The Dallas Cowboys rookie class from 2016 is one that will be difficult to top for a long time. Naturally, after having so much rookies have an impact a season ago, Cowboys Nation was truly excited to see what the 2017 class could bring to the table this year.
Some rookies have been pretty good, some not as much, but the Cowboys do have a young team that is very promising on both sides of the ball.
There are promising players in just about every position of the team. Now, there're a lot of things to work on, but the talent is there. This is a team in development rather than a team in "reconstruction mode." Yes, including the defense.
Last year, it was all about Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott. Of course, Maliek Collins and Anthony Brown had pretty good seasons themselves, but the hype around Zeke and Dak took everyone's attention.
But what about this year? Eight weeks into the season and seven Cowboys games later, how has this rookie class fared so far? Who's been the best and the worst so far?
Let's go ahead and rank every Cowboys rookie who has played significant football this year. (No Cooper Rush on the list, sorry Cowboys Nation.)
#6 DE Taco Charlton
From the moment he was drafted back in April, we all had doubts about Taco Charlton. To some, he was a player with second-round talent at best. A lot of fans would've preferred someone like T.J. Watt or even a cornerback over him.
But the front office went for Taco Charlton and eight weeks into the season, the Michigan product has been disappointing.
Can he develop and become a legit pass rusher down the road? Maybe, but while we didn't expect him to be a player with double-digit sacks, we certainly didn't expect him to have no sacks after seven games and only four tackles.
Charlton's impact on this defense has been close to none. I would've thought that at this point of the season, we would already be seeing some positive flashes by the rookie DE, but he still has a very, very, very long way to go.
He's ranked as the worst Cowboy rookie of the season because of his play, and because he is a first round draft pick who hasn't even helped this defense in a small way.
#5 WR Ryan Switzer
It pains me to put Ryan Switzer in this spot. I hate to do so. When he was drafted by the Cowboys a lot of us were excited. He was considered a steal.
The thing about Switzer, is that we all knew he was going to come to Dallas to replace Lucky Whitehead as a returner on special teams. But we also expected to see him involved on the offense someway, and that hasn't happened.
It feels like every time Switzer is on the field, he fakes or runs a jet sweep. He is always used in gadget plays. The rookie wide receiver from North Carolina could be contributing to this offense way more than he is now.
Weren't we all excited about this offense exploring the use of 10 personnel and seeing Beasley and Switzer on the field simultaneously?
Finally, he hasn't been impressive returning kicks either, and has made a lot of questionable decisions when fielding punts and kicks. Switzer has a lot to improve on, and I'm sure he will. I know most of Cowboys Nation is rooting for him.
#4 WR Noah Brown
If you'd told me that I would be ranking Noah Brown ahead of Ryan Switzer through eight weeks, I wouldn't have believed you. But here I am.
Another rookie wide receiver who was expected to be a steal after being taken in the seventh round of the 2017 NFL Draft has had some impressive plays as a Dallas Cowboy.
As any seventh rounder, he wasn't expected to come in here and have a big role on offense with a WR-loaded depth chart. But he's been there a few times, and he's stood in a couple of plays.
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Noah Brown's biggest strength is his blocking game. In the above play, we can see a hell of a block by the rookie, creating a lane for Ezekiel Elliott on what resulted on a 72-yard touchdown. He's shown us excellent blocking on a few other plays as well, and he could very well see an increased role on this offense in the future.
Brown has also made a couple of plays on special teams, which is another reason why I put him above Ryan Switzer on this list. Props to the seventh-rounder!
#3 CB Chidobe Awuzie
The Cowboys' second round pick was expected to have an instant impact on this Cowboys' secondary, but injuries have gotten in the way for Chidobe Awuzie.
Awuzie has looked pretty good and pretty promising when he's played. Unfortunately, he hasn't been there a lot for Dallas. He's played in only three games this season. Here are his defensive snap counts in each of those games, per Pro Football Reference:
- vs NY Giants: 39
- @ DEN Broncos: 5
- vs GB Packers: 9
He's only played one full game.
