Let me start this article with a strong opening statement: The Cowboys will be better in 2018 than they were in 2017. There's been a lot of talk about the lack of a true No. 1 receiver. But when we break it down, the current setup will most likely play out better for Cowboys QB Dak Prescott.
The Dak Stats
Certain quarterbacks shine when they have that go-to playmaker. We're talking about guys like Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, Calvin Johnson, Ocho Cinco, Tim Brown, Jerry Rice, and Dez Bryant. But other QBs do better at reading the defense and quickly adapting to what is given. Dak Prescott is the latter breed of QB.
Let’s do a quick numbers exercise to prove this.
When Prescott is targeting 8 or more receivers throughout the game, his passer rating jumps from 86.1 (targeting less than 8) to 104.5. He passes for almost 50 yards more per game and his touchdown to interception ratio drastically improves from 21-13 to 24-4.
Most importantly, when he targets at least 8 different receivers, the Cowboys are 14-2. When he targets less than 8, the team is just .500 at 8-8.
Without a doubt, Prescott is much better at adjusting to what the defense is giving him. He just isn’t one of those guys who can successfully "force" the ball (like Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees). Not feeling the pressure of having to get the ball into the hands of the star playmaker will give this offense a new kind of depth in 2018.
Yes, losing Jason Witten hurts, much more so in my opinion than not having Dez.
Questions Still Loom
This is still the Cowboys' biggest concern on offense. There is some great depth. We have Rico Gathers, Blake Jarwin, Geoff Swaim, and the young stud out of Stanford, Dalton Schultz. But between the three who have any NFL experience, there are only 9 catches between them. I must say that Dalton, with his 4.75 40-yard dash, has a legitimate shot at seeing a lot of playing time in his rookie campaign and could become an impact player with his size (6’5”, 244-lbs) and speed.
But despite the battle for TE being wide open, and debates about whether or not the team needs a No. 1 receiver, the Cowboys are still expected to give the Eagles a run for their money in the NFC East. Here are the odds on the defending NFC East champions and how (although early) it is expected to shake out:
- Philadelphia Eagles -167
- Dallas Cowboys +350
- New York Giants +650
- Washington Redskins +750
NFC East Week 1 Predictions
The Cowboys open the season in a difficult road game against the Carolina Panthers. The Panthers have been listed as 2.5-point favorites (follow the Cowboys NFL Odds here all season long) which isn’t surprising considering they are a tough team playing at home. You might be thinking, "crap, we're opening up as underdogs?" Don’t worry too much; it actually bodes fairly well because the lines-makers generally give a 3-point advantage to the home team. This means that they actually handicap the Cowboys to be a half-point favorite on a neutral field and a 3.5-point favorite in Arlington.
The Redskins open their season in Arizona against the Cardinals. The line is set at a pick ‘em (meaning there is no point spread; it's anyone's game). But, looking at the 'Skins and Cardinals, I think Washington gets disappointed in Week 1 and starts their season with a loss.
The Giants get to test their new offensive line and see if they were right in continuing to place their faith in Eli Manning against the best defense in the league. The Jags are 3-point favorites at MetLife stadium. This means the Jags are actually 6-points better. I do think that the Giants will be vastly improved this season, but they are also going to open with a loss.
The Eagles don’t have it easy either, but they will probably pull out the win at home as 4-point favorites against the Dirty Birds on Thursday Night Football. Their defense is just too good. Atlanta's road offense scored just 21 points per game last year while Philly scores 28 on average at home. The Eagles' home defense has been downright nasty, only allowing 12 points per game in Philadelphia.
This will be a two-horse race for the division between the Eagles and Cowboys. And even if the Eagles win the East, the Cowboys will wildcard into the playoffs.
Randy Gregory can Make the Perimeter Pass Rush Extremely Formidable
Randy Gregory showed flashes last season of the potential he has as a pass rusher. Even though he only managed one start he did see action in 14 games. Had registered 6 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, 7 tackles for loss and 15 hits on the quarterback. That's very good production with limited opportunities. Now, this sets up the Dallas Cowboys on the edge getting to the quarterback, and here's how.
The Cowboys acquired Defensive End Robert Quinn via trade from the Dolphins back in March. He is set to start at right defensive end opposite All-Pro DeMarcus Lawrence. Gregory, who lines up on the right side as well, can potentially make said side a huge problem for offenses on 2019.
Let's just take a typical season from Quinn which is between 8-9 sacks. If Gregory can give at minimum what he did last season, that's around 15 sacks just between the two of them alone. Now, as we all know, Lawrence can be penciled in for double-digit sacks routinely at this point. So given this information that's a potential 25-30 sacks just from these three players. This is without including guys such as Taco Charlton, Dorance Armstrong, Kerry Hyder, and rookies Joe Jackson and Jalen Jelks (assuming they make the final roster).
