If the Cowboys are going to finish off their 2016 season in Houston for Super Bowl LI, they will have to get past Aaron Rodgers and the Packers' passing attack today to earn a date with Matt Ryan and the high-flying Falcons, all just to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl against either Tom Brady, Alex Smith, or Ben Roethlisberger.
Basically, it goes without saying that the corner backs for Rod Marinelli's defense are going to have to step up as they have all season long. Not only has this unit benefited from some great safety play (which I broke down on Saturday in "Playoff Primer: Dallas Cowboys Safeties"), but they are finally back at full health in time for the playoffs.
Let's take a closer look.
Brandon Carr has once again proved to be an iron man this season in the Dallas Cowboys' secondary, extending his career starts streak through another season. Not only did Carr appear in all 16 games in the silver and blue once again, but he did so at a new position - transitioning to the right corner spot.
Even prior to this move, Carr received plenty of unwarranted criticism from fans that have begged for more out of their high-paid free agent acquisition of 2012. Far from perfect, Brandon Carr consistently does his job and limits big plays in the passing game - a trademark for this 2016 Cowboys' defense.
Opposing offensive coordinators are going to try to throw everything they can at Carr and the rest of these corners in an attempt to out score Dallas, and I expect Brandon - who will be a free agent after the season - to be ready for the challenge.
— Dallas Cowboys (@dallascowboys) January 12, 2017
The reason for Brandon Carr's position change this season is mainly because of the resurgence that Morris Claiborne has had. When on the field, Claiborne has played like a true shutdown corner in every sense of the word, with things beginning to trend upwards for him in 2015.
Unfortunately for Claiborne, his health has been an issue once again this season, as he has been sidelined since a week 8 home game against the Eagles. Ready to go once again, it is unclear what Claiborne's role will be today and throughout the playoffs, easing back into the defense with the luxury of solid depth behind him.
If Morris Claiborne is anywhere close to his early season form though, earning snaps will not be a problem, as he will quickly become one of the Cowboys' biggest keys to success. Claiborne has answered the bell with improved confidence and technique against elite wide receivers like A.J. Green, Alshon Jeffery, and Odell Beckham Jr., and now he may be in a position to prove himself further (also in a contract year) against the likes of Davante Adams and Julio Jones.
— ✭Cowboys News✭ (@DemBoyz_News) January 5, 2017
Orlando Scandrick has found his form recently for the Cowboys as the shifty cover corner that has been counted on as a reliable veteran presence for years now, and it means great things for the versatility that Dallas can deploy at corner back.
Battling with his own injures, Scandrick has appeared in 12 games, asked to bounce between being a slot and boundary corner in each. His recent streak of excellent play has come out of the slot, with rookie Anthony Brown holding his own on the outside.
Scandrick is the perfect slot corner for the Cowboys this postseason not only because of his experience, but for his ability to use the teammates around him to be successful. With ideal length and short-range quickness, Scandrick redirects routes to other safeties and linebackers with ease, which leads to him being around the ball.
A corner that thrives on his own momentum from stringing together positive plays, Scandrick will be in for a fight with all of the receivers he could see in the playoffs - starting with the Packers' pass catchers today.
Look for not much at all to change with #32 though, and for any team that looks to test the eight year Cowboy too much to pay the price.
Here's a fun question. Who is the third best rookie on the Dallas Cowboys? With Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott headlining a stellar 2016 draft class, rookie corner and sixth round pick Anthony Brown has not only been ultra-impressive, but necessary at times to keep the Cowboys secondary formidable - making a strong case for this final podium position behind Prescott and Zeke.
Brown, who was projected as a slot corner by most draft analysts, has been asked to play all over the field, finding a starting role in key spots as an outside corner in the absence of Morris Claiborne.
Known for his speed out of Purdue, Brown's full skill set has translated seamlessly into the NFL thanks to his off-the-charts awareness. Defensive backs that get their hands on passes have unfortunately been a rarity for Cowboys Nation in past years, but now players like Brown have made it a standard - as #30 consistently closes on unsuspecting WRs to contest a throw at the catch point.
Like Carr and Scandrick, teams are going to equally attempt to test Brown simply because of the rookie status associated with his name. Anyone that has watched the Cowboys throughout this season knows however that Brown is already playing like a seasoned veteran, and that the expectation should be for him to continue to do as such.
We made it to game day, Cowboys Nation! Before the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers kickoff, be sure to share your thoughts on the game and this Playoff Primer with a comment below!
You can also catch up on previous editions of this series right here, and find me on Twitter @ShoreSportsNJ to discuss any player breakdowns!
Dallas Cowboys 2019 Offseason Preview: Linebacker
One of the brightest spots on the Dallas Cowboys' projected 2019 roster is linebacker. The young pair of Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch have already emerged as one of the league's best duos. But that doesn't mean that the Cowboys have no work to do at the position this offseason.
Having Jaylon and Leighton does take a lot of pressure off. Most teams utilize their nickel scheme more than any other these days, which generally utilizes just two linebackers, in the increasingly pass-focused NFL. And thankfully, both Smith and Vander Esch have shown great skills in pass defense.
