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Cowboys’ Top-Five Needs as Free Agency Nears

Jess Haynie

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Cowboys Headlines - Cowboys' Top-Five Needs as Free Agency Nears 5

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.

Cowboys Headlines - Cowboys' Top-Five Needs as Free Agency Nears

Lawrence is the Cowboys' only reliable DE for Week One right now.

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.

2. Cornerback/Safety

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.

Cowboys Headlines - Cowboys' Top-Five Needs as Free Agency Nears 1

Claiborne could be back, but with how much responsibility?

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.

Cowboys Headlines - Cowboys' Top-Five Needs as Free Agency Nears 2

Dallas needs more, not Moore, behind Romo.

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.

Cowboys Headlines - Cowboys' Top-Five Needs as Free Agency Nears 3

Hayden is well-liked but ultimately not that effective.

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.

5. Linebacker

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.

Cowboys Headlines - Cowboys' Top-Five Needs as Free Agency Nears 4

If McClain does not come back, linebacker becomes a critical need.

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.

 

 



Cowboys fan since 1992, blogger since 2011. Bringing you the objectivity of an outside perspective with the passion of a die-hard fan. I love to talk to my readers, so please comment on any article and I'll be sure to respond!

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Is Ezekiel Elliott the Most Dominant Running Back in the NFL?

John Williams

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Safe to Say, Ezekiel Elliott Not an Offensive Line Product

There's no player in football that is more hotly debated at the moment than Dallas Cowboys Running Back Ezekiel Elliott. Though much of the debate surrounds his potential contract extension, which would likely make him the highest-paid running back in the NFL, there's also been a lot of debate about his standing as the best running back in the NFL.

On Thursday, Bleacher Report's Kristopher Knox released his list of the most dominant players at each position. It's a fantastic read and not just because he listed Ezekiel Elliott as the most dominant running back in the NFL.

It's certainly easy to see where he's coming from despite the debate that rages across the NFL's fanbases. Ezekiel Elliott's lead the NFL in rushing two of the three season's he's been in the league. Both of those seasons, Elliott only played 15 games, getting the benefit of the Cowboys playoff positioning being solidified prior to week 17. In 2017, he would have probably ran away with the league's rushing title again, which would make him the three-time defending rushing champion heading into 2019.

In that 2017 season when he missed six games and had a game against the Denver Broncos where he only rushed for seven yards on nine carries, Elliott still finished in the top 10 in rushing.

In 2018, he bested Saquon Bakley by 127 yards rushing. Had Elliott played in the week 17 finale last season and rushed for his season average, he would have won the rushing title by more than 200 yards. And he did that in what many considered to be a down season for Ezekiel Elliott and the Dallas Cowboys rushing attack. Pro Football Focus even graded Elliott as the 30th best running back for 2018.

In 2018, Elliott had 2,000 total yards, besting his 2016 number of 1,994 total yards as a rookie. His rushing total was down in 2018 from 2016, but he still had an excellent season.

No disrespect to Todd Gurley, Saquon Barkley, Alvin Kamara, Le'Veon Bell, or Chrisitan McCaffrey, but they don't have the credentials that Ezekiel Elliott brings to the table. Those guys are great running backs in their own right, but Elliott has lead the NFL in rushing in two of the three seasons he's been in the league and would have probably lead the league in 2017 had he not been suspended.

Per Game Table
Rushing Receiving
Rk Player From To Att Yds TD Rec Yds TD
1 Saquon Barkley 2018 2018 16.3 81.7 0.7 5.7 45.1 0.3
2 Le'Veon Bell 2015 2017 21.1 94.4 0.6 5.6 42.6 0.1
3 Ezekiel Elliott 2016 2018 21.7 101.2 0.7 3.4 30.0 0.2
4 Todd Gurley 2015 2018 18.0 78.4 0.8 3.2 32.5 0.2
5 Alvin Kamara 2017 2018 10.1 52.0 0.7 5.2 49.5 0.3
6 Christian McCaffrey 2017 2018 10.5 47.9 0.3 5.8 47.4 0.3
Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/18/2019.

Since 2015, only Le'Veon Bell has averaged more total yards per game than Elliott, but Elliott's close and he's not used as much in the passing game as Bell. Only Todd Gurley has a higher average of rushing touchdowns per game than Elliott.

Elliott's 3.4 receptions per game through the first three seasons of his career is only slightly better than Todd Gurley who ranks sixth among this group of players. The Dallas Cowboys attempted to get Elliott more involved in 2018 but didn't work him downfield enough in his targets for him to be anything more than a dump-off option. In 2019, the Dallas Cowboys should work to get him running more intermediate routes in the passing game because as we saw in the Detroit game last season, Elliott's got really good hands.

