As many of you probably already know, when it comes to representing Cowboys Nation, I fall well on the optimistic side more times than not. While the four-win 2015 season certainly drained my optimism a bit, I've had no issues with the way this team has gone about trying to remedy 2015 by preparing for a resurgence in 2016.
In place of the flashy signings that fans were begging for, they've put more of an emphasis on re-signing their own talented guys. Morris Claiborne, Kyle Wilber, and Rolando McClain will all return to a defense that welcomes back Orlando Scandrick alongside a full strength Tyrone Crawford.
Cedric Thornton was brought in from the rival Eagles to upgrade the 1T defensive tackle spot, which will only further improve the production Rod Marinelli gets from Crawford on the defensive line along with the likes of David Irving.
Sticking with the defense, the one area of concern that fans can legitimately worry about is the defensive end position. While a combo of DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory is certainly exciting, Gregory will miss the first four games of the year due to suspension - leaving the team to plan for a future that does not involve their 2015 second round pick.
In the absence of Gregory, the Cowboys starter across from Lawrence would currently be Ryan Russell. Russell may be a guy that someday develops into a solid piece of the defense, but for now is an unproven starter.
That said, did we really want to pull a New York Giants and give Olivier Vernon $85 million? The 12-4 Dallas Cowboys of 2014 got 6 sacks from Jeremy Mincey and 3 from George Selvie - while both created constant pressure. Mincey is still a free agent that could return to Dallas, along with Jack Crawford.
A defensive end rotation of Lawrence, Gregory, Mincey, and Russell is not going to take the league by storm, but if paired with a rookie like Joey Bosa or Ronald Blair, this unit could certainly get the job done for the Cowboys.
A big part of the reason that I have faith in this defensive line is thanks to the style of offense that the Cowboys will hope to play in 2016. As we all just learned the hard way, this team is centered around Tony Romo. With Romo back, the offense can once again dominate games and more importantly take the lead early in games.
The Dallas defense is, from a tactical standpoint, built to play with the lead - and that is hopefully what they will be doing a lot of this season. After forcing offenses to play catch-up against them, the Cowboys defensive line can get after quarterbacks like they did in 2014 without that superstar presence.
This will be a very refreshing site to see on defense, as opposed to the way opposing offenses were able to completely control the game against the Cowboys this past year.
Of course, the team's off season on the offensive end has not gone without some exciting moves either. Earlier today, Lance Dunbar agreed to a one-year deal to stay in Dallas for 2016. While Dunbar played just 4 games in 2015 before a season ending injury, the limited time he saw with Romo at quarterback led to some explosive plays.
If Dunbar can stay healthy for 16 games, pairing him with Darren McFadden at running back behind Romo will allow the Cowboys to get back to their dominant, clock-killing, smash mouth football ways while simultaneously opening up the passing game for a healthy Dez Bryant and Co.
With the draft quickly approaching, I hope Cowboys Nation can collectively begin to gain more hope for 2016. Will McClay along with Stephen and Jerry Jones know what they are doing, and want nothing more than a Super Bowl in the coming years for veterans such as Romo and Jason Witten.
I'm not guaranteeing that Super Bowl 51 will be the time for the 'Boys to raise the Lombardi, but I'm optimistically ready to watch them try to play their way to Houston and prove a lot of people wrong - some Cowboys fans included.
Cowboys Sign WR Devin Smith, Former 2nd-Round Pick
The Dallas Cowboys have reportedly signed Receiver Devin Smith, previously with the New York Jets, to a futures contract. Smith was a 2nd-round pick, 37th overall, in the 2015 NFL Draft.
Before going pro, Devin was a college teammate of current Cowboys Ezekiel Elliott, Rod Smith, and Noah Brown. They were all members of the 2014 Ohio State Buckeyes team that won the National Championship.
Smith's agent, Jason Bernstein, tweeting the following earlier today:
Congrats to WR Devin Smith @dsmithosu for signing with the #DallasCowboys! Welcome back. https://t.co/hCMYoE8fEh
Thus far, Smith's NFL career has been marred by injuries. He has suffered two ACL tears in the same knee and only been able to appear in 14 games. He was waived by the Jets last summer and was not with any team last season.
Overall, the 2015 class of receivers has been disappointing. Amari Cooper has been a star and other later-round picks like Tyler Lockett, Stefon Diggs, and Jamison Crowder have been good. But the other big names of the class, such as Kevin White, Breshad Perriman, and DeVante Parker, have not lived up to the hype.
The Cowboys are known for trying to reclaim players who once had high draft status and bad starts to their careers. They are clearly hoping to cash in on Smith's previously perceived potential, which had him projected as a possible first-round talent at one time.
