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.
Maliek Collins Playing Excellent for Cowboys Defense
For the Dallas Cowboys on the interior, a lot of the news consistently surround the availability of Defensive Tackle David Irving, but Maliek Collins is playing excellent right now. While I'm willing to be very patient with Irving because of the elite talent he brings, Maliek Collins should continue to start for the Dallas Cowboys at 3-technique defensive tackle.
Collins has been a player that the Cowboys have bounced between the nose tackle and the 3T position with the hopes of getting their best players on the field, and because of the lack of a consistent presence at the 1-technique or nose tackle position. Well, with Antwaun Woods taking control at the 1T, Collins has been able to play at the position where he's at his best. The 3-tech.
He hasn't put huge numbers in the sack column this season, but that doesn't mean he's been absent from being the disruptive player he's been through his first two and a half seasons.
During the Dallas Cowboys five game winning streak, Maliek Collins has led the Dallas Cowboys defensive tackles in total pressures with 13, according to Pro Football Focus. PFF combines sacks, quarterback hits, and hurries into their "pressures." Collins hasn't recorded a sack during the winning streak, but he has four quarterback hits and nine hurries. He's tied with Tyrone Crawford for third in total pressures behind DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory over the last five weeks.
Over the last five weeks, Collins leads the defensive tackles in solo tackles with five and is tied with Crawford and Antwaun Woods with three run stops on defense, according to Pro Football Focus. Collins has also has two tackles for loss in the last five games and recovered Tyrone Crawford's force fumble on Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Collins had six sacks in his rookie season when he played primarily as the 3T, which allowed him to see more one-on-one blocks against opposing interior offensive linemen. Especially with the way the rest of the defensive line is playing.
With the Cowboys on the road to face the Indianapolis Colts this week, Collins is going to have a tough matchup with a very good Colts offensive line, in particular, rookie Quentin Nelson. Collins ability to get pressure on Andrew Luck on the interior is a huge key for the Dallas Cowboys this week. We know that Gregory and Lawrence will get their pressures, but if Andrew Luck is able to step up into a clean pocket, it will make for a much more challenging game for the Cowboys secondary.
Collins has proved to be up to any task over the last five weeks and if he's able to keep playing at such a high level, he'll make the Cowboys coaching staff, and the rest of Cowboys Nation forget about using other defensive tackles. For the Cowboys to make a deep push in the playoffs, they'll need Collins to be a big time player for them moving forward.
#INDvsDAL: Betting Preview, Trends, And Prediction
For once, the Cowboys are not playing what feels like a do-or-die game on Sunday, needing just 1 win over their final 3 to win the NFC East. This week the 8-5 Cowboys go on the road to face the 7-6 Colts, with each times vying for playoff spots in their respective conferences.
Both the Cowboys and Colts have turned around what looked like dead seasons, but there is no doubt the Colts need this one more than the Cowboys do to keep pace for the 6th seed in the AFC.
Cowboys +3, O/U 47 points.
The once 3-5 Cowboys are now head and shoulders above the rest of their division, after winning their fifth straight in thrilling fashion over the Eagles last Sunday. The team which seemed so disjointed and inconsistent through 8 games has found their identity, and is playing complete team football as of late.
Dak Prescott is coming off a career-best game in terms of yardage, and despite some poor turnovers is still playing some of the best football of his career. This is due in large part to two stars in Amari Cooper and Ezekiel Elliott, who have shouldered the production load of this offense the last 5 weeks.
And, of course, there is the defense which continues to make life a living hell for opposing offenses. Randy Gregory is coming into his own as a pass rusher, getting another sack last week and getting flagged for what should have been his second sack of the day.
Dallas is playing the brand of football they told us they would before the season, and are beginning to make their front office and decision makers look very smart in the process.
At 7-6 and fighting for the final AFC playoff spot, the Colts need this one more than the Cowboys do. Getting shut out by the lowly Jaguars two weeks ago may ultimately keep the Colts out of the playoffs, but a win this Sunday and a little help elsewhere could set them up nicely down the stretch.
Indy has quietly one of the best passing offenses in all of the NFL, with star quarterback Andrew Luck playing his best football in quite some time. Luck is healthy and looks like himself again, and the selection of Quenton Nelson to sure-up the offensive line has gone a long way to improving this offense as well.
Defensively the Colts have been even more impressive lately. Though they have a roster comprised of no-names nationally, the Colts defense is 11th in DVOA. Darius Leonard has been a revelation for the Colts at linebacker, and their young defense seems to be improving by the week.
The Colts are coming off of a big road victory over the Houston Texans a week ago, and will look to defeat the Texans' in-state rivals on Sunday to improve to 8-6.
- The Cowboys are 5-0 against the spread their last 5 games, and have won all 5 straight up.
- The score total has hit the over 4 of the Cowboys' last 6 games.
- But the score total has gone under 4 of the Colts' last 5 games.
- The Colts are 4-1 straight up their last 5 home games.
- Dallas is 6-3 their last 9 games against the Colts.
The Cowboys' winning streak has to end at some point, right?
Well, unlike Vegas, I don't expect that ending to happen on Sunday. The Cowboys have been playing desperate football over the last 5 games and they are well aware what a win over Indianapolis would mean.
A victory would clinch them a division title for the third time in five years, and just as they did in 2014, I expect the Cowboys to get that clinching victory over the Colts. Give me the Cowboys and the points this week.
Amari Cooper Wins 2nd NFC Offensive Player of the Week Award of 2018
For the second time in just three weeks, Dallas Cowboys receiver Amari Cooper has been named the NFC Offensive Player of the Week.
Cooper scored three touchdowns, including the game winner in overtime, to lead the Cowboys to victory last Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles. He has 10 catches for 217 yards, which led all NFL receivers last week.
After his record-setting performance during week 14, @AmariCooper9 is the FIRST #DallasCowboys to win NFC Player of the Week twice in a season! → https://t.co/kvBDIeOgBd #ProBowlVote #ProBowlVote #ProBowlVote #ProBowlVote #ProBowlVote #ProBowlVote
As the official website stated, Cooper is the first Cowboy to win the award twice in the same year. He's also the first Cowboy to be named Offensive Player of the Week since Ezekiel Elliott in 2016.
Before this year, Elliott was the only Dallas player to win the Offensive award in three seasons. Cooper has now done it twice in three weeks.
Since being traded to the Cowboys, Amari Cooper has amassed 40 catches for 642 yards and six touchdowns.
His wasted time in Oakland may keep Cooper out of the Pro Bowl this year, but he's already become a fan favorite in Cowboys Nation. Congratulations to Amari for another well-deserved award!
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