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.
7 Free Agents the Cowboys Should Target
The Dallas Cowboys' focus after losing in the second round of the playoffs is likely going to be contract extensions, sealing up their best players now before getting ready for the draft. They're likely to lose a few free agents but their priority will be their big name free agent, DeMarcus Lawrence, and extending contracts of Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper and probably Byron Jones, in a year where they’ll see more cap room than they have in a long time.
Free agency, to Dallas, has been really almost entirely about re-signing their own and not dipping into the free agency pool like Jerry Jones used to do. However, in today’s NFL, a bit of the old Jerry may need to come back.
If we look at the success of Philadelphia, the L.A. Rams, Kansas City, Cleveland or Chicago, all these teams re-signed their own and drafted well, but also went out of their way to either trade for or sign other players. Free agency helped refuel all these teams and all saw success in the same capacity as the draft did.
The Cowboys don’t need to break the bank but it wouldn’t be a bad idea to consider some players who will be available. This team has nowhere to go but up, so take that next step. The more help, the better.
A bit of an underrated name, Anthony Sherman was another Pro Bowl player this season for Kansas City. Being brought back on a one-year "prove it" deal, he more than outplayed his contract.
The Cowboys' current fullback, Jamize Olawale, did play as well as people had hoped. He played well on special teams, but as a blocker for Ezekiel Elliott and a receiver out of the backfield (see the Colts game). Olawale was a very valuable player to Oakland but he wasn’t able to replicate the same success in Dallas.
Sherman might want to come back to Kansas City but not only do the Cowboys have more cap room in 2019 but the possibility of playing with arguably the best running back in football might be too big to pass up. Just imagine the next Daryl Johnston and Emmitt Smith.
See how many quarterbacks there are in the NFL and then which teams gave them a plethora of weapons: Jared Goff, Patrick Mahomes, Matt Ryan, Baker Mayfield, Deshaun Watson, etc.
Amari Cooper appears to have re-established himself among the NFL’s elite receivers, Tavon Austin looks like a cheap re-sign who could be used in rotation both in the slot and outside, and Michael Gallup in the last four games of the season finally meshed with Dak Prescott and looks like a great number two receiver. Throw in Blake Jarwin and a likely second-round pick to be a tight end, and the Cowboys look like they’ve got plenty of weapons.
We need to consider now the other receivers Dallas has. Cole Beasley is hitting free agency and it doesn’t look like they’ll be able to keep him, Terrance Williams’ future is up in the air, Allen Hurns is coming back from a devastating injury, and Noah Brown is much more of an H-Back/sub-tight end option. Ideally, Dak Prescott’s next receiver will have good hands, run routes well and have plenty of speed.
Randall Cobb is not likely to return to Green Bay, and according to spotrac.com, his estimated value is currently a little under $8 million a year. Whether that’s too rich for the Cowboys’ taste or not, they should consider this. Cobb is only 28 years old and still can be productive on the right team, and given the right quarterback, one of the better slot receivers in the game.
The Legion of Boom is dead and, with it, the remnants of Seattle’s Super Bowl defense. K.J. Wright might not be on the same level as Bobby Wagner but he might be just what the Cowboys need in the linebacker rotation.
It looks like Sean Lee might have played his last down as a Cowboy. He’s never completed a full 16-game season, and with rising stars Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch back there, Lee is a likely cap casualty. Damien Wilson is a solid linebacker and often played up to the level that both Smith and Vander Esch played at but Wright might be an upgrade.
He’s 29 years old but won’t command a high price in the open market. His familiarity with Kris Richard also makes this an intriguing option. Knowing his success with Richard, it would make sense that Wright wants to finish his career in a system that he can thrive in and possibly make it back to the Super Bowl.
Depth was seriously tested on the offensive line in 2018. Travis Frederick missed all season with Guillain-Barré syndrome, Zack Martin missed time with knee issues, and Tyron Smith as well, for his neck.
Connor Williams looks like the future at right guard but Xavier Su'a-Filo filled in for most of the season. Going forward, the Cowboys need better, more veteran depth.
Matt Slauson has played for four different teams, playing in 114 games and starting in 111 of them. While he’s probably not the player he once was, Dallas really needs him for quality depth across the interior offensive line and veteran leadership.
He only cost the Colts $3 million last season, and that would be worth the price to bring him in. Depending on the health of the offensive line, any sort of upgrade on the second team is worth it.
It’s always good to have a full backfield. You need your lead dog, a solid number two and a speed receiver option to come out of the backfield. The Cowboys lacked the last one, and they could really use it.
