Darnell Leslie became the first Dallas Cowboys player to sign with the team from Monmouth University since Miles Austin on Tuesday, looking to follow a similar successful career path as he fights to earn his star at outside linebacker/defensive end.
I'm biased, but Miles Austin will always be one of my favorite Cowboys because of his transition from the MU Hawks to the Cowboys - and what it meant for this area, covering the Cowboys from the Jersey Shore.
I had a chance to interview Leslie on what it was like to sign with America's Team on his birthday, his college experience, early career advice he's received from Austin himself, and initial impressions on life in the NFL.
You can listen and read the full interview below:
Q: Take us through yesterday's experience with your birthday and the signing with the Cowboys becoming official. You were with Tampa Bay early in the offseason, so you've already bounced around a bit and have gotten a feel for what its like to be with an NFL team. Yesterday must have been pretty exciting for you, how did you spend the day, where were you when you got the news, and how did you celebrate both achievements?
Darnell Leslie (@DarnellJamar_): I got the word that I would probably be coming back to the Cowboys on Sunday after mini camp ended. They told the tryout guys to pack their stuff and we headed to the airport. One of the personnel staff emailed me and said that there was a strong chance I would be coming back the next day to possibly sign with the team.
They had to work out the roster, but I had a good feeling I'd be coming back. As soon as I got home that Sunday night, I had a text on Monday morning letting me know that they wanted me out there the next morning - which happened to be my birthday. It was pretty exciting for me and definitely a dream come true to be on an NFL roster, but for it to happen on my birthday was pretty special and it was probably one of the best gifts anyone can ask for.
Q: What do you think you can take from your short time with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before this to the Cowboys in adjusting to the game along with the other rookies and tryout players?
Darnell Leslie (@DarnellJamar_): I can take a lot from Tampa Bay alone. I was there for four days doing their rookie tryout and the biggest thing I got from them is that the speed of the game is a lot faster. Its a lot more up tempo. The plays are definitely more complex than they are in college, especially for me having never played linebacker until a few months ago. It was a big learning curve for me getting that crash course in Tampa, but the plays we learned there came from the Defensive Coordinator we have here with the Cowboys (Rod Marinelli) as well.
A lot of the things I was learning there were similar, and that allowed me to get my feet wet. When I got to Dallas I felt a lot more comfortable in a lot of my assignments.
Q: What has your experience with Defensive Coordinator Rod Marinelli been like preparing for this season?
Darnell Leslie (@DarnellJamar_): I'm not directly working with Coach Marinelli but I've seen the way he coaches the linemen on the other side of the field and there's a lot of energy. Those guys talk highly about him and from the experiences I've had with him in team meetings I love his energy and he's a good guy. He wants to get us better and elevate our games to the next level.
Q: How would you describe your game and the traits you can bring to this team on the edge?
Darnell Leslie (@DarnellJamar_): Rushing the edge on certain blitzes that we have for the outside linebacker is going to be the most natural thing for me to do because I played DE all throughout college. That along with my instincts and being an athlete will help me a lot at any position really. Its football and you have to react at any position. Those two things are really going to help me succeed in the NFL.
Q: The Cowboys pass rush has been an area fans have called for improvements with for a while now, even still as they used the 28th overall pick on Taco Charlton. Is this something you've gotten a sense of as you compete for a spot on a team that's struggling to find consistent pass rushers?
Darnell Leslie (@DarnellJamar_): Taco is a great player as a first round pick. I haven't seen him play much but with his attributes and college film he's going to help the defense tremendously as a rookie. As for me, I'm not too sure about how big of an impact I can have on this team coming from a smaller school. I have a lot more to prove but once I get my feet wet and get more experience I'll feel more comfortable and can help in any way possible.
Q: Every team wants to say they have a high level of competitveness in the way they practice and prepare. How has fitting in with the other rookies on the Cowboys been in this culture that is so built up on competition under Jason Garrett though, and who have you been able to reach out to?
Darnell Leslie (@DarnellJamar_): Its gone well, there are four rookie LBs that we have in our group and we're all pretty cool. They've embraced me pretty well, and they're all from different schools and levels. We have similar but different backgrounds in terms of competition that we've played but the rookie class in total is a great group of guys. We're all very well mannered and well versed. As a unit we'll be able to compete with any other rookie class honestly, we have a whole bunch of talent.
Q: What do you think it says about your situation in the NFL with one of the better teams in the league when you have fellow rookies like Chidobe Awuzie leaving rookie mini camp to graduate Colorado but commit to making it back the next day and the Cowboys projecting themselves as a brand everyone knows about even with your background on the East Coast?
