Veteran linebacker Justin Durant is back with the Dallas Cowboys, and here to help stabilize the uncertainty that exists currently at the linebacker position. With the team for their 2014 NFC East winning playoff run, Durant was a vital part of Dallas' opportunistic defense, making impact plays when it mattered the most.
Durant's signing ultimately came as a response to Rolando McClain getting hit with his second straight suspension to start a season, this time being sidelined for the first 10 games of 2016. Of course, McClain was projected to hold the starting role at middle linebacker for the Cowboys, and that role will not be immediately filled by Justin Durant.
While Durant, who spent 2015 with the Atlanta Falcons, has seen some time as a MIKE linebacker, his most comfortable position both there and in Dallas was at the WILL spot. The Cowboys have an abundance of apparent WILL linebackers on the roster, all sitting behind Sean Lee, who dominated at that position during a healthy 2015 campaign.
Stephen Jones says it's an ongoing convo re: the Cowboys' LB shuffle. "Never say never" abt Lee moving to Mike, but they like him @ Will.
However, Rod Marinelli and the Cowboys defense find themselves with just two linebackers on the field in nickel packages for the majority of their snaps, which slightly reduces the disparity between the roles of the MIKE and WILL linebackers. As we move into some 2014 Cowboys' film, you'll see Durant playing in space all over the second level for the silver and blue.
Let's get started:
Here you see Justin Durant taking on blocks that you would expect a middle linebacker to see, and shedding it to make a tackle against the run. While this play should undoubtedly get Cowboys Nation excited about having Durant back on the field, it certainly isn't the every-play expectation for the aging linebacker.
While Durant is very sound and breaking down and making tackles in space when given the chance, he struggles to consistently put himself in a position to make a play.
In this second example from 2014, you see Durant over-pursuing against the run, opening up a cutback lane for the running back. Of course, there is also plenty of good that Durant and his aggressiveness along with experience can bring to this defense, and we'll see more of that going forward.
Durant INT https://t.co/azrokH42Br
I mentioned keeping a close eye on Durant's ability to turn his hips and play in space (like a MIKE linebacker), and here you see him excelling in this area while keeping his eyes on the quarterback - another one of his strongest traits. All of this leads to Justin being in the right place at the right time, and intercepting a deflected Drew Brees pass.
On the play where Durant got caught in over-pursuit against the run, I was still happy to see him avoid blocks and play technically sound with his movement. Here, you'll see the same thing, but the Saints run the ball to the opposite side, allowing Durant to come through and make a tackle.
What probably excited me the most about throwing on Durant's 2014 tape was his decisiveness and consistency as a tackler. The Cowboys have obviously struggled in this area for some time now as a unit defensively, but here you'll see Durant stay in a position where he forced Drew Brees to shuffle the ball to Jimmy Graham - who is then tackled immediately by #52.
As the Cowboys look to get back to their 2014 ways on offense by pounding the ball with Ezekiel Elliott on the ground, the effect it will have on the defense cannot be understated. This veteran group will be able to see more time on the field with Dallas ahead on the scoreboard, which bodes perfectly for the way they want to play.
Players like Durant along with Sean Lee and Barry Church can sit back in zone and make plays that are in front of them, driving towards the football, where Durant particularly excels.
52 with the pass breakup https://t.co/pIGl60U504
More simply put, this Dallas Cowboys 2016 defense is going to be a pleasant surprise if consistently put in a position to make plays like this. Specifically, if Durant still has this step to him, he will quickly become one of the team's best off season acquisitions.
Not only does bringing Durant back onto the field make this team better on Sundays, but the veteran experience he can provide to a team with Super Bowl aspirations is invaluable. Before we get back into the tape, here is some more on Durant's overall presence with the team, as he was wired up during a Cowboys win over the Giants at home.
Uploaded by 5 Points Blue on 2014-10-22.
If both players can stay healthy (which is a big "if"), I am going to sound like a broken record this summer in my excitement for Justin Durant and Sean Lee playing together. We were happily reminded last season that - at full strength - Sean Lee can tackle anything and everything that moves, and Justin Durant was not far from this sentiment in 2014 with the Cowboys.
Add in this forced fumble to seal a Dallas victory, and Justin Durant is surely welcome back in Big D.
Cowboys win. Signed - @JDurant52. ✭ https://t.co/zxc3boybh2
With this film being from 2014, my next logical question was to find out what Durant was able to bring to the table with the Falcons this past season. With my overall thoughts on him as a Cowboy being mostly positive, as an instinctive linebacker that can pack a punch and offer positional versatility, I worried that he would look like a completely different player in a new scheme one year older.
