In light of the recent news of the indefinite suspension of Dallas Cowboys Defensive End Randy Gregory, the Cowboys are now sitting with another need along their defense to go with safety and defensive tackle. While we are talking about the "what's next" part of the Randy Gregory suspension, we still feel for the player and wish him the best and hope he's able to make it back.
At this point in Gregory's career, any snaps or production can't be counted on. So, as we approach the start of free agency on March 13th and the NFL Draft at the end of April, we have to look forward into the roster building aspect of the offseason with defensive end in mind.
There are some really good edge rushers in this years crop of free agents and the Dallas Cowboys should be able to bring in some reinforcements. There are a few players that are going to be able to demand some big time money this offseason and there are some interesting buy-low options as well for the Cowboys.
As I perused the market for free agent edge rushers, I kept in mind that this team doesn't like to pay age. Therefore, I kept my search to players who are going to be 25 or 26 and looking at their second contract in the NFL. These players would next hit free agency at age 30 or 31. These type of players are the norm for the Dallas Cowboys.
High-Priced Edge Rushers
These high-priced guys are unlikely based on what we know about the Dallas Cowboys free agency spending habits over the last several years, but we're going to talk about them anyway, because you never know what might happen with Jerry Jones.
Frank Clark, Seattle Seahawks
If you watched the two games the Dallas Cowboys played against the Seattle Seahawks in 2018, you noticed Frank Clark. In fact, for several years now, Clark has given the Dallas Cowboys fits as an edge rusher.
It's not often you see Tyron Smith get beat cleanly, but that was what Frank Clark was able to do a a couple of occasions to the Dallas Cowboys All-Pro left tackle.
Clark finished the 2018 season with 13 sacks, which was tied for seventh among edge rushers with names like Bradley Chubb, Khalil Mack, and TJ Watt, per Pro Football Focus. Clark's 64 total pressures were tied for 10th in the NFL.
Now, Clark could be a franchise tag candidate from the Seattle Seahawks, but if he's able to get to free agency, he'd be a highly sought after player. Spotrac.com projects his contract could be worth about $15.7 million per year over the next five years. I think it's more likely that he approaches $20 million a year with his production.
Over the last three seasons he's averaged 10.67 sacks per season with a high of 13 and a low of nine in that span. Remember when Olivier Vernon signed his record-breaking deal for a 4-3 defensive end, he had only one season with eight or more sacks. Clark has three.
It would mean allocating big money to the pass rush, but in a passing league, that is one of the more important areas to allocate big chunks of your cap too. He isn't the player in the running game that DeMarcus Lawrence is, but he's a force rushing the passer and would immediately improve your team at right defensive end.
Trey Flowers, New England Patriots
If there was a player that was as good in the run and pass game as DeMarcus Lawrence was in 2018, it was New England Patriots Defensive End Trey Flowers. Pro Football Focus graded him as their third best edge player.
While he only had 7.5 sacks for the Patriots, he's recorded more than 6.5 sacks in each of his last three seasons. He was 10th in total pressures in 2018 and ninth in Pro Football Focus' "stops." They consider a stop as a play that is a loss for the defense.
Flowers, like Clark, could be a franchise tag option, but it doesn't seem like the "Patriot Way" to spend big money on high-priced free agents that aren't their quarterback or tight end. Flowers could just as easily be out the door and on the market for the Dallas Cowboys to consider when free agency opens.
Spotrac.com has Flowers projected at $17.3 million per year in a new contract and that seems about right. He doesn't have the career pass rush production of Frank Clark, but he's a complete defensive end in the mold of Lawrence.
Jadeveon Clowney, Houston Texans
Coming off of back-to-back nine sack seasons, Jadeveon Clowney of the Houston Texans could be another highly sought after free agent option this March. Like the two guys mentioned before, he's also a likely franchise tag option for the Texans.
With the Texans having more than $77 million in cap space for 2019, they'd have little difficulty getting under the projected franchise tag number.
Clowney, like DeMarcus Lawrence, and Trey Flowers, is a complete edge player who can rush the passer and play the run with equally great effectiveness. He was 18th in total pressures according to Pro Football Focus and tied for 22nd in sacks. He recorded 38 stops in 2018, which ranked seventh in the NFL, just six behind Lawrence who finished fourth in the league.
Having just turned 26, Clowney is entering his prime and should have several really good seasons ahead of him. He would slot in as the starting right defensive end immediately. Spotrac.com is projecting a contract for Clowney to start at $16.6 million a year. The former first round pick is in for a pay-day, and if the Dallas Cowboys have a chance to pursue him, they should do so.
Dante Fowler Jr., Los Angeles Rams
This player is a curious case. Dante Fowler Jr. was once the third overall pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars and a player that was part of their defensive corp.
After a four sack rookie campaign, he took the next step and doubled his production in year two. Fowler was traded to the Los Angeles Rams in the middle of the 2018 season after recording just two sacks in seven games. In eight regular season games and three playoff games with the Rams he only recorded 3.5 sacks.
