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Leighton Vander Esch: A Steal That Came Along at the Right Time

Matthew Lenix

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Leighton Vander Esch: A Steal That Came Along at the Right Time

When the 2018 draft rolled around, you can bet nobody saw the pick of Leighton Vander Esch coming in the 1st round. When it did, however, disappointment spread throughout the Dallas Cowboys fan base, seeing as he wasn't an ideal selection, but sometimes you stumble across a rose in the concrete.

After hearing his name called on draft day, the Cowboys newest linebacker didn't waste any time making his intentions and expectations known. "I'm excited to get in there with the guys and work every single day to make sure we can put ourselves in position to win Super Bowls because it's the ultimate goal," Vander Esch said.

He wouldn't start until week 4, but his impact was felt immediately. Combining for 30 tackles in his first three career starts and helping the Cowboys to two victories. It was clear if you watched the film just how naturally gifted he was as a tackler, earning one of his nicknames "The Tackling Dutchman" almost instantly.

Weeks 9-11 is where the rookie sensation probably had his best stretch of 2018. Not only did he combine for 30 more tackles and help the team rack up two more victories like his first three starts, but a new dimension of his game came to the forefront. Vander Esch would show off his coverage skills against running backs and tight ends, getting his only two interceptions and five of his seven passes defended for the season. The ability to stop the run is paramount obviously, it makes offenses one dimensional, but having a linebacker with coverage skills in a passing league gets you a long way.

What also couldn't be denied was his on-field chemistry with Jaylon Smith. With Sean Lee still battling hamstring issues, this gave the 1st round pick more time to gel with his counterpart. It worked so well that not only were they making a case to be crowned the best linebacker duo in the sport, but they were the only set of teammates to rank in the top 15 in total tackles. Highly impressive wouldn't you say?

Vander Esch would have his new best buddy right beside him every time he did his signature wolf howl after a big play. It might seem insignificant to some, but football is the ultimate game of unity, and with this kind of support from a teammate, it certainly helped with the maturation process that all rookie players go through. Iron Sharpens Iron.

"The Wolf Hunter", as he's known now, would appear in all 16 games, starting 11. Tallying 140 tackles (102 solo) and two interceptions. These numbers were good enough to garner him Pro Bowl and second-team All-Pro honors, as a rookie, putting to bed all the doubters.

Going forward a huge advantage Vander Esch will have is learning under Sean Lee. The Cowboys mainly operate out of the nickel package, with two linebackers on the field, that will be Jaylon Smith and Vander Esch. Lee will rotate in for Vander Esch when it's called upon but the two young bulls will be the primary linebackers in this set. Lowering Lee's snap count will prolong his career and allow Vander Esch to draw knowledge from the well so to speak. This is something that will be paramount in his continued growth.

The Cowboys saw something in Leighton Vander Esch, and it's paid tremendous dividends so far. They would finish 7th in total defense in 2018 and became a unit the team could depend on, unlike years past, with the rookie phenom being a major link in the chain. He's a throwback linebacker with his physicality, but with coverage skills also in his toolbox, as mentioned earlier, his game adapts well in today's NFL.

The second-year pro is currently dealing with a pelvic injury that kept him out of OTA's, for precautionary reasons. Nonetheless, the future is bright for the kid from Idaho. With Jaylon Smith beside him, and hopefully a healthy Sean Lee, the Cowboys will have a dominant linebacking core in 2019.



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Tony Pollard, Supporting Cast or a Co-lead with Ezekiel Elliott?

Brian Martin

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How Much can RB Tony Pollard eat Into Zeke's 2019 Workload?

Since the Dallas Cowboys drafted Running Back Ezekiel Elliott fourth overall in the first-round of the 2016 NFL Draft he's been the star of the show. Any of their other offensive weapons have been nothing more than supporting cast the past three years, but rookie RB/WR Tony Pollard could prove to be more than just supporting cast and become more of a co-lead in Zeke's show.

Suggesting Tony Pollard has a chance to be more than just supporting cast with Ezekiel Elliott is a lot to put on a rookies shoulders, but that's the kind of hype he's receiving already. He hasn't even put on the pads yet with the Dallas Cowboys, but he's already receiving Alvin Kamara type comparisons due to the versatility he's expected to bring with him to the NFL.

Living up to those Alvin Kamara comparisons might be even more difficult than becoming anything more than just an extra behind Zeke anytime soon, but it's doable. After all, Kamara immediately stepped in as a rookie and became a costar with Mark Ingram in New Orleans. It's certainly feasible to think Pollard can do the same.

Tony Pollard

Dallas Cowboys RB Tony Pollard

There's of course only one problem with this way of thinking. Mark Ingram is no Ezekiel Elliott. And, no RB on the depth chart behind Zeke the last three years has been good enough to cut into #21's heavy workload. Is the hype surrounding Tony Pollard justified? Is he talented enough to cut into Zeke's playing time?

Those are some really big questions we don't have an answer to as of yet. Training camp could help determine the type of role Tony Pollard will have with the Dallas Cowboys in 2019 and beyond, but even that can be thrown out the window once games start to matter in the regular season.

