The signing of free agent Safety George Iloka over the weekend has put a big question mark over the position for the Cowboys. He was backup last year in Minnesota and is on just a one-year contract, so does Dallas expect him to start? And if so, what does that mean for Jeff Heath and Xavier Woods?
Had Dallas signed someone like Earl Thomas or Eric Berry, or even several of the less lofty names that were on the open market, then a starting role wouldn't even be up for debate. We'd only be asking which player between Heath and Woods would be moving to the bench.
But Iloka doesn't bring that same pedigree. He only started three games last year for the Vikings due to injuries, serving a primary reserve all of 2018. This was after he'd been a five-year starter with the Cincinnati Bengals from 2013-2017.
It's important to fully understand Iloka's situation. He was released by the Bengals in the middle of the 2018 preseason after they'd spent a second-round pick on Jessie Bates. They saved over $5 million in salary cap space on the deal, having just signed George to a five-year, $30 million extension in 2016.
Mid-August is a bad time to become a free agent, and especially at 28 years old. Most starting jobs are already decided and even primary backup roles are generally filled out. Teams are mostly assessing their developmental players by this point.
It says something that Mike Zimmer, Vikings head coach, decided to add Iloka just a few days after he was released by Cincinnati. Remember, Zimmer was the defensive coordinator for the Bengals from 2008-2013. That means he helped draft Iloka in 2012 and had him as a full-time starter the following year.
Most teams would've waited until after Week 1 to add a veteran like Iloka, so that his contract would not be fully guaranteed. But Minnesota, with Zimmer likely the driving force behind the move, scooped George up almost immediately.
This wasn't because the Vikings were hurting at safety, either. They had multi-time Pro Bowler Harrison Smith and veteran Andrew Sendejo locked in as starters, plus Anthony Harris as a solid backup.
The point here is that this isn't the time to blindly exclaim, "He didn't even start with his last team!" These weren't typical circumstances.
That said, there is some question as to what George Iloka's role will be with the Dallas Cowboys.
Jeff Heath has been full-time starter the last two seasons and is still in his physical prime. Xavier Woods worked his way into the starting lineup in 2017 and held it for all of last year.
With Kavon Frazier also under contract as a backup with three years of experience, one could ask why Dallas would sign Iloka if they didn't intend him to start.
At the least, George should be competing with Heath and Woods for a top spot on the depth chart. But I don't expect him to be handed anything.
Dallas will likely open training camp with Heath and Woods as the starters, as they tend to do whenever the previous year's starters return. Iloka will get opportunities but will have to take the job away from one of them.
I think the guy who should be most worried is Heath. The Cowboys can save $2.5 million of his cap hit if he's released, which is money that could go towards mid-season contract extensions with Dak Prescott or Amari Cooper. Those savings could also simply be rolled over into the 2020 cap if they aren't used.
With Jeff set to be a free agent in 2020 anyway, Dallas would have less reason for loyalty over Xavier Woods and the two years left on his deal.
Also, Iloka is more likely to fit in at strong safety. That's been Heath's role the last two years.
Dallas won't necessarily cut Heath if he loses his starting job, given Jeff's veteran experience and his standout ability on special teams. His $2.95 million cap hit isn't too high for a primary veteran, and especially one who can play both positions.
Still, this isn't certain. Xavier Woods is still young and raw in some ways, and prone to draw penalties with his big hits. If he doesn't polish his game more in 2019, Dallas could wind up liking their two veterans more.
It's even possible that it will be Iloka who winds up on the bench. Nobody on the current roster really stands out as a fourth safety, so perhaps the Cowboys see George as just a solid depth option as he was for the Vikings.
In fact, this morning's news on Iloka's contract with Dallas might suggest a lesser role:
The Cowboys signed George Iloka to a one-year, minimum salary benefit contract that will count $735,000 against the cap. He will make a $930,000 base salary and $90,000 in bonus money. Of the base salary, $210,000 is guaranteed. https://t.co/aVsmwDgHVj
Clearly, a lot is still up in the air after this signing. While George Iloka is intriguing and has more experience than probably all of Dallas' other safeties combined, he's being given bare-bones deal that could mean he's going to be nothing more than a backup or rotation player. Nothing is guaranteed.
What's more, we still have the 2019 NFL Draft to consider. One thing this Iloka deal tells us is that Dallas is hardly out of the business of acquiring safety talent, and could still go as high as their 58th overall pick.
