The date was January 11th, 2015. After winning the NFC East with a 12-4 record, the Dallas Cowboys found themselves a win away from the NFC Championship game. Standing in their way was the Green Bay Packers, as the Cowboys visited Lambeau Field for the Divisional round.
In a more literal sense, it was Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers that stood in Dallas' way, as the hobbled signal caller faced little resistance from a Cowboys' defensive line that hit him just 3 times - resulting in Rodgers completing 24 passes for 316 yards and 3 touchdowns.
While this game will be remembered for the Dez Bryant catch-that-was-not, it's important to step back and realize how much this offense carried the team through the regular season.
When Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, and DeMarco Murray needed their defense to step up the most and support them (yes; DeMarco's fumble was another incredibly costly play for the Cowboys in this game) by forcing some takeaways and making big plays, they simply could not rise to the occasion.
I bring up this painful date in recent Cowboys' history merely to make a point for the upcoming 2016 season. When Jason Garrett and this team decided to draft Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth overall pick in the draft, it was a commitment to return this team to that 2014 form in the most literal form.
Put a special running back behind the best offensive line in the game, bring back a healthy quarterback to keep defenses honest, and stick Dez Bryant on the outside. Dominate the game with your offense on the field, put up points, and watch as your defense plays with the lead against offensive coordinators and quarterbacks needing points in a hurry.
We all watched this team in 2014, so it goes without saying that watching a similar team in 2016 would be a lot of fun on both sides of the ball. The Dallas defense forced 31 turnovers that year, the second-highest mark in the league.
However, after forcing the least amount of turnovers in the history of the sport in 2015, Cowboys Nation can likely envision a scenario pretty clearly where a dominant Dallas offense is once again let down in a pivotal spot by this defense.
Rod Marinelli's unit is going to be on the field in big spots and they are going to have to make plays. With that, let's explore some players that could emerge as leaders and help this defense thrive in 2016.
LB Sean Lee
There's no question that the Cowboys' defense is a much better unit with six-year veteran Sean Lee on the field than it is without him. Unfortunately, they have been forced to play in many big games without the service of the dominant linebacker.
Lee was never on the field in 2014 after suffering a torn ACL during OTAs, and has to be ecstatic about the opportunity to lead this defense in 2016 - hopefully seeing most of his snaps in the favorable position this offense can put the entire defense in.
With 14 games and a new career high in tackles under his belt from 2015, it's hard to look further than Sean Lee when it comes to leaders and impact players for the Cowboys 2016 defense.
CB Orlando Scandrick
While it was Lee that missed all of 2014, veteran cornerback Orlando Scandrick missed all of this past season with a torn ACL and MCL of his own - suffered in Oxnard during training camp.
While he had just 2 interceptions in 2014, the absence of Scandrick could still have been a big reason why this Cowboys defense was so starved for turnovers in 2015. As an emotional and spiritual leader, Scandrick does whatever is asked of him on any given Sunday for this Dallas secondary, while elevating the play of everyone around him.
The Cowboys have decided to roll into a fifth consecutive year with Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr as their projected starting outside corners. With Orlando Scandrick added to this mix, Rod Marinelli's secondary has some continuity that could lead to consistency when it comes to playing sound coverage and taking the ball away in 2016.
CB Morris Claiborne
Speaking of Morris Claiborne, it will be interesting to follow exactly what this team gets from the battle-tested corner this season. Claiborne's first four years with the Cowboys on his rookie deal certainly did not live up to the expectations placed on him when Jerry Jones traded up to the 6th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft for the LSU product.
After struggling through his first three seasons, Claiborne seemingly miraculously figured things out for himself as a NFL defender in 2015. His campaign was good enough to earn him a new "prove-it" deal for 2016, where Claiborne has reportedly added some more weight to his frame for the season after doing so before 2015 with success.
Claiborne needs to not only focus on building his own consistency this season, but can work on inspiring others around him to play their best football for this Dallas defense.
DT Tyrone Crawford
We opened this article talking about the Cowboys inability to get to Aaron Rodgers with their pass rush, which brings us right to a hot topic for this current off season - the lack of established talent along the Dallas defensive line.
Even in week 5, when the team will welcome back Randy Gregory and DeMarcus Lawrence at defensive end, there is reason for concern when it comes to the overall effectiveness this defensive line can have in helping this team make a deep playoff run.