Jalen Richard is a modest 5’8 200 lbs but has given the Raiders plenty of quality play, both as a change of pace back and especially at receiver. In fact, he had more receptions (68) than he did rushes (55) in 2018.
Since he’s likely to be mostly used as the Lance Dunbar-type of back that Jason Garrett misses, it's better that he catch passes than run the ball.
Richard shouldn’t cost very much and having him there would allow Elliott more rest, not having to force him out there on passing downs. Obviously Ezekiel Elliott is one of the best running backs in the game, at both running and catching, but quality depth with Jalen Richard might be what keeps him healthier, longer.
Health has been the biggest issue for Jason Verrett. His first two seasons looked like he was going to be a star in this league. However, in the last three seasons, he’s only played in five total games. It’s unlikely that he’ll be retained by the Chargers.
Jerry Jones has shown from time to time that he’ll give a player chances, despite off-field or injury issues (see Rolando McClain). A one-year "prove it" deal would make a lot of sense, especially if it improves the Cowboys' secondary depth.
Having played at TCU, Verrett is familiar with DFW and would probably be welcomed. There’s still plenty of time for Verrett to return his career back to where it once was. At a discount, the Cowboys might want to take advantage.
At last! We’ve come to THE name everyone has expected: Earl Thomas.
Leader of the Legion of Boom and future Hall-of-Famer, Earl Thomas broke the internet last season when he ran toward the Cowboys locker room, telling coach Jason Garrett to come and get him. Cowboys and Seahawks fans went crazy.
It was a move that was thought could happen before or during the draft, or possibly before the 2018 season started. But Seattle never budged.
Instead, Earl Thomas broke a bone in his leg, the game after he played the Cowboys and was placed on injured reserve. Now, Earl Thomas is a free agent, and Seattle is likely to lose him and get nothing back.
Earl Thomas has been to a pair of Super Bowls, winning one, and along with Kris Richard helped create one of the greatest secondaries in NFL history. This should be a no brainer. Earl Thomas could be the missing piece to the already elite Cowboys defense. Let’s make everyone’s wishes come true and make this happen Jerry Jones!
3 Reasons Why Kellen Moore Should Not Become Offensive Coordinator
The notion that current Quarterbacks Coach Kellen Moore will be promoted to Offensive Coordinator has divided many Cowboys fans. The idea is growing on some, but others remain very opposed. Is he really the right guy to help Dallas' offense get to the next level?
Yesterday, one of my fellow Inside The Star writers gave his reasons why Moore's promotion could be a positive for the Cowboys. I decided to play devil's advocate today and give three reasons why it would not be a good move.
For the record, I'm not opposed to the move. I don't want some retread like Todd Haley or Mike McCoy, who have been fired from more than one NFL team in their past. What innovation can they offer at this point?
But at the same time, do you really want a guy whose never held the job at any level before now? That leads us to my first reason for being against Kellen Moore.
Even Sean McVay spent three seasons as the Redskins' OC before he got his job in Los Angeles. Moore was playing QB just a year ago and has spent one season in a true coaching role. I know he was credited for being an assistant to the coaches during his playing career, but you'd still like a guy whose spent a little more time with a clipboard in hand.
Kellen could be a genius, and there are often reality checks that come whenever you step into a larger role. We often see something being done and think we understand, even thinking we could do it better, but then discover nuances and challenges that we didn't recognize before.
Most of the greatest QBs to ever play the game didn't have strong rookie seasons.
Of course, there's talk that Moore's role as OC would be supplemented by a lot of experienced assistants. Tight Ends Coach Doug Nussmeier has been a coordinator on the college level for high-profile programs like Alabama, Florida, and Michigan. We could even see Jason Garrett gets more hand-on with the offense again.
Perhaps Kellen would give a fresh approach and outlook that would push the Cowboys' offense forward in 2019. But you have to be concerned about his lack of experience, regardless of how highly you rate his potential.
2. Scott Linehan's Influence
If you didn't like Linehan's work with the Cowboys then you may be concerned that he's had a lot of influence on Kellen Moore's offensive philosophy. Between Dallas and Detroit, they have been together for all but one of Moore's seven years in the NFL.
Linehan was the Lions' OC when Moore signed with them following the 2012 draft. When Scott was fired by Detroit after the 2013 season, he came to Dallas while Kellen played one more year with the Lions. In 2015, Linehan played a key role in getting Moore signed by the Cowboys.
That said, we have no way of knowing how much Linehan has shaped Moore's ideas about football. It's only a hypothetical, but one that shouldn't be ignored.
