Yesterday I shared with you five offensive players that need to step up in 2016, and today I thought I would take a look at the other side of the ball and express what defensive players I think need to step up their game for the 2016 season.
In 2015, the Dallas Cowboys defense under the guidance of defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli performed admirably and actually kept the team in games that were close enough to win, if the offensive performance would have been a little bit better. The Cowboys lost a number of games by less than a touchdown and if they can carry that over into 2016, there is no telling how far the team may go.
There are a lot of players that could have been mentioned on this list, but if these players can step their game in 2016, it should improve the overall play of the entire defense.
Here are the five players I would like to see step up their game in 2016:
Rolando McClain, LB (6'4", 259)
I can't tell you how frustrating it is at times to watch Rolando McClain play. When he's on his game, he is one of the better linebackers in the entire NFL, but because of lack of focus or mental breakdowns, he tends to disappear at times.
This will be his third year with the Dallas Cowboys, but the first year he will be able to go through a full off-season program. I'm personally hoping that this will help him be ready both physically and mentally when the season kicks off and that he can maintain that throughout the entire year.
There is no denying that he is a physically gifted player, but he needs to put everything together in order to raise the level of his game and help improve the entire defense. If he can finally put everything together, the Cowboys might just have the best linebacker duo in the entire league with him playing next to Sean Lee.
Tyrone Crawford, DT (6'4", 285)
Tyrone Crawford makes this list mostly because of the high expectations I expected of him in 2015 after signing a long-term contract extension. He struggled through the majority of the season with a shoulder injury that hampered his effectiveness, but I am once again expecting big things from him in 2016.
Crawford plays the all-important 3-tech in Rod Marinelli's 4-3 defensive scheme and he is supposed to be a destructive player that makes plays in the backfield.
He only managed five quarterback sacks and 35 tackles in 2015, but he should be much more effective now that he is 100% healthy.
It will be interesting to see if he will remain at the 3-tech while Randy Gregory and Demarcus Lawrence miss the first four games due to violating the league's substance and abuse policy, or if he is moved to defensive end. Either way, he needs to step up his game and prove that he was worthy of that contract extension.
Benson Mayowa, DE (6'3", 240)
Benson Mayowa is on this list because he was one of the few free-agents that the Cowboys targeted during free agency to help improve the pass rush and we all know the defense can use as much help in that area as possible.
It will be interesting to see how Marinelli decides to use Mayowa because he really doesn't have the size to be in every down defensive end, so he will more than likely be a pass rush specialist.
The fact that the Cowboys gave him a three-year contract suggests that they believe he can be a difference maker, but he will really have to prove that he can be effective with more playing time.
I think it would be reasonable to believe that he can get somewhere between five and eight quarterback sacks 2016 and that would greatly improve the performance of the defense.
Byron Jones, S (6'0", 199)
It appears as if the Cowboys will be moving him to free safety full-time instead of playing him everywhere in the secondary, and honestly I like that move.
The Cowboys have really struggled finding a playmaking safety ever since Darren Woodson retired and I may be hoping for too much, but I think Jones could end up being a similar player.
I think he will only continue to get better, especially now that it looks like he will only have to focus on one position and learning the intricacies of playing that position.
I'm expecting big things from Jones in 2016 and if he can raise the level of his game, he could be a difference maker in the Cowboys secondary.
Orlando Scandrick, CB (5'10", 195)
Scandrick has always played with a chip on his shoulder and that attitude is contagious. I'm hoping that the entire defense can catch this attitude and that it shows in their performance on the field.
Scandrick was the best cornerback on the Cowboys roster before his knee injury wiped out his 2015 season, and I'm expecting him to pick up where he left off. His value to the defense is undeniable since he can play both outside and in the slot, but that value goes way beyond his performance on the field.
He is a leader on the team and I think more than anything his presence in the meeting rooms and in practice can help improve the defense in 2016.
Well, there you have it. What defensive players do you think need to step up their game in 2016?
