The Dallas Cowboys struggled to get to the quarterback at times during the 2016 season. There were times they came up with the big play, like against Tampa Bay. And there were times, cough-Green Bay-cough, where they came up empty. Heading into this offseason, we knew that the Dallas Cowboys needed to do something about their pass rush.
In what quarter, though, do they need to improve in the sack department?
I looked at Pro Football Reference to see just where Dallas ranked in terms of sacks by quarter and I was a bit surprised by the numbers. Perhaps you will be too.
First Quarter Notes
- Looking at the chart you'll see that in the first quarter, Dallas was abysmal at getting to the quarterback.
- The league average for sacks in the first quarter was 6.9. Three is just horrendous.
- 18 of the NFL's 32 teams had more than the 6.9 league average.
- Something shocking to take away from this is that the Denver Broncos also had only three sacks in the first quarter of games. The difference is that Denver ranked 3rd in the NFL in total sacks, while Dallas ranked 13th. The Broncos made up for it elsewhere.
- Dallas was the second worst team (to the New York Jets) in amount of yards given up per play in the first quarter. This led to shorter 3rd down distances, making it more difficult to think pass only.
- With the keep away, ball-control style Dallas plays, the defense isn't on the field as much and sees fewer opportunities to rush the passer.
Second Quarter Notes
- In the second quarter they were about average (10.03) with their 10 sacks.
- I've always believed that if the Dallas Cowboys could just be average on defense, with their offense, they would be a contender.
- While they were average at sacking the quarterback, they were well behind the league leader, the Carolina Panthers, and their 19 sacks.
Third Quarter Notes
- The league average for sacks in the third quarter was 8.5. Dallas finished just above the league average here with 9.
- As they did in the first quarter, the Arizona Cardinals led the league in third quarter sacks with 14.
Fourth Quarter Notes
- Dallas' 18 sacks in the fourth quarter ranked second only to Denver's 21.
- Dallas was well ahead of the league average of 11.09 sacks.
- This success is a testament to the Cowboys' ability to get a lead. When a team has a lead, they will see more passing situations, which leads to more opportunities to create pressure and sacks.
So, what are we to make of all this?
As you can tell by the chart, the second and fourth quarters' league leader had many more sacks than the first and third quarters' league leader. Likely do to the frequency of passing that happens in the last two minutes of the half, with teams in hurry up mode.
Like most teams, the defense can rush the passer better when it has a sizable lead. The split second it takes to diagnose the play prevents a pass rusher from getting up field to the quarterback when they have to think run also. When teams have to pass, defensive coordinators and pass rushers can get after the quarterback without having to think about the run.
While the fourth quarter numbers look good, watching the games, we know that the team can be more consistent in creating pressure. They were good at coming up with the big play most of the time, but there were also times when the quarterback had forever to throw the ball.
Where Can the Cowboys Improve?
Arizona, who led the league in sacks in 2016, finished inside the top seven in the NFL in total sacks per quarter. They were consistently good regardless of the time of the game.
The Dallas Cowboys need to be better at getting to the quarterback. Whether it's the first quarter or the fourth quarter. If they can stop the run with greater consistency in the first three quarters, then they should get teams in longer third down situations. That will create more sack opportunities.
To become a championship defense, the Dallas Cowboys are going to have to be more consistent at getting to the quarterback. While the defensive line has a lot of question marks at this point, there is also a lot of promise.
Which defensive lineman will lead the team in sacks in 2017?
Despite Late Push as Rookie, Will Taco Charlton Struggle to See Field in 2018?
It feels like ages ago that the Dallas Cowboys spent the 28th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft on Michigan Defensive End Taco Charlton. Perhaps this is a result of the constant distancing fans have made from this unpopular pick, or the corresponding moves the Cowboys have made at DE since drafting Charlton.
These moves include using the franchise tag on DeMarcus Lawrence after seeing him explode for 14.5 sacks, spending a fourth round pick this year on Kansas' Dorance Armstrong, and seeing Randy Gregory reinstated in time for training camp.
Across the entirety of the Cowboys roster, there will be plenty of "odd men out" that miss the cut down to 53 players. Defensive end remains one of the most cluttered spots on the current 90 man roster however.
Prior to establishing the depth the Cowboys now have up front on defense, they did Taco no favors by starting his career at right defensive end. While Gregory may still be a long way from earning the starting role here, similarly styled players like Armstrong have the edge here over Charlton.
This relegates Charlton to the strong side, where he always projected best out of college. By the time the Cowboys realized this a season ago, they also knew a franchise pass rusher was playing his way into the team's long-term plans.
Lawrence's stellar consistency off the edge reduced Charlton's role in the Cowboys rotation of pass rushers. An ideal spot for the rookie to develop with less pressure on him, Charlton's opportunities to continue playing left end may only be reduced this season.
The first-round pick is capable of kicking inside at defensive tackle, a position the Cowboys could certainly use help at. However, asking Charlton to go through another position shift would only halt the progress that took quite a bit of patience from Dallas to see.
It's far from unheard of for the Cowboys to do this with their young players, but for now Charlton remains a defensive end looking to make his impact. The Cowboys are in much better position now than they were at this time a year ago when it comes to setting expectations for him to do so.
