The strength of the Dallas Cowboys, above all else for the foreseeable future, is their offensive line. A punishing unit that dominates their match ups across the board each week, the Cowboys play through their highly paid line - particularly when it comes to running the football.
Making a splash with the fourth overall pick in the 2016 Draft, the Cowboys put together the league's best running game this season by grabbing Ezekiel Elliott. A well-rested Elliott will now look to carry this team through the playoffs, and he'll have a solid stable of backups behind him.
Let's preview the embarrassment of riches that the Cowboys have at running back going into the playoffs.
Ezekiel Elliott is better at carrying the football than you are at your job. You know it is true. The remarkable 21-year old rookie led the NFL in rushing this season despite not even being in uniform this past weekend against Philadelphia!
As expected, he has fit perfectly in Scott Linehan's running scheme, regularly bursting through gaping holes in the front - only to do most of his damage on the second level with an array of open-field moves.
Looking ahead to the playoffs, Elliott has faced all but two teams that the Cowboys may face. While the New York Giants were able to slow down Zeke in their two wins against the Cowboys this season, Elliott ran wild on the Lions and Packers.
In Green Bay, Elliott rushed for 157 yards on 28 carries - both close to season high outputs. In week 16 on Monday Night Football against the Lions, Ezekiel Elliott exploded for a 55-yard touchdown on his way to 80 yards on 12 carries with two touchdowns.
Just a year ago, Zeke Elliott was playing in the College Football Playoffs, and the 25 days off between Ohio State's conference championship win (where he rushed for 220 yards) and their semifinal game against the vaunted Alabama defense saw Elliott dominate Nick Saban's team in epic fashion - carrying the Buckeyes with 230 yards on the ground and two touchdowns.
Elliott even topped both of these performances in the National Championship against Oregon, cementing his status as a once-in-a-lifetime running back prospect with 246 more rushing yards - and a casual four touchdowns.
Now, Elliott will have 19 days since the last time he took just 12 carries to appear in the NFC Divisional Playoffs - looking to make even more history with his rookie quarterback Dak Prescott.
The best rushing defense he could possibly face would be the Giants, who you know the entire Cowboys' roster is fired up to potentially see again, and they'll have to first get through the Packers on the road.
It is time for Ezekiel Elliott to eat his way to Houston.
Has any back been through a stranger 2016 season than Darren McFadden? A forgotten man as soon as Elliott was drafted, McFadden then missed training camp along with the first 15 weeks of the regular season with his elbow injury.
Appearing in the final three games for the Cowboys, McFadden has been a welcome veteran option behind Elliott, not missing a beat from 2015 where he totaled 1,089 yards as the Cowboys' best offensive option.
It's no secret that Dallas is prepared to run Ezekiel Elliott into the ground throughout the playoffs - as they should - but McFadden will play a key role in being able to rest Elliott for short periods of time while still forcing defenses to respect him out of the backfield much more than a Lance Dunbar or Alfred Morris.
The entire premise of the Cowboys' running game is to keep the offense ahead of schedule on short passing downs, and McFadden will certainly help them do just that as he has shown throughout his time in Dallas.
Alfred Morris was supposed to be another reason that Darren McFadden was going to have a tough time finding a role in 2016's crowded backfield, but instead McFadden has recently proved to be the better option as Morris has become a healthy scratch two of the past three weeks.
While he may not have a huge role in the playoffs, Morris is still capable of wearing down defenses as a physical back. If he is called upon, after Elliott and McFadden, expect the professional in Morris - who has never played past the Wild Card Round in two postseason appearances - to execute in his role.
While it hasn't shown, Morris is actually the better scheme fit to play with the Cowboys' offensive line compared to McFadden, so one well-blocked zone play with The Butler carrying the ball could turn a postseason game for the Cowboys.
The X-Factor: Lance Dunbar
Don't roll your eyes at me. Back on a one-year deal for this season, Lance Dunbar has been a major disappointment. After seeing 19 snaps in that ugly loss to the Giants on the road, Dunbar was only on the field for nine snaps in the following two weeks.
Again, the world already knows that the Cowboys are great at running the football - but Lance Dunbar is not. More of a receiving threat at the running back position, Scott Linehan has realized that he can get the same production out of Elliott and McFadden, while keeping much more of a rushing threat on the field.
At the same time, Linehan has dialed up some creative calls to utilize all of his skill players this season, and it is obviously not far-fetched to see Dunbar hitting a few big plays throughout the playoffs - making him my x-factor at this position.
Playoff Primer is an ongoing series here at Inside The Star, preparing Cowboys Nation for the 2016 playoffs with a breakdown of every position on this team. To catch up with previous editions of this series, click here!
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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