Although the Dallas Cowboys may be giving us a slight taste of the 2018 football season with their ongoing OTAs at The Star, the NFL is still very much in offseason mode. The period to acquire talent may be long gone with both free agency and the draft in the rear view mirror, but 90-man rosters continue to churn. As the Cowboys evaluate their strengths and weaknesses as a team that's gone through major changes on offense, it's no surprise to see Bleacher Report's Kristopher Knox's to-do list for Dallas feature four talking points on this side of the ball.
Let's take a closer look at what the Cowboys should be working through prior to training camp in Oxnard.
1. "Identify Top Receiving Targets"
Yawn. This topic is not going away anytime soon, and for good reason. The Cowboys performance on offense -- relative to the talent they still fielded -- was undoubtedly poor a season ago. It was the main point of regression for a 9-7 team that fell short of the playoffs.
The Cowboys seemingly bold response to needing a retool on offense entering year three for Quarterback Dak Prescott? Release Dez Bryant while seeing Jason Witten retire, drafting Michael Gallup, Dalton Schultz, and Cedrick Wilson to add young talent.
Wide receivers Allen Hurns and Deonte Thompson also joined the team through free agency.
To outside followers of America's Team, and fantasy football players everywhere, the Cowboys confidence in these unproven pass catchers is stunning. With their starting quarterback already on record saying he doesn't know "if any team really needs a No. 1 receiver," this approach begins to make more sense.
Coming from a spread offense at Mississippi State, Prescott wants to get the ball out of his hands quickly to whoever the open man is. With Dez Bryant struggling to create separation ever since Prescott's rookie season in Dallas, the connection was never there like it was for Tony Romo and Bryant.
Enter Michael Gallup, who I expect to be the check mark on this to-do list for the Cowboys. With the ability to play as close to a WR1 as Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan is looking for, Gallup has already impressed in OTAs and should quickly become a reliable target for Prescott.
My personal "pet cat" in Wide Receivers Coach Sanjay Lal's room is sixth-round steal Cedrick Wilson, who should also get an opportunity to run out of the slot and create vertical plays.
It's easy to blame the Cowboys failures on offense from 2017 on the absences of Ezekiel Elliott and Tyron Smith. Returning both players but losing starters elsewhere, the Cowboys are still committed to the running game with a new approach through the air that's sure to surprise many.
Being versatile and deep on offense, if an effort to become less predictable, could actually be exactly what the Cowboys need for 2018.
2. "Find Starting Tight End"
The concept of "replacing" players in sports is always a troublesome one. Especially in the NFL, where roster turnover occurs at an alarming rate (go check out the Cowboys roster from 2014), new players are always going to be asked to handle starting roles.
Unfortunately for Dallas, this won't be possible at the tight end position without mention of Jason Witten's Hall of Fame career. Hanging his cleats up after 15 years with the Cowboys, the team scrambled in the fourth round of the draft to land Stanford's Dalton Schultz.
The rookie Schultz joins fourth-year Tight End Geoff Swaim, 2017 UDFA Blake Jarwin, and Rico Gathers as the group new TE Coach Doug Nussmeier will have to sort out.
Whether or not this will happen before the start of the regular season is already a topic our Staff Writer Jess Haynie covered, with all four tight ends bringing an all-around game to the Cowboys. Swaim being the most proven TE on the roster, it will be up to Schultz and Jarwin to reach the same level of trust as blockers in the running game.
Drafted more for his tenacity as a blocker than prowess as a receiver, things could get interesting for the Cowboys at TE with Schultz earning this role and the likes of Jarwin and Gathers being asked to step up as receivers behind.
Once again, no fantasy footballer will want to hear this, but the term "starting tight end" could be a very relative one for the Cowboys this season. Already dealing with a steady decline from Jason Witten over the final years of his career, the Cowboys should be excited about watching this young group fight for playing time.
3. "Get Dak Prescott Back on Track"
The first two points on this to-do list cover what needs to happen for Dak Prescott to get back on track pretty well. Playing with a healthy Tyron Smith at left tackle and Ezekiel Elliott in the backfield for 16 games can only help Prescott return to the dynamic form he was at in 2016.
Taking the league by storm as a rookie only to see his sophomore campaign derailed by those injuries around him, the pressure has been building around Prescott since the day he earned his star.
Never wavering in their commitment to Prescott as their starting quarterback, the Cowboys feel they are in good position to return to the playoffs with him in 2018. This goes without saying, but they really need to be right.
Another lost season for Prescott, Elliott, and the Cowboys offensive line could also spell the end for the only play caller Dak has known in Scott Linehan. Entering the final year of his rookie contract with one playoff appearance and even more uncertainty on the roster and coaching staff is a worst case scenario for the Dallas Cowboys, and one they must make a collective effort to avoid.
4. "Keep Ezekiel Elliott Healthy"
Could the answer to most of the Cowboys problems really be as easy as Running Back Ezekiel Elliott? Only losing six of the career 25 games that Elliott has been on the field with Prescott for, there is no more dynamic weapon returning to a team than Zeke for the Cowboys.
