Sixty minutes of Dallas Cowboys football is in the books, and it was as perfectly flawed as we all expected from the brand new Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium on Thursday between the Cowboys and Cardinals in the HOF game.
The Cowboys did manage to rally to a 20-18 win thanks to touchdowns by TE Rico Gathers and WR Uzoma Nwachukwu, more importantly escaping without any serious injuries - although CB Anthony Brown exited with a hamstring injury and did not return.
I know that I was not alone in intently watching just about every snap of this first of five preseason contests for Dallas, taking some notes on what caught my eye throughout the night, which is what makes Cowboys Nation so special. Here are my takes on what we'll all be discussing between now and the team's next preseason game in eight days against the Rams.
- Damontre Moore had earned the trust of the Cowboys' coaching staff through the offseason program and into OTAs, making plays at his natural position at DE along with at SAM LB and on special teams. A two game suspension to start 2017 slowed down some of the hype on Moore, but he still flashed the potential to really push other depth players at DE or LB by filling both roles admirably. On the first drive of the game for Arizona, Moore made a play as a stand up LB that required him to shoot a tight gap and quickly discard a low blocker. Not only was he able to do this all with great balance and quick hands, but Moore finished the play with the stopping power you love to see. This play was actually more impressive than some of Damontre's reps at DE, where he was washed out with poor pad level as a WDE on the Cardinals' first touchdown.
- It would be fair to both players to wait and see much more from them, but I'll say that I was actually more impressed with rookie Taco Charlton than fan-favorite Charles Tapper on the edge early on. Taco settled in to his natural LDE position, and although he didn't remain in the game long enough to make an impact, I was happy with his ability to fight against his blocker and hold the point of attack. Playing the run is still a priority at that position, something Charlton will need to excel at. As a pass rusher, the 28th overall picked looked clunky and unpolished at times, but there were glimpses of a long-arm, swim, and spin move around the corner from him that he has time to continue improving with. Patience will be key for a player that certainly looked the part out of Michigan. As for Charles Tapper, his first step to capture the corner jumped off the page as we have simply not seen any explosive ability from a right-side pass rusher on this team recently. Despite this, Tapper did not appear comfortable with his rush moves and was too easily steered behind the pocket or sealed away from the quarterback thanks to his pad level. Transitioning to a 4-3 front is still new for him, and I expect the bend and block shedding ability to come along for him over the coming weeks.
Wow @Chido___ almost gets an INT. Almost. https://t.co/aDLF0vAEOi
- One of my go to lines when discussing the Cowboys' 2017 draft class, specifically with people skeptical of the Charlton pick, is that the noticeable impact second round pick Chidobe Awuzie will make will trump any struggles from Taco at DE. Towards the end of the half, Awuzie nearly ended a Cardinals' drive with an interception on the sideline. The Cowboys played a ton of this game defensively in their "Dime" package, loading the field with these young DBs, making the knockdown from Chido even more impressive. With his first assignment in this situation to protect the sideline throw, Awuzie accelerated to the right depth better than he had all night before effortlessly flipping his hips and driving to the football to knock it away through contact cleanly.
- With no Anthony Hitchens, Sean Lee, or Jaylon Smith, the Cowboys had to piece together this game at linebacker - where there were flashes from UDFA Lucas Wacha. Out of Wyoming, Wacha was given reps at SAM in this game, but I'm intrigued by his skill set as a WILL. The movement ability and closing speed was not an issue for Wacha, who handled clutter in front of him well to consistently find the football. Wacha, like John Lotulelei, will also get plenty of opportunities to stick to this roster with special teams contributions.
Just throw it up to the basketball player... Let him take care of the rest. Kellen Moore. Rico Gathers. GOT 'EM! #AZvsDAL https://t.co/DgF5RGZ1td
- On the offensive side of the ball, the highlight of the night was undoubtedly Rico Gathers' 26 yard touchdown reception from Kellen Moore. The play was impressive for a lot of reasons for Gathers, who made the most of being out there as a starter. Having to patiently navigate through the second and third levels of a Cardinals' zone defense, Gathers ran his crossing route with excellent awareness and timing to get the depth needed. Once he had the angle on an out-of-position safety, Gathers squared his body to "box out" at the goal line and snag the ball above his head for a signature moment in the end zone. The Cowboys' commitment for two seasons now to get Rico Gathers the football has been clear, as he's flashed with these preseason reps on plays coming across the formation and turning up field.
