You can point fingers in a lot of directions over the Dallas Cowboys' loss yesterday to the Washington Redskins. But if you pull back and look at the overall picture, a poor performance by the offensive line was behind several of the itemized issues.
Let's start with the run game, where Ezekiel Elliott was held to the second-worst day of his NFL career. Zeke only produced 33 rushing yards on 15 carries, with no single run greater than six yards. Dak Prescott and Jourdan Lewis had a combined 40 yards on seven carries, but Washington was able to shut down the more predictable handoffs to Elliott.
One game doesn't make a season, and Zeke was the league leader in rushing up until last week. But there was a time when no defense could take Elliott away like Washington did yesterday, and that sets a disturbing precedent moving forward.
Even more disturbing are the hits quarterback Dak Prescott is taking. With four sacks yesterday, Prescott has already been taken down 23 times in 2018. Comparatively, Dak was sacked 32 times last year and just 25 times in 2016.
And we're not even halfway through this season. And that doesn't include all of the additional hits after the ball is released, or when Dak gets tackled on an improvised run.
Let's not forget Conner Williams' killer penalty, either. A 16-yard pass on 3rd down was taken off the board by the rookie's holding flag, and Dallas was pushed back to their own 10-yard line. The next play, Dak Prescott gets strip-sacked and Washington goes up 20-10 with the recovery touchdown.
Yesterday's game just drove home an issue I've had for a couple of years of now. Since their outstanding 2016 season, it feels like the Cowboys have taken their offensive line for granted.
It began with how the team handled things at left guard in 2016. They opted to let starter Ron Leary leave in free agency, not wanting to pay heavily for a guy with significant risk from degenerative knee issues.
I had no issue with Dallas letting Leary go, but replacing him was where the team got cute. They signed Jonathan Cooper, a first-round bust from the 2013 draft, and hoped that he could plug in and at least be solid between Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick.
This worked, for the most part, as Cooper started 13 games. But Dallas took a big risk in preparing for that season, trusting in either Cooper or Chaz Green to be the starting left guard as the team made a push to return the playoffs and compete for a championship.
Ezekiel Elliott still led the league in yards-per-game, but the offense was not what it was the year prior. The line may have been solvent with Cooper in there, but there was a clear regression with Leary.
Don't forget about the transition at right tackle, either. An abrupt retirement from Doug Free after 2016 prompted the Cowboys to move La'el Collins back to his college position of tackle.
When Collins was signed in 2015, the team ultimately decided he had more potential as a guard. That's where they worked him for two seasons, but then circumstances led to the shift in the 2017 offseason.
Too many moving parts and risky decisions, especially for the unit that had driven your team to its 2016 success.
Dallas has leaned on its All-Pro trio of Smith, Frederick, and Martin to anchor the line. They've trusted that the other spots could get less attention and investment and that their top three would raise all ships.
There is some logic to that gamble, and the salary cap era mandates that you can't shell out big bucks and high draft picks at every position. The Cowboys can't really be faulted for attempting this in 2017, given where they were with the cap and the roster.
But after last year's 9-7 finish and playoff miss, it was time to get serious about the offensive line again. Instead, Dallas trusted that a second-round pick moving from tackle to guard would be adequate at left guard.
I'm not here to crush Conner Williams. He's flashed plenty of good things, and I think he's going to work out fine in the long run.
But the Dallas Cowboys have been playing the long game for too long. Too many decisions have been based on long-term potential over immediate concerns. They built this team to operate on the strength of the offensive line, and they've taken too many gambles with that group given its severe importance.
Of course, they didn't know that Travis Frederick was going to go out with this neurological issue. Nobody could see that coming. But if it was a torn ACL instead, it wouldn't change the impact of his absence.
Joe Looney has been solid, but now you don't have the All-Pro center there to help the rookie left guard. Williams suffers for not having Frederick next to him, and Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott suffer in the trickle-down impact.
Yesterday may have just been an especially bad day at the office, but it's indicative of the gradual degradation of the offensive line. You pay the price one way or another in the NFL, either in money and draft picks or in poor performance on the field. The bill comes due one way or another.
In Washington, the Cowboys suffered for not doing more to keep the offensive line strong. They can only hope that it doesn't continue to cost them games, and perhaps a lot more, as the season continues.
