Before the 2014 season started for the Dallas Cowboys there were questions galore, and arguably one of the biggest questions about this team was how the linebackers would perform.
That was the question before Sean Lee got hurt.
After he was injured and put on the shelf for the entire 2014 season, the linebackers on this team were dubbed as one of the weakest positions on the defense and would no doubt fail miserably during the 2014 season.
The team had a very inconsistent and yet talented Bruce Carter, an underrated Justin Durant, and an inexperienced Kyle Wilber; a rookie in Anthony Hitchens - who some thought was overvalued being selected in the 4th round of the 2014 draft - and of course, Rolando McClain, who the team acquired by bringing him out of retirement for the second time.
Fast-forward through the season and the playoffs, and the unit that was supposed to be one of the weakest positions on the team ended up one of the strongest.
The team got an unexpected boost from Anthony Hitchens and Rolando McClain showed flashes of why he was a top draft pick by the Raiders just a few years ago. Bruce Carter had his best season as a pro and led all linebackers in interceptions with five, finishing in the league's top ten.
The linebacker unit didn’t go through the season without its ups and downs or injuries. Rolando McClain played through injuries most of the season and missed some games as well. His injuries caused a steep decline in his production as the season wore on. Bruce Carter missed three games and still had a few that left fans scratching their heads. Justin Durant - who Rod Marinelli said was the league’s best kept secret - was hurt and lost for the season in week 6.
Of the linebackers mentioned, only Sean Lee, Anthony Hitchens, and Kyle Wilber remain under contract with any significant playing time. When you have a really good season like the Cowboys did in 2014, one of the main priorities is to try to resign some of the players whose contracts have run out.
Many factors must be considered before decisions are made about some of those players. Here are some things the Cowboys' front office could be considering:
- How will the new contract mesh with the salary cap
- Has he played well enough and consistently enough to earn a new contract
- Injury history
- Father time creeps up on us all, but it's a whole lot faster in the NFL
- Depth - Who’s playing behind them? Can player A be replaced by player B if player A is let go. Is player A stunting the growth of those behind him? (AKA Progress stopper)
Those are just some of the questions which could be brought up if the team is thinking about negotiating. And perhaps those will be especially relevant to the front office when they look at free agents Rolando McClain, Bruce Carter and Justin Durant.
Let's do our own evaluations with our Sign 'Em or Let 'Em Walk list.
He’s the most controversial of the three, so let’s start with him.
We know some of his past - that he’s retired twice already and that he’s had run ins with the law. We know he sat out the entire 2013 season. The one thing we didn’t know when he was brought to Dallas was which Rolando the Cowboys were going to get. The Rolando that showed greatness his first couple of years in the league, or the Rolando that kept everyone guessing what his next move would be?
McClain flashed his abilities during preseason. He was brought along slowly, but as each week passed you could see he was regaining that stud form he had while with the Raiders.
McClain became an instant leader on this defense, vocally and leading by his play. He was lining people up in their proper positions by week one, and by week two he brought the heat on his tackling. His tackling wasn’t just hard-hitting; it was precision technique violently executed. He ended the season with 81 combined tackles, which was good for second on the team.
When McClain was in the game, other teams struggled to get a consistent running game going. He also played well against the pass as he was able to pick off a couple of throws in 2014.
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One interception - in Tennessee - was one of the most athletic catches you might ever see by a man of his size.
And his other interception came when he sealed the deal in Seattle late in the 4th quarter.
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He isn’t but 25 years old, so he has room for improvement and coaches as well as other players have said he’s a student of the game.
Let Him Walk
He made it an entire season with no off-the-field problems, but he does have a past of it happening. Remember that he’s still young, so it isn’t out of the way to think there’s a chance something else could happen.
He stayed injured almost the entire season. He played through those injuries - for the most part - but those injuries gradually started slowing his level of play down.
What kind of contract is he going to demand? He’s a young, talented middle linebacker who could get the big bucks if he chose to. And if the 'Boys let him walk, I believe he gets the contract he wants.
Overall Feeling on Rolando McClain
I think the team wants him back, and I think that he wants to come back. McClain said in training camp that there wasn’t but two teams he was going to come out of retirement for, and one of them is the Dallas Cowboys.
He knows what people around the league think of him. So when owner Jerry Jones called him to ask if he would play, I believe that went a long way with him. I feel he will get resigned to a "team friendly" deal; something along the lines of what left tackle Tyron Smith signed prior to training camp. Maybe not the same numbers, but with a similar structure.
Bruce is possibly the most athletically gifted linebacker on the team. That’s never been an issue. The issue was, which Bruce Carter are you going to get?
