As I continue my Playoff Primer series, we'll wrap up the offensive line by looking at the embarrassment of riches the Cowboys have on the interior. For my breakdown of the offensive tackles, check out "Playoff Primer: Dallas Cowboys Offensive Tackles".
Let's start in the middle.
Not only is Travis Frederick one of the most talented centers in the league, but he is one of the smartest, making him the perfect center-man for this star-studded offensive line. Perhaps Frederick hasn't gotten enough credit for working with rookie QB Dak Prescott, who has noticeably been making plenty of adjustments at the line before receiving a snap from Frederick.
Once thought of as a reach when he was drafted in the first round by Dallas in 2013, Frederick has proven to be an anchor in the middle for the Cowboys. When it comes to the 2016 playoffs, he will have an even better chance to prove his worth, as the team's the Cowboys may face all present tough interior defenders.
Whether it is the 3-4 look of the Green Bay Packers or another match up with Damon Harrison and the New York Giants, Frederick is going to have his hands full throughout the playoffs - but should be up to the challenge as a blocker that excels with leverage and relatively consistent short-range power.
Long live the beard.
Where would the Dallas Cowboys be without Ronald Leary? Once seen as an off season distraction when he held out over losing his job to La'el Collins, Leary is now the starter this team needs at left guard. A veteran that can be trusted, Leary has the luxury of playing between Frederick and Tyron Smith - but individually excels as a run and pass blocker.
Leary has handled his new situation as a starter like a professional, and even if it just to get paid elsewhere for 2017, he can be a huge part of hopefully guiding the 2016 Cowboys deep into the playoffs.
Leary did not play in week 17 against the Eagles, and had at times before this looked slightly off his game. Hopefully the two weeks off will rejuvenate Dallas' starter at LG, who just consistently blocks any defender thrown at him throughout the day without a worry.
Fun fact: I own a Zack Martin jersey.
Also a fun fact: Martin is arguably the best guard in the NFL. While Ron Leary puts in work as a reliable left guard, Martin absolutely dominates at the right guard position for the Cowboys on every snap - and has since his rookie year in 2014.
Just watch the holes that Ezekiel Elliott ran through to become this season's rushing champion, and you'll often see a blue #70 in front of him paving a path to the second level.
Martin is not only an elite run blocker that will thrive this postseason, but he limits pass rushers as soon as he gets his hands on them - a trait that is often thrown around when discussing linemen, but rarely seen at the quality that Martin exhibits.
Perhaps the biggest difference for the Cowboys going into the 2016 playoffs compared to 2014 is that their workhorse back is much more well-rested. If Zeke Elliott is going to eat his way to Houston and Super Bowl LI like we all think he's capable of, he will owe a ton of credit (and maybe another ATV?) to Zack Martin.
My fellow Staff Writer and New Jersey resident Kevin Brady already did most of the leg work right here when it comes to breaking down what the recently signed Jonathan Cooper can bring to the Cowboys as a backup guard.
Cooper, a former first round pick, has yet to settle in to a long-term role in the NFL - bouncing around as a guy that always had the potential but lacked the film to match it at this level. Even still, as a backup here in Dallas, Cooper is one of the best players the Cowboys could have brought in to potentially have to fill in at either guard position.
If called upon in the playoffs, I do worry that Jonathan Cooper may fall behind as a run blocker, with a limited amount of time to learn Scott Linehan's zone blocking scheme. With enough experience and strength though, Cooper is likely as good of a backup lineman as there is to be found on any team currently in the playoffs.
Of all of the talented guards and centers the Cowboys employ, swing man Joe Looney is probably the one you least want to see have to play in these playoffs. Looney does have some game experience that Cooper does not at left guard for the Cowboys, but this experience has only shown that Looney will struggle greatly throughout the course of a game.
Between the occasional good reps, Looney will get overpowered with bad technique, and more importantly get beat across his face on running plays - a major error in executing the zone scheme.
Looney's value in Dallas comes from the fact that he can play both guard and center, but since we opened this Playoff Primer praising Travis Frederick and all of his awesomeness, Looney will likely serve as just an emergency guard this postseason.
The X-Factor: La'el Collins
I'm fascinated to see what the Dallas Cowboys do with La'el Collins in the playoffs. Back to work at practice, Collins doesn't have to worry about preparing himself to start at left guard - as Ron Leary has that spot secured.
Instead, the Cowboys are going to have to get creative with how they utilize this first-round talent that they signed after the 2015 draft.
One area this team is thin at right now is tight end, and this offense sorely misses a versatile TE like Geoff Swaim that can block on the edge and present a threat in the passing game. While Collins gives the Cowboys virtually nothing as a pass catcher, lining him up in "Jumbo" sets as a tight end is almost unfair to edge defenders.
