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.
PFF Ranks Cowboys Run Defense 13th In The NFL
The Cowboys duo of young linebackers took the NFL by storm in 2018.
Rookie Leighton Vander Esch and former second round pick Jaylon Smith played well above expectations, as for the first time in years Dallas did not face a significant drop off in defensive production when Sean Lee was out and injured.
These young linebackers are the cornerstone of a run defense which should be among the league's best going forward, and Pro Football Focus agrees. Well, somewhat agrees.
PFF ranked all 32 run defenses heading into the 2019 season, slotting the Cowboys 13th overall. Better than half the league, but not quite top 10.
PFF's reasoning behind this ranking certainly makes sense, as they credit the young linebacker duo without mentioning much of what will be in front of them helping to stop opposing running games.
"The Cowboys’ run defense begins and ends with the league’s best young linebacker duo. Leighton Vander Esch ranked third in run-stop percentage as a rookie while Jaylon Smith checked in at 29th."
The playoff loss in Los Angeles has left a bad taste about the Cowboys' interior defensive line in a lot of mouths, but I do think they've improved the unit this offseason. Signing Christian Covington and drafting Trysten Hill was a nice start to do so, but having Maliek Collins healthy and Antwaun Woods back for a full season will also go a long way.
Interestingly enough, two of the Cowboys divisional foes came in ranked above them on this list. Washington was slotted as the 12th best run defense, while Philadelphia was placed at number 8. Both teams' units deserve respect, of course, but this further highlights how difficult it could be to run the ball in the NFC East this season.
While I hate simply throwing this term around, analytics suggest that passing is what wins games in the NFL. Passing and stopping the pass, I should say.
With strong run defenses in their division, the Cowboys will need to maximize their passing game efficiency if they want to repeat as NFC East champions.
3 Reasons Amari Cooper is Primed for an All-Pro Season
Amari Cooper changed life for the entire Dallas Cowboys offense in 2018. Finally, Quarterback Dak Prescott has the number one option at wide receiver he's desperately needed since his rookie campaign. Now, after half a season and multiple playoff games under his belt in Dallas, Cooper is set to have a monster year. Here are three specific reasons why.
Head Coach Jason Garrett has established a certain way of doing things in Dallas since taking over in 2010. His constant search for the RKG or "Right Kinda Guy" as he puts it has the culture in the locker room at a very positive and productive place. As criticized as he is, justifiably or not, he has his team all on the same page. This is something Cooper has been trying to find since he entered the league in 2015. An organization with the right mindset in order for him to perform and maximize his skill set. After being traded to Dallas, Cooper opened up in November about being unhappy during his days in Oakland.
"I wasn't really happy in Oakland or anything like that. But when I sat and thought about it [Monday} night, I thought about the fact that they traded me away. I don't know how to feel about it," Cooper told Yahoo Sports.
This may seem small to others considering these players make millions of dollars right? Well, it doesn't change the fact that they're human. When you feel unappreciated you don't play to the best of your abilities. Shortly after the trade, Cooper talked about how he's been different since putting a star on his helmet. "I feel like it did change me, as far as having that chip on my shoulder. Not that I wasn't passionate before, but playing with more passion, trying to intentionally have fun out there. It definitely has changed me, in terms of me going out there and just having fun with it," Cooper said. A change of scenery was just what the doctor ordered for Cooper and the Cowboys.
2. The other weapons around him
The Cowboys aren't just Amari Cooper or bust at the wide receiver position. Michael Gallup and Randall Cobb provide more challenges for defenses on a weekly basis. Gallup has firmly locked down the number two spot on the depth chart. It took a while for him to establish chemistry with Dak Prescott, as they would misfire on several big plays during the first half of the season. Nonetheless, by seasons end things started to pick up, and he finished with 33 receptions for 507 yards and 2 touchdowns. In the playoffs, he scored a touchdown in the Cowboys Wild Card win over Seattle. The next week against the Rams he performed well even in defeat, with 6 receptions for 119 yards. He's got speed, size, and versatility. Now with a full season and two games of playoff experience under his belt, I look for even more production from Gallup, as a possible breakout star.
