The Dallas Cowboys took a huge blow yesterday to the defensive line when 2015 second round pick DE Randy Gregory was suspended for the first four games of the 2016 season after his fourth failed drug test post-NFL-Combine.
Gregory's position was already one of concern for the Cowboys this off season, but now that priority is greatly elevated. As far as we know, the team has yet to come any closer to a decision on the future of Greg Hardy, and should he exit in free agency it would leave DeMarcus Lawrence as the only pass rusher under contract for the upcoming season that has at least one career sack.
Even if they re-sign Jeremy Mincey and Jack Crawford, the two other free agents at the position, Dallas would be bringing back just a combined four sacks from the pair last year - all of which came from Crawford. Both have been with the team for two seasons, and have a combined 12 sacks in that time.
Enter Ronald Blair, who's name has blown up in draft talks over the past short weeks. A small school prospect out of Appalachian State, it took some time for scouts to discover this potential hidden gem. However, once they did, plenty of them fell in love with the 6' 1", 272 pound pass rusher:
Five NFL prospects I think I'm higher on than most: DE Ronald Blair CB Xavien Howard WR Pharoh Cooper WR Rashard Higgins DT Hassan Ridgeway
While his secret may become less and less well kept in the lead up to the draft, which will include Blair's Combine performance, the tape for Ronald Blair doesn't go without showing some flaws.
If the Cowboys like Blair, they may have to guarantee his selection with the 34th overall pick. I also think there may be a strong chance he falls to them in the third round, where he would then become a much less expensive solution for the pass rush.
Let's take a look at his film to further understand the impact in size, speed, and pass-rush ability that Blair could bring to Dallas:
Before taking a look at #49 in white, just notice the team in orange that he is going up against. This tape from Blair is from his visit to the Clemson Tigers - who went undefeated this season all the way up until the National Championship Game. Thus, the impact plays he makes are coming against top-end competition - which will only further improve his stock.
In it, you see the versatility that would make him a favorable prospect for Rod Marinelli. While he doesn't show a ton of explosiveness and speed, he finds a way to consistently impact the play by being in the backfield - whether he rushes from the edge or the inside.
When rushing from the edge, Blair reminds me of the Cowboys' DeMarcus Lawrence. While it took Lawrence a few seasons to put things together, he came onto the scene at the end of 2015 to be an explosive defensive end.
Blair will need to improve his overall hand-speed and bend from the edge pass-rush position, but will only benefit from playing with some of the talented defensive linemen already in place such as Lawrence, Tyrone Crawford and David Irving.
It is likely unfair to expect Blair to come into Dallas and record a high sack total in his first season, but what I think he will give this team over time is a solid tackler along the defensive line that makes his presence felt on every snap possible.
The team has no idea what they have in Randy Gregory, after an injury-washed 2015 led to his current suspension to start 2016, and it is now time they found solid, bonafide answers at this position. The hard-nosed Blair can be just that, while not forcing the team to use the fourth overall pick on this priority thanks to Gregory.
This was a popular instant reaction by fans upon the news of the suspension, as the talks of Joey Bosa to the Cowboys greatly escalated.
Randy Gregory is a player that I am pulling for not just because he plays with a star on the side of his helmet, but because he genuinely came off as incredibly grateful when drafted by the Cowboys - and appeared ready to use it to put his negative past behind him. Clearly that is now not the case, and Gregory needs help from the organization and his close support-system.
Should Gregory come back and contribute as a situational pass rusher along a defensive line consisting of Greg Hardy, Tyrone Crawford, David Irving, Nick Hayden, DeMarcus Lawrence, and rookie draft-steal Ronald Blair, the Cowboys front may finally live up to the expectations we all set for them this season.
Could NY Giants Be a Surprise Threat in the NFC East?
The NFC East is a wild, wild division. Since 2004, the division that hosts some of the most popular franchises in the NFL hasn't seen the same team winning the NFC East title two years in a row. It's crazy! Who expected the Dallas Cowboys to become the #1 seed in the conference in 2016 after seeing Tony Romo go down during the preseason? Who was able to predict the Philadelphia Eagles' amazing run for the Super Bowl last year?
It's an unpredictable league, but the NFC East side of things can really amaze you on a yearly basis.
Heading into 2018, it all seems to be about the Eagles and the Cowboys. Being the last two teams to win the title, it's only logical to expect them to be the only teams in the division that have what it takes to own the NFC East crown.
But maybe, just maybe, we are overlooking the New York Giants.
Coming from a 3-13 record in 2017, the Giants have quite a bit to prove if they want to become a winning team once again and return to playoff contention. With Odell Beckham missing most of the season and with good ol' Ben McAdoo calling the shots, the team was never able to get a break.
Listen, we all know Eli Manning has been struggling lately. Many thought the Giants should've drafted a quarterback when they held the #2 overall pick back in April. But whether we like it or not, New York seems to have a plan: take advantage of Manning's last years on the field.
Instead of taking a young QB for the future, they drafted the best player available to take the load off Manning's shoulders. Saquon Barkley will probably be able to do what Ezekiel Elliott was able to do in 2016: lead the offense by running the football 20 times a game and have several 100-yard performances.