Dallas Cowboys 2019 Job Security Rankings: Offense
When the Dallas Cowboys start training camp in July, there will be various feelings of job security throughout the 90-man roster. Throughout the NFL, players know when they're already locked in to a role on the team or when they're fighting for survival.
Today, we're going to look at how secure the Cowboys' players should feel in 2019. This not only applies to if they make the final roster, but also their position as a starter, roleplayer, or developmental prospect.
We'll start with the offense.
Tier 1 - The Untouchables
There are no foreseeable issues that could change where these 10 players fit into the 2019 offense. Barring injury or some surprise trade, such as Dallas moving La'el Collins, we know exactly where these guys will fall if they're here and healthy.
Prescott, Elliott, and Cooper are no-brainers, as are your five starting offensive linemen. I also included Fleming as he was clearly brought back to be the swing tackle this season. That could all change in 2020, but for this year at least his role is certain.
You may be surprised to see any fullback in this top tier, but the Cowboys gave Olawale a three-year contract to return this offseason. They made $2.8 million of it guaranteed; you just don't do that if you have any doubts about keeping him on the 53. There's no question that Jamize will be part of the team in 2019.
Some might argue that Connor Williams' starting spot isn't guaranteed, but I just don't see it. They lived the rookie growing pains last year and are hoping for much more going forward. A mid-season switch could occur if he struggles, but Williams will be the Week One starter at left guard.
Tier 2 - Slightly Touchable
WR Michael Gallup, WR Randall Cobb, G/C Joe Looney
I almost put Gallup in the first tier but "sophomore slumps" are a real thing. Until we see him building on last year as hoped, there is room for something to go awry.
That also brings Cobb's role into question. Any slippage in Gallup's game could lead to increased opportunities for the veteran. Really, even if both guys are bringing it in 2019, how exactly the targets and usage get split between them isn't entirely certain. If Cobb is back to his peak form in Green Bay, he will be hard to take off the field.
I also put Joe Looney in this second tier because I think he could be trade bait. If a team is hurting at center before Week One, is there a more attractive trade target in the NFL?
Dallas could afford to trade Looney if they feel good enough about Connor McGovern as a backup center. Adam Redmond could also be in the mix, serving as the backup last year when Looney was starting.
It's very unlikely that Dallas would give up one of the best backup offensive lineman in football. But if a team is desperate enough to dangle a third-round pick in front of them, the Cowboys might have an offer they can't refuse.
Tier 3 - On the Team, But Where?
RB Tony Pollard, TE Jason Witten, TE Blake Jarwin, TE Dalton Schultz, OL Connor McGovern
This tier is dominated by the mysterious tight end position. How much playing time will Jason Witten really get? How have Jarwin and Schultz developed and how will it all shake out?
Witten should be the ceremonial starter, but what really matters are total snaps and targets. Even if Jason is the first man out on game days, Jarwin could still wind up being the most-used TE of the group. It all remains to be seen.
We are also expecting a lot from rookie RB Tony Pollard this year, but we don't know yet how much responsibility he'll be given. Will he be the true backup RB or more of a gadget player? Will he take the KR and PR jobs aways from Jourdan Lewis and Tavon Austin? Lots to still be determined here.
Another rookie with question marks is third-round pick Connor McGovern. Will he be given a significant job right away or be carried, perhaps with several game day inactives, for development towards 2020? It's doubtful that he could push Joe Looney out of a job, but will he show enough that Dallas is willing to part with Xavier Su'a-Filo?
Tier 4 - Bubble Players
QB Cooper Rush, QB Mike White, RB Mike Weber, RB Darius Jackson, WR Tavon Austin, WR Allen Hurns, WR Noah Brown, WR Cedrick Wilson, TE Rico Gathers, G Xavier Su'a-Filo, OT Mitch Hyatt
In the top three tiers we've named 18 players who are locks to make the 53-man roster. You generally have 24-25 player on each side of the ball, so that means only 6-7 roster spots left on offense. That means some of the guys named here won't make the team.
Will Cooper Rush and Mike White both have jobs? If Rush remains the backup QB, Dallas will probably hang on to White for another year. But if White beats Rush, the Cowboys could easily let Cooper go to save a roster spot for another position.
