The Dallas Cowboys are one of just a few teams with nothing to play for in week 17, their potential Wild Card opponents not in the same situation. Come Wild Card weekend, either the Seattle Seahawks or Minnesota Vikings will be at AT&T Stadium to face the NFC East champion Cowboys. After covering what a rematch between the Cowboys and Seahawks could look like, it's time to consider the Cowboys match up with a Vikings team fighting for their life on Sunday.
Hosting the winners of the NFC North, the Vikings will need to beat the Bears to play their own way into the postseason. Should the third-seeded Bears pick up their 12th win of the year, the Vikings will need the Eagles to lose (or tie) at the Redskins.
A game away from the Super Bowl a year ago, this season has hardly gone as planned for the Vikings in year one with Kirk Cousins at QB. Yet again, not much has in a crazy division won by the Bears, hardly contested by the Packers and Lions, and on the verge of sending a dangerous Vikings team to the playoffs for the third time in four years.
Minnesota does not feature the same world-beating defense it bolstered a year ago, carrying a Case Keenum quarterbacked offense to the NFC Championship Game. Eleventh in rush yards allowed per game but third in pass yards, the Vikings have not sustained the dominant pass rush that made them a force last season.
Danielle Hunter has turned a seven sack 2017 into a team high 14.5 through 15 games this year, but Everson Griffin has just 5.5 after 13 last year. Where the Vikings have seen progress on defense is in the secondary, with Mack Alexander, Trae Ways, Xavier Rhodes, and Harrison Smith forming a tight back seven.
Cousins has not provided the boost at QB the Vikings were hoping could put them over the edge even with a regression on defense, failing to make the difference in losses to the Bills, Bears, and Seahawks. The Vikings have not beaten any team currently in the playoffs and are 3-4-1 on the road.
The Cowboys have hinted at using their remaining game at the Giants as a tune-up for the playoffs by playing "healthy" starters, certainly in need of improvements on offense. They should feel good about returning home for a first round match up with the Vikings, and their own ability to win a defensive game regardless of how they handle week 17.
Winning their last four games against Cousins when he started for the Redskins, the Cowboys should be more concerned with a Vikings running game that's found its legs recently. Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray put the Vikings over 100 yards rushing last week against the Lions for the second consecutive week, the first time that's happened all season. The Vikings are 5-0 when rushing for at least 100 yards with an average margin of victory of 15 points.
Shutout loss at the Colts aside, the Cowboys have not yielded 100 rushing yards since a week nine loss to the Titans. This game became the turning point of a season that went from 3-5 to division winners in Dallas.
At times through a five game win streak earlier in the season, the Cowboys looked just like the magical 2016 team that rattled off 13 wins on the way to the top seed in the NFC. Among the accomplishments of that season, despite a first round playoff exit, was a prime time Thursday win in Minnesota.
Holding off a late Vikings two point attempt to win 17-15, the Cowboys gained big game composure with a rookie Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott winning on the road. Practically seasoned veterans with new starters all around them now, the Cowboys line up favorably against a Vikings team that will need outside help claiming the #5 seed.
A Vikings playoff-clinching win paired with a Seahawks loss to the Cardinals would make them the #5 seed and send them to Dallas while Seattle becomes the #6 seed.
As mentioned, the Cowboys must find an extra gear on offense if they have any hope of making a deep playoff run. Leaning on the best defense they've fielded in years hasn't failed them much this season though, and that's exactly how their postseason could begin with a tough game against the Vikings in the Wild Card round.
New faces like Leighton Vander Esch can be eager to face off against Cousins, while the Cowboys familiarity with him on defense is left to DeMarcus Lawrence, Jaylon Smith, Byron Jones, and at least four other starters from the last time the now-Vikings starter lost to the Cowboys.
The Vikings, Eagles, and Seahawks all play late games after the Cowboys noon kickoff at the Giants on Sunday, meaning they'll be in full recovery mode for the playoffs when their opponent is determined.
