We've looked at every position across the board for the Cowboys' loaded offense in this Playoff Primer series so far, and now it is time to talk about the most important position - the quarterbacks.
The story of the Cowboys' quarterbacks in 2016 has been unprecedented, as Dallas will remarkably enter the postseason with the league's best quarterback situation.
New year, new quarterback situation. It is time for Playoff Primer - the quarterback edition!
In a week 6 meeting against the Green Bay Packers on the road, Prescott completed 18 passes on 27 attempts for 247 yards. He did throw his first career interception against the team he will now face in the Divisional Round of the playoffs, but Prescott got the win behind two scoring passes to Cole Beasley and another to Brice Butler.
So here we are as Cowboys Nation with this earth-shattering rookie as our quarterback in the playoffs.
Dak Prescott is the first rookie QB to lead his team into the playoffs as the starter since a trio of first-year signal callers in 2012. While Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck were first round picks with high expectations, Russell Wilson's rookie season had a similar feel to Prescott's - as he stayed within himself to bring an immensely talented team to the big dance.
The biggest difference between the 2012 Seahawks and the 2016 Cowboys is this though. The best overall unit on Seattle was their defense, which kept Wilson from having to "save the day" too often. Dallas' biggest strength is Dak Prescott's offense, and he has executed it for Scott Linehan almost perfectly.
The playoffs should be no different, as I fully expect Prescott to remain the cool, calm, collected, and poised quarterback that has distributed the ball to his targets on high-percentage throws all season long.
The story of whatever team comes out of the NFC is going to be written through their quarterback, and the big throws that will decide close games. Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, Russell Wilson, or Dak Prescott is going to represent this conference in the Super Bowl. When you stack up Prescott with these other experienced QBs, his task may seem daunting, but we said the same when he was charged with the task of simply keeping the Cowboys relevant until Tony Romo was healthy.
Dak Prescott benched Tony Romo by going on to win 13 games, and his rookie campaign isn't over yet. No truly intimidating passing defenses remain in his way, and his cast of play makers' desire to step up for him will be at an all time high.
Ah yes, Tony Romo. The best thing Romo could have done for the Cowboys this season was give the speech he did to "concede" the starting QB job in full to Prescott before a week 11 home game against the Ravens.
Sure, it hurt to watch, and I even had a professor make me watch it in the middle of a classroom while wearing Romo's jersey, but nothing can keep Cowboys fans down when America's Team is 13-3, which they are thanks in large part to Prescott.
It certainly was amazing to see Romo execute a flawless touchdown drive in the season finale against the Eagles, which reassured a fact that many already believed - Tony Romo is without a doubt the best backup quarterback in the NFL.
If he is needed this postseason, emotions are going to be running wild. Either Dak Prescott was injured or wildly ineffective, or maybe Romo is taking a snap in victory formation in front of a rowdy silver and blue crowd.
Whatever the situation may be, we know that Jason Garrett potentially has a lottery ticket in the QB that largely deserves a ton of credit for making him the coach he is today. Tony Romo can take this Dallas Cowboys team to the Super Bowl.
Your backup quarterback probably can't? We cannot relate.
Mark Sanchez cannot take the Dallas Cowboys to the Super Bowl. Simply put, we do not want to see Mark Sanchez take any real snaps this postseason. Sanchez's most recent action against the Eagles - albeit behind a backup offensive line - was a painful reminder of what happened to the Cowboys' offense in 2015 with backups that were simply not up to speed with the scheme.
Dak Prescott is the perfect blend between a scheme fit for Dallas, and a quarterback that has also changed this team's scheme to his strengths for the better. Tony Romo is Dallas' offensive scheme. Mark Sanchez is just a guy hoping to get a Super Bowl ring, far removed from the signal caller that led the New York Jets to consecutive AFC Championship games in his first two seasons.
If #3 is playing in the next few weeks, the Dallas Cowboys won't be winning three 2016 playoff games.
It is game week here at Inside The Star! The Cowboys host the Packers with a trip to the NFC Championship Game on the line this Sunday.
To get Cowboys Nation ready, I'll be shifting this Playoff Primer series over to the defense throughout the week.
Cowboys 2018 Breakout Candidates: TE Geoff Swaim
For the 2018 Dallas Cowboys, the retirement of Tight End Jason Witten was one of the biggest developments of the offseason. It leaves a gaping hole in their offense, and no major free agent or high draft pick was added as a clear replacement. As such, fourth-year veteran Geoff Swaim may be in line for a breakout season.
A seventh-round pick in 2015, Swaim has stuck in Dallas with strong run-blocking and special teams play. His offensive production has been limited to just nine catches and 94 yards, thanks largely to the stranglehold that Witten kept on the TE position. Geoff has only been targeted 11 times in the passing game over three seasons.
But with Witten leaving, as well as veteran backup James Hanna, Swaim is now the elder statesman of the TE group. Even his limited playing time in the NFL thus far puts him way ahead of Rico Gathers, Blake Jarwin, or rookie Dalton Schultz.
Based on reports from the offseason practices and camps, Geoff is getting the first crack at becoming the new starter. It makes sense given his experience edge, but also his proficiency as a run blocker.
The Cowboys will likely lean on Ezekiel Elliott heavily this year, particularly early in the season. The passing game will need time to find itself with Witten and Dez Bryant gone. They'll want to ease Dak Prescott into heavier workloads as he and his new receiving options get acclimated.
Geoff Swaim will be one of those new options. And even though his reputation is for blocking, don't take that to mean he's not athletic.
We've seen Swaim on the move as a blocker and also in the passing game, and he's certainly got some wheels. That could make him a deceptive weapon on play-action and other passing plays out of running formations.
