It is finally almost time for 2016 Dallas Cowboys playoff football, as tomorrow the Green Bay Packers will come to AT&T Stadium with a trip to the NFC Championship Game on the line. You already know by now that they'll be bringing QB Aaron Rodgers and a dangerous passing attack into this game, so fittingly enough the last two installments of my Playoff Primer series will focus on the Dallas secondary.
Today, we look at the safeties.
In his first full year at free safety and just his second in the NFL, Byron Jones continued to develop into a star with every desirable trait to play his position in Rod Marinelli's scheme. The two best things the Cowboys defense has done as a team this season is stop the run and not allow big plays, both of which involve Jones.
A physical run stopper, Byron can meet any running back in the hole and stop him in his tracks, while being more than fast enough to play his center field role back at safety as well.
Jones' impact has been felt since day one with this team, as he was asked to carry a lot of tight ends in coverage as a rookie. Now with an expanded role, the Cowboys have struggled somewhat against opposing tight ends - proving that their first round pick from 2015 can truly do anything asked of him.
While it would be great for Byron Jones to make a big splash on this game with a turnover or something similar, he will undeniably have a big say in the final outcome of every playoff game the Cowboys play with his versatility and all-around awesomeness.
Barry Church is one of the most underrated Dallas defenders. The veteran strong safety playing across from Jones, Church has quietly done his job once again in 2016, battling through injuries to appear in 12 games - making 85 tackles and defending four passes.
As we talk about the Dallas Cowboys secondary, it is important to once again bring up the "Clog and Cover" scheme that has worked so well this season for them. Essentially, the Cowboys are contempt with putting as many sound tacklers on the field as they can at every level and forcing teams to methodically march them down the field.
Church has fit this mold for his entire Cowboys career, with a knack for timely third down stops and big hits that prevent busted plays from turning into touchdowns. If you were to make a list of current Cowboys that are more than deserving of a Super Bowl ring, Barry Church would find his way onto the list, and one of this secondary's leaders has a chance to help get his team to Houston in a big way.
On a team full of improbable stories, J.J. Wilcox has emerged in 2016 to finally put things together at the safety position. Acting as Dallas' "enforcer" in a way, Wilcox has laid on big hits all season long, patrolling underneath the deep coverages Rod Marinelli plays.
Wilcox has also earned his snaps by progressing a lot more as a coverage safety, sometimes ask in "Dime" packages to carry receivers out of the slot. While the Packers, and any team the Cowboys will see the rest of the way, will have to be ready for the versatile safety combination of Byron Jones and Barry Church, its best they also understand where #27 in white is at all times.
If not, he is going to continue to come out of nowhere to place his stamp on every game the Cowboys have left.
Regarded by some in Cowboys Nation as the greatest football player of all time, Jeff Heath has found himself playing a bigger role defensively over the past few weeks of the regular season in addition to his job on special teams.
Heath may not be as good at any one thing that Jones, Church, or even Wilcox brings to the table, but he is a solid deep safety that can help in over-the-top coverage. With Barry Church often playing down in the box, Jones ends up as one of the only deep defenders on the field in a lot of packages - except when he has Jeff Heath playing next to him.
The snaps that Heath will get on defense in the playoffs will likely be limited, but even in limited opportunities he'll have a chance to make a solid impact as a much better option than most third safeties across the NFL.
Tomorrow here at Inside The Star, this Playoff Primer series will come to an end with a look at the corner backs. If you have enjoyed this series in preparation for the Divisional Round, feel free to email me your thoughts at Sean.Martin@InsideTheStar.com.
Dak Prescott Ranked as Third Least Consistent QB in NFL
Last season could've gone a lot better for Dak Prescott. After a remarkable rookie season, he wasn't able to meet the very high expectations put on him after leading the Dallas Cowboys to the #1 seed in the NFC in 2016.
Inevitably, the "sophomore slump" managed to get to Dak, even though the numbers make it seem worse than it really was. From his 13 interceptions in 2017, not even half can be completely blamed on him. However, even though he made improvements in his game, it's fair to admit that there was indeed, a slump in his second year in the NFL.
Earlier this week, NFL.com published an article listing the most and the least consistent quarterbacks in the league last season. The way the list works is measuring "their average 2017 swing in week-to-week passer rating." In the list, Dak Prescott is listed as the third least consistent QB in the league, with only Cam Newton and Derek Carr behind him.