Dallas Cowboys 2019 Draft Needs: Impact of Free Agency Moves & Rumors
With most of the marquee NFL free agents already off the market, many are already turning their eyes to the 2019 Draft. Whether a glaring need went unaddressed or the needs have simply changed, the draft offers the next big opportunity for teams like the Dallas Cowboys to stock talent for next season.
While they've been conservative so far this offseason, Dallas has been active in the last few days in covering bases and giving itself more flexibility for the draft. They don't want to have to reach on a talent because of a need, nor do they want to tip their hand too much to the rest of the league.
As of now there are still some significant acquisitions that could happen. Dallas has visited with veteran Safety Eric Berry and Defensive Lineman Malik McDowell, plus are reportedly in trade talks with Miami for Defend End Robert Quinn. Any of these moves could have a big impact on their need levels for the draft.
We've already seen some changes thanks to offseason activity. With Tuesday's signing of Randall Cobb, plus moves to retain Tavon Austin and Allen Hurns, Dallas may not be looking at a receiver as early as we might've thought. The same can be said for Jason Witten's return and the tight end position.
If the draft were today, without accounting for any of the players that the Cowboys have had talks with but remain unsigned, here's how I would rank the team's 2019 draft needs:
- Defensive End
- Defensive Tackle
- Tight End
- Running Back
- Wide Receiver
- Offensive Tackle
- Quarterback (Mike White is their drafted backup project for at least another year.)
- Punter (Could add someone to compete with Chris Jones and save some cap dollars.)
- Fullback (They re-signed Jamize Olawale, who they barely use anyway. Zero need here.)
I put safety on top because it's the spot that could most use an immediate upgrade and has some pressing future need. Dallas didn't make the big move for Earl Thomas that many hoped for and Jeff Heath's contract expires after this season. Hopefully, a second-round talent could compete for a starting job now and at least replace Heath in 2020.
Even with the Kerry Hyder signing defensive end has some major red flags. DeMarcus Lawrence has sworn he would holdout without a long-term deal. Randy Gregory is suspended again, and now Tyrone Crawford is now facing potential league action from an incident with police last week. Unless the Cowboys think Taco Charlton is going to make a big push in his third year, they could be hurting for a pass rush in 2019.
I expect things with Lawrence will get resolved, and I doubt Crawford will get suspended for more than a game or two if at all. But Dallas could still use another solid DE if they don't get this deal for Robert Quinn done.
Remember, the 2019 Cowboys aren't working with a first-round pick. Barring a trade, they'll be waiting until the 58th pick to make their first selection. That limits the impact potential of their picks and makes what they do with the Day 2 picks all the more critical.
So what if the Cowboys pull off these three potential moves, adding Berry, McDowell, and Quinn? Each player would help to address the top three needs on my list.
Eric Berry hopefully solves the immediate upgrade need at safety, though it may not do much for the future. He turns 31 this year and was released by Kansas City because of multiple injury issues. Dallas could still consider taking a rookie prospect, perhaps even releasing Jeff Heath for cap savings if needed.
Malik McDowell was considered a first-round talent in 2017 but has never played after a major ATV accident prior to his first training camp with Seattle. If he's finally recovered enough to return to football and play at his original potential, he could give Dallas a talent infusion that none of their draft capital could provide.
Robert Quinn has been around a while but will be just 29 in May, and is still putting up sacks at a solid rate. He's averaged 7.5 sacks the last two years with two different teams. He would go a long way to stabilizing things at defensive end and allowing Dallas look at guys like Gregory and Hyder as icing on the cake.
If Dallas lands all three players then I would adjust the list as follows:
- Tight End
- Defensive Tackle
- Running Back
- Defensive End
- Wide Receiver
If you think about it, the safety and tight end positions would be kind of similar in this scenario. You'd have Eric Berry and Jason Witten as the veteran stopgaps, Xavier Woods and Blake Jarwin as intriguing young guys with starting potential, and Kavon Frazier and Dalton Schultz as other young depth.
