The 2018 Dallas Cowboys are loaded with young talent, which means there may be some tough cuts as the team puts together its 53-man roster for this season. Players you had high hopes for in the past could be pushed out by the influx of new talent, or just changing circumstances.
Last week, I gave you my first 53-man roster projection for 2018. Today, I thought we'd look at some of the bigger names on the roster who didn't make the cut. How close are they, and what needs to happen to make me change my mind?
Rico Gathers, TE
Perhaps the most surprising and potentially upsetting of my projected cuts, Gathers has tantalized us for two years now with his athletic ability. He had a strong 2017 preseason that got fans very excited, but a concussion put him on injured reserve and he never returned to action.
There have been whispers that the coaches aren't in love with Rico's work ethic, which is disturbing for a guy who has such a long and difficult road to making it in the NFL. Gathers didn't play college football, and the transition from power forward to tight end is one few could accomplish even if they gave max effort.
The biggest problem for Rico will be picking up pro-level blocking, which is especially vital for a team that relies on the run game like Dallas. Gathers could easily be buried if guys like Geoff Swaim, Dalton Schultz, and Blake Jarwin are overwhelmingly superior blockers.
With Fullback Jamize Olawale big enough to also play some tight end, the numbers could be a problem for Rico. Unless he makes a dramatic leap forward in his game, earning the confidence to be a consistent contributor, he may have to continue his NFL experiment with another franchise.
Chaz Green, OT
Some are probably surprised Green's still on the roster as it is after his disastrous 2017 run. But even if he's just a camp body, Chaz looks to be with the Cowboys at least through training camp and preseason.
In the final year of his rookie deal, Green is relatively cheap for his experience. But not all experience is good, and Chaz became a laughing-stock after the Falcons' Adrian Clayborn olbiterated him last year.
Dallas brought in veteran Cameron Fleming to take over as the swing tackle this year, which alone is a big shot to Green's job security. With Joe Looney and Marcus Martin at the interior spots, Green doesn't appear to have a role.
Given his time in the system, though, Chaz would likely be the first man up if someone gets hurt this summer. And if the Cowboys do want to keep nine offensive linemen on the roster, Green's experience at both guard and tackle give him some versatility value.
Chaz Green living up to his third-round draft pick appears to be a lost cause. But he could still hang around for one more year if a few things fall his way.
Charles Tapper, DE
Taken one round after Chaz Green in 2016, Tapper has been held back by injuries these first two seasons. Without a real foothold on the roster, his spot may now be lost to the team's latest fourth-round pick.
Dallas took another defensive end, Kansas' Dorance Armstrong, in last month's draft. He will automatically have an edge on Tapper as the shiny new toy.
To make matters worse for Charles, Randy Gregory appears poised to return from his suspension. If Gregory is anything close to the player Dallas selected in the 2015 draft, he will have a roster spot.
The Cowboys also signed veteran free agent Kony Ealy last month, who they have liked since he came into the league in 2014. Add these depth guys to your entrenched players like DeMarcus Lawrence and Taco Charlton and it's not hard to see how Charles Tapper could be pushed out.
Tapper's always seemed like he has potential, especially after he got a sack in the first game of 2017. But that came against the Giants' version of Chaz Green, Ereck Flowers.
If Charles can make it in the NFL, he may have to prove it elsewhere.
Lewis Neal, DT
One of the fan favorites from last preseason, Neal was a surprising cut who made it to the practice squad. He was signed to the active roster for the second half of 2017, appearing in seven games.
The Cowboys have a lot of guys already who fill the role that Neal does as the athletic 3-technique defensive tackle. He's up against Tyrone Crawford, David Irving, Maliek Collins, and newly acquired Jihad Ward.
Those numbers we discussed at defensive end regarding Charles Tapper also affect the tackles. If guys like Crawford and Irving aren't needed to play on the edges, they can commit more to the inside spots. It's a compound effect that limits opportunities for guys at the bottom.
2018 just isn't looking like a year for rags-to-riches players. The Cowboys have loaded up in recent years with solid drafts and other moves to bring in quality young talent. The decks are stacked against guys like Neal, undersized and undrafted, no matter how hard they work.
~ ~ ~
While we hate to see intriguing players like Rico Gathers or Lewis Neal not make the roster, these aren't bad things for the Cowboys. Project players are fun to talk about, but ultimately you want your roster spots going to guys with more substantial NFL talent and potential.
So yes, there will almost certainly be some tough cuts in 2018. Some we'll mourn more than others. But when guys you like don't make it, it means guys the coaches liked more did.
It means the team, at least in theory, is stronger for it.
Looking Ahead: Will The Cowboys Run The Table?
Only three more regular season games remain before we head into the NFL Playoffs. The Dallas Cowboys have turned their season around winning five straight and positioning themselves at first place of the NFC East. Once a 3-5 team, the Cowboys are currently one win away from clinching the division title.