Crawford, although a quieter leader, has emerged as a veteran for this scrappy group - and should be in store for a dominant season. Crawford enters 2016 at full strength after being no where close to 100% healthy in 2015.
Not only does he have his full health and strength back, but Crawford will get to play next to free agent acquisition Cedric Thornton, as well as the likes of rookie Maliek Collins, David Irving, Jack Crawford, and Terrell McClain.
At times in 2014, it was evident that the Cowboys ball-control style of offense helped the pass rush come up with sacks that weren't available in 2015. If that's the case again in 2016, it will be in large part because of the interior push Tyrone Crawford can provide.
Who do YOU want to see step up as a leader for this defense in 2016? Let's talk about it! Comment below to start the conversation, or take it to Twitter and find me @ShoreSportsNJ!
You can also email me at email@example.com.
Zack Martin Got Paid, Is DeMarcus Lawrence Next?
Zack Martin's new contract became official last week as the four-time All-Pro received the long-term deal he's been looking for. Per Todd Archer, his rookie fifth year option now turns into a seven-year deal for $93.41-million dollars with $40-million guaranteed (42.8%), including a $20-million dollar signing bonus.
The total deal for All-Pro right guard Zack Martin is seven years for $93.41 million and includes a $20 million signing bonus, according to a source. As Adam Schefter reported, the guaranteed money is $40 million. The Cowboys created around $3 million... https://t.co/q8ovYSiQRg
The Dallas Cowboys and Martin's representatives worked all off-season to come up with a deal that would make Zack the highest paid guard in the NFL going into his fifth season. And as much as anyone on the team, he deserves it.
He's started every game in his four-year career. He's 28 years old and this contract locks him up through his prime.
With Martin's deal done, the Dallas Cowboys front office can now turn its attention to the next wave of players that will be ready for big-time contracts.
Let's look at who that is and what they could demand.
KD Drummond from the Cowboys Wire on USA Today had a great piece outlining what this deal means for the 2018 and 2019 salary caps moving forward. Per his math, for 2018, this deal gives the Dallas Cowboys an extra $3 million this year, leaving their cap space at a little more than $14 million.
For 2019, the Dallas Cowboys will have a projected $50-million dollars in cap space. Cap Projections courtesy of OverTheCap.com. $50 million in 2019 is far from the cap hell that everyone wants to tell you about.
DeMarcus Lawrence, Defensive End
Let's start this discussion by saying that the Dallas Cowboys don't have to do a single thing with DeMarcus Lawrence's contract to help them on the salary cap. His cap figure is locked in at $17 million for 2018 and as noted above, the Cowboys have a little more than $14 million in space.
Zack Martin was arguably the biggest offseason priority in 2018. The other player who could make that argument was Defensive End DeMarcus Lawrence, who the team placed their franchise tag on this off-season.
With the franchise tag in place, Lawrence wasn't allowed to hit free agency, which would have definitely led to a bidding war for the All-Pro pass rusher's services.
The deadline to convert the franchise tag to a long-term deal is about a month away, which gives the Dallas Cowboys front office plenty of time to get a deal done with Lawrence.
If the Dallas Cowboys were to get an extension done, with some creative structuring of the contract they could cut his salary cap figure. If the Cowboys placed the franchise tag on him again during the 2019 offseason, which is a real possibility, his guaranteed contract would be $20.4 million.
Let's look at Olivier Vernon's deal as a template for what DeMarcus Lawrence could get through a contract extension:
- In 2016, Vernon signed with the New York Giants in free agency a five-year, $85-million contract with $40-million guaranteed (47.1%) and a $20-million signing bonus.
- His year one cap figure was $13 million. A $1.75-million base salary, $7 million as a roster bonus, and $4 million as part of his prorated signing bonus that was spread out over the life of the contract.
Vernon had only one season with more than 10 sacks when he had 11.5 in his second year as a pro, but was consistently healthy. DeMarcus Lawrence had an elite season in 2017, but has had injury struggles throughout his career. 2017 was the first time he'd started all 16 games.
If you go to OverTheCap.com and look at the guaranteed portions of contracts for the top earning 4-3 defensive ends, you'll see that Jacksonville Jaguars DE Calais Campbell and the Cleveland Browns' Myles Garrett are the only players that come close. Their guaranteed money is at or just over $30-million dollars.
Vernon's deal was an above market value contract at the time, but could be the range that Lawrence and his representatives are looking at to get Tank paid.