However, at every step, safety would be deeper and have more upside. Berry should have more to often than Witten, Woods is more proven than Jarwin, and Frazier is more experienced than Schultz.
Plus, we didn't even mention that you'd have Jeff Heath for experience and versatility at safety. Meanwhile, TE Rico Gathers probably won't be on next year's team.
So yes, I'd vault tight end to the top of the need list. Dallas may like Blake Jarwin but they could find a far more polished and talented player with the 58th pick.
Even with McDowell and Christian Covington added to the mix, Dallas would still be wise to address the defensive tackle position. They have several contract issues coming up at once in 2020.
Covington and Maliek Collins will be unrestricted free agents next year. The Cowboys will also likely want to finally shed Tyrone Crawford's contract, with $8 million in cap relief possible. That would leave them pretty bare at defensive tackle.
Dallas could make a move now to solidify their rotation and prepare for the future. They'd have a little more stability at defensive end with assumed multi-year deals for Lawrence and Quinn, making tackle the more immediate concern.
The backup running back spot can't be ignored, with only Darius Jackson and Jordan Chunn currently signed behind Ezekiel Elliott. If Dallas doesn't bring back Rod Smith between now and the draft, they may want to spend a high pick for Zeke's relief man and an additional offensive weapon.
Elliott's own contract will be up for discussion as soon. Having a talented player with a four-year rookie deal behind him could give the Cowboys much-needed leverage in any future talks with their franchise back.
~ ~ ~
We'll see if Dallas lands any of the players we've hypothesized about. Any of them would help lessen the need at their positions, but those would still remain important areas for the Cowboys to look at in the upcoming draft.
Ezekiel Elliott vs Byron Jones Part II: The Case For Paying Zeke
It's a debate that has raged on social media for some time now and it likely won't slow down as the offseason progresses and the Dallas Cowboys begin to hand out massive contracts to their top players. Pay Ezekiel Elliott? Pay Byron Jones? If you could only pay one, which would you pay?
This week fellow Inside The Star Staff Writer, Kevin Brady took to Twitter to poll the populous and his results were a bit surprising to me.
if you can only pay one it should be
The results inspired me to see what would happen if I put the same poll on my timeline.
Inspired by my teammate @KevinBrady88, if you can only pay one, which would it be?
On Monday, Kevin wrote a piece looking at one of the difficult decisions facing the Dallas Cowboys this offseason or next. If the Cowboys could only extend Byron Jones OR Ezekiel Elliott, who should they choose? Kevin, as am I, is a firm believer in Byron Jones ability and says the Cowboys should extend them, and I agree. But let's look at the other side of the argument.
To begin, the Cowboys should and probably will get both guys contract extensions either this offseason or next. It's not impossible with the cap continuing to increase at a rate of about $8-12 million per year that the Cowboys will have the space to get the deals done that they need to get done. Ezekiel Elliott and Byron Jones included.
Byron Jones settled in nicely at cornerback during his first full season at cornerback and knowing what we know about Jones, he won't be satisfied with a second team All-Pro appearance. Expect him to get better. However, if there's a single player that represents the current identity of the Dallas Cowboys, it's Running Back Ezekiel Elliott.
The Cowboys made him the fourth overall pick in 2016 and haven't looked back in their plan to establish the running game. For his career Elliott has averaged 26.9 touches per game over the course of his 40 games.
Here's a look at what Elliott's per game and per 16 game paces look like through the first three seasons of his career.
As you can see from the table above, Ezekiel Elliott is averaging 131.2 total yards per game for his career. In his rookie season he had 1,994 total yards and he sat out the week 17 game against the Philadelphia Eagles when the Cowboys had the NFC and home field advantage locked up. In 2017, Elliott sat out six games and still had nearly 1,000 yards rushing. In 2018, Elliott broke through the 2,000 total yard barrier after seeing a huge increase in his targets and receptions.
