Following a 9-7 season, the effectiveness of the Dallas Cowboys coaching staff has once again come into question. Changes at head coach, offensive coordinator, or defensive coordinator have felt imminent on the heels of a 13-3 NFC East-winning campaign just a year ago.
Through the highs and lows this coaching staff again endured, and after clearing the air of reports surrounding the likes of WR Coach Derek Dooley's future in Dallas, Jerry Jones has all but reassured Cowboys Nation that Jason Garrett, Scott Linehan, and Rod Marinelli will still lead the Cowboys in 2018.
The Cowboys have also made it known that the coaching changes they do make will occur below Garrett and his two play callers, in an overdue admission of stubbornness.
The first of these more minor changes became official yesterday, as Jason Garrett announced in his season-concluding press conference that TE Coach Steve Loney is retiring.
No #Cowboys coaching decisions have been made by Jason Garrett or the front office, yet. The only change that is known - TE Coach Steve Loney is retiring.
Loney filled the shoes of long-time TE Coach Mike Pope in 2017, his first at this position for the Cowboys. He served as the Assistant OL Coach and as Senior Offensive Assistant in 2016.
There is, of course, a larger theme here.
With the lasting image of the 2017 Dallas Cowboys being a hard-to-justify 6-0 win in Philadelphia, Rod Marinelli's defense has earned rightful praise for their performance this season. The same cannot be said about Scott Linehan's "predictable" offense.
It comes as no surprise that this is where the Cowboys' ongoing search for new perspectives begins.
What we do know so early into this offseason process is that the Cowboys have at least backed Linehan's approach for QB Dak Prescott's third year.
Dak Prescott on Scott Linehan: "I have 120 percent belief in him, 200 percent belief in him. He [deserves] a lot of credit for my success in this league. Everything that I've done, teaching the game, breaking the game down...He means a lot to me.
Retaining Scott Linehan is a move to keep Prescott's successful support system around him.
After so many important voices to their rookie QB departed ahead of his 2017 slump, the Cowboys can justify keeping their play caller. Not only will Linehan remain in place at offensive coordinator, but WR coach Derek Dooley is considering jobs elsewhere in the NFL and NCAA.
This is a pretty strong indication of the confidence this organization has in Scott Linehan.
Where Will Jerry Jones' Promised Changes Come From?
As Linehan continues in the same role, with him again comes QB Kellen Moore -- who may be in consideration to change roles and join the offensive coaching staff. Should this be the most team-efficient way to keep Moore in support of Prescott, it is a smart move by the Cowboys.
FishTips #Cowboys Coaching Carousel 5) Want evidence of Linehan shifting from hot seat to throne? Sources tell me he's already working to examine ways to fill some of the six spots on staff, and that practice-squad QB Kellen Moore is among the names to watch.
Current Cowboys QB Coach Wade Wilson is one of the Cowboys assistants on an expiring contract. He is reportedly considering his retirement after starting his coaching career with the Cowboys in 2000.
He has served in his second stint as the team's quarterbacks coach since 2007.
This leaves RB coach Gary Brown as the only other coach on offense with an expiring contract that would entice change. This is not to say that any positions on this Cowboys staff below the "big three" are irreplaceable.
Yes, it was ultimately the constant uncertainty surrounding RB Ezekiel Elliott's status prior to serving his six-game suspension that will define this team's frustrating season. Short of Brown going rogue and calling plays for his RBs himself though, there is little reason to think that he won't return.
Another area where the Cowboys' future looks bright is in their young secondary, where rookies Jourdan Lewis and Chidobe Awuzie played major roles as starting CBs. This is still a Rod Marinelli defense in need of starting caliber players, but finding cheap talent to shine in his scheme this year was a great start.
The Cowboys will have another great opportunity to further their defensive depth at the NFL Draft.
Joe Baker has coached in this Cowboys' secondary since 2012, switching to safety coach in 2014 before being named the secondary coach in 2016. When Baker was promoted, Michigan secondary coach Greg Jackson was brought in to coach the team's safeties.
The contributions that both Baker and Jackson have made on this defense will be weighed by the Cowboys to decide who will lead this secondary into 2018.