Darnell Leslie (@DarnellJamar_): Its definitely a different feeling being here now. Chido had to go back for his graduation and that shows a ton of character, he wanted to finish out what he did in college and I respect that 100%.
I don't think I've fully soaked in the moment, I'm stuck in it right now, because I haven't come from a program close to this in my four years at Monmouth on the East Coast. It was a smaller school with not the highest or lowest level facilities but coming here to the brand new facility is a shell shock. Seeing the view, the weight rooms, and everything else is crazy.
In a few more days I'll start to realize this is the NFL and the next level, I have to let it help me make me better.
Q: What excites you the most about moving forward with this team knowing the opportunity that is ahead for them as a full team, and when you get to the point where you're on the field with a player like Jason Witten, where do you see yourself and the team going?
Darnell Leslie (@DarnellJamar_): I definitely see myself making the team on special teams. I'm pretty sure that being a rookie and a smaller school guy without the most explosive film will lend itself to making me a special teams guy and adding needed depth if a guy goes down. With Pro Bowlers like Dez Bryant, Sean Lee, and Jason Witten I definitely think this is a Super Bowl caliber team and we saw that last year with their record and performance. They're only going to get better and the next step for us is definitely the Super Bowl.
Q: What was your favorite team growing up?
Darnell Leslie (@DarnellJamar_): I was born and raised in Gaithersburg, Maryland, so anybody can guess it was definitely the Redskins. It's a hard one to bite but I'm a Cowboy now and this is my team.
Q: Is there a QB that you would want to sack the most in the NFL right now?
Darnell Leslie (@DarnellJamar_): Nah, I'm just trying to go out there and play and earn a spot to make the most of this moment.
Q: Getting back to your Monmouth career, Miles Austin was the headlining player for guys from your school in the NFL as the first to do so with the Cowboys. He became a fan favorite for Cowboys fans in the area. How much do you know about his story and not only his career as a starter but his beginnings and process as a UDFA in his own right?
Darnell Leslie (@DarnellJamar_): Miles coming from Monmouth is like the superhero for all of our football players and athletes that want to go to the next level. He's always come back to the school and given back which we all appreciate. In this moment he's embraced me as a younger brother and I've seen him a bunch in the facility. He's been in my ear about doing as much as I can, about being noticed and learning the playbook to keep my foot in the door here and make the most of this.
I haven't picked his brain yet about what he did to get and stay here so long but I'm definitely going to have that conversation with him in the near future.
Q: Did Miles have anything to say about the draft process that players like yourself have to go through, and what was that experience like for you looking back at it?
Darnell Leslie (@DarnellJamar_): I think you're right in saying that coming from a smaller school takes twice as much work to get noticed. That's all part of the game because we don't play Alabama, LSU, or those bigger name schools. We have to prove ourselves more. This draft process went in my favor and I had my fair chances of getting exposure.
My agent did a hell of a job getting my name out there and getting me workouts with teams. At that point it was up to me to produce and convince these teams that I'm worth taking a shot on.
I think this whole process has been pretty fair for me.
DT Leonard Williams May be Available, Should the Cowboys Explore a Trade?
Per a report by Rich Cimini of ESPN, the New York Jets may be exploring a trade for their star defensive lineman Leonard Williams. With Williams set to hit free agency in 2020, the theory is the Jets may not be interested in locking up Williams long-term after just drafting Quinnen Williams with their top five selection in 2019.
Here's what Cimini had to say in his report:
"There's already talk in league circles that Gase could be looking to move on from Williams, who will be a free agent after the season. He's due to make a guaranteed $14.2 million in the final year of his contract. Gase hasn't said anything about Williams that would spark speculation, but it's not hard to connect the dots when examining the defensive line situation."
Rich Cimini - ESPN.com
Williams has been a really good player for the New York Jets who has played 3-4 defensive end and some defensive tackle for the Jets in his four-year career. A former sixth overall pick has had as many as seven sacks and as few as two sacks a season, but he's played in all 64 games in his career, starting 63. He's stayed healthy and been productive on a Jets defense that hasn't been very good over the last few years.
For the Cowboys defense, he would project as a 3-technique with the ability to be the Cowboys 1-technique in passing situations. Among interior defensive lineman, Leonard Williams finished 21st in run stops per Pro Football Focus and sixth in total pressures with 53. Williams was third among interior players in QB hits with 16 ahead of Kansas City Chiefs Defensive Lineman Chris Jones and Seattle Seahawks Defensive Tackle Jarran Reed. For reference, DeMarcus Lawrence had 63 total pressures and 11 QB hits in 2018, while Tyrone Crawford had only 37 total pressures.
