It's been a while since we last visited the NFC East battle for supremacy. With only a few groups remaining, let's finally return to this journey to explore the linebackers of this division.
For my money, the Dallas Cowboys linebacker corp is the most interesting position group in the entire division.
Purely "on paper" talent-wise, the Cowboys have the best linebackers. Between Sean Lee, Rolando McClain, and newly drafted Jaylon Smith, there is a ton of talent in this group. The problem is getting all three of these guys on the field at the same time.
But in fact, this will never happen.
Jaylon Smith is expected to miss the entire 2016 season and when he does return, McClain will most likely be out the door. Getting McClain to show up to work everyday has been a problem, and when he does show up physically, you don't know if he is totally there mentally.
Sean Lee is a top-five inside backer in the NFL when healthy. That "when healthy" stipulation has been tough to overcome throughout his career, however.
Anthony Hitchens, Kyle Wilber, Mark Nzeocha, and Andrew Gachkar will each have opportunities to earn playing time, and even a starting position. My eyes are on Gachkar as I expect him to get chances as the SAM linebacker, and hopefully be productive while doing so.
The Eagles have three of my favorite linebackers in the entire division. Former Texas Longhorn Jordan Hicks had a phenomenal rookie season during the eight games he was able to play. The problem with Hicks is that he only played in eight games. Hicks struggled with injury problems at Texas, and if this continues his immense talent may be rendered useless.
Mychal Kendricks has had similar issues with injuries, but to a lesser extent.
The Eagles did decide to add former Buffalo Bills linebacker Nigel Bradham this offseason. Bradham finished his 2015 campaign with a career high 104 tackles in 14 games.
I like all three of these starters, but not a single one of them has completed an entire NFL season. The injury bug tends to bite these Eagles' linebackers hard, and the lack of depth at the position will pose problems for the team this season.
The Giants linebackers have been bad. Really bad.
I am from the Northeast and must listen to a lot of Giants talk throughout my day, and if there is one group that gets killed consistently by fans, it is this one.
With that being said, the Giants did a ton of work to improve this group during the offseason. Adding Keenan Robinson and Kelvin Sheppard should help to solidify the position and make up for Jon Beason's departure.
Jasper Brinkley, Jonathon Casillas, Mark Herzlich, Uani Unga, J.T. Thomas, and Devon Kennard played a game of musical chairs each week when deciding who would get to start, so the Giants will certainly look to have more stability in 2016.
Washington will be the only team in the NFC East to run a traditional 3-4 base defense, meaning that their outside linebackers will serve a much different role than the other team's linebackers.
Those outside linebackers could be dangerous. Ryan Kerrigan is the clear leader of the Redskins defense, and returns in 2016. The other side will be competed for by Junior Galette and Preston Smith.
Preston Smith is a second year player out of Mississippi State who recorded 8 sacks and 4 forced fumbles during his rookie season.
Galette was a beast in New Orleans prior to his off-the-field issues and ACL tear. If he is healthy, he could be a nice compliment to Kerrigan.
Either way, the Redskins seem set at outside linebacker.
On the inside, Will Compton, Mason Foster, and Perry Riley Jr. will all see time. Compton recorded 96 combined tackles in 2015, and Mason Foster filled in due to injury and started the rest of the season. Rookie Su'a Cravens is also being worked out as an inside linebacker.
Which team has the best linebackers?
This one is tough, probably the toughest decision yet.
I love what the Cowboys have in Lee and McClain. The problem with crowning them the best is, how long will they have both Lee and McClain on the field?
I like what the Eagles have to offer with Bradham, Kendricks, and Hicks. But similarly to the Cowboys, injuries might be a problem. To me, the Giants aren't in this conversation yet, as I am in more of a "wait and see" mode with them. So that leaves the Washington Redskins.
I love what the Redskins' outside linebackers have to offer; Kerrigan, Smith, and Galette are all pass rush forces and will create problems for most offenses.
Their inside linebackers are no slouches, either, and I am looking at Su'a Cravens as a potential breakout player this season.
Cowboys Will Tag DeMarcus Lawrence; What’s the Plan?
February 20 is an important day for NFL clubs this year. Why? It's the first day in which teams can franchise tag any player. Since 2015, when the Dallas Cowboys tagged Dez Bryant before they were able to work out a long-term deal, Jerry Jones & Co. haven't used the franchise tag. In 2018, though, that will change.
DeMarcus Lawrence just played his best season yet in 2017, and he's looking to get paid big time. Through three years, he had been able to rack up nine sacks, 52 tackles and three forced fumbles. In just 2017, he sacked opposing quarterbacks 14.5 times, had 35 tackles and managed to force four fumbles.
Not only did Lawrence look like an elite pass rusher, but he also improved as a run defender a lot. The Cowboys have been looking for a "War Daddy" for a long, long time and Lawrence seems to be the answer for this football team.
After such a big year, one would expect the Cowboys to sign him to a multi-year enormous contract. But there's a catch. Lawrence failed to remain healthy early in his career and really didn't make as much of an impact until last season.
There's no question that D-Law will be wearing a star come the 2018 NFL season, but will he be doing it under a long-term deal or under a franchise tag?
Cowboys will not place franchise tag on DeMarcus Lawrence tomorrow as that window opens but will do so by March 6 w/ understanding the goal is to reach a long-term deal. Both sides have until July 16 to make that happen.
