Some may still be focused on Peyton Manning's legacy and Cam Newton's petulance, but for many NFL fans our eyes are already looking ahead to offseason business. Monday was the first day that teams could begin waiving players and we've already seen a few cuts by the Eagles, Falcons, and Saints. More moves are sure to come and, of course, we're all waiting for the first news to come out of Dallas.
Today I thought we'd go through the important dates on the NFL calendar over the next few months and see what we have to look forward to. Some of these moves are purely speculation, obviously, but isn't that what makes this time of year so much fun?
February 8th - Waivers Begin
Teams may now release players within the 2016 "contract year." They may also designate up to two players as "post-June 1st" cuts to split the dead money over the next two seasons.
The big focus for a potential Cowboys release is cornerback Brandon Carr. He could be released for about $6.5 million in cap savings if cut outright and $9 million if done with the June 1st tag. It seems a foregone conclusion that Carr will be released if he does not accept a pay cut the way Doug Free did in 2013. Carr was unwilling to do this last year but may be more motivated now that he turns 30 in May.
Barry Church is the only other key player with potential to be released. The last figure I saw was $4.25 million off the cap. That would go about halfway to paying the salary of a top-tier free agent safety, such as Eric Berry, if Dallas is looking to upgrade the position. However, I could also see Dallas electing to keep Church at a relatively low salary and seeing how he performs with Byron Jones as his new partner.
Also possible right now are contract restructurings and Dallas has several candidates for that. Tyron Smith, Tyrone Crawford, and Dez Bryant all seem likely to have their deals reworked and projections are up to about $25 million in cap room gained from those moves. Jason Witten is another candidate though a little less assured due to age. Although they also have big contracts with movable money, Tony Romo and Sean Lee seem unlikely for restructure due to concerns about their health and longevity.
February 16 - Franchise Tagging Begins
It seems highly unlikely that Dallas will use the franchise tag on any of their 2016 free agents. It would pay anywhere from $12-$15 million for guys like Greg Hardy and Rolando McClain, neither of whom has earned that kind of payday. No other free agent is even close to matching their level contribution or potential for next year.
February 23 - NFL Scouting Combine
Cowboys fans will likely be more interested in this year's Combine than others with the fourth overall pick to consider. It hasn't been since 2011 that Dallas had the potential to land any of the draft's biggest names and it is sure to create added excitement and chatter around the event. All of the debates we're having now about rookie quarterbacks and "need versus talent" will only be amplified.
March 9 - Free Agency Opens
Though negotiations can begin about 48 hours prior, the market truly opens at 4:00 pm EST on Wednesday, March 9th. Given the potential for cap space that we discussed above, Dallas could be major players in this year's free agency. It will be the first time in several years that they've had the cap flexibility to do so.
Topping the list for Dallas' free agent targets will likely be defensive players. They should add at least one defensive back, either at corner or safety, and may be looking for one of each. Defensive line will also be a focus as they look to continue rehabbing their pass rush. If they don't bring Rolando McClain back then a replacement there, or a talented upgrade on the strongside, could be in the cards.
On offense their targets may be a younger running back to pair with Darren McFadden or an upgrade at their number-two receiver. Some certainly want a better right tackle than Doug Free but the draft is more likely for that than free agency, especially with Chaz Green in the mix. A new veteran at backup quarterback, such as the much-discussed Robert Griffin III or Johnny Highball, will also be a focus.
As for the Cowboys' own free agents, most of them could go either way for staying or leaving. I think McClain has decent potential to come back on an incentive-heavy deal but could also see them looking for more consistency and reliability. Hardy wasn't worth the headaches in 2015 but maybe they feel like they've weathered the storm and could get him now at a bargain. Morris Claiborne is an interesting case and it's tough to tell what his market value will be or the team's remaining value in him.
March 20-23 - NFL Annual Meeting
Could we figure out what a catch is? That would be lovely.
April 22 - Deadline for RFA's to Sign Offers
Guard Ronald Leary and safety Jeff Heath are the only restricted free agents Dallas has this year. Both were undrafted so the original pick tender, likely about $1.5 million in 2016, doesn't do much good if they're trying to hang on to Leary. They would have to give him the 2nd-round pick tender of about $2.5 million, which isn't a bad price for a talented and system-familiar backup. Heath could get the original pick tender due to his experience and special teams value, but may also be squeezed out if J.J. Wilcox is moving to the bench.