If that happens, we could again be looking at the disparity in Heath and Iloka's contracts. Iloka would make way more sense as the experienced, versatile, and far cheaper reserve at that point.
For that matter, there's no guarantee that George will be on the Cowboys' 2019 roster. They may simply be taking a flyer on one of the last decent free agent safeties available, creating some competition for training camp without any sense of major commitment.
So no, this signing didn't answer much. If anything, it may have created even more questions.
We may have to wait until final cuts to know how George Iloka truly impacts things at safety, if he does at all.
Takeaway Tuesday: Cowboys Turned Their Back on Prescott’s MVP Performance
The Dallas Cowboys have lost games to the Green Bay Packers, New Orleans Saints, New York Jets and the Minnesota Vikings. Last Sunday Night, the Cowboys hosted the Vikings on primetime and lost in a game that went down to the wire. It felt like the toughest loss of the season. Why? Let's dive in to this week's edition of Takeaway Tuesday.
Cowboys Turned Their Back on Dak Prescott's MVP Performance
Cowboys Nation was shocked with the Cowboys' play-calling late in the game and for good reason. After starting the drive backed up at their own five, Prescott completed six of seven passes for 79 yards. Then, on second down and two to go, the Cowboys ran the ball with Ezekiel Elliott for no gain. On a short yardage down, that was comprehensible. Maybe not ideal, but understandable. On third down, though, they handed it off again to Zeke.
In the game in which Dak Prescott was playing at an MVP level, with less than two minutes on the clock, the Cowboys took the ball away from him to put the game on the star running back who was having a rough day with less than 50 yards against a stout Vikings defense.
Now granted, the play on third down seemed to be an RPO concept with Jason Witten as the pass option. But why are you giving Dak one pass option when he's dominated all night? Why are you instead trusting Elliott in a game in which he failed to average three yards per carry? Prescott was unbelievably clutch, throwing for almost 400 yards, three touchdowns and a 100% conversion rate on 3rd & 7+.
This was by far the number one reason why the loss to the Vikings was so frustrating to watch. The Cowboys have a franchise quarterback. But they need to learn to trust him as such and put the games on his hands when needed. Not on their running back, regardless of how much they pay each.
Jason Garrett Must Be More Aggressive in Fourth Down Decisions
It's easy to say this in retrospective, but I believe the Cowboys didn't make the right decisions when facing fourth down last Sunday night. The first notorious decision came in the second quarter, when the Cowboys faced 4th & 4 with the ball on the Vikings' 40 yard-line. Being behind 14-0, they decided to punt.
It turned out fine for the Cowboys in the end, tying the game 14-14 later in the second. But the analytics trend in the NFL really has evidence to back up the fact that Dallas should've gone for it in such a critical spot.
In the fourth quarter, the Cowboys decided to kick the field goal being on their opponents' five. Down 21-28, Brett Maher went out to kick the field goal, which put the Cowboys behind by four points instead of seven. They still needed a touchdown to take the lead with ten minutes left on the game.
Kevin Brady took a deeper look at the Cowboys' win probabilities on this article for Inside The Star.
was working on a post for @InsideTheStarDC on this last night. here's the estimated WP for each scenario on that fourth and goal.
The Baltimore Ravens are taking the league by storm using analytics and making the right decisions in fourth down. Yet, some teams in the NFL are not catching up. The Cowboys are one of those teams.
Cowboys Defense Exposed Again
The main reason the Cowboys lost to the Vikings was coaching and that's clear. But defense earned the second place. Kirk Cousins played a good game versus Rod Marinelli's unit, despite the box score suggesting otherwise. He made a couple of impressive throws at AT&T Stadium while Kyle Rudolph finished night with two touchdown catches and a two point conversion.
Dalvin Cook, one of the toughest offensive weapons to face in this league totaled 183 yards last weekend. It's not easy to face Cook and limit him and the Cowboys failed to do so. The linebackers had a very rough day overall and there wasn't a single performance to point out as a positive.
Slow Starts Won't Stop
Every week. Every week we talk about how this Cowboys team started slow against any opponent. In six games, they haven't scored a TD in the first quarter. Not even at the beginning of the season, when they went 3-0 against poor teams did they start a game on the right foot. Who to blame? Both players and coaches, but I'd lean toward coaching first.
Bottom line, there's a huge problem with the way this football team prepares for gameday and the Cowboys need to figure it out fast. Their backs are against the wall and playing from behind every game costs games. At 5-4 and headed toward tough opponents in the second half of the season, it's time to put an end to such starts.