Ezekiel Elliott has been everything the Dallas Cowboys could have hoped for and more. With the leadership role he's taken with the team, he's a player that leads both vocally and by example. There are few players on the Dallas Cowboys that give as much effort as he does each snap. How many times has it looked like Elliott was about to get dropped for a two or three yard loss only to grind through tackles to pick up a four yard gain? How many times has he bounced off tacklers to get to the first down marker? Ezekiel Elliott is the human personification of dirty yards, but don't let that fool you into thinking that Elliott can't take it to the house every time he touches the ball. Elliott's is a game breaker who threatens the defense every time he steps on the field.
In 2018, Elliott led the NFL in yards after contact, per Pro Football Focus. His 949 yards after contact in 2018 would have ranked 13th in the NFL in rushing, which was better than David Johnson's 940 yards rushing last season.
Not many running backs effect a football game like Ezekiel Elliott does.
Few players outside of the quarterback position are as much of a focal point for their offense while being an attention grabber for opposing defenses like Ezekiel Elliott is. In 2018, he saw eight or more men in the box on nearly 25% of his carries in 2018. Some of that is related to the Dallas Cowboys insistence on using two tight ends on 50% of their running plays (per Sharp Football), but the other aspect is related to how much they respect the Dallas Cowboys running game. Since the 2014, the Cowboys have been synonymous with running the football. DeMarco Murray, Darren McFadden, and now Ezekiel Elliott have been the faces of that running game behind the Cowboys elite offensive line.
Even in a down year for offensive line play from the Dallas Cowboys, Elliott still managed to lead the NFL in rushing for the second time in three seasons. Elliott made the Pro Bowl for the second time in three years as well. Were it not for the railroad job done by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in 2017, there's a really good chance that Elliott leads the league in rushing three years in a row and that the Dallas Cowboys make the playoffs all three seasons.
Sure, the running back position is undervalued in the NFL and rushing yardage can be replaced, but there are intangibles to Elliott's game that are very difficult to replace. His ability to grind out the dirty yards, break big plays, create yards after contact, pass protect, be a threat as a receiver, and his leadership make him a player that is difficult to replace.
Yes, Byron Jones was really good in 2018 and deserves to get paid by the Dallas Cowboys as well, but you'd be hard pressed to find a player on the Cowboys roster who has been as consistent and dominating week in and week out as Ezekiel Elliott has been over the last three years.
BREAKING: Cowboys Sign Ex-Packers WR Randall Cobb
According to multiple sources, the Dallas Cowboys have signed former Green Bay Packers Wide Receiver Randall Cobb to a one-year deal to help bolster their depth at the WR position and potentially become Cole Beasley's replacement.
Cowboys are giving former Packers' WR Randall Cobb a one-year, $5 million deal, per source. https://t.co/8KWFPjSP8T
The Dallas Cowboys met with Randall Cobb earlier this week, but he eventually left Dallas without a contract. He must've had a change of heart or just needed time to ponder the Cowboys offer, but regardless of what transpired in that short time he is now part of America's Team.
During his time with the Packers, Cobb accumulated 470 receptions for 5,524 receiving yards and 41 touchdowns. The eight-year veteran will now be expected to replace some of Cole Beasley's production out of the slot for the Dallas Cowboys.
After years of watching Beasley as the Cowboys slot WR, it will be really interesting to see Randall Cobb in that role. He's not as quick twitched as No. 11, but can be just as dangerous due to his ability to be more of a down the field receiver. He also brings added value in the return game and could compete with Tavon Austin to become the return specialist.
This could mean the Cowboys forgo drafting a wide receiver early in the 2019 NFL Draft, but I wouldn't put it past them. Regardless of what happens, this is an excellent addition.
Welcome to Cowboys Nation Randall Cobb!
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