Granted, you could say this about most top talents on teams across the NFL and on either side of the ball. But these key Cowboys face some extra pressure because of the circumstances surrounding them; roster turnover, suspensions, and question marks throughout the rest of the defense.
What's more, these defensive leaders also face having to support what many feel will be a league-leading offense. They are up against the criticism of being the team's biggest weakness and liability, amplified by the fact that Tony Romo and Jason Witten's window is closing.
Let's take a look at each player and see what opportunities and concerns they face in 2016. How can they individually impact the collective direction of the defense?
Outside of the quarterback, Lawrence may be under the heaviest scrutiny of any other Cowboy in 2016. Not only is he a third-year player with breakout-season expectations, but Lawrence upped the ante with a four-game suspension for PEDs. That mistake has cost him some goodwill, which only increases the need to perform.
Lawrence set the bar high with how he finished last season; seven sacks in his final eight games. Even with the suspension in 2016, that projects to at least a 10-sack season if he's producing at the same rate.
Stats aren't everything, of course, but few positions are more tied to a single number than defensive end. In the 4-3 scheme, DEs are judged by sacks by the mainstream. How you play against the run or how much you pressure the QB is something for the coaches. When it comes to Pro Bowls, All-Pro selections, and other notoriety everyone looks at your sacks.
DeMarcus Lawrence has to deliver. He can make everyone forget about the suspension with strong play in the other 75% of the season, and hopefully in January.
I wrote back in May about how Crawford needed to finally reward the Cowboys faith. That's even truer now, given the other issues on the defensive line.
Crawford's already missed the first week of camp with a minor back issue. He's expectedto return next week, but it still seems like there's always something with this guy. The Cowboys can't afford another year of injury excuses from one of their highest paid players.
While the combination of Terrell McClain and Cedric Thornton did well together in his absence, Crawford is supposed to be a different caliber of defensive tackle. He's paid like an 8-10 sack guy who should be closer to the Pro Bowl than Injured Reserve.
While the Cowboys are trying to cobble together some defensive ends for Weeks 1-4, they need stability and dynamic play in the middle of the line. McClain and Thornton can be solid but Crawford is the one with game-changing potential. It's time for potential to become performance.
Nobody on our defense has earned more confidence than Lee. He is one of the best players in the NFL when his body allows it and easily the top defender in Dallas.
Last year Lee played in 14 games, which felt miraculous after the last three season. Lee missed all of 2014 with a major knee injury and 15 games between 2012-2013. We can only hope that last season was the start of a new trend, rather than the anomaly.
The pressure on Lee has been increased by the absence and seemingly permanent downfall of middle linebacker Rolando McClain. I was excited for having Lee and McClain perhaps finally put in full healthy seasons together, but now it looks like Rolando will never put on a Cowboys jersey again.
Dallas has some good options to replace McClain. Anthony Hitchens is in his third year, has played the position before, and so far has had a strong camp. They also brought back veteran Justin Durant as insurance.
Like with Tyrone Crawford, Lee has to be the bedrock that all these other moves and relief efforts are be built on. The trickle-down effect of one dynamic player can be huge for his position. Sean Lee is certainly that, so long as his health doesn't get in the way.
After missing all of 2015, Scandrick returns as the team's top cornerback and one of its most vocal leaders. We can only hope that his play will live up to it.
Scandrick was 27-years-old the last time he played football. He's now 29, which can be a big leap for players who rely on their speed and agility. Throw that on top of returning from a severe knee injury and there is some question as to how much his physical tools will be diminished.
I've always felt like we've overrated Scandrick a little in Dallas. Yes, he's been our best cornerback for several years. But the bar has been set pretty low for that position for a long time. Combine that with his age and absence and I'm a bit concerned about relying on him so heavily in 2016.
Matters are only worse with the questions marks surrounding Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne.
We've heard only good things about Claiborne's play so far in Oxnard but that's been the case every year. I won't put any stock in it until it happens in the regular season. Carr is now 30 and should be relied upon less as time goes, rather than being our only stable corner.
Scandrick is supposed to the guy who makes everyone else better. He's supposed to draw the tough assignments and be the playmaker. Hopefully he still has the tools to make it happen.
We're all making a big assumption that Jones, the second-year player transitioning to full-time safety, will be an improvement over J.J. Wilcox. All signs points to "Yes," but all we have right now is speculation.