However, I think Awuzie has looked good in the small amount of playing time he's had, and he will be a very important piece for this secondary as soon as he gets back. He will see snaps at CB and probably will get the chance to see some playing time as a safety.
#2 S Xavier Woods
Speaking of safeties, Xavier Woods confirmed what we all thought when he was drafted in the sixth round earlier this year. He was a steal!
Woods has impacted this defense most of the time he's on the field, and he should be taking over the starting job soon. Xavier Woods provides this defense with a play-making ability that this unit could use.
He's made some stops on key moments and he's flashed a lot of potential.
Cowboys in Cover 1: Xavier Woods shows off impressive range. Beautiful play from the rook. Hard to beat DAL deep with XW playing single-high https://t.co/ucQuIvyhHO
Woods is better than Jeff Heath. And I would love to see what Byron Jones and him can do when on the field at the same time.
It's fair to say that Heath has been disappointing through eight weeks, and I would think that giving the rookie the nod would be a nice change for this defense. Even if the Cowboys think Heath is better, I don't think there's enough difference between the two to ignore the upside that Woods brings to the table.
#1 CB Jourdan Lewis
Finally, the best Cowboy rookie so far... third round draft pick Jourdan Lewis.
The fact that the Cowboys were able to draft him on the third round is amazing. If Lewis hadn't been dealing with a domestic violence trial, the Michigan cornerback would've been drafted in the second, if not the first round.
Jourdan Lewis has been outstanding in just about every aspect of the game. He's been good in coverage and close to perfect in open-field tackling. As every rookie, he has a lot to work on, but none of the other Cowboys' rookies have had nearly the same impact than Jourdan after seven games.
Heading into week 9, Lewis is becoming this team's #1 cornerback. Dallas Cowboys Rookie of the Year.
Dallas Cowboys’ Starters Don’t Need to Play in Preseason “Dress Rehearsal”
The third game of the preseason has long been considered the "dress rehearsal" game for NFL teams. It's the game where teams generally played their starters for at least a half and sometimes into the second half so that coaches and players could practice communicating adjustments during half time. With the conversation about the future of the preseason focused on reducing the number of exhibition games teams play, it's time for the Dallas Cowboys to follow several other teams and sit their starters and principle role players for the third preseason game.
The Los Angeles Rams, among other teams, have made a conscious decision not to play their starters in the third preseason game for several years under Head Coach Sean McVay. And if you look back at how they've handled the preseason this offseason, Jared Goff and Todd Gurley, haven't played a single snap. They also haven't played Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods, or Cooper Kupp. The Rams have been one of the best offensive teams in the NFL but haven't played their primary skill position players in the preseason in two years.
The Dallas Cowboys and every other team in the NFL can take a lesson. But based on a report from Todd Archer of ESPN, the Dallas Cowboys have different plans. Even planning to play the oft-injured Sean Lee this weekend.
Linebacker Sean Lee has practiced the last three days, and anticipates he will play Saturday at least some against the Houston Texans. Lee suffered a slightly sprained medial collateral ligament in the first padded practice while in Oxnard, California,... https://t.co/zZ4KNvWdua
There's very little reason at this point to play your starters and risk injuries that could derail what the Dallas Cowboys hope is a Super Bowl run. Jason Garrett's an old school coach from an older way of thinking that believes it's important to get those reps against live competition. To an extent, it is important to work on things against a team that doesn't know you as well as your own players. On the other hand, does the benefit outweigh the risk?
Last night, with the Carolina Panthers facing the New England Patriots in their third preseason game, Cam Newton took several big hits that led to him having to leave the game with a foot or ankle injury. Now, for Carolina's sake, they better hope it's a minor thing that will heal with some rest, because if Cam Newton has to miss an extended period of time, they can go ahead and write off the 2019 season, especially in the NFC South.
With as effective as the first-team offense has looked in the first two preseason games, does it make sense to risk Dak Prescott or one of the other starters on offense to injury in order to get them more live competition?