The Dallas Cowboys have been working to reinforce their defensive line this offseason after struggling in the playoff loss to the Los Angeles Rams when the Cowboys gave up over 200 yards rushing. Though they like Antwaun Woods and Maliek Collins, they obviously weren't satisfied with the going into 2019 with just those two in the Dallas interior.
In free agency, the Cowboys added Christian Covington and Kerry Hyder and then drafted Trysten Hill with their second-round pick. They also added Daniel Wise, a player that was seen as a fourth or fifth rounder in most people's minds as an undrafted free agent and will compete for a roster spot.
As intriguing as Covington, Hyder, Hill, and Wise are in addition to Maliek Collins and Woods, Williams would be an immediate upgrade at 3-tech and the Dallas Cowboys should explore it, even if they don't plan on resigning him beyond 2019.
The Cowboys could swap expiring contracts by sending Maliek Collins to New York and a draft pick. Collins is unlikely to be resigned by the team in the 2020 offseason as they have plans for Hill as their 3-tech of the future.
The Dallas Cowboys showed with the trade for Robert Quinn that they're alright going after the one-year rental player. Leonard Williams would make their defense better for 2019 and while they have high hopes for Trysten Hill, Williams is a known asset right now and wouldn't prevent you from giving Hill snaps at 3-tech.
For a team hoping to make a Super Bowl run, adding a player like Leonard Williams makes a lot of sense. He's another disruptive player that would immediately improve your pass rush and also helps your run defense. The Dallas Cowboys have a team ready to win now, so now's the time to go get players that help you do so.
Cowboys RB Mike Weber’s Injury Scare Continues Concerning Trend
Rookie RB Mike Weber had a brief scare earlier this week with a knee injury in practice, but thankfully the MRI came back with a good report. However, as he fights to have a future with the Dallas Cowboys, this health incident is a concerning reminder of Weber's recent history.
One reason that Weber fell to the seventh round of the 2019 NFL Draft was due to battling injuries during his last two years at Ohio State. He lost his starting job in 2017 due to ongoing hamstring issues and also had to miss time last year because of a foot strain.
Carrying the load for the Buckeyes is a far different workload than being second or third on the Cowboys' RB depth chart. But this latest scare happened in early May, just two weeks after Mike joined the team and well before the more strenuous activities of an NFL offseason.
A practice injury can cost you just as badly as one that happens in a game. And with Dallas already thin at RB, it could leave them severely shorthanded if it occurs during the regular season.
Many have projected that the Cowboys' RB group in 2019 would have Ezekiel Elliott as the obvious starter and then rookies Weber and Tony Pollard behind him. While Pollard was drafted three rounds ahead of Weber, he's not built to take a large number of carries if Zeke were to go out.
If Mike Weber does make the team, he would be expected to take a sizable role if something bad happen with Elliott.
The "injury prone" label is disastrous for any athlete, but especially a guy with no real claim to a roster spot. If Weber causes concern in the front office about his durability, they may go a different way at final cuts.
Remember, Mike's not just up against Pollard and Darius Jackson for a roster spot. There are still plenty of veteran free agent running backs out there that Dallas could turn to if they're not confident about their young prospects.
This isn't too say that one scary moment in May, which ultimately didn't amount to much, is reason to cut bait with Mike Weber. But when you stack it up with his injury history in college, it does make you wonder how he'll do over the course of an entire NFL season.
Hopefully, Weber bounces back from this and has a great summer. Former Buckeye RBs have treated Dallas well the last few years, and it'd be fantastic if Mike can provide the same solid solid depth that Rod Smith did.
But this latest news is just a reminder of why Dallas can't rest easy at running back just yet, and why they may still have another move to make to prepare for 2019.
Cowboys LB Jaylon Smith Graduating From Notre Dame
The 2019 season is right around the corner for the Dallas Cowboys, with OTA's and training camp getting ready to kickoff in the coming weeks/months.
Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith made the most of his offseason, going back to Notre Dame to finish out his college degree. Smith is set to graduate from Notre Dame this Saturday, and will walk to earn his degree in Film & Television.
Smith talked to DallasCowboys.com's David Helman about why it was so important for him to graduate and finish what he started at Notre Dame.
“When I left after my junior year, I promised my mom that I would go back and finish...Finishing my third year with the Cowboys, it was time.” - Jaylon Smith
2,025 @NotreDame undergraduates will receive degrees during Commencement Weekend. That contingent includes @thejaylonsmith Yes, the current @dallascowboys & former @NDFootball All-American linebacker, who took 21 credits this spring #4for40 #GraduatingChampions #CEV
Smith continues his leadership on and off the field, and we all send our congratulations to the Cowboys starting MIKE linebacker!
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