The Dallas Cowboys come out of their bye week with a lot of "good problems to have." For example:
- Deciding between Dak Prescott and Tony Romo.
- Finding a role or trade partner for Darren McFadden.
- Not wanting to take CB Anthony Brown off the field.
At 5-1 and with arguably the most momentum of any team in the NFC, the Cowboys don't have much to complain about. However, there is one large problem that could stand in the way of championship aspirations. Unfortunately, it's also a very familiar one.
The Cowboys defense is still one of the worst at rushing the passer. As our last trip to the playoffs proved, this can be a fatal flaw.
Many point to the bad call on Dez Bryant's near-touchdown catch as what cost Dallas their 2014 playoff game in Green Bay. However, the defense's inability to get to Aaron Rodgers was the far larger culprit. Rodgers had clean pockets to work from and carved up the Dallas secondary throughout the game, despite playing with a lower leg injury.
Two weeks ago, the Cowboys again faced Aaron Rodgers at Lambeau Field. The same lack of pressure was there, but they got away with it as Rodgers was having a bad day in an atypically rough season.
It is unlikely that the Cowboys can survive three or four playoff games without pressuring quarterbacks. If they meet Rodgers again, or the likes of Russell Wilson and Matt Ryan, those quarterbacks can make plays and counter Dallas' ball-control offense with quick answers and matching touchdowns.
Is 10 games enough time for Dallas to find a solution before the playoffs?
You have to go back to 2011, with Rob Ryan and the 3-4 defense, for a time that Dallas wasn't in the bottom half of the NFL in sacks. DeMarcus Ware had 19.5 that year and was helped by Anthony Spencer and Jason Hatcher.
Since then, the Cowboys have ranked 20th or worse in sacks every season. The transition from the 3-4 defense to the 4-3 has had mixed reviews, but the glaring negative has been less ability to attack quarterbacks.
Right now the Cowboys have just 11 sacks, a little less than two per game. They are allowing opposing quarterbacks to have an average passer rating of 95.0, another bottom-half number in the NFL. It's especially bad when you consider that Aaron Rodgers is the above-average QB that they've faced so far this season.
These problems are especially frustrating given the many failures in personnel moves. You can't say Dallas hasn't invested in the pass rush. The problem is that they've been risky investments.
The signing of Greg Hardy was the Cowboys' single biggest, and most risky, attempt find improve. Hardy debuted with a bang but quickly went silent, and his personal problems and poor character did far more to hurt the organization than help. He was gone after one year.
Dallas spent their 2014 and 2015 second-round picks on defensive ends DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory. Lawrence just recently returned from a PED suspension and Gregory is out until Week 15 for repeated drug violations. Neither is a lost cause, but so far the returns have not been good.
Dallas has even been pass-rush focused with their defensive tackles. They gave Tyrone Crawford a long-term deal on the faith that he would blossom as a disruptive DT under Rod Marinelli. Crawford has yet to be a consistent force and now has one of the worst contracts on the team.
Thought not on the same scale of investment, the Cowboys recently gave Benson Mayowa a solid contract paying roughly $3 million per year despite his limited opportunities with the Oakland Raiders. They thought he could emerge with a larger role, but Mayowa has yet to do so.
The Cowboys' best hope is that DeMarcus Lawrence will come out of the bye week ready to live up to the hype. Lawrence had seven sacks over the final eight games of 2015, but that was with Greg Hardy drawing attention. Lawrence has to emerge as the catalyst now for his teammates.
Dallas' Week 5 win over the Cincinnati Bengals gives some hope for this. Despite not having a sack himself, Lawrence's presence seemed to open things up and allowed the Cowboys to get four sacks on Andy Dalton.
Another possibility for help is a trade. The deadline is next Tuesday and the Cowboys have a piece in Darren McFadden that some RB-needy teams could be interested in. They also could look at moving tight end Gavin Escobar, another former second-round pick, if there's a team that still remembers him fondly from the 2013 draft.
Even if teams don't want these players, future draft picks could also be moved. The Cowboys could look to bring in a quality, veteran pass rusher from a struggling team for a 2017 pick. With championship potential now very much in the conversation, the Cowboys wouldn't be foolish for pulling from these future assets.
The worst thing the team could do is get complacent about their pass rushing issues because of current success. The 2014 Dallas Cowboys were 12-4 and went into the playoffs with plenty of hope and confidence, only to get tossed out two weeks later.
The 2016 Cowboys are on a similar trajectory; pushing for the postseason while overcoming a critical flaw. But even if it doesn't come until facing Tom Brady or Ben Roethlisberger in the Super Bowl, the lack of pass rush could easily prove fatal once again.
