After months and months of speculation and anticipation, the Dallas Cowboys finally held their first practice of the 2016 season on Saturday.
Of course there was a lot to be excited about, most of which surrounded the offense. Tony Romo, Ezekiel Elliott, and Dez Bryant each give us a ton of reasons to be on the edge of our seats anytime this offense touches the ball.
The defense, however, has faced nothing but criticism since the offseason begun. It is also no secret which position group has been most critiqued on this team, the defensive line.
It is just about impossible to win in this league if you cannot get after the quarterback. It is also just about impossible to win in this league if you cannot stop the run. The defensive line plays a huge part in completing both of these goals, so being weak upfront is the last thing you want.
This much maligned defensive line finally got a chance to line-up and begin to show the public and the coaching staff what they have in store for 2016 yesterday. It was simply a walkthrough with no pads, however, so the actual play of these guys didn't mean too much. Where they lined up and who started with what group does have some meaning, though.
First team defensive line: DeMarcus Lawrence, Tyrone Crawford, Terrell McClain, Ryan Russell
Even though he is facing a four game suspension to start the season, we all knew that DeMarcus Lawrence would be penciled in as the day-one starter at defensive end. He led the Cowboys in sacks a season ago, and will need to improve on his impressive final 8 games of 2015 in order for the Cowboys to take that next step.
Tyrone Crawford will be the Cowboys 3-technique for the entire season, barring injury, so no surprise there either.
The surprises begin on the other side of the defensive line, where the Cowboys must replace the suspended Randy Gregory and fill the vacant 1-technique defensive tackle position. At the opposite defensive end, it is second year player Ryan Russell who worked with the first team. Russell begins this season with a lot of promise and "upside," and has been given a vote of confidence by defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli.
Second-team defensive line: RDE Mike McAdoo, Jack Crawford, Cedric Thornton, LDE David Irving
David Irving worked with the second group at left defensive end, and it will certainly be interesting to see how he and Russell compete during camp. Many, including myself, have high hopes for Irving based off his athletic prowess and physical attributes, but it remains to be seen if that athleticism can translate into pass rush production on the field.
By the looks of things the battle for the starting defensive tackle spot is starting to heat up as well. Terrell McClain worked as the 1-technique with the first team, while free agent addition Cedric Thornton worked with the two's.
McClain has struggled with injuries during his tenure in Dallas, but when healthy, he makes the interior of the Cowboys defensive line even stronger than anticipated. Both McClain and Thornton are going to play a lot during the season, so the rotation of the two will be key.
Personally, I like Thornton better than McClain as the starter at this point, but there is still a long way to go before those final decisions are made. Still, considering the amount of money which Thornton was given this offseason, it seems strange that he isn't working with the first group from the get-go.
Mike McAdoo and Jack Crawford filled out the right side of the second team defensive line. Crawford can play both as the 3-technique and as the defensive end, and this versatility will be key for the Cowboys as they deal with suspensions to Lawrence and Gregory.
There are obviously a ton of questions which must be answered by this defensive line. We can't be sure at this point that a pass rush can be consistently created, and only one of these guys even has 10 sacks in his career. But there are some good names in this group, including guys with a lot of youth, athleticism, and raw skills that the Cowboys are hoping can be developed quickly.
Tyrone Crawford, Jack Crawford, Terrell McClain, Cedric Thornton, and Maliek Collins should give you a lot of hope about the interior of this defensive line as well.
It's the beginning of a very long season, let's settle in and enjoy the ride that 2016 is going to be.
Despite Late Push as Rookie, Will Taco Charlton Struggle to See Field in 2018?
It feels like ages ago that the Dallas Cowboys spent the 28th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft on Michigan Defensive End Taco Charlton. Perhaps this is a result of the constant distancing fans have made from this unpopular pick, or the corresponding moves the Cowboys have made at DE since drafting Charlton.
These moves include using the franchise tag on DeMarcus Lawrence after seeing him explode for 14.5 sacks, spending a fourth round pick this year on Kansas' Dorance Armstrong, and seeing Randy Gregory reinstated in time for training camp.
Across the entirety of the Cowboys roster, there will be plenty of "odd men out" that miss the cut down to 53 players. Defensive end remains one of the most cluttered spots on the current 90 man roster however.
Prior to establishing the depth the Cowboys now have up front on defense, they did Taco no favors by starting his career at right defensive end. While Gregory may still be a long way from earning the starting role here, similarly styled players like Armstrong have the edge here over Charlton.
This relegates Charlton to the strong side, where he always projected best out of college. By the time the Cowboys realized this a season ago, they also knew a franchise pass rusher was playing his way into the team's long-term plans.
Lawrence's stellar consistency off the edge reduced Charlton's role in the Cowboys rotation of pass rushers. An ideal spot for the rookie to develop with less pressure on him, Charlton's opportunities to continue playing left end may only be reduced this season.
The first-round pick is capable of kicking inside at defensive tackle, a position the Cowboys could certainly use help at. However, asking Charlton to go through another position shift would only halt the progress that took quite a bit of patience from Dallas to see.
It's far from unheard of for the Cowboys to do this with their young players, but for now Charlton remains a defensive end looking to make his impact. The Cowboys are in much better position now than they were at this time a year ago when it comes to setting expectations for him to do so.
