We're just a few more days away from the official start of the NFL free agency period. Many things could and likely will happen between now and March 9th: Brandon Carr's release, Morris Claiborne and Rolando McClain being re-signed, and contracts being restructured. The Cowboys' true spending power for next week's market is yet to be determined.
For today, let's take a snapshot of were things are and what the biggest needs will be if nothing changes before next Wdnesday. Here are the five biggest roster needs as of now:
1. Defensive End
Already a top concern before a few weeks ago, the need drastically increased with the news of Randy Gregory's four-game suspension. With Greg Hardy, Jeremy Mincey, and Jack Crawford all currently free agents, that leaves just DeMarcus Lawrence and Ryan Russell as signed players who could play in Week One.
With seven sacks in his final eight games of 2015, Lawrence is sure to start no matter who's added. Russell was a fifth-round pick last year who was inactive in 11 of 12 games and then went on injured reserve. Clearly, the need for help is enormous.
Comments last week from Jason Garrett made it fairly clear that Hardy will not be re-signed. Dallas could look to bring back Mincey or Crawford, perhaps even both, on minor deals. However, they will certainly look to add a true starter to pair with Lawrence even after Gregory's suspension is over.
At this point, Gregory hasn't shown he can be more than a situational pass-rusher. As promising as he looked in last year's preseason, the injury and lack of performance afterwards are concerning. Now with the drug-related suspension, Dallas can't count on Gregory until he improves his track record.
Even if Gregory was reliable Dallas would still be in the market for defensive ends. Whether it's bringing back some of their own free agents or adding fresh faces, they should be active at this position over the next two months. With Gregory's issues, the fourth-overall pick in April's draft is also a possibility.
The position flexibility of Byron Jones makes it hard to separate the defensive backs. Stephen Jones recently said that they would like to play him at safety but that the decision is not final. Obviously, the next two months go will play a major part in where Byron is ultimately used.
Stephen also said that Dallas hopes to bring back free agent Morris Claiborne. What Claiborne gets paid will be a strong indicator of the level of trust they have in him. I would expect a modest deal befitting a number-three corner or occasional starter. Anything beyond that would be, hopefully, out of Dallas' price range.
With Orlando Scandrick returning from a major knee injury and Carr likely to be cut in the next week or so, there's still significant need even if Claiborne returns. Dallas will need to add one player of consequence at either corner or safety depending on where they want to play Byron Jones.
They may need two secondary players if they look to completely overhaul the safety position. Barry Church could be released for $4.25 million in cap relief and J.J. Wilcox would save $1.65 million. With Jones ready to fill one spot they may look to add an upgrade beside him and let both of last year's starters go. But again, Jones playing safety increased need at cornerback.
Many are likely looking past free agency to the draft, hoping that Jalen Ramsey from Florida State will fall to the Cowboys. It's a dangerous scenario to let the top free agents and rely on the draft to fill needs. Perhaps Dallas sees Claiborne as their insurance policy and are okay with him starting next year.
I like danger in my movies. I occasionally eat stuff well past the expiration date. I've been known to drive with about half my windshield still covered in frost.
Living dangerously with your secondary, though? That's more than I can handle!
3. Backup Quarterback
Though some believe he can heal the sick and walk on water, Kellen Moore isn't good enough to be our primary backup quarterback. Sorry to any of my readers who are proud and faithful Kellenites, but there's just no getting around it.
Yes, Moore was better than Brandon Weeden and Matt Cassel. But he also threw six interceptions in three games and lost them all. If Dallas gets back to being a contending team, as we all hope, then you want someone who knows how to manage a game and play within his own limitations.
I get why people like Moore. He's a small guy with some flash in his game. But between those flashes are the potential for game-killing mistakes. Until you trust a guy to do enough good that you can suffer the bad, such as Dallas' relationship with Tony Romo, then that guy isn't a great option for your primary backup.
I do not believe that Dallas will take a quarterback in the first round and will dive deeper into that topic in my next article. I would expect a third or fourth-round pick to be used on a developmental player who may even be good enough to challenge for the role now. That "maybe" factor means they will need someone else on staff in case the rookie needs some time.
Moore will likely be back to compete, but Dallas needs to look at some of the available free agent quarterbacks. Colt McCoy stands out as one with enough experience and proven ability to be a quality option and probably upgrade from Moore. To really confuse things, they could also look at Matt Moore to compete with Kellen.
4. Defensive Tackle
Though a season-long shoulder injury slowed him down, Tyrone Crawford's 2015 season was a disappointment after getting a big, new contract. Dallas will hope that he can get back to the player they thought they were paying for and will likely restructure his deal in the next few days to get more cap space.
The big question is what they do at the other defensive tackle spot. Nick Hayden is a free agent and is a polarizing figure. Coaches seem to love him but statistical analysis says otherwise.
In Hayden's three years as a starter the Cowboys have had been in the bottom-third of the league in run defense twice. He has zero sacks in three seasons. What impact can you say he's really having?
If Hayden walks that leaves Dallas with a motley assortment of options. Terrell McClain, who recently received the Perfect Attendance Award from the injury report, has a year left on his contract. David Irving was a bright spot last year before injury and should be back to compete.
Compounding the issue is the potential loss of defensive ends who had the size to play inside, such as Hardy, Mincey, and Jack Crawford. Even if one or two of them do return and help the numbers, Dallas should still be thinking about upgrading a spot that I feel they've neglected for too long by sticking with Hayden.
If Rolando McClain is re-signed, as Stephen Jones said they were hoping to do, then this becomes a lesser concern. Despite the mutual injury issues of McClain and Sean Lee, Dallas has some decent depth options in Anthony Hitchens, Andrew Gachkar, and Damien Wilson. They could survive next year without a major addition.
If McClain doesn't come back then things get much more critical. I think Dallas could live with a starting three of Lee, Hitchens, and one of Gachkar or Wilson. However, even if they re-sign free agent Kyle Wilber, there would still be a major concern about depth.
Dallas will be in a position to draft one of the top overall prospects in linebacker Myles Jack. They may be considering Jack even if McClain returns. However, as discussed before with cornerback, you're playing a dangerous game if you wait on the draft to fill needs.
With McClain back Dallas would be wise to still make a shrewd veteran signing similar to what they had with Justin Durant in 2013. Versatility would be a plus given the concerns with Lee and McClain's health problems.
Without McClain, Dallas would need to consider making much bigger signing next week. Even if you believed Sean Lee was never going to miss another game you'd still need one more impact player beside him. Given Lee's history, though, you simply have to guard yourself against losing all dynamic play-making from the middle of your defense.
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.
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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