The NFL Draft is almost two weeks away, which means the best part of the offseason is so close, we can taste it. We are at that point in the offseason where what gets said by the Dallas Cowboys and other teams needs to be taken with a grain of salt as front offices turn into politicians delivering misinformation to the masses.
The Dallas Cowboys, as much as any team in the league, have a lot at stake. Not only in the upcoming NFL Draft, where one wrong evaluation at a premium pick can set you back -- looking at you Randy Gregory and Jaylon Smith -- but also the 2018 season as a whole.
From the front office to the coaching staff to the quarterback, success is almost necessary at this point.
The Front Office
Things have been changing in the Cowboys front office during the Jason Garrett era. Where the team used to hold onto players a year longer than they should, it now appears they are willing to part with players before they really hit the rock bottom of their decline. Even popular players like Dez Bryant.
Stephen Jones and Will McClay have begun to take on a lot of the decision-making process throughout the organization, and the NFL Draft has become one of the team's strengths in the last several years. The 2016 and 2017 drafts were both very strong for the team and nothing suggests they won't continue to find really good players in the 2018 NFL Draft.
That being said, the decision makers in the front office really went out on a limb with Owner and General Manager Jerry Jones in the Dez Bryant decision.
As we sit here in the middle of April, there's no way to know if it was the right decision.
If Dez Bryant goes to another team and puts up a good year, Jerry Jones will likely take back some of the reigns that he's been slowly handing over to his lieutenants these last eight years.
A favorite of Jerry's who had a hard time being convinced would probably feel like he made a mistake not listening to his gut and going with the voices around him. He's made a life of following his instincts and if his instincts told him to keep Dez but he allowed others to convince him otherwise, that could bring back late 90's and early 2000's Jerry Jones.
And we begged for that Jerry Jones to give away some of his power.
If the Dez decision bites them, he could seize it back, and there could be some turnover in the front office.
As good as they've been in the draft, they can't afford a miss in the first three rounds of the draft this year. Hopefully, 2017 was an indication that they're done gambling their second-round picks.
The Coaching Staff
This very much seems like a win or go home scenario for Jason Garrett and the coaching staff, on offense in particular.
At the start of the 2017 season, things were going fairly well. Though they were only 5-3 in the first half of the season, they'd suffered a couple of losses where they scored 30 points (Green Bay Packers, Los Angeles Rams).
The second half of the season was a completely different story.
From the Atlanta game on, the offense was a wreck. The team that was scoring 20-30 points per game on a regular basis was struggling to hit double digits.
Rumors are that the offensive staff is working to revamp the offensive system to better suit Dak Prescott's strengths. One of the weaknesses being they weren't getting creative enough in scheming their pass catchers open.
If there is any kind of carry over of the 2017 debacle into the 2018 season, the calls for changes to the coaching staff will be loud and consistent. Even the strongest of Jason Garrett supporters, me included, would have to admit the time has come for a change.
And like the front office, Jason Garrett and Scott Linehan have a lot riding on Dez Bryant's production in 2018. While they won't publicly say it, and maybe in their hearts they hope he has success, in the subconscious part of their mind they have to be hoping for Dez's demise.
The offensive coaches are out on the same limb as Stephen Jones, the difference being Jerry Jones isn't going to fire Stephen. But the Dez Bryant decision really put the coaching staff on the hot seat. Only hindsight will tell us if they were right.
On the defensive side of the ball, the transition from Rod Marinelli to the next defensive coordinator appears to be underway with the hiring of Kris Richard, the former Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator.
Marinelli may not be the coach beyond this year, but his heir is already on the staff, and Richard could even be a head coaching candidate if a change has to be made.
I've argued that, with a little luck in the health department, particularly with Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith, the Dallas Cowboys defense is championship material. They have two elite pass rushers and several solid to good ones as well. They have an ascending secondary. The only weakness is the health of their top two linebackers, but as we saw in 2017, when Sean Lee plays, this defense can be elite.
While the defense seems ready to play in 2018, the offensive coaches and the head coach have a lot to prove to retain their standing within the organization.
Eight games do not make a career, but the final eight games of the 2017 season left a lot to be desired from the starting quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys.
Dak Prescott, who through 24 starts was showing that he was franchise quarterback material, really struggled after his left tackle went down. He wasn't the same player after that unlucky night in Atlanta.
Coming into 2018, he has a lot to prove. And a lot might be an understatement.