Also having a say in all of this is the widely respected Matt Eberflus, who has served as the Cowboys' LB Coach since 2011. Developing talent at LB ever since then for the Cowboys, Eberflus also became the team's defensive passing game coordinator in 2016.
He is another coach that denied an extension with the team last season, as his stock continues to rise around teams that may consider him for a Defensive Coordinator position.
Again, the Cowboys appear to be locked into Rod Marinelli in this position, something that hasn't stopped them from retaining Eberflus thus far -- a task that will remain a priority in Dallas.
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To summarize, the Cowboys' "fresh ideas" will come from a new TE coach along with potential replacements at WR, QB, RB, LB, CB, and S coaching positions. Whether or not this is enough to justify the level of consequence expected on a team that missed the playoffs following a season they reached it in for the second time in three years is entirely subjective.
There is plenty of time upcoming for every team in the NFL to evaluate their rosters and coaching staffs, as the Cowboys are already doing. Assessing the coaching talent that may be available is the most immediate way for the Cowboys to improve their outlook for 2018.
That is, if you're ready to buy into the Dallas Cowboys truly returning to where they want to go -- lacking an NFC Championship Game appearance since 1996 -- in year number nine of HC Jason Garrett.
Such is another offseason with America's Team -- so far.
Cowboys 2018 Breakout Candidates: LB Jaylon Smith
No single player on the Dallas Cowboys roster right now may be more primed for a breakout season than Linebacker Jaylon Smith. His ascension as a player isn't just a big gain for the Cowboys defense, but it may be vital to their success in 2018.
Smith joined the Cowboys as a high second-round pick (34th overall) in the 2016 NFL Draft. Potentially a top-five elite talent in that class, Jaylon's stock fell after a severe knee injury in his final college game. It was unknown if he could ever play football again, but Dallas took the risk based on Smith's incredible upside.
After Jaylon sat out his rookie year to fully rehab. In 2017, he was able to play all 16 games and started in six. That alone was a huge win for Smith and the Cowboys.
Jaylon's performance last year wasn't great, but understandably so after all the missed time. He also had to regain confidence in his knee, which is critical for a linebacker with all of the directional changes during plays.
Still, Smith got better as the season went. And even amidst the struggles, there were flashes of his instincts and potential.
This offseason, reports of Jaylon's improving health are fueling increased optimism. He is now playing without a knee brace and that means more confidence. If Smith fully trusts his body now, it will make him far more dangerous on the field.
With Anthony Hitchens leaving in free agency, Dallas needs Jaylon to be a bigger factor this year. If he doesn't take the next step, it could leave the Cowboys vulnerable at linebacker in 2018.
True, Dallas drafted Leighton Vander Esch in the first round of last April's draft. But it's always dangerous to ask a rookie to do heavy lifting, and especially one who is seen as a raw talent like Vander Esch.
Ideally, anything Dallas gets from Leighton this year will be gravy. Their goal is to rely on veteran Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith, with Damien Wilson also available as a solid fallback option.
But when you mention Sean Lee, you have to mention health concerns. After two encouragingly healthy seasons in 2015 and 2016, Lee was back to having some issues last year and missed five games.
That is all the more reason why Dallas needs Jaylon to be ready for more this year. If Lee misses time again, Smith is the best suited to take over the roles that Sean leaves behind.
Thankfully, all signs point to big things for Jaylon Smith in 2018. His body appears healed and there's no questioning his work ethic and desire. If the mental aspect of football has also developed, he could be everything the Cowboys hoped when they drafted them.
Despite Late Push as Rookie, Will Taco Charlton Struggle to See Field in 2018?
It feels like ages ago that the Dallas Cowboys spent the 28th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft on Michigan Defensive End Taco Charlton. Perhaps this is a result of the constant distancing fans have made from this unpopular pick, or the corresponding moves the Cowboys have made at DE since drafting Charlton.
These moves include using the franchise tag on DeMarcus Lawrence after seeing him explode for 14.5 sacks, spending a fourth round pick this year on Kansas' Dorance Armstrong, and seeing Randy Gregory reinstated in time for training camp.
