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.
Despite Changes, Cowboys Offense Still Runs Through Ezekiel Elliott
We've talked a lot this offseason about the changes at Offensive Coordinator and slot receiver, or how Jason Witten's return will impact the tight end position. But while all of these will impact the Dallas Cowboys' offense in 2019, the constant feature remains Running Back Ezekiel Elliott and the rushing attack.
From 2016 to 2018, since the Cowboys drafted Elliott, Dallas has ranked 1st, 3rd, and 10th among NFL teams in "run vs. pass" play calls. That's only logical; you don't spend a fourth-overall pick on a RB and then not make him the featured player in your offense.
Zeke has certainly rewarded Dallas' decision; Elliott has led the league in total rushing two out of three years, and he led in yards-per-game in 2017 while dealing with his suspension.
Leaning on Elliott has been smart business based on his effectiveness, plus the investment in the offensive line over the last several years.
Dallas has now sunk three first-round picks (Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin), one second (Connor Williams), and now two thirds (Chaz Green and Connor McGovern) on building up their front wall. They've spent a lot of money to keep their All-Pro guys around, plus La'el Collins.
Some would try to paint the run-heavy approach as how the team is trying to hide the weaknesses of Dak Prescott at quarterback. But in 2014, with DeMarco Murray at RB and Tony Romo at QB, the Cowboys were still 3rd in the league in rush vs. pass attempts.
This isn't about Zeke or Dak, or any other specific player. This about a team philosophy that starts at the top with Jason Garrett, and that isn't going to change even with Kellen Moore taking over as the new Offensive Coordinator.
We're all excited to see what new wrinkles comes from getting rid of Scott Linehan. We highly anticipate the development of Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup in the offense, coupled with the addition of Randall Cobb. We're salivating at what Blake Jarwin might become under the tutelage of the great Jason Witten.
Heck, maybe we'll see fullback Jamize Olawale's receiving skills put to more use. Perhaps gadget guys like Tavon Austin or rookie Tony Pollard will be deployed in more creative ways.
And yes, Dak Prescott's growth is another major factor in Dallas' 2019 success. It's especially interesting, and even concerning, as talks are ongoing about his long-term contract.
But make no mistake, this is still the Ezekiel Elliott show. Even if a few more of his carries become receptions in Moore's scheme, Zeke should still get the lion's share of the touches.
That's why this week's news about his incident in Las Vegas is so troubling. It probably won't lead to a suspension, but we saw what happened in 2017 when Elliott was missing for over a third of the season.
While Dallas should be better able to withstand losing Zeke now than it was two years ago, it may still be more than Prescott, Cooper, and the rest could handle. It definitely wouldn't put the Cowboys in good position to compete for a Super Bowl.
In the end, the 2019 will still come down to how well Dallas runs the ball. It's the engine; nothing else matters if the rushing game doesn't set everyone else up for success.
Don't ever take it for granted. This is still Ezekiel Elliott's offense.
What Would a Successful Season Mean for Kellen Moore’s Future?
Out of every chess piece moved by the Dallas Cowboys this offseason, the decision to name 30-year old Kellen Moore might be the most interesting one. Not only that, but it could be the one that makes the biggest impact on the team. After all, the Cowboys are ready to go talent wise.
With Kellen Moore taking up a new role, it's intriguing to imagine what a successful season would mean for his future with the Dallas Cowboys. Truth be told, Moore is in a pretty fortunate position to debut as an offensive coordinator. He'll be driving a unit full of talented players with almost no weak links. Last year, it wasn't the lack of quality players lined up that had the offense struggling throughout the season, but the guy in charge.
At first, the philosophy of not needing a #1 wide receiver clearly blew up on the Cowboys face. The passing game in Dallas needed a spark and they didn't find it until they traded a first rounder for Amari Cooper. Cooper's impact on the team was clear right away as he put on impressive performances on a weekly basis.
