The Dallas Cowboys approached free agency with a familiar focus on re-signing their own players. While this isn't the flashiest way to add talent, it is a proven way to compete, especially considering the prospects the Cowboys have developed well enough to offer second contracts.
For as many homegrown players as the Cowboys have leading the way, they did allow the likes of Anthony Hitchens, Jonathan Cooper, and Brice Butler to depart this offseason.
Whether through signing other free agents or drafting, the Cowboys are weeks away from sorting out who fills in for these players on their deep 90-man roster. Here are my predictions for the early favorites in Dallas when looking to fill in these roles.
Cornerback Orlando Scandrick: Anthony Brown
When Orlando Scandrick defected from the Cowboys to the Washington Redskins, he left behind a void that covered 85% of last season's defensive snaps. Scandrick's effectiveness as the Cowboys slot cornerback can be fairly called into question despite his veteran status, losing a step over the last few seasons.
Turn the page to 2018, and the Cowboys are in position to have some of the best depth at slot CB in the league. Under new Passing Game Coordinator Kris Richard, this potential has already been on display at the Cowboys previous OTAs and mini camp.
Last year's standout rookie Jourdan Lewis could progress even further by kicking inside for his second season. To earn this role vacated by Scandrick, he'll have to first beat out Anthony Brown. Looking to recapture his form from a stellar 2016 season, Brown plays with the speed and awareness that the Cowboys expected from Scandrick in his prime.
Now, they can expect to hold up at cornerback without Scandrick thanks to Anthony Brown, as well as Jourdan Lewis and Duke Thomas.
Defensive End Benson Mayowa: Dorance Armstrong
It's unfortunate the Cowboys don't have bigger shoes to fill when it comes to Benson Mayowa, moving on to the Arizona Cardinals after totaling seven sacks in two seasons for the Cowboys. Mayowa was never able to truly hold down the starting job at right defensive end, a position the Cowboys will still deal with uncertainty at in Oxnard.
Awaiting the reinstatement status of Randy Gregory, the Cowboys also have Tyrone Crawford and Taco Charlton prepared to play in rotation at RDE. In terms of replacing what they had in Mayowa, rookie Dorance Armstrong fits the mold well.
Both athletic rushers with length and flexibility on the edge, it's unclear how much Armstrong will be asked to contribute in his first season. Having a similar plan after signing Mayowa would have been ideal for the Cowboys, but moving forward with this depth across the entire defensive line is an overall team strength for DC Rod Marinelli to maximize.
Working with a defensive end like Armstrong, who peaked with 10 sacks as a Junior in 2016 at Kansas, Marinelli and the Cowboys should look at anything they get out of this 'high ceiling' prospect as an added bonus in 2018.
Offensive Tackle Byron Bell: Cameron Fleming
If this season is truly going to be a prove it year for Quarterback Dak Prescott, the Cowboys must avoid the major injuries that completely wrecked his offense a year ago. Most notably, this offensive line did not play up to their own standards when Jonathan Cooper and Tyron Smith were out.
Committed to protecting Prescott again, the Cowboys prioritized their backups at tackle and guard to bring in Cameron Fleming and Marcus Martin. Fleming will serve as a replacement to Byron Bell, who finds himself with the Green Bay Packers now.
Where Bell struggled at left tackle with his footwork and overall movement ability, Fleming is a proven tackle that knows how to win, signing in Dallas by way of the New England Patriots. He is the ideal swing tackle to be ready for either Smith or La'el Collins, something never said about Bell.
Left Guard Jonathan Cooper: Connor Williams
This one is as easy as it gets, and part of the reason I named Williams the Cowboys rookie with the most upside last week. Now with the San Francisco 49ers, Jonathan Cooper left behind a starting job at left guard for the Cowboys in free agency.
With no intentions on handing this job to Marcus Martin, the Cowboys couldn't pass on Texas standout Connor Williams at 50th overall in the NFL Draft. Keeping Williams in the state of Texas is much more than just a feel good story for everyone familiar with what he went through to battle back from injury, but one with massive implications on the Cowboys offense.
Idolizing Tyron Smith throughout his journey into football, Williams will now team up with Smith on the left side of the Cowboys offensive line. The results should be stunning for this athletic and cohesive front line, especially when factoring in Travis Frederick on Williams' right side, Zack Martin, and La'el Collins.
Linebacker Kyle Wilber: Chris Covington
Primarily a special teams ace for the Cowboys, Kyle Wilber followed Rich Bisaccia to Oakland this offseason. Joining Keith Smith with the Raiders, Wilber also leaves behind a depth option for the Cowboys at both SAM linebacker and defensive end.
While rookie Chris Covington lacks the strength and experience to play defensive end, he will have to emerge on special teams to make this roster as a sixth round pick. In doing so, Covington would be absorbing the primary duties of Wilber while developing as a backup at linebacker -- just as Wilber was if called upon.