"Dak Prescott or Tony Romo" may be the team's biggest question right now, but either answer is a positive. Still, even if Romo comes back and plays at his MVP-level best, or if Prescott continues to grow and put together one of the great rookie seasons of all time, it could all be for nothing.
There's no question about it; Dallas has a big problem on defense. If they don't fix it, arguing about which QB could take us to the Super Bowl may be a moot point.
Cowboys Have Had Quiet, Yet Successful, Free Agency
Yet another free agency without a big splash by the Dallas Cowboys. What a surprise. Despite entertaining Earl Thomas rumors for a long, long time, the Cowboys' front office has stuck with its philosophy of not overpaying free agents and building the team mainly through the NFL Draft. However, they've actually had some pretty good signings over the last few days that will really benefit the Cowboys when the season comes around.
They've done so with inexpensive free agents who will contribute at a high level on their respective positions. Sure, top free agent signings are fun. But many times, they end up backfiring to teams for spending so much money in one single player. At the end of the day, the Cowboys' way has gotten the team three NFC East Championships since 2014. Many factors come into play, but their team building philosophy can't be as bad as many claim it to be.
The most recent acquisition came in form of former Cincinnati Bengal and Minnesota Viking Safety George Iloka. The Cowboys had a desperate need at the defensive backfield and finally they've done something about it. On a heavy safety market, the Cowboys sat tight while watching the top free agents get top contracts around the league, including Landon Collins' record breaking deal with the Washington Redskins.
Now, they've gotten a guy who can play both safety positions. I'll be surprised if he doesn't take Jeff Heath's job. He's played as a free safety most of his career but being a good tackler, he should do a good job in the box. Iloka will also shine on special teams in Dallas.
So far, my favorite signing may be that of former Green Bay Packer, Randall Cobb. The Cowboys had an important need at the wide receiver position despite counting with Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup leading the room. Cole Beasley is a tough guy to replace and although Cobb may not be a better slot receiver than him, he certainly has the experience and the skill set to be a starting slot WR. What's more, he'll only cost the Cowboys five million while Beasley got a four year deal with which he'll earn $17M over the first two years.
Cole Beasley will be missed, but the good thing is the front office did a pretty good job at filling the concerning hole on offense. Cooper, Gallup and Cobb are definitely not a bad starting trio to have.
Other under the radar moves will also help the Cowboys. Kerry Hyder may not be a well-known in the NFL but he'll surely contribute to this defensive line as a rotational player. Hyder had eight sacks in 2016 with the Detroit Lions before suffering an Achilles injury in 2017 and dealing with a scheme change last season. Hyder will surely be happy about being back to a 4-3 defense in Dallas.
Christian Covington was another overlooked signing. Covington will help on the interior of the defensive line and although he'll likely not be a starter, he'll be an important piece in the rotation for a very reasonable contract ( also a one-year deal).
For a football team that's constantly criticized for not being active in free agency, the Cowboys have done something at pretty much every position where they need help. Safety, defensive end, defensive tackle, wide receiver and tight end have all been addressed this offseason prior to the NFL Draft. This will give them great flexibility in April and could lead to a pretty good "best player available" strategy.
Now granted, there are still concerns regarding the young "to be extended" group of players. DeMarcus Lawrence hasn't reached an agreement with the Cowboys and will continue to postpone surgery until he does. If the front office doesn't strike a contract with the star pass rusher, it won't be possible to consider this offseason a good one no matter what happens. Dallas can't let him leave.
In the meantime though, they've had a pretty quiet yet successful March. And they're not done yet. Robert Quinn could end up wearing the Star if a trade with the Miami Dolphins does end up taking place. We'll see if the Cowboys continue to build on an already pretty good free agency.
BREAKING: Dallas Cowboys Sign Free Agent Safety George Iloka
The Dallas Cowboys have reached a one-year agreement with Safety George Iloka, according to ESPN's Todd Archer. Iloka spent 2018 with the Vikings after six years with the Bengals.
He's started 79 of his 99 career games since being a fifth-round pick by Cincinnati in 2012. Iloka turns 29 years old next week.
The Cowboys have agreed to a one-year deal with safety George Iloka, according to a source. Iloka met with the Cowboys on Friday and was the third safety to meet with the club during the week along with Clayton Geathers and Eric Berry. The Cowboys have... https://t.co/JB5nJLWepc
This isn't the safety that most Cowboys fans wanted. After over a year of pining for Earl Thomas, sights turned to Eric Berry after his free agent visit in Dallas last week.
However, it makes sense that Iloka would be attractive to the Cowboys. At 6'4" and 225 lbs, he fits the physical mold of what Defensive Backs Coach Kris Richard likes in his players. He also is younger than Berry and Thomas without the same recent injury issues.
Iloka becomes one of many Boise St. products on Dallas' roster, joining Tyrone Crawford, DeMarcus Lawrence, Leighton Vander Esch, and others. He entered the league with college teammates Crawford and Kellen Moore, the Cowboys' new offensive coordinator, in 2012.