Not only that, but the front office did make an effort to re-build a disastrous offensive line by bringing in a talented left tackle in Nate Solder and by stealing the UTEP product, Will Hernandez in the second round of the draft. If the Giants are able to finally groom Ereck Flowers into a decent starter at right tackle, this could be a pretty solid offensive line.
Of course, Manning will not only be benefited from the running game, but his superstar wide receiver will be back on the field. Beckham is one of the NFL's best wide receivers and will surely be back at terrifying opposing secondaries week in and week out.
The Giants are bringing in Defensive Coordinator James Bettcher, who did a nice job for the Arizona Cardinals' defense over the last few years. With some talented defensive players, the team might not have the best squad in the league, but it doesn't seem like a defense that will struggle throughout the season.
Last but not least, the Giants will have a new head coach in form of Pat Shurmur. He's had some success in the league, lately as an offensive coordinator for a Minnesota Vikings team that managed to get to the NFC Championship with Case Keenum at QB. It was a good hire for the team, and I'm pretty sure it will be easy to do a better job than McAdoo's work with the Giants.
If I was to make a prediction, I'd say the Giants will have a handful of wins in 2018. However, I don't see them getting back into the postseason just yet. An 8-8 record sounds about right. Having said that, though, it really seems like a team that could surprise everyone and emerge as a surprise contender in the NFC East.
Do you think the New York Giants could be a surprise threat in 2018?
Where Cowboys CB Marquez White Fits In 2018
In the 2017 NFL Draft the Dallas Cowboys selected four new defensive backs, three of which saw significant playing time during their rookie season.
Those three, of course, are Jourdan Lewis, Chidobe Awuzie, and Xavier Woods. That fourth defensive back, however, should not be forgotten about as we enter the beginning stages of the 2018 season. That player is former Florida State cornerback Marquez White.
Rather than playing alongside his rookie counterparts in the secondary, White spent time on the Cowboys practice squad in 2017. The former sixth round pick was signed to a futures contract at the end of 2017, however, and now has a chance to compete in camp once again.
Entering their sophomore seasons the starting secondary already appears to be taking shape. Chidobe Awuzie and Byron Jones are just about locked in to the outside cornerback jobs, Xavier Woods is expected to start at safety beside Jeff Heath, and Jourdan Lewis is battling with now third year player Anthony Brown for the slot corner role.
So where does Marquez White fit into all of this?
Well, the aforementioned players are locks to make the 53-man roster, but Marquez White should be the favorite to win the 5th cornerback spot going forward. White's raw talent is undeniable, and he has the ability to play under both man and zone responsibilities.
The main reason we should be optimistic about Marquez White's chances to land on the final roster, however, is his athletic profile. At 6'0" tall, just under 200 pounds, and long arms White fits the mold for what new secondary coach and passing game coordinator Kris Richard tends to look for in his cornerbacks.
And, for better or for worse, Richard clearly values these measureables highly. This is evident in how second year corner Jourdan Lewis has been used thus far in mini camp and offseason activities; being relegated to second team and the slot rather than allowed to compete for an outside cornerback job with Awuzie and Jones.
So with the arrival of Kris Richard, the departure of Orlando Scandrick, the underwhelming play of Anthony Brown, and the raw talent he already possesses, Marquez White has a very strong chance of making the final 53-man roster in Dallas.
Can Jaylon Smith Challenge Vander Esch For Starting MIKE Role?
When the Dallas Cowboys selected Boise State linebacker Leighton Vander Esch with their first round pick of the 2018 NFL Draft, the whole world basically assumed he would be the starting MIKE linebacker week one of the upcoming season.
After all, the Cowboys lost Anthony Hitchens to free agency and none of the injury replacements had much success during the 2017 season.
Now just a couple of months shy of that week one match up with the Carolina Panthers, a battle for that middle linebacker spot appears to be occurring.
Former 2016 second round pick Jaylon Smith has seemed to find his health, and his movement skills and agility look like they did back when he was at Notre Dame. Whether or not these offseason hype videos will actually mean anything on the field remains to be seen, but just the fact that Smith is working out and playing without the knee brace is obviously a good sign.
Unlike Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith did play for the Dallas Cowboys a year ago. Sure Smith had his share of growing pains, but he seemed to find his groove late in the season. It probably isn't a coincidence, though, that Smith's best games came when coming off the bench in a limited role and when playing beside veteran Sean Lee.
During the offseason activity thus far Jaylon Smith has gotten the majority of snaps at middle linebacker, but Vander Esch has also been sidelined with an injured ankle. Leighton Vander Esch clearly fits the mold of a MIKE both physically and athletically, but at his best Jaylon Smith does as well.
Despite the resurgence of Jaylon Smith and the injury to Leighton Vander Esch, I still do expect Vander Esch to snag that MIKE role moving forward. While showing glimpses of productive play, Smith did not impress enough to earn him the unquestioned starting job last season, and may best fit as a SAM backer and situational pass rusher/blitzer in the current scheme.
Allowing Jaylon Smith to conserve his energy and provide a boost off the bench is the best way for the Cowboys to structure their defense. Of course, this is only true as long as Vander Esch becomes the player they expect him to be, though.
If Jaylon Smith does return to the player he was at Notre Dame prior to his horrific injury, the Cowboys will possess three incredibly rangy, athletic, and talented linebackers on their roster.
Of course, that if is a very big if at this point, however.
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