You would be hard pressed to find a running back in the NFL right now in a weirder situation then Darren McFadden. Acquired ahead of 2015, McFadden had the breakout year that we all knew the former fourth overall pick could behind the Cowboys' offensive line.
Despite his 1,089 yard effort, McFadden's Cowboys went 4-12, earning them the fourth overall pick. With that pick, he then saw Dallas draft his replacement, in Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott.
The Cowboys even went out to steal Alfred Morris in free agency, as another back that fit their scheme more than McFadden, but saw their lead back from 2015 get "veteran-courtesy" first team reps in mini camp. Before training camp in Oxnard though, McFadden broke his elbow in the strangest way, officially launching the Zeke Elliott era in Dallas.
Darren McFadden has been on the NFI list, ineligible to return through the first six weeks of the season. Now, like James Hanna (who has been on the similar PUP list), McFadden has a four week window to return to practice, and three weeks after his practice return to be activated, placed on the injured reserve, or released.
Ezekiel Elliott is obviously making it difficult for any other running backs to find prominent roles with the Cowboys, but having a veteran around like McFadden down the stretch to help manage the rookie's workload could be invaluable.
Depending on what this team also does at quarterback, McFadden could make for another solid option in the backfield with Tony Romo forcing defenses to back up. McFadden excels at hitting the hole quickly and bursting to the second level, something that cannot be taken for granted if you factor in the Cowboys' passing game with it.
As it is right now, Alfred Morris is still taking Elliott off the field on the third offensive possession for the Cowboys each week, and he is getting the job done at 3.9 yards per carry, securing the ball and running hard.
Could we see the Cowboys use both Alfred Morris and Darren McFadden to rest their emerging star in Ezekiel Elliott?
One recent sign that may help us answer this question is how the Cowboys have handled McFadden's contract situation.
Dallas has been paying Darren McFadden his full salary ($1.25M) while on the non-football injury list. They don't have to pay him anything.
McFadden is still earning his salary with the Cowboys, which likely means that they envision him helping this football team at some point later in the season. Dallas would have to make a roster move to eventually bring McFadden in, and they have seen Lance Dunbar miss the last two games due to injury - already on a one-year deal signed this off season.
While Scott Linehan loves the versatility that Dunbar can bring, his availability is anything but reliable, potentially making him easier to move on from. McFadden would then have a chance with the Cowboys, showing some newfound durability in 2015 by playing in all 16 games for just the second time in his career, and for the second consecutive season.
Ezekiel Elliott is clearly the present and the future for the Dallas Cowboys at the running back position, but all along this team has showed a ton of respect for Darren McFadden - a bright spot from a miserable 2015 campaign.
Before Ezekiel Elliott became the running back of America's Team, I wrote in detail right here why McFadden should have had the edge on the top of the depth chart going into 2016 with Alfred Morris signed and Tony Romo expected to start at QB.
Darren McFadden: "I'm healthy. I'm ready to go. Whenever I get a chance to get out there, I'm going to be ready for it.
Now, when it comes to McFadden being healthy and ready to fight for carries alongside Elliott and Morris, only time will tell if the fourth leading rusher from a year ago will still be running the rock in the silver and blue anytime soon.
Do you think we will see Darren McFadden with the Cowboys this season? Let us know! Use the comment section below to share your thoughts on the veteran running back, or email me at Sean.Martin@InsideTheStar.com.
Cowboys Sign WR Devin Smith, Former 2nd-Round Pick
The Dallas Cowboys have reportedly signed Receiver Devin Smith, previously with the New York Jets, to a futures contract. Smith was a 2nd-round pick, 37th overall, in the 2015 NFL Draft.
Before going pro, Devin was a college teammate of current Cowboys Ezekiel Elliott, Rod Smith, and Noah Brown. They were all members of the 2014 Ohio State Buckeyes team that won the National Championship.
Smith's agent, Jason Bernstein, tweeting the following earlier today:
Congrats to WR Devin Smith @dsmithosu for signing with the #DallasCowboys! Welcome back. https://t.co/hCMYoE8fEh
Thus far, Smith's NFL career has been marred by injuries. He has suffered two ACL tears in the same knee and only been able to appear in 14 games. He was waived by the Jets last summer and was not with any team last season.
Overall, the 2015 class of receivers has been disappointing. Amari Cooper has been a star and other later-round picks like Tyler Lockett, Stefon Diggs, and Jamison Crowder have been good. But the other big names of the class, such as Kevin White, Breshad Perriman, and DeVante Parker, have not lived up to the hype.
The Cowboys are known for trying to reclaim players who once had high draft status and bad starts to their careers. They are clearly hoping to cash in on Smith's previously perceived potential, which had him projected as a possible first-round talent at one time.
