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!
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.
Cowboys OT La’el Collins Could Become Major Bargain
When you talk Cowboys offensive line, you always think of Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin first. Right Tackle La'el Collins still has to prove he belongs in the same sentence with his elite teammates. If he does that in 2018, Collins could become one of the best bargains on the roster.
Making the move from left guard to right tackle last year, Collins improved with time and was playing his best football at the end of the year. This was despite ongoing back issues that had him on the injury report most weeks.
La'el started all 16 games at right tackle and did enough that the Cowboys committed to keeping him there in 2018, even despite a big hole back at left guard. They are hoping consistency and stability will allow Collins to really blossom this season, building on the strong progress shown last year.
For 2018, Collins has a $5.76 million cap hit. According to Spotrac, that makes him the 13th-most expensive right tackle in the NFL this year.
That middle-of-the-pack expense is consistent with where La'el currently rates among NFL right tackles. Bleacher Report ranked Collins as the 16th-best RT in football last year.
But that ranking was based on the season as a whole. If La'el plays all of 2018 the way he was playing towards the end of last year, he will have emerged as one of the better right tackles in the game.
If Collins develops as we hope, that salary suddenly becomes a major bargain. The most expensive right tackles in the NFL are making $7-$9 million this season.
But this can go a couple of ways. With his 2019 cap hit rising to $7.9 million, La'el needs to next step forward.
If Collins were to struggle this year, it could make him a potential cap casualty next offseason. Dallas can save $6.5 million in cap space if Collins is released or traded in 2019.
Dallas could elect to give Connor Williams, their second-round pick this year, a look at right tackle next season. It's the position he played in college.
They could also consider veteran backup Cameron Fleming, who will still be just 26-year-old. Fleming has two Super Bowl rings and several starts, including in the postseason, from his time with the Patriots.
While we think of La'el Collins as a first-round talent, it's important to remember that he was ultimately an undrafted free agent. Dallas did not have to invest anything to acquire him, and ultimately that makes it easier to let him go.
Naturally, we prefer the other side of this coin. If Collins builds on 2017, he will join the upper echelon of right tackles in the league. And if the Cowboys' offensive line isn't already the best in the NFL, that would only cement them as the best unit in football.
If La'el makes the leap, it could mean huge things for the Cowboys' offense and team success this year.
How Cowboys Could Benefit From Randy Gregory’s Suspension
Randy Gregory is back! His suspension is officially over and he will be able to join the Dallas Cowboys in Oxnard, California when training camp gets underway less than a week from now.
Speculation has already started as to what this could mean for the Dallas Cowboys defense this season, and shockingly expectations are rather high for a player who hasn't stepped foot on the field in over a year. But, that's not what I want to talk about today. Today I want to focus on Gregory's mess of a contract, because it is rather interesting.
Randy Gregory was signed to a four-year contract after being drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in the second-round of the 2015 NFL Draft. Gregory's rookie deal was set to expire at the conclusion of the 2018 season, but his multiple suspensions have now changed that expiration date.
You see, Gregory has only played in a total of 14 games in his career, 12 as a rookie and two in Year 2. His third year in the NFL was completely wiped out due to his year-long suspension. If you were to add that all up, it equates to just one accured season in the NFL. Remember that, because it could have a huge impact on his contract down the road.
What all of this means is that the Cowboys can pretty much stretch out Gregory's contract now that they are three years in on the deal and have only gotten one accured season out of the agreement. That basically means they can push his contract back a year, meaning his 2017 salary ($731,813) gets pushed back to 2018, his 2018 salary ($955,217) gets pushed to 2019. That would essentially make him a Restricted Free Agent (RFA) in 2020.
Or does it?
Depending on how the Dallas Cowboys handled paying Randy Gregory during his suspension could actually make him an Exclusive Rights Free Agent (EFA). This is a similar situation in which David Irving found himself in after the 2017 season. The Cowboys placed a second-round tender on him in order to secure his services for another season, albeit at a $2.91 million price tag.
As you can see, the Dallas Cowboys pretty much hold all the cards when it comes to Randy Gregory's contract situation. It's all a little confusing, but that's what makes it such a unique and interesting situation.
Of course, the Cowboys could decide to extend Gregory early if he completely dominates upon his return this season. It's highly doubtful though considering his past suspensions, but still technically a possibility. If it does happen, you can go ahead and ignore everything I've written previously.
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