The Dallas Cowboys still have four games left in the 2017 season, but this offseason may already be on the minds of those in the Cowboys front office. This offseason, the Cowboys have multiple key players hitting free agency: DeMarcus Lawrence, David Irving, Jonathan Cooper, Alfred Morris, and Anthony Hitchens.
That last guy on my list may be the most underappreciated player on the team.
When you're in the same free agent pool as DeMarcus Lawrence, who leads the NFL in sacks with 13.5, and David Irving, who has been on a tear of late (7.0 sacks in just eight games), it's understandable to fly somewhat under the radar. But allowing Anthony Hitchens to sign elsewhere would be a massive mistake for the Dallas Cowboys.
In his four years with the Cowboys, Anthony Hitchens has improved each season and this year he has finally broken out. In his first three years with the team Hitchens has 36 starts, 220 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and 1 interception.
Not only has he been great at middle linebacker, but he's also slid in and played WILL linebacker at a high level when asked to.
Hitchens' position flexibility is something this defense heavily relies on.
After suffering a foot injury in a preseason game against the Oakland Raiders, some initially thought that his season would be over. Hitchens missed just four games in the beginning of the year and came back to be one of the few bright spots on a defense that has been extremely inconsistent all season.
In eight games, Hitchens has 40 tackles, and has been a force stopping the run. The fourth-year player has had to play multiple linebacker positions due to the injuries of Sean Lee, and the inconsistent play of Jaylon Smith and Justin Durant.
Wherever Anthony Hitchens is asked to play he does his job at an extremely high level.
The runner was ruled down, but what a crazy effort by Anthony Hitchens to strip the ball upside down in the air https://t.co/xOd570ZKqO
If his level of play hasn't impressed the Cowboys' front office enough to re-sign him, the lack of talent and depth at linebacker definitely should.
At the end of the 2017 season, the Cowboys linebacker depth chart will look a little something like this:
- Sean Lee
- Jaylon Smith
- Damien Wilson
That is not ideal after seeing the struggles of both Jaylon Smith and Damien Wilson, and the injury history of Sean Lee.
This Defense Lacks Physicality Without Hitchens
Hitchens always seems to be around the football and that shows from his 15 total tackles from the Washington game last week.
While he's not quite on the same level as Sean Lee, Hitchens does a very good job of shooting the right gaps and taking good angles on ball carriers. His play against the run and the little bit of work he does in coverage, makes him one of the best defenders on the Cowboys' roster.
The Cowboys' defense by no means has been great in 2017, but it's tough to think about what the defense would look like if Anthony Hitchens isn't on the roster.
Re-signing a player that stays relatively healthy and has the position flexibility of Anthony Hitchens is a no-brainer for me. Let's hope the Dallas front office feels the same way.
Must Anthony Hitchens be re-signed this offseason? Let me know below!
David Irving Out Again for Cowboys, Does Defense Need Him?
Dallas Cowboys Defensive Tackle David Irving, once a key member of the team's defense, will not make his return after all against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday. For the second straight week, Irving was reportedly trending towards suiting up before being ruled out. The Cowboys haven't missed his unique presence for 13 weeks (playing against the Jaguars and Redskins), including through an ongoing four game win streak that began with a win against these Eagles on the road.
In that road win, veteran Tyrone Crawford recorded a sack and three tackles, while Antwaun Woods added two for a Dallas defense that held Philadelphia to 23 first downs and 71 rushing yards. The Eagles managed to cross the Cowboys' 30-yard line just four times.
There are many scenarios in which the Cowboys could have cut ties with Irving for not being worth the off-field trouble he's caused - beginning the season with a four game suspension. The absolute best case scenario is what they've realized amidst this turnaround, with other defensive linemen taking advantage of the opportunity left behind by Irving.
While it can still be true that Irving would make more splash plays than the likes of Crawford, Woods, Maliek Collins, and Caraun Reid, this defensive tackle group deserves praise for their ability to step in. Pass rush ability is one thing teams can't have enough of, and the Cowboys are missing some with Irving, finding ways to win thanks to the other traits these defenders bring to the table.
Cowboys Passing Game Coordinator Kris Richard may effectively be the team's defensive coordinator with an emphasis on the back seven, but DC Rod Marinelli's impact is still felt - particularly up front. Regardless of where they're lined up and deployed, the Cowboys front four is expected to be disruptive on every snap, something this scrappy unit excels at.
Prepared once again to play on the edge this season, Crawford is thriving at his original position of 3T-DT. Crawford has two sacks, nine total tackles, and three other hits on the quarterback over the past four weeks. Leading by example with a relentless spirit on every play, Crawford has meant just as much to the Cowboys defensive ends as Irving could.
In a short period of time, the Cowboys have gone from building up Irving thanks to his transcendent ability to make those around him better to simply -- and importantly -- being better across the defense.
Led by DeMarcus Lawrence as their premier rusher, the Cowboys defensive line is a lot for opposing offenses to contain. The "Hot Boyz" work up front has allowed Linebackers Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch to play fast and make plays all over the field.
