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.
Dallas Cowboys 2019 Training Camp Preview: Wide Receiver
The biggest story of the Cowboys' 2018 season was the mid-season arrival of Amari Cooper and the way it turned Dallas into a playoff-bound contender. Wide receiver remains a key component of the team this year, and today we'll look at how the talent stacks up with only a week to go before 2019 training camp.
Cooper is back and all signs point to him getting a long-term contract in the near future. He is the undisputed number-one receiver and has reestablished himself as one of the better one in the NFL after a brief downtime in Oakland.
Last year's third-round pick, Michael Gallup, rose to the number-two spot throughout last year and eventually was beating Cole Beasley in targets by the playoffs. There are reasonably high hopes for his continued development; Dallas could boast one of the best WR tandems in football by the end of 2019.
With the aforementioned Beasley bolting for Buffalo in free agency, the Cowboys made one of their splashier signings in veteran Randall Cobb to replace him. Cobb has struggled with injuries his last few years in Green Bay, but he's still just 28 and has produced at a higher level than Cole ever did.
If Randall's healthy, he brings more security to the position as a player who can step into a starting role if needed. But ideally, if Cooper and Gallup hold their spots down, Cobb will be a major threat as the slot receiver. He has real potential to upgrade that spot from Beasley, which isn't a knock on Cole but the reality of Cobb's talent.
Here is our projected depth chart for the Cowboys' WR position in 2019. We're going to treat the top three receivers as starters, since WR3 plays the majority of offensive snaps in the modern NFL.
- Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, Randall Cobb
- Allen Hurns, Noah Brown, Tavon Austin
- Cedrick Wilson, Devin Smith, Lance Lenoir
- Jalen Guyton, Reggie Davis, Jon'Vea Johnson
As with most of the Dallas roster in 2019, we have a firm grip on who the starters are. But there's a lot of competition for the bottom of the depth chart, and WR exemplifies that as well as any position on the team.
One guy who feels like a lock is Noah Brown, the 2017 7th-round pick who has proven himself a valuable special teams player with the potential for more. Brown's physical receiving style has reminded us of a young Dez Bryant in his limited playing time, and he's even shown enough power to be deployed as a small tight end in some situations.
On paper, veterans Allen Hurns and Tavon Austin would round out the WR depth chart. Hurns has the most experience as a former starting WR and offers security if Cooper or Gallup should go down. Austin has versatility, rare speed, and the special teams work as a return specialist to justify his presence.
But Hurns also has a $6.25 million cap hit that Dallas can shed $5 million of if he's released. And Tavon's value may take a big hit if rookie RB Tony Pollard steals his reps as the offensive gadget player and in the return game.
These veterans will have to fight for their spots. A prospect like Cedrick Wilson, who the team was high on in 2018 as a rookie but lost to injury, could easily challenge them. There's also Lance Lenoir, who has return ability and has been with the team for two seasons.
Undrafted rookie Jon'Vea Johnson was one of the buzz names coming out of mini-camps and OTAs. If the praise continues now, Johnson could easily push his way onto the bottom of the roster. He appears to be a favorite of Cowboys WR Coach Sanjay Lal.
One more guy to watch is Devin Smith. He was a 2nd-round pick of the Jets in 2015 but has struggled with knee injuries the last few years. Dallas signed him last January as a reclamation project, and clearly there's something there that once made him a Day 2 pick.
This is a loaded group at WR in 2019, which is great for the Cowboys and unfortunate for those who deserve a roster spot but won't find one. Will the veterans like Hurns and Austin fight off the young guys, or will someone like Johnson be the next undrafted rookie to succeed in Dallas?
~ ~ ~
OTHER 2019 CAMP PREVIEWS
Is Ezekiel Elliott the Most Dominant Running Back in the NFL?
There's no player in football that is more hotly debated at the moment than Dallas Cowboys Running Back Ezekiel Elliott. Though much of the debate surrounds his potential contract extension, which would likely make him the highest-paid running back in the NFL, there's also been a lot of debate about his standing as the best running back in the NFL.
