The Cowboys' selection of linebacker Jaylon Smith in last April's draft has been met with skepticism from the very beginning. It has only increased throughout the offseason.
Dallas spent their second-round pick, the 34th overall in the 2016 draft, on the former Notre Dame standout. They picked Smith despite the knowledge that he was unlikely to play this season after a major knee injury in the Fighting Irish' bowl game on New Year's Day.
The Cowboys saw Smith as the fifth-best talent in the class. They also had inside information on his surgery as their own team doctor performed the surgery. Even if it meant getting nothing in 2016, Dallas saw the pick as a chance to add a dynamic talent for the next ten years.
Many onlookers have disagreed. Some feel that the pick would have been better used on a player who could help right away. Others point to the team's bad history with risky second-round picks and feel they will only get burned again.
Let's look at the objections to the Jaylon Smith and see how much water they hold.
The Defense Needs Help Now
There is no refuting the basic element of this argument. Obviously, at any pick, you want to add talent that helps right away.
But immediate help is just one part of the draft value equation. Long-term potential is a key consideration at any pick. It has to be if you want to be known as a team that consistently handles the draft well.
When the 34th pick came along, Dallas had just watched defensive ends Emmanuel Ogbah and Kevin Dodd get taken by other teams. Would the Cowboys have drafted one of them? Smith was still the fifth-best talent on their board. It's hard to say.
Many have pointed to another defensive end, Noah Spence, as the better choice. Spence went five picks later to Tampa Bay. His stock was mainly hurt by a history of drug and alcohol offenses while in college, but Spence is also undersized for a 4-3 defensive end.
Risk is risk, regardless of the type. Spence's character and size are just as much a cause for concern as Jaylon Smith's knee. Once you get into the second round, everything starts looking like 50/50 propositions.
For some this comes down to the simple debate of "Jaylon Smith versus Myles Jack." By the time the draft came along, Jack's knee issues had been downgraded in terms of his long-term future. He would be able to play now, and perhaps for a few seasons, but there was significant concern about his ability to have a long career.
Smith is the opposite; immediate absence but better long-term prospects. As already mentioned, Dallas' own team doctor performed the surgery. They had as good an idea of Smith's present and future potential as any NFL team. All health issues aside, they also saw Smith as the better talent of the two players.
The hindsight argument on "Smith versus Jack" will be a future article on this site and many others. I don't think there's any right or wrong in these situations; only lucky and unlucky.
They "Knew" Rolando McClain Was in Trouble
A few weeks ago, the Cowboys front office said they were fully aware of McClain's personal struggles when they made the decision to draft Jaylon Smith. This only exacerbated the complaints a bout the Smith pick for some and generated some new ones.
Saying that you knew McClain was having problems is like saying you knew the sun would rise. He's a troubled man. Dallas has treated him like a volatile mercenary for two years, trying to benefit from his skill while keeping the relationship temporary and easily dissolved.
I think the comment about knowing McClain was in trouble was the lesser of evils for public relations. I don't believe they expected him to be this far gone; likely unable to contribute to the team in 2016 or perhaps ever again.
The alternative was to say that you had no idea how bad things have gotten for McClain. That would've been admitting to a lack of awareness or involvement with your players. Which really makes the organization look worse?
Remember, the Cowboys knew they had Anthony Hitchens. He played well as the middle linebacker in 2014. Last year was a bit of a sophomore slump, but I think they still saw Hitchens as a solid insurance policy for 2016. All reports from training camp so far suggest that they were right.
2nd Round History
Some fans think that Dallas' track record with second round picks was reason not to gamble on Jaylon Smith.
Nothing about Martellus Bennett, Sean Lee, Bruce Carter, Gavin Escobar, DeMarcus Lawrence, or Randy Gregory has anything to do with the nerve in Smith's knee. It will recover or not based on medical science and not any sort of history or jinxes.
The argument that Dallas has gambled too much with second-round picks is overblown. The second round generally offers you two types of players:
- First-round talents with risk factors or short-term obstacles
- Low risk, medium reward talents
You likely remember names like Kevin Burnett, Anthony Fasano, or Al Johnson. They were former second-round picks who had solid years in Dallas and with other teams. None of them were ever stars or impact players, though. They are typically what you get when you try to avoid risks.
It's still too early to say if Gregory and Lawrence were bad picks. Carter had moments of brilliance but couldn't ever master the fundamentals of his position. Bennett had maturity issues but ultimately was a victim of Jason Witten's longevity and endurance. Since leaving Dallas he's proven to be one of the better tight ends in the league. The same could happen with Escobar.