Fowler is still a very young player in the NFL. He won't turn 25 until August of this year. His size projects as a weak side defensive end for the Dallas Cowboys, someone who could come in and play pass rushing downs.
In the 11 games Fowler played with the Rams, including the playoffs, he led ll edge rushers with 30 total pressures, per Pro Football Focus. Only Aaron Donald had more total pressures than Fowler in that same time frame.
Shane Ray, Denver Broncos
Shane Ray, the first round pick of the Denver Broncos is coming off the worst statistical season of his career after he posted just one sack and 10 pressure over 11 games. He's two years removed from an eight sack season in 2016, but hasn't been able to find the pass rush mojo since.
In 2018, the Denver Broncos drafted Bradley Chubb, inserted him into the lineup and never looked back. Ray will be cheap on the free agent market, but still has some upside as a rusher if given the opportunity.
Aaron Lynch, Chicago Bears
Aaron Lynch became a bit of a forgotten man for the Chicago Bears after they made the deal to acquire Khalil Mack from the Oakland Raiders just before the season started. Prior to signing with the Bears, Lynch flamed out with the San Francisco 49ers after posting six sack seasons in each of his first two years.
He's about to turn 26 this year and in a reserve role for the Bears had his highest sack total since his second year in the league.
He's not an exciting name for the Cowboys, but he does have a bit of a track record and could be solid depth along the defensive line. At 6-6, 270, he has the size to play both sides of the defensive line and be a solid run player.
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The Dallas Cowboys look to be just a few players away from being serious Super Bowl contenders in 2019. While they need to figure out safety and defensive tackle, figuring out what they're going to do at defensive end jumps to the top of the list. They can get functional snaps out of Tyrone Crawford and Taco Charlton, but they'd be better served at trying to bring in someone with more of a history as a pass rusher.
Cowboys Wishlist: 3 Things I Want to See in Kellen Moore’s Offense
The Dallas Cowboys offense will mostly remain the same in terms of players. However, a big change is coming with new offensive coordinator Kellen Moore taking over the talented unit. In a special edition of Cowboys Wishlist, I'll share the three big things I want to see in Moore's offense in 2019.
Let me know what you want to see in the comments section below or tweet me @MauNFL!
Wish #1: Frequent Read Option
Despite Dak Prescott's skills as a runner, rarely did we see the Cowboys run read option plays. For a team that seems to have the perfect duo for these plays, they certainly seemed to have wasted it over the last few years. This is an offense that has plenty of talent to be struggling as much as they did in the red zone last year.
Imagine being concerned about Ezekiel Elliott getting the ball and Dak Prescott keeping it at the same time? Not to mention the play action threat with a group of receivers led by Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and Randall Cobb... oh, and a veteran tight end in Jason Witten who might be older but whose hands are very reliable.
The Athletic's Bob Sturm pointed out Prescott's average of 4.46 yards per carry and 18 touchdowns in the red zone between 2016 and 2018. The league average for all players is 2.64 and there's no one close to over four yards and over 10 touchdowns in the league. Dak has been dangerous when using his legs and yet, the Cowboys haven't used the read option as much. I hope that changes with Kellen Moore taking over.
Wish #2: Use Tight Ends More
I'm still impressed by how little the Cowboys utilized their tight ends in 2018. In fact, as Bobby Belt noted on Twitter a few months ago, this has happened consistently in Scott Linehan's career.
One thing you consistently see when Scott Linehan takes over an offense is a drop in the starting tight end's production. Randy McMichael, Byron Chamberlain, and Jason Witten all saw drops in yards per catch, receptions per game, and yards per game once Linehan took over.
Last year, Blake Jarwin had only three games with more than three targets. In those games, he racked up 56, 45 and 119 yards. This makes me wonder if the real problem at tight end last season was more about how they were utilized rather than the players at the position.
With Jason Witten back, Jarwin and the future Hall of Famer could split the snaps. Hopefully, Kellen Moore gives them a more active role on the offense. I really think we'll see way more from them.
Wish #3: Pre-Snap Motion
Pre-snap motion is truly a thing of beauty. The simple fact of getting a player in motion before the ball is snapped can go a long way to keep a defense in its toes and cause confusion to set up a successful play. In Boise State, Moore ran an offense that heavily relied on pre-snap motions.
The first year offensive coordinator won't turn the Cowboys into the new L.A. Rams but he can add this kind of trickery to help Dallas take the next step offensively. Dak Prescott will be playing his fourth year of professional football and adding this to the offense will only help the young QB by making his reads even easier.
How Will Coaching Changes Impact Cowboys’ Backup QB Battle?
There has been a big shakeup on the Dallas Cowboys' coaching staff in 2019. Scott Linehan is out, Kellen Moore was promoted to Offensive Coordinator, and Jon Kitna was hired as the new Quarterbacks Coach. What impact will the changes have on the QB position, and especially when it comes to the battle for the backup role?