With Elliott in the backfield and Collins on the edge, defenses will have to change their entire look, which could lead to more chances for Dez Bryant and other WRs in single coverage. Collins' best trait is his ability to move and block on the run, so I also wouldn't be surprised to see him out in front of those always well-times toss sweeps.
It could be a very fun playoff run for La'el Collins, but his role and overall health is uncertain, making him this unit's x-factor.
As you enjoy Wild Card Weekend, make sure to stay posted to Inside The Star as I round out the offense in this series before moving on to the defense.
Cowboys Have Had Quiet, Yet Successful, Free Agency
Yet another free agency without a big splash by the Dallas Cowboys. What a surprise. Despite entertaining Earl Thomas rumors for a long, long time, the Cowboys' front office has stuck with its philosophy of not overpaying free agents and building the team mainly through the NFL Draft. However, they've actually had some pretty good signings over the last few days that will really benefit the Cowboys when the season comes around.
They've done so with inexpensive free agents who will contribute at a high level on their respective positions. Sure, top free agent signings are fun. But many times, they end up backfiring to teams for spending so much money in one single player. At the end of the day, the Cowboys' way has gotten the team three NFC East Championships since 2014. Many factors come into play, but their team building philosophy can't be as bad as many claim it to be.
The most recent acquisition came in form of former Cincinnati Bengal and Minnesota Viking Safety George Iloka. The Cowboys had a desperate need at the defensive backfield and finally they've done something about it. On a heavy safety market, the Cowboys sat tight while watching the top free agents get top contracts around the league, including Landon Collins' record breaking deal with the Washington Redskins.
Now, they've gotten a guy who can play both safety positions. I'll be surprised if he doesn't take Jeff Heath's job. He's played as a free safety most of his career but being a good tackler, he should do a good job in the box. Iloka will also shine on special teams in Dallas.
So far, my favorite signing may be that of former Green Bay Packer, Randall Cobb. The Cowboys had an important need at the wide receiver position despite counting with Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup leading the room. Cole Beasley is a tough guy to replace and although Cobb may not be a better slot receiver than him, he certainly has the experience and the skill set to be a starting slot WR. What's more, he'll only cost the Cowboys five million while Beasley got a four year deal with which he'll earn $17M over the first two years.
Cole Beasley will be missed, but the good thing is the front office did a pretty good job at filling the concerning hole on offense. Cooper, Gallup and Cobb are definitely not a bad starting trio to have.
Other under the radar moves will also help the Cowboys. Kerry Hyder may not be a well-known in the NFL but he'll surely contribute to this defensive line as a rotational player. Hyder had eight sacks in 2016 with the Detroit Lions before suffering an Achilles injury in 2017 and dealing with a scheme change last season. Hyder will surely be happy about being back to a 4-3 defense in Dallas.
Christian Covington was another overlooked signing. Covington will help on the interior of the defensive line and although he'll likely not be a starter, he'll be an important piece in the rotation for a very reasonable contract ( also a one-year deal).
For a football team that's constantly criticized for not being active in free agency, the Cowboys have done something at pretty much every position where they need help. Safety, defensive end, defensive tackle, wide receiver and tight end have all been addressed this offseason prior to the NFL Draft. This will give them great flexibility in April and could lead to a pretty good "best player available" strategy.
Now granted, there are still concerns regarding the young "to be extended" group of players. DeMarcus Lawrence hasn't reached an agreement with the Cowboys and will continue to postpone surgery until he does. If the front office doesn't strike a contract with the star pass rusher, it won't be possible to consider this offseason a good one no matter what happens. Dallas can't let him leave.
In the meantime though, they've had a pretty quiet yet successful March. And they're not done yet. Robert Quinn could end up wearing the Star if a trade with the Miami Dolphins does end up taking place. We'll see if the Cowboys continue to build on an already pretty good free agency.
BREAKING: Dallas Cowboys Sign Free Agent Safety George Iloka
The Dallas Cowboys have reached a one-year agreement with Safety George Iloka, according to ESPN's Todd Archer. Iloka spent 2018 with the Vikings after six years with the Bengals.
He's started 79 of his 99 career games since being a fifth-round pick by Cincinnati in 2012. Iloka turns 29 years old next week.
The Cowboys have agreed to a one-year deal with safety George Iloka, according to a source. Iloka met with the Cowboys on Friday and was the third safety to meet with the club during the week along with Clayton Geathers and Eric Berry. The Cowboys have... https://t.co/JB5nJLWepc
This isn't the safety that most Cowboys fans wanted. After over a year of pining for Earl Thomas, sights turned to Eric Berry after his free agent visit in Dallas last week.
However, it makes sense that Iloka would be attractive to the Cowboys. At 6'4" and 225 lbs, he fits the physical mold of what Defensive Backs Coach Kris Richard likes in his players. He also is younger than Berry and Thomas without the same recent injury issues.
