The calling card for the Dallas Cowboys offense in 2018 - amidst all of the changes this unit has gone through - will be the same as it was the last time the Cowboys reached the playoffs. Winning 19 of 25 games that both Quarterback Dak Prescott and Running Back Ezekiel Elliott have played in, Elliott's return for a full season warrants plenty of excitement.
It took the loss of not only Elliott but Left Tackle Tyron Smith last season for Prescott to regress in his second season, leading to the worst win total of his young career at 9-7. Ever since Dak took the starting job in 2016, the Cowboys have done nothing but instill confidence in their quarterback of the future, expecting Elliott to be reliably alongside him at all times.
Leading the league in rushing with 1,631 yards on 322 carries as the fourth overall pick two seasons ago, Zeke Elliott will be looking to remind everyone how dominant of a back he truly is. Prior to serving his six game suspension, Elliott was averaging 24 carries a game (up from 21.5 in 2016) with 783 yards to show for it on the ground.
While his quarterback will be most affected by the turnover the Cowboys are experiencing at wide receiver, Elliott is joined by Tavon Austin and potentially Bo Scarbrough in a new-look RBs room as well. Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan and the Cowboys are hopeful that their newfound versatility on offense will allow them to be less predictable.
This is what also makes Ezekiel Elliott such a special player. It is expected that he will lead the way for the Cowboys offense, and is still able to control a game behind Dallas' star-studded line. The Cowboys absolutely can't lose sight of what a motivated Elliott can do in 2018.
If using the 24 attempts per game figure from above through a full 16 game schedule, Elliott would tote the rock 360 times. This number would have led the league by 39 carries in 2017, with Le'Veon Bell going for 321 attempts.
Exactly what constitutes an "attempt" in the Cowboys diverse offense has been a highly debated topic as of late, based on Stephen Jones' comments on another RBs usage - Tavon Austin. Acquired from the Rams during the draft, the Cowboys view Austin as a running back that will reportedly get up to a dozen such "attempts" per game this season.
Never carrying the ball more than 10 times in a game over his five years in the league, Austin's chances to use his speed will likely come in ways that Elliott is not as adept at. With one roster spot, the Cowboys have a player to handle jet sweeps, C.O.P back touches, receptions, and punt returns in Austin.
It's very possible we see both Elliott and Austin on the field together in select packages for the Cowboys this season. Where Austin can come off the field though, Elliott can always be trusted as a dominant blocker and underused receiver.
I have my own doubts about Zeke's role as a pass catcher expanding in 2018, as the Cowboys will also have to justify keeping Rod Smith as another backup RB - outside of his special teams contributions. Even new Fullback Jamize Olawale has shown the ability to catch the ball comfortably out of the backfield.
This is all the more reason to prepare for Elliott to absolutely hammer defenses on the ground.
The Cowboys are prepared arguably better than ever to control games with their rushing attack, using this year's 50th overall pick on Left Guard Connor Williams. Watching this team adapt on offense each week while still relying on a bell cow runner is going to make Dak Prescott's third-year a fascinating one.
This is an offense that should absolutely be good enough to get the Cowboys back into playoff contention. It always has been when Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott are on the field. Scott Linehan may have a lot more to worry about this year around these cornerstones, along with the pressure to keep his job long-term, but it should be easy for him to call his best player's number early and often in 2018.
Ezekiel Elliott himself will see to it.
Cowboys RB Mike Weber’s Injury Scare Continues Concerning Trend
Rookie RB Mike Weber had a brief scare earlier this week with a knee injury in practice, but thankfully the MRI came back with a good report. However, as he fights to have a future with the Dallas Cowboys, this health incident is a concerning reminder of Weber's recent history.
One reason that Weber fell to the seventh round of the 2019 NFL Draft was due to battling injuries during his last two years at Ohio State. He lost his starting job in 2017 due to ongoing hamstring issues and also had to miss time last year because of a foot strain.
Carrying the load for the Buckeyes is a far different workload than being second or third on the Cowboys' RB depth chart. But this latest scare happened in early May, just two weeks after Mike joined the team and well before the more strenuous activities of an NFL offseason.
A practice injury can cost you just as badly as one that happens in a game. And with Dallas already thin at RB, it could leave them severely shorthanded if it occurs during the regular season.
Many have projected that the Cowboys' RB group in 2019 would have Ezekiel Elliott as the obvious starter and then rookies Weber and Tony Pollard behind him. While Pollard was drafted three rounds ahead of Weber, he's not built to take a large number of carries if Zeke were to go out.
If Mike Weber does make the team, he would be expected to take a sizable role if something bad happen with Elliott.
The "injury prone" label is disastrous for any athlete, but especially a guy with no real claim to a roster spot. If Weber causes concern in the front office about his durability, they may go a different way at final cuts.