For both Devin and Dallas' sake, we hope it's a success!
DeMarcus Lawrence Named Top Free Agent Of The 2019 Class
Much has been made about the Dallas Cowboys 2019 free agent class. Dallas has a ton of cap space moving forward, but they are going to "have" to pay many of the key players on their roster over the next two offseasons in order to keep their young core together.
Of course, when you're drafting, that's the goal. To draft so well that when your own players become free agents, you go ahead and pay them to keep them around, rather than overpay on the free agent market for external players.
One of the major pieces the Cowboys will have to retain this offseason is defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence. And while Cowboys Nation often thinks of Lawrence as underrated around the league, the NFL has caught onto his importance as he enters free agency this Spring.
ESPN.com ranked their top 10 free agents for 2019, with DeMarcus Lawrence clocking in at number one, over elite players like Jadeveon Clowney and Le'Veon Bell.
ESPN's top 10 free agents for 2019 and what Le'Veon Bell should be looking to command based on previous measures. https://t.co/aJ7H1n001t
DeMarcus Lawrence is going to command big time money, likely even Khalil Mack-type money. But the fact of the matter is that he has earned it. Lawrence has been the heart and soul of the Cowboys defensive line the last two seasons, and the most consistent edge player on the team as well.
Not only has he been an effective pass rusher, but DeMarcus Lawrence also plays with a relentless motor against the run that can sometimes be rare to find in those premier pass rushers. He really is a jack of all trades at defensive end, and should be priority number one for the Cowboys this offseason.
Thankfully, I can't imagine the Cowboys not retaining DeMarcus Lawrence and extending him in the coming months.
When it Mattered Most, Cowboys Offensive Line Protected Dak Prescott
Throughout the 2018 NFL season, one of the major story lines surrounding the Dallas Cowboys was how frequently Dak Prescott was taking sacks. It's an area that the Cowboys will have to look at in the offseason to better protect their franchise quarterback moving forward. In the playoffs, however, Dak Prescott and the offensive line were much better at keeping their prized possession upright than they were in the regular season.
In the regular season, Dak Prescott was sacked 56 times for an average of 3.5 times a game. There was only one game where he wasn't sacked at all, way back in week two against the New York Giants. Four times this season, the Cowboys' quarterback was sacked five or more times. The New Orleans Saints got him for a season high seven times.
According to Pro Football Focus, Dak was "kept clean" -- not pressured -- on 63% of his drop backs during the regular season, which ranked 25th in the NFL. When kept clean, Prescott completed 74.1% of his passes, which was good for 5th in the NFL during the regular season. He was under pressure 37% of the time, which was the sixth highest rate in the NFL and his completion percentage dropped to 52.6%, still good for 10th in the NFL. It was better than Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, Patrick Mahomes, Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, and Baker Mayfield.
During the playoffs, Prescott's "kept clean" percentage rose from 63% to 68% and he was only sacked once in each game. The one sack against the Los Angeles Rams probably shouldn't have been called a sack as the referee blew the whistle because Prescott was "in the grasp"...
...of his offensive lineman.
During the playoffs, the Cowboys offensive line kept the pressure off of Prescott at a better rate, allowing him to be pressured on only 31.9% of his drop backs. Meaning he was kept clean at an improved rate from the regular season at 68.1% of his drop backs. This while playing against two teams that are really good at rushing the passer. The Los Angeles Rams and the Seattle Seahawks both finished in the top half of the league in sacks this season and feature players like Aaron Donald, Jarran Reed, and Frank Clark who all had double-digit sacks.
As we know, pressure rates and sacks aren't all completely on the offensive line. The quarterback, wide receivers, and the play calling all factor in, but the Cowboys are trending in the right direction with their pass protection. A full offseason for Connor Williams in the Dallas Cowboys strength and conditioning program, better health for Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, and -- fingers crossed -- Travis Frederick, should all help the offensive line play at a higher level heading into the 2019 season.
It can't be overstated how important it will be to get Travis Frederick back into the fold this season. Joe Looney was good, and that might be overstating it a bit. He was not noticeable on most plays during the season, but getting your All-Pro center back will tremendously help the offense in every facet of the game. Frederick's one of the smarter players in the NFL, who helps everyone on the offense to see the blitzes and calls out the protections. Both his mental and physical ability will be a welcomed site when the Cowboys begin practicing in the offseason.
With another year of growth for the quarterback and for the young pieces along the offensive line, and with a full offseason for Dak Prescott to grow with Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and Blake Jarwin, the Cowboys should be better next season at keeping the quarterback clean.
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