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Surprise, Surprise: Unexpected NFC Landscape Benefits Cowboys

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Cowboys Headlines - Surprise, Surprise: Unexpected NFC Landscape Benefits Cowboys

Don't look now, but the NFC is changing.

In one season, a conference that boasted true Super Bowl contenders suddenly seems muddled. The defending NFC champions are 1-4 and the team they beat to get there is 2-3. Even the once scary Green Bay Packers are still winning games, yes, but lacking that level of dominance we're accustomed to seeing from them over the years.

New names, faces, and teams are making a name for themselves this season. The Dallas Cowboys find themselves right in the mix.

Raise your hand if you had Dallas, the Philadelphia Eagles, and the Atlanta Falcons all at one loss through five weeks of the season.

I know I didn't.

And how about the Minnesota Vikings? Yes, this group was a playoff team from a season ago, but they appear to be arguably the best team in all of football at the moment. This, all without star running back Adrian Peterson and their starting quarterback.

So how exactly do the Cowboys fit into all of this?

When I look at the AFC, I see a conference dominated by three teams. The New England Patriots, Denver Broncos, and Pittsburgh Steelers are all powerhouses in their own ways. One has the best offense in the league, the other has a championship defense, and the third has the greatest head coach/quarterback duo of all time. Enough Said.

But the NFC is much different.

The Seattle Seahawks are the one true team right now that is what we thought they were. They struggled early on, but have appeared to have gotten back on track in the past two weeks. They are a championship team that can be trusted, and remain a big threat in the conference. But the level of trust should end there in the NFC.

The Minnesota Vikings are looking spectacular, but they will be tested when their offense is needed to win games for them. Is Sam Bradford truly good enough to take this team to the promised land? It is fair to question whether or not that is the case.

The Atlanta Falcons are 4-1 and rolling offensively, but we may have already seen this song and dance from them last year with their hot start and drastic collapse. A win at Denver a week ago cannot be ignored though. Will their offense be able to keep up this pace and will their defense continue to surprise?

And then we have the NFC East surprises of the Eagles and Cowboys. Carson Wentz looks like the real deal, and their defense, led by Jim Schwartz, is nothing to scoff at. Can the new-look Eagles keep it up?

The bottom line here is that for the first time in years, the NFC doesn't appear to truly have the brick wall of perennial powers that the AFC has.

All of these question marks listed here benefit a young, up and coming team like the Cowboys. That's not to say the team doesn't have its own fair share of questions, but the unexpected NFC landscape plays right into the Cowboys' hands.

It's early still, but 2016 could be the year of a surprise team emerging from the conference. If this NFC landscape remains as such, Dallas fans can start asking themselves, why not us?



Die hard Dallas Cowboys fan behind enemy lines here in New Jersey. CBS Sports employee and contributor for InsideTheStar.com.

Dallas Cowboys

Cowboys 2018 Breakout Candidates: LB Jaylon Smith

Jess Haynie

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#DALvsIND: 5 Cowboys Storylines To Watch In Preseason Week 2 1

No single player on the Dallas Cowboys roster right now may be more primed for a breakout season than Linebacker Jaylon Smith. His ascension as a player isn't just a big gain for the Cowboys defense, but it may be vital to their success in 2018.

Smith joined the Cowboys as a high second-round pick (34th overall) in the 2016 NFL Draft. Potentially a top-five elite talent in that class, Jaylon's stock fell after a severe knee injury in his final college game. It was unknown if he could ever play football again, but Dallas took the risk based on Smith's incredible upside.

After Jaylon sat out his rookie year to fully rehab. In 2017, he was able to play all 16 games and started in six. That alone was a huge win for Smith and the Cowboys.

Jaylon's performance last year wasn't great,  but understandably so after all the missed time. He also had to regain confidence in his knee, which is critical for a linebacker with all of the directional changes during plays.

Still, Smith got better as the season went. And even amidst the struggles, there were flashes of his instincts and potential.

This offseason, reports of Jaylon's improving health are fueling increased optimism. He is now playing without a knee brace and that means more confidence. If Smith fully trusts his body now, it will make him far more dangerous on the field.

5 Positives for Cowboys Heading Into the Off-Season

Dallas Cowboys LB Jaylon Smith

With Anthony Hitchens leaving in free agency, Dallas needs Jaylon to be a bigger factor this year. If he doesn't take the next step, it could leave the Cowboys vulnerable at linebacker in 2018.

True, Dallas drafted Leighton Vander Esch in the first round of last April's draft. But it's always dangerous to ask a rookie to do heavy lifting, and especially one who is seen as a raw talent like Vander Esch.

Ideally, anything Dallas gets from Leighton this year will be gravy. Their goal is to rely on veteran Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith, with Damien Wilson also available as a solid fallback option.

But when you mention Sean Lee, you have to mention health concerns. After two encouragingly healthy seasons in 2015 and 2016, Lee was back to having some issues last year and missed five games.

That is all the more reason why Dallas needs Jaylon to be ready for more this year. If Lee misses time again, Smith is the best suited to take over the roles that Sean leaves behind.

Thankfully, all signs point to big things for Jaylon Smith in 2018. His body appears healed and there's no questioning his work ethic and desire. If the mental aspect of football has also developed, he could be everything the Cowboys hoped when they drafted them.



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Despite Late Push as Rookie, Will Taco Charlton Struggle to See Field in 2018?

Sean Martin

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Despite Late Push in Year One, Will Taco Charlton Struggle to See the Field in 2018? 1
(Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports)

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.

Despite Late Push as Rookie, Will Taco Charlton Struggle to See Field in 2018?

Dallas Cowboys DE Taco Charlton, DT Maliek Collins (Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News)

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.

Tell us what you think about "Despite Late Push as Rookie, Will Taco Charlton Struggle to See Field in 2018?" in the comments below. You can also email me at Sean.Martin@InsideTheStar.com, or Tweet to me at @SeanMartinNFL!



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Dallas Cowboys

Cowboys OT La’el Collins Could Become Major Bargain

Jess Haynie

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La'el Collins

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.

La'el Collins' Position Flex Could Come in Handy for Cowboys

Dallas Cowboys OT La'el Collins

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.



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