Assuming Dallas doesn't add any veteran RBs between now and camp, it seems Darius Jackson and Mike Weber are competing for the same job. There's also a chance that neither makes it; the Cowboys could use Jamize Olawale as the emergency third back. They may be happy to stash with Jackson or Weber on the practice squad.
Things get really interesting at receiver once you get past the top three. Do veterans Allen Hurns and Tavon Austin's experience edge lift them above guys like Noah Brown and Cedrick Wilson? Or will Dallas choose the upside of youth and their cheaper contracts? The bottom half of the WR depth chart appears entirely open right now.
The Rico Gathers Experiment seems close to ending, but he's still here and has a chance to change perceptions. The one-game suspension won't matter if the Cowboys like what he has to offer the rest of the season. But keeping a fourth TE could be tough with the numbers at other spots, and Gathers is unlikely to leap above Jarwin or Schultz.
Numbers are also an issue for the offensive linemen. We know the top eight; five starters, Fleming, Looney, and McGovern. If the Cowboys keep nine guys, they may go with Mitch Hyatt as an additional tackle rather than bring Xavier Su'a-Filo back. They already have the interior line covered.
Tier 5 - Longshots
We'll all have our "pet cats" and favorite underdogs over the next two months, but they will all be hard-pressed to make the roster given the current depth.
Maybe a guy like RB Jordan Chunn shocks us by beating out Weber and Jackson, or perhaps a dark horse WR like Jalen Guyton or Jon'Vea Johnson forces his way into the conversation. Crazier things have happened.
But this 2019 Cowboys roster is about as stacked and predictable as it's been in a long time. Strong drafting has give us a lot of young talent with years left on their rookie deals, and those guys are hard to budge.
The key for these players is to be too good to risk losing on the practice squad. Convince Dallas to make room for them, perhaps by keeping just two quarterbacks or going short somewhere else.
Because only 46 guys are active on game days, roster spots 47-53 can be dedicated to securing players and development. These young prospects want to force their way into those spots, and likely cost a veteran like Cooper Rush or Allen Hurns a job in the process.
~ ~ ~
Where players fall in these tiers could change once we start getting some reports form training camp. How expendable you are can shift depending on performance, or if the circumstances change at your position.
We'll hit the defense tomorrow.
Bold Prediction: Tony Pollard has Rookie Season Similar to Alvin Kamara
The Dallas Cowboys drafted over half a dozen players this year in the 2019 NFL Draft, but the only name we have really been hearing anything about is rookie Running Back/Wide Receiver Tony Pollard. Cowboys Nation is really intrigued with the former Memphis Tiger, so today I thought I'd take a look at what he could potentially do with the Cowboys in his rookie season.
The first thing we have to try and figure out is what kind of role Tony Pollard will have with the Dallas Cowboys this season. Will he just be used to give Ezekiel Elliott a breather from time to time, or will he be expected to form a 1-2 punch with Zeke? An argument can be made for either of these two scenarios.
If you were to ask me my honest opinion though, I believe Tony Pollard will be more of a sidekick to Ezekiel Elliott in 2019 rather than someone who spells him when needed. Pollard has the skill set and versatility to become a really good complement for Zeke, and that's the way I believe the Dallas Cowboys will utilize him as a rookie.
If you're looking for more of a visual, look no further than how the New Orleans Saints used Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara these past few seasons. On their own, Ingram and Kamara are above average RBs in the NFL, but when in the lineup together they form an impressive duo that puts opposing defenses at a disadvantage. That's what I envision for Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard with the Dallas Cowboys.
If that's not a bold enough prediction for you, I'll take this a step further. I wouldn't be surprised if Tony Pollard has a rookie season similar to Alvin Kamara's first year in the NFL in 2017.
As a rookie, Alvin Kamara had 120 rushing attempts for 728 yards and 8 touchdowns. He also accumulated 81 receptions for 826 receiving yards and 5 TDs. That production earned him Offensive Rookie of the Year.
It's probably a bit of a stretch to predict Tony Pollard have that kind of production with the Dallas Cowboys, especially considering the heavy workload they've put on Ezekiel Elliott's shoulders these past few years. But, I really don't think Kamara's rookie stats are that far off.
I think it's reasonable to believe Pollard will have between 88, double of Rod Smith's carries in 2018, and 100 rushing attempts this year. He should also haul in around 40 receptions in the passing game as well. Overall, I think he will have around 800 total yards, 500 rushing and 300 receiving, and 5-8 touchdowns.