We'll have to wait and see how George Iloka fits into the current mix at safety with Jeff Heath and Xavier Woods. He spent most of 2018 as a backup with Minnesota, but Dallas will likely give him a chance to start.
What to Expect from Dallas Cowboys Wide Receiver Group in 2019
In a span of a week, the Dallas Cowboys have solidified their wide receiver group with the resigning of Tavon Austin to a one year deal and the signing of former Green Bay Packers Wide Receiver Randall Cobb. Despite the loss of Cole Beasley, the Cowboys have a created a really good group of receivers for Quarterback Dak Prescott to throw to.
Cobb joins a really nice group of players that includes incumbent starters on the outside in Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup as well as solid depth players in Austin, Allen Hurns, and Noah Brown. Throw in Cedric Wilson, the Dallas Cowboys sixth round pick from the 2018 NFL Draft and the Cowboys may have one of the deeper receiving corps in the NFL.
The question is, how will the Dallas Cowboys coaching staff delineate the roles?
Let's take a look.
As I mentioned before, the Dallas Cowboys are returning their top two options on the outside in Amari Cooper, who is the X wide receiver and Michael Gallup, the Z receiver. Both players will go into week one as the starters at their respective positions in two-wide receiver formations.
Despite some of the overthrows from Dak Prescott to Michael Gallup, Gallup had a really nice rookie season and got better as the year went along, even leading the Cowboys in receiving in the playoff loss to the Los Angeles Rams. In that game, Gallup recorded the first 100 yard game of his career. Sure, it was in an attempt to comeback by the Dallas Cowboys, but it is impressive nonetheless. His touchdown catch against the Seattle Seahawks the week before was clutch. The Cowboys needed that to take the lead at the end of the first half. 2018 was only the beginning for Michael Gallup. He showed an ability to win with a full offseason to work with Dak Prescott, their chemistry and connection should only improve.
As for Cooper, his presence was felt right away as the offense just looked different once he stepped on the field. It's no coincidence that Dak Prescott's two best career games in terms of passing yardage came with Cooper in 2018. He's such a threat that he opens up space for the rest of the wide receiver group. His route running, speed, ability to run after the catch make him a threat to score any time he's targeted.
Behind Cooper and Gallup, you have options in the event that one of them gets hurt. Allen Hurns, Tavon Austin, and Noah Brown are all players who took snaps on the outside for the Dallas Cowboys in 2018 and did so with effectiveness. Hurns best game of the year came just before the Cooper deal was made as he went for five receptions for 75 yards.
Tavon provided down field speed on several occasions and provides some gadget quality that the Dallas Cowboys love to have. Noah Brown is a player that the Dallas Cowboys love to deploy as a blocker in the running game. While it looked like he might get more run in the passing game in 2019, the depth additions will limit him again to a specialty role. If needed, though, he could be an option to take snaps on the outside as his big frame allows him to box out defensive backs down the field.
There will be snaps on the outside for someone when the Cowboys go to 11 personnel, because of Amari Cooper's ability to slide into the slot.
Obviously, the writing is on the wall with who the Dallas Cowboys are planning on deploying in the slot as things stand right now, and that's Randall Cobb.
While Cobb should be penciled in as the starter in the slot, I doubt that he's going to get 100% of the snaps there in 11 or 10 personnel groupings. Amari Cooper, Allen Hurns, Tavon Austin, Noah Brown, and Cedric Wilson could all push for playing time from the slot.
Last month, I wrote a piece about Allen Hurns and his effectiveness in the slot and why the Cowboys should feature him there. With Cobb coming off an injury laden season, the Cowboys would be wise to give some snaps to Hurns along with Tavon Austin.
In Jacksonville, Hurns was incredibly effective from the slot running posts, slants, and ins and outs. His size and route running made him an effective mismatch against linebackers, safeties, and cornerbacks alike. Remember, it wasn't long ago that Hurns had a 1,000 yard season with Blake Bortles at the helm.
Tavon Austin's quickness is an asset that could be very effective in the slot as well. Though he lacks size, he's a player that opposing defenses have to account for because of his ability to make big plays once the ball's in his hands.
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The Cowboys haven't been shy about carrying seven wide receivers on their 53-man rosters and it's possible, though unlikely that they could do it again in 2018. As things stand now, I see Noah Brown and Cedric Wilson as the potential odd men out. Of course, this could all get reshuffled if the Dallas Cowboys use a top 100 pick on a wide receiver in the draft.
With Amari Cooper, Allen Hurns, Tavon Austin, and Randall Cobb only under contract through the 2019 season, the Dallas Cowboys would be wise to invest at the position despite the strength of the position in 2019.
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