The 2018 NFL Season has come to an end for the Dallas Cowboys and now the team looks to the offseason to gear up for what should be another run toward the playoffs in 2019. As with every team heading into every offseason, they'll have some difficult decisions to make with some of their own players as well as deciding how they want to attack free agency and the draft.
The Cowboys have drafted really well over the last three seasons in particular, but have had a long track record of success in the Jason Garrett era. How we judge the draft this season should take into account what Amari Cooper has been to this team. He's been everything the Dallas Cowboys hoped for when they sent their 2019 first round draft pick to the Oakland Raiders for Cooper. The Cowboys, without a first round pick, will have less room for maneuvering around the draft, but as we've seen in the past, they are just as effective in the second round and beyond as they are in the first round.
As we get going in the offseason, let's look at the Dallas Cowboys 5 Most Pressing Priorities.
1. Dealing with DeMarcus Lawrence
The NFL is a passing league. You need players who can throw the ball and catch the ball. On the defensive side of the ball, you must have guys that can get after the passer and cover the receiver.
After moving to the 4-3 defense and the departure of DeMarcus Ware, the Cowboys struggled to find any pass rushing consistency at the defensive end position. They were led at the position by players like Jeremy Mincey, George Selvie, and Benson Mayowa. Finally, the Cowboys selection of DeMarcus Lawrence is paying off has he's had double-digit sacks each of the last two seasons and has been equally effective against the run.
The Cowboys have the option of using the franchise tag on Lawrence again this offseason, which is a possibility as it would prevent other teams from negotiating with the Cowboys best defensive player. While the Cowboys need to continue to build the team through the draft and extend a few players, there isn't a bigger offseason priority than getting DeMarcus Lawrence's deal done.
Jason Garrett on soon-to-be free agent DeMarcus Lawrence: He's certainly as big a priority as there is
2. Making Big Adjustments to the Offense
There was a lot of consternation yesterday at the comments Jason Garrett made to 105.3 The Fan in Dallas-Fort Worth about Scott Linehan's future with the team. It's obviously a possibility that he returns in 2019, but as Stephen Jones mentioned later in the day, it's too early to begin discussing those things as they haven't really began to review the season.
Scott Linehan has been good as an offensive coordinator and he's been a part of Dak Prescott's progression, but there are certain areas of this offense that need to be reworked or shaken up. Whether the Cowboys decide to move on from Linehan or they decide to make adjustments to the scheme, something needs to change. In particular, the team's insistence on using jumbo packages on every short yardage situation has made them predictable.
On 4th and 1 on Saturday, the team went to the Ezekiel Elliott in jumbo formations one too many times. In an era when most of the NFL is attempting to spread things out with 11 and 10 personnel, the Cowboys continue to force two and three tight end formations.
This offseason is just getting started and the Cowboys have a lot of decisions to make about their offense, but none is bigger than figuring out who the play caller is going to be. While the team may be publicly supporting Scott Linehan at the moment, it would be highly unlikely for the team to bring him back for another year.
3. Continue Building the Wide Receiver Corp
The Dallas Cowboys began the process of overhauling the wide receiver corp last offseason when they released Dez Bryant, signed Allen Hurns and Deonte Thompson, drafted Michael Gallup and Cedric Wilson, and traded for Tavon Austin and most importantly Amari Cooper.
Generally, when the Dallas Cowboys have attempted to rebuild a position, they've done it over a few seasons, like they did with the offensive line, the defensive line, and the linebackers.
This offseason, the Cowboys will have a few decisions to make at the wide receiver position. Do they bring back Cole Beasley? What about Tavon Austin? Allen Hurns would have likely been a player the Cowboys could have used in the slot to replace Cole Beasley, but he's hurt and possibly won't be ready for training camp.
On offense, the passing game began to take shape in the second half of the season as Dak Prescott began to get more comfortable with Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup. They'll make a nice 1-2 punch heading into 2019, but there is still room for adding a player or two. Depending on the type of contract he'd want, it would be great to bring back Cole Beasley. It's become clear that he's not as big of a focal point in the offense since Amari Cooper has emerged, but he's still a good player that can make some big catches for you.
If the team looked to the draft, one player that is high on my list is Oklahoma Wide Receiver Marquise Brown. He's a home run hitter in every stretch of the imagination. With speed for days, he could be the field stretcher that the team has struggled to find. Not only does he have speed, he's an excellent route runner and has excellent hands and spends the offseason training with Steelers Wide Receiver and cousin Antonio Brown.
If the Cowboys wanted to go the free agency route to add a wide receiver, they should look at Jamison Crowder of the Washington Redskins or Adam Humphries of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to fill their slot wide receiver role. If you remember back to the Bucs game, Humphries was giving the Cowboys fits totaling 10 catches on 12 targets for 79 yards. Crowder struggled with injuries this season and had a down year, but that could mean he'd be cheap to sign, which is the way the Dallas Cowboys do free agency.