The offensive line is already ailing a bit with Tyron Smith missing last week's matchup with the Los Angeles Rams due to yet another back issue. Zack Martin sat out the game in Hawaii as well with a bulging disc in his back that has held him out of practice as well. It's unlikely that either of these guys will play Saturday night along with any of the other players dealing with injuries right now. However, what's the point of playing the guys who aren't injured.
Sure, this game could give Dak Prescott and Michael Gallup some more reps to work on their chemistry or snaps for Travis Frederick and Jason Witten to get in game shape after a year layoff. However, there's so much more to be lost than gained if one of the starters or primary role-players is injured in this game. Prescott and Gallup have looked great in practice. Frederick and Witten will work into game shape.
You can't play football worried about players getting hurt, but you can save your risk-taking for a time when the games actually matter to your win-loss ledger. Let the back half of your 90 man roster get all the snaps they can get in this game and the next. Perhaps those extra snaps help the coaching staff separate those players on the bubble for the 53-man roster.
Though we will watch the game Saturday night to see what those Dallas Cowboys who do play are able to accomplish against the Houston Texans, we will be watching with bated breath. Hoping that the Dallas Cowboys don't suffer an injury that could derail their chances of contending for a Super Bowl.
Cowboys en Español: Extensión de Jaylon, Pronóstico Para Elliott
Los Dallas Cowboys han sido uno de los equipos más importantes a seguir este offseason. ¿El motivo? Tres super estrellas en espera de extensiones de contrato. Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott y Amari Cooper han sido el enfoque para medios y aficionados cuando se trata del equipo de Jerry Jones. Sin embargo, ninguno de ellos fue el primero en llegar un acuerdo con el equipo. El linebacker Jaylon Smith consiguió llevarse la primera rebanada del pastel.
Jaylon Smith se ha perfilado como uno de los mejores linebackers en toda la NFL después de una excelente temporada en 2018. Al recordar su historia, es increíble ver hasta donde ha llegado. Fue en 2016 cuando, jugando su último partido de football universitario con Notre Dame, el linebacker sufrió una lesión de rodilla lo suficientemente seria para poner en duda si volvería a jugar en su vida. Quien hubiera sido probablemente una de las primeras cinco selecciones en su respectivo NFL Draft, terminó cayendo hasta la segunda ronda, donde los Cowboys terminaron su desliz y lo llamaron a Dallas sabiendo que podría tardar hasta más de un año en regresar al campo.
Después de perderse la campaña del 2016, en 2017 fue apresurado al emparrillado y a pesar de verse prometedor, no brilló tanto como lo hizo el año pasado. Estando completamente sano, Smith se lució como el linebacker central de la defensiva de los Cowboys que sorprendió a toda la liga. Realmente vimos a la fuerza que todos esperaban ver de su parte cuando era un prospecto de Notre Dame.
Ahora, firma una extensión de contrato que realmente es amigable con el equipo. Después de un offseason en el que Bobby Wagner (Seahawks) recibió 18 millones de dólares en promedio al año y C.J. Mosley 17, el valor de Smith pudo haber estado alrededor de los 15. Sin embargo, el promedio de la extensión de 5 años de Jaylon es de 12.8.
Jaylon Smith al parecer le dio un descuento al equipo que creyó en el cuando su carrera era un signo de interrogación. Los Cowboys aseguran un gran talento para el futuro, y otro defensivo en torno a quien pueden construir una defensiva para el largo plazo. Tanto la directiva como el jugador se merecen un fuerte aplauso por esta noticia.
Mientras tanto, rumores sobre la situación de Ezekiel Elliott continúan. La historia, por el momento, sigue siendo la misma. Zeke no se ha reportado con el equipo y está de vuelta en Cabo después de haber viajado (e ilusionado a muchos fans en el proceso) a Dallas hace unos días.
Muchos se han dado a la tarea de entrar en pánico, pero yo los invito a que tomen un fuerte respiro. Sí, la temporada regular está muy cerca. Sin duda, Elliott estará en forma pero el no haber trabajado con el equipo en training camp podría resultar en el corredor super estrella tardando un poco en adaptarse.