Personally, I think Tony Pollard will be part of a supporting cast behind Ezekiel Elliott this year. I just don't think he's ready to step in and costar with Zeke just yet. I think he will be more of a comedic relief that will be used from time to time to keep things interesting. That's not necessarily a bad thing though considering his versatility to contribute in the running or passing game.

In time though, Pollard could prove worthy of an increase in playing time and become more of a co-lead with No. 21. It may very well be in his rookie season, but he's really going to have to prove himself and that will need to start this week when the Dallas Cowboys kick off their training camp in Oxnard, California.

What do you think? Is Tony Pollard supporting cast or a co-lead with Zeke?



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Randy Gregory can Make the Perimeter Pass Rush Extremely Formidable

Matthew Lenix

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Randy Gregory can Make the Perimeter Pass Rush Formidable

Randy Gregory showed flashes last season of the potential he has as a pass rusher. Even though he only managed one start he did see action in 14 games. Had registered 6 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, 7 tackles for loss and 15 hits on the quarterback. That's very good production with limited opportunities. Now, this sets up the Dallas Cowboys on the edge getting to the quarterback, and here's how.

The Cowboys acquired Defensive End Robert Quinn via trade from the Dolphins back in March. He is set to start at right defensive end opposite All-Pro DeMarcus Lawrence. Gregory, who lines up on the right side as well, can potentially make said side a huge problem for offenses on 2019.

Let's just take a typical season from Quinn which is between 8-9 sacks. If Gregory can give at minimum what he did last season, that's around 15 sacks just between the two of them alone. Now, as we all know, Lawrence can be penciled in for double-digit sacks routinely at this point. So given this information that's a potential 25-30 sacks just from these three players. This is without including guys such as Taco Charlton, Dorance Armstrong, Kerry Hyder, and rookies Joe Jackson and Jalen Jelks (assuming they make the final roster).

Why is Gregory's potential impact so important? For me, it's simply where he lines up at defensive end, on the right side. Most quarterbacks are right-handed, which means when they drop back to pass they face left side defensive ends, with their backs to defensive ends coming off the right side. If you can consistently pressure a quarterback from his blindside the opportunities for sacks and fumbles increase. Regardless of how skilled a quarterback is you can't avoid what you can't see.

Of course, this all depends on what the NFL does regarding the reinstatement of Gregory. He was suspended indefinitely in February for violating the league's substance-abuse policy, a situation he is all too familiar with. My guess is Gregory and the Cowboys will ask for a conditional reinstatement like he was given by the NFL in 2018. What this would do is allow Gregory to participate in meetings and condition work until he's a full participant. He is set to apply for that reinstatement within the next few days.

The only thing Randy Gregory can do now is play the waiting game. The league is currently considering the possibility of softening their stance on marijuana use. If they are serious about it I can see Gregory getting reinstated even if it's on a conditional basis. If this is granted the Cowboys will be getting big-time pressure off the edge with Lawrence, Quinn, and Gregory in 2019.



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CB Jourdan Lewis Getting Ready For Bounce-Back 2019 Season

Kevin Brady

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Seldom-Used CB Jourdan Lewis Could Play Big Role Against Saints

For a third round pick, cornerback Jourdan Lewis sure did come to Dallas with his fair share of hype.

In fact, much of Cowboys Nation was more excited about Lewis joining the Cowboys than they were about either of the team's first two selections in that same draft, Taco Charlton and Chidobe Awuzie. But while Awuzie has soared to starting cornerback levels with Dallas during his first two seasons, Jourdan Lewis has been forced to take a back seat.

After a promising rookie season, Jourdan Lewis didn't get much playing time at cornerback in 2018. Anthony Brown took over as the starting slot corner, while Byron Jones and Awuzie manned the outside. This left Lewis as the odd man out, despite what many consider to be impressive cover skills.

Lewis is not allowing this down season to eat away at him too much, though. While speaking with the media last week at SportsCon in Dallas, Lewis gave his thoughts on how his year spent behind the other young Cowboys corners is only fueling him for the future.

 "As a competitor it's always tough, especially as a rookie and you're playing all of the time. It's definitely when you take a step back it humbles you. Sometimes you gotta understand that you have to wait your turn and work on your craft. Understand that you always have to stay a professional no matter your situation. And that's what I learned last year."

Considered undersized by the standards typically used by Cowboys secondary coach Kris Richard, some have argued that Lewis was never given a fair shot to earn playing time once Richard took over in 2018. Whether or not this is true can't ever be said for sure, and the level of play Anthony Brown exhibited from the slot in 2018 didn't leave much room for substitutions either.

Still, Jourdan Lewis says he appreciates that time he spent on the bench, and he hopes that it will only drive him towards bigger and better things down the road.

"I appreciate the time that I sat last year honestly...Because it made me a better player, maybe a better person honestly."

The Cowboys cornerback situation didn't get any less crowded this offseason. Not only is Dallas bringing back all three of the aforementioned starters from a year ago, but they also drafted Miami's Michael Jackson in the fifth round of the 2019 draft.

That cornerback room is full of talent. Not only does this create a luxury for the Cowboys at one of the league's most important positions, but it also breeds immense competition between the corners come training camp.

Which, if you didn't know, begins on July 26th.



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