There are some nice players in the draft and free agency that the Cowboys could look to add to their wide receiver group, but they'll also be getting back Cedric Wilson, their sixth round pick from last season. The team really liked the production that Wilson had at Boise St. and Wilson was playing well in training camp and was pushing for a roster spot before his season ending injury.
Noah Brown is also a player in line to see more snaps moving forward. He's played well when called upon, using his superior blocking to make an impact in the running game while displaying nice route running and hands in the passing game. If Cole Beasley didn't return to the Cowboys this offseason, I could see the Cowboys giving Brown an expanded role on the outside or using him as a big slot receiver, similar to how the Arizona Cardinals use Larry Fitzgerald or how the New Orleans Saints use Michael Thomas. He has the size to be a mismatch for slot corners and the route running to be a mismatch for linebackers. They could also use Brown on the outside, put Cooper in the slot and then when they want to use Brown as a blocker, could motion him in-line.
Wide receiver will be a big question this offseason as teams must have three or four solid receivers to run their offense. The Cowboys have some players that could be given expanded roles, but should continue to add to the position through the draft.
Most of 2018 was spent discussing the possibility of trading for Seattle Seahawks Safety Earl Thomas, and I imagine that much of this offseason will be spent discussing him again. If you got tired of Earl Thomas talk last year, get ready, it's about to pick up.
Earl Thomas will be a free agent this offseason, so he'll be free to sign with any team he chooses and he's made it known that he'd like to play for the Dallas Cowboys. There are several question marks when it comes to Earl Thomas that the Cowboys will have to consider.
When will he be ready to go? What kind of money will he demand? Has health become a concern?
All legitimate questions for a player that will be coming off a broken leg suffered this season. He should be ready for offseason training as there have been videos posted to his Instagram showing him running stadiums. If he's ready to roll by free agency and is able to pass his physical, I bet they take another long look at adding him to the roster.
They have another free agent option that they can look into though in New York Giants Safety Landon Collins. He's a different type of safety than Earl Thomas, but Collins is a player. He's more of a "box" or strong safety that you could use to play the Jeff Heath role, which would leave Xavier Woods playing the free safety spot.
5. Defensive Tackle
Antwaun Woods, Maliek Collins, Tyrone Crawford, Caraun Reid, and Daniel Ross played well for the Dallas Cowboys defense, but as we saw on Saturday night against the Los Angeles Rams, they were lacking as a group. In Woods, Collins, and Crawford, you feel good with what you have as you approach free agency and the draft, but they need to add a player that can help them with their interior pass rush.
Much of the pass rush that the Cowboys received this season came from their defensive ends and linebackers. The tackles were good, but inconsistent in their ability to collapse the pocket and not allow any room for opposing quarterbacks to step into.
This is a draft that is deep on defense and the Cowboys will have a chance to add to their defensive tackle spot with their second round pick. With Rod Marinelli likely returning to the Dallas Cowboys next offseason, we know his ability to find diamonds in the rough. I wouldn't be surprised if they go practice squad diving again this offseason and find a player that can have a significant impact like David Irving did in 2017 and Antwaun Woods did in 2018.
It's unlikely that David Irving will be back and Tyrone Crawford could be a cap casualty if the Cowboys no longer want to carry his $10 million cap number.
The Cowboys are likely to bring back DeMarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory is still under contract, as well as Taco Charlton and Dorance Armstrong. They are pretty solid at defensive end, but could still add a player to compete with Taco and Armstrong. Defensive tackle though, is a place where they need to make a move to upgrade the position. The defense was really good last season, but needs to look for ways to improve heading into 2019.
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The Dallas Cowboys will do as they always do this offseason as they approach the roster; sign inexpensive veterans with the hope that they outperform their contracts and attempt to draft well yet again. It's a formula that has worked for them and there's no reason to think it won't continue moving forward.
History Suggests a Contract Extension for Ezekiel Elliott is a Crapshoot
If rumors are true, Running Back Ezekiel Elliott and Melvin Gordon could be following in the footsteps of Le'Veon Bell by threatening to hold out not only training camp, but the 2019 season if they're not rewarded with contract extensions from their respective teams. It's a bold strategy, especially considering the history of long-term extensions previously given to running backs.
Contract extensions for running backs is always a controversial topic. It's not only one of the easier positions to replace, but the shelf life for a NFL RB is a short one due to the physical nature of the position. Players bodies break down quicker, meaning their lifespan in the league on average is between just 3 to 5 years.
For the most part, the market value for running backs around the league would suggest the position isn't one teams like to invest a lot of resources in. Although, there was an uptick in the market last year when Todd Gurley signed a four-year deal worth $14.375 million a year and then David Johnson signed for three years worth $13 million a season. Those two contracts could be the starting point for Ezekiel Elliott.