There's no question that Jones has the athleticism, ball skills, and intelligence to be a dynamic safety. However, even for a first-round pick, it's a lot to ask of a guy in his second pro season.
Moving to Jones safety is not just about what he can do that Wilcox couldn't, but also what he might do to help Church. If Jones can be a ballhawking, "center field" safety then it allows Dallas to get Church closer to the line of scrimmage. This is where Church excels and the combine effect could have a dramatic improvement on overall safety play.
It's been a long time since it felt like Dallas' safeties were a strength for the defense and not a liability. Turning just 24 this September, Byron Jones has been given a significant responsibility. If he delivers, he might be the Cowboys best defense draft pick since DeMarcus Ware.
What to Expect from Dallas Cowboys Wide Receiver Group in 2019
In a span of a week, the Dallas Cowboys have solidified their wide receiver group with the resigning of Tavon Austin to a one year deal and the signing of former Green Bay Packers Wide Receiver Randall Cobb. Despite the loss of Cole Beasley, the Cowboys have a created a really good group of receivers for Quarterback Dak Prescott to throw to.
Cobb joins a really nice group of players that includes incumbent starters on the outside in Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup as well as solid depth players in Austin, Allen Hurns, and Noah Brown. Throw in Cedric Wilson, the Dallas Cowboys sixth round pick from the 2018 NFL Draft and the Cowboys may have one of the deeper receiving corps in the NFL.
The question is, how will the Dallas Cowboys coaching staff delineate the roles?
Let's take a look.
As I mentioned before, the Dallas Cowboys are returning their top two options on the outside in Amari Cooper, who is the X wide receiver and Michael Gallup, the Z receiver. Both players will go into week one as the starters at their respective positions in two-wide receiver formations.
Despite some of the overthrows from Dak Prescott to Michael Gallup, Gallup had a really nice rookie season and got better as the year went along, even leading the Cowboys in receiving in the playoff loss to the Los Angeles Rams. In that game, Gallup recorded the first 100 yard game of his career. Sure, it was in an attempt to comeback by the Dallas Cowboys, but it is impressive nonetheless. His touchdown catch against the Seattle Seahawks the week before was clutch. The Cowboys needed that to take the lead at the end of the first half. 2018 was only the beginning for Michael Gallup. He showed an ability to win with a full offseason to work with Dak Prescott, their chemistry and connection should only improve.
As for Cooper, his presence was felt right away as the offense just looked different once he stepped on the field. It's no coincidence that Dak Prescott's two best career games in terms of passing yardage came with Cooper in 2018. He's such a threat that he opens up space for the rest of the wide receiver group. His route running, speed, ability to run after the catch make him a threat to score any time he's targeted.
Behind Cooper and Gallup, you have options in the event that one of them gets hurt. Allen Hurns, Tavon Austin, and Noah Brown are all players who took snaps on the outside for the Dallas Cowboys in 2018 and did so with effectiveness. Hurns best game of the year came just before the Cooper deal was made as he went for five receptions for 75 yards.
Tavon provided down field speed on several occasions and provides some gadget quality that the Dallas Cowboys love to have. Noah Brown is a player that the Dallas Cowboys love to deploy as a blocker in the running game. While it looked like he might get more run in the passing game in 2019, the depth additions will limit him again to a specialty role. If needed, though, he could be an option to take snaps on the outside as his big frame allows him to box out defensive backs down the field.
There will be snaps on the outside for someone when the Cowboys go to 11 personnel, because of Amari Cooper's ability to slide into the slot.
Obviously, the writing is on the wall with who the Dallas Cowboys are planning on deploying in the slot as things stand right now, and that's Randall Cobb.
While Cobb should be penciled in as the starter in the slot, I doubt that he's going to get 100% of the snaps there in 11 or 10 personnel groupings. Amari Cooper, Allen Hurns, Tavon Austin, Noah Brown, and Cedric Wilson could all push for playing time from the slot.
Last month, I wrote a piece about Allen Hurns and his effectiveness in the slot and why the Cowboys should feature him there. With Cobb coming off an injury laden season, the Cowboys would be wise to give some snaps to Hurns along with Tavon Austin.
In Jacksonville, Hurns was incredibly effective from the slot running posts, slants, and ins and outs. His size and route running made him an effective mismatch against linebackers, safeties, and cornerbacks alike. Remember, it wasn't long ago that Hurns had a 1,000 yard season with Blake Bortles at the helm.