While this is somewhat true, there are some new positives to take away from Justin Durant's 2015 tape, which we'll get into right now:
The above play is a simple one, with Durant sticking his nose into the pile and finishing off a tackle, but it can go a long way. I chose to look at the Falcons week 14 game against the Panthers because it was a chance to see Durant against an ultra-physical offense that presents match up nightmares all over the field.
Additionally, the once-mighty 2015 Falcons were reeling at this point in their season, and I wanted to see what kind of spark the veteran would still bring on the road to the football field.
Durant lined up as a true MIKE, gets lost in the shuffle as ATL loses contain. https://t.co/cOHKivFQSJ
The Panthers' offense did have their way at times with Justin Durant though, as you'll see him fail to provide any resistance against the blocks thrown at him here while playing as a true middle linebacker. Hopefully, with the Cowboys, Durant being able to once again play in more open-space will allow him to shed these blocks and get involved in more plays.
Moving away from the Carolina game, to a week 2 Falcons win over the New York Giants, you'll see Durant make a textbook tackle against the delayed run over the middle. On any draw play, it is critical that the offense can block at the second level, and while the Giants fail to do this here, you can credit Durant's speed and awareness as he makes the tackle.
This last play does a nice job of summarizing all of what Durant could bring to the 2016 Dallas Cowboys. The linebacker gets caught in backside pursuit, but explodes at the right angle to avoid downfield blocks and ultimately make a nice tackle.
Watch this play along with his 2014 Dallas film, and I think the Cowboys will be getting a player that is a cross between the two. As the linebacker spots get sorted out this summer in Oxnard during training camp, this team is going to have to find a spot for Justin Durant to make plays.
This position will likely be at WILL, and with enough reps there (along with enough depth to limit his snaps with players like Damien Wilson), I see Durant as a welcome tackler that will understand his assignments at all times and provide a much-needed boost to this front seven.
What do you expect from Justin Durant in his return to the Dallas Cowboys? Let us know! Comment below to start the conversation, or email me at sean.martin@InsideTheStar.com to discuss things further.
Cowboys to Use 5th-Year Option on Ezekiel Elliott’s Contract
To nobody's surprise, the Dallas Cowboys intend to exercise the fifth-year option on star Running Back Ezekiel Elliott's contract. This will keep Zeke signed with the Cowboys through the 2020 season.
The deadline for teams to use the options years on the draft class of 2016 is Thursday, May 2nd, just a few days following the 2019 NFL Draft.
Cowboys VP Stephen Jones on the team eventually exercising the fifth-year option on Ezekiel Elliott's contract: "Obviously we're gonna do it.
It's appropriate that Stephen said "obviously," because there is no reason for the Cowboys not to utilize this provision. It's one of the perks of drafting a player in the first round; the option does not apply to any other rookie deals.
Right now, the 2020 option year projects to pay Elliott around $10 million. That is a bargain considering other franchise backs like Todd Gurley, Le'Veon Bell, and David Johnson are all now averaging $13-$14 million per season.
In fact, it may be more of a discount than Zeke is willing to give. He may very well holdout if the team doesn't give him a new contact closer to his market value.
For all we know, the Cowboys have every intention of doing just that. This move is little more than a formality; a placeholder that prevents Elliott from entering unrestricted free agency in 2020 and secures his rights while a new deal is negotiated.
Connor Williams Adding Size and Strength Huge for Cowboys OL
It's no secret that heading into the 2018 NFL Draft, the book on Connor Williams coming out of Texas was that he didn't have enough length to play tackle in the NFL and didn't have enough bulk to play guard. At least not at first.
It was an issue we saw play out early in the 2018 season as he struggled with some of the more powerful defensive tackles. He struggled so much that the team went to Xavier Su'a-Filo during his injury and for a couple games after he was healthy, thinking they had a better option. After having a bit of time to sit back and watch, Williams came back into the starting lineup with a better feel for that power and was much improved over the last half of the season, including the playoffs. He never relinquished his job again.
Though he played better, it was obvious what his number one offseason focus would be; adding size and strength. According to Dallas Cowboys Vice President Stephen Jones, he's done just that.
Speaking to 105.3 The Fan in Dallas on Tuesday afternoon, Jones gave us some insight into how Williams is looking this offseason.