Randall Cobb is a much-needed upgrade in the slot for the Cowboys. Unlike former receiver Cole Beasley, Cobb can line up inside or outside. Giving new Offensive Coordinator Kellen Moore a bigger bag of tricks at his disposal. Now, he can lineup Cooper inside or outside and play with a plethora of different looks, keeping defenses off balance because of the uncertainty of how the Cowboys will attack through the air.
Then, of course, there's Ezekiel Elliott. The two-time rushing champion is the tone-setter on offense and dictates how defenses will attack. With Cooper being such a threat in the air you basically have to pick your poison. 8-9 man fronts against the run can make you vulnerable to play action down the field or quick slants with Cooper's exceptional route running. The more productive Elliott is the more honest it keeps opposing defenses, opening up more opportunities in the passing game. Averaging 101.2 yards per game for his career, second all-time to Hall of Famer Jim Brown, Elliott can make create even more opportunities for Cooper in 2019 with a full season of playing time together.
Amari Cooper is currently looking to sign a long-term deal with the Cowboys. Preferably, both sides would like to get this deal done before the season starts considering he's in the last year of his rookie contract that is set to pay him 13.9 million in 2019. However, it isn't just a new deal that motivates Cooper heading into the new season.
"It's kind of a weird situation, just being that I've never been in this situation before, talking about a contract. But also, I'm under a fifth-year option, so I'm not too familiar with it. I really don't ask my agent many questions. I'm not really worried about it that much. I'm more focused on actually playing and really earning the respect and then the contract," Cooper said.
Being motivated by earning respect is a very mature approach from Cooper. Now, add that to the fact that I'm sure he wants to firmly put his name alongside Julio Jones, Antonio Brown, DeAndre Hopkins, Odell Beckham Jr, and Michael Thomas as the best receivers in the game, you have a fully motivated number one option heading into the new season.
Amari Cooper has already made three pro bowls, but now there's another level for him to reach. In just nine games last year with the Cowboys he caught 53 passes for 725 yards and 6 touchdowns. Also, he caught another 13 on 18 targets in the playoffs for 171 yards and a score. He's in the right culture, he has a number of other weapons around him and he has multiple reasons to be motivated heading in the new season. With a full offseason of building chemistry with Dak Prescott, I see Cooper taking that leap to the All-Pro level in 2019.
Is La’el Collins Playing For A Contract On A Different Team?
How good is La'el Collins?
This is a question that Cowboys fans have disagreed on since his rookie season. Collins, who originally joined the team as their left guard replacing an injured Ronald Leary in 2015, moved out to right tackle in 2017, starting all 32 games there the last 2 seasons.
Collins' play has been somewhat up-and-down, as should be expected when a lineman not only switches from guard to tackle, but from the left side to the right side as well. Still, he's been a solid right tackle and a stable presence for a Cowboys offensive line which has struggled with major injuries at other positions over the last couple of years.
While Collins has not been the "elite" level player fans had hoped for when signed after the 2015 draft, he's been a solid player nonetheless. Dak Prescott has faced more pressure from the right side of the line than the left, but a good portion of that pressure has to do with him struggling to sense pressure from that right side.
The Dallas Cowboys seem rather undecided about La'el Collins' future with the team themselves, though. Dallas went out and draft guard Connor McGovern in the third round of the 2019 draft, starting the whirlwind of rumors that McGovern will be the starting left guard in 2020. This would kick second year player Connor Williams out to right tackle, allowing Dallas to let Collins walk without too much worry.
While this is well and good on paper, on the field the transition will likely not be as smooth. We've already seen how tough it is to move from left guard to right tackle in just one offseason, even if you were a college tackle once upon a time. Connor Williams could face these same struggles, despite possibly even anticipating the change a year out.
Regardless, La'el Collins is now in a contract year and is playing for that new deal come 2020. Dallas may not be looking to extend him, mostly due to the plethora of new deals they'll be handing out to other players, but he will be a hot commodity come free agency if and when he hits the open market.
Collins could very well be playing for a new contract elsewhere this season, as his days in Dallas look to be numbered.
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