Are the Dallas Cowboys Letting Ego Affect Offensive Play-Calling?
There is a lot to complain about after the Dallas Cowboys' loss last night to the Minnesota Vikings. But what seems to be the most universally reviled topic is Dallas' stubborn use of Ezekiel Elliott and the run game, and I can't help but wonder if it stems from an ego-driven need to validate Zeke's new contract.
Just before the start of the regular season, the Cowboys made Elliott the NFL's highest-paid running back at $15 million per year. There was no lack of criticism for this decision; many argued that the modern pass-happy NFL doesn't need RBs paid at the franchise level. There were also some direct concerns about Zeke and his ability to endure as a top-tier runner, avoid personal conduct issues, or both.
After nine games in the 2019 season Elliott has given Dallas a decent return on their investment. He is currently ranked sixth in rushing yards per game despite the team's move to a more pass-focused offense. And though it will take doing, Zeke could still make up the roughly 200-yard distance between league leaders Dalvin Cook and Christian McCaffrey.
Even while Dak Prescott is set to have a career-high in passing attempts the Cowboys are still committed to getting Ezekiel Elliott his touches. And that's not bad; you don't spend a 4th-overall draft pick and huge cap dollars on a guy you don't plan to make a focal point of your offense.
But last Sunday night, we saw Dallas keep trying to fit a Zeke-shaped peg into a Dak-shaped hole.
The Vikings were helpless against the Cowboys' passing attack all game long; Prescott, Amari Cooper, and Randall Cobb were having their way with Minnesota's secondary. Meanwhile, Zeke had one of the worst days of his career with only 2.35 yards-per-carry; the lowest production rate he's ever had when getting 20 rushing attempts or more.
Over the course of an entire game you can't completely throw out the run or pass portions of the playbook. You still have to keep the defense honest in either scenario.
And, to be fair, you can understand why Dallas thought Zeke would eventually get it going. After the Vikings got shredded by the Cowboys' passing game most of the night, you would assume they'd eventually start devoting more resources to air defense.
Throughout his time in Dallas, Elliott's best work has often come in the second half. His physical style, coupled with the Cowboys' typically dominant offensive line, is especially brutal for opposing defenses later in games when fatigue sets in.
So yes, the formula was seemingly there for Zeke to break loose. As onlookers, we were as perplexed as I'm sure the Cowboys themselves were at the lack of success Elliott and the run game had as the night went on.
But at a certain point we saw the need to adjust strategy. And as Zeke kept getting repeatedly stymied by the Minnesota defense, the outcry on social media and in living rooms and sports bars got louder by the carry.
And yet the Cowboys wouldn't relent. They wouldn't admit defeat.
Then the final drive came, and despite Dak Prescott playing perhaps the best game of his career the Cowboys handed it to Zeke on 2nd down and 3rd down for -3 yards. He went nowhere or backwards, just like we'd seen most of the night.
And in the end, that stubbornness may have cost them the game.
What concerns me about that loss, and how it unfolded on offense, is that stubborn refusal to adjust strategy. Zeke never should've gotten to 20 carries given how poorly they all went; his longest of the night was only six yards. The run game clearly wasn't working, and leaning on it in those crucial final moments bordered on the cliche definition of insanity.
The concern is that Dallas feels the need to justify Zeke's contract so badly that it's going to distort offensive strategy. And if that does exist, it probably comes from up top.
Jerry Jones has done a lot of great, wonderful things in his ownership and management of the Dallas Cowboys. But it's perfectly fair to say that he allows ego to interfere with logic at times.
Jason Garrett has won way more games than he's lost since becoming Cowboys head coach. But he's prideful; Garrett often references personal and team pride in his public conversations. And he's also proudly loyal to traditional football methodology.
Stephen Jones and Will McClay have done awesome work in their increased handling of the Cowboys' football operations. But rest assured, they also have ego. McClay helped scout Zeke and all of these offensive linemen. Stephen had a huge part in negotiating their big contracts. Their reputations are also tied to the team's success.
I'm not saying that the Joneses or anyone else has handed down an edict on when and how Ezekiel Elliott should be used. I certainly don't think Jerry was in Kellen Moore's ear on Sunday night.
But decision making has many layers, some active and some passive. Even subconsciously, our choices in the heat of the moment are driven by many factors.
Kellen may have been trying to play chess against checkers, calling the run in the face of all logic in the hopes that it would catch Minnesota off guard. But maybe also in that decision was the thought that Zeke is the team's most proven offensive weapon, the reigning NFL rushing champion, and that Moore didn't want to be the guy who didn't give Elliott a chance to do his thing.