But even when Cooper was at his best, the offense still presented relevant struggles. Despite getting more first downs, the Cowboys still had trouble scoring touchdowns when in the red zone and kept leaving points on the field.
Although he's been a controversial conversation among members of Cowboys Nation, there are a few reasons to be excited about what Kellen Moore can bring to the table as a young offensive coordinator. Ever since he declared for the NFL Draft out of Boise State, where he ran a very complex offense on his way to become the QB with most wins in NCAA history, he was seen by many as an extremely smart prospect. Many expected him to have a mediocre career as a player, but saw him as a potential coach down the line.
Now it's his chance to prove the world just how smart he is and his potential as a coach. He will not only be proving it to the Cowboys organization, but all of the NFL and college football teams. Don't forget what NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah mentioned a few months ago.
I've mentioned this before- Kellen Moore is a rising star and he'll be in the mix for HC gigs (CFB or NFL) in the near future. https://t.co/hLjOb4HAUc
With a great group of talent at his disposal, it's fair to imagine Moore having a pretty successful "rookie" season at a major coaching position. If he indeed manages to turn heads with the Dallas Cowboys offense in 2019, what does that mean for his future?
In a league that's turning to the young offensive-minded coaches thanks to guys like Sean McVay, is it possible one team decides to pull the trigger and make him an offer for a head coaching gig? It certainly would seem premature, but it's still a possibility in the NFL, where teams have become increasingly impatient with their coaches.
I definitely wouldn't be surprised if next offseason, we're concerned about another team (college or NFL) trying to snatch Moore off the Cowboys. I insist in pointing out this would be a premature decision if it does happen, since Moore has very little experience, but looking at the trend in the NFL it certainly could happen.
This might be the most important year in Kellen Moore's young career. For now, let's hope he does a good job leading Dak Prescott in his fourth year as a professional player and an offense that has a solid OL and a pretty good set of skill players.
Connor Williams Working as Left Tackle in Cowboys Practice
Second-year guard Connor Williams has been working as the Cowboys' left tackle during practice this week. While this isn't the plan for him in 2019, it does provide a glimpse into potential uses for Williams down the road and how Dallas might handle future offensive line moves.
Using Connor at LT this week has been a matter of necessity. The top players on that depth chart, Tyron Smith and Cameron Fleming, were not participating for other reasons.
With Tyron Smith getting a vet day and Cam Fleming not practicing because of a bruised shin, Connor Williams worked at left tackle Wednesday. He said it was his first left tackle snaps since he was at Texas. He said it felt like riding a bike after a little bit.
Indeed, Williams spent three years at left tackle in college. It was the last position he'd played before being drafted in the second round of the 2018 NFL Draft by Dallas, who immediately moved him to guard.
Connor started 10 of 13 games at guard last season. He played mostly on the left side, starting Weeks 1-9, before getting injured. Xavier Su'a-Filo played well enough in his absence that Williams didn't get the starting job back when he was healthy. However, when Zack Martin had to miss a few games at the end of the year, Connor started a right guard for those two weeks.
When Martin returned for the playoffs, Williams was back as the starting left guard in both postseason games.
Tyron Smith and Cam Fleming will be your starter and backup at left tackle next year. But for 2020 and beyond, Connor Williams' ability to play tackle creates some interesting possibilities.
La'el Collins will be an unrestricted free agent next year. Fleming will still have one year left on his deal and Dallas just spent a third-round pick on the versatile Connor McGovern. Throw in that Williams can play some tackle, and it seems as if they're covering bases for Collins eventual departure.
We could very well see a starting lineup in 2020 with McGovern at LG and Williams at RT. Another possibility is that Fleming starts at RT and Williams stays at guard, but can be moved to tackle if needed.
If nothing else, it's nice to know that Dallas has options. We may never see Connor Williams play a regular season snap at left tackle, but versatility is a great asset. It can greatly increase a player's value, and give his team some leverage and flexibility in roster management.
For the Cowboys, it does make you wonder what the future holds for the offensive line.
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