It's entirely possible that Kellen may have learned some good things by observing Linehan, too. "What not to do" can be valuable experience. Perhaps Moore was shaking his head at some of Scott's calls and decisions as much as the rest of us.
I take some confidence in the fact that Jason Garrett, who knows offense, would be willing to make this move. His job is on the line and the willingness to give Kellen Moore increased responsibility means Jason must see something he likes.
It also would mean he doesn't blame Kellen for our third reason.
3. QB Regression in 2018
This is the clearest and most concerning evidence against Moore's ascension on the coaching staff. In his one year as Quarterbacks Coach, there was no sign of development in Dak Prescott's performance from his rookie season. Also, Cooper Rush's play in the 2018 preseason was a clear regression from last year.
But only insiders know how much of this is about the coach as opposed to players and other factors around them. Was Kellen wanting to coach things that didn't align with Linehan's offensive strategy? Was Moore really getting to do things his way?
Most would agree that Prescott's play got better as the season went on, and perhaps that's a feather in Moore's cap. In fact, it could be a sign that Kellen also improved in his role over time.
As for Rush, we've seen plenty of one-hit wonders in sports. Guys can get hot and cool off, and perhaps what we saw last August was closer to reality than his 2017 play.
But as smart and savvy as Kellen Moore has been praised to be as an offensive mind, there's no denying that it didn't seem to rub off on the Cowboys quarterbacks this year. Communicating and teaching what you know to others is a separate skill.
~ ~ ~
Ultimately, we don't know what kind of offensive coordinator Kellen Moore could turn out to be. But there's evidence on both sides of the argument, and the Cowboys will be taking a serious gamble if they elect to promote such an inexperienced guy to such an important role.
But in this era when everyone is looking for the next creative and innovative offensive mind, maybe it's the exact move this team needs.
How Joe Looney Saved the Cowboys Season and Protected Their Future
I can't really express enough how important Center Joe Looney was to the Dallas Cowboys 2018 success. His play was kind of lost in the shuffle of all of the ups and downs that took place throughout the year, which is why I wanted to try to set the record straight today.
Joe Looney is better known around Cowboys Nation and the outside media as the guy who dressed up as a 6'3", 315 pound Ezekiel Elliott earlier in the offseason. You may have forgotten, but he wore Zeke's No. 21 jersey with his mid-drift showing while miming the "Feed Me" sign during practice. It's hard to imagine a jokester like that could be such an integral part to the Cowboys 2018 season, but he was.
Despite his jocularity, Joe Looney more than adequately replaced Travis Frederick in the middle of the Cowboys offensive line this past season. In fact, he was really the only consistent thing about the starting five, which in itself deserves more attention than it's actually received.
The Cowboys OL was a mess this season. Tyron Smith and Zack Martin, Dallas' other Pro Bowl offensive lineman, battled injuries throughout the year and missed time because of it. Add that to the revolving door at left guard between Connor Williams and Xavier Su'a-Filo and La'el Collins up-and-down season, and Looney's play looks all that more impressive.
The fact that Joe Looney was pretty much an afterthought this past season really speaks volumes to the level of his play. One of the things that really made him so important to the Cowboys success though in 2018 was his availability.
It may surprise you to know, but Looney played every single offensive snap (1,076) in 2018. That's up from just 94 snaps in 2017 as the Cowboys backup guard/center. I don't know about you, but I find that really impressive. To go from basically not playing to starting every single game is a huge jump to make.
As impressive as it was for Joe Looney to play every single offensive snap in 2018 for the Cowboys, what he did with that opportunity is even more inspiring. If not for him, Dallas wouldn't have won the NFC East division or made the playoffs. But, he did more than save their season. He protected their future.
Just imagine for a second if Looney would've been a disaster taking over for Travis Frederick in the middle of the Cowboys OL. It shouldn't take too much imagination on your part, just think back to what happened in 2017 with Tyron Smith out of the lineup, forcing Chaz Green and Byron Bell to start at left tackle.
Quarterback Dak Prescott was forced to run for his life in 2017 with backups at LT, causing him to regress as a pocket passer and develop "happy feet". If not for Looney, it could've destroyed Prescott's confidence altogether. Instead, Prescott continued to improve throughout the 2018 season and looks to be the future at the position once again.
I don't know what you think about all of this, but for me Joe Looney was the Dallas Cowboys MVP in 2018. I believe it's time to give credit where credit is due, because he's definitely not receiving the kind of recognition he deserves.
Do you think Joe Looney saved the Dallas Cowboys 2018 season?
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