Habiendo dicho eso, me sorprendería mucho si Zeke se pierde un segundo de temporada regular. Jeff Darlington, reportero de ESPN, comentó al aire que su predicción era que Elliott se reportará para la semana 1 y no podría estar más de acuerdo con él.
Se ha sabido que ambas partes siguen trabajando para acordar una extensión y que los Cowboys lo quieren para el futuro, incluso ofreciendo un contrato que lo convertiría en el segundo mejor pagado en su posición de la NFL.
Este equipo de los Dallas Cowboys realmente es un contendiente al Super Bowl y tanto la directiva como Elliott lo saben. Pueden estar pensando en Le'Veon Bell, pero no olviden lo diferente que estas situaciones son. Mi pronóstico coincide con el de Darlington y el de muchos otros: Zeke no se perderá ni un segundo de temporada regular.
How The Cowboys Can “Modernize” Their Offense
If there's one thing the national football world seemed to agree on last season, it's that Scott Linehan's offense had grown "stale."
After starting the Dak Prescott/Scott Linehan era off fast, with one of the league's best offenses in 2016 leading them to a 13-3 record, Dallas quickly fell down those offensive leaderboards. As pieces on the offensive line were forced to shuffle due to free agency, injury, or illness and Ezekiel Elliott faced suspension, the Cowboys offense sputtered during '17 and '18.
Though the Amari Cooper trade gave the unit a quick boost of energy en route to a division title a year ago, the Cowboys offense still seemed behind the curve when compared to the rest of the league.
Jerry Jones decided to fire offensive coordinator Scott Linehan this offseason, moving on from that "stale" offensive system. The man hired to replace Linehan? First year OC, and former backup quarterback in Dallas, Kellen Moore.
Much has been made about the hiring of Kellen Moore. Some believe he will be the one to bring much needed modern elements to the Cowboys offense, helping them compete with the loads of firepower around the NFC. Others see this as more of the same, as Jason Garrett is still the one ultimately in charge at The Star.
I decided to take a closer look at the Cowboys offensive efficiency numbers over the last three seasons to pinpoint exactly where they can improve. I also watched a bit of Kellen Moore from his quarterback days at Boise State, to see what aspects of that elite college offense he may look to incorporate with his new professional offense. The results were far from surprising, though they were certainly enlightening as we head into this 2019 campaign.
Play Action Passing
If you're on NFL Twitter as much as I am, you're probably sick of reading about play action passing. Analysts have been using the term as a sort of quick-fix for a struggling passing offense, pointing to the efficiency numbers of teams that do it well, such as the Los Angeles Rams.
The bottom line is, you need to have an efficient passing game to win in the NFL. And it's hard to be more efficient through the air than the Cowboys have been in their play action passing game.
Let's start back. In 2016, Dak Prescott dazzled all year long to earn himself Rookie of the Year honors. His best full season to date, Prescott immediately put himself into the conversation with top two picks Jared Goff and Carson Wentz for who will be the best young quarterback in that 2016 class. But, then, in 2017 things went a bit sour for Prescott, and stayed that way until Amari Cooper joined the Cowboys midway through the 2018 season.
While injuries, suspensions, and regression can all explain what has happened to the Cowboys passing offense since that miraculous rookie year, play action passing rate might do a better job than any of them. In 2016 the Cowboys finished with a 24% play action rate, placing them 3rd in the NFL in terms of usage. They averaged 9 yards per play on play action passes, with a DVOA of 45.8%. They were really good at it, and compared to the rest of the league, they did it a lot.
As play action rates around the league rose, however, the Cowboys stayed the same. They went from efficient and "smart" in 2016, their best offensive year with Dak Prescott, to outdated and stale. And they did so quickly.
In 2017 Dallas used play action just 22% of the time. While not a big dropoff from a season ago, they fell in the league rankings from 3rd to 19th. And while they remained a positive passing team in terms of DVOA overall, their passing efficiently rose 19.8% when using play action as compared to standard drop-back passing.