I wrote that piece last off-season trying to pinpoint the cause of some of his troubles. One of his biggest issues was taking two seasons to get accustomed to a new defense. Another was, he played so many positions in college that I felt he never had a chance to hone in on his craft at any one position.
There could be something to the idea that he needs a couple of years in a defense before everything starts to click. Not everyone learns the same way and I believe people forget that when it comes to football players.
Bruce was finally the playmaker Jerry Jones & Company had envisioned when he was drafted in the 2nd round in 2011. He led all linebackers with five interceptions, which was also good enough for a top 10 spot in the league.
Bruce found a home at strong side linebacker in this defense and for the most part, it was the best he’s looked since he came into the league. He was 6th on the team with 68 combined tackles to go along with his team-high 5 interceptions in 13 games.
He’s a young, athletic linebacker that can do it all on defense and special teams, and he can be the total package when all goes right for him.
Let Him Walk
Bruce just so happens to have his best season during a contract season - not the first time a player has done it, but it can bring up questions about his character.
Bruce has been hurt each year he’s been in the league and has never played 16 games. So that has to be taken into consideration on a couple of different levels, and goes along with him learning two different defensive schemes in his first couple of seasons. Not being able to stay healthy can play a big part in learning and his ability to play.
What kind of contract is he going to want, and does he want to be in Dallas? He’s said on more than one occasion that he lost his love for the game in the past, and that was a big part of how he prepared and how he played.
Overall Feeling on Bruce Carter
I think the team would love to have Bruce Carter back. This linebacker unit could be on the verge of something special and the Cowboys would love for him to stay and be part of that. But, I think the price is going to be too high for their liking. Bruce will hit free agency and someone will pay him big money.
Before training camp started, there were some in the football world who weren't so sure Durant would even make this team. That all changed the second Sean Lee went down.
Before the team traded for Rolando McClain, Durant was going to be the starting middle linebacker and he was proving every day that he was very capable of doing that. When McClain came in, Durant showed he was man enough for the job and that it didn’t matter if McClain was here for that job or not. Durant is known as a serviceable player but nothing to get too excited about. Over the course of training camp, the preseason, and the first month of the season, he changed the minds of everyone outside the organization.
In 6 games played, Justin Durant totaled 49 tackles. At that pace he would have easily led the team in tackles by the end of the year. I felt Durant was on his way to a Pro Bowl bid; that’s how well he was playing. He was always around the ball and in on gang tackles. Durant had a motor that wouldn’t stop.
He became a veteran leader on this team, which was badly needed considering the Cowboys have one of the youngest teams in the National Football League.
Being the eldest linebacker, it is very possible the team would resign him to a "team friendly" deal, and that’s for a couple of reasons. One is his age, and two is his injury history.
Let Him Walk
Will resigning Durant stunt the growth of rising linebacker Anthony Hitchens? If Durant is back, and the team resigns McClain, who’s going to sit? Sean Lee? I don’t think so! Second year stud Anthony Hitchens? I highly doubt it, not with the way that rookie played last season.
Durant is 30, and for most players 30 seems to be the age where people expect a decline, and it doesn’t help when you’re 30 and haven’t been able to play a full season since signing with the club.
Overall Feeling on Justin Durant
I feel the team will re-sign Durant. His leadership and play on the field is something the team can’t afford to let go.
If Durant was a couple of years younger, I’m not so sure Jerry & Co. could afford it. But, I think his injury history and his age play in the Cowboys' favor.
So here are my predictions.
McClain and Durant will return to join fellow linebackers Sean Lee, Anthony Hitchens, and Kyle Wilber in 2015. I think Bruce Carter played his last down for the Cowboys in 2014.
Sean’s Scout: Cowboys Leverage Defense to Reach .500 Against Falcons
The Dallas Cowboys are returning home for Thanksgiving with a 5-5 record, needing to earn road wins at Philadelphia and Atlanta in the last two weeks to do so. Sunday's revenge win at the Falcons did not come easy, as the Cowboys conceded their first touchdown in the final two minutes of regulation to tie the game.
Missed opportunities in the red zone and penalties all had a say in the Cowboys needing a walk off Brett Maher field goal to win. Running Back Ezekiel Elliott once again sparked the offense in the second half, as the Cowboys defense assured this game wouldn't be a shootout in the first 30 minutes.
Here are my observations on the Cowboys latest thrilling win, greatly increasing their chances at reclaiming the top spot in the NFC East considering the Redskins home loss to the Texans.
- A great down-the-line play from rookie Dorance Armstrong on the Falcons' opening possession to set up DeMarcus Lawrence's first sack.
