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Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith Ranked as Top 5 Linebackers

John Williams

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Cowboys, Bears Proving Defense Can Win the NFC

Yesterday, Pro Football Focus, a site that watches the film and hands out grades on each individual player in the NFL, released it's top five overall grades at linebacker for the 2018 season. Not that we should be surprised, but Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith both appeared on this top five list.

Pro Football Focus on Twitter

Bobby Wagner is the highest graded linebacker in the NFL through 16 weeks.

We see it every Sunday, so we know how good they've been from a Dallas Cowboys context, but being on a top five list with Bobby Wagner and Luke Kuechly should tell you that we are watching something special happening. Wagner and Kuechly have long been considered two of the best linebackers in the NFL and both have been rewarded with Pro Bowl and All-Pro selections, deservedly so.

There is only one other team that features two linebackers in Pro Football Focus' top 10 and the is the Carolina Panthers with Kuechly checking in at number two and Thomas Davis at number 10. The Cowboys and the Panthers are the only teams to have two linebackers in the top 15 at their position as well.

We're watching something special, even if we don't truly appreciate it. Ever since Rod Marinelli took over this defense, I've been patiently, and at times not so patiently, waiting for this team's version of Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs. Finally, we may have it.

What's amazing about what these two are doing, is that they're doing it at such a young age, with very little experience. Leighton Vander Esch is a 21-year-old rookie who just played his 15th NFL game after starting for only one season at Boise State after he walked on because as an eight-man football player he got zero scholarship offers. Jaylon Smith is 23, has had to overcome that devastating Fiesta Bowl knee injury he suffered at the end of his college career. He spent his rookie season in 2016 rehabbing and 2017 playing mostly as a part-time player before taking the reigns at middle linebacker this season.

The results have been spectacular and they're a duo that hasn't even reached the limits of what they're capable of and that should scare the rest of the NFC.

On the season, Leighton Vander Esch is third in total tackles and second in solo tackles, according to Pro Football Reference. Vander Esch's two interceptions has him tied for fifth at the linebacker position. The rookie is also third in the NFL in stops, which are recorded by Pro Football Focus as a "play that results in a loss for the offense." Vander Esch is in the Defensive Rookie of the Year discussion, which should say a lot about the way he's played.

Jaylon Smith is 13th in the NFL in solo tackles. Among linebackers, Jaylon Smith is tied for seventh in the NFL with four sacks and is 12th in the league with 15 total pressures, per Pro Football Focus. Jaylon ranks 16th in the NFL in PFF's stops statistic.

By many measures and when you watch the games or any all-22 film, you see an explosive, athletic, and fast duo that has wrecked opposing game plans all season long. You can see why the Dallas Cowboys were willing to make Sean Lee a healthy inactive in a win and clinch game. It also makes it hard to believe that either of these guys didn't make the Pro Bowl.

Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch are a big part of the reason that the Cowboys defense is playing as well as it is this year, and if this year is any indication, the Cowboys will be fielding a really nice defense for a long time coming.



Dallas Cowboys optimist bringing factual reasonable takes to Cowboys Nation and the NFL Community. I wasn't always a Cowboys fan, but I got here as quick as I could.

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Cowboys Sign WR Devin Smith, Former 2nd-Round Pick

Jess Haynie

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Devin Smith

The Dallas Cowboys have reportedly signed Receiver Devin Smith, previously with the New York Jets, to a futures contract. Smith was a 2nd-round pick, 37th overall, in the 2015 NFL Draft.

Before going pro, Devin was a college teammate of current Cowboys Ezekiel Elliott, Rod Smith, and Noah Brown. They were all members of the 2014 Ohio State Buckeyes team that won the National Championship.

Smith's agent, Jason Bernstein, tweeting the following earlier today:

Jason Bernstein on Twitter

Congrats to WR Devin Smith @dsmithosu for signing with the #DallasCowboys! Welcome back. https://t.co/hCMYoE8fEh

Thus far, Smith's NFL career has been marred by injuries. He has suffered two ACL tears in the same knee and only been able to appear in 14 games. He was waived by the Jets last summer and was not with any team last season.

Overall, the 2015 class of receivers has been disappointing. Amari Cooper has been a star and other later-round picks like Tyler Lockett, Stefon Diggs, and Jamison Crowder have been good. But the other big names of the class, such as Kevin White, Breshad Perriman, and DeVante Parker, have not lived up to the hype.

The Cowboys are known for trying to reclaim players who once had high draft status and bad starts to their careers. They are clearly hoping to cash in on Smith's previously perceived potential, which had him projected as a possible first-round talent at one time.

For both Devin and Dallas' sake, we hope it's a success!