Then, in 2018, the Cowboys were once again in the middle of the pack in terms of play action rate at 25%. Despite their relatively low usage to the elite teams around the league, the Cowboys were 10th in play action passing DVOA. When they didn't use play action and decided to use the traditional drop-back passing, they were 27th in DVOA. In terms of DVOA differential, Dallas had the 5th biggest drop-off in the league, and were +37.7% when using play action.
In other words, the Cowboys were really good passing the ball after the play fake. Yet, for whatever reason, they didn't utilize it nearly enough last season.
If they are going to become "modern" or "cutting edge," they should be joining teams like the Rams, Eagles, and Patriots at the top of the play action rate leaderboards. Especially when the data suggests there are no diminishing returns with increased play action usage.
So, this would suggest the Cowboys have to pay Ezekiel Elliott, right?
Well, not exactly.
As discussed by Ben Baldwin in this Football Outsiders article, no relationship between rushing frequency or success and play action passing success has been found. Running the football does not set up more successful play action passes, despite what traditional football knowledge would suggest.
You can run and succeed at play action pass plays without running the football well, or much at all.
Ah, another favorite term of NFL nerd Twitter, pre-snap motion. As a former college offensive lineman (yeah, division three, whatever) the infatuation with pre-snap motion at the NFL level is sort of funny to me.
At the high school and college levels, pre-snap motion is used all the time. I can't even count how many pre-snap flops or shifts, jet motions, sprint motions, fly motions/sweeps, etc. get used on a daily basis at practice. So how come the NFL is so far behind these lower levels of football?
Well, to be honest, they tend to be behind more often than not. But that's besides the point.
In 2018 the Cowboys used pre-snap motion 31% of the time, ranking 24th in the NFL according to Sports Info Solutions. New quarterbacks coach Jon Kitna, however, spoke to The Ringer about changing that in 2019.
“We want to spread it out and make the defense have to cover the full field,” Kitna says. “We’re going to try to use formations and shifts and movements to our advantage. I think a lot of people have that idea coming in, but we’re going to emphasize that.” - Jon Kitna
Incorporating more motions would be huge for the Cowboys offense. These motions can create that space Kitna is speaking to, especially considering how often opposing defenses will use man coverage against the Cowboys.
Everything you do as an offense should be done to put the defense in a bind. Make the defense choose between two bad options on every snap. Not only do motions indicate opposing coverages pre-snap, but when combined with stack and bunch formations and a variety of splits they also often force defenses to choose between two bad options.
Putting It Together
What would an offense like this look like? Let's take a look at Kellen Moore's college days for a couple examples.
Check out this video on Streamable using your phone, tablet or desktop.
On this play above, the Broncos bring their tight end in motion across the formation. Kellen Moore snaps the ball as the tight end reaches the outside shoulder of the tackle. Then, they use both the play action fake and the motioned tight end to draw the defenders' eyes into the backfield/flats.
The hesitation from the linebackers and safeties gives Kellen the chance to take a deep shot down the field for a huge completion and a touchdown.
Check out this video on Streamable using your phone, tablet or desktop.
Here's another example of Kellen Moore executing a touchdown pass off play action. This time, it's a wide receiver who goes in motion across the formation until he gets outside the far hash. The defense is forced to indicate their coverage because of the motion, so Kellen Moore knows exactly what look they are giving pre-snap.
The play action fake draws the linebackers up further towards the line of scrimmage, and Moore drops it over there heads to the previously motioned receiver for a touchdown.
Honestly, the plays themselves shouldn't be all that different. It's about dressing the packaging up in unique ways while still running the same base type plays they've always run. Every team runs inside and outside zone. Some do it better than others, though, and a lot of that has to do with the packaging.
The Cowboys can still, if they must, "establish the run." They can just do so in ways that keep the defense guessing, rather than pounding their heads against the wall against unfavorable box counts.
It's not about trick plays or gadgets, it's about creativity and variety.
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