Keeping Elliott healthy feels like the easiest task that Bleacher Report asks of the Cowboys this offseason. Never missing a game due to injury, Elliott is every-bit the workhorse back the Cowboys needed when drafting him fourth overall in 2016.
That draft, and thankfully the 4-12 season that led into it, feels like forever ago. It's time for the Cowboys to win games with Elliott leading the way. The Cowboys approach of controlling games on offense while deploying their well-rested defense to protect the lead is a proven one, and a healthy Elliott will keep it that way this season.
The Cowboys have been creative in adding depth behind Elliott this offseason, trading for Tavon Austin and recently re-signing Darius Jackson. Rod Smith remains the favorite to be Elliott's primary backup, as the Cowboys also drafted Bo Scarbrough with their last pick in the seventh round.
Committing fully to their ground game is nothing new for Dallas, and this versatility is part of what their more 'open' offense will look like in support of Ezekiel Elliott for the upcoming season.
✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭
The degree of difficulty for this to-do list is a subjective thing, as Cowboys Nation appears to still be split on not only Prescott's growth as a quarterback but the help he'll have around him. With fans' only current task being waiting impatiently for more meaningful football, the Cowboys offense is going to be built through training camp this summer.
With a strong balance of starting positions already filled with blue chip players and others up for grabs (on both sides of the ball), the Cowboys are well equipped to put 2017 behind them and turn heads around the league starting very soon.
Todd Gurley Leaps Ezekiel Elliott on NFL Rushing Leaderboard
After several weeks as the NFL's rushing leader, Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott has been bumped to second place. With a 208-yard explosion last week against the Broncos, Todd Gurley of the Los Angeles Rams has leaped Zeke on the leaderboard.
Elliott was no slouch himself in Week 6, putting up 106 yards on the vaunted Jaguars defense. But Gurley nearly doubled that in Denver, and now leads Zeke by 37 yards.
Here are the current NFL rushing leaders, :
- Todd Gurley, Rams - 623 yards
- Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys - 586 yards
- Melvin Gordon, Chargers - 466 yards
- Kareem Hunt, Chiefs - 456 yards
- James Conner, Steelers - 453 yards
- Saquon Barkley, Giants - yards
- Matt Breida, 49ers - 430 yards
- Isaiah Crowell, Jets - 430 yards
- Sony Michel, Patriots - 400 yards
It's still early in 2018, but it's already starting to look like a two-horse race for the rushing title. And it's no surprise that those two would be Elliott and Gurley.
Last year, Zeke and Todd were the top two in the NFL for yards-per-game. Gurley missed one game that year and finished second in total yards behind Kareem Hunt. Elliott was held back by his suspension.
Week 7 could allow Elliott to retake the lead. He'll see a Washington defense that he ran for 150 yards on last season in a single game. However, they are currently sixth in the NFL in rushing yards allowed.
Gurley gets a slightly softer opponent in the 49ers defense, who are just 13th in run defense. Both games will be on the road.
While these stats certainly aren't as important as wins and losses, they do matter to the players. Rushing titles come back into the conversation when Hall of Fame credentials are being considered.
If things stay at their current pace for Ezekiel Elliott and Todd Gurley, we may be tracking this race all the way through the end of the regular season.
Michael Gallup Showing Signs of a Breakout
We're only six games into the career of Rookie Wide Receiver Michael Gallup who was selected 81st overall by the Dallas Cowboys in the 2018 NFL Draft. It's been a slow start to his career, mostly because of usage. On Sunday, he took a step toward what many thought he could be for the Cowboys when he was drafted; Wide receiver one.
The numbers, one reception on two targets for 27 yards, may not indicate a breakout is coming, but if you look at the two targets he saw and the quality of the corner he faced, they're more impressive.
Look at this catch by #Cowboys rookie WR Michael Gallup https://t.co/lD1xJ2WemD
On the Dallas Cowboys first drive of the day, Cowboys Quarterback Dak Prescott looked Michael Gallup's way down the left sideline and hit him on a nice back shoulder fade that looked an awful lot like a Dez Bryant-like contested catch. It was a key play on 3rd-and-9 to get the Dallas Cowboys into Jacksonville territory on a drive that led to a Brett Maher field goal and a 3-0 lead.
Later in the game with the Cowboys driving to score a touchdown, Gallup made a tremendous catch when he got perfect depth behind All-Pro Corner Back A.J. Bouye and in front of the safety help. It looked to be an impressive touchdown catch just inside the end zone, but was overturned on replay. On review, Gallup wasn't able to get his second foot down after he made contact with the defender. Though the touchdown didn't stand, it was an impressive effort for Michael Gallup.