On Thursday, Bleacher Report's Kristopher Knox released his list of the most dominant players at each position. It's a fantastic read and not just because he listed Ezekiel Elliott as the most dominant running back in the NFL.
It's certainly easy to see where he's coming from despite the debate that rages across the NFL's fanbases. Ezekiel Elliott's lead the NFL in rushing two of the three season's he's been in the league. Both of those seasons, Elliott only played 15 games, getting the benefit of the Cowboys playoff positioning being solidified prior to week 17. In 2017, he would have probably ran away with the league's rushing title again, which would make him the three-time defending rushing champion heading into 2019.
In that 2017 season when he missed six games and had a game against the Denver Broncos where he only rushed for seven yards on nine carries, Elliott still finished in the top 10 in rushing.
In 2018, he bested Saquon Bakley by 127 yards rushing. Had Elliott played in the week 17 finale last season and rushed for his season average, he would have won the rushing title by more than 200 yards. And he did that in what many considered to be a down season for Ezekiel Elliott and the Dallas Cowboys rushing attack. Pro Football Focus even graded Elliott as the 30th best running back for 2018.
In 2018, Elliott had 2,000 total yards, besting his 2016 number of 1,994 total yards as a rookie. His rushing total was down in 2018 from 2016, but he still had an excellent season.
No disrespect to Todd Gurley, Saquon Barkley, Alvin Kamara, Le'Veon Bell, or Chrisitan McCaffrey, but they don't have the credentials that Ezekiel Elliott brings to the table. Those guys are great running backs in their own right, but Elliott has lead the NFL in rushing in two of the three seasons he's been in the league and would have probably lead the league in 2017 had he not been suspended.
Since 2015, only Le'Veon Bell has averaged more total yards per game than Elliott, but Elliott's close and he's not used as much in the passing game as Bell. Only Todd Gurley has a higher average of rushing touchdowns per game than Elliott.
Elliott's 3.4 receptions per game through the first three seasons of his career is only slightly better than Todd Gurley who ranks sixth among this group of players. The Dallas Cowboys attempted to get Elliott more involved in 2018 but didn't work him downfield enough in his targets for him to be anything more than a dump-off option. In 2019, the Dallas Cowboys should work to get him running more intermediate routes in the passing game because as we saw in the Detroit game last season, Elliott's got really good hands.
Historically, Elliott is off to a great start to his career. His first three years in the NFL compare quite favorably to two Hall of Famers and one of the most dynamic running backs of the early 21st century.
No player with more than 100 career attempts in the NFL has averaged more rushing yards per game than Ezekiel Elliott.
Think about that for a second. Through his first three seasons, he's averaged more rushing yards per game than Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders, Terrell Davis, Eric Dickerson, Adrian Peterson, Tony Dorsett, Walter Payton, and the list goes on and on.
If you look at what he's done compared to other players during their first three years. Only Eric Dickerson, Earl Campbell, and Edgerrin James averaged more rushing yards per game than Ezekiel Elliott in the first three seasons of their respective careers.
One of the things that people have used to knock Ezekiel Elliott has been the volume of carries that he's received, but there's a reason that the Dallas Cowboys lean on him so heavily. They've created a run-first identity and though at times it has made the offense somewhat inefficient, it's not because the player they're handing to is not a good player, but because every team in the NFL is expecting the Dallas Cowboys to run the football with Ezekiel Elliott.
In 2018 in particular, the Cowboys offensive coaching staff, namely the departed Scott Linehan, didn't do enough to create favorable matchups in the running game. Too often it was a first down run out of heavy personnel that the defense was expecting.
With two rushing titles already in the bag, there's no reason to expect anything different from Ezekiel Elliott in 2019. It's anticipated that the offensive gameplan and execution will be better in 2019 than it was in 2018. The offensive line will be better and with Kellen Moore as the offensive coordinator, there's a thought that the Dallas Cowboys are going to be less predictable moving forward.
The debate will continue to rage over the value of extending Ezekiel Elliott with a contract that will carry him to his age 28 or 29 season, but there is no debating that Ezekiel Elliott is the best and most dominant running back in the NFL.