But there's still a semi-starting role to get figured out in the base 4-3 scheme. Damien Wilson has held the strong-side or "SAM" position for the last few years and has an expiring contract.
What's more, Dallas has a big decision to make regarding the contract of Sean Lee, which is ripe for terminating with $7 million in salary cap savings possible.
It's highly unlikely that the Cowboys would keep both Lee and Wilson. If they decide to re-sign Damien, Lee will be cut to help fund that move and others. If Sean is kept on, Wilson will almost surely be looking for a starting role somewhere else in free agency.
Even if the Cowboys do make Lee a cap casualty between now and March 13th, they may still allow Wilson to test free agency and then try to re-sign him later at a discount. He's unlikely to attract the same attention that Anthony Hitchens got last year.
Another factor in all of this is Joe Thomas, a free agent addition last year who provided good depth and could potentially start in 2019. He is scheduled to count $2.2 million against the cap, which is fine for a primary reserve but a bargain for an occasional starter.
A core of Smith, Thomas, and Vander Esch gives the Cowboys a good foundation to build from. Smith can play the SAM in the base scheme and Thomas can be the primary backup to Jaylon and Leighton in the nickel.
However, going that route would deplete the depth chart. Chris Covington, a sixth-round pick last year, would be the only noteworthy player under contract. Dallas would need to find at least two more guys to fill out the group for 2019.
They could look at re-signing backup Justin March-Lillard, who would at least bring some familiarity and veteran experience. But that might still leave them looking for more of a primary reserve, which would be especially vital if Thomas is promoted to a starting role.
The projected LB free agent pool for 2019 should make it a buyer's market. Dallas may be able to re-sign Damien Wilson or even add an upgrade, like perhaps the Vikings' Anthony Barr, at a relative bargain. There should be ample options for depth as well.
Barring an extremely favorable value opportunity, don't expect the Cowboys to spend a significant draft pick at linebacker. The fourth-round is the earliest I could see one going based on other needs, and even then it would need to be someone they really like.
Good drafting is why Dallas has flexibility and leverage this offseason. The picks they invested in Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch appear to have made LB a strength of the team for the next several years.
There is still business to attend to, but the Cowboys won't have to be too concerned with linebacker in 2019 thanks to their young stars.
Xavier Woods Versatility Key in Dallas Cowboys FA Safety Pursuit
There has been a debate going on among Cowboys Nation for more than a year now about the prospects of bringing in Seattle Seahawks Safety Earl Thomas. Now with free agency approaching, there are several other names that the Dallas Cowboys could consider when looking to upgrade the safety position. Landon Collins, Tyrann Mathieu, and Tre Boston are several of the many quality and really good safeties that are hitting the free agent market in a few weeks. It's a group with varied skill sets and abilities, which makes the debate even more interesting. The Dallas Cowboys, however, will be able to take a look at all of them when free agency opens March 13th because of one player; Xavier Woods.
Xavier Woods, the Cowboys fifth round draft pick from the 2017 NFL Draft just finished his first full season as a starter for the Cowboys and played really well. In two years he's shown the ability to cover from the slot, play deep, play in the box, be a force over the middle, and make plays on the football. He's one of the more versatile players on the defense with his ability to play all over the field. That versatility allows the Dallas Cowboys' front office an advantage when approaching the names mentioned above.
The Dallas Cowboys don't have to be locked in to one particular type of safety. When people talk about Landon Collins, they label him a "box safety." Earl Thomas is a traditional free safety. Tre Boston is a similar player to Earl Thomas and Tyrann Mathieu is like Collins. The Cowboys can go into free agency with the freedom to explore their options and do their due diligence when it comes to these players.
That's a distinct difference from this offseason to last.
Last offseason, the feeling was that the Dallas Cowboys had to go get Earl Thomas. The safety position was so weak that the Cowboys were going to be playing at a disadvantage in the high-flying, pass-heavy NFL. Xavier Woods proved in his first full season that he can be a productive, play making starter in the NFL and should only continue to improve.
According to Pro Football Focus, Xavier Woods was sixth in the NFL in passer rating against among safeties with at least 352 coverage snaps. His 62.8 passer rating allowed in his coverage was tied with Eric Weddle, better than Derwin James, Reshad Jones, Adrian Amos, and Maliek Hooker. Of the safeties drafted in the 2017 draft class, only Eddie Jackson from the Chicago Bears had a better passer rating against than Xavier Woods.
The Dallas Cowboys got a really good player in Xavier Woods and as they get ready to potentially make a run at a big name safety, they can feel confident that whoever they end up signing will be a good fit with Woods. He can play in the box or cover receivers and tight ends. You can run more two deep safety looks, because he has the range to play it.
This year, as opposed to last, they have more certainty at the safety position because of Xavier Woods and the strides he took in 2018. There's no reason to believe that he can't continue to take a step forward for the Dallas Cowboys. His ability to play all over the field allows the Cowboys to be smart and patient in their pursuit of a safety upgrade this offseason.