Michael Gallup with a near circus catch to ALMOST haul in his first NFL TD. Ruled incomplete. #cowboys #jags @CSUFootball https://t.co/SePSc3n1Yp
Michael Gallup led the Dallas Cowboys wide receiver group in snaps (81% of the offensive snaps) on Sunday, and according to Mike Clay from ESPN, he led the Dallas Cowboys in routes run as well. Both of Gallup's targets came against Bouye, showing an ability to beat one of the best corners in the NFL.
Michael Gallup paced the Cowboys in pass routes (25) for the first time in his career on Sunday.
As Michael Gallup sees more opportunities to play, his opportunities to make plays are going to continue to grow. With news coming down that Tavon Austin is unlikely to play for several weeks because of a groin injury, more snaps are opening up at the wide receiver position. Tavon played 18 snaps before getting injured on Sunday, so there will be increased opportunities for Gallup moving forward.
Gallup's only seen about 3 targets a game, but with the increased snaps he saw in week six and the potential for even more with Austin coming, the opportunities should grow. As he continues to come down with impressive catches like he did on Sunday (even if only one of them counted), it's going to increase Dak Prescott's and the coaching staff's level of trust in the rookie.
It's safe to say that more big time catches are coming for Michael Gallup and a breakout is coming sooner than later.
Takeaway Tuesday: Cole Beasley is Your Interim WR1
Watching the Dallas Cowboys beat the Jacksonville Jaguars 40-7 was undoubtedly fun for Cowboys Nation. There were not many positive expectations for the Cowboys heading into this game but both the defense and offense put on impressive performances at home in an attempt to remain serious contenders within the NFC East.
We learned a few things about the Dallas Cowboys last Sunday as they beat one of the top defenses in the NFL. Let's talk about in this week's edition of Takeaway Tuesday!
Cole Beasley Is Your Interim WR1
The Cowboys have yet to find their #1 wide receiver, but Cole Beasley is making a serious statement looking like the most reliable target in Dallas. Being 5'8 and a slot receiver doesn't really help Beasley's case to be the #1 guy, but he's making plays.
Last Sunday, he was the only wide receiver on the team with more than one catch. The other player with more than one reception was Geoff Swaim, who only got his hands on the ball twice. Beasley finished the day with nine receptions for 101 yards and two touchdown catches. The Cowboys need other WRs to step up but in the meantime, let Beasley put the sauce on opposing defenses. Hopefully he continues to hurt defenses like he did versus the Jaguars' feared secondary.
The team still needs a guy who can be a consistent threat on the outside, though. Third-round rookie Michael Gallup could develop into that, but he isn't there yet. We'll have to wait and see. Meanwhile, it's all Beasley.
Bright Future for the Defensive Line
Blake Bortles was sacked three times by the so-called "Hot Boyz" last weekend. To be quite honest, the future for this defensive line looks brightest than it ever has. The return of Maliek Collins and David Irving to the field were desperately needed for this defense to take the next step. Collins and Irving were somewhat limited, but their snap counts will surely increase as the season continues.
A lot of little details went into this sack from Maliek Collins. From his alignment pre-snap to his timing on the spin, it was a beautiful display of rushing the passer by @SavageSevv. https://t.co/CYcfLH6AfB
Randy Gregory also got limited snaps versus the Jaguars, but he was able to make an impact either way. He finished the day with one sack, two hits and one QB hurry. I can't wait until these guys' snaps increase. This should be a very scary unit for opposing quarterbacks.
Dak Prescott's Stats Don't Reflect His Performance
The Jaguars are the best defense this team has faced and yet it's been the offense's best performance. Dak Prescott's passing stats may not look great, but his play was. Even though he failed to cross the 200 yard mark on the air, he rushed for 82 yards and kept Jacksonville's defense honest. Dak has faced a lot of criticism this year and will likely continue to do so.
Even still, we've seen him ball out on various occasions now. Dak can play. He may not be an elite passer, in fact he's far from being that, but he can make this offense work if they play to his strengths.
We've heard players talk about "turning the corner" in Dallas. Cowboys Nation should hope that is the case. What's more frustrating than watching an offense being unable to move the chains and score touchdowns, is knowing they could do it with a better execution and play-calling. Thanks to players like Dak, Ezekiel Elliott and Cole Beasley, there's a silver lining for the Cowboys' offense.
Inconsistency is the Problem for Cowboys
Simply put, this is not the team we had witnessed in the first five weeks of the season. Even in the two prior wins this year, the Dallas Cowboys had not looked dominant at all. Specifically the offense. They hadn't faced a defense as tough as the Jaguars', but they were able to drop 40 on them. Now granted, they did it with the help of the defense, but still. We hadn't seen this version of the Cowboys.
Even with a 40-7 win over the Jaguars, it is tough to imagine Dallas will keep this up as the season continues. Hopefully, they do and I'm wrong about this. They need to be more consistent if they want to end up surprising the NFC East and walk away with the division title.
Although they got the big win, they still left points on the field and fail to execute for touchdowns in the second half. Even when the defense forced turnovers. In close games, this cost you wins in the NFL. The Cowboys can't afford to lose many more games, even in a weak division.
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