Dating all the way back to the 2005 NFL Draft, the Dallas Cowboys have selected at least one linebacker every year. Many of them have not worked out, but the position still remains one that has a seemingly bright future with a solid amount of depth.
When both healthy and in sync, Sean Lee and Rolando McClain are as good of a tandem at this position than anyone in the league. Since Dallas' defense often plays dominantly in nickel packages, Lee and McClain see plenty of snaps as the only 2 linebackers needed on the field.
However, the Cowboys current situation at LB may not be very sustainable in a long-term approach. We already know that Sean Lee is capable of being injured and sidelined for weeks at a time at any given moment, which brings down the entire presence that the Cowboys defense presents. Rolando McClain is on a new one year deal, and has a history of not giving his best effort at all times. While his 2016 deal could motivate him, the 26 year old linebacker - who apparently has some coaches concerned due to his current weight at workouts - likely doesn't have a big future in store for him in the silver and blue.
In a perfect world, the Cowboys get one more consistent season out of McClain, playing next to a healthy Sean Lee. They then look to transition 34th overall pick Jaylon Smith into a starting role next to Lee, and watch as the two fly around the field making big plays for the defense.
For starters, there is Anthony Hitchens, who has proved to be a versatile player at the position. A fourth round draft pick in 2014, Hitchens mainly played the Cowboys strong side linebacker spot as a rookie, which is the lesser used third LB role on this defense. In 2015, Hitchens saw a slight increase in snaps, and remained a consistent force for Dallas.
As mentioned, the Cowboys have struggled for the most part in drafting linebackers that have turned into cornerstones at the position, so it is very promising to see the way Hitchens has developed over his first two seasons.
For the 2016 season, Anthony Hitchens could see competition at his SAM linebacker spot from the likes of Kyle Wilber and Andrew Gachkar.
As a core special teams player, Wilber was signed to a new two year deal this offseason, which warrants higher expectations for him to contribute to the defense.
Gachkar profiles somewhat similarly to Wilber, as he will be playing in the second year of a two year deal signed in March of 2015. Another player known for his special teams contributions, the University of Missouri product was drafted in the 7th round of the 2011 draft by the Chargers as a run-stopping LB.
Lastly, the Cowboys have Damien Wilson and Mark Nzeocha, who both had limited roles with the team as rookies in 2015. Wilson saw some snaps in the four game absence of McClain due to his suspension, primarily in the Cowboys week 4 loss in New Orleans. Here, Dallas suffered their second-straight painful loss, giving up an 80 yard TD reception on the second play of overtime to C.J. Spiller - in a play where Wilson was on the field.
Wrongly blamed solely for this miscue, Damien Wilson did not see a single snap on defense for the remainder of the season, ending his rookie campaign and opportunity for development. Meanwhile, Nzeocha spent 2015 recovering from a knee injury suffered in his final season at San Diego State, as he never saw the field defensively.
Both unproven players are going to be out to prove, among tough and deep competition, that they deserve a chance to be on the field when it matters the most for the Cowboys defense in 2016 and beyond.
If Jaylon Smith ever returns to full health, the Dallas Cowboys can expect him to sit at the top of the depth chart for years to come at one of the three linebacker positions. Starting later this summer, when the team hits training camp, we'll get a sense of who can emerge to earn a prominent role alongside Smith in the future.
If the younger guys like Nzeocha can make big plays along with the developing Hitchens, the Cowboys could have a potentially scary lineup at the linebacker position as early as 2016 - without the benefit of Jaylon Smith.
Don't sleep on the Dallas Cowboys' front seven this season, particularly in the second level at linebacker.
So, I ask you now, who needs to step up for this Cowboys defense at LB? Comment below to start the conversation, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Dak Prescott Ranked as Third Least Consistent QB in NFL
Last season could've gone a lot better for Dak Prescott. After a remarkable rookie season, he wasn't able to meet the very high expectations put on him after leading the Dallas Cowboys to the #1 seed in the NFC in 2016.
Inevitably, the "sophomore slump" managed to get to Dak, even though the numbers make it seem worse than it really was. From his 13 interceptions in 2017, not even half can be completely blamed on him. However, even though he made improvements in his game, it's fair to admit that there was indeed, a slump in his second year in the NFL.
Earlier this week, NFL.com published an article listing the most and the least consistent quarterbacks in the league last season. The way the list works is measuring "their average 2017 swing in week-to-week passer rating." In the list, Dak Prescott is listed as the third least consistent QB in the league, with only Cam Newton and Derek Carr behind him.