- Jonathan Cooper looked like the player he did in Cleveland a year ago, with the strengths and weaknesses we'll all have to live with should he start at LG on display here. One thing you absolutely needed to see from Cooper was the fluidity in movement that Dallas will ask of him in the run game, but Cooper struggled to finish with any power both on the move or in his pass sets at the point of attack. Rod Smith and Alfred Morris stole the show at running back, but I truly felt a few of Darren McFadden's negative runs were a result of Cooper getting beat across the face and forcing McFadden to quickly change directions - something he'll struggle with at this point in his career.
- Andy Jones should be ahead of Noah Brown thanks to his experience from last season during the preseason and on the practice squad, and while that proved to be the case in this game I thought both players did things to help themselves. Jones played with better overall awareness and sharpness in his routes, leading to three receptions for 39 yards. Noah Brown's struggle is always going to be creating separation at this level, but on his end zone target he was able to compensate for a lack of speed by using his length to put his defender on his heels before he recovered. Depending on where else the Cowboys feel the need to keep more numbers on the roster, Brown and Jones could both be competing for a spot at WR that simply does not exist, but for now both young players are worth watching more through the rest of a preseason that will certainly present them with tons of snaps.
- It is strange not having a fresh face at RB for everyone to get excited about this preseason, as is tradition with the Cowboys, but the results can be much better with Rod Smith and Alfred Morris getting these meaningful reps. Morris was given the first chance to prove himself once again, and did just that as a straight-line runner. However, this is obviously something we already knew Morris could do - although it was nice to see him play with some burst and get skinny through the hole. Rod Smith, who's been ahead of Morris in training camp, did all of this and much more as the most comfortable zone runner Dallas had on the field last night. Exploding around the corner, putting his head down in tight spaces, and catching the ball all looked natural for Rod Smith. His preseason buzz is only going to grow.
The Cowboys will remain in Canton, Ohio through Saturday as Jerry Jones will be officially inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame then. After that, it is back to Oxnard to build on an overall positive performance and win in the Hall of Fame game - particularly with some young guys on the defensive side of the ball.
2018 Draft Class Season Review: LB Leighton Vander Esch
As the first round draft pick of America's Team, any player would be under a ton of pressure from all angles. Whether it's from the fans on the outside or the organization on the inside, the expectations around being a first round pick for the Cowboys are immense. But the pressure placed upon linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, from the second he was announced as the 19th overall draft pick, was second to none.
It felt like Cowboys Nation let out a collective groan when Vander Esch was taken, with fans hoping for a more glamorous first round selection. Someone like wide receiver Calvin Ridley or edge rusher Harold Landry would've done the trick, but after Vander Esch's rookie season it's hard to imagine either of those players would have had the impact Vander Esch did in 2018.
Though he didn't start a game until week 4, and didn't become the unquestioned full-time starting WILL until week 10, Vander Esch earned Pro Bowl honors for his rookie season. Tallying 140 total tackles and 2 interceptions, Vander Esch made his presence felt week in and week out.
No counting stats can fully measure Leighton Vander Esch's impact as a rookie, however.
Prior to the 2018 season, the Cowboys defensive success often came down to the health of Sean Lee. When available and playing at his best, Lee led an overachieving Cowboys defense to solid performances each week. But, when Lee went out (as he often did), the entire Cowboys defense seemed to fall apart.
This year, though, that all changed. When Sean Lee was out with injury the Cowboys defense got better. Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith became a versatile, hard hitting tandem the NFL immediately feared, and helped to direct the Cowboys defense to signature wins throughout the 2018 season.
There are arguments against taking any off-ball linebacker in the first round, as the value of the position has been questioned due to the new style of offense in the NFL. Nowadays linebackers are relegated to two-down players, taken off the field in favor of faster defensive backs on critical passing downs.
Leighton Vander Esch is athletic enough to be both an old school run stopper, but also a three down linebacker in today's fast paced NFL.
Despite the doubts which surrounded the pick, the Cowboys absolutely nailed their first round selection in 2018. And Leighton Vander Esch made Dallas' front office look like geniuses each and every Sunday.
What Is The Cowboys Most Pressing Offseason Need?
Finishing their season with a Division Round loss, Dallas Cowboys fans are getting a somewhat late start on the 2019 offseason. Of course, we'd much rather a later start, but the results are what they are.
Now Dallas must get better, and re-tool before heading into Dak Prescott's fourth season, and the Cowboys' 2019 campaign. Though they didn't feel all that close to a championship this season, looking around the roster, it's actually tough to identify one key need the Cowboys must address.
