The NFL draft is always a crap-shoot. You never know who will fall into your lap (Dez Bryant), or who will get whisked from under your nose. In the 2014 NFL draft the stories from Valley Ranch are that the Cowboys already had the name of LB Ryan Shazier written on their card before the Pittsburgh Steelers - one place ahead of Dallas - selected the Ohio State linebacker.
I thought it would be fun to play the 'what if?' game after hearing the rumours that were rife throughout the draft process.
Suppose the Steelers didn't select Ryan Shazier instead taking one of the cornerbacks that many thought was their primary position of need? Well the Cowboys hand in the card with Shazier's name on it but that still doesn't fix the right defensive end spot that was, and still is with the injury to DeMarcus Lawrence, a problem position. The Cowboys continue with their plan to take the Boise State defender by trading up in the second round so they lose their 3rd round pick. There's now no need to take Anthony Hitchens in the 4th round but OG Trai Turner who they were targeting has gone by the time they select in the 4th round.
I think the 2014 class ended up being a better scenario than this one, especially given Shazier's sporadic early season play. Thank god the Steelers took Shazier!
However, consider this. The Cowboys had also been rumoured to be trying to trade that 16th pick used to select OG Zack Martin and move down in the 1st round. They felt so good about DeMarcus Lawrence and had him rated as the 3rd best pass rushing defensive end. Say they can move back and select him at the back-end of the 1st round receiving a 3rd round pick as well. In the 2nd round they can continue to fortify the defensive line with the selection of Timmy Jernigan, who Baltimore selected with the 48th pick one position after the Cowboys were slated to pick. In the 3rd round they are able to select OG Trai Turner who was coveted and fills the place now taken by Martin. Turner has started the year strong and may not be a big step back from the play we have seen on the offensive line thus far. You now have a late 3rd round selection as well as the other picks Dallas used in the spring.
It's still early to consider the results of the 2014 draft, but which direction would you have gone in?
Who would you have taken if you had that extra pick and would you prefer that scenario over the players now wearing the star? It's all hearsay now but I'd be interested to hear what you think. Let me know @DCBenMcKeith.
2018 Draft Class Season Review: LB Leighton Vander Esch
As the first round draft pick of America's Team, any player would be under a ton of pressure from all angles. Whether it's from the fans on the outside or the organization on the inside, the expectations around being a first round pick for the Cowboys are immense. But the pressure placed upon linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, from the second he was announced as the 19th overall draft pick, was second to none.
It felt like Cowboys Nation let out a collective groan when Vander Esch was taken, with fans hoping for a more glamorous first round selection. Someone like wide receiver Calvin Ridley or edge rusher Harold Landry would've done the trick, but after Vander Esch's rookie season it's hard to imagine either of those players would have had the impact Vander Esch did in 2018.
Though he didn't start a game until week 4, and didn't become the unquestioned full-time starting WILL until week 10, Vander Esch earned Pro Bowl honors for his rookie season. Tallying 140 total tackles and 2 interceptions, Vander Esch made his presence felt week in and week out.
No counting stats can fully measure Leighton Vander Esch's impact as a rookie, however.
Prior to the 2018 season, the Cowboys defensive success often came down to the health of Sean Lee. When available and playing at his best, Lee led an overachieving Cowboys defense to solid performances each week. But, when Lee went out (as he often did), the entire Cowboys defense seemed to fall apart.
This year, though, that all changed. When Sean Lee was out with injury the Cowboys defense got better. Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith became a versatile, hard hitting tandem the NFL immediately feared, and helped to direct the Cowboys defense to signature wins throughout the 2018 season.
There are arguments against taking any off-ball linebacker in the first round, as the value of the position has been questioned due to the new style of offense in the NFL. Nowadays linebackers are relegated to two-down players, taken off the field in favor of faster defensive backs on critical passing downs.
Leighton Vander Esch is athletic enough to be both an old school run stopper, but also a three down linebacker in today's fast paced NFL.
Despite the doubts which surrounded the pick, the Cowboys absolutely nailed their first round selection in 2018. And Leighton Vander Esch made Dallas' front office look like geniuses each and every Sunday.
What Is The Cowboys Most Pressing Offseason Need?
Finishing their season with a Division Round loss, Dallas Cowboys fans are getting a somewhat late start on the 2019 offseason. Of course, we'd much rather a later start, but the results are what they are.
Now Dallas must get better, and re-tool before heading into Dak Prescott's fourth season, and the Cowboys' 2019 campaign. Though they didn't feel all that close to a championship this season, looking around the roster, it's actually tough to identify one key need the Cowboys must address.