Earl Thomas: Age is Just a Number Part II
Yesterday, I wrote a piece attempting to assuage the fears that many in Cowboys Nation have about handing a contract extension out to Earl Thomas, who is 29 years old as we enter the 2018 NFL season.
In the comment section, a reader posed a very good question that is the basis for the rest of this article:
It's a great question that certainly required some research, but Cowboys fans all across the world should be encouraged by my findings.
Just to refresh, here are the players we looked at as favorable comparisons to Earl Thomas at this point in his career. I searched Pro Football Reference for safeties who had at least three All-Pro First Team selections and at least six Pro Bowl appearances.
The average age of the players listed at the time when they reached their third All-Pro was 31 years old. I'm removing Deion Sanders and Roger Wehrli from the equation as most of their work was done at cornerback.
Let's look at a chart that outlines what these guys careers looked like at age 29 and beyond to get a better picture. Remember, Earl Thomas already has three All-Pro selections and six Pro Bowls. Many of these guys didn't reach those kind of accolades until their 30s.
The first thing I noticed as I looked into this question is that only two players had three or more All-Pro First Team selections prior to age 29, like Earl Thomas has. Those players were Rod Woodson and Ronnie Lott. Every other player on this list didn't hit their third All-Pro selection until age 29 or later.
Only one player reached his sixth Pro Bowl prior to his age 29 season, that player is Ronnie Lott, who many NFL Analysts consider to be the greatest safety of all-time. Most of the players didn't achieve their third All-Pro selection until their age 29 season or later. Earl Thomas reached his third All-Pro selection at age 25.
Here's a hot take for you: Earl Thomas, when it's all said and done could be considered the greatest safety of all-time. I'll just leave that there to marinate and if a trade does happen, we'll come back to that.
Back to the chart.
Another thing I want to point out is that none of these players were 100% healthy. Such is the life in the NFL, especially as you get older, but they were available for at least 14 games a majority of their seasons aged 29 or later. Health is an unpredictable animal in the NFL, but the safety position allows for much more longevity than many other positions. And as the chart depicts, it's a position that ages well.
So, as you can see in the chart, players who were highly productive prior to their age 29 season were also highly productive for several seasons after. These players went onto average almost seven more years in the league from their age 29 seasons.
Most players continued to average a healthy amount of interceptions. The player that saw the biggest decline from the early part of his career to the post-29 part of his career was Brian Dawkins. The former Philadelphia Eagles and Denver Broncos safety went from three interceptions per season prior to 29 to 1.9 interceptions per season 29 and after.
When it comes to the safety position, the elite seem to be able to get the most of their bodies and their abilities and can prolong their prime. The position relies as much on intelligence and awareness as it does quickness and athleticism. Earl Thomas has the mental capacity to play the game for many more years and there's been zero evidence to suggest that he is experiencing any physical decline.
At the rate of his career that he's on, Earl Thomas is destined for the Hall of Fame. He's one of the faces of the Legion of Boom defense that propelled the Seattle Seahawks into the elite category of teams in the early part of this decade.
If and when an Earl Thomas trade does occur, don't sweat an extension for Thomas.
Thomas' credentials put him in an elite group of players who played the game for a very long time and there's no reason to believe he won't continue to do so.
The Dallas Cowboys aren't that far off from having a Super Bowl contending defense built in the image of the Seattle Seahawks. Going to get the All-Pro, future Hall of Fame safety is the final piece to the to the Dallas Cowboys completing construction on "Doomsday III."
Everything else is there for the Dallas Cowboys, now all they have to do is: Go. Get. Earl!
Noah Brown Takes to Twitter to Call Out ESPN
ESPN has long been considered "The Worldwide Leader in Sports," and for a long time that title was justified. If you wanted your national sports news, where did you turn to but the cable sports channel to watch that day's episode of SportsCenter. But over the last few years, it's become more and more clear that it's "The Worldwide Leader" in name only.