Across the entirety of the Cowboys roster, there will be plenty of "odd men out" that miss the cut down to 53 players. Defensive end remains one of the most cluttered spots on the current 90 man roster however.
Prior to establishing the depth the Cowboys now have up front on defense, they did Taco no favors by starting his career at right defensive end. While Gregory may still be a long way from earning the starting role here, similarly styled players like Armstrong have the edge here over Charlton.
This relegates Charlton to the strong side, where he always projected best out of college. By the time the Cowboys realized this a season ago, they also knew a franchise pass rusher was playing his way into the team's long-term plans.
Lawrence's stellar consistency off the edge reduced Charlton's role in the Cowboys rotation of pass rushers. An ideal spot for the rookie to develop with less pressure on him, Charlton's opportunities to continue playing left end may only be reduced this season.
The first-round pick is capable of kicking inside at defensive tackle, a position the Cowboys could certainly use help at. However, asking Charlton to go through another position shift would only halt the progress that took quite a bit of patience from Dallas to see.
It's far from unheard of for the Cowboys to do this with their young players, but for now Charlton remains a defensive end looking to make his impact. The Cowboys are in much better position now than they were at this time a year ago when it comes to setting expectations for him to do so.
Given everything he showed on tape at Michigan as well as in his pre-draft interviews, Charlton is a player that needs to succeed at the task at hand. When this plan is altered, the 6'6" pass rusher is much less effective -- without even considering any athletic struggles that Charlton has compared to other prototypes at defensive end.
As a unit, the Cowboys defensive line has all the pieces to be very effective this season. Taco Charlton is a piece to this puzzle, a backup left end that must find a way to flourish in this role.
For most former 28th overall picks, doing so would be considered a fall from grace. For the Cowboys, it's simply an example of strong roster building that's forced life to come at Charlton quickly. How he responds with a full season under his belt will make or break the hype this deep Cowboys defensive line has garnered, lead of course by the starter at Charlton's position in DeMarcus Lawrence.
Cowboys OT La’el Collins Could Become Major Bargain
When you talk Cowboys offensive line, you always think of Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin first. Right Tackle La'el Collins still has to prove he belongs in the same sentence with his elite teammates. If he does that in 2018, Collins could become one of the best bargains on the roster.
Making the move from left guard to right tackle last year, Collins improved with time and was playing his best football at the end of the year. This was despite ongoing back issues that had him on the injury report most weeks.
La'el started all 16 games at right tackle and did enough that the Cowboys committed to keeping him there in 2018, even despite a big hole back at left guard. They are hoping consistency and stability will allow Collins to really blossom this season, building on the strong progress shown last year.
For 2018, Collins has a $5.76 million cap hit. According to Spotrac, that makes him the 13th-most expensive right tackle in the NFL this year.
That middle-of-the-pack expense is consistent with where La'el currently rates among NFL right tackles. Bleacher Report ranked Collins as the 16th-best RT in football last year.
But that ranking was based on the season as a whole. If La'el plays all of 2018 the way he was playing towards the end of last year, he will have emerged as one of the better right tackles in the game.
If Collins develops as we hope, that salary suddenly becomes a major bargain. The most expensive right tackles in the NFL are making $7-$9 million this season.
But this can go a couple of ways. With his 2019 cap hit rising to $7.9 million, La'el needs to next step forward.
If Collins were to struggle this year, it could make him a potential cap casualty next offseason. Dallas can save $6.5 million in cap space if Collins is released or traded in 2019.
Dallas could elect to give Connor Williams, their second-round pick this year, a look at right tackle next season. It's the position he played in college.
They could also consider veteran backup Cameron Fleming, who will still be just 26-year-old. Fleming has two Super Bowl rings and several starts, including in the postseason, from his time with the Patriots.
While we think of La'el Collins as a first-round talent, it's important to remember that he was ultimately an undrafted free agent. Dallas did not have to invest anything to acquire him, and ultimately that makes it easier to let him go.
Naturally, we prefer the other side of this coin. If Collins builds on 2017, he will join the upper echelon of right tackles in the league. And if the Cowboys' offensive line isn't already the best in the NFL, that would only cement them as the best unit in football.
If La'el makes the leap, it could mean huge things for the Cowboys' offense and team success this year.
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