Ezekiel Elliott's camp knows all of this and so do the Dallas Cowboys. But, handing out upwards of $14 million to a position that has such a short shelf life in the league is a crapshoot at best, even to a player as talented as Zeke. History hasn't been kind to running backs who receive a long-term extension. In fact, it's really hard to put a finger on one single RB who has lived up to their contract extension.
Take Todd Gurley and David Johnson for instance. Gurley already has long-term concerns about his health, and Johnson missed nearly all of the 2018 season due to an injury. Both players are currently the top paid at the position right now, but they're not the only examples of why the Cowboys should be cautious offering Zeke a contract extension.
The RB tier below Todd Gurley and David Johnson are making around $8 million a year after receiving a contract extension. Unfortunately, the results are about the same. Devonta Freeman ($8.25 M) and Jerick McKinnon ($7.5 M) missed nearly all of the 2018 season due to injuries after being rewarded with long-term deals. Only LeSean McCoy ($8.01 M) has come close to living up to his deal, but even he has struggled off-and-on with injuries.
Need more convincing?
Let's take this back a little bit further. Chris Johnson, Johnathan Stewart, DeMarco Murray, DeAngelo Williams, Ray Rice… I can go on and on. Even players such as Arian Foster who remained productive after receiving an extension struggled with injuries. If you haven't yet, you may start to see a trend here.
Now, I'm not saying the Dallas Cowboys shouldn't extend Ezekiel Elliott. Personally I'm on the fence about it and would be fine with them going either direction. But, they absolutely have to be cautious with the way they handled this. History is a good indicator they may not get the same kind of production from Zeke as they have previously.
Do you think the Cowboys should give Ezekiel Elliott a contract extension?
Dallas Cowboys 2019 Training Camp Preview: Linebacker
The linebacker position went from liability to luxury in 2018, thanks largely to the emergence of a pair of dynamic young talents. Now seen as one of the strengths of the Dallas Cowboys' defense, what questions remain for the linebackers as we await the start of the 2019 training camp?
Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch are the nucleus now at linebacker, if not the the Cowboys' defense as a whole. The days of worrying if Sean Lee can stay healthy are over; we now have two players capable of elite play and the versatility to handle multiple spots.
Lee isn't gone; the longtime defensive captain accepted a pay cut and a lesser role to stay in Dallas this year. He is still expected to start in the base defense, moving to the strong-side LB role that Damien Wilson vacated.
Indeed, the top-three linebackers for 2019 are easy to project. Jaylon and Leighton are the new leaders and Sean will get as much playing time as his body can handle.
This year, which is unusual for reserve players, the second team is almost just as predictable.
Here's the projected Linebacker Depth Chart for the 2019 training camp:
- Leighton Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith, Sean Lee
- Joe Thomas, Justin March-Lillard, Chris Covington
- Kyle Queiro, Andrew Dowell, Luke Gifford, Nate Hall
There may not be a position on offense or defense with less x-factors than linebacker. Almost just as likely as the starters, Joe Thomas, Justin-March Lillard, and Chris Covington should have the second-team spots locked down.
Thomas is especially valuable, having the skills to step into a larger role if Sean Lee suffers from age or injury. If Lee were to go down, we might see Jaylon Smith move into the SAM spot and Thomas playing as WILL in the base defense.
Dallas re-signed Justin March-Lillard this offseason. He played in all 16 games last year as a backup and special teamer, and his experience will make him hard to oust.
Chris Covington was a 6th-round pick last year and has the body to play SAM but also experience at other spots in college. Dallas would love to see him grow into a larger role the way other recent 6th-rounders like Anthony Brown and Xavier Woods have.
One potential challenger could be Jalen Jelks, the 7th-round defensive end that Dallas just drafted last April. Jelks has the body and athleticism to play a hybrid LB/DE role, and could challenge as the backup SAM. We don't know if the Cowboys will give Jelks a chance at LB, but it may be the only way to keep him on the 53 given all the talent at defensive end.
It will be hard for any of the remaining LB prospects to work their way onto the roster. The top six have experience and upside that undrafted rookies will need to be exceptionally good to overcome. Only Kyle Queiro, who was on the practice squad last year, brings a little NFL experience to the table.
Of course, unexpected things can happen. The talent margin between late-round picks and undrafted guys can be slim; who knows if one of these prospects pushes March-Lillard or Covington out of the way?
But barring a surprise, we already have a good idea who the Cowboys' six linebackers will be in 2019. Will this year's training camp solidify that projection, or will we get some new evidence to consider?
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OTHER 2019 CAMP PREVIEWS
Tony Romo: Cowboys TE Jason Witten Will “Pick Up Right Where He Left Off”
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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