Historically, Elliott is off to a great start to his career. His first three years in the NFL compare quite favorably to two Hall of Famers and one of the most dynamic running backs of the early 21st century.

No player with more than 100 career attempts in the NFL has averaged more rushing yards per game than Ezekiel Elliott.

Think about that for a second. Through his first three seasons, he's averaged more rushing yards per game than Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders, Terrell Davis, Eric Dickerson, Adrian Peterson, Tony Dorsett, Walter Payton, and the list goes on and on.

If you look at what he's done compared to other players during their first three years. Only Eric Dickerson, Earl Campbell, and Edgerrin James averaged more rushing yards per game than Ezekiel Elliott in the first three seasons of their respective careers.

One of the things that people have used to knock Ezekiel Elliott has been the volume of carries that he's received, but there's a reason that the Dallas Cowboys lean on him so heavily. They've created a run-first identity and though at times it has made the offense somewhat inefficient, it's not because the player they're handing to is not a good player, but because every team in the NFL is expecting the Dallas Cowboys to run the football with Ezekiel Elliott.

In 2018 in particular, the Cowboys offensive coaching staff, namely the departed Scott Linehan, didn't do enough to create favorable matchups in the running game. Too often it was a first down run out of heavy personnel that the defense was expecting.

With two rushing titles already in the bag, there's no reason to expect anything different from Ezekiel Elliott in 2019. It's anticipated that the offensive gameplan and execution will be better in 2019 than it was in 2018. The offensive line will be better and with Kellen Moore as the offensive coordinator, there's a thought that the Dallas Cowboys are going to be less predictable moving forward.

The debate will continue to rage over the value of extending Ezekiel Elliott with a contract that will carry him to his age 28 or 29 season, but there is no debating that Ezekiel Elliott is the best and most dominant running back in the NFL.



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Tony Romo: Cowboys TE Jason Witten Will “Pick Up Right Where He Left Off”

John Williams

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Did a Year Away Help Rejuvenate TE Jason Witten's Game?

There's no denying that the future holds a gold jacket for Dallas Cowboys Tight End Jason Witten. With everything he's done in his career, he'll go down as one of the three best tight ends in the history of the NFL when he finally hangs up his number 82 for good.

Most of the questions that have come surrounding the offense have focused on the tight end position this offseason. Even prior to Jason Witten announcing his return from the broadcast booth at ESPN to the NFL, tight end was one of the areas that was considered a draft need by most analysts. Since coming back, the questions may have altered, but they're there all the same. Now, we're wondering how much Jason Witten will play? Will Blake Jarwin and/or Dalton Schultz see significant playing time in the offense? Will Jason Witten be able to return to his pre-retirement form?

It's that last question that was answered pretty directly by Witten's former quarterback and NFL on CBS Analyst Tony Romo when he was on with Ben and Skin of 105.3 The Fan. In the way that only Tony Romo can, he illustrated what exactly will allow Jason Witten to return to the game without missing a beat.

"He'll pick up right where he left off. I don't think it's a big challenge for Jason  (Witten). The reality of it is as long as, if you know the game the way he does, there are certain positions -- he plays one of them at tight end -- he's always going to have the nuance to get open. Let's say he runs the exact same he always did, to me , it's just that at that position, your ability to use leverage against somebody, make you think this and then do that. It's like the back pick in basketball. Just all of a sudden it gets you and you didn't even know it was coming and that guy is wide open. He's very intelligent with the game of football. I think he's going to pick up right from when he retired. I think you're going to see the same guy."

Tony Romo on 105.3 The Fan via Jon Machota of SportsDay DFW

Jason Witten has been one of the best route-running tight ends in the NFL during his time with the Dallas Cowboys. He's always been able to win with his intelligence and route running despite not ever being the quickest or most athletic tight end in the NFL.

Because of Jason Witten's knowledge and feel for the game, it's easy to see why a player like that could walk back into the NFL after taking a year off and remain a productive player for the Dallas Cowboys. It's why they didn't hesitate to bring him back in the offseason. Though it's been relayed that he'll have a somewhat reduced role, he'll be the starting tight end week one against the New York Giants.

While it's uncertain exactly how much Jason Witten can play, you know that he'll be available to play. Prior to his retirement, Witten played in 235 straight regular-season games. Not only is Witten's availability great to have, but so is his ability to win on third down and in the red zone. It will be a welcomed addition to a Dallas Cowboys offense that struggled in both of those areas in 2018.

In 2018, they were 10th in third-down conversion percentage in the NFL at 41.4%. That's down from ranking fifth in the NFL in 2017 at 42.9%. 1.5% may not seem like a huge difference, but that's two to three more first downs on the season. Being able to convert on third downs increases your chances of scoring. Scoring more helps you win.

