At this midseason point in the 2018 season, you might be wondering how some of your Dallas Cowboys are faring in the races for NFL awards and Pro Bowl spots. I thought we'd take a moment today to assess their positioning now and what some could do the rest of the way to improve it.
Before we get to the contenders, though, let's just take a moment to eliminate some from the discussion. While there may still be half a season to go, some of these awards are clearly out of reach for our team.
For example, the awards for MVP and Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year aren't going to any Cowboys in 2018. Even Ezekiel Elliott is trailing behind Todd Gurley at his own position, and those offensive awards usually go to quarterbacks anyway.
On defense, we have a lot of solid performers but nobody who's really standing out. DeMarcus Lawrence hasn't had the same high volume sacks of this year, and he was probably our only shot at the DPOY award.
Two years after being the Coach of the Year, Jason Garrett is hardly in the running now. Some thought he might win the "First Coach Fired" award a few weeks ago, but the Browns settled that one earlier this week.
And unlike last season, when Jaylon Smith had a great case to be the Comeback Player of the Year, no Dallas players really have that story in 2018.
But enough with the negative.
Defensive Rookie of the Year: LB Leighton Vander Esch
He isn't the front-runner right now; that would be Colts rookie LB Darius Leonard. But Leighton is in the hunt for this award with his strong player so far in 2018.
Leonard had been more of a playmaker, adding four sacks and three forced fumbles to his high total of 88 tackles. He's one of the best linebackers in the NFL right now, rookie or otherwise.
If Darius were to get injured or have some other drop in production, though, Leighton isn't too far behind. He has 54 tackles currently and has been praised more than once for his presence in the middle of the field. He's been able to fill in the shoes of Sean Lee surprisingly well.
But Lee is coming back now, and that may be a deterrent to LVE's chances at the award. Less time on the field means less chances to make plays.
What's more, Darius Leonard is far from the only competition. Safeties Derwin James (Chargers) and Jessie Bates (Bengals), cornerback Denzel Ward (Browns), and LB Tremaine Edmunds (Bills) are also putting up strong numbers in starting roles.
So no, Leighton isn't probably getting this award. But at least he's in the conversation, which is more than most Cowboys can say this year.
Pro Bowlers: Ezekiel Elliott, Tyron Smith, Zack Martin
DeMarcus Lawrence, Byron Jones, Brett Maher
Last year, only five Cowboys made it to the Pro Bowl. This season could be even less based on the current numbers.
Some guys have little to fear. Ezekiel Elliott should return this season, missing last year's Pro Bowl only thanks to Roger Goodell's shenanigans. Even though he's almost 200 yards behind Todd Gurley in rushing, Zeke is still the second-highest in the NFC and the league as a whole.
Zack Martin and Tyron Smith will probably get their annual invites. Cowboys offensive linemen have always had an edge in Pro Bowl voting thanks to the size of the fanbase. But if the team really tanks the rest of the way, that could change.
Even though he's not as hot as last year, DeMarcus Lawrence is still in the mix for the Pro Bowl. His 5.5 sacks this season is sixth-best among NFC players right now. There are generally six spots for defensive linemen on the team.
Even though he's been great this year, Byron Jones will need some interceptions to get the votes among other cornerbacks. His reputation isn't strong to make it without the stats, but if he gets some picks soon then he could be in the conversation.
Lastly, Brett Maher isn't unreasonable to make it as the NFC kicker. Along with the strength of the Cowboys fans voting for him, his 16-of-18 is a strong number thus far. Only Mason Crosby (Packers) and Aldrick Rosas (Giants) have made more field goals in the conference.
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It shouldn't be a surprise that a team with a 3-4 record isn't looking too good right now for end-of-year accolades. And of course, we care way more about the wins and losses than any of these awards.
But as fans of the team, we always like to see our players' names in lights. Hopefully, more Cowboys step up the rest of this season both for their own recognition and the good of the team.
Did DC Rod Marinelli Have Increased Role in Cowboys Loss at Rams?
The Dallas Cowboys Divisional Round loss at the Los Angeles Rams is still fresh on the minds of their players, staff, and front office. So much so that the team had to fan the flames on a Jason Garrett comment expecting Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan to return. Garrett himself walked back this "report" once Stephen Jones noted it's still too early for any coaching staff changes. The focus will remain on Linehan's post until it's removed or the Cowboys OC is retained, but one coordinator the Cowboys now expect to keep is Rod Marinelli on defense.
Marinelli himself disputed the season-long belief that this was likely his last as the Cowboys defensive coordinator. With Passing Game Coordinator Kris Richard not taking any of the three HC positions he interviewed for, Marinelli doesn't have to worry about shuffling his title to accommodate Richard - who called the plays from week one this season anyway.
Rod's title does include his specialty as defensive line coach though, a unit that the Rams dominated with their offensive line to a historic degree. The Rams' season-high 273 rushing yards was provided by both Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson surpassing 100 yards on the ground, the first time in team history they've had two backs reach this mark in a single playoff game.
Rams HC Sean McVay hardly had to reach into his vaunted 'bag of tricks' to expose the Cowboys defense in a way they hadn't been all year, but there was still an element of brilliance in his offensive game plan. It came out after the game that the Rams picked up on the keys the Dallas defensive linemen used to signal stunts and twists before the snap. While this is nothing more than just great scouting yielding an unforeseen advantage, it's left the Cowboys with more than enough time to ponder what went wrong in the Coliseum.