April 28-30 - This Little Thing Called "The Draft"
We'll have such a better sense of what Dallas' needs are after free agency. Those pining for Jalen Ramsey today will move on if Dallas signs Eric Berry and Josh Norman. Bringing back Hardy would likely rule out Joey Bosa. And if RG3 does wind up a Cowboy, wouldn't that suggest they may not take a quarterback at number four?
It promises to be a fun offseason. Dallas has a lot of moving parts and, thankfully, the financial flexibility to cover their bases and even upgrade from last season. Will the disastrous 2015 season push Jerry Jones into making some more desperate moves than in recent years? Will he stay the course with Jason Garrett's patience and process? Time will tell.
Leighton Vander Esch To Top Rookie Season With Pro Bowl Trip
Dallas Cowboys' rookie Leighton Vander Esch has done enough to prove every single doubter wrong. When Roger Goodell called his name during the 2018 NFL Draft in Arlington, Texas, many in Cowboys Nation rejoiced at the thought of having a young linebacker for a defense surrounded with uncertainty. However, many analysts doubted the draft pick. For a lot of people (sadly, I include myself in this category), the pick should've been used on another player. For most, despite acknowledging his raw talent, Vander Esch wouldn't be able to provide the Cowboys with an instant impact player. Ah, well.
After a remarkable season, Vander Esch (a.k.a. Wolf Hunter) has earned a spot on this season's second-team All-Pro. When the Pro Bowl voting began, Vander Esch was snubbed from the ballot itself. It didn't took the NFL long to realize their mistake and add the Cowboys' linebacker to the list. Despite missing the cut at first, Vander Esch will be heading to Orlando to play in this year's Pro Bowl on January 27th.
DallasCowboys linebacker @VanderEsch38 has been added to the 2019 Pro Bowl Roster. 🐺 Congratulations, rookie! → https://t.co/AYqEUy2tZx
The former Boise State Bronco will be replacing Carolina Panthers' LB Luke Kuechly, who won't be participating because of an injury.
Vander Esch racked up 140 tackles (per Pro Football Reference), ranking third in the league in this category. He finished the season as the fifth best linebacker in Pro Football Focus' rankings.
But numbers aren't really enough to fully appreciate what Vander Esch did for the Dallas Cowboys. A team that was used to seeing its defense break when veteran Sean Lee went down injured, did not only get someone to fill in for Lee. Vander Esch actually upgraded the Cowboys' defense. It didn't matter where the ball went, he was always around when opponents were tackled. His speed and chance of direction allowed him to run sideline to sideline, covering a huge portion of the field.
Along Jaylon Smith, Dallas managed to have one of the best linebacker duos in the NFL.
The last time a defensive rookie from the Cowboys went to the Pro Bowl was in 1981, when Everson Walls made the team. Vander Esch is the 11th rookie in team history to be selected to the Pro Bowl. This year, the rookie will be accompanied by DeMarcus Lawrence, Byron Jones, Tyron Smith, Zack Martin and Ezekiel Elliott.
Cowboys Expect C Travis Frederick Back for Offseason Program
Lost in yesterday's hoopla over Scott Linehan's return was a positive report about Center Travis Frederick. In his comments to the media, Jason Garrett said that Frederick's recovery timetable should allow him to a full participant in the team's offseason program.
After never missing a start in his first five years, Travis missed all of 2018 dealing with the effects of Guillain-Barré Syndrome. The disease attacked his neurological system and required immediate and intensive treatment.
Jason Garrett says the team anticipates Travis Frederick being involved in the offseason program right from the start this spring if he continues on the same positive track in recovery from Guillain-Barré syndrome. #cowboyswire
While Joe Looney performed admirably in Frederick's absence, he's not an elite talent. Travis has been arguably the best center in the NFL since entering the league in 2013.
It's hard to qualify what effect not having Frederick had on the Cowboys offense in 2018. Ezekiel Elliott still led the league in rushing, but short-yardage plays weren't as automatic as we've seen in past years. A 4th-and-1 stuff was part of what led to the Cowboys' loss this past Saturday.
Dak Prescott was the second-most sacked QB in the NFL in 2018. After being sacked just 25 and 32 times in his first two seasons, the number skyrocketed to 56 sacks.
That's not all on Frederick, of course. Tyron Smith had some health issues and there were was turnover at left guard.