The Cowboys came into this game thin across the defensive line. Defensive Tackle Maliek Collins and Defensive End Dorance Armstrong really took advantage of the opportunity, pushing the pocket against Matt Ryan and freeing up the Cowboys linebackers to be themselves.
Lawrence's sack was the play that got the Cowboys off the field on third down, but Armstrong meeting Ito Smith in the hole for no gain was as big of a play on second down. The Falcons were smart to test the interior of the Cowboys defense and use the power run to set up their vertical passing game, but Rod Marinelli and Kris Richard simply had their guys ready to play.
If Collins and Armstrong can sustain their high-energy level of play with Antwaun Woods and Daniel Ross working their way back into the Cowboys rotation at DT, this defense can reach a new level of play given their speed in the back seven and ability to give opposing offensive lines fits with just four up front.
- Cole Beasley did more than enough to make up for it, but his drop in the end zone on the Cowboys first scoring drive is one he'll want back for a while.
The Cowboys play calling on their first goal-to-go situation left a lot to be desired, but Beasley was still able to make a scoring play with the ball in his hands at the pylon. Beasley bobbled the ball going to the ground and couldn't come up with it.
On the next play, the Cowboys finally targeted Amari Cooper, although without Ezekiel Elliott on the field. It was the combination of Cooper on the outside and Elliott in the backfield that provided a boost to the Cowboys offense last week at the Eagles, and for whatever reason they went away from it consistently against the Falcons.
Beasley's 19 yard catch and run on the Cowboys final drive set them up to run Elliott and kick the game winning field goal, giving Prescott an easy target on a crossing route. These are the types of inconsistencies the Cowboys will have to happily live with as they review this win and prepare on a short week for the Redskins.
- Head Coach Jason Garrett should be questioned about how his offense handled the last drive of the first half.
Trailing by three in a game still looking for its first touchdown, the Cowboys came out firing with 29 seconds left in the first half before shutting the drive down themselves. After Elliott advanced the ball to the Cowboys 35 and prompted a timeout, his catch and run for eight yards was the final play of the half.
I have no problem with the Cowboys getting the ball safely into the hands of Elliott, but after gaining positive yards on two receptions it's inexcusable to sit on a timeout without attempting a pass to the end zone.
- The Cowboys play calling improved in the second half, evident on Dak Prescott's rushing touchdown to give the Cowboys a 12-9 lead.
Again, taking the good with the bad, the Cowboys did go to this zone read look one too many times in the second half. From four yards out against a defense playing without one of their most talented players in Linebacker Deion Jones, Prescott faking to Elliott and keeping himself is as smart and safe a play as Linehan could have called.
Prescott's score was followed by Leighton Vander Esch's second interception in as many weeks, allowing the Cowboys to go right back to hammering the football. It took just two carries for Elliott to cover 31 yards and put the Cowboys ahead 19-9 off the turnover.
His 23-yard touchdown was sprung by Right Guard Zack Martin, who deserves a ton of credit for not only dealing with an injury sustained last week but seemingly finding an even higher level of play since then to motivate his teammates.
Joe Looney filled in well for Travis Frederick once again, and Xavier Su'a-Filo replaced a now-healthy Connor Williams for the second straight game, making Martin's elite level of play much more important.
Martin's lone mistake in this game came at a costly moment though, as a false start penalty backed the Cowboys up before punting it back to the Falcons for the tying score. Although the penalty created a third and 13 that Dallas used to keep the clock running on a dump off to Elliott, their second down play call to go with another zone read was costly as well.
Prescott lost two yards on a play that didn't fool the Falcons in the slightest, creating the original third and eight situation.
- Chidobe Awuzie was actually in good position on Julio Jones' fourth quarter TD, but as has been the case all season he reacted late and was beat with the ball.
Awuzie ran stride for stride with Jones, doing his best to force the Falcons best receiver towards the sideline. To Jones' credit, he was able to stay true to his route and run under a perfect pass from Matt Ryan.
Awuzie's fate was sealed on the play when he failed to react in time to jump with Jones, who simply elevated over the Cowboys struggling cornerback to give the Falcons new life in this game. Awuzie has been given every opportunity to be the Cowboys starter across from Byron Jones, trusted by Kris Richard to be a valuable part of this defense.
Quarterbacks in need of a completion have been able to pick on Awuzie far too much this season. The Cowboys don't appear to be in any rush to change this, as Cornerback Jourdan Lewis is designated to handling jet sweeps for the Cowboys offense while Anthony Brown remains the starter in the slot.
It was Brown that struggled through all of 2017 before finding his form again this year, perhaps giving Awuzie some hope that he can respond sooner rather than later.
✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭
The early slate of games proved to be a massive one for NFC East implications. The Cowboys escaped Atlanta with a win, and minutes later the Texans put the finishing touches on a win at the Redskins. Much earlier in the afternoon, unbeknownst to the Cowboys fighting for their life at the time, the Redskins also lost Quarterback Alex Smith.
Smith broke his tibia on a hit from J.J. Watt, and will need season ending surgery according to his Head Coach Jay Gruden.
This division has been waiting for a team to seize control of it all season. Realizing this, the Cowboys didn't sulk through their poor start and made the right moves to play into contention - playing as the desperate team that often achieves a lot in this game through their last eight quarters.
Cowboys Enjoy Double Win as Redskins Lose
The Dallas Cowboys looked great on the road against the Atlanta Falcons. There were very few things to complain about their last showing and now that they're back at .500, the season doesn't seem lost as previously thought. After all, the NFC East has been a mediocre division so far in 2018 and the division title is not that far from the Cowboys' grasp.
In fact, if they win this Thursday on Thanksgiving, the Dallas Cowboys would become the NFC East's division leader. The Washington Redskins were off to a great start on the season but after falling to the Houston Texans on Sunday, they only hold a one game-lead over the Cowboys.
This will be the second time of the year these two teams face each other. Back in week 7, the Cowboys played one of their worse games on the year in Washington. Many times the Cowboys shot themselves on the foot until they failed to get to overtime as Brett Maher's FG attempt bounced off the goalpost.
This time though, things should be different.
The team is on a two-game winning streak on the road against the last two NFC Champions. Of course, neither of these teams are the same than they were in previous years, but Dallas has done a good job these past two weeks. Some staff members might be coaching for their jobs as the team approaches "now or never" territory to contend in 2018. Although play-calling and execution haven't been perfect, at least the offense is showing signs of life.
Both the Cowboys and the Redskins suffered key injuries on Sunday. Towards the end of the game, Cowboys' LT Tyron Smith went down injured and headed to the locker room. With his injury history and a short week on deck, it's tough to imagine Smith will suit up on Thursday.
Tyron Smith, as only he could say it: "It didn't feel good, but I'll be alright." #cowboyswire
However, the more serious injury came for the Redskins. Quarterback Alex Smith suffered a broken tibia and fibia and will end his season due to surgery. With Colt McCoy playing at QB for Washington, winning the NFC East will become an easier task for the Cowboys.
But they can't take the win for granted. This is a flawed, inconsistent team we're talking about. On a short week, it'll require a lot of effort to beat their hated division rivals.
DAL 22, ATL 19: Elliott, Maher Carry Cowboys to Season-Saving Win
A last-minute field goal by Brett Maher lifted the Dallas Cowboys to a 22-19 victory over the Atlanta Falcons. On the strength of 201 yards of total offense out of Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas improved to 5-5 and arguably saved their 2018 season.
Elliott had 122 yards rushing and 79 receiving today, plus scored one touchdown, to make up well over half of the team's offensive production. Dak Prescott was also solid, throwing for over 200 yards and committing no turnovers.
Dallas and Atlanta traded field goals in the first half, and the Falcons took a 6-3 lead into the locker room. But the Cowboys answered with a tying field goal on their first second-half possession, then scored a touchdown on their next drive.
Maher was 3/3 on his field goals today, which included a 50-yarder. A missed extra point created concern, but the Cowboys kicker delivered in the biggest moments.
Once again, Dallas' defense was impressive and played a major part in the win. The Falcons never got into the endzone until their last possession.
- Leighton Vander Esch had another interception, securing a tipped ball that lucked its way into his grasp. He also made some big tackles and continued last week's exceptional play.
- DeMarcus Lawrence was credited with 1.5 sacks, getting him back among the league leaders with 8.0 on the year.
- Elliott was Dallas' leading receiving today. Next up was Cole Beasley with five catches for 51 yards, and Cole's day could've been better if not for a dropped touchdown pass.
- Jeff Heath nearly had his second interception of the year, but Falcons WR Julio Jones made an impressive play to hit Heath and break up the catch.
- Tyron Smith left the game on the final drive with an injury, but Cam Fleming came in and the team didn't suffer for it. We'll have to see what the short Thanksgiving week means for Smith's status against the Redskins.
- Speaking of Washington, the NFC East leaders fell to 6-4 today at home against the Houston Texans. Even worse for them, QB Alex Smith suffered a nasty ankle injury is almost assuredly out for weeks to come. Colt McCoy will be their starting QB on Thursday against Dallas.
- If Dallas wins next week, they will pull even with Washington in overall record, division record, and split the head-to-head series. With the Eagles facing a tough road game today in New Orleans, and with Alex Smith going down for Washington, the NFC East may have just become the Cowboys' to control.
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