They are filled with young, talented players that they have high hopes for across the board. And in the places they are "older," such as across the offensive line, they have established veterans who aren't going anywhere anytime soon.
So what is the Cowboys' most pressing offseason need?
Well, despite already using their 2019 first round pick to address it, the answer very well might be wide receiver.
Adding Amari Cooper midseason provided a massive jolt to the Cowboys previously anemic passing attack, but on his own he is not enough to take this passing game to where it needs to be to compete in this new NFL.
Third round pick Michael Gallup is going to be a very good pro, and progressed really well as his rookie season went on. I think he can play opposite Amari Cooper nicely, and be the number two option in the passing game going forward.
Though arguably their best wide out against man coverage, Cole Beasley is a free agent, and if the reports are true about Scott Linehan returning in 2019 it could very well mean Beasley will not be opting to sign back with Dallas.
Regardless of Beasley's decision, however, the Cowboys need to seriously evaluate their pass catchers heading into next season.
This is a passing league. The rules have dictated that you must be able to pass the ball efficiently if you want to compete with the best of the best around the NFL. To take the next step in their progression, and reach an NFC title game and/or Super Bowl, Dak Prescott will need to have as explosive a group of pass catchers as possible.
The Cowboys have already taken solid steps to making this a reality, but another move or two this offseason could go a long way to putting Dallas in the conversation with teams like the Rams and the Saints in 2019.
3 Things We Learned About The Dallas Cowboys In 2018
Coming into the 2018 season, loads of questions surrounded the Dallas Cowboys and the future of their roster.
Could their defense stay intact when the annual Sean Lee injury occurred? Was Kris Richard going to lead the Cowboys young secondary to places we thought they could be? And would Dak Prescott earn a contact extension and become the official franchise quarterback of America's Team.
Of course, there are tons of other questions that may have gone unanswered, but these three critical areas seem to find clarity in 2018.
Leighton Vander Esch And Jaylon Smith Are Legit
The Dallas Cowboys caught a lot of flack for their selection both of these linebackers, each for different reasons.
When they snagged Jaylon Smith in the second round of the 2016 draft, it was still unknown to the public if Smith could ever even play football again. When they took Leighton Vander Esch 19th overall last April, fans questioned how valuable an off-ball linebacker would be on a defense that already had Sean Lee.
Well, after their first full season together, it's easy to say that both Vander Esch and Smith are the linebacker options of the future in Dallas. Named to the Pro Bowl during his rookie season, Vander Esch took the world by storm in 2018. When Lee went down, he was there to not only fill his shoes, but to outplay the veteran all year long.
What is fun to consider is that as good as Vander Esch was this season, Jaylon Smith might be even better. Both posses insane sideline to sideline pursuit ability, and are some of the surest tacklers in all of football.
Watching these two grow together will be a pleasure over the coming seasons.
Their Young Secondary Is Coming Together
Like their linebackers, the Dallas Cowboys secondary is a young group, who fans are excited to watch grow throughout the years. It seemed like more pressure sat on the shoulders of young cornerbacks Byron Jones and Chidobe Awuzie than of Smith and Vander Esch, however.
With Kris Richard joining the staff and making the decision to move Jones to cornerback full time, it was do-or-die for the former first round pick. Byron Jones answered all the doubters, earning not only a Pro Bowl selection but also First Team All Pro honors for his performance.
Opposite him, Awuzie had a rough start to his sophomore campaign. While typically right there in coverage, wide outs too often made contested catches over him. Over the final few weeks of the year, however, that changed and Awuzie played some of the best football yet.
Xavier Woods, Anthony Brown, and Jourdan Lewis (in much fewer snaps) all had fantastic seasons as well, giving the Cowboys great hope and confidence in their secondary moving forward. They may need to add another safety during the offseason, however, though Jeff Heath remains more than just a viable option.
Dak Prescott Is Here To Stay
Whether or not you think it's justified, Dak Prescott is the quarterback of the future in Dallas. And he earned that right the back-half of 2018 and during the postseason. After a shaky start to his 3rd season, Prescott turned things around nicely, leading the Cowboys to a 7-1 finish to the regular season.
Prescott played the best football of his young career down the stretch, and showed just how valuable he is both on the field and in the locker room. It seemed like every game he made 2-3 winning plays that put the Cowboys over the top that afternoon.
Dak is going to get a contract extension, and will be locked in as a Cowboy for the foreseeable future, and with the way he played the final 10 games of his season, I can't second guess this decision much at all.
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