Given everything he showed on tape at Michigan as well as in his pre-draft interviews, Charlton is a player that needs to succeed at the task at hand. When this plan is altered, the 6'6" pass rusher is much less effective -- without even considering any athletic struggles that Charlton has compared to other prototypes at defensive end.
As a unit, the Cowboys defensive line has all the pieces to be very effective this season. Taco Charlton is a piece to this puzzle, a backup left end that must find a way to flourish in this role.
For most former 28th overall picks, doing so would be considered a fall from grace. For the Cowboys, it's simply an example of strong roster building that's forced life to come at Charlton quickly. How he responds with a full season under his belt will make or break the hype this deep Cowboys defensive line has garnered, lead of course by the starter at Charlton's position in DeMarcus Lawrence.
Cowboys OT La’el Collins Could Become Major Bargain
When you talk Cowboys offensive line, you always think of Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin first. Right Tackle La'el Collins still has to prove he belongs in the same sentence with his elite teammates. If he does that in 2018, Collins could become one of the best bargains on the roster.
Making the move from left guard to right tackle last year, Collins improved with time and was playing his best football at the end of the year. This was despite ongoing back issues that had him on the injury report most weeks.
La'el started all 16 games at right tackle and did enough that the Cowboys committed to keeping him there in 2018, even despite a big hole back at left guard. They are hoping consistency and stability will allow Collins to really blossom this season, building on the strong progress shown last year.
For 2018, Collins has a $5.76 million cap hit. According to Spotrac, that makes him the 13th-most expensive right tackle in the NFL this year.
That middle-of-the-pack expense is consistent with where La'el currently rates among NFL right tackles. Bleacher Report ranked Collins as the 16th-best RT in football last year.
But that ranking was based on the season as a whole. If La'el plays all of 2018 the way he was playing towards the end of last year, he will have emerged as one of the better right tackles in the game.
If Collins develops as we hope, that salary suddenly becomes a major bargain. The most expensive right tackles in the NFL are making $7-$9 million this season.
But this can go a couple of ways. With his 2019 cap hit rising to $7.9 million, La'el needs to next step forward.
If Collins were to struggle this year, it could make him a potential cap casualty next offseason. Dallas can save $6.5 million in cap space if Collins is released or traded in 2019.
Dallas could elect to give Connor Williams, their second-round pick this year, a look at right tackle next season. It's the position he played in college.
They could also consider veteran backup Cameron Fleming, who will still be just 26-year-old. Fleming has two Super Bowl rings and several starts, including in the postseason, from his time with the Patriots.
While we think of La'el Collins as a first-round talent, it's important to remember that he was ultimately an undrafted free agent. Dallas did not have to invest anything to acquire him, and ultimately that makes it easier to let him go.
Naturally, we prefer the other side of this coin. If Collins builds on 2017, he will join the upper echelon of right tackles in the league. And if the Cowboys' offensive line isn't already the best in the NFL, that would only cement them as the best unit in football.
If La'el makes the leap, it could mean huge things for the Cowboys' offense and team success this year.
How Cowboys Could Benefit From Randy Gregory’s Suspension
Randy Gregory is back! His suspension is officially over and he will be able to join the Dallas Cowboys in Oxnard, California when training camp gets underway less than a week from now.
Speculation has already started as to what this could mean for the Dallas Cowboys defense this season, and shockingly expectations are rather high for a player who hasn't stepped foot on the field in over a year. But, that's not what I want to talk about today. Today I want to focus on Gregory's mess of a contract, because it is rather interesting.
Randy Gregory was signed to a four-year contract after being drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in the second-round of the 2015 NFL Draft. Gregory's rookie deal was set to expire at the conclusion of the 2018 season, but his multiple suspensions have now changed that expiration date.
You see, Gregory has only played in a total of 14 games in his career, 12 as a rookie and two in Year 2. His third year in the NFL was completely wiped out due to his year-long suspension. If you were to add that all up, it equates to just one accured season in the NFL. Remember that, because it could have a huge impact on his contract down the road.
What all of this means is that the Cowboys can pretty much stretch out Gregory's contract now that they are three years in on the deal and have only gotten one accured season out of the agreement. That basically means they can push his contract back a year, meaning his 2017 salary ($731,813) gets pushed back to 2018, his 2018 salary ($955,217) gets pushed to 2019. That would essentially make him a Restricted Free Agent (RFA) in 2020.
Or does it?
Depending on how the Dallas Cowboys handled paying Randy Gregory during his suspension could actually make him an Exclusive Rights Free Agent (EFA). This is a similar situation in which David Irving found himself in after the 2017 season. The Cowboys placed a second-round tender on him in order to secure his services for another season, albeit at a $2.91 million price tag.
As you can see, the Dallas Cowboys pretty much hold all the cards when it comes to Randy Gregory's contract situation. It's all a little confusing, but that's what makes it such a unique and interesting situation.
Of course, the Cowboys could decide to extend Gregory early if he completely dominates upon his return this season. It's highly doubtful though considering his past suspensions, but still technically a possibility. If it does happen, you can go ahead and ignore everything I've written previously.
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