Welcome to this week's edition of Martin's 5!
Unfortunately, the Dallas Cowboys were unable to invoke that magic that has worked for them nearly the entire 2016 season last week against the New York Giants. It is only the Cowboys second loss of the season, but the second defeat from the Giants.
It's funny how one single loss can create so many ?'s from a team that has been one of the best, if not the best teams in the NFL this year.
If you're anything like me, then you have an abundance of things you're wondering about heading into this week's matchup against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
This isn't the same Buccaneers team we have seen in years past. They are one of the hotter teams in the NFL right now and could give the Cowboys all they can handle.
The Cowboys recent struggles on offense and the fact there is a hot team up next on the schedule, has really overloaded the things I'm wondering about this week. Below are just a few of them that are running through my head.
One: I recently had a chicken and egg debate about whether the rookie wall is a real thing or not. Personally, I believe that it is and it really started me thinking about if we have seen Dak Prescott reach that point in his rookie season? Typically, a college players season ended about a month ago, so a lot of these rookie players in the NFL this year have already played in more games than they are accustomed to. That's not even taking into consideration the long off-season they had just gone through. Think about it. They have finished their college season, began their draft preparation process, gotten drafted, gone through OTA's/mini-camp/training camp, and are now winding down their first year in the NFL. They really haven't had a break during that time span accept a short bye week. So, it's only natural that these first-year players start to struggle a little bit later in the season. Prescott has struggled here the last few games, whether or not it is him hitting the rookie wall has yet to be determined. The remaining games left on the Cowboys schedule will ultimately tell the story.
Two: Let's stay with Dak Prescott here for just a little bit longer, because I'm wondering how long Jason Garrett and the coaching staff will continue to stick with him as he starting QB if he continues to struggle? Prescott has really struggled these past couple of games and if that continues this week against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, you have to think the organization starts to seriously consider reinserting Tony Romo into the starting lineup. The Dallas Cowboys have been one of the best teams in the NFL and have a really good chance of playing far into the playoffs, possibly reaching the Super Bowl. That might not happen if Prescott continues to play the way he has been. If Jason Garrett and Jerry Jones are serious about going all way this year, they might have to make a really tough decision, which might mean benching Prescott for Romo.
Three: The running game for the Cowboys offense hasn't quite been the same since Geoff Swaim was injured and I wonder how they can fix it? The Cowboys have been using Gavin Escobar and sometimes even going to a heavy set with offensive lineman Joe Looney at times, but both players limit what the offense can do with either player on the field. Defensive coordinators should know by now that Escobar isn't a very good blocker and Looney isn't a threat in the passing game. That means they can really focus their attack on Ezekiel Elliott and try to shut him down. I recently wrote an article suggesting that the Cowboys should sign Brandon Pettigrew. I think Pettigrew could come in and instantly make an impact in this area.
Four: The Dallas Cowboys offense has had to square off against two pretty good defenses these last couple weeks, which has resulted in them not putting up as many points as they had been earlier in the season. What I'm wondering is if it is more of the defenses they are playing or if it is just the offense struggling to find their rhythm? Honestly, I think it's a little bit of both, but the offense has to find a way to put points on the board regardless of the caliber defense they are playing. I don't think it's a coincidence that the offense was firing on all cylinders when Cole Beasley was more involved. He is a matchup problem for anyone that is trying to cover him and I think he needs to become more a part of the game plan once again, especially in third-down situations.
Five: The defense for the Dallas Cowboys was supposed to be the weak link of this team, but last week against the New York Giants they were the ones keeping them in the game. I wonder if they can continue to play at a high level, because it would certainly help with the postseason just around the corner? Last week they were able to create several turnovers and get the ball back to the offense. Unfortunately, the offense wasn't able to capitalize. There were however a few missed opportunities that could have been game changers, but it is really encouraging the way this defense is starting to come together. Hopefully they can continue to play at this level, especially Sean Lee, who was a man possessed against the Giants.
Is there anything you are wondering about this week?
Use the comment section below to share with us what thoughts you might have stuck in your head this week.
2018 Draft Class Season Review: LB Leighton Vander Esch
As the first round draft pick of America's Team, any player would be under a ton of pressure from all angles. Whether it's from the fans on the outside or the organization on the inside, the expectations around being a first round pick for the Cowboys are immense. But the pressure placed upon linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, from the second he was announced as the 19th overall draft pick, was second to none.
It felt like Cowboys Nation let out a collective groan when Vander Esch was taken, with fans hoping for a more glamorous first round selection. Someone like wide receiver Calvin Ridley or edge rusher Harold Landry would've done the trick, but after Vander Esch's rookie season it's hard to imagine either of those players would have had the impact Vander Esch did in 2018.
Though he didn't start a game until week 4, and didn't become the unquestioned full-time starting WILL until week 10, Vander Esch earned Pro Bowl honors for his rookie season. Tallying 140 total tackles and 2 interceptions, Vander Esch made his presence felt week in and week out.
No counting stats can fully measure Leighton Vander Esch's impact as a rookie, however.
Prior to the 2018 season, the Cowboys defensive success often came down to the health of Sean Lee. When available and playing at his best, Lee led an overachieving Cowboys defense to solid performances each week. But, when Lee went out (as he often did), the entire Cowboys defense seemed to fall apart.
This year, though, that all changed. When Sean Lee was out with injury the Cowboys defense got better. Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith became a versatile, hard hitting tandem the NFL immediately feared, and helped to direct the Cowboys defense to signature wins throughout the 2018 season.