Obviously, the clearest comparison to Jaylon Smith is Sean Lee. Although he didn't have the same level of perceived risk with his health issues, Lee also wasn't projected as the same potential talent that Smith was. Still, you're talking about that "risk vs. reward" debate that comes up with every player.
If Smith's recovery goes as projected, he and Lee could form the most dynamic linebacker duo in the NFL. Despite all of his missed games, Lee still leads all NFL linebackers in interceptions since entering the league. Smith has that same play-making potential.
Jaylon Smith will or won't get there based on his own rehabilitation efforts and basic good or bad luck. If he does, it could be the best second-round pick Dallas had made since Larry Allen.
That's worth some risk.
~ ~ ~
The Cowboys had a time when they drafted for immediate need and not a more long-term perspective. It was ugliest period of their draft history and the ramifications were felt for over a decade. Many of the fans who are complaining about the Jaylon Smith pick are likely the same who lambasted Jerry Jones for his previous draft record.
You can't have it both ways.
Leighton Vander Esch To Top Rookie Season With Pro Bowl Trip
Dallas Cowboys' rookie Leighton Vander Esch has done enough to prove every single doubter wrong. When Roger Goodell called his name during the 2018 NFL Draft in Arlington, Texas, many in Cowboys Nation rejoiced at the thought of having a young linebacker for a defense surrounded with uncertainty. However, many analysts doubted the draft pick. For a lot of people (sadly, I include myself in this category), the pick should've been used on another player. For most, despite acknowledging his raw talent, Vander Esch wouldn't be able to provide the Cowboys with an instant impact player. Ah, well.
After a remarkable season, Vander Esch (a.k.a. Wolf Hunter) has earned a spot on this season's second-team All-Pro. When the Pro Bowl voting began, Vander Esch was snubbed from the ballot itself. It didn't took the NFL long to realize their mistake and add the Cowboys' linebacker to the list. Despite missing the cut at first, Vander Esch will be heading to Orlando to play in this year's Pro Bowl on January 27th.
The former Boise State Bronco will be replacing Carolina Panthers' LB Luke Kuechly, who won't be participating because of an injury.
Vander Esch racked up 140 tackles (per Pro Football Reference), ranking third in the league in this category. He finished the season as the fifth best linebacker in Pro Football Focus' rankings.
But numbers aren't really enough to fully appreciate what Vander Esch did for the Dallas Cowboys. A team that was used to seeing its defense break when veteran Sean Lee went down injured, did not only get someone to fill in for Lee. Vander Esch actually upgraded the Cowboys' defense. It didn't matter where the ball went, he was always around when opponents were tackled. His speed and chance of direction allowed him to run sideline to sideline, covering a huge portion of the field.
Along Jaylon Smith, Dallas managed to have one of the best linebacker duos in the NFL.
The last time a defensive rookie from the Cowboys went to the Pro Bowl was in 1981, when Everson Walls made the team. Vander Esch is the 11th rookie in team history to be selected to the Pro Bowl. This year, the rookie will be accompanied by DeMarcus Lawrence, Byron Jones, Tyron Smith, Zack Martin and Ezekiel Elliott.
Cowboys Expect C Travis Frederick Back for Offseason Program
Lost in yesterday's hoopla over Scott Linehan's return was a positive report about Center Travis Frederick. In his comments to the media, Jason Garrett said that Frederick's recovery timetable should allow him to a full participant in the team's offseason program.
After never missing a start in his first five years, Travis missed all of 2018 dealing with the effects of Guillain-Barré Syndrome. The disease attacked his neurological system and required immediate and intensive treatment.
Jason Garrett says the team anticipates Travis Frederick being involved in the offseason program right from the start this spring if he continues on the same positive track in recovery from Guillain-Barré syndrome. #cowboyswire
While Joe Looney performed admirably in Frederick's absence, he's not an elite talent. Travis has been arguably the best center in the NFL since entering the league in 2013.
It's hard to qualify what effect not having Frederick had on the Cowboys offense in 2018. Ezekiel Elliott still led the league in rushing, but short-yardage plays weren't as automatic as we've seen in past years. A 4th-and-1 stuff was part of what led to the Cowboys' loss this past Saturday.
Dak Prescott was the second-most sacked QB in the NFL in 2018. After being sacked just 25 and 32 times in his first two seasons, the number skyrocketed to 56 sacks.