For now, according to David Moore from Dallas Morning News, the Cowboys will franchise tag Lawrence with the objective of getting a deal done in July. The tag however, is not expected to be placed as soon as possible.
In 2015, the Cowboys didn't place the franchise tag on Dez Bryant until the final deadline day. This year's deadline is March 6th, so it may be two weeks before they make it official with DeMarcus Lawrence. #CowboysNation #DallasCowboys
What would franchise tagging DeMarcus Lawrence mean for this team?
First of all, they'd make sure he doesn't hit free agency in March. This gives the front office time to get to work and restructure players' contracts if they have to in order to open up as much cap space as they can before giving him a deal.
It's worth mentioning as well, cap savings from players who are designated as post-June 1 cuts will already be available. If you want to be more familiarized with the Cowboys' cap situation, I highly recommend you read John Williams' deep dive on the matter.
It'll continue to be a very interesting story for this offseason, as handing a franchise tag to a player tends to become a non-friendly situation for both parties. Let's hope that's not the case for the Cowboys and Lawrence this year and that everything works out fine.
Here at Inside The Star, we'll continue updating you and the rest of Cowboys Nation throughout the offseason.
Dallas Cowboys OL Fails To Crack NFL.com’s Top 10
Often considered a top unit in football, the Dallas Cowboys offensive line seemed to take a step back in 2017. Mostly due to injuries and free agent departures on the left side, the Cowboys were unable to form the same solid unit we have seen in years past.
Despite their struggles, most would still consider them a top 5-10 offensive line in the NFL. At least, that's what I'd expect considering they still feature three All-Pro caliber players upfront.
Matt Harmon of NFL.com put together a list of the top 10 offensive lines in football based on performance in the 2017 season. The list was strictly developed through the use of next gen stats, which defined pressure as "pass-rushing play in which a defender gets within 2 yards of the opposing quarterback at the time of the throw or sack." In addition, "yards gained before close" was taken into account. This metric is meant to measure "the amount of rushing yards a running back gains before opposing defenders come within 1 yard of the player."
After compiling all of these stats, the Cowboys offensive line was left off of the list completely. Maybe even more surprising, however, was that the Philadelphia Eagles' line failed to crack the top ten as well. That's two lines with 3-4 Pro Bowl caliber players each missing the cut.
According to Matt Harmon the Cowboys allowed a pressure on 28.6% of Dak Prescott's dropbacks, 12th highest in the league. Dallas also ranked 20th in the league in YGBC in 2017.
While I do have some issues with the methodology of these statistics, the final result is actually hard to argue with. Down the stretch the Cowboys offense was downright pathetic at times. Regardless of how highly we thought of them prior to the year, the offense didn't perform to their standards, or the standards of a top ten unit.
Heading into 2018, however, I do expect this offensive line to begin to regain form. La'el Collins should continue to improve on the right side, and he is already an adequate starting right tackle regardless. I also expect Dallas to address their left guard spot, potentially within the first two rounds of the 2018 NFL Draft.
In the end the success of this line may hinge on the health of Tyron Smith, though. When healthy, Smith is the best left tackle in all of football. But that "when healthy" caveat has certainly hurt the Cowboys offense.
The way the front office handles their offensive line this offseason will play a huge role in the success, or lack thereof, of the Cowboys in 2018.
Cowboys 2018 Free Agents: CB Bene Benwikere
After playing sparsely for the Dallas Cowboys in 2017, veteran cornerback Bene Benwikere is set to be an unrestricted free agent. Could he stay in Dallas, or will he have to find work elsewhere?
Dallas was concerned about its CB depth with heavy reliance on young players and Jourdan Lewis barely participating in the offseason. Therefore, the Cowboys traded a sixth-round pick to the Cincinnati Bengals for Benwikere just before Week One.
After a stellar rookie season with the Carolina Panthers in 2014, Bene had suffered a steep fall before landing in Cincy. Injuries and poor play got him cut midway through 2016 by the Panthers, and then Benwikere bounced from Miami to Green Bay before finally signing with the Bengals in the 2017 offseason.
Though a few years removed from being an All-Rookie Team standout, Bene Benwikere is still just 26 and may still draw interest from scouts who remember his better days. He is likely counting on that, because the Cowboys' secondary is starting to fill up.
The Cowboys currently have exciting sophomores Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis expected to start in 2018. Anthony Brown is back for his third season and will be active on game days.
Orlando Scandrick's future is cloudy, but Dallas won't get much cap relief from releasing him this season. They may elect to keep the veteran for one more year, which would all but fill out the CB depth chart.
Even if Scandrick leaves, talk that Dallas may move Byron Jones back to corner from safety would only leave Benwikere in the same disadvantaged position for finding work.
The best chance that Bene Benwikere has to stay with the Cowboys is if new Defensive Backs Coach Kris Richard remembers him from 2014. Coaches often feel that can get more out of a player than the last guy, and Richard may see potential in Benwikere that his last few teams couldn't unlock.
Four years ago may be too long, though, and especially with a fresh new crop of young players coming into the league. Especially if they keep Scandrick, Dallas may want to use the rest of their roster spots on younger prospects.
As it stands, Bene Benwikere is unlikely to return to the Cowboys. However, given the flashes of potential he once showed in the NFL, you can't be certain that Dallas won't want to give him one more chance.
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