Through the franchise tag alone, we're talking about a minimum of $37.4-million guaranteed that could go to Lawrence over the next two years. That would be just under Vernon's guaranteed numbers, and though Vernon's contract was above market value, that is probably where Lawrence's deal will have to start.
You can thank the New York Giants for paying Vernon above market value, which is probably leading to some of the contract negotiation difficulties between the Dallas Cowboys and Lawrence's representatives.
With all of that said, here's what I'd estimate Lawrence's deal to look like if it were to get signed before July 16th, when franchise tags become official for the 2018 season.
5 years for $90 million, $18 million per year, with $44-million guaranteed, and a $24-million signing bonus.
That would make him the highest paid 4-3 defensive end in NFL history, and if 2017 is any sign of future production, he's well worth it.
That may seem like a rich contract, but considering that Zack Martin just got $40-million guaranteed to play a position that is not nearly as valued as EDGE, it makes sense that Lawrence would get more.
The Dallas Cowboys may let him play this season on the franchise tag, but that would mean they will probably have to use it again next year to try to get a long-term deal negotiated with him in the 2019 off-season.
The sooner they get a deal done with Tank, the better as his play will only drive his contract up.
Dak Prescott, Quarterback
Dak Prescott is headed for a big payday. Remember, before the final eight games of the 2017 season, Prescott had led the Cowboys to an 18-6 record over his first 24 games. His 22-10 record, which includes the offense's late season meltdown, is still pretty impressive during a quarterback's first two years in the NFL.
Only one quarterback since the 1970 AFL-NFL Merger had more wins in their first two seasons than Dak Prescott's 22: Russell Wilson. And we know the kind of defense the Seattle Seahawks were working with at the time.
Dak Prescott had a terrible second half of 2017, as did the rest of the offense, but don't let that cloud your judgment of what kind of player he is. Remember, in his rookie season he had the third highest passer rating behind Tom Brady and Matt Ryan at 104.9.
Over the first eight games of 2017, his passer rating was 97.9 and he had a 16:4 touchdown to interception ratio. That includes the 68.8 passer rating in Denver when the entire team fell flat in the week two destruction at the hands of the Broncos.
He's a good quarterback and in 2018 he'll assuage all your concerns. Here's what I had to say about Dak Prescott's 2018 season.
Looking to the 2019 season, the time when 2016 rookies can begin negotiating contract extensions, it's likely Dak Prescott will get some big money to make him the Cowboys quarterback for the next 10 years.
There's no telling how rich the deal will be at this point, but we can guess that it will be somewhere between Derek Carr's $125 million (32% guaranteed) and Matt Ryan's $150 million total value (63% guaranteed).
Year three for Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys will be huge to determine just where that contract should fit. Best case scenario for the Cowboys is that Prescott plays lights out en route to a deep playoff run and they reward him with a very rich contract.
If 2018 creates more questions, then a 2020 franchise tag could be in Prescott's future.
✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭
With approximately $14 million in space this year and $50 million available to them in the 2019 salary cap, the Dallas Cowboys have the financial flexibility to hand out some long-term deals to some of their homegrown players.
As we know, this is the Dallas Cowboys' standard operating procedure: Draft well and then pay those draftees who earn a second contract. DeMarcus Lawrence and Dak Prescott have earned that second contract. The only question is, when will they get signed?
Dak Prescott’s Next Contract Looms Over Cowboys’ Financial Future
Even though his rookie contract goes through 2019, Quarterback Dak Prescott's next deal is already one of the key issues facing the Dallas Cowboys. Preparing for that second contract, which could highly expensive, is critical as the team deals with the rest of the roster and prepares for the future.
As a fourth-round pick Prescott's rookie deal is delightfully cheap. He counts just $726k and $816k against the salary cap over the next two seasons. You could hardly ask for better from a guy whose already been to a Pro Bowl.
But this financial grace period has a rapidly approaching end date. Dallas will soon have to pay Dak the standard for NFL quarterbacks, and the difference is staggering.
Consider what Jimmy Garoppolo just got from the 49ers; $137.5 million over five years. That's an average of $27.5 million per season.
And think about this; while Garoppolo may look like the second coming right now, he still hasn't accomplished what Dak Prescott already has.
Prescott has taken his team to the playoffs. He's gone to the Pro Bowl. His career passer rating puts him in the Top 10, between Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers, on the NFL's all-time list.
Yes, last year was a step backward. But if Dak gets back to rookie form, and there's plenty of reason to think he will, then he will be able to use Garoppolo's deal as the floor in negotiations.