Is DeMarco Murray a Factor in Ezekiel Elliott’s Rumored Holdout?
There's been a lot of talk this week about a rumored training camp holdout by Ezekiel Elliott, with the Dallas Cowboys' star running back seeking a renegotiated contract. If Zeke does actually hold out, I can't help but wonder if the Cowboys' handling of DeMarco Murray a few years ago isn't a factor in his decision.
Quick history lesson; in 2014, Murray ran for the most yards (1,845) in Cowboys history for a single season. But that was also the final year of his rookie contract, and Dallas chose to let DeMarco leave in free agency when the two sides were unable to agree on new contract.
Murray had just turned 26 when he hit free agency, and his four years Dallas had not had consistent production or availability. 2014 was the first time he was able to play at such a high level, or played a full 16-game season.
As you might remember, Murray left and joined the Philadelphia Eagles under Chip Kelly. As with most things during Kelly's time in Philly, it proved to be a disaster. DeMarco was released after one year and then had a couple of seasons in Tennessee before retiring.
The way it all turned out seemed to validate the Cowboys' decision. Perhaps Murray's big year in 2014 was more about adding Zack Martin and Ron Leary to the offensive line than DeMarco himself. He certainly didn't look like the same player at any other point in his career.
But Ezekiel Elliott and his agent may not be too worried about all of those nuances. They may be looking at the simple fact that the Cowboys allowed one of the most productive RBs in football in 2014 to just walk away in free agency.
Zeke may be worried that Dallas will allow him to do the same.
There are some important differences to note between Ezekiel Elliott and DeMarco Murray. For one, Elliott's been elite every season. He's led the NFL in rushing yards-per-game the last three years.
Zeke has also been faultlessly durable, missing no games due to injury. Murray had already missed 11 games his first three years before we even got to 2014.
However, there are some similarities that can't be ignored. While Elliott's never missed time for health reasons, he missed six games in 2017 due to a suspension for a domestic violence accusation. He also came dangerously close to missing more time this year due to an incident with a security guard in Las Vegas during the offseason.
Availability is availability, whether it's for behavioral issues or injuries. The team assumes the same risk either way.
Also, Elliott has had the same benefit of running behind this great Cowboys offensive line for the last three years. It hasn't been quite as good as 2014, with Ron Leary never being completely replaced, but he hasn't lacked for superior blocking compared to most NFL running backs.
Another factor; Zeke is due to turn 24 next week. That means he'd be 25 next year when playing on the 5th-year option, and about to turn 26 when he hits unrestricted free agency in 2021.
DeMarco Murray was also 26 when he hit free agency in 2015. And he'd only played four NFL seasons, while Zeke would have just finished his fifth.
I'm not saying that Murray and Elliott are the same player. Zeke has proven himself better over a long period of time and with less talent in front and around him. He's carried the offense without Tony Romo's passing or Jason Witten and Dez Bryant still in their prime, like DeMarco had in 2014.
But in 2015, with the prospect of competing for a Super Bowl well in reach, the Cowboys decided to gamble on the shaky Darren McFadden rather than pay DeMarco Murray market value. They trusted their system and offensive line to produce a successful running back.
Zeke may be worried that Dallas is preparing to take that same approach with him. They can keep playing him at a discount this year and in 2020, when even his raise to $9 million is still a bargain compared to guys like Todd Gurley and Le'Veon Bell.
In 2021 the Cowboys could then hit Elliott with the franchise tag. He'd make a ton that year, but without any of the long-term security that other elite RBs are currently enjoying.
In that scenario, Zeke would now be turning 27 the next time free agency rolled around. And the window for getting a multi-year contract may have passed.
That's three more seasons for a major injury to finally find him. If nothing else, it's about 45-50 more games of NFL mileage that could scare other teams off.
Again, this notion of Ezekiel Elliott holding out is just a rumor right now. It may have been floated just to get some easy clicks at Pro Football Talk, which is hardly a new strategy for them.
But in all fairness, you can see why Zeke might be considering it. There's a fair reason to question the Cowboys long-term loyalty, and it goes back to how they handled their last star running back.
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