Maliek Collins, battling back from his second broken foot in three years, is proving again he's a patented Marinelli guy. Collins' play speaks for itself when considering if the Nebraska product is best as a 3T or 1T tackle. Wherever he's asked to play, Collins creates penetration with an explosive first step and can finish at the quarterback with an array of power rush moves.
At 7-5 and fighting for their playoff lives, the Cowboys are done making excuses on the 2018 season. Their strides on defense speak for themselves, and with a group that keeps Dallas in every game they'll play, the door remains open for David Irving to earn snaps again when ready.
The Cowboys don't know any better than their play without Irving right now, and as winners of four straight, it's worth questioning if we'll see Irving over the last three weeks of the regular season.
QB Dak Prescott Named Cowboys’ Nominee For Walter Payton Man Of The Year Award
As the quarterback of America's Team, Dak Prescott is faced with a level of criticism each week that few athletes have to deal with. He is constantly questioned for his play, and even when things are going well, Prescott must answer his critics. But one area absolutely no one can question Prescott is his leadership, both on and off the field.
Dak Prescott is the perfect role model for children and adults alike. He is constantly doing fantastic work in his communities and making sure he uses his platform for good to his best ability.
This week it was announced Dak Prescott was nominated for the Walter Payton Man of the Year award, and will be the Cowboys' candidate in the race.
@Dak Prescott has been announced as the #Cowboys nominee for Walter Payton Man of the Year - for 'commitment to philanthropy and community impact.' DAL past winners of the NFL-wide honor: Staubach, Aikman, Witten. @1053thefan
Of course, Prescott is well-worthy of the honor, and I wouldn't be surprised if he ends up being both a finalist and the recipient of the award this year. As mentioned by Mike Fisher in the above tweet, three Cowboys have won the award previously; Roger Staubach, Troy Aikman, and Jason Witten. Each of which is deserving, as is Prescott.
Considering the award is given out for "commitment to philanthropy and community impact," I can't think of many more worthy players around the league than quarterback Dak Prescott. We can see this impact in the locker room and on the field as well, as Prescott was voted a captain in just his sophomore season. The Cowboys clearly respect Prescott, despite some of the flaws in his game, and seem to play hard beside him every week.
Congratulations to Dak Prescott on this nomination.
Cowboys Aren’t Using Dak Prescott on Play Action Enough
The Dallas Cowboys offense has taken a turn for the better over the last five weeks. Five weeks ago, as we’ve discussed a ton, the Cowboys made the move to bring Amari Cooper from the Oakland Raiders for their first round pick. The results have been very encouraging for an offense that is hoping to be a difference maker in the playoffs. They also promoted Marc Colombo to take over for then Offensives Line coach Paul Alexander. Both moves seem to have had positive impacts on the offense as a whole, but most importantly Dak Prescott.
One area where the Cowboys offense can improve with Dak as their quarterback is in their use of play action.
Putting defenders in a run/pass conflict and taking advantage of it using PLAY ACTION can create some big plays for an offense. #GoSaints #Seahawks #FightForEachOther #KeepPounding #OnePride #DallasCowboys #LARams #Colts #FlyEaglesFly #Skol
As you can see from NFL Matchup’s tweet, Dak Prescott is one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL when throwing out of play action. The problem is the Cowboys don’t use it nearly enough.
Dak Prescott only uses play action on 24% of his drop backs this season, which ranks him 15th in the NFL per Pro Football Focus. For reference, the Los Angeles Rams use play action on 37.4% of Jared Goff’s drop backs, which leads the league. Pat Mahomes uses play action 29.5% of the time.
When the Cowboys use Dak Prescott in play action, his yards per attempt is 9.2, which is 13th in the NFL. When Prescott doesn’t use play action, his yards per attempt is only 6.7, which ranks 26th in the league. That’s a 2.5 yard per attempt difference. Prescott’s passer rating, like a lot of the NFL goes up in play action, but Prescott’s goes up nearly 23 points from 89.9 to 112.7.
Like we saw on Thursday against the Saints, and have seen now for almost three years, Prescott is excellent in play action. His work on the Ezekiel Elliott screen pass that went for a touchdown last week is exhibit A to his deft ability to use play action. With as good as Dak’s been on play fakes, it’s a shame that Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan doesn’t work it into the offense more.
Every team that the Cowboys face know that priority one for this offense is establishing the run. They know that Linehan’s goal is to get the ground game going, play keep away from the opposing offense, and play good defense. The problem is the offensive line has had issues protecting Prescott this season. They could use quick play fakes or even feints to get opposing defenses thinking about the run when the Cowboys want to pass. Even if it makes the defensive line hesitate for a split second, it’s an advantage for Dak Prescott and the offense.
The offensive line has hadn’t some issues protecting Dak as he’s the most sacked quarterback in the league and is in the top five of most pressured passers. Scott Linehan needs to scheme to keep opposing defenses off-balance with quicker passes, but can also use play action to create some hesitation by the pass rush.
Teams don’t want Ezekiel Elliott beating them, so if the Cowboys decide to increase their use of play action, it will have a positive effect. Prescott’s shown in his young career that it’s a strength of his. Now Linehan and the Cowboys need to figure out a way to get more out of it.
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