Just like the Dallas Cowboys' had a roller coaster for a season, constantly shifting between winning and losing, Dak Prescott also struggled at remaining consistent. It makes a ton of sense, of course, for the Cowboys' 9-7 season had a lot of swings throughout the year.
At times, the team was missing its most important defender in Sean Lee. At others, Tyron Smith and/or Ezekiel Elliott weren't on the field either. This is not an attempt to excuse Dak, for he is partly at fault here, as is the entire team.
From week 10 to 12, Dak failed to throw for a touchdown but ended up throwing five interceptions. Later in the season, failing once again to get a TD pass in two straight weeks, he threw for two interceptions at Oakland then another two when hosting the Seahawks in Dallas.
In a season that will likely determine his future with the Dallas Cowboys, Dak needs to find a way to be more consistent week after week regardless of circumstance. Hopefully, with an improved offensive line and with Ezekiel Elliott leaving every suspension drama behind him, his offense will put him in position to have his best year yet.
In 2016 and in 2017, his Total Quarterback Rating has been in the top 4 among all quarterbacks, per ESPN. Now, this is not a stat that tells the whole story, but it does give you an idea of each quarterback's play. In a run-first offense and with a safe passer like Dak, I'm sure consistency will not be hard to deal with for the young QB next season.
As long as he takes advantage of the new set of targets he'll have at his disposal and his offense's powerful running back with recently-signed draftee Connor Williams, this offense will look a lot more like the one we saw in 2016.
We know Dak Prescott has a lot to prove. He has to make longer throws, throw more aggressively to get his receivers open, and more. But consistency is just as important. In order to be continuously successful and to be a contender year after year, you need that in your signal-caller. Even if key players on the team are down, he needs to be able to shine. It's a sixteen-game season, after all.
It's time for Dak to prove he can handle that.
Will Cowboys WR Noah Brown Do Enough to Make the Roster?
The Dallas Cowboys aren't short on numbers at wide receiver on their current 90-man roster. Looking to replace Dez Bryant and reshape their offense, the Cowboys will have to find the right group of pass catchers for Dak Prescott at their upcoming training camp.
The odd men out from this group will likely be the ones that can't sustain a consistent level of play, doing so across multiple units if needed. All ten receivers will have their flashes, but with only four being true locks to make the team, new Cowboys Wide Receivers Coach Sanjay Lal will be in on some tough decisions right away.
One such decision may be moving on from last year's seventh round pick Noah Brown out of Ohio State. Vouched for by former Buckeyes teammate Ezekiel Elliott thanks to his blocking ability on the outside, it may now be this strength in the run game and deficiency as a pass catcher that spells the end of Brown's run in Dallas.
Normally, a seventh round pick being on the roster bubble wouldn't be this noteworthy, but Brown clearly showed the potential to outplay this draft status as a rookie. Appearing in 13 games, Brown is a true X receiver, although not the dominant one the Cowboys are searching for.
Moving away from fielding a true number one receiver, the Cowboys did sign Allen Hurns to play this spot while prepared to spread the ball around to Williams, Beasley, and Gallup after that.
This leaves Thompson, Wilson, Cannon, Lenoir, McCay, Murdock, and Brown to prove their worth in other ways to make the roster. I've written plenty about the potential rookie Cedrick Wilson has, so I'll be expecting a strong showing from him to earn a role in the Cowboys offense.
Wilson's skill set could push a depth signing like Deonte Thompson off the team, although his ability to back up Cole Beasley/Tavon Austin on special teams is important. The same can be said about Lance Lenoir, who like Brown has the advantage over first year players given his trials through training camp and the preseason a year ago.
Long shots to make the team, Cannon, McCay, and Murdock fall just below this group -- and somewhere in the middle is Noah Brown.
Increasing his role on special teams as the season went on last year, Brown had fans throughout a coaching staff that is now drastically changed for 2018. From their shift to more speed on offense, to drafting of both Gallup and Wilson, calling Brown a fringe player on the Cowboys roster really sets up the fiery competition to come at wide receiver.
Should the Cowboys find a spot for Brown, one can only hope it means this new coaching staff has a clear plan for him to contribute on both offense and special teams outside of being a run blocker. A potential niche for Brown is his red zone ability, not afraid to put his body on the line for jump balls and fight through contact in his routes.
