On April 28th, the Dallas Cowboys went and got their guy. This was the night of the 2016 NFL Draft, and the Cowboys cashed in their miserable 2015 campaign for RB Ezekiel Elliott - the fourth overall pick out of Ohio State.
Fast forward to September 11th, when Elliott made his regular season debut against the New York Giants, facing immense pressure to live up to all of the hype around this running back prospect stepping in behind the best offensive line in the world. Zeke went for just 51 yards on 20 carries, and we all focused in just a little bit more on the 21 year old.
With an incredibly limited off season and preseason, Elliott picked things up following this week 1 performance on the road against the Redskins, carrying 21 times for 83 yards and another score. The best sign from this game, besides the fact that the Cowboys picked up a much needed win, was that Elliott began to patiently read his blocks and allow plays to develop - unlike his impatient style in the previous game.
Cowboys Nation couldn't help but smile, as we could feel that Ezekiel Elliott was about to break out. The lights were going to be on in week 3 for Sunday Night Football at home against the Bears, and the rookie would be ready.
30 carries. 140 yards. 4.7 Yards Per Carry.
Zeke stole the show by running all over the depleted Bears defense, showcasing just a little bit of his wide range of skills that made him the most complete running back prospect to enter the NFL Draft in years. He was just getting started.
On Sunday, Dallas fell behind the 49ers on the road 14-0, their largest deficit of the season. Scott Linehan stuck with his running game, because he knew that Ezekiel Elliott would not be denied behind this offensive line.
He was correct.
Zeke ate up yards all game long, getting stronger in the second half on his way to an average of six yards a carry for 138 yards. Once again, I saw Ezekiel Elliott make another big stride towards becoming the player he was at Ohio State.
His vision, power, decisiveness, and footwork were all at their best this season, as Elliott propelled himself to the league lead in rushing yards - just four games into his Dallas Cowboys' career. That is incredible!
Elliott Still Has Plenty of Room for Improvement.
Do me a favor. Think back to the 2014 Cowboys running game with DeMarco Murray. This shouldn't be too hard, positive thoughts of Murray running through massive lanes are filling your head!
Murray was certainly not a complete back, relying on the blockers in front of him to give him space to accelerate and then succeed at the second level with power and great balance.
As Elliott continues to get to the second level, which he essentially gets a "free pass" to behind this offensive line with good chemistry, he will be able to attack defenders with superior power, balance, and most importantly - speed.
The element of Zeke's game that has not translated yet from his Ohio State days is the extra gear of breakaway speed that sets up hopeless defenders on Elliott's way to huge gains.
Elliott is still getting his legs under him when it comes to running the rock in the NFL, but the speed is on its way. An entire new element to Elliott's arsenal is going to make the league's leading rusher even better.
Additionally, the Cowboys offensive line is going to continue to feed off of the way Zeke can punish defenses, and they will improve as a run blocking unit for him as the featured back.
Zeke's last two performances have also come with the Dallas offensive line not at full strength, with all-universe LT Tyron Smith inactive in weeks 3 and 4. La'el Collins won't be back on the field for some time after exiting at halftime against the Bears, making way for Ronald Leary to step in next to Chaz Green at left guard.
Elliott is still dominating behind these guys, who have performed well, but #21 has still proven that he was made to be the running back for America's Team.
The Dallas Cowboys featured back is a 21 year old rookie that leads the NFL in rushing after four games, and they're not afraid to use him. Take notice, world.
What have you seen from Ezekiel Elliott so far, and what are you looking for from him as the season goes on? Let us know! Use the comment section below to talk about Zeke Elliott, or email Sean.Martin@InsideTheStar.com.
Cowboys Sign WR Devin Smith, Former 2nd-Round Pick
The Dallas Cowboys have reportedly signed Receiver Devin Smith, previously with the New York Jets, to a futures contract. Smith was a 2nd-round pick, 37th overall, in the 2015 NFL Draft.
Before going pro, Devin was a college teammate of current Cowboys Ezekiel Elliott, Rod Smith, and Noah Brown. They were all members of the 2014 Ohio State Buckeyes team that won the National Championship.
Smith's agent, Jason Bernstein, tweeting the following earlier today:
Congrats to WR Devin Smith @dsmithosu for signing with the #DallasCowboys! Welcome back. https://t.co/hCMYoE8fEh
Thus far, Smith's NFL career has been marred by injuries. He has suffered two ACL tears in the same knee and only been able to appear in 14 games. He was waived by the Jets last summer and was not with any team last season.
Overall, the 2015 class of receivers has been disappointing. Amari Cooper has been a star and other later-round picks like Tyler Lockett, Stefon Diggs, and Jamison Crowder have been good. But the other big names of the class, such as Kevin White, Breshad Perriman, and DeVante Parker, have not lived up to the hype.