In the midst of a five game winning streak, Jason Garrett's team is already being discussed as a legit threat in the NFC. Said discussions are the result from such a streak including a victory over arguably the best team in the NFL, the New Orleans Saints.
With three more games left to be played, the question I pose to you today is...
Can the Dallas Cowboys run the table?
After the Cowboys fell at home to the Tennessee Titans 28-14 in week 9, the schedule ahead did not look nice at all. The following five games included two matches against the defending Super Bowl Champions and division rivals, the Philadelphia Eagles and a game against the high-powered offense from Drew Brees & Co. and well... we know how that story goes.
Now, the landscape is a bit different. The Cowboys seem to have only one more difficult game ahead of them. Let's take a look at each of Dallas' next opponents.
Week 15: @ Indianapolis Colts
This is easily the biggest challenge remaining. Similar to the Cowboys' recent success, the Colts have won six of their last seven football games. The offensive line has been able to keep the pocket clean for QB Andrew Luck who is finally back to his old self. Surely, they won't be intimidated by the Cowboys' being "hot" this past few weeks. Just last Sunday, they snapped the Houston Texans' nine game winning streak.
The Colts are averaging 29 points per game in their last 10 led by T.Y. Hilton in the receiving game, who might just be Byron Jones' biggest challenge yet due to his speed on the field. However, Indianapolis is far from perfect. That's the reason why the Jacksonville Jaguars left them scoreless a couple of weeks ago.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for the Cowboys this week will be playing on the road. Their recent success has been impressive, but they've played three consecutive home games. All things considered, this really is a very promising game. I'll lean towards the Cowboys to win this football game thanks to their great defense and Amari Cooper. It's worth noting that Colts' center Ryan Kelly could play on Sunday. If he doesn't though, DeMarcus Lawrence and the rest of the DL will make their presence felt constantly.
Prediction: Cowboys Win
Week 16: VS Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been one of the most inconsistent teams in the 2018 NFL season. They've seen both versions of Ryan Fitzpatrick (the great one and the "why is he throwing so many picks?" one). They've gone back and forth again at the QB position between him and Jameis Winston. Right now, it seems like Winston is the guy who'll be leading the Bucs' offense for the rest of the season.
They surely seem like an easy opponent, but they're the same team that led the Saints 14-3 by halftime last Sunday. Their offense can be dangerous if the Cowboys are not careful. Cameron Brate at tight end is a player to watch out for when the Bucs visit AT&T Stadium.
The Cowboys should get a comfortable win on this one, though. Tampa Bay's defense ranks 30th in the league in scoring and 20th against the run. Ezekiel Elliott will surely be fed.
Prediction: Cowboys Win
Week 17: @ New York Giants
By this week, it's hard to know if the Cowboys will rest starters for the playoffs or not. History tells us they won't, so we'll pretend that's the case. When these two squared off back in September, both were very different teams. Against one of the worst offensive lines in the league, it should be a fun game for the Cowboys' defense.
The Giants are 4-1 in their last five games, but don't let that record fool you. In that span, they've beaten the Josh Johnson-led Washington Redskins, the Chase Daniels-led Chicago Bears, the Bucs and the San Francisco 49ers.
The Cowboys should be able to win this divisional game fairly easily as they try to improve their execution before January football.
Prediction: Cowboys Win
To be quite honest, only the next game feels like a true threat to the Dallas Cowboys' winning streak. The Indianapolis Colts are an intimidating rival. In fact, they're the favorites in Vegas to get the win on Sunday. If Dak Prescott and his team are able to walk away victorious from said game, this team should go 11-5 on the season
That would be quite the ending for a team that had only three wins through eight games in week 9. They're really a new team. It's time to finish strong.
Is Scott Linehan Holding Playoff-Hopeful Cowboys Back on Offense?
Wide Receiver Amari Cooper means many things to the Dallas Cowboys. He is a token of change for a team that started the season 3-4 without him, and 5-1 since with their first win streak beginning in Cooper's second game at the Eagles. Cooper is the player this club promised they wouldn't need to compete this season, happily being proved wrong by the NFC Offensive Player of the Week for both weeks 12 and 14. Much more subtly, the 24-year old receiver is also the latest player to very publicly doubt Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan.
Cooper matched his season high 10 receptions in the Cowboys home win over the Eagles, hauling in the game-winning touchdown in overtime as his third score to go with a career high 217 yards. Seventy five of these yards came on one play, with Cooper getting behind the depleted Eagles secondary to put Dallas ahead 23-16 late in the fourth.
After the game Amari Cooper talked about his 75-yard touchdown and how he originally had a stop route but Dak Prescott gave him a hand signal to run a go instead.
Exclaiming "this is ridiculous" while watching the Cowboys offense at any point before trading for Cooper was a common occurrence. The Cowboys were playing with a struggling offensive line, receivers that couldn't separate, and frustrated quarterback being asked to carry way too much in a Linehan offense that also does him few favors.
It was Dak Prescott that warned Cooper to stick with Linehan's play call before giving in and throwing the touchdown.