The Rams offensive line knew what the Cowboys defensive line was going to do before the snap on Saturday. https://t.co/oGo6Eiz4av
The answer to this may be nothing other than the coaching questions the Cowboys are already considering. With Richard's interviews in Tampa Bay, Miami, and New York coming at the beginning of the week leading up to game day, it's possible Marinelli had a larger say in the Cowboys preparation on defense.
It was Marinelli's defense that conceded 412 yards to the Rams in 2017 in a loss at AT&T Stadium. Matching him up with McVay leaves a lot to be desired, while Richard helps bridge this gap - something he was seen desperately trying to do on the sideline with a battered Cowboys defense.
As each day of the offseason passes, a change at either coordinator position becomes less likely in Dallas. On offense, the play caller has more than a season's worth of evidence showing the deficiencies of the Cowboys attack. In a league fueled by recency bias however, Marinelli certainly didn't leave his best performance on the field in Los Angeles.
Somewhere in the middle of this is Jason Garrett, safely in place as the head coach that should be personally trying to upgrade his top two assistants however possible. Marinelli signing up for another year makes this hard on defense, though Richard should resume play calling duties next season.
Again, this leaves the onus of the Cowboys improvements for 2019 on the offensive side of the ball, something that'll be realized when the shock of their defense letting them down in the biggest game of the season is gone.
Cowboys Getting Over $30 Million Cap Space from Expiring Dead Money
You may have already heard that the Dallas Cowboys will be flush with salary cap space in 2019, and that's very accurate. A huge portion of it comes from over $30 million in expiring cap penalties, otherwise known as "dead money."
Quick explanation; dead money occurs when a player is released or retires prior to the expiration of their contract. Any guaranteed money, such as the original signing bonus or money converted in a restructuring, that has not yet been paid out according to the contract schedule is accelerated.
For example, when Tony Romo retired after 2016, he still had $19.6 million in guaranteed money owed to him. Dallas chose to split this dead money over two years, and thus had a $10.7 cap penalty in 2017 and $8.9 million last season.
But now Romo's dead money, along with Dez Bryant's and several other players, is coming off the Cowboys' books. The result is a roughly $30 million infusion of salary cap space for 2019.
Here were the major culprits for last year's dead money:
(All cap figures are taken from Spotrac.com)
- QB Tony Romo - $8.9 million
- WR Dez Bryant - $8 million
- DT Cedric Thornton - $2.5 million
- CB Orlando Scandrick - $2.3 million
- CB Nolan Carroll - $2 million
- WR Deonte Thompson - $1.8 million
- DE Benson Mayowa - $1.1 million
- K Dan Bailey - $800 thousand
- TE James Hanna - $750 thousand
Those players alone make up a little over $28 million. Another $4 million or so came from over 30 players with lesser penalties that still added up.
Right now, the Cowboys have only $1.76 million in dead money on their 2019 salary cap. Nearly all of that is the $1.6 million still owed to Orlando Scandrick.
That difference is where the cap space comes from, and it will be of tremendous help to Dallas as they have major financial moves coming. They need to re-sign DeMarcus Lawrence, deal with a major salary bump for Amari Cooper, and consider a contract extension for Dak Prescott.
The 2019 number will change, of course, as the offseason rolls on. If Dallas elects to release players like Sean Lee, Tyrone Crawford, or others, some dead money will appear. But that will be offset by whatever cap savings motivated the move in the first place.
This is a good reminder of why the Cowboys' new era of fiscal conservatism is a good thing. After years of what felt like perpetual "salary cap hell," they are finally getting out from under those penalties and have complete flexibility this offseason. They may not even need to cut a guy like Crawford, who they almost would have been forced to in past seasons.
We'll be talking a lot more about individual players and their contracts in the weeks ahead, but this summary helps us see that Dallas isn't nearly up against the financial wall as they have been. We still miss guys like Romo and Dez, but we won't miss that awful dead money in 2019.
Cowboys Expect C Travis Frederick Back for Offseason Program
Lost in yesterday's hoopla over Scott Linehan's return was a positive report about Center Travis Frederick. In his comments to the media, Jason Garrett said that Frederick's recovery timetable should allow him to a full participant in the team's offseason program.
After never missing a start in his first five years, Travis missed all of 2018 dealing with the effects of Guillain-Barré Syndrome. The disease attacked his neurological system and required immediate and intensive treatment.
Jason Garrett says the team anticipates Travis Frederick being involved in the offseason program right from the start this spring if he continues on the same positive track in recovery from Guillain-Barré syndrome. #cowboyswire
While Joe Looney performed admirably in Frederick's absence, he's not an elite talent. Travis has been arguably the best center in the NFL since entering the league in 2013.
It's hard to qualify what effect not having Frederick had on the Cowboys offense in 2018. Ezekiel Elliott still led the league in rushing, but short-yardage plays weren't as automatic as we've seen in past years. A 4th-and-1 stuff was part of what led to the Cowboys' loss this past Saturday.
Dak Prescott was the second-most sacked QB in the NFL in 2018. After being sacked just 25 and 32 times in his first two seasons, the number skyrocketed to 56 sacks.
That's not all on Frederick, of course. Tyron Smith had some health issues and there were was turnover at left guard.
But having your All-Pro veteran center out there to help with the pre-snap reads, and help the rookie guard on his left, might have helped avoid some of those issues.
Indeed, Travis Frederick's return is just one of many reasons for optimism with the 2019 season. One of the best players on the team, he was sorely missed this year and can only help as Dallas looks to build on their division title and playoff appearance.
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