Tavon Austin's quickness is an asset that could be very effective in the slot as well. Though he lacks size, he's a player that opposing defenses have to account for because of his ability to make big plays once the ball's in his hands.
✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭
The Cowboys haven't been shy about carrying seven wide receivers on their 53-man rosters and it's possible, though unlikely that they could do it again in 2018. As things stand now, I see Noah Brown and Cedric Wilson as the potential odd men out. Of course, this could all get reshuffled if the Dallas Cowboys use a top 100 pick on a wide receiver in the draft.
With Amari Cooper, Allen Hurns, Tavon Austin, and Randall Cobb only under contract through the 2019 season, the Dallas Cowboys would be wise to invest at the position despite the strength of the position in 2019.
Report: Dallas Cowboys Set to Meet with Safety George Iloka
As the Dallas Cowboys continue the process of building a roster capable of taking them back to the playoffs, and hopefully to a Super Bowl, this next season, they’re bringing in another safety to try and strengthen their top 10 defense. This time it’s free agent safety George Iloka, formerly of the Minnesota Vikings.
Per NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, the Dallas Cowboys are set to meet with
The #Cowboys are hosting former #Vikings and #Bengals safety George Iloka for a visit tomorrow, source said. They're still looking to add in the secondary.
It will be the third meeting this week that they’ve had with a veteran safety after hosting recently resigned Indianapolis’s colts Safety Clayton Geathers and former Kansas City Chiefs Safety Eric Berry.
The Cowboys feel really good about Xavier Woods at safety, but definitely could use some depth at the position as they head toward the 2019 NFL Draft.
Iloka is coming off a season where he was relegated to a reserve role for the Vikings. In five of the last six seasons, Iloka’s played all 16 games, and the one season he didn’t, he played 12. He has nine career interceptions, and has three seasons with more than 70 total tackles.
Back in August of last year, Brian Martin argued that the Dallas Cowboys should pursue Iloka after being released by the Cincinnati Bengals. He would play the strong or box safety role in the Cowboys defense if they were to come to an agreement.
Stay tuned for more Free Agency coverage from us here at InsideTheStar.com.
Dallas Cowboys 2019 Draft Needs: Impact of Free Agency Moves & Rumors
With most of the marquee NFL free agents already off the market, many are already turning their eyes to the 2019 Draft. Whether a glaring need went unaddressed or the needs have simply changed, the draft offers the next big opportunity for teams like the Dallas Cowboys to stock talent for next season.
While they've been conservative so far this offseason, Dallas has been active in the last few days in covering bases and giving itself more flexibility for the draft. They don't want to have to reach on a talent because of a need, nor do they want to tip their hand too much to the rest of the league.
As of now there are still some significant acquisitions that could happen. Dallas has visited with veteran Safety Eric Berry and Defensive Lineman Malik McDowell, plus are reportedly in trade talks with Miami for Defend End Robert Quinn. Any of these moves could have a big impact on their need levels for the draft.
We've already seen some changes thanks to offseason activity. With Tuesday's signing of Randall Cobb, plus moves to retain Tavon Austin and Allen Hurns, Dallas may not be looking at a receiver as early as we might've thought. The same can be said for Jason Witten's return and the tight end position.
If the draft were today, without accounting for any of the players that the Cowboys have had talks with but remain unsigned, here's how I would rank the team's 2019 draft needs:
- Defensive End
- Defensive Tackle
- Tight End
- Running Back
- Wide Receiver
- Offensive Tackle
- Quarterback (Mike White is their drafted backup project for at least another year.)
- Punter (Could add someone to compete with Chris Jones and save some cap dollars.)
- Fullback (They re-signed Jamize Olawale, who they barely use anyway. Zero need here.)
I put safety on top because it's the spot that could most use an immediate upgrade and has some pressing future need. Dallas didn't make the big move for Earl Thomas that many hoped for and Jeff Heath's contract expires after this season. Hopefully, a second-round talent could compete for a starting job now and at least replace Heath in 2020.
Even with the Kerry Hyder signing defensive end has some major red flags. DeMarcus Lawrence has sworn he would holdout without a long-term deal. Randy Gregory is suspended again, and now Tyrone Crawford is now facing potential league action from an incident with police last week. Unless the Cowboys think Taco Charlton is going to make a big push in his third year, they could be hurting for a pass rush in 2019.
