Last April, the Dallas Cowboys took a lot of criticism for selecting Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft. But one month into the regular season, that pick is looking smarter every week.
The knock on the pick was that the Cowboys already had Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith, and Damien Wilson as starting linebackers. Many felt Vander Esch was too raw to compete for a starting job right away, meaning you spent your first-round pick on a depth and rotation player.
Believe it or not, though, these teams do know what they're doing. They also know things we don't, such as just how fragile a certain 32-year-old linebacker really is.
Dallas didn't take Vander Esch for 2019 and beyond. They knew just how precarious trusting Sean Lee to stay healthy is, and they were proven right almost immediately. Lee got hurt in Week 3 and now could miss several weeks.
But the playing time and starting role aren't all that validates the selection. Vander Esch is playing well, even standing out among his defensive teammates. He's been more noticeable than Jaylon Smith these last two games.
Comparisons were made between Leighton and Hall-of-Famer Brian Urlacher months before he became a Cowboy. When Dallas drafted him, given Rod Marinelli's role on the team, it said that they agreed wholeheartedly.
Leighton was never a luxury pick. The Cowboys saw him as a necessity given Lee's likelihood of injury; a present danger and a future asset wrapped into a single first-round rookie.
Granted, the Cowboys' need for new offensive weaponry was a valid concern. You could still make the argument that a receiver like Calvin Ridley, who already has six touchdowns for the Atlanta Falcons, would've been a better pick.
But for years, we've seen what happened when Sean Lee misses time. Last year, even with DeMarcus Lawrence terrorizing quarterbacks, the Cowboys' defense looked lost when Lee missed five games.
The Cowboys had a decision to make for 2018; trust Sean Lee to stay healthy or trust that some of your receivers and tight ends would step into the holes left by Dez Bryant and Jason Witten.
I get why Dallas went the way they did. They signed Allen Hurns in free agency to replace Bryant, which at the time didn't look like a bad swap. Hurns didn't have Bryant's cache but Dez hadn't been living up to that reputation or salary for a few seasons.
Nobody expected one of the tight ends to be Jason Witten, but they didn't really have to be. There are only a handful of great TEs in the league at any given time, and other than those 5-6 guys everyone else is a J.A.G.
Dallas banked on the strength of their running game to keep the offense moving. They also added guys like Michael Gallup and Tavon Austin for some fresh talent and new wrinkles. So far, the chemistry hasn't developed as soon as you'd hoped.
Hindsight may say that they needed to do more to replace Bryant and Witten. I won't deny that. But you also can't deny that drafting Leighton Vander Esch has proven to be just as necessary.
I've heard some say "Joe Thomas could be starting right now," but that's another hindsight argument. Nobody knew how good Thomas would look in this scheme back in April. Back then, he was just a journeyman backup from the Packers that we signed for depth.
And really, do we even know how Thomas would look in a starting role? Lighting it up in preseason can mean very little come September. Maybe he'd be great, maybe not, but you had no reason to count on him during the 2018 draft.
Here's another thing you didn't realize was coming; Travis Frederick's absence. If Dallas had their All-Pro center out there, maybe the offensive chemistry would be a lot better right now. Maybe your hopes for Hurns, Swaim, and other guys would have had a better shot at coming true.
You deal with a lot of uncertainties and unknowns in putting together a roster and planning for a season. The Cowboys drafted Vander Esch because they were confident in two things, that Sean Lee was a major liability and that Leighton had some serious upside.
I won't quibble if you still think Dallas should've taken a WR or TE. But if you're still someone arguing that the Vander Esch pick was a mistake, then you're just being stubborn.
The Cowboys used their first-round pick on a guy who is helping them now in a major defensive role and looks like he could be a star for years to come. Even if he never goes to Canton with Urlacher, Leighton Vander Esch could still be a major factor on this team for the next decade.
If you're still not happy with that from a guy taken 19th overall, then you just don't want to admit that you were wrong.
Cowboys, Redskins Week 7 Injury Report
Though it's still early in the 2018 season, the lead in the NFC East is up for grabs when the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins meet this Sunday. Both teams would like their full roster available for the game, but the Week 7 injury reports indicate that won't be the case.
Here are the players either confirmed to be out of action tomorrow or are otherwise listed by Dallas and Washington:
- WR Tavon Austin (groin) - OUT
- LB Joe Thomas (foot) - OUT
- CB Chidobe Awuzie (ankle) - Questionable
The Cowboys are getting healthier, with Sean Lee finally off the injury report and set to return to action. Not only will Dallas get their elite linebacker back, but it means a deeper rotation while the team remains without Joe Thomas.
Tavon Austin elected to skip season-ending surgery on his injured groin, but his should be out a few weeks. That will put Cole Beasley on punt returns and perhaps create more offensive opportunities for Deonte Thompson and Brice Butler.
Awuzie remains limited in practice but has played the last few weeks despite the ankle injury. There is no reason to think he won't suit up in Washington.
- WR Jamison Crowder (ankle) - OUT
- WR Paul Richardson (shoulder, knee) - Doubtful
- S Troy Apke (hamstring) - Doubtful
- RB Adrian Peterson (ankle, shoulder) - Questionable
- RB Chris Thompson (rib, knee) - Questionable
- G Shawn Lauvao (calf) - Questionable
- CB Quinton Dunbar (shin) - Questionable
- CB Danny Johnson (forearm) - Questionable
It's a rough time for Washington's offensive weapons. They will definitely be without slot receiver Jamison Crowder and likely starter Paul Richardson, who current lead all WRs in receptions. Josh Doctson will put into a major role, as will veteran Brian Quick off the bench.