Iloka becomes one of many Boise St. products on Dallas' roster, joining Tyrone Crawford, DeMarcus Lawrence, Leighton Vander Esch, and others. He entered the league with college teammates Crawford and Kellen Moore, the Cowboys' new offensive coordinator, in 2012.
We'll have to wait and see how George Iloka fits into the current mix at safety with Jeff Heath and Xavier Woods. He spent most of 2018 as a backup with Minnesota, but Dallas will likely give him a chance to start.
What to Expect from Dallas Cowboys Wide Receiver Group in 2019
In a span of a week, the Dallas Cowboys have solidified their wide receiver group with the resigning of Tavon Austin to a one year deal and the signing of former Green Bay Packers Wide Receiver Randall Cobb. Despite the loss of Cole Beasley, the Cowboys have a created a really good group of receivers for Quarterback Dak Prescott to throw to.
Cobb joins a really nice group of players that includes incumbent starters on the outside in Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup as well as solid depth players in Austin, Allen Hurns, and Noah Brown. Throw in Cedric Wilson, the Dallas Cowboys sixth round pick from the 2018 NFL Draft and the Cowboys may have one of the deeper receiving corps in the NFL.
The question is, how will the Dallas Cowboys coaching staff delineate the roles?
Let's take a look.
As I mentioned before, the Dallas Cowboys are returning their top two options on the outside in Amari Cooper, who is the X wide receiver and Michael Gallup, the Z receiver. Both players will go into week one as the starters at their respective positions in two-wide receiver formations.
Despite some of the overthrows from Dak Prescott to Michael Gallup, Gallup had a really nice rookie season and got better as the year went along, even leading the Cowboys in receiving in the playoff loss to the Los Angeles Rams. In that game, Gallup recorded the first 100 yard game of his career. Sure, it was in an attempt to comeback by the Dallas Cowboys, but it is impressive nonetheless. His touchdown catch against the Seattle Seahawks the week before was clutch. The Cowboys needed that to take the lead at the end of the first half. 2018 was only the beginning for Michael Gallup. He showed an ability to win with a full offseason to work with Dak Prescott, their chemistry and connection should only improve.
As for Cooper, his presence was felt right away as the offense just looked different once he stepped on the field. It's no coincidence that Dak Prescott's two best career games in terms of passing yardage came with Cooper in 2018. He's such a threat that he opens up space for the rest of the wide receiver group. His route running, speed, ability to run after the catch make him a threat to score any time he's targeted.
Behind Cooper and Gallup, you have options in the event that one of them gets hurt. Allen Hurns, Tavon Austin, and Noah Brown are all players who took snaps on the outside for the Dallas Cowboys in 2018 and did so with effectiveness. Hurns best game of the year came just before the Cooper deal was made as he went for five receptions for 75 yards.
Tavon provided down field speed on several occasions and provides some gadget quality that the Dallas Cowboys love to have. Noah Brown is a player that the Dallas Cowboys love to deploy as a blocker in the running game. While it looked like he might get more run in the passing game in 2019, the depth additions will limit him again to a specialty role. If needed, though, he could be an option to take snaps on the outside as his big frame allows him to box out defensive backs down the field.
There will be snaps on the outside for someone when the Cowboys go to 11 personnel, because of Amari Cooper's ability to slide into the slot.
Obviously, the writing is on the wall with who the Dallas Cowboys are planning on deploying in the slot as things stand right now, and that's Randall Cobb.
While Cobb should be penciled in as the starter in the slot, I doubt that he's going to get 100% of the snaps there in 11 or 10 personnel groupings. Amari Cooper, Allen Hurns, Tavon Austin, Noah Brown, and Cedric Wilson could all push for playing time from the slot.
Last month, I wrote a piece about Allen Hurns and his effectiveness in the slot and why the Cowboys should feature him there. With Cobb coming off an injury laden season, the Cowboys would be wise to give some snaps to Hurns along with Tavon Austin.
In Jacksonville, Hurns was incredibly effective from the slot running posts, slants, and ins and outs. His size and route running made him an effective mismatch against linebackers, safeties, and cornerbacks alike. Remember, it wasn't long ago that Hurns had a 1,000 yard season with Blake Bortles at the helm.
Tavon Austin's quickness is an asset that could be very effective in the slot as well. Though he lacks size, he's a player that opposing defenses have to account for because of his ability to make big plays once the ball's in his hands.
✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭
The Cowboys haven't been shy about carrying seven wide receivers on their 53-man rosters and it's possible, though unlikely that they could do it again in 2018. As things stand now, I see Noah Brown and Cedric Wilson as the potential odd men out. Of course, this could all get reshuffled if the Dallas Cowboys use a top 100 pick on a wide receiver in the draft.
With Amari Cooper, Allen Hurns, Tavon Austin, and Randall Cobb only under contract through the 2019 season, the Dallas Cowboys would be wise to invest at the position despite the strength of the position in 2019.
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