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.
Despite Changes, Cowboys Offense Still Runs Through Ezekiel Elliott
We've talked a lot this offseason about the changes at Offensive Coordinator and slot receiver, or how Jason Witten's return will impact the tight end position. But while all of these will impact the Dallas Cowboys' offense in 2019, the constant feature remains Running Back Ezekiel Elliott and the rushing attack.
From 2016 to 2018, since the Cowboys drafted Elliott, Dallas has ranked 1st, 3rd, and 10th among NFL teams in "run vs. pass" play calls. That's only logical; you don't spend a fourth-overall pick on a RB and then not make him the featured player in your offense.
Zeke has certainly rewarded Dallas' decision; Elliott has led the league in total rushing two out of three years, and he led in yards-per-game in 2017 while dealing with his suspension.
Leaning on Elliott has been smart business based on his effectiveness, plus the investment in the offensive line over the last several years.
Dallas has now sunk three first-round picks (Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin), one second (Connor Williams), and now two thirds (Chaz Green and Connor McGovern) on building up their front wall. They've spent a lot of money to keep their All-Pro guys around, plus La'el Collins.
Some would try to paint the run-heavy approach as how the team is trying to hide the weaknesses of Dak Prescott at quarterback. But in 2014, with DeMarco Murray at RB and Tony Romo at QB, the Cowboys were still 3rd in the league in rush vs. pass attempts.
This isn't about Zeke or Dak, or any other specific player. This about a team philosophy that starts at the top with Jason Garrett, and that isn't going to change even with Kellen Moore taking over as the new Offensive Coordinator.
We're all excited to see what new wrinkles comes from getting rid of Scott Linehan. We highly anticipate the development of Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup in the offense, coupled with the addition of Randall Cobb. We're salivating at what Blake Jarwin might become under the tutelage of the great Jason Witten.
Heck, maybe we'll see fullback Jamize Olawale's receiving skills put to more use. Perhaps gadget guys like Tavon Austin or rookie Tony Pollard will be deployed in more creative ways.
And yes, Dak Prescott's growth is another major factor in Dallas' 2019 success. It's especially interesting, and even concerning, as talks are ongoing about his long-term contract.
But make no mistake, this is still the Ezekiel Elliott show. Even if a few more of his carries become receptions in Moore's scheme, Zeke should still get the lion's share of the touches.
That's why this week's news about his incident in Las Vegas is so troubling. It probably won't lead to a suspension, but we saw what happened in 2017 when Elliott was missing for over a third of the season.
While Dallas should be better able to withstand losing Zeke now than it was two years ago, it may still be more than Prescott, Cooper, and the rest could handle. It definitely wouldn't put the Cowboys in good position to compete for a Super Bowl.
In the end, the 2019 will still come down to how well Dallas runs the ball. It's the engine; nothing else matters if the rushing game doesn't set everyone else up for success.
Don't ever take it for granted. This is still Ezekiel Elliott's offense.
What Would a Successful Season Mean for Kellen Moore’s Future?
Out of every chess piece moved by the Dallas Cowboys this offseason, the decision to name 30-year old Kellen Moore might be the most interesting one. Not only that, but it could be the one that makes the biggest impact on the team. After all, the Cowboys are ready to go talent wise.
With Kellen Moore taking up a new role, it's intriguing to imagine what a successful season would mean for his future with the Dallas Cowboys. Truth be told, Moore is in a pretty fortunate position to debut as an offensive coordinator. He'll be driving a unit full of talented players with almost no weak links. Last year, it wasn't the lack of quality players lined up that had the offense struggling throughout the season, but the guy in charge.
At first, the philosophy of not needing a #1 wide receiver clearly blew up on the Cowboys face. The passing game in Dallas needed a spark and they didn't find it until they traded a first rounder for Amari Cooper. Cooper's impact on the team was clear right away as he put on impressive performances on a weekly basis.