Peterson and Thompson both practiced this week and should play, but have nagging injuries that could slow them down. Washington is already missing Rob Kelley and rookie Derrius Guice, who are both on injured reserve.
Starting left guard Shawn Lauvao is also nursing a lower leg injury, but practiced in a limited capacity all week. His backup is undrafted rookie Casey Dunn out of Auburn.
In the defensive backfield, starting CB Quinton Dunbar was a Friday addition to the injury report with a shin injury. He did practice with it, though, so will likely play. Backup safety Troy Apke is doubtful with a hamstring issue.
Cowboys Focused on Improved Communication to Solve Road Woes at Redskins
The Dallas Cowboys are 0-3 on the road this season. Not only do you already know this, but they do as well, needing to build off a 40-7 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars in week 6 at AT&T Stadium to claim first place in the NFC East at the Washington Redskins.
Although the Cowboys were given Monday and Tuesday off, they are focused on addressing one alarming reason why the team has struggled so much on the road -- particularly on offense.
Running Back Ezekiel Elliott pointed out the Cowboys lack of communication in early season losses at Carolina, Seattle, and Houston. "Seeing the same thing," was the issue Elliott addressed when discussing the Cowboys knowing their assignments in hostile territory.
Yesterday, Quarterback Dak Prescott told the media of a meeting between players and coaches that addressed this specifically.
Dak Prescott said players & coaches held a meeting before today's practice to "address the elephant in the room," which is poor communication among the offense on the road. "I know we'll take a lot from that conversation," The QB said.
Unlike Prescott's remarks about new "wrinkles" in the Cowboys offense prior to a 26-24 home win over the Lions, this has a tangible sign of progress for an offense that made scoring 40 on the Jaguars look impossibly easy. The Cowboys season high in total yards remains the 414 amassed against Detroit, after which Prescott confessed that he simply tells the media "things" that aren't necessarily true.
The Cowboys didn't necessarily do anything new against the Lions, but they most assuredly will this week against the Redskins, at least by way of signaling and remaining in sync on offense.
Prescott and Elliott's leadership is on full display here, and their on-field impact can be attributed as closely to the Cowboys successes or failures as any duo in the NFL.
Missing is a similar impact from Center Travis Frederick, who remains sidelined as he deals with GSB.
Joe Looney's play at center has been good enough to pave the way for Elliott's 586 rushing yards so far, second to Todd Gurley at 623 yards, but his ability to call checks for the offense is understandably much more limited.
Looney deserves all the credit in the world for his strong play in place of Frederick. The Cowboys have never asked for him to be anything he isn't, a reliable depth option that earned a second contract and with it the starting center job for the time being in Dallas.
He has the full support of his teammates, Frederick included. All of this is lovely to put down in writing until Looney and the Cowboys have been forced to step on the field with the crowd against them and attempt to sustain a drive, something Frederick will unfortunately not be a part of for a long while.
If the Cowboys offense isn't going to unveil new wrinkles in the scheme, there is one wrinkle worth mentioning that's new to the team's communication on offense this season. With Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan up in the box, his play calls are sent down to first-year Quarterback Coach Kellen Moore, who has been in the ear of Prescott ever since playing with him from 2016-17.
Sure, these are things that could've been addressed before the Cowboys managed only eight points in week one, turned the ball over three times in week three, or punted away their best chance at victory in week five. The best teams in the league likely already have these things down to routine, and few would consider the Cowboys anywhere near the upper echelon of the NFL.
Following sixty minutes of football at a division rival they've won four in a row against, with an even more impressive five game win streak at the Redskins, the Cowboys could control their own path atop the NFC East.
That feels truly incredible for such a young team faced with a steep learning curve early in the season, adjusting to it on the fly as they prepare to leave everything on the field before a bye week.
#WASvsDAL: Why This Game Holds Increased Importance
It feels incredibly cliche to call the week 7 match-up between the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins a "must win." Especially for someone like me who values statistics, logic, and analytics in sports.
But when the analytics agree with the narratives, those narratives do tend to get my attention. And this week that would appear to be the case.
According to Brian Burke of ESPN, the Cowboys's week 7 game has the highest playoff probability leverage in the entire NFC, and is second to only the Houston Texans' big game with Jacksonville around the entire league.
Playoff leverage for week 7. DAL, WAS, PHI, CAR, MIN, CHI with a lot on the line in the NFC. HOU, CIN, and JAX in the AFC.
What does this mean? Well playoff probability leverage is pretty intuitive. Basically it is the difference between a win this week and a loss this week in terms of probability to make the playoffs.
For the Cowboys that number is at 27%, with a win over Washington catapulting their playoff probability over 50%. On the other hand, a loss would take a big hit to their playoff hopes just 7 games into the NFL season.
As you might expect, this game means a lot to the Redskins' playoff probability as well. Their playoff leverage this week is at 14%, but a win would mean "more" to Dallas than Washington based on the probabilities.
Fellow NFC East foe, the Philadelphia Eagles, also have a lot to gain/lose this Sunday, with their leverage sitting at 22%. According to Burke's model, the Eagles and Cowboys have the best chances of making the playoffs at this point, but if each team wins Sunday the Eagles will still have a higher percentage.
Of course a lot can and will change week to week, despite what the metrics say. The Cowboys still have two games remaining with the NFC East favorite Eagles this year, and will get another crack at Washington at home later in the season. Plus the Cowboys have a few NFC wild card and playoff contenders remaining on their schedule, such as the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons. (Yes, the 2-4 Falcons are very much alive in this crazy conference).
Still, the difference between 4-3 (2-0 in the division) and 3-4 (1-1 in the division) is huge, as is shown by Brian Burke's playoff probability leverage metric.
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