The Cowboys are known for trying to reclaim players who once had high draft status and bad starts to their careers. They are clearly hoping to cash in on Smith's previously perceived potential, which had him projected as a possible first-round talent at one time.
For both Devin and Dallas' sake, we hope it's a success!
DeMarcus Lawrence Named Top Free Agent Of The 2019 Class
Much has been made about the Dallas Cowboys 2019 free agent class. Dallas has a ton of cap space moving forward, but they are going to "have" to pay many of the key players on their roster over the next two offseasons in order to keep their young core together.
Of course, when you're drafting, that's the goal. To draft so well that when your own players become free agents, you go ahead and pay them to keep them around, rather than overpay on the free agent market for external players.
One of the major pieces the Cowboys will have to retain this offseason is defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence. And while Cowboys Nation often thinks of Lawrence as underrated around the league, the NFL has caught onto his importance as he enters free agency this Spring.
ESPN.com ranked their top 10 free agents for 2019, with DeMarcus Lawrence clocking in at number one, over elite players like Jadeveon Clowney and Le'Veon Bell.
ESPN's top 10 free agents for 2019 and what Le'Veon Bell should be looking to command based on previous measures. https://t.co/aJ7H1n001t
DeMarcus Lawrence is going to command big time money, likely even Khalil Mack-type money. But the fact of the matter is that he has earned it. Lawrence has been the heart and soul of the Cowboys defensive line the last two seasons, and the most consistent edge player on the team as well.
Not only has he been an effective pass rusher, but DeMarcus Lawrence also plays with a relentless motor against the run that can sometimes be rare to find in those premier pass rushers. He really is a jack of all trades at defensive end, and should be priority number one for the Cowboys this offseason.
Thankfully, I can't imagine the Cowboys not retaining DeMarcus Lawrence and extending him in the coming months.
When it Mattered Most, Cowboys Offensive Line Protected Dak Prescott
Throughout the 2018 NFL season, one of the major story lines surrounding the Dallas Cowboys was how frequently Dak Prescott was taking sacks. It's an area that the Cowboys will have to look at in the offseason to better protect their franchise quarterback moving forward. In the playoffs, however, Dak Prescott and the offensive line were much better at keeping their prized possession upright than they were in the regular season.
In the regular season, Dak Prescott was sacked 56 times for an average of 3.5 times a game. There was only one game where he wasn't sacked at all, way back in week two against the New York Giants. Four times this season, the Cowboys' quarterback was sacked five or more times. The New Orleans Saints got him for a season high seven times.
According to Pro Football Focus, Dak was "kept clean" -- not pressured -- on 63% of his drop backs during the regular season, which ranked 25th in the NFL. When kept clean, Prescott completed 74.1% of his passes, which was good for 5th in the NFL during the regular season. He was under pressure 37% of the time, which was the sixth highest rate in the NFL and his completion percentage dropped to 52.6%, still good for 10th in the NFL. It was better than Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, Patrick Mahomes, Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, and Baker Mayfield.
During the playoffs, Prescott's "kept clean" percentage rose from 63% to 68% and he was only sacked once in each game. The one sack against the Los Angeles Rams probably shouldn't have been called a sack as the referee blew the whistle because Prescott was "in the grasp"...
...of his offensive lineman.
During the playoffs, the Cowboys offensive line kept the pressure off of Prescott at a better rate, allowing him to be pressured on only 31.9% of his drop backs. Meaning he was kept clean at an improved rate from the regular season at 68.1% of his drop backs. This while playing against two teams that are really good at rushing the passer. The Los Angeles Rams and the Seattle Seahawks both finished in the top half of the league in sacks this season and feature players like Aaron Donald, Jarran Reed, and Frank Clark who all had double-digit sacks.
As we know, pressure rates and sacks aren't all completely on the offensive line. The quarterback, wide receivers, and the play calling all factor in, but the Cowboys are trending in the right direction with their pass protection. A full offseason for Connor Williams in the Dallas Cowboys strength and conditioning program, better health for Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, and -- fingers crossed -- Travis Frederick, should all help the offensive line play at a higher level heading into the 2019 season.
It can't be overstated how important it will be to get Travis Frederick back into the fold this season. Joe Looney was good, and that might be overstating it a bit. He was not noticeable on most plays during the season, but getting your All-Pro center back will tremendously help the offense in every facet of the game. Frederick's one of the smarter players in the NFL, who helps everyone on the offense to see the blitzes and calls out the protections. Both his mental and physical ability will be a welcomed site when the Cowboys begin practicing in the offseason.
With another year of growth for the quarterback and for the young pieces along the offensive line, and with a full offseason for Dak Prescott to grow with Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and Blake Jarwin, the Cowboys should be better next season at keeping the quarterback clean.
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