross, the Cowboys should certainly be prepared to play for first place in the NFC East on Thursday.
Sean Lee: Time for the General to Surrender
“Football is a meritocracy,” said Tony Romo about this time two years ago. He’d just been told that Dak Prescott would remain the Dallas Cowboys quarterback, though Romo was deemed healthy enough to return to action. Well, the Cowboys face a similar situation with another rookie playing excellent football with a veteran on the sideline. The rookie is Leighton Vander Esch and the veteran is Sean Lee.
When Romo stepped aside he issued the words that have become synonymous with who Tony Romo is, “Football is a meritocracy.” As sad as it is when it comes to the end of a player’s career, the time has come for General Lee to wave that white flag as a full-time player in the NFL.
Lee has been one of the best linebackers in the game during his tenure with the Dallas Cowboys, but has always been limited by his body’s inability to stay healthy. In most seasons, the Cowboys haven’t had an adequate replacement for Lee on the depth chart and that led to disastrous outcomes like the Green Bay and Los Angeles games in 2017. Most years, we’d sit around for weeks telling ourselves, “if the Cowboys can hang in there until Sean Lee gets back, then they’ll be alright.”
That all seems to be over now. The Dallas Cowboys finally have a player on the depth chart who can adequately, and perhaps more than adequately, replace Sean Lee’s production at the weak side linebacker position in Vander Esch. You don’t have to be a film grinder to see that the 19th overall pick has become a difference maker for the Cowboys and someone you can’t take off the field. He’s the future, but he’s also proving to be the now at WILL for the Dallas Cowboys and the coaching staff as well as Sean Lee need to recognize that.
Vander Esch has two interceptions in the last two games, won defensive player of the week for his play against the Philadelphia Eagles. Per Pro Football Focus, Vander Esch is second in the NFL among linebackers in tackles and fourth in the NFL in stops.
He’s been one of the best players on the team this season and shouldn’t come off the field, even for an All-Pro like Sean Lee.
So the coaches have a difficult decision to make, but with the Dak Prescott-Tony Romo decision as a template, it’s not really a difficult decision.
It’s time for Sean Lee to take a step back. He’s a leader on the defense whether he’s on the field or on the sideline. He’s a huge asset to the linebacker room in-game preparation, and he can still make plays for you when asked to do so. Lee, however, doesn’t need to see a full-time compliment of snaps when he returns unless we see a drop off in play for Leighton Vander Esch. Vander Esch’s play and Lee’s body are telling us that the time is now to make the transition to life on defense beyond Sean Lee.
Lee is still an important player to have around and he’ll get some snaps, but the WILL linebacker spot needs to be Leighton Vander Esch’s moving forward.
Because, after all, “football is a meritocracy.”
Ezekiel Elliott’s Excellence Elevates Cowboys in Road Win
For the first time this season the Dallas Cowboys have won back to back games moving to 5-5 on the year with a 22-19 win over the Atlanta Falcons in a game that they had to win to keep their playoff hopes alive. The defense was the story for most of the game, forcing the Atlanta Falcons to kick four field goals before allowing the game-tying touchdown with less than two minutes to play. The offense had trouble getting going until they leaned heavily on their star running back, Ezekiel Elliott.
Elliott, who went over the 200 total yard mark for the second time this season and the fourth time in his career was dominant in the second half, getting hard-fought yards en route to his fifth 100 yard game of the season.
Elliott averaged 5.3 yards per carry, on 23 carries, but was also the leading receiver for the Dallas Cowboys. Ezekiel Elliott on the day caught seven passes on eight targets for 79 yards as well.
The Cowboys first touchdown drive was reminiscent of who the Dallas Cowboys were in 2016. That season, and seemingly rarely since, the Cowboys would go on these long 10-15 play drives in the second half of games and take control of the game.
On Sunday in Atlanta, they did it again.
Trailing 6-3 in the second half with the defense playing an excellent game, the Cowboys went on a 14 play drive for 75 yards that took nearly eight minutes off the clock. It was a huge drive to give the Cowboys a lead and to give their defense a much deserved rest.
On that drive, Ezekiel Elliott saw the ball seven times and set the tone picking up several first downs that helped set up Dak Prescott's four yard touchdown run that took the lead. After Leighton Vander Esch's interception on the ensuing drive, Elliott once again made a huge impact taking the ball twice for 31 yards including the 28 yard touchdown run that put the Cowboys up 19-9 with a little more than 12 minutes to play in the game. And on the final drive of the game, Ezekiel Elliott caught a pass and picked up a first down just inside Falcons territory.
Over the last two weeks, you can see a big difference in the effectiveness of the run game. Elliott spoke about Amari Cooper being one reason they've had more success in the run game.
Ezekiel Elliott on Amari Cooper: "It's just one more guy they have to worry about. It seems like he kind of was the missing piece, just because when he got here this offense started rolling. It's great having him. He's a phenomenal player. He's going to have a great future here.
Amari Cooper's presence is a big reason for the offense and you can tell they've been a more complete offense the last two weeks. The addition of Cooper puts more stress on a defense in the passing game. Like Elliott said, he's a player that has to be accounted for, making his and the offensive line's jobs easier.
The play of the offensive line has also been really good the last two weeks since Marc Colombo took over as offensive line coach and coincidentally Xavier Su'a-Filo was inserted into the starting lineup for an injured Connor Williams.
Whatever the reason, Ezekiel Elliott seems to be on an upward trajectory.
Ezekiel Elliott is now averaging 129.4 total yards per game, which sits right at his career average heading into the 2018 season. He's on pace for 1,524 rushing yards, eight rushing touchdowns, 545 receiving yards, and 3 receiving touchdowns. The touchdown totals are down from his career pace, but he's still on pace for 2,000 total yards this season. If the last two weeks are any indications, that pace could see a huge bump in the second half of the season.
Since entering the NFL, Ezekiel Elliott has: * 17 games with 100+ rush yards * 24 games with 100+ scrimmage yards * 4 games with 200+ scrimmage yards * 3,567 rush yards The one similarity between these numbers? Elliott leads the NFL in each since 2016 #Cowboys
If you needed a singular note to tell you how great Elliott's been for the Dallas Cowboys, that's the one. It's amazing that Elliott leads the league in all of those categories including rushing yards considering he sat out six games last season and had a game where he rushed for only eight yards against the Denver Broncos in week two of 2017.
And then there’s this one.
@dallascowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott had 201 scrimmage yards and a TD in the team's Week 11 victory. Elliott (4,540 scrimmage yards & 32 TDs) became the third player in @NFL history with 4,500+ scrimmage yards & 30+ TDs in their first 35 career games.
The two other players to accomplish that feat were Eric Dickerson and Edgerin James. That’s some legendary company.
Ezekiel Elliott is a big-time player for the Dallas Cowboys and someone who they can lean on the rest of the season. If the Cowboys are going to make the playoffs it will be because the run game continued to play at a high level, which opened everything else up for the offense. While many people will tell you that running backs don't matter, Ezekiel Elliott certainly proved on Sunday that he matters.
And if you watch opposing defenses on Sunday's, they act like Elliott matters. Like Sunday, Ezekiel Elliott will continue to be a threat each week and big things are coming for him and the Dallas Cowboys.
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