I expect things with Lawrence will get resolved, and I doubt Crawford will get suspended for more than a game or two if at all. But Dallas could still use another solid DE if they don't get this deal for Robert Quinn done.
Remember, the 2019 Cowboys aren't working with a first-round pick. Barring a trade, they'll be waiting until the 58th pick to make their first selection. That limits the impact potential of their picks and makes what they do with the Day 2 picks all the more critical.
So what if the Cowboys pull off these three potential moves, adding Berry, McDowell, and Quinn? Each player would help to address the top three needs on my list.
Eric Berry hopefully solves the immediate upgrade need at safety, though it may not do much for the future. He turns 31 this year and was released by Kansas City because of multiple injury issues. Dallas could still consider taking a rookie prospect, perhaps even releasing Jeff Heath for cap savings if needed.
Malik McDowell was considered a first-round talent in 2017 but has never played after a major ATV accident prior to his first training camp with Seattle. If he's finally recovered enough to return to football and play at his original potential, he could give Dallas a talent infusion that none of their draft capital could provide.
Robert Quinn has been around a while but will be just 29 in May, and is still putting up sacks at a solid rate. He's averaged 7.5 sacks the last two years with two different teams. He would go a long way to stabilizing things at defensive end and allowing Dallas look at guys like Gregory and Hyder as icing on the cake.
If Dallas lands all three players then I would adjust the list as follows:
- Tight End
- Defensive Tackle
- Running Back
- Defensive End
- Wide Receiver
If you think about it, the safety and tight end positions would be kind of similar in this scenario. You'd have Eric Berry and Jason Witten as the veteran stopgaps, Xavier Woods and Blake Jarwin as intriguing young guys with starting potential, and Kavon Frazier and Dalton Schultz as other young depth.
However, at every step, safety would be deeper and have more upside. Berry should have more to often than Witten, Woods is more proven than Jarwin, and Frazier is more experienced than Schultz.
Plus, we didn't even mention that you'd have Jeff Heath for experience and versatility at safety. Meanwhile, TE Rico Gathers probably won't be on next year's team.
So yes, I'd vault tight end to the top of the need list. Dallas may like Blake Jarwin but they could find a far more polished and talented player with the 58th pick.
Even with McDowell and Christian Covington added to the mix, Dallas would still be wise to address the defensive tackle position. They have several contract issues coming up at once in 2020.
Covington and Maliek Collins will be unrestricted free agents next year. The Cowboys will also likely want to finally shed Tyrone Crawford's contract, with $8 million in cap relief possible. That would leave them pretty bare at defensive tackle.
Dallas could make a move now to solidify their rotation and prepare for the future. They'd have a little more stability at defensive end with assumed multi-year deals for Lawrence and Quinn, making tackle the more immediate concern.
The backup running back spot can't be ignored, with only Darius Jackson and Jordan Chunn currently signed behind Ezekiel Elliott. If Dallas doesn't bring back Rod Smith between now and the draft, they may want to spend a high pick for Zeke's relief man and an additional offensive weapon.
Elliott's own contract will be up for discussion as soon. Having a talented player with a four-year rookie deal behind him could give the Cowboys much-needed leverage in any future talks with their franchise back.
~ ~ ~
We'll see if Dallas lands any of the players we've hypothesized about. Any of them would help lessen the need at their positions, but those would still remain important areas for the Cowboys to look at in the upcoming draft.
Dallas Cowboys2 weeks ago
5 Realistic Free Agents Cowboys Should Sign Before the Draft
NFL Draft1 week ago
Hypothetical La’el Collins Trade Could Recoup Cowboys a 2019 1st-Round Pick
NFL Draft3 days ago
Cowboys Draft Target: Nebraska WR Stanley Morgan Jr.
Dallas Cowboys1 week ago
Cowboys Show Interest in Browns DE Emmanuel Ogbah
Player News1 week ago
Chiefs Release Eric Berry, Should Cowboys Be Interested?
Dallas Cowboys1 week ago
BREAKING: Dallas Cowboys Sign DL Christian Covington
Dallas Cowboys2 weeks ago
Dallas Cowboys Should Take a Run at EDGE Justin Houston
NFL Draft6 days ago
Dallas Cowboys Make Trades in this 7-round Mock Draft