The contenders remain Cooper Rush, a third-year player who joined Dallas as an undrafted free agent in 2017, and 2018 fifth-round pick Mike White. Rush was the backup QB last season, but had a major experience edge over his rookie competition. That playing field will be more level now in White's second season.
The changes in the coaching staff even things out all the more. There is a new OC with new ideas and things to learn, and new QB coach with his own style and preferences. Rush and White are starting over together, in a way, with this new personnel.
Jon Kitna is especially intriguing in this conversation. Moore was here last year but Kitna brings a fresh set of eyes to the QB position. He also brings the resume of being an exceptional backup quarterback during his playing career, understanding what it takes to be a success in the role.
Kitna may see and appreciate things that neither Kellen Moore or Scott Linehan could.
For example, what made Cooper Rush take a backward step in his play from the 2017 preseason to last year? He was the undrafted underdog that took the backup QB job away from Kellen Moore two years ago, but last year was the incumbent trying to hold on to his spot against a new prospect.
Did Mike White being a drafted player get in Rush's head?
Jon Kitna spent a long time fighting off younger options. He may be able to help Cooper deal with that pressure.
Or perhaps it will go the other way; Kitna's fresh perspective could help push White up the depth chart. From the new QB coach's own lips, he's approaching this situation without preconceived notions:
"For me, it’s more of a clean slate. I just want to come in and help those guys and help them progress in their careers. If you get the best out of them, that’s going to be good for us at an organization.”
A few months ago I was pushing for Dallas to sign a veteran backup. With the Super Bowl in reach, I don't want to see the season go down the drain if something happens to Dak Prescott. It'd be nice to have our own Nick Foles ready to go.
While it doesn't appear the Cowboys will go that route, I'm at least comforted by having Jon Kitna's voice in the room. He could have a tremendous influence on Cooper Rush and Mike White, and perhaps upgrade the QB2 position even without a roster move.
If nothing else, I'm going to be more confident in the backup quarterback decision knowing that Kitna was involved in making it.
Despite Changes, Cowboys Offense Still Runs Through Ezekiel Elliott
We've talked a lot this offseason about the changes at Offensive Coordinator and slot receiver, or how Jason Witten's return will impact the tight end position. But while all of these will impact the Dallas Cowboys' offense in 2019, the constant feature remains Running Back Ezekiel Elliott and the rushing attack.
From 2016 to 2018, since the Cowboys drafted Elliott, Dallas has ranked 1st, 3rd, and 10th among NFL teams in "run vs. pass" play calls. That's only logical; you don't spend a fourth-overall pick on a RB and then not make him the featured player in your offense.
Zeke has certainly rewarded Dallas' decision; Elliott has led the league in total rushing two out of three years, and he led in yards-per-game in 2017 while dealing with his suspension.
Leaning on Elliott has been smart business based on his effectiveness, plus the investment in the offensive line over the last several years.
Dallas has now sunk three first-round picks (Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin), one second (Connor Williams), and now two thirds (Chaz Green and Connor McGovern) on building up their front wall. They've spent a lot of money to keep their All-Pro guys around, plus La'el Collins.
Some would try to paint the run-heavy approach as how the team is trying to hide the weaknesses of Dak Prescott at quarterback. But in 2014, with DeMarco Murray at RB and Tony Romo at QB, the Cowboys were still 3rd in the league in rush vs. pass attempts.
This isn't about Zeke or Dak, or any other specific player. This about a team philosophy that starts at the top with Jason Garrett, and that isn't going to change even with Kellen Moore taking over as the new Offensive Coordinator.
We're all excited to see what new wrinkles comes from getting rid of Scott Linehan. We highly anticipate the development of Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup in the offense, coupled with the addition of Randall Cobb. We're salivating at what Blake Jarwin might become under the tutelage of the great Jason Witten.
Heck, maybe we'll see fullback Jamize Olawale's receiving skills put to more use. Perhaps gadget guys like Tavon Austin or rookie Tony Pollard will be deployed in more creative ways.
And yes, Dak Prescott's growth is another major factor in Dallas' 2019 success. It's especially interesting, and even concerning, as talks are ongoing about his long-term contract.
But make no mistake, this is still the Ezekiel Elliott show. Even if a few more of his carries become receptions in Moore's scheme, Zeke should still get the lion's share of the touches.
That's why this week's news about his incident in Las Vegas is so troubling. It probably won't lead to a suspension, but we saw what happened in 2017 when Elliott was missing for over a third of the season.
While Dallas should be better able to withstand losing Zeke now than it was two years ago, it may still be more than Prescott, Cooper, and the rest could handle. It definitely wouldn't put the Cowboys in good position to compete for a Super Bowl.
In the end, the 2019 will still come down to how well Dallas runs the ball. It's the engine; nothing else matters if the rushing game doesn't set everyone else up for success.
Don't ever take it for granted. This is still Ezekiel Elliott's offense.
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