In order to make a deep playoff run, a team needs to get hot at the right moment and be firing on all cylinders. But another important element is health. Teams entering the post season without key players are going to be facing painful challenges.
With the news of the Seattle Seahawks losing safety Earl Thomas for the year and the New York Giants being without Jason Pierre-Paul, two of the Cowboys potential NFC playoff foes have suffered setbacks. Those teams’ playoff journeys just got a little harder. Dallas is not without their share of nicks and bruises, but for the most part have managed to avoid any catastrophic losses (knock on wood). The groin injury that has sidelined Morris Claiborne for the last five games has been the most detrimental, but there is still hope he could return at some point this season.
Jason Garrett and company have done an outstanding job getting worthwhile contributions from several depth players this season who have been asked to step into starting roles. Ronald Leary, Anthony Brown, Chaz Green, and Brice Butler are some of the key backups that have seen some meaningful snaps while filling in for starters. The next man up philosophy is alive and well in big D, but when does it become too much? What player, if lost to injury, would hurt the team the most? This isn’t a question that has been worth visiting before because the answer was always the same – Tony Romo. But now things are a little different.
While there are a lot of talks going on about who deserves to be league MVP, which players is truly the most valuable to the Cowboys team based on their next available resource?
Next Man Up: Damien Wilson
The Cowboys veteran linebacker is having himself another Pro Bowl season. Last year, Lee had a career high 128 tackles. He should eclipse that mark this season as he already has 112 tackles in just 12 games. The Cowboys defense is second in the NFL in rushing yards allowed and Lee is a big reason for it. Losing Lee would be brutal.
This season, the Cowboys linebacker group has gotten great contribution from Anthony Hitchens, but a pleasant surprise is the recent emergence of Damien Wilson. The second-year player is getting more opportunities in the last couple games with Justin Durant being hurt. Here are his snap counts for the season, courtesy of PFF.
He’s no Sean Lee, but he’s been playing well.
Next Man Up: Alfred Morris
When the Cowboys signed Alfred Morris in free agency, they got themselves a reliable running back that knows his way around the zone-blocking scheme. When we all got a taste of Morris in pre-season, there were some who felt he deserved a bigger role in the offense.
Then Zeke happened.
Let’s face it. As dependable of a runner as Morris is, he doesn’t possess the big play-making ability of Elliott. The Cowboys rookie changes the way defenses line up. While Zeke’s stat line doesn’t seem impossible to replicate as he’s averaging 107 yards a game, the attention he demands from the defense cannot be overstated. Dak knows it. Dez knows it. The whole league knows it.
Next Man Up: J.J. Wilcox, Jeff Heath
With Barry Church back in action, J.J. Wilcox goes back to a substitute role. Wilcox is recovering from a thigh injury he suffered during the Thanksgiving game against the Washington Redskins. Should something happen to Byron Jones, it could be Wilcox or possibly Jeff Heath who is asked to take on the free safety spot. Both of these would seem like nightmare options if you were asked this before the season started. This season, however – both have played surprising...okay.
While “okay” is great, it is a huge drop off from how Byron Jones has played this season. The Cowboys 2015 first-round draft pick has put his athleticism on full display several times this season, deflecting balls left and right. Losing Jones could be the Jenga piece that collapses the solid structure that is the Cowboys secondary.
Those are just a few options. Who do you think would be most costly to the Cowboys if there were to be lost to injury?