In some ways, losing Witten and Bryant makes the Cowboys' offense less predictable than in the past. Defenses will be less sure who to focus on, and that also creates opportunities for the new receivers.
Obviously, Swaim's breakout potential is dependent on Prescott looking his way. But unless Dak has undergone a major change in his playing style, a TE working in the short and middle parts of the field is someone he'll rely on plenty.
With training camp and preseason still to come, calling Geoff the starter right now is just an assumption. There is still time for one of the other prospects to impress and climb the ladder.
But right now, there's clearly no better candidate to claim the spot than Swaim. He has the most critical skill as a blocker, and his potential in the passing game is underrated. It's his job to lose.
The guy with only nine career catches could get that in a single game this year. Therefore, Geoff Swaim is clearly one of the major breakout candidates for the 2018 Cowboys.
Cowboys 2018 Breakout Candidates: LB Jaylon Smith
No single player on the Dallas Cowboys roster right now may be more primed for a breakout season than Linebacker Jaylon Smith. His ascension as a player isn't just a big gain for the Cowboys defense, but it may be vital to their success in 2018.
Smith joined the Cowboys as a high second-round pick (34th overall) in the 2016 NFL Draft. Potentially a top-five elite talent in that class, Jaylon's stock fell after a severe knee injury in his final college game. It was unknown if he could ever play football again, but Dallas took the risk based on Smith's incredible upside.
After Jaylon sat out his rookie year to fully rehab. In 2017, he was able to play all 16 games and started in six. That alone was a huge win for Smith and the Cowboys.
Jaylon's performance last year wasn't great, but understandably so after all the missed time. He also had to regain confidence in his knee, which is critical for a linebacker with all of the directional changes during plays.
Still, Smith got better as the season went. And even amidst the struggles, there were flashes of his instincts and potential.
This offseason, reports of Jaylon's improving health are fueling increased optimism. He is now playing without a knee brace and that means more confidence. If Smith fully trusts his body now, it will make him far more dangerous on the field.
With Anthony Hitchens leaving in free agency, Dallas needs Jaylon to be a bigger factor this year. If he doesn't take the next step, it could leave the Cowboys vulnerable at linebacker in 2018.
True, Dallas drafted Leighton Vander Esch in the first round of last April's draft. But it's always dangerous to ask a rookie to do heavy lifting, and especially one who is seen as a raw talent like Vander Esch.
Ideally, anything Dallas gets from Leighton this year will be gravy. Their goal is to rely on veteran Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith, with Damien Wilson also available as a solid fallback option.
But when you mention Sean Lee, you have to mention health concerns. After two encouragingly healthy seasons in 2015 and 2016, Lee was back to having some issues last year and missed five games.
That is all the more reason why Dallas needs Jaylon to be ready for more this year. If Lee misses time again, Smith is the best suited to take over the roles that Sean leaves behind.
Thankfully, all signs point to big things for Jaylon Smith in 2018. His body appears healed and there's no questioning his work ethic and desire. If the mental aspect of football has also developed, he could be everything the Cowboys hoped when they drafted them.
Despite Late Push as Rookie, Will Taco Charlton Struggle to See Field in 2018?
It feels like ages ago that the Dallas Cowboys spent the 28th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft on Michigan Defensive End Taco Charlton. Perhaps this is a result of the constant distancing fans have made from this unpopular pick, or the corresponding moves the Cowboys have made at DE since drafting Charlton.
These moves include using the franchise tag on DeMarcus Lawrence after seeing him explode for 14.5 sacks, spending a fourth round pick this year on Kansas' Dorance Armstrong, and seeing Randy Gregory reinstated in time for training camp.
Across the entirety of the Cowboys roster, there will be plenty of "odd men out" that miss the cut down to 53 players. Defensive end remains one of the most cluttered spots on the current 90 man roster however.
Prior to establishing the depth the Cowboys now have up front on defense, they did Taco no favors by starting his career at right defensive end. While Gregory may still be a long way from earning the starting role here, similarly styled players like Armstrong have the edge here over Charlton.
This relegates Charlton to the strong side, where he always projected best out of college. By the time the Cowboys realized this a season ago, they also knew a franchise pass rusher was playing his way into the team's long-term plans.
Lawrence's stellar consistency off the edge reduced Charlton's role in the Cowboys rotation of pass rushers. An ideal spot for the rookie to develop with less pressure on him, Charlton's opportunities to continue playing left end may only be reduced this season.
The first-round pick is capable of kicking inside at defensive tackle, a position the Cowboys could certainly use help at. However, asking Charlton to go through another position shift would only halt the progress that took quite a bit of patience from Dallas to see.
It's far from unheard of for the Cowboys to do this with their young players, but for now Charlton remains a defensive end looking to make his impact. The Cowboys are in much better position now than they were at this time a year ago when it comes to setting expectations for him to do so.
Given everything he showed on tape at Michigan as well as in his pre-draft interviews, Charlton is a player that needs to succeed at the task at hand. When this plan is altered, the 6'6" pass rusher is much less effective -- without even considering any athletic struggles that Charlton has compared to other prototypes at defensive end.
As a unit, the Cowboys defensive line has all the pieces to be very effective this season. Taco Charlton is a piece to this puzzle, a backup left end that must find a way to flourish in this role.
For most former 28th overall picks, doing so would be considered a fall from grace. For the Cowboys, it's simply an example of strong roster building that's forced life to come at Charlton quickly. How he responds with a full season under his belt will make or break the hype this deep Cowboys defensive line has garnered, lead of course by the starter at Charlton's position in DeMarcus Lawrence.
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