Why is Gregory's potential impact so important? For me, it's simply where he lines up at defensive end, on the right side. Most quarterbacks are right-handed, which means when they drop back to pass they face left side defensive ends, with their backs to defensive ends coming off the right side. If you can consistently pressure a quarterback from his blindside the opportunities for sacks and fumbles increase. Regardless of how skilled a quarterback is you can't avoid what you can't see.
Of course, this all depends on what the NFL does regarding the reinstatement of Gregory. He was suspended indefinitely in February for violating the league's substance-abuse policy, a situation he is all too familiar with. My guess is Gregory and the Cowboys will ask for a conditional reinstatement like he was given by the NFL in 2018. What this would do is allow Gregory to participate in meetings and condition work until he's a full participant. He is set to apply for that reinstatement within the next few days.
The only thing Randy Gregory can do now is play the waiting game. The league is currently considering the possibility of softening their stance on marijuana use. If they are serious about it I can see Gregory getting reinstated even if it's on a conditional basis. If this is granted the Cowboys will be getting big-time pressure off the edge with Lawrence, Quinn, and Gregory in 2019.
CB Jourdan Lewis Getting Ready For Bounce-Back 2019 Season
For a third round pick, cornerback Jourdan Lewis sure did come to Dallas with his fair share of hype.
In fact, much of Cowboys Nation was more excited about Lewis joining the Cowboys than they were about either of the team's first two selections in that same draft, Taco Charlton and Chidobe Awuzie. But while Awuzie has soared to starting cornerback levels with Dallas during his first two seasons, Jourdan Lewis has been forced to take a back seat.
After a promising rookie season, Jourdan Lewis didn't get much playing time at cornerback in 2018. Anthony Brown took over as the starting slot corner, while Byron Jones and Awuzie manned the outside. This left Lewis as the odd man out, despite what many consider to be impressive cover skills.
Lewis is not allowing this down season to eat away at him too much, though. While speaking with the media last week at SportsCon in Dallas, Lewis gave his thoughts on how his year spent behind the other young Cowboys corners is only fueling him for the future.
"As a competitor it's always tough, especially as a rookie and you're playing all of the time. It's definitely when you take a step back it humbles you. Sometimes you gotta understand that you have to wait your turn and work on your craft. Understand that you always have to stay a professional no matter your situation. And that's what I learned last year."
Considered undersized by the standards typically used by Cowboys secondary coach Kris Richard, some have argued that Lewis was never given a fair shot to earn playing time once Richard took over in 2018. Whether or not this is true can't ever be said for sure, and the level of play Anthony Brown exhibited from the slot in 2018 didn't leave much room for substitutions either.
Still, Jourdan Lewis says he appreciates that time he spent on the bench, and he hopes that it will only drive him towards bigger and better things down the road.
"I appreciate the time that I sat last year honestly...Because it made me a better player, maybe a better person honestly."
The Cowboys cornerback situation didn't get any less crowded this offseason. Not only is Dallas bringing back all three of the aforementioned starters from a year ago, but they also drafted Miami's Michael Jackson in the fifth round of the 2019 draft.
That cornerback room is full of talent. Not only does this create a luxury for the Cowboys at one of the league's most important positions, but it also breeds immense competition between the corners come training camp.
Which, if you didn't know, begins on July 26th.
Jason Witten Is A Future Hall Of Famer, But Is He Now Underrated? Some NFL Execs Say So
It's hard to imagine how a 37 year old tight end who was more recently in the broadcast booth than on the football field could possibly be "underrated," but that's what some NFL Execs seem to believe.
Bleacher Report's Mike Freeman conducted a survey of executives around the league, asking them who they believed the most underrated player in the NFL was entering the 2019 season. While Steelers running back James Conner was the most common player named, Cowboys tight end Jason Witten was also reportedly brought up.
I have to admit, this is shocking.
As mentioned, Witten is well past his prime and saw decline in his play over the last few seasons he played with the Cowboys. His retirement made sense, and his un-retirement was a surprise to most. But I suppose now that seemingly no one nationally expects Witten to do much of anything in 2019, he can be thought of as underrated.
This sentiment echoes statements which former Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo made earlier last week. Romo claimed that his favorite target would pick right back up where he left off in Dallas, and would be back to the Witten of old in no-time.
"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." - Tony Romo
I'm still very much in "wait and see" mode with this entire Jason Witten situation. It's hard to wrap your head around a player we all thought was old and slow when he was 35 coming back after a year in retirement to be a productive NFL pass catcher.
While Witten's numbers have declined across the board, his touchdown production actually improved in 2017. If, at the very least, Jason Witten can become a secondary red zone option for the Cowboys offense, then his addition would have been well worth it offensively.
Jason Witten will wear a gold jacket in Canton Ohio one day, but will his 2019 contributions give the voters any extra reason to support his candidacy?
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