Cowboys VP Stephen Jones on offensive lineman Connor Williams, last year's second round pick: "My understanding is that he's taken some huge steps in terms of his strength and size. My understanding is that he's put on some really good weight.
Jones then added some lofty expectations on the second year guard from the University of Texas.
Cowboys VP Stephen Jones on @1053thefan: "I think Connor Williams is gonna be a mainstay in our offensive line for many years to come. ... I think we'll be talking about him just like we do several of the other players on our offensive line.
Connor Williams was already proving himself capable of standing up to powerful defensive lineman as late in the season and in the playoffs, but this is very encouraging to hear as we look to 2019.
Against the Seattle Seahawks and the Los Angeles Rams, Williams and the rest of the Dallas Cowboys interior offensive line had big challenges in front of them. Seattle's Jarran Reed and Los Angeles' Aaron Donald were two of the better defensive tackles in 2018. Donald, is considered by many, the best defensive player in the NFL because of his brute strength that is matched by his quickness.
Against both players, Williams performed well. Not perfect, but well enough to be encouraged about what Williams could bring in 2019. Per Pro Football Focus, he only allowed five total pressures during the playoffs, including one in the divisional round against the Rams. There's a reason that everyone is so high on Williams heading into his second year.
The front office included.
Stephen Jones praise is significant. The Dallas Cowboys feature three All-Pro offensive lineman. To say that "we'll be talking about him just like we do several of the other players on our offensive line" is very high praise. There aren't many teams in the NFL that boast as much talent along the offensive line as the Dallas Cowboys do in Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, and Travis Frederick. For Jones to think Williams cold be that level of player doesn't sound like generic front office speak.
With a full year under his belt, including two playoff starts, Williams should be confident heading into his second year. Adding strength and weight will help him anchor better against the strong interiors he'll face weekly in the NFL. Getting Center Travis Frederick back in the lineup will help him with the mental aspect of the game.
There's a lot to be excited about with the Dallas Cowboys in 2019 and the offensive line remains one of those things. How Connor Williams improves from year one to year two will be one of the major storylines throughout the offseason heading toward week one. The Cowboys offensive line remains a focal point for America's Team and all eyes will be on Williams as he looks to make the second year jump.
La’el Collins Has Surgery Ahead of Contract Year
The list of injured Dallas Cowboys players getting surgery keeps getting larger. DeMarcus Lawrence and Byron Jones will welcome La'el Collins to the "surgery recovery" group chat after Collins had a procedure to repair a torn rotator cuff. According to the report from Forth-Worth Star Telegram, Collins suffered the injury at the end of the 2018 season.
La'el Collins expects to be ready for training camp, but don't expect much from him in the upcoming offseason program.
For Collins, this is a very meaningful season. At 25 years old, he's heading into a contract year in 2019. So far, his career has been decent at best. He began playing at guard, where he showed some pretty impressive flashes before moving to right tackle, where he's started since 2017.
Even before it was reported that he would have surgery, many in Cowboys Nation have wondered about his future. The truth is, since he signed as an undrafted free agent in 2015, his career hasn't lived up to the hype. Prior to the 2015 NFL Draft, an off-the-field misunderstanding made every team pass on him. However, he was seen by many as a top prospect in the class and was a projected first round pick.
Although he improved when Marc Colombo took over as the OL coach, Collins has struggled during his time at right tackle. At this point, he hasn't earned a long term deal.
Right now, the Cowboys should see offensive tackle as a need in the NFL Draft. Not a priority one, but definitely one to watch out for in the later rounds. Tyron Smith is 28 years old, but his injury history doesn't look promising at all. I can definitely see this team addressing the lack of depth at the position at some point in Day 3.
This whole discussion raises yet another question. Would the Cowboys trade La'el Collins? I don't think it would happen, but it doesn't sound like a terrible idea either. At the moment, Cameron Fleming is on the roster and he isn't a bad starter. Now granted, he might be a downgrade from Collins. However, if you're able to get a good draft pick in exchange, it's worth considering. Use Fleming as a bridge player between for a younger one down the line.
Connor Williams could also move over to tackle, although I doubt they want to try experiments like this with a young player just like they did with La'el Collins. Let Williams grow as a guard and keep him there.
La'el Collins or not, the Cowboys have a need at offensive tackle and Collins' makes it even more evident. The good news is he expects to be back by training camp and doesn't seem like a huge question mark for week 1 as DeMarcus Lawrence and Byron Jones do.
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