Just like the Dallas Cowboys' had a roller coaster for a season, constantly shifting between winning and losing, Dak Prescott also struggled at remaining consistent. It makes a ton of sense, of course, for the Cowboys' 9-7 season had a lot of swings throughout the year.
At times, the team was missing its most important defender in Sean Lee. At others, Tyron Smith and/or Ezekiel Elliott weren't on the field either. This is not an attempt to excuse Dak, for he is partly at fault here, as is the entire team.
From week 10 to 12, Dak failed to throw for a touchdown but ended up throwing five interceptions. Later in the season, failing once again to get a TD pass in two straight weeks, he threw for two interceptions at Oakland then another two when hosting the Seahawks in Dallas.
In a season that will likely determine his future with the Dallas Cowboys, Dak needs to find a way to be more consistent week after week regardless of circumstance. Hopefully, with an improved offensive line and with Ezekiel Elliott leaving every suspension drama behind him, his offense will put him in position to have his best year yet.
In 2016 and in 2017, his Total Quarterback Rating has been in the top 4 among all quarterbacks, per ESPN. Now, this is not a stat that tells the whole story, but it does give you an idea of each quarterback's play. In a run-first offense and with a safe passer like Dak, I'm sure consistency will not be hard to deal with for the young QB next season.
As long as he takes advantage of the new set of targets he'll have at his disposal and his offense's powerful running back with recently-signed draftee Connor Williams, this offense will look a lot more like the one we saw in 2016.
We know Dak Prescott has a lot to prove. He has to make longer throws, throw more aggressively to get his receivers open, and more. But consistency is just as important. In order to be continuously successful and to be a contender year after year, you need that in your signal-caller. Even if key players on the team are down, he needs to be able to shine. It's a sixteen-game season, after all.
It's time for Dak to prove he can handle that.
Will Cowboys WR Noah Brown Do Enough to Make the Roster?
The Dallas Cowboys aren't short on numbers at wide receiver on their current 90-man roster. Looking to replace Dez Bryant and reshape their offense, the Cowboys will have to find the right group of pass catchers for Dak Prescott at their upcoming training camp.
The odd men out from this group will likely be the ones that can't sustain a consistent level of play, doing so across multiple units if needed. All ten receivers will have their flashes, but with only four being true locks to make the team, new Cowboys Wide Receivers Coach Sanjay Lal will be in on some tough decisions right away.
One such decision may be moving on from last year's seventh round pick Noah Brown out of Ohio State. Vouched for by former Buckeyes teammate Ezekiel Elliott thanks to his blocking ability on the outside, it may now be this strength in the run game and deficiency as a pass catcher that spells the end of Brown's run in Dallas.
Normally, a seventh round pick being on the roster bubble wouldn't be this noteworthy, but Brown clearly showed the potential to outplay this draft status as a rookie. Appearing in 13 games, Brown is a true X receiver, although not the dominant one the Cowboys are searching for.
Moving away from fielding a true number one receiver, the Cowboys did sign Allen Hurns to play this spot while prepared to spread the ball around to Williams, Beasley, and Gallup after that.
This leaves Thompson, Wilson, Cannon, Lenoir, McCay, Murdock, and Brown to prove their worth in other ways to make the roster. I've written plenty about the potential rookie Cedrick Wilson has, so I'll be expecting a strong showing from him to earn a role in the Cowboys offense.
Wilson's skill set could push a depth signing like Deonte Thompson off the team, although his ability to back up Cole Beasley/Tavon Austin on special teams is important. The same can be said about Lance Lenoir, who like Brown has the advantage over first year players given his trials through training camp and the preseason a year ago.
Long shots to make the team, Cannon, McCay, and Murdock fall just below this group -- and somewhere in the middle is Noah Brown.
Increasing his role on special teams as the season went on last year, Brown had fans throughout a coaching staff that is now drastically changed for 2018. From their shift to more speed on offense, to drafting of both Gallup and Wilson, calling Brown a fringe player on the Cowboys roster really sets up the fiery competition to come at wide receiver.
Should the Cowboys find a spot for Brown, one can only hope it means this new coaching staff has a clear plan for him to contribute on both offense and special teams outside of being a run blocker. A potential niche for Brown is his red zone ability, not afraid to put his body on the line for jump balls and fight through contact in his routes.