There are arguments against taking any off-ball linebacker in the first round, as the value of the position has been questioned due to the new style of offense in the NFL. Nowadays linebackers are relegated to two-down players, taken off the field in favor of faster defensive backs on critical passing downs.
Leighton Vander Esch is athletic enough to be both an old school run stopper, but also a three down linebacker in today's fast paced NFL.
Despite the doubts which surrounded the pick, the Cowboys absolutely nailed their first round selection in 2018. And Leighton Vander Esch made Dallas' front office look like geniuses each and every Sunday.
What Is The Cowboys Most Pressing Offseason Need?
Finishing their season with a Division Round loss, Dallas Cowboys fans are getting a somewhat late start on the 2019 offseason. Of course, we'd much rather a later start, but the results are what they are.
Now Dallas must get better, and re-tool before heading into Dak Prescott's fourth season, and the Cowboys' 2019 campaign. Though they didn't feel all that close to a championship this season, looking around the roster, it's actually tough to identify one key need the Cowboys must address.
They are filled with young, talented players that they have high hopes for across the board. And in the places they are "older," such as across the offensive line, they have established veterans who aren't going anywhere anytime soon.
So what is the Cowboys' most pressing offseason need?
Well, despite already using their 2019 first round pick to address it, the answer very well might be wide receiver.
Adding Amari Cooper midseason provided a massive jolt to the Cowboys previously anemic passing attack, but on his own he is not enough to take this passing game to where it needs to be to compete in this new NFL.
Third round pick Michael Gallup is going to be a very good pro, and progressed really well as his rookie season went on. I think he can play opposite Amari Cooper nicely, and be the number two option in the passing game going forward.
Though arguably their best wide out against man coverage, Cole Beasley is a free agent, and if the reports are true about Scott Linehan returning in 2019 it could very well mean Beasley will not be opting to sign back with Dallas.
Regardless of Beasley's decision, however, the Cowboys need to seriously evaluate their pass catchers heading into next season.
This is a passing league. The rules have dictated that you must be able to pass the ball efficiently if you want to compete with the best of the best around the NFL. To take the next step in their progression, and reach an NFC title game and/or Super Bowl, Dak Prescott will need to have as explosive a group of pass catchers as possible.
The Cowboys have already taken solid steps to making this a reality, but another move or two this offseason could go a long way to putting Dallas in the conversation with teams like the Rams and the Saints in 2019.
3 Things We Learned About The Dallas Cowboys In 2018
Coming into the 2018 season, loads of questions surrounded the Dallas Cowboys and the future of their roster.
Could their defense stay intact when the annual Sean Lee injury occurred? Was Kris Richard going to lead the Cowboys young secondary to places we thought they could be? And would Dak Prescott earn a contact extension and become the official franchise quarterback of America's Team.
Of course, there are tons of other questions that may have gone unanswered, but these three critical areas seem to find clarity in 2018.
Leighton Vander Esch And Jaylon Smith Are Legit
The Dallas Cowboys caught a lot of flack for their selection both of these linebackers, each for different reasons.
When they snagged Jaylon Smith in the second round of the 2016 draft, it was still unknown to the public if Smith could ever even play football again. When they took Leighton Vander Esch 19th overall last April, fans questioned how valuable an off-ball linebacker would be on a defense that already had Sean Lee.
Well, after their first full season together, it's easy to say that both Vander Esch and Smith are the linebacker options of the future in Dallas. Named to the Pro Bowl during his rookie season, Vander Esch took the world by storm in 2018. When Lee went down, he was there to not only fill his shoes, but to outplay the veteran all year long.
What is fun to consider is that as good as Vander Esch was this season, Jaylon Smith might be even better. Both posses insane sideline to sideline pursuit ability, and are some of the surest tacklers in all of football.
Watching these two grow together will be a pleasure over the coming seasons.
Their Young Secondary Is Coming Together
Like their linebackers, the Dallas Cowboys secondary is a young group, who fans are excited to watch grow throughout the years. It seemed like more pressure sat on the shoulders of young cornerbacks Byron Jones and Chidobe Awuzie than of Smith and Vander Esch, however.
With Kris Richard joining the staff and making the decision to move Jones to cornerback full time, it was do-or-die for the former first round pick. Byron Jones answered all the doubters, earning not only a Pro Bowl selection but also First Team All Pro honors for his performance.
Opposite him, Awuzie had a rough start to his sophomore campaign. While typically right there in coverage, wide outs too often made contested catches over him. Over the final few weeks of the year, however, that changed and Awuzie played some of the best football yet.
Xavier Woods, Anthony Brown, and Jourdan Lewis (in much fewer snaps) all had fantastic seasons as well, giving the Cowboys great hope and confidence in their secondary moving forward. They may need to add another safety during the offseason, however, though Jeff Heath remains more than just a viable option.
Dak Prescott Is Here To Stay
Whether or not you think it's justified, Dak Prescott is the quarterback of the future in Dallas. And he earned that right the back-half of 2018 and during the postseason. After a shaky start to his 3rd season, Prescott turned things around nicely, leading the Cowboys to a 7-1 finish to the regular season.
Prescott played the best football of his young career down the stretch, and showed just how valuable he is both on the field and in the locker room. It seemed like every game he made 2-3 winning plays that put the Cowboys over the top that afternoon.
Dak is going to get a contract extension, and will be locked in as a Cowboy for the foreseeable future, and with the way he played the final 10 games of his season, I can't second guess this decision much at all.
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