Wide Receiver Brice Butler: Deonte Thompson
It's common knowledge at this point that the Cowboys are going with a receiver-by-committee approach for 2018. Most notably replacing Dez Bryant, who remains a free agent, the Cowboys have also found speed on the outside with Deonte Thompson and rookie Cedrick Wilson.
Thompson is a very similar player to now Cardinals WR Brice Butler, who never quite found his footing in the Cowboys offense. The same has been said about Thompson through multiple teams, seen last with the Bills where he caught 38 passes for 555 yards in 2017.
Like Butler, Thompson has no problem getting over the top, and is even more refined in his ability to run intermediate routes. The Cowboys have plenty of use for Thompson's speed should they choose to use it, something they couldn't consistently do with Butler.
Cornerback Bene Benwikere: Marquez White
Yet another Cowboys free agent that signed with the Cardinals this offseason, replacing Benwikere comes down to who makes the final 53-man roster for the Cowboys. Rarely contributing on defense as an average depth player, any backup cornerback that actually makes this team is effectively the "new" Benwikere.
I'll take Marquez White's year of experience and toughness to earn him a spot once again over the likes of Donovan Olumba and Kam Kelly. Even if White doesn't provide the special teams snaps that Benwikere could, he is a capable backup at both cornerback and safety, which is more than enough for the Cowboys to consider this an upgrade at the position.
Linebacker Anthony Hitchens: Jaylon Smith
Perhaps the biggest name to leave the Cowboys this offseason, Anthony Hitchens is reunited with Matt Eberflus as a high-profile signing with the Colts. Not re-signing a player as solid and reliable as Hitchens forced the Cowboys to rebuild a bit at linebacker, doing so by spending the 19th overall pick on Leighton Vander Esch.
Sure, Vander Esch may be getting the first crack at Hitchens' old MIKE LB spot, but I believe improvements from Jaylon Smith this season will closely resemble what Hitchens leaves behind.
Practicing without a brace and preparing for a monster season, the sky is now the limit for Smith in returning to his college form. At his best, it won't matter where the Cowboys deploy Smith, as his reaction ability and power against the run will help this defense get off the field.
The same was often said about Anthony Hitchens, who quietly handled duties at all three linebacker positions at different times in Dallas.
Linebacker Keith Smith: Jamize Olawale
Never doing without their fullback, the Cowboys traded for Jamize Olawale this offseason from the Raiders -- where Keith Smith joins Kyle Wilber and Ryan Switzer as former Cowboys. Smith justified his spot on the depth chart at fullback very well, playing 85% of the Cowboys special teams snaps while being an emergency option at linebacker.
Jamize Olawale may not be an option at linebacker for the Cowboys, but the team should feel good about their depth elsewhere at this position. The bigger problem spot for Dallas exists at tight end, where Olawale can help relieve the need for a consistent threat by catching passes out of the backfield.
Olawale has certainly been an under the radar player this offseason for the Cowboys, but as we get a feel for what they have planned for him in Oxnard, Olawale should help the Cowboys move on from a player well-respected by coaches and fans in Keith Smith.
✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭
For the most part, the Cowboys have potential upgrades in place for their class of departed free agents. Each season's roster turnover is a humbling reminder of how important it is to capitalize on opportunity in the NFL. Realizing this despite being such a young team, the Cowboys signed the right veterans in free agency to avoid devastating injuries in 2018.
It will take expected contributions from veterans, draft picks living up to the billing, and free agents stepping up quickly for the Cowboys to contend this season. The pieces are in place for this roster to develop into one of the league's most talented by the end of the year however, where the best offensive line and running back in the sport become so much more important.
DAL 22, ATL 19: Elliott, Maher Carry Cowboys to Season-Saving Win
A last-minute field goal by Brett Maher lifted the Dallas Cowboys to a 22-19 victory over the Atlanta Falcons. On the strength of 201 yards of total offense out of Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas improved to 5-5 and arguably saved their 2018 season.
Elliott had 122 yards rushing and 79 receiving today, plus scored one touchdown, to make up well over half of the team's offensive production. Dak Prescott was also solid, throwing for over 200 yards and committing no turnovers.
Dallas and Atlanta traded field goals in the first half, and the Falcons took a 6-3 lead into the locker room. But the Cowboys answered with a tying field goal on their first second-half possession, then scored a touchdown on their next drive.
Maher was 3/3 on his field goals today, which included a 50-yarder. A missed extra point created concern, but the Cowboys kicker delivered in the biggest moments.
Once again, Dallas' defense was impressive and played a major part in the win. The Falcons never got into the endzone until their last possession.