But even when Cooper was at his best, the offense still presented relevant struggles. Despite getting more first downs, the Cowboys still had trouble scoring touchdowns when in the red zone and kept leaving points on the field.
Although he's been a controversial conversation among members of Cowboys Nation, there are a few reasons to be excited about what Kellen Moore can bring to the table as a young offensive coordinator. Ever since he declared for the NFL Draft out of Boise State, where he ran a very complex offense on his way to become the QB with most wins in NCAA history, he was seen by many as an extremely smart prospect. Many expected him to have a mediocre career as a player, but saw him as a potential coach down the line.
Now it's his chance to prove the world just how smart he is and his potential as a coach. He will not only be proving it to the Cowboys organization, but all of the NFL and college football teams. Don't forget what NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah mentioned a few months ago.
I've mentioned this before- Kellen Moore is a rising star and he'll be in the mix for HC gigs (CFB or NFL) in the near future. https://t.co/hLjOb4HAUc
With a great group of talent at his disposal, it's fair to imagine Moore having a pretty successful "rookie" season at a major coaching position. If he indeed manages to turn heads with the Dallas Cowboys offense in 2019, what does that mean for his future?
In a league that's turning to the young offensive-minded coaches thanks to guys like Sean McVay, is it possible one team decides to pull the trigger and make him an offer for a head coaching gig? It certainly would seem premature, but it's still a possibility in the NFL, where teams have become increasingly impatient with their coaches.
I definitely wouldn't be surprised if next offseason, we're concerned about another team (college or NFL) trying to snatch Moore off the Cowboys. I insist in pointing out this would be a premature decision if it does happen, since Moore has very little experience, but looking at the trend in the NFL it certainly could happen.
This might be the most important year in Kellen Moore's young career. For now, let's hope he does a good job leading Dak Prescott in his fourth year as a professional player and an offense that has a solid OL and a pretty good set of skill players.
Connor Williams Working as Left Tackle in Cowboys Practice
Second-year guard Connor Williams has been working as the Cowboys' left tackle during practice this week. While this isn't the plan for him in 2019, it does provide a glimpse into potential uses for Williams down the road and how Dallas might handle future offensive line moves.
Using Connor at LT this week has been a matter of necessity. The top players on that depth chart, Tyron Smith and Cameron Fleming, were not participating for other reasons.
With Tyron Smith getting a vet day and Cam Fleming not practicing because of a bruised shin, Connor Williams worked at left tackle Wednesday. He said it was his first left tackle snaps since he was at Texas. He said it felt like riding a bike after a little bit.
Indeed, Williams spent three years at left tackle in college. It was the last position he'd played before being drafted in the second round of the 2018 NFL Draft by Dallas, who immediately moved him to guard.
Connor started 10 of 13 games at guard last season. He played mostly on the left side, starting Weeks 1-9, before getting injured. Xavier Su'a-Filo played well enough in his absence that Williams didn't get the starting job back when he was healthy. However, when Zack Martin had to miss a few games at the end of the year, Connor started a right guard for those two weeks.
When Martin returned for the playoffs, Williams was back as the starting left guard in both postseason games.
Tyron Smith and Cam Fleming will be your starter and backup at left tackle next year. But for 2020 and beyond, Connor Williams' ability to play tackle creates some interesting possibilities.
La'el Collins will be an unrestricted free agent next year. Fleming will still have one year left on his deal and Dallas just spent a third-round pick on the versatile Connor McGovern. Throw in that Williams can play some tackle, and it seems as if they're covering bases for Collins eventual departure.
We could very well see a starting lineup in 2020 with McGovern at LG and Williams at RT. Another possibility is that Fleming starts at RT and Williams stays at guard, but can be moved to tackle if needed.
If nothing else, it's nice to know that Dallas has options. We may never see Connor Williams play a regular season snap at left tackle, but versatility is a great asset. It can greatly increase a player's value, and give his team some leverage and flexibility in roster management.
For the Cowboys, it does make you wonder what the future holds for the offensive line.
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