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DeMarcus Lawrence Named Top Free Agent Of The 2019 Class

Kevin Brady

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Breaking Down DeMarcus Lawrence's League High 5.5 Sacks Through Week 4

Much has been made about the Dallas Cowboys 2019 free agent class. Dallas has a ton of cap space moving forward, but they are going to "have" to pay many of the key players on their roster over the next two offseasons in order to keep their young core together.

Of course, when you're drafting, that's the goal. To draft so well that when your own players become free agents, you go ahead and pay them to keep them around, rather than overpay on the free agent market for external players.

One of the major pieces the Cowboys will have to retain this offseason is defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence. And while Cowboys Nation often thinks of Lawrence as underrated around the league, the NFL has caught onto his importance as he enters free agency this Spring.

ESPN.com ranked their top 10 free agents for 2019, with DeMarcus Lawrence clocking in at number one, over elite players like Jadeveon Clowney and Le'Veon Bell.

ig: josinaanderson on Twitter

ESPN's top 10 free agents for 2019 and what Le'Veon Bell should be looking to command based on previous measures. https://t.co/aJ7H1n001t

DeMarcus Lawrence is going to command big time money, likely even Khalil Mack-type money. But the fact of the matter is that he has earned it. Lawrence has been the heart and soul of the Cowboys defensive line the last two seasons, and the most consistent edge player on the team as well.

Not only has he been an effective pass rusher, but DeMarcus Lawrence also plays with a relentless motor against the run that can sometimes be rare to find in those premier pass rushers. He really is a jack of all trades at defensive end, and should be priority number one for the Cowboys this offseason.

Thankfully, I can't imagine the Cowboys not retaining DeMarcus Lawrence and extending him in the coming months.



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When it Mattered Most, Cowboys Offensive Line Protected Dak Prescott

John Williams

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All-22 Notes: Connor Williams Stands Out in Wild Card Win

Throughout the 2018 NFL season, one of the major story lines surrounding the Dallas Cowboys was how frequently Dak Prescott was taking sacks. It's an area that the Cowboys will have to look at in the offseason to better protect their franchise quarterback moving forward. In the playoffs, however, Dak Prescott and the offensive line were much better at keeping their prized possession upright than they were in the regular season.

In the regular season, Dak Prescott was sacked 56 times for an average of 3.5 times a game. There was only one game where he wasn't sacked at all, way back in week two against the New York Giants. Four times this season, the Cowboys' quarterback was sacked five or more times. The New Orleans Saints got him for a season high seven times.

According to Pro Football Focus, Dak was "kept clean" -- not pressured -- on 63% of his drop backs during the regular season, which ranked 25th in the NFL. When kept clean, Prescott completed 74.1% of his passes, which was good for 5th in the NFL during the regular season. He was under pressure 37% of the time, which was the sixth highest rate in the NFL and his completion percentage dropped to 52.6%, still good for 10th in the NFL. It was better than Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, Patrick Mahomes, Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, and Baker Mayfield.

During the playoffs, Prescott's "kept clean" percentage rose from 63% to 68% and he was only sacked once in each game. The one sack against the Los Angeles Rams probably shouldn't have been called a sack as the referee blew the whistle because Prescott was "in the grasp"...

...of his offensive lineman.

During the playoffs, the Cowboys offensive line kept the pressure off of Prescott at a better rate, allowing him to be pressured on only 31.9% of his drop backs. Meaning he was kept clean at an improved rate from the regular season at 68.1% of his drop backs. This while playing against two teams that are really good at rushing the passer. The Los Angeles Rams and the Seattle Seahawks both finished in the top half of the league in sacks this season and feature players like Aaron Donald, Jarran Reed, and Frank Clark who all had double-digit sacks.

As we know, pressure rates and sacks aren't all completely on the offensive line. The quarterback, wide receivers, and the play calling all factor in, but the Cowboys are trending in the right direction with their pass protection. A full offseason for Connor Williams in the Dallas Cowboys strength and conditioning program, better health for Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, and -- fingers crossed -- Travis Frederick, should all help the offensive line play at a higher level heading into the 2019 season.

It can't be overstated how important it will be to get Travis Frederick back into the fold this season. Joe Looney was good, and that might be overstating it a bit. He was not noticeable on most plays during the season, but getting your All-Pro center back will tremendously help the offense in every facet of the game. Frederick's one of the smarter players in the NFL, who helps everyone on the offense to see the blitzes and calls out the protections. Both his mental and physical ability will be a welcomed site when the Cowboys begin practicing in the offseason.

With another year of growth for the quarterback and for the young pieces along the offensive line, and with a full offseason for Dak Prescott to grow with Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and Blake Jarwin, the Cowboys should be better next season at keeping the quarterback clean.



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