The Cowboys took their fair share of heat for selecting linebacker Leighton Vander Esch 19th overall in the 2018 NFL Draft. But through just over half a season, Dallas is looking vindicated in their decision.
Vander Esch was arguably the best defensive player on the field during Dallas' 27-20 win in Philadelphia Sunday night, and made the two biggest defensive plays of the game as well. Finishing with a game-high 13 tackles, Vander Esch was all over the field in both run and pass defense.
The first of his two massive plays came in the first quarter. After the Cowboys offense stalled deep in their own territory, the Eagles looked to be in prime position to strike first with a short field. On Carson Wentz' first pass attempt of the drive, however, Leighton Vander Esch was there to intercept him and return the ball back 28 yards.
Those return yards proved key as well, giving the Cowboys the short field and an easy path to their first three points of the night. And with the way their offense looked early in this game, Dallas could use all the help they could get.
The biggest play of the game, though, came late in the fourth quarter. With the Eagles facing a third and short and down seven points, they absolutely needed a conversion to keep pace with the surprisingly hot Cowboys offense. Philadelphia tried to beat Dallas with a running back screen to the backside, inviting the pass rush and getting blockers out in front.
There seemed to be nothing but blockers and green grass ahead for the Eagles on this play, with "Next Gen Stats" expecting a 22 yard gain after the catch. Then, Leighton Vander Esch eluded two blockers and tracked down the running back for a loss of 3.
Leighton Vander Esch made a game-saving tackle late in the 4th quarter to preserve the Cowboys 27-20 win. Corey Clement was expected to gain 22 yards after the catch (gained 3), -19 YAC Below Expectation, the most yards saved on a pass play this season. #DALvsPHI #DallasCowboys https://t.co/0DF7jhPQzH
If not for this tackle, who knows how both that Eagles' drive and the game would have ended. Vander Esch saved the day for Dallas, and forced the Eagles into a tough fourth and long situation with the game on the line.
I know it is still early in Vander Esch's career, and even relatively early in this season as well, but it's become clear the Cowboys hit a home run with their 2018 first round selection. Vander Esch is fitting in beside Jaylon Smith with ease, and with those two athletic freaks together, the Cowboys look to have one of the brightest defensive futures in all of football.
Of course, there are now legitimate questions about what the Cowboys should do with their captain Sean Lee. But as of right now, it should be Leighton Vander Esch's job to lose.
Randy Gregory can Make the Perimeter Pass Rush Extremely 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.
CB Jourdan Lewis Getting Ready For Bounce-Back 2019 Season
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.
Jason Witten Is A Future Hall Of Famer, But Is He Now Underrated? Some NFL Execs Say So
It's hard to imagine how a 37 year old tight end who was more recently in the broadcast booth than on the football field could possibly be "underrated," but that's what some NFL Execs seem to believe.
Bleacher Report's Mike Freeman conducted a survey of executives around the league, asking them who they believed the most underrated player in the NFL was entering the 2019 season. While Steelers running back James Conner was the most common player named, Cowboys tight end Jason Witten was also reportedly brought up.
I have to admit, this is shocking.
As mentioned, Witten is well past his prime and saw decline in his play over the last few seasons he played with the Cowboys. His retirement made sense, and his un-retirement was a surprise to most. But I suppose now that seemingly no one nationally expects Witten to do much of anything in 2019, he can be thought of as underrated.
This sentiment echoes statements which former Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo made earlier last week. Romo claimed that his favorite target would pick right back up where he left off in Dallas, and would be back to the Witten of old in no-time.
"The reality of it is as long as, if you know the game the way he does, there are certain positions—he plays one of them at tight end—he's always going to have the nuance to get open." - Tony Romo
I'm still very much in "wait and see" mode with this entire Jason Witten situation. It's hard to wrap your head around a player we all thought was old and slow when he was 35 coming back after a year in retirement to be a productive NFL pass catcher.
While Witten's numbers have declined across the board, his touchdown production actually improved in 2017. If, at the very least, Jason Witten can become a secondary red zone option for the Cowboys offense, then his addition would have been well worth it offensively.
Jason Witten will wear a gold jacket in Canton Ohio one day, but will his 2019 contributions give the voters any extra reason to support his candidacy?
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