For both Devin and Dallas' sake, we hope it's a success!
DeMarcus Lawrence Named Top Free Agent Of The 2019 Class
Much has been made about the Dallas Cowboys 2019 free agent class. Dallas has a ton of cap space moving forward, but they are going to "have" to pay many of the key players on their roster over the next two offseasons in order to keep their young core together.
Of course, when you're drafting, that's the goal. To draft so well that when your own players become free agents, you go ahead and pay them to keep them around, rather than overpay on the free agent market for external players.
One of the major pieces the Cowboys will have to retain this offseason is defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence. And while Cowboys Nation often thinks of Lawrence as underrated around the league, the NFL has caught onto his importance as he enters free agency this Spring.
ESPN.com ranked their top 10 free agents for 2019, with DeMarcus Lawrence clocking in at number one, over elite players like Jadeveon Clowney and Le'Veon Bell.
ESPN's top 10 free agents for 2019 and what Le'Veon Bell should be looking to command based on previous measures. https://t.co/aJ7H1n001t
DeMarcus Lawrence is going to command big time money, likely even Khalil Mack-type money. But the fact of the matter is that he has earned it. Lawrence has been the heart and soul of the Cowboys defensive line the last two seasons, and the most consistent edge player on the team as well.
Not only has he been an effective pass rusher, but DeMarcus Lawrence also plays with a relentless motor against the run that can sometimes be rare to find in those premier pass rushers. He really is a jack of all trades at defensive end, and should be priority number one for the Cowboys this offseason.
Thankfully, I can't imagine the Cowboys not retaining DeMarcus Lawrence and extending him in the coming months.
When it Mattered Most, Cowboys Offensive Line Protected Dak Prescott
Throughout the 2018 NFL season, one of the major story lines surrounding the Dallas Cowboys was how frequently Dak Prescott was taking sacks. It's an area that the Cowboys will have to look at in the offseason to better protect their franchise quarterback moving forward. In the playoffs, however, Dak Prescott and the offensive line were much better at keeping their prized possession upright than they were in the regular season.
In the regular season, Dak Prescott was sacked 56 times for an average of 3.5 times a game. There was only one game where he wasn't sacked at all, way back in week two against the New York Giants. Four times this season, the Cowboys' quarterback was sacked five or more times. The New Orleans Saints got him for a season high seven times.
According to Pro Football Focus, Dak was "kept clean" -- not pressured -- on 63% of his drop backs during the regular season, which ranked 25th in the NFL. When kept clean, Prescott completed 74.1% of his passes, which was good for 5th in the NFL during the regular season. He was under pressure 37% of the time, which was the sixth highest rate in the NFL and his completion percentage dropped to 52.6%, still good for 10th in the NFL. It was better than Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, Patrick Mahomes, Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, and Baker Mayfield.
During the playoffs, Prescott's "kept clean" percentage rose from 63% to 68% and he was only sacked once in each game. The one sack against the Los Angeles Rams probably shouldn't have been called a sack as the referee blew the whistle because Prescott was "in the grasp"...
...of his offensive lineman.
During the playoffs, the Cowboys offensive line kept the pressure off of Prescott at a better rate, allowing him to be pressured on only 31.9% of his drop backs. Meaning he was kept clean at an improved rate from the regular season at 68.1% of his drop backs. This while playing against two teams that are really good at rushing the passer. The Los Angeles Rams and the Seattle Seahawks both finished in the top half of the league in sacks this season and feature players like Aaron Donald, Jarran Reed, and Frank Clark who all had double-digit sacks.
As we know, pressure rates and sacks aren't all completely on the offensive line. The quarterback, wide receivers, and the play calling all factor in, but the Cowboys are trending in the right direction with their pass protection. A full offseason for Connor Williams in the Dallas Cowboys strength and conditioning program, better health for Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, and -- fingers crossed -- Travis Frederick, should all help the offensive line play at a higher level heading into the 2019 season.
It can't be overstated how important it will be to get Travis Frederick back into the fold this season. Joe Looney was good, and that might be overstating it a bit. He was not noticeable on most plays during the season, but getting your All-Pro center back will tremendously help the offense in every facet of the game. Frederick's one of the smarter players in the NFL, who helps everyone on the offense to see the blitzes and calls out the protections. Both his mental and physical ability will be a welcomed site when the Cowboys begin practicing in the offseason.
With another year of growth for the quarterback and for the young pieces along the offensive line, and with a full offseason for Dak Prescott to grow with Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and Blake Jarwin, the Cowboys should be better next season at keeping the quarterback clean.
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