They were 29th in red-zone scoring rate at 48% in 2018. The only teams in the NFL that were worse than the Dallas Cowboys were the New York Jets, Jacksonville Jaguars, and San Francisco 49ers. Only one other team in the bottom 10 in the league in red-zone scoring rate made the playoffs; the Houston Texans. In 2017, the Dallas Cowboys were sixth in the NFL in red-zone scoring percentage at 59.6% and that was without Ezekiel Elliott for six games and without Tyron Smith for three games.

Having Jason Witten's ability to get open in confined spaces will help everyone on the offense. Even after having a year off, Witten is a player that will have to be accounted for in those high-leverage situations.

There isn't a person in the world that knows Jason Witten the football player better than Tony Romo does. Their careers have been so intertwined that it's hard to think of one without thinking of the other. It's why one day when they're inducted into the Dallas Cowboys Ring of Honor, that it would be fitting for it to happen together.

If, as Romo believes, Jason Witten can pick up right where he left off, his veteran presence, leadership, and on-field ability are going to be a huge asset for a team that has Super Bowl aspirations in 2019. For the Cowboys to reach the Super Bowl and win their sixth Lombardi Trophy, they're going to need "Gold Jacket" Witten to return to his pre-retirement form.

And if Tony Romo believes he will, there's no reason to doubt Jason Witten. Do so at your own peril.



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Report: Dallas Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott Planning Training Camp Holdout?

John Williams

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Ezekiel Elliott: NFL's History with Domestic Violence Shows Inconsistency, Hypocrisy 2

All offseason, the possibility of a new contract for Dallas Cowboys Running Back Ezekiel Elliott has been a hot button issue among media and fans alike. Not because Ezekiel Elliott isn't a great player and worthy of top running back money, but because the idea of paying running backs north of $15 million a year isn't as simple as, "Is he worth it?"

There is significant evidence that the running back position experiences a significant decline in production around their age 28 season and few running backs play into their 30's with good to elite production. Ezekiel Elliott, though he's experienced heavy usage in his first three seasons, could be the exception to the rule.

Well, knowing his worth to the Dallas Cowboys he's expecting a heavy payday at some point in the next couple of seasons. Elliott is under contract through 2019 and the Cowboys picked up his rookie option for 2020. So, technically, Elliott wouldn't be a free agent until the 2021 offseason. However, much like in the case of Todd Gurley, Elliott's looking to get paid early to maximize his prime years as the Dallas Cowboys running back.

Within the last hour, Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk released a report that Ezekiel Elliott is planning on holding out of training camp if he doesn't receive a new contract, per a "league source." It should be noted that Mike Florio has had some missteps in his reporting of Dallas Cowboys news, most notably the perpetuating a rumor that Dez Bryant was caught on videotape doing something at a Wal-Mart, that would have a "Ray Rice type of impact." A tape that has never been discovered or produced and a story that's completely died off since it was originally reported in 2015.

Given the recent news that Melvin Gordon is planning a training camp hold out, it should come as no surprise that Elliott is being mentioned similarly. ESPN even mentioned the idea of Elliott and a looming contractual holdout in a piece earlier today, but their prediction pointed to 2021 and wasn't a report based on fact or a source, but a prediction for next year.

The two-time NFL rushing champ is scheduled to count $7.9 million in 2019 and just over $9 million in 2020 against the salary cap. His salary for 2019 is only $3.8 million. Elliott certainly has earned the right to be paid like Todd Gurley ($14.37 million per year), Le'Veon Bell ($13.13 million per year), and David Johnson ($13 million per year) despite having two more years on his deal.

In looking at the long-term impact of Elliott's contract, I've advocated that if the Dallas Cowboys intend to pay Elliott, now's the time to do it. A contract extension now, that adds three or four more years onto his existing deal would get Elliott and the Dallas Cowboys to his age 28 or 29 season. In a well-structured contract, they'd have opportunities to get out at the back end if Elliott experienced a significant decline in production.

Ezekiel Elliott's contract is going to continue to be a hot button issue until he's either signed to an extension or it's made known that the Dallas Cowboys have no intention of extending him. Currently, there aren't any other sources confirming Elliott's plan to hold out of training camp, which starts July 27th, but it's a story that we'll continue to follow here on InsideTheStar.com.

Update: 7/16/2019 10:42 am.

Charles Robinson, Senior Reporter for Yahoo! Sports provided some insight into the thinking of Elliott and his representation.

It certainly seems like holding out is on the table for Ezekiel Elliott and his representation, but no decision has been made at this point.

Check back with us for updates on Ezekiel Elliott's contract extension. 



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