3 Free Agent Targets From Cowboys NFC East Rivals
The free agency period in the NFL will be here in a little more than three weeks and the Dallas Cowboys will begin the annual tradition of trying to put together the best 53-man roster that they can come up with. Free agency is just one part of the equation that includes the draft, the signing of undrafted free agents, adding and subtracting from the roster during training camp, and picking up players after the final cut down day.
You can rest assured that Will McClay and the entire pro scouting department is doing their due diligence in anticipation of the March 13th start to the 2019 free agency period. They'll look high and low for players that can come in and be contributors for the Cowboys. Even within their own division.
Between the New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, and Washington Redskins, there are some interesting names to consider as the Cowboys peruse the free agent aisles of the NFL superstore. Some of those players like Landon Collins, Ronald Darby, Nick Foles, and Brandon Graham will be new releases that will cost you a pretty penny at the check out stand. Others like Haloti Ngata will be in the used and refurbished section. And then there are those who could be had at a reasonable or discounted rate.
Here are three from within the NFC East that the Cowboys could have their eye on.
Mario Edwards, Defensive Line, New York Giants
The former Oakland Raiders second round pick out of Florida State University has already played for two teams in his young four-year career. That isn't a good sign for Mario Edwards as he approaches free agency for the first time. You don't generally see many top 100 picks get released from the team that originally drafted as they usually wait as long as they can to see if the player is going to hit.
For Mario Edwards, he found himself caught in a numbers game and outplayed by two rookies in Oakland's training camp in 2018, leading to his release. It also sounds like the Raiders couldn't quite figure out where to put him on their defensive line.
We know that the Dallas Cowboys love looking around the league for those reclamation projects. Edwards could be the next David Irving or Antwaun Woods. A player that isn't highly thought of, but in the right situation and with the right coaching could flourish.
Edwards has played 14 or more games in three of his first four seasons, missing his second season with a hip injury. He totaled more than two sacks a season in those three seasons. He isn't by any stretch of the imagination someone who is going to come in and replace DeMarcus Lawrence or Randy Gregory, but he could be a nice depth piece with potential to see significant snaps both at defensive end and 3-technique defensive tackle.
Edwards could be the next Rod Marinelli special.
Jordan Matthews, Wide Receiver, Philadelphia Eagles
The Dallas Cowboys could be in the market for a slot wide receiver this offseason if Cole Beasley is allowed to walk in free agency, which seems like a near certainty. There are several intriguing options on the roster in Allen Hurns and Cedric Wilson that could play in the slot some, or play on the outside allowing Amari Cooper to play in the slot. They could also look to the draft for Beasley's replacement as well. In the free agent pool, there are several interesting names, one of which is Jordan Matthews.
Jordan Matthews just finished his second stint in Philadelphia and while he didn't have huge production in Philly in 2018 -- 20 receptions on 28 targets for 300 yards and two touchdowns, he's a player with a track record in the NFL and could be a "big slot" option.
In Matthews first three seasons in the NFL, he averaged 75 receptions on 115 targets for 891 yards and 6.3 touchdowns in his first stint with the Philadelphia Eagles. In 2014, Matthews caught 64 of his 67 receptions from the slot, which was second in the NFL that season. In 2015, he led the NFL in receptions from the slot with 81, while also scoring eight touchdowns. In 2016, his final year with the Eagles, he was ninth in the NFL with 53 receptions. So, in those first three seasons in the league, he averaged 67 receptions, 796.3 yards, and six touchdowns. He caught eight touchdowns in each of his first two seasons for the Eagles in the slot.
He's not the same player that Cole Beasley is, but he's a player that knows how to win in the slot and because of the past couple of years could be a cheaper option to try and replace Cole's production.
Jamison Crowder, Wide Receiver, Washington Redskins
If Jordan Matthews is the inexpensive option for the Dallas Cowboys in the slot, Jamison Crowder would require paying a pretty penny. Spotrac.com estimates that Crowder could be worth $8 million per year over four years on the open market.
Interestingly enough, he's never been as productive as Cole Beasley or Jordan Matthews, but because of his age and his work the last couple of seasons, injuries not withstanding, he's seen in a more positive light than Matthews.
Crowder is cut from a similar cloth as Beasley. Smaller in stature and uses quickness and speed to win games. As Cowboys fans, we know all to well the effect that he has in game. Crowder, however, has never had more than 66 receptions in a season and has only scored more than three touchdowns once in his four seasons in the NFL; back in 2016 when he scored seven.
Crowder is coming off of an injury this season that limited him to just nine games, 29 receptions for 388 yards and two touchdowns. In his three full seasons prior to 2018, Crowder averaged 64 receptions on 93 targets for 746 yards and four touchdowns.
If for some reason, his market comes in less than the $8 million per year that Spotrac.com is projecting, I'd be very interested in bringing Crowder to Dallas.
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Each of these guys offers something intriguing that the Dallas Cowboys could use. Whether it's a defensive lineman or a slot wide receiver, they all bring something to the table. The Dallas Cowboys need to approach this offseason with a "go for it" mentality, but if they continue to follow their free agency philosophy, Mario Edwards and Jordan Matthews could be nice pieces to add to the team that offer a lot of upside.
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