It won't be long until we sort out if this is enough to make the Cowboys as a wide receiver ahead of Quarterback Dak Prescott's third season.
Dallas Cowboys Most Important Backups Entering Training Camp
In less than two weeks, the Dallas Cowboys will be practicing in Oxnard, their final training camp tune up before the preseason and roster cuts. If last year is any indication, the Cowboys trim down to 53 players from 90 will be eventful as always. However, it was ultimately the depth of this final roster that failed the Cowboys in a 9-7 season falling short of the playoffs.
The loss of Ezekiel Elliott to suspension and Tyron Smith, Jonathan Cooper, and Sean Lee to injury was all too much for the Cowboys to overcome. Starting his career with a playoff appearance at 13-3, Quarterback Dak Prescott now enters a crucial third year, though he can only hope the team's free agent signings and rookies can help patch these holes.
Before the pads come on at training camp, here is a look at a few of the most important depth players the Cowboys have for 2018.
Offensive Tackle Cam Fleming
The Cowboys spent the 50th overall pick at this year's draft on their future Left Guard Connor Williams, making their signing of Cam Fleming more important. Should Williams grab hold of the starting spot left by Jonathan Cooper's departure, Fleming should serve as the Cowboys primary backup to Left Tackle Tyron Smith.
Joined only by Chaz Green and Kadeem Edwards on the depth chart at tackle, Fleming's experience should win out over the rest of the field. Also signing Guard Marcus Martin this offseason, it's clear the Cowboys want to avoid their offensive line breakdown from a year ago.
Cam Fleming needs to be in position to help the Cowboys do just that, unless Smith plays a full 16 games for the first time since 2015.
Wide Receiver/Running Back Tavon Austin
Whatever role Tavon Austin finds in the Cowboys offense, this is a play maker the Cowboys will have to get the ball to in a variety of ways. Expected to partially take the load off of Ezekiel Elliott as a running back while also being targeted in the passing game, Austin could very well influence the team's roster decisions at both RB and WR.
Two uncertain positions when it comes to depth, Austin's presence could mean bad news for Running Backs Darius Jackson and Bo Scarbrough, or Wide Receivers Lance Lenoir, KD Cannon, and Noah Brown.
We're still a long way off from knowing if a decision like this will be the right one for the Cowboys, but with so much uncertainty on offense entering 2018, Tavon Austin's importance could grow by the day in Oxnard.
Linebacker Justin March-Lillard
Needing to address the linebacker position heavily this offseason, the Cowboys locked in on Boise State's Leighton Vander Esch with their first round pick and selected him at 19th overall. With the 193rd overall pick, the Cowboys also added Indiana Linebacker Chris Covington.
Expected starters Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith, and Vander Esch will still need quality depth behind them to play to their strengths this season.
A healthy Lee is locked in as this team's starting WILL linebacker, but the Cowboys are expected to test both Vander Esch and Smith at the MIKE position.
"The loser of this battle" moving to SAM linebacker is not so simple, especially considering other athletic options the Cowboys have for this strong side role. Along with Damien Wilson, the Cowboys have also seen strides from Justin March-Lillard.
Capable of contributing on special teams and providing important snaps in Rod Marinelli's defense, March-Lillard should be a hard player for the Cowboys to leave off their final roster. If he survives to the final 53, expect him to also be active on game days in support of the Cowboys LBs.
Quarterback Cooper Rush
What exactly do the Cowboys have in second-year Quarterback Cooper Rush, an undrafted sensation out of Central Michigan? Showing the potential to be Dak Prescott's primary backup or an enticing trade piece to QB-needy teams as a rookie, Rush is now joined by a new rookie on the depth chart.
Drafting Mike White in the fifth round, the Cowboys have plenty of skill at quarterback this season. The scope of this list is not to cover how well the Cowboys are prepared to play without Prescott.
Playing with two quarterbacks or three on the roster will be a looming decision for the Cowboys though. Either Rush or White could prove they deserve the second and last QB spot, with Rush's progress from last year challenged by White's accuracy.
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Of course, more Cowboys backups will emerge as ones to keep an eye on, once the Cowboys are back on the field. With several coaches and 'big name' players potentially needing this season to reach the playoffs for the Cowboys, a second straight season of depleted depth won't cut it.
Such is the nature of the Cowboys roster cuts, with the final 53 man roster set on September 1st.
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