The ratings are dropping and the network has had to make a lot of business decisions as it relates to much of their on-air talent over the last several years. With their latest under 25 starting 22 -- ahem, troll job -- they seem to have finally come to terms that they are basically First Take.
Noah Brown put it best in his reaction to the ESPN "Insider" voting that led to Saquon Barkley being named to the starting 22 ahead of Ezekiel Elliott. Brown, Elliott's teammate when both were at Ohio State University, came to his defense upon seeing the list.
43 of our NFL Insiders voted. Here's their best starting roster under the age of 25.
I'm sure there could be debates about different positions on the squad. Personally, quarterback is one where an argument could be made for Carson Wentz or Dak Prescott over DeShaun Watson, but that's for another time.
But to have a rookie, who has never played a down in the NFL ahead of the NFL's league leader in rushing for 2016, Ezekiel Elliott, is laughable.
The fact that they had 43, again I use the quotations, "Insiders" vote on this and Ezekiel Elliott wasn't listed as one of the two running backs just shows you how far they've come as a network.
Let's remember that Ezekiel Elliott has averaged a touchdown a game -- receiving and rushing -- in his 25-game career. No running back has more rushing yards than Elliott does over the last two years, including 2017 league rushing leader, Kareem Hunt. No running back has more rushing touchdowns than Elliott's 22 rushing TDs.
Ezekiel Elliott's yards per carry is a healthy 4.63. Todd Gurley sits at 3.93. No player with more than 1,800 rushing yards over the last two years has a better yards per attempt than Ezekiel Elliott.
I get that you'd vote Todd Gurley in there, but to not have Ezekiel Elliott, arguably the game's best running back on your Under 25 starting 22 just makes you look like Skip Bayless or Stephen A. Smith. Not a sports journalism entity worthy of people throwing money at for "Insider" access.
I won't say that I never or will never watch ESPN, because where else am I gonna go for Monday Night Football, Todd Archer, or the NCAA Men's Lacrosse Championships? When I'm at my father-in-law's, I'll watch SportsCenter first thing in the morning, because it will be on and you don't change another man's television.
"The Worldwide Leader," however, loses credibility when they promote a list like this that has such a glaring omission.
Perhaps, maybe the goal wasn't to put out an accurate list. Maybe the goal was to get us talking about their list, just like when NFL Network releases their Top 100 players list. Like they say, there's no such thing as bad publicity.
This troll job from ESPN has certainly gotten them some publicity, or should I say, notoriety.
Cowboys DE Randy Gregory Reinstated, Will Join Team for Training Camp
The Dallas Cowboys patience with Defensive End Randy Gregory has paid off. Suspended for the better part of 2016 and all of 2017, Gregory has officially been reinstated to join the team for their 2018 training camp. The projected starter at RDE, Gregory will report to Oxnard with the rest of the team on July 25th.
From here, it will be all hard work for Gregory to reconnect with Defensive Coordinator Rod Marinelli and get his promising career back on track. The last time Gregory suited up for the Cowboys, he managed to sack Philadelphia Eagles Quarterback Carson Wentz in a week 17 win. The Cowboys will be expecting much more of this from a player they've supported through multiple violations of the league's heavily criticized substance abuse policy.
Cowboys pass-rusher Randy Gregory's petition for reinstatement was not opposed, according to lawyer Daniel Moskowitz. He's back. "I've never been more proud of any individual in my life. I'm very excited for Randy and his daughter and the rest of the his family.
Among this support staff for Gregory were a number of teammates that wrote formal letters to the NFL as part of his bid for reinstatement. These last few days of preparation before the Cowboys are together again as a team will surely be uplifted by Gregory's presence.
They say no news is typically good news at this point in the offseason, something the Cowboys have come to realize far too often. Today's news shouldn't be confused with a pleasant surprise however, rather something the Cowboys were committed to in getting another premier pass rusher on the field.
Here is the NFL's official press release on their reinstatement of Randy Gregory:
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