Remember, Mike's not just up against Pollard and Darius Jackson for a roster spot. There are still plenty of veteran free agent running backs out there that Dallas could turn to if they're not confident about their young prospects.
This isn't too say that one scary moment in May, which ultimately didn't amount to much, is reason to cut bait with Mike Weber. But when you stack it up with his injury history in college, it does make you wonder how he'll do over the course of an entire NFL season.
Hopefully, Weber bounces back from this and has a great summer. Former Buckeye RBs have treated Dallas well the last few years, and it'd be fantastic if Mike can provide the same solid solid depth that Rod Smith did.
But this latest news is just a reminder of why Dallas can't rest easy at running back just yet, and why they may still have another move to make to prepare for 2019.
Cowboys LB Jaylon Smith Graduating From Notre Dame
The 2019 season is right around the corner for the Dallas Cowboys, with OTA's and training camp getting ready to kickoff in the coming weeks/months.
Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith made the most of his offseason, going back to Notre Dame to finish out his college degree. Smith is set to graduate from Notre Dame this Saturday, and will walk to earn his degree in Film & Television.
Smith talked to DallasCowboys.com's David Helman about why it was so important for him to graduate and finish what he started at Notre Dame.
“When I left after my junior year, I promised my mom that I would go back and finish...Finishing my third year with the Cowboys, it was time.” - Jaylon Smith
2,025 @NotreDame undergraduates will receive degrees during Commencement Weekend. That contingent includes @thejaylonsmith Yes, the current @dallascowboys & former @NDFootball All-American linebacker, who took 21 credits this spring #4for40 #GraduatingChampions #CEV
Smith continues his leadership on and off the field, and we all send our congratulations to the Cowboys starting MIKE linebacker!
Ezekiel Elliott Snubbed from Top 25 Players Under 25 List
On Tuesday, Pro Football Focus published it's Top 25 Players Under 25, with Dallas Cowboys Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch one of only three linebackers on the list. Oddly, one of the best players on the team was absent from this same list; Running Back Ezekiel Elliott.
The running backs they included were Kareem Hunt, Saquon Barkley, and Alvin Kamara. Pro Football Focus has been very open about their dislike of Elliott's 2018 season, ranking him 30th in the NFL according to their player grades.
Elliott has won the NFL's rushing title in two of his three seasons and likely would have won it in 2017 had he not been served with a league-mandated six-game suspension. Elliott ran for nearly 1,000 yards in the 10 games he played, which put him in 10th place in rushing in 2017. Le'Veon Bell led the NFL in rushing that season with 1,291 yards. Using some basic arithmetic, I've discovered that Elliott finished just 308 yards off the league lead in six fewer games.
Despite being the most productive back in the NFL in his first three years in the NFL, Elliott gets knocked because he sees such a high volume of carries and targets from the Dallas Cowboys offense.
On Wednesday, Mark Chichester of Pro Football Focus talked about the players who just missed the cut. Here's what he had to say about Ezekiel Elliott.
"There’s no doubt that Ezekiel Elliott is one of the top players at his position, but it’s hard to overlook the fact that his production is, in large part, thanks to the offense that Dallas has built around him. Over the last three years, Elliott ranks first in rushing attempts (868), rushing yards (4048), rushing yards after contact (2567) and first down conversions (219). However, his three-year rushing grade of 80.2 ranks ninth among the 36 backs with at least 300 attempts in that span, while his 0.119 missed tackles forced per attempt ranks tied for 27th among the same group."
Mark Chichester - Pro Football Focus
Ezekiel Elliott is one of the best running backs in the NFL, if not the best. There can be an argument for Todd Gurley or Le'Veon Bell, and maybe even Saquon Barkley, but if you aren't including Ezekiel Elliott in the discussion, the discussion is a bit flawed.
For three years, under Scott Linehan as the offensive coordinator, every team in the NFL knows that Elliott is going to get the ball and get the ball a lot. Primarily on first downs. Yet, Elliott continues to be productive and grind out his yards, even against heavily stacked fronts.
I understand the argument that Elliott wasn't very efficient with his touches in 2018, but when you are the primary focus for opposing defenses, it makes it difficult to be efficient. Kareem Hunt and Alvin Kamar had the benefit of being coached by Andy Reid and Sean Payton who are considered creative offensive minds. Saquon Barkley had the benefit of Odell Beckham Jr keeping safeties honest.
While the Cowboys had Amari Cooper, the passing game still doesn't get near the respect that the Cowboys run game gets from opposing defensive coordinators. With Kellen Moore on board and the talk about presenting multiple formations for opposing teams to figure out, the Cowboys offense could get more creative in 2019.
Heading into his fourth year in the NFL, it's amazing that Ezekiel Elliott apparently still has something to prove to some out there. After winning rushing titles in two of his three seasons and averaging right around 100 yards a game, Elliott still doesn't get the respect he deserves from national observers.
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