It won't be long until we sort out if this is enough to make the Cowboys as a wide receiver ahead of Quarterback Dak Prescott's third season.
Dallas Cowboys Most Important Backups Entering Training Camp
In less than two weeks, the Dallas Cowboys will be practicing in Oxnard, their final training camp tune up before the preseason and roster cuts. If last year is any indication, the Cowboys trim down to 53 players from 90 will be eventful as always. However, it was ultimately the depth of this final roster that failed the Cowboys in a 9-7 season falling short of the playoffs.
The loss of Ezekiel Elliott to suspension and Tyron Smith, Jonathan Cooper, and Sean Lee to injury was all too much for the Cowboys to overcome. Starting his career with a playoff appearance at 13-3, Quarterback Dak Prescott now enters a crucial third year, though he can only hope the team's free agent signings and rookies can help patch these holes.
Before the pads come on at training camp, here is a look at a few of the most important depth players the Cowboys have for 2018.
Offensive Tackle Cam Fleming
The Cowboys spent the 50th overall pick at this year's draft on their future Left Guard Connor Williams, making their signing of Cam Fleming more important. Should Williams grab hold of the starting spot left by Jonathan Cooper's departure, Fleming should serve as the Cowboys primary backup to Left Tackle Tyron Smith.
Joined only by Chaz Green and Kadeem Edwards on the depth chart at tackle, Fleming's experience should win out over the rest of the field. Also signing Guard Marcus Martin this offseason, it's clear the Cowboys want to avoid their offensive line breakdown from a year ago.
Cam Fleming needs to be in position to help the Cowboys do just that, unless Smith plays a full 16 games for the first time since 2015.
Wide Receiver/Running Back Tavon Austin
Whatever role Tavon Austin finds in the Cowboys offense, this is a play maker the Cowboys will have to get the ball to in a variety of ways. Expected to partially take the load off of Ezekiel Elliott as a running back while also being targeted in the passing game, Austin could very well influence the team's roster decisions at both RB and WR.
Two uncertain positions when it comes to depth, Austin's presence could mean bad news for Running Backs Darius Jackson and Bo Scarbrough, or Wide Receivers Lance Lenoir, KD Cannon, and Noah Brown.
We're still a long way off from knowing if a decision like this will be the right one for the Cowboys, but with so much uncertainty on offense entering 2018, Tavon Austin's importance could grow by the day in Oxnard.
Linebacker Justin March-Lillard
Needing to address the linebacker position heavily this offseason, the Cowboys locked in on Boise State's Leighton Vander Esch with their first round pick and selected him at 19th overall. With the 193rd overall pick, the Cowboys also added Indiana Linebacker Chris Covington.
Expected starters Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith, and Vander Esch will still need quality depth behind them to play to their strengths this season.
A healthy Lee is locked in as this team's starting WILL linebacker, but the Cowboys are expected to test both Vander Esch and Smith at the MIKE position.
"The loser of this battle" moving to SAM linebacker is not so simple, especially considering other athletic options the Cowboys have for this strong side role. Along with Damien Wilson, the Cowboys have also seen strides from Justin March-Lillard.
Capable of contributing on special teams and providing important snaps in Rod Marinelli's defense, March-Lillard should be a hard player for the Cowboys to leave off their final roster. If he survives to the final 53, expect him to also be active on game days in support of the Cowboys LBs.
Quarterback Cooper Rush
What exactly do the Cowboys have in second-year Quarterback Cooper Rush, an undrafted sensation out of Central Michigan? Showing the potential to be Dak Prescott's primary backup or an enticing trade piece to QB-needy teams as a rookie, Rush is now joined by a new rookie on the depth chart.
Drafting Mike White in the fifth round, the Cowboys have plenty of skill at quarterback this season. The scope of this list is not to cover how well the Cowboys are prepared to play without Prescott.
Playing with two quarterbacks or three on the roster will be a looming decision for the Cowboys though. Either Rush or White could prove they deserve the second and last QB spot, with Rush's progress from last year challenged by White's accuracy.
✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭
Of course, more Cowboys backups will emerge as ones to keep an eye on, once the Cowboys are back on the field. With several coaches and 'big name' players potentially needing this season to reach the playoffs for the Cowboys, a second straight season of depleted depth won't cut it.
Such is the nature of the Cowboys roster cuts, with the final 53 man roster set on September 1st.
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