If it took Cooper only six weeks to tell the media that opposing defenses are sitting on the Cowboys plays, it's almost certain he's noticed it much sooner. Where teammates have brought nothing but excuses for poor play, Cooper is a solution in and of himself, changing the play that helped lift the Cowboys to their fifth straight win.
With the Cowboys 75-yard overtime march to win the game on Sunday, Dallas finished with a season high 576 yards. After four quarters the Cowboys had 485 yards, which would still be their best output of 2018.
The emptiness in some of these yards starts with Linehan's play calling in the red zone. As I noted in Sean's Scout for Monday, Ezekiel Elliott's 40 touch performance saw just six attempts when the Cowboys were inside the Eagles' 20-yard line.
The Cowboys have the longest active win streak in the league, and also the lowest percentage of red zone touchdowns over their last three victories. It still feels like fantasy to be inking the Cowboys as NFC East champions-elect, with one more win confirming their spot in the playoffs.
This is exactly how much of the Cowboys coaching staff should feel about their ink on any contract extensions. Around Linehan, the Cowboys made several moves at the positional level entering the year. Jason Garrett's staff has at the very least earned the right to be evaluated at the end of the season, with Garrett credited for guiding his club through this ongoing revival.
For a team that expects to be playing single elimination games next month, the Cowboys offense is slowed down entirely too often to trust Linehan more than at any previous level. As if a reminder was needed, Linehan's job was under enough fire from all angles for Garrett to address his newfound "job security" during the bye week.
Garrett doused the flames of a report that he aimed to replace Linehan during the Cowboys week off. Head coach openings in Green Bay and Cleveland have opened since, with more to follow, decreasing the Cowboys chances at bringing in a top offensive mind in any capacity below HC.
Of course, it was also during this bye week that the Cowboys were integrating their offensive savior in Cooper. The latest challenge for the Cowboys comes from a Colts team back in the AFC playoff picture with a win over the Texans last week. Holding Deandre Hopkins to just four catches, the Colts have defended #1 receivers well.
Calling the defense for this Indianapolis team is none other than former Cowboys Linebackers Coach Matt Eberflus. At a point in their season where the Cowboys should be fine tuning both sides of the ball before a playoff run, their championship level defense runs the risk of being held back by an uninspired offense more so this week than any other.
Linehan has stepped up with his back to the wall before, and with the right players in his system (read: Amari Cooper, again) the results can follow. Trying to extend a five game win streak to six isn't exactly pressure territory for any coach in December, but the Cowboys offense has three weeks to show what their playoff potential will be with Linehan as the play caller.
Maliek Collins Playing Excellent for Cowboys Defense
For the Dallas Cowboys on the interior, a lot of the news consistently surround the availability of Defensive Tackle David Irving, but Maliek Collins is playing excellent right now. While I'm willing to be very patient with Irving because of the elite talent he brings, Maliek Collins should continue to start for the Dallas Cowboys at 3-technique defensive tackle.
Collins has been a player that the Cowboys have bounced between the nose tackle and the 3T position with the hopes of getting their best players on the field, and because of the lack of a consistent presence at the 1-technique or nose tackle position. Well, with Antwaun Woods taking control at the 1T, Collins has been able to play at the position where he's at his best. The 3-tech.
He hasn't put huge numbers in the sack column this season, but that doesn't mean he's been absent from being the disruptive player he's been through his first two and a half seasons.
During the Dallas Cowboys five game winning streak, Maliek Collins has led the Dallas Cowboys defensive tackles in total pressures with 13, according to Pro Football Focus. PFF combines sacks, quarterback hits, and hurries into their "pressures." Collins hasn't recorded a sack during the winning streak, but he has four quarterback hits and nine hurries. He's tied with Tyrone Crawford for third in total pressures behind DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory over the last five weeks.
Over the last five weeks, Collins leads the defensive tackles in solo tackles with five and is tied with Crawford and Antwaun Woods with three run stops on defense, according to Pro Football Focus. Collins has also has two tackles for loss in the last five games and recovered Tyrone Crawford's force fumble on Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Collins had six sacks in his rookie season when he played primarily as the 3T, which allowed him to see more one-on-one blocks against opposing interior offensive linemen. Especially with the way the rest of the defensive line is playing.
With the Cowboys on the road to face the Indianapolis Colts this week, Collins is going to have a tough matchup with a very good Colts offensive line, in particular, rookie Quentin Nelson. Collins ability to get pressure on Andrew Luck on the interior is a huge key for the Dallas Cowboys this week. We know that Gregory and Lawrence will get their pressures, but if Andrew Luck is able to step up into a clean pocket, it will make for a much more challenging game for the Cowboys secondary.
Collins has proved to be up to any task over the last five weeks and if he's able to keep playing at such a high level, he'll make the Cowboys coaching staff, and the rest of Cowboys Nation forget about using other defensive tackles. For the Cowboys to make a deep push in the playoffs, they'll need Collins to be a big time player for them moving forward.
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