I may be grasping at straws here, but I'm just trying to find the logic behind what went down on Sunday night. Because even the more casual football fan could see that Dallas had decision-making disasters throughout that game.
Whatever caused the lapse in judgment, hopefully all involved learned their lesson.
Coaching Staff Must Improve If Cowboys are to Reach Their Goals
In the game of football, the objective is to acquire as much talent as possible in order to perform at a high level. The Dallas Cowboys have done a remarkable job of putting the right pieces in place to be competitive year in and year out.
Players like Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Amari Cooper, DeMarcus Lawrence, Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch and more have put the Cowboys at the top of the list when it comes to who has the best roster in the NFL. However, no matter how deep your talent pool is your coaching staff is just as important. Having the right men to guide the ship will put you in the best position to succeed. The Cowboys have players that are good enough to get the job done, but this coaching staff must do a better job of game planning and making the proper in-game adjustments if this team wants to reach the next level.
The Cowboys 28-24 loss to the Minnesota Vikings this past Sunday left plenty of questions going forward as it relates to if this staff has what it takes to finally get this team past the divisional round of the playoffs for the first time since 1995. Let's dive into a few of those concerns.
First, there was the inability of the Cowboys defense to stop Dalvin Cook on screens. It seemed as if every time the Vikings needed to move the chains they repeatedly called screens to keep drives alive. You would think Defensive Coordinator Kris Richard would have kept a spy on Cook or tweaked his defensive packages to counteract how screens continuously gashed his defense but it never came to pass. Definitely a head-scratcher.
The Vikings defensive front controlled the line of scrimmage from the opening kickoff. The Cowboy's top-five rushing attack was stuck in the mud as Elliott could never get a rhythm going like his counterpart on the other sideline. Offensive Coordinator Kellen Moore failed to get Elliott the ball in other ways, via screens or other short passing plays to get him out in space. Instead, Elliott routinely got stopped for minimal gains on first down putting the Cowboys behind the chains. Once it was clear the running game wasn't going to be effective there could have been a better attempt to use Elliott's skillset.
Maybe the biggest question mark came on the Cowboys second to last drive of the ball game. Prescott had been on fire all game long spreading the ball to Cooper, Michael Gallup, and Randall Cobb. He completed six of seven passes and had the Cowboys at the 11-yard line going in for the go-ahead score with under two minutes left in the game. Instead of riding the hot hand of Prescott, back to back run plays were stalled on second and third down. Prescott would try to find Elliott on a fourth-down pass play but it was broken up by Linebacker Eric Kendricks.
Why did the Cowboys take the ball out of Prescott's hands when he was playing so well? Why did they try to force-feed Elliott during the most important drive of the game when he was bottled up all night? Mind-blowing decision with the game on the line that simply can't happen.
Lastly, there's been the ever so frustrating slow starts and lack of adjustments made by the Cowboys in games vs the other two current playoff teams they faced so far this season, the New Orleans Saints and Green Bay Packers.
In the Cowboys Week 4 showdown with the Saints their running game could never get going. Elliott only gained 21 yards on 11 first down carries which repeatedly put the Cowboys in second and third and long situations. Passing more on first down would have made the offense less predictable and possibly created more opportunities to be effective running the football by keeping the defense honest. The Cowboys only had three points at halftime and score a grand total of 10 in a two-point loss.
The following week, when the Packers came to town one man single-handedly beat the Cowboys by himself, and it wasn't who most people would have guessed. Running Back Aaron Jones had 182 all-purpose yards (107 rushing, 75 receiving) and four rushing touchdowns. He continuously moved the chains on the ground and catching passes out of the backfield. Aaron Rodgers failed to throw a single touchdown pass all game but he didn't have to with the Cowboy's inability to stop Jones. The Packers jumped out to a 24-0 lead and never looked back, eventually winning 34-24. It was mind-blowing to not see any adjustments made to keep Jones neutralized.
Lack of preparation and failure to adjust a game plan when the original doesn't work will get you beat every week in the NFL. It's a trend that we've seen far too often under Head Coach Jason Garrett. There is too much talent on the Cowboys roster to have these kinds of deficiencies week after week. If this coaching staff doesn't improve and quickly these last seven games are going to be a struggle and the Cowboys hopes of a second consecutive playoff appearance will slowly fade away.
Will they turn it around as the push for the postseason heats up? We shall see.
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