That's not all on Frederick, of course. Tyron Smith had some health issues and there were was turnover at left guard.
But having your All-Pro veteran center out there to help with the pre-snap reads, and help the rookie guard on his left, might have helped avoid some of those issues.
Indeed, Travis Frederick's return is just one of many reasons for optimism with the 2019 season. One of the best players on the team, he was sorely missed this year and can only help as Dallas looks to build on their division title and playoff appearance.
For Cowboys to Beat the Rams, Dak Prescott must Lead the Way
In the NFL wins and losses often come down to quarterback play. That isn't to say that if a team wins, it was all because of the quarterback and inversely, if a team loses that it was all on the quarterback. Teams win or lose games. Generally speaking, however, the quarterback has the highest amount of influence on the outcome of an NFL game. This will be no different for the Dallas Cowboys this Saturday when they take on the Los Angeles Rams in the LA Coliseum. For America's Team to make their first trip to the NFC Championship Game since 1996, Dak Prescott has to have a good game.
This looks to be a good matchup for the Dallas Cowboys offense, which should allow Dak Prescott and the Cowboys to take advantage in certain areas.
A few Rams Passing Game Notes
- The Los Angeles Rams were middle of the pack against the pass this season, allowing the 14th fewest passing yards in the league this season.
- The Rams allowed 7.7 yards per attempt. Dak Prescott is averaging 7.6 yards per attempt since week 10 of the season.
- The Rams allowed the eighth most passing touchdowns in the NFL this season. They and the New Orleans Saints are the only teams in the top 10 of passing touchdowns allowed in the playoffs this season.
- The Rams were 15th in the NFL in sacks, with 41, but Aaron Donald accounted for half of that with 20.5 sacks on the season. No other player had more than five sacks.
- They were third in the NFL in interceptions, collecting 18.
- The Rams allowed the ninth highest yards per completion on the season at 11.8. So on average, every completion went for a first down.
Dak Prescott is playing as well as any quarterback in the playoffs at the moment. Over the last nine games, he's averaging 272 passing yards, two total touchdowns, was only intercepted four times, and was sacked on average 3.2 times per game.
On Saturday night, we saw Scott Linehan put the ball in his hands on a couple designed runs that nearly scored touchdowns. It was an excellent addition to the offense that could help fix the Cowboys red zone woes. Getting Dak Prescott running on some designed runs or quarterback draws could help slow down Aaron Donald and the pass rush.
The Cowboys needed every bit of Dak Prescott magic to overcome a stingy Seattle Seahawks defense in their Wild Card win and they'll need him to step up again this week against the Rams. Every team is going to attempt to take away the running game to make Dak beat you and as he continues to mature, he's getting more and more comfortable doing that. He's comfortable with the big stage and the big moments.
Dak Prescott Since 2016, including playoffs * 15 game-winning drives (Most in NFL) * 13 primetime QB wins (Most in NFL) * 19 rush TD (Most in NFL by QB) #DallasCowboys @dak
No Quarterback in the NFL has more game winning drives, rushing touchdowns, or wins in primetime than Dak Prescott. When we talk about Dak Prescott, we talk a lot about the things that he can't do as a passer and deservedly so, he still has some growing to do in that area, but in the things that you can't objectively quantify -- mental toughness, resiliency, clutchness, will, determination -- Dak is one of the best in the NFL. He's as mentally tough as they come in the NFL and he doesn't let the spotlight or the game situation phase him. He has that stuff that's hard to put your finger on.
The Dallas Cowboys will need more of that on Saturday night in Los Angeles. The Rams can score and can score in bunches and if the Cowboys defense starts sluggish or has an off night, they'll need Dak Prescott to keep them in the game. Even if the defense has a good game, Dak still has to come through in the passing game and on the ground to give the Cowboys a chance to pull off the upset.
The Dallas Cowboys are going to try to run the ball against the Rams on Saturday. That's their identity; run the ball, control the clock, and be efficient in the passing game. Prescott, either with his legs or with his arm will have to make some plays to extend drives and keep the Rams offense on the sideline. He'll need to be sharp in the red zone to convert those opportunities into touchdowns. Settling for field goals against the Rams is how the Cowboys get beat.
This matchup with the Rams looks to set up nicely for Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys, yet how things look on paper doesn't mean much when the lights go on and the whistle blows. It's a big stage and it's another win-or-go-home game for the Cowboys (like every game has been over the last nine weeks). In a big game, you need big time players, and the Cowboys have one in quarterback Dak Prescott.
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