Would you take the over or under on those numbers?
I don't know where you stand, but I truly believe Tony Pollard can help the Dallas Cowboys, and most importantly Ezekiel Elliott as a rookie this year. He should be a playmaker as both a runner and receiver on offense, and that's not even mentioning what he can do in the return game. It's easy to forget he was one of the best kick returners at the collegiate level.
You may not believe me, but I think Tony Pollard will have a pretty impressive rookie season with the Dallas Cowboys this year. Whether or not it measures up to Alvin Kamara's though is yet to be seen.
What are you expecting from Tony Pollard in his rookie season?
Cowboys Twitter Tuesday: Answering Defensive Back Questions
Each week I’ll collect your questions from Twitter as well as any questions left in the comment section and attempt to condense a few into a common theme.
Last week, we talked about the 53-man roster. In particular the wide receiver group and one player who contributed to the 2018 squad, that may not make the 2019 team out of training camp.
Today, I want to tackle a couple of defensive back questions, as right now, that’s arguably the biggest question mark for the Dallas Cowboys heading into the 2019 season.
@john9williams Is Jeff Heath really as bad as everyone thinks?
It was a rough 2018 for Safety Jeff Heath. According to Pro Football Focus, Heath finished second in the NFL in missed tackles with 19. While a glaring issue for a player who you rely on to be a sure tackler and a reliable player, there are several stand out safeties that also finished in the top 10 in missed tackles, per PFF. Jessie Bates III, Derwin James, Landon Collins, and Malcolm Jenkins all finished inside the top 10 in missed tackles.
For Heath, though, were too many times where Jeff Heath had the ball carrier in his grasps and allowed himself to get carried or miss the tackle completely, because he was attempting to strip the football. And was rarely successful.
Dallas Cowboys Defensive Backs Coach Kris Richard made an interesting point in favor of Heath when he talked about the Cowboys winning 10 games and made the playoffs with Heath as the starting safety.
Heath stays under a microscope because he’s always been one of the whipping boys for Cowboys Nation.
The Dallas Cowboys had several opportunities to upgrade the box safety or strong safety role in team but passed at every turn. Instead they brought in George Iloka on a veteran minimum contract to be depth at free and strong safety. They also drafted Donovan Wilson in 2019 to provide some special teams play and potentially compete for the starting strong safety spot.
The moves the Dallas Cowboys made would seem to indicate they have a high comfort level with Jeff Heath as the other starting safety next to Xavier Woods. For a team that has had few misses in recent years, how they’ve approached the safety position this offseason speaks volumes.
@john9williams Is @ChidobeAwuzie going to be challenged for the #2 spot at CB and by who?
Head Coach Jason Garrett loves to create competition for his football team. Generally, the only players that find theme selves as unquestioned starters are the quarterback and veterans with a track record of production.
Chidobe Awuzie is one of the players I’m most intrigued to watch this season because of the way he played last year.
Statistically, Awuzie has a rough season in 2018, but if you watch him closely, there were few times that he wasn’t in excellent position to defend the pass. He just wasn’t able to make a play on the ball to prevent the reception. He struggled in the first half of the season and was getting picked on, but if you’ll recall, he had a really good second half of the season.
I really like Awuzie’s game. He’s got good athleticism and is able to play the ball in the air. He’s a physical player and is willing to play the run. I think he’s a player that is primed for a breakout season. Remember he was limited for much of his rookie season because of injury, so 2018 was his first full training camp and season. After getting beat a lot in the first half of the season, he settled in during the second half.
The player that could challenge Awuzie at left corner back is Jourdan Lewis. Lewis has sticky coverage skills and by all reports has been the best defensive back in the OTA and minicamp practices. Much had been made about Lewis’ body not fitting Kris Richard’s prototype for a corner back, but Richard has talked glowingly about Lewis this offseason.
With Byron Jones our nursing a hip injury, Lewis could very well start the season at right corner, but if he continues to play well and Awuzie struggles, you could see Lewis take over on the left side.
✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭
What do you make of this year’s defensive back group? Do you think Jourdan Lewis could wind up as a weak one starter?
If you’ve got any Cowboys questions, make sure you leave them in the comment section.
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