- Leighton Vander Esch had another interception, securing a tipped ball that lucked its way into his grasp. He also made some big tackles and continued last week's exceptional play.
- DeMarcus Lawrence was credited with 1.5 sacks, getting him back among the league leaders with 8.0 on the year.
- Elliott was Dallas' leading receiving today. Next up was Cole Beasley with five catches for 51 yards, and Cole's day could've been better if not for a dropped touchdown pass.
- Jeff Heath nearly had his second interception of the year, but Falcons WR Julio Jones made an impressive play to hit Heath and break up the catch.
- Tyron Smith left the game on the final drive with an injury, but Cam Fleming came in and the team didn't suffer for it. We'll have to see what the short Thanksgiving week means for Smith's status against the Redskins.
- Speaking of Washington, the NFC East leaders fell to 6-4 today at home against the Houston Texans. Even worse for them, QB Alex Smith suffered a nasty ankle injury is almost assuredly out for weeks to come. Colt McCoy will be their starting QB on Thursday against Dallas.
- If Dallas wins next week, they will pull even with Washington in overall record, division record, and split the head-to-head series. With the Eagles facing a tough road game today in New Orleans, and with Alex Smith going down for Washington, the NFC East may have just become the Cowboys' to control.
Cowboys Wishlist: Snap Julio Jones’ Hot Streak
The Dallas Cowboys will try to get their second road win of the season against another inconsistent Atlanta Falcons team. As both try to get back to .500, this game will be filled with interesting matchups and implications. After upsetting the Philadelphia Eagles 27-20 last Sunday, the Cowboys need to get another upset win to keep being relevant in the league this year.
Here's this week's edition of Cowboys Wishlist! I hope you enjoy and I encourage you to let me know what your wishes are in the comments section below or tweet me @MauNFL!
Wish #1: Stop Julio Jones' 100-Yard Game Streak
With the Atlanta Falcons sitting at 4-5, many have overlooked Wide Receiver Julio Jones' hot streak. In each of his last four games, Jones has accounted for more than 100 receiving yards and two touchdowns. Totaling 476 yards in his last four games, Jones is ready to face Cowboys' Cornerback Byron Jones.
Byron has certainly been a pleasant surprise in 2018, playing at a great level right now. He has faced Odell Beckham and DeAndre Hopkins this year and made a good job of defending these "Tier 1" pass-catchers. It's worth noting the Cowboys are not making him "travel" with these players but rather keep him on a specific side of the field. That shouldn't change against the Falcons.
Wish #2: Contain WR Calvin Ridley
Back in April, Cowboys Nation eyed Calvin Ridley as a prospect who could end up wearing the Star on Sundays. However, Dallas passed on him and the Alabama product fell right unto the Falcons' lap. He's had a pretty good season and despite sharing the field with Julio Jones, he's done a great job as a rookie averaging 14 yards per reception.
The Cowboys need to contain him. While Dallas should feel comfortable with Byron doing his job, the truth is Chidobe Awuzie has struggled at times. Not that he's suddenly a bad player, but he needs to step up his game. Lining up against Ridley today will be a great test and one I wouldn't expect him to pass easily.
Wish #3: Score 28+ Points
The Cowboys have the huge advantage of going against a defense that ranks 29th in scoring defense. They did a nice job on Philadelphia last week and should continue to build on that success to do something they haven't done much this year: score a lot of points.
Scott Linehan's unit needs to do a better, more consistent, job. They've shown us they're capable of scoring, but they've also shown us their remarkable ability to seemingly forget how to do so. Blame it on play-calling, QB play, poor offensive line or whatever you prefer, it's a flawed unit.
They need to capitalize versus a poor defense like the Falcons' to find a steady rhythm.
Wish #4: Dak Makes This Falcons' Game a Turning Point
Last year, when Dak Prescott was sacked six times in Atlanta (five times by Adrian Clayborn) something changed for the Cowboys' young quarterback. Missing RB Ezekiel Elliott and LT Tyron Smith that day, Prescott had one of the worse days in his career. It was a turning point for him as a QB and the public eye.
Now he has a chance at redemption. A shot at putting the Cowboys at .500 and reviving playoff hopes, as unlikely as it sounds.
I wish that's the case for the Cowboys young passer in Atlanta. As flawed as he is, I'm a fan of his. The kid leaves it all on the field.
Final Thoughts on Cowboys Matchup with the Atlanta Falcons
This week, like every week for the rest of the 2018 NFL season, is a must-win game for the Dallas Cowboys. Getting ready to face an Atlanta Falcons team that took the heart and soul of the Cowboys offense in last year's matchup, Dak Prescott and the Cowboys have a lot to prove as they attempt to get back to the .500 mark for the fourth time this season.
It feels like the Philadelphia game was forever ago. Now that it's finally game day, here are some final thoughts on the Cowboys matchup with the Atlanta Falcons.