He needs to show the Cowboys that he's shaken off the beating he took in the last half of last season. He needs to show that his first 24 games are more indicative of the player he can be than the last eight.
Dak Prescott has been one of the more efficient quarterbacks in the league and, with a little bit of protection, should still be able to move the team down the field with regularity. That being said, he needs to improve his deep-ball consistency so teams can't crowd the line of scrimmage and take away the short chain-moving throws to Beasley & Co. that were his bread and butter in 2016.
The Dallas Cowboys have Dak Prescott at a very reasonable rate over the next two years, but his 2018 season is going to go a long way toward deciding whether they are negotiating an extension in 2019 or looking for his replacement.
Dak Prescott literally has millions riding on his 2018 season.
✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭
As I wrote the other day, I believe the Dallas Cowboys are contenders in the 2018 season. If they don't live up to my and a lot of people's expectations, a lot of changes could be forthcoming.
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.
Earl Thomas: Age is Just a Number Part II
Yesterday, I wrote a piece attempting to assuage the fears that many in Cowboys Nation have about handing a contract extension out to Earl Thomas, who is 29 years old as we enter the 2018 NFL season.
In the comment section, a reader posed a very good question that is the basis for the rest of this article:
It's a great question that certainly required some research, but Cowboys fans all across the world should be encouraged by my findings.
Just to refresh, here are the players we looked at as favorable comparisons to Earl Thomas at this point in his career. I searched Pro Football Reference for safeties who had at least three All-Pro First Team selections and at least six Pro Bowl appearances.
The average age of the players listed at the time when they reached their third All-Pro was 31 years old. I'm removing Deion Sanders and Roger Wehrli from the equation as most of their work was done at cornerback.
Let's look at a chart that outlines what these guys careers looked like at age 29 and beyond to get a better picture. Remember, Earl Thomas already has three All-Pro selections and six Pro Bowls. Many of these guys didn't reach those kind of accolades until their 30s.
The first thing I noticed as I looked into this question is that only two players had three or more All-Pro First Team selections prior to age 29, like Earl Thomas has. Those players were Rod Woodson and Ronnie Lott. Every other player on this list didn't hit their third All-Pro selection until age 29 or later.
Only one player reached his sixth Pro Bowl prior to his age 29 season, that player is Ronnie Lott, who many NFL Analysts consider to be the greatest safety of all-time. Most of the players didn't achieve their third All-Pro selection until their age 29 season or later. Earl Thomas reached his third All-Pro selection at age 25.
Here's a hot take for you: Earl Thomas, when it's all said and done could be considered the greatest safety of all-time. I'll just leave that there to marinate and if a trade does happen, we'll come back to that.
Back to the chart.
Another thing I want to point out is that none of these players were 100% healthy. Such is the life in the NFL, especially as you get older, but they were available for at least 14 games a majority of their seasons aged 29 or later. Health is an unpredictable animal in the NFL, but the safety position allows for much more longevity than many other positions. And as the chart depicts, it's a position that ages well.
So, as you can see in the chart, players who were highly productive prior to their age 29 season were also highly productive for several seasons after. These players went onto average almost seven more years in the league from their age 29 seasons.
Most players continued to average a healthy amount of interceptions. The player that saw the biggest decline from the early part of his career to the post-29 part of his career was Brian Dawkins. The former Philadelphia Eagles and Denver Broncos safety went from three interceptions per season prior to 29 to 1.9 interceptions per season 29 and after.
When it comes to the safety position, the elite seem to be able to get the most of their bodies and their abilities and can prolong their prime. The position relies as much on intelligence and awareness as it does quickness and athleticism. Earl Thomas has the mental capacity to play the game for many more years and there's been zero evidence to suggest that he is experiencing any physical decline.
At the rate of his career that he's on, Earl Thomas is destined for the Hall of Fame. He's one of the faces of the Legion of Boom defense that propelled the Seattle Seahawks into the elite category of teams in the early part of this decade.
If and when an Earl Thomas trade does occur, don't sweat an extension for Thomas.
Thomas' credentials put him in an elite group of players who played the game for a very long time and there's no reason to believe he won't continue to do so.
The Dallas Cowboys aren't that far off from having a Super Bowl contending defense built in the image of the Seattle Seahawks. Going to get the All-Pro, future Hall of Fame safety is the final piece to the to the Dallas Cowboys completing construction on "Doomsday III."
Everything else is there for the Dallas Cowboys, now all they have to do is: Go. Get. Earl!
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