Given everything he showed on tape at Michigan as well as in his pre-draft interviews, Charlton is a player that needs to succeed at the task at hand. When this plan is altered, the 6'6" pass rusher is much less effective -- without even considering any athletic struggles that Charlton has compared to other prototypes at defensive end.
As a unit, the Cowboys defensive line has all the pieces to be very effective this season. Taco Charlton is a piece to this puzzle, a backup left end that must find a way to flourish in this role.
For most former 28th overall picks, doing so would be considered a fall from grace. For the Cowboys, it's simply an example of strong roster building that's forced life to come at Charlton quickly. How he responds with a full season under his belt will make or break the hype this deep Cowboys defensive line has garnered, lead of course by the starter at Charlton's position in DeMarcus Lawrence.
Cowboys OT La’el Collins Could Become Major Bargain
When you talk Cowboys offensive line, you always think of Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin first. Right Tackle La'el Collins still has to prove he belongs in the same sentence with his elite teammates. If he does that in 2018, Collins could become one of the best bargains on the roster.
Making the move from left guard to right tackle last year, Collins improved with time and was playing his best football at the end of the year. This was despite ongoing back issues that had him on the injury report most weeks.
La'el started all 16 games at right tackle and did enough that the Cowboys committed to keeping him there in 2018, even despite a big hole back at left guard. They are hoping consistency and stability will allow Collins to really blossom this season, building on the strong progress shown last year.
For 2018, Collins has a $5.76 million cap hit. According to Spotrac, that makes him the 13th-most expensive right tackle in the NFL this year.
That middle-of-the-pack expense is consistent with where La'el currently rates among NFL right tackles. Bleacher Report ranked Collins as the 16th-best RT in football last year.
But that ranking was based on the season as a whole. If La'el plays all of 2018 the way he was playing towards the end of last year, he will have emerged as one of the better right tackles in the game.
If Collins develops as we hope, that salary suddenly becomes a major bargain. The most expensive right tackles in the NFL are making $7-$9 million this season.
But this can go a couple of ways. With his 2019 cap hit rising to $7.9 million, La'el needs to next step forward.
If Collins were to struggle this year, it could make him a potential cap casualty next offseason. Dallas can save $6.5 million in cap space if Collins is released or traded in 2019.
Dallas could elect to give Connor Williams, their second-round pick this year, a look at right tackle next season. It's the position he played in college.
They could also consider veteran backup Cameron Fleming, who will still be just 26-year-old. Fleming has two Super Bowl rings and several starts, including in the postseason, from his time with the Patriots.
While we think of La'el Collins as a first-round talent, it's important to remember that he was ultimately an undrafted free agent. Dallas did not have to invest anything to acquire him, and ultimately that makes it easier to let him go.
Naturally, we prefer the other side of this coin. If Collins builds on 2017, he will join the upper echelon of right tackles in the league. And if the Cowboys' offensive line isn't already the best in the NFL, that would only cement them as the best unit in football.
If La'el makes the leap, it could mean huge things for the Cowboys' offense and team success this year.
How Cowboys Could Benefit From Randy Gregory’s Suspension
Randy Gregory is back! His suspension is officially over and he will be able to join the Dallas Cowboys in Oxnard, California when training camp gets underway less than a week from now.
Speculation has already started as to what this could mean for the Dallas Cowboys defense this season, and shockingly expectations are rather high for a player who hasn't stepped foot on the field in over a year. But, that's not what I want to talk about today. Today I want to focus on Gregory's mess of a contract, because it is rather interesting.
Randy Gregory was signed to a four-year contract after being drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in the second-round of the 2015 NFL Draft. Gregory's rookie deal was set to expire at the conclusion of the 2018 season, but his multiple suspensions have now changed that expiration date.
You see, Gregory has only played in a total of 14 games in his career, 12 as a rookie and two in Year 2. His third year in the NFL was completely wiped out due to his year-long suspension. If you were to add that all up, it equates to just one accured season in the NFL. Remember that, because it could have a huge impact on his contract down the road.
What all of this means is that the Cowboys can pretty much stretch out Gregory's contract now that they are three years in on the deal and have only gotten one accured season out of the agreement. That basically means they can push his contract back a year, meaning his 2017 salary ($731,813) gets pushed back to 2018, his 2018 salary ($955,217) gets pushed to 2019. That would essentially make him a Restricted Free Agent (RFA) in 2020.
Or does it?
Depending on how the Dallas Cowboys handled paying Randy Gregory during his suspension could actually make him an Exclusive Rights Free Agent (EFA). This is a similar situation in which David Irving found himself in after the 2017 season. The Cowboys placed a second-round tender on him in order to secure his services for another season, albeit at a $2.91 million price tag.
As you can see, the Dallas Cowboys pretty much hold all the cards when it comes to Randy Gregory's contract situation. It's all a little confusing, but that's what makes it such a unique and interesting situation.
Of course, the Cowboys could decide to extend Gregory early if he completely dominates upon his return this season. It's highly doubtful though considering his past suspensions, but still technically a possibility. If it does happen, you can go ahead and ignore everything I've written previously.
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