Amari Cooper Breaks Century Mark
Amari Cooper has proven his worth in his first two games since coming over to the Dallas Cowboys from the Oakland Raiders. He's had 11 catches in the first two weeks and has made an instant rapport with Quarterback Dak Prescott. I believe they take another step forward this week and Amari Cooper goes for 100 yards in just his third game with America's Team.
Cooper had 75 yards against the Eagles and 58 against the Titans. He's trending toward the 100 yard mark. If Prescott and Cooper could have connected on just one of the deep shots they missed on, Cooper goes for 100 last week. This week, Dak and Coop get another weak defense.
The Atlanta Falcons pass defense is one of the worst in the NFL. They have the sixth highest net yards per attempt number in the NFL and the sixth most yards allowed. They've also allowed the fourth most passing touchdowns; 21.
Since the Atlanta Falcons can score and move the ball with their passing attack, the Cowboys will have to throw to win this game.
Can Xavier Su'a Filo Continue to be an X-Factor
The Cowboys offensive line had their best game of the season on the ground on Sunday as they gashed the Philadelphia Eagles -- who were second in rushing heading into the game -- for 171 rushing yards. They did it by going right at the Eagles defense and were most successful when they used Su'a-Filo to get to the next level of the defense.
There's been a lot of talk about whether Su'a-Filo should continue to start when Connor Williams comes back and for me, it depends. Williams has had some problems with the strength that defensive tackles bring on the inside, but he's been getting better too.
If Su'a-Filo and the Cowboys offensive line plays well during this stretch that Williams is healing, then it would be a shock to see the rookie second round pick reinserted into the starting lineup.
Check out this week's film review on Xavier Su'a-Filo.
Dominant Defensive Duo
Jaylon Smith and DeMarcus Lawrence has been exceptional this season. Jaylon Smith looks to be healthy and progressing to be what the NFL thought he would be coming out of college. A transcendant middle linebacker.
DeMarcus Lawrence sack numbers may not be as high as they were this time last season, but he continues to show that he's a dominant player on both pass and rushing downs.
Cowboys playmaking EPA, now with snap counts! The most efficient playmakers have been Jaylon Smith, DeMarcus Lawrence, Sean Lee, Daniel Ross and Jourdan Lewis. "Playmaking EPA" = total EPA on failed plays forced through sacks, QB hits, turnovers, passes deflected, tackles, etc.
As you can see from our friend Daniel Houston, who manages Cowboys Stats and Graphics on Twitter points out, Smith and Lee have been the best playmakers on the team on a per snap basis. By just about every measure out there, those two have been worthy of Pro Bowl and perhaps All-Pro selections.
Playing for his Life
Chidobe Awuzie has been struggling this season. And that's stating it kindly to the second-year corner back. He's had decent positioning for much of the year, typically being right where he's supposed to be, but he's not making any plays of the football, which is something he was known for coming out of college.
There's something not quite right with his game this season as he's become the focal point for opposing passing attacks and for good reason. He can't stop anyone.
Well, this is the week to turn all of that around. The Dallas Cowboys need him to have a big week this week.
As humans, we know that when our interior isn't right, it doesn't matter what else we have going on on the outside, we don't function as well. The same is true for defense. If your interior isn't right, your defense isn't right. The Dallas Cowboys defensive interior is struggling with some health issues.
On the final injury report of the week, Defensive Tackles David Irving and Daniel Ross have already been ruled out, Antwaun Woods is doubtful, and Maliek Collins is questionable. If for some reason Maliek Collins isn't able to go, then it's probable that the team will go into the game without a functional one-technique defensive tackle. Even with Collins in the lineup, being down Woods and Ross means the Cowboys have to run Collins at 1T and Tyrone Crawford is your primary 3T defensive tackle.
With Crawford having to play inside this week it means a three-man rotation at defensive end of DeMarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory, and Dorance Armstrong. They should be alright on the outside, but Crawford is one of their best run defending defensive ends. He's good on the inside, but you want to save him for your passing situations.
This is one of those games that I'm having a difficult time getting a read on. The Cowboys haven't been good on the road this season until last week at Philadelphia, one of the more difficult places to play in the NFL. In that game, they finally got their offense clicking through the air and on the ground.
This week looks like an opportunity for the Cowboys to continue to prove themselves offensively against an average to below average opponent.
On the defensive side of the ball, they're going to have their hands full with an Atlanta Falcons offense that is averaging more than 30 points a game at home and has one of the best receivers in the NFL in Julio Jones.
I think this is going to be a close game where both teams get into 20's in point scored and it comes down to who plays better offensively at the end.
My heart leans Cowboys, but my gut leans Falcons. So it should be a 20-20 tie. Really though, I'm going with the...
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