They are filled with young, talented players that they have high hopes for across the board. And in the places they are "older," such as across the offensive line, they have established veterans who aren't going anywhere anytime soon.
So what is the Cowboys' most pressing offseason need?
Well, despite already using their 2019 first round pick to address it, the answer very well might be wide receiver.
Adding Amari Cooper midseason provided a massive jolt to the Cowboys previously anemic passing attack, but on his own he is not enough to take this passing game to where it needs to be to compete in this new NFL.
Third round pick Michael Gallup is going to be a very good pro, and progressed really well as his rookie season went on. I think he can play opposite Amari Cooper nicely, and be the number two option in the passing game going forward.
Though arguably their best wide out against man coverage, Cole Beasley is a free agent, and if the reports are true about Scott Linehan returning in 2019 it could very well mean Beasley will not be opting to sign back with Dallas.
Regardless of Beasley's decision, however, the Cowboys need to seriously evaluate their pass catchers heading into next season.
This is a passing league. The rules have dictated that you must be able to pass the ball efficiently if you want to compete with the best of the best around the NFL. To take the next step in their progression, and reach an NFC title game and/or Super Bowl, Dak Prescott will need to have as explosive a group of pass catchers as possible.
The Cowboys have already taken solid steps to making this a reality, but another move or two this offseason could go a long way to putting Dallas in the conversation with teams like the Rams and the Saints in 2019.
3 Things We Learned About The Dallas Cowboys In 2018
Coming into the 2018 season, loads of questions surrounded the Dallas Cowboys and the future of their roster.
Could their defense stay intact when the annual Sean Lee injury occurred? Was Kris Richard going to lead the Cowboys young secondary to places we thought they could be? And would Dak Prescott earn a contact extension and become the official franchise quarterback of America's Team.
Of course, there are tons of other questions that may have gone unanswered, but these three critical areas seem to find clarity in 2018.
Leighton Vander Esch And Jaylon Smith Are Legit
The Dallas Cowboys caught a lot of flack for their selection both of these linebackers, each for different reasons.
When they snagged Jaylon Smith in the second round of the 2016 draft, it was still unknown to the public if Smith could ever even play football again. When they took Leighton Vander Esch 19th overall last April, fans questioned how valuable an off-ball linebacker would be on a defense that already had Sean Lee.
Well, after their first full season together, it's easy to say that both Vander Esch and Smith are the linebacker options of the future in Dallas. Named to the Pro Bowl during his rookie season, Vander Esch took the world by storm in 2018. When Lee went down, he was there to not only fill his shoes, but to outplay the veteran all year long.
What is fun to consider is that as good as Vander Esch was this season, Jaylon Smith might be even better. Both posses insane sideline to sideline pursuit ability, and are some of the surest tacklers in all of football.
Watching these two grow together will be a pleasure over the coming seasons.
Their Young Secondary Is Coming Together
Like their linebackers, the Dallas Cowboys secondary is a young group, who fans are excited to watch grow throughout the years. It seemed like more pressure sat on the shoulders of young cornerbacks Byron Jones and Chidobe Awuzie than of Smith and Vander Esch, however.
With Kris Richard joining the staff and making the decision to move Jones to cornerback full time, it was do-or-die for the former first round pick. Byron Jones answered all the doubters, earning not only a Pro Bowl selection but also First Team All Pro honors for his performance.
Opposite him, Awuzie had a rough start to his sophomore campaign. While typically right there in coverage, wide outs too often made contested catches over him. Over the final few weeks of the year, however, that changed and Awuzie played some of the best football yet.
Xavier Woods, Anthony Brown, and Jourdan Lewis (in much fewer snaps) all had fantastic seasons as well, giving the Cowboys great hope and confidence in their secondary moving forward. They may need to add another safety during the offseason, however, though Jeff Heath remains more than just a viable option.
Dak Prescott Is Here To Stay
Whether or not you think it's justified, Dak Prescott is the quarterback of the future in Dallas. And he earned that right the back-half of 2018 and during the postseason. After a shaky start to his 3rd season, Prescott turned things around nicely, leading the Cowboys to a 7-1 finish to the regular season.
Prescott played the best football of his young career down the stretch, and showed just how valuable he is both on the field and in the locker room. It seemed like every game he made 2-3 winning plays that put the Cowboys over the top that afternoon.
Dak is going to get a contract extension, and will be locked in as a Cowboy for the foreseeable future, and with the way he played the final 10 games of his season, I can't second guess this decision much at all.
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