The scary reality here is that the Cowboys will no sooner get out from under Tony Romo's big contract then they probably have to get into a new one with Prescott. The last Romo's dead money, $8.9 million, finally drops off after 2018.
We know how Romo's cap hits, both while still playing and even after his release, have limited the Cowboys in free agency. That is an unnerving prospect for the future once Dak Prescott gets his next deal.
That's why you see the Cowboys eating all of Dez Bryant's dead money now. That's why they're potentially relying on so many recent draft picks like Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, Connor Williams and Michael Gallup to take on big roles for the next 3-4 years at their inexpensive rookie salaries.
That's why Cole Beasley (2019 free agent) probably won't be back next season, or why Sean Lee ($7 million cap relief) could easily be a cap casualty next year.
Clearly, Prescott's next contract hangs over everything.
Of course, nothing is certain. Prescott's sophomore slump may devolve into something more, and the conversation could quickly change.
But Dak doesn't have to be better than ever to earn the big money. He only has to get back to his rookie form; just do what he's already done.
With the offensive line and Ezekiel Elliott hopefully back to their 2016 form and availability, Prescott should have the cushion to be the kind of QB that he was in that 13-3 season. And if he can get the Cowboys one step closer in the playoffs, such as an NFC Championship Game appearance, then Dallas will have no choice but to commit long-term.
While what the Niners gave Jimmy Garoppolo could be considered asinine for the lack of actual accomplishment so far, that doesn't matter in terms of market value. The bar has been raised, and Dak won't have to do much to clear it.
You know that Jerry and Stephen Jones see this as well as anybody, and every move the Cowboys make now is done with Dak's future deal in mind. That's the reality for any NFL team; dealing with the imbalance in QB compensation compared to the rest of the league.
Even if it's still two years away, they have to prepare for it as if it's guaranteed. Given what other QBs like Garoppolo, Kirk Cousins, and Matt Stafford are making right now, Dak doesn't have to accomplish much more to make it happen.
Jimmy Johnson Could Be Next Cowboys Ring of Honor Inductee
According to reports, former Dallas Cowboys Head Coach Jimmy Johnson may finally be joining the team's Ring of Honor.
Clarence Hill of the Star-Telegram reported this morning, per a source, that Johnson could be among the next group of inductees to the franchise's version of the Hall of Fame.
The other potential candidates mentioned were former scouting guru Gil Brandt from the Tom Landry era and Tight End Jay Novacek, who won three Super Bowls in Dallas in the 1990s.
Novacek would join Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin, Charles Haley, and Darren Woodson as Ring of Honor members acquired during Jimmy Johnson's brief but historic run as Cowboys coach.
It is that heavy presence of Johnson's players in the Ring, not to mention the three championships that crew won from 1992-1995, that has long merited Jimmy's inclusion in the Cowboys' most exclusive club.
Jimmy was only personally on had for two of three titles, but even that ties him with Tom Landry for Super Bowl wins in Cowboys history. And as many would argue, that 1995 championship team was still running on what Johnson put together.
Jimmy's place among the Cowboys' greatest contributors is irrefutable. But whether he'd ever get into the Ring of Honor has always been questioned due to his contentious breakup with team Owner and General Manager Jerry Jones.
Johnson left the Cowboys after the 1993 championship season as he and Jones could no longer have a working relationship. Jerry's bitterness over the credit that Jimmy got for building the 90s dynasty, and Jimmy's refusal to pass any of that along to his Jones, led to Johnson's resignation as egos drove a wedge between friends.
Time appears to have healed the wounds, for the most part. As pictured above, Jimmy was in attendance for Jerry's 2017 Hall of Fame induction and public comments between them have become far more cordial in recent years.
At ages 75 and 74, respectively, Jerry and Jimmy should close this book while they still can. There is no better way to do than by Johnson taking his rightful place in the Ring of Honor.
Not only will that move bring a resolution to their story, but it will also help Jimmy in his pursuit of the Pro Football Hall of Fame to be recognized on the team level.
Jimmy Johnson belongs with Troy, Emmitt, Playmaker, and the rest who he brought together. He was responsible for the most successful era of Dallas Cowboys football in the team's history. He also provided the catchphrase that has endured for almost 30 years now, "how 'bout 'dem Cowboys?"
You can't tell the story of the Dallas Cowboys without Jimmy Johnson. It's time to give his chapter a happy ending.
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