But having your All-Pro veteran center out there to help with the pre-snap reads, and help the rookie guard on his left, might have helped avoid some of those issues.
Indeed, Travis Frederick's return is just one of many reasons for optimism with the 2019 season. One of the best players on the team, he was sorely missed this year and can only help as Dallas looks to build on their division title and playoff appearance.
For Cowboys to Beat the Rams, Dak Prescott must Lead the Way
In the NFL wins and losses often come down to quarterback play. That isn't to say that if a team wins, it was all because of the quarterback and inversely, if a team loses that it was all on the quarterback. Teams win or lose games. Generally speaking, however, the quarterback has the highest amount of influence on the outcome of an NFL game. This will be no different for the Dallas Cowboys this Saturday when they take on the Los Angeles Rams in the LA Coliseum. For America's Team to make their first trip to the NFC Championship Game since 1996, Dak Prescott has to have a good game.
This looks to be a good matchup for the Dallas Cowboys offense, which should allow Dak Prescott and the Cowboys to take advantage in certain areas.
A few Rams Passing Game Notes
- The Los Angeles Rams were middle of the pack against the pass this season, allowing the 14th fewest passing yards in the league this season.
- The Rams allowed 7.7 yards per attempt. Dak Prescott is averaging 7.6 yards per attempt since week 10 of the season.
- The Rams allowed the eighth most passing touchdowns in the NFL this season. They and the New Orleans Saints are the only teams in the top 10 of passing touchdowns allowed in the playoffs this season.
- The Rams were 15th in the NFL in sacks, with 41, but Aaron Donald accounted for half of that with 20.5 sacks on the season. No other player had more than five sacks.
- They were third in the NFL in interceptions, collecting 18.
- The Rams allowed the ninth highest yards per completion on the season at 11.8. So on average, every completion went for a first down.
Dak Prescott is playing as well as any quarterback in the playoffs at the moment. Over the last nine games, he's averaging 272 passing yards, two total touchdowns, was only intercepted four times, and was sacked on average 3.2 times per game.
On Saturday night, we saw Scott Linehan put the ball in his hands on a couple designed runs that nearly scored touchdowns. It was an excellent addition to the offense that could help fix the Cowboys red zone woes. Getting Dak Prescott running on some designed runs or quarterback draws could help slow down Aaron Donald and the pass rush.
The Cowboys needed every bit of Dak Prescott magic to overcome a stingy Seattle Seahawks defense in their Wild Card win and they'll need him to step up again this week against the Rams. Every team is going to attempt to take away the running game to make Dak beat you and as he continues to mature, he's getting more and more comfortable doing that. He's comfortable with the big stage and the big moments.
Dak Prescott Since 2016, including playoffs * 15 game-winning drives (Most in NFL) * 13 primetime QB wins (Most in NFL) * 19 rush TD (Most in NFL by QB) #DallasCowboys @dak
No Quarterback in the NFL has more game winning drives, rushing touchdowns, or wins in primetime than Dak Prescott. When we talk about Dak Prescott, we talk a lot about the things that he can't do as a passer and deservedly so, he still has some growing to do in that area, but in the things that you can't objectively quantify -- mental toughness, resiliency, clutchness, will, determination -- Dak is one of the best in the NFL. He's as mentally tough as they come in the NFL and he doesn't let the spotlight or the game situation phase him. He has that stuff that's hard to put your finger on.
The Dallas Cowboys will need more of that on Saturday night in Los Angeles. The Rams can score and can score in bunches and if the Cowboys defense starts sluggish or has an off night, they'll need Dak Prescott to keep them in the game. Even if the defense has a good game, Dak still has to come through in the passing game and on the ground to give the Cowboys a chance to pull off the upset.
The Dallas Cowboys are going to try to run the ball against the Rams on Saturday. That's their identity; run the ball, control the clock, and be efficient in the passing game. Prescott, either with his legs or with his arm will have to make some plays to extend drives and keep the Rams offense on the sideline. He'll need to be sharp in the red zone to convert those opportunities into touchdowns. Settling for field goals against the Rams is how the Cowboys get beat.
This matchup with the Rams looks to set up nicely for Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys, yet how things look on paper doesn't mean much when the lights go on and the whistle blows. It's a big stage and it's another win-or-go-home game for the Cowboys (like every game has been over the last nine weeks). In a big game, you need big time players, and the Cowboys have one in quarterback Dak Prescott.
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