The Dallas Cowboys look to rebound from a 3-4 start with a critical matchup with the Tennessee Titans, who bring their own 3-4 record to AT&T Stadium. This game obviously has huge implications on each of these two squad’s seasons, and the last thing either of them want to do is drop this game before battling tough opponents the following week.
Much of the headlines surround the newly-acquired Amari Cooper as the two-time Pro Bowl wideout looks to add a spark to the offense and propel the Cowboys on a playoff push in the second half of the season.
As we look forward to Cooper’s debut in silver and blue, let’s look at how the rookies have performed so far in their first season on the professional level. One leads the pack, but two others are trending upwards as well.
Leighton Vander Esch
The overwhelming majority of Cowboys fans seemingly felt underwhelmed by the pick of Leighton Vander Esch with the 19th overall selection of the 2018 NFL Draft. Why pick a linebacker that doesn’t even have much experience playing 11-on-11 football instead of a potential plug-and-play guard or go-to wide receiver?
LVE has done all that he could do to prove the naysayers wrong thus far this season, becoming a young star on this talented Dallas Cowboys defense.
Vander Esch showed promise in week two against the Giants, where he made seven tackles in 28 snaps and was the only one able to really bring down Giants rookie sensation running back Saquon Barkley in the open-field. From there, Vander Esch was forced into a larger role when Sean Lee went down the following week after aggravating his hamstring.
LVE has filled in exceptionally, leading this defense in tackles in nearly every game and playing with lots of confidence. Vander Esch has made 54 total tackles to this point this season, 42 of which have been solo. Pro Football Focus grades the Cowboys rookie as the top first-year linebacker so far in 2018.
Leighton Vander Esch is our highest graded rookie linebacker through eight weeks of the 2018 season. pic.twitter.com/RZnuHkhypT— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) November 1, 2018
Vander Esch is not a finished product by any means, but the former Boise State Broncos linebacker and eight-man football star has blossomed during the first half of this season. Cowboys fans have to be pleased with how the first-rounder has performed thus far.
After Ronald Leary departed for the Denver Broncos in 2017 free agency and when the Cowboys moved La’el Collins to right tackle, the need for a left guard was apparent. Former first-round pick Jonathan Cooper played okay last season, but the Cowboys opted to let him walk.
Dallas passed on the likes of Will Hernandez and James Daniels for the aforementioned LVE; therefore, the need to grab a guard on day two became that more important. Potential first-round talent Connor Williams fell into the Cowboys’ lap at pick 50, and Dallas made the selection without hesitation as the DFW native and Texas Longhorns star got to stay home and play for America’s Team.
Williams has not had a perfect season by any standard — he has struggled to adjust to the NFL game, has been overpowered by stronger and more experienced defensive linemen, and has given up his fair share of quarterback pressures. Williams, though, has also shown his potential with his athleticism and ability to help out in the run game, especially when asked to pull.
The Texas product has had some strong moments against the Giants and the Jaguars, but has had some lows in losses versus the Panthers and the Redskins. All-in-all, Williams has not been the worst, but he still has some ways to go. For a rookie starting at guard in the NFL, that is to be expected. Will the offensive line coaching change affect Williams in a positive way?
Dallas passed on some quality wide receiver prospects in round one and two in favor of addressing needs at both linebacker and offensive line. Still, the Cowboys were fortunate to find 2017 Biletnikoff Award finalist and All-American wideout Michael Gallup still on the board when their time to pick in the third-round arrived.
Gallup, who began his career on the JUCO level before starring for the Colorado State Rams for two seasons, was graded among the best receivers in the past draft class by PFF. The excitement only grew when the rook grabbed a 30-yard dime from Dak Prescott in the team’s first preseason game in August.
The rookie struggled to adjust to the NFL game during the first few weeks of the 2018 NFL season, which is to be expected for the vast majority of first-year wideouts — especially one taken late on day three.
However, the rookie has started to come on strong for the Cowboys over the past few games, showcasing his route-running ability and making some big chunk plays for Dallas against the Lions, Jaguars, and Redskins — catching a pass for at least 27 yards in each of those three games.
What an impressive grab by rookie Michael Gallup against All-Pro corner AJ Bouye on the opening series versus the Jaguars.#Cowboys pic.twitter.com/IQyZoQliA9— Cole Patterson (@colelpatterson) October 16, 2018
Washington was the best game of his young career, as Gallup grabbed three receptions for 81 yards and a score, including this huge 49-yard touchdown catch to tie the game up against the NFC East foe:
Mike Gallup sold the double-move perfectly.#Cowboys pic.twitter.com/kjIVrsUSuk— Cole Patterson (@colelpatterson) October 25, 2018
Gallup has caught 10 passes for 190 yards and that touchdown above this season. Many are wondering how the first-year receiver will be impacted by the arrival of Pro Bowl wideout Amari Cooper. With teams having to respect Cooper, Gallup may be presented with more opportunities over the second half of the season.
Dorance Armstrong Jr.
One of the deeper units on the Dallas Cowboys is up front on the defensive line. Featuring the likes of DeMarcus Lawrence, Maliek Collins, and David Irving — when he is on the field — the Cowboys have a plethora of defensive linemen to throw at opposing offenses.
There is one that is emerging as another solid rotational player for the Cowboys: fourth-round draft pick Dorance Armstrong Jr. Despite Taco Charlton’s initial start to the 2018 season, Armstrong has been more impressive than the 2017 first-rounder as of late — even making his first career start against the Jags when Tank was limited with an injury.
Dorance Armstrong Jr. has played pretty solid for the Cowboys this season. He made his first start on Sunday. pic.twitter.com/fFs6QfXBKY— Cole Patterson (@colelpatterson) October 17, 2018
Armstrong has not blown up the stat-sheet or anything — seven tackles, four solo — but he has been a solid presence along the defensive line for Dallas. Armstrong has made some sneaky good plays during the season for this unit and is getting better as he plays more snaps.
Dorance Armstrong re-sets the LOS, causing the RB to alter path and giving the rest of the defense ample time to get to the edge. pic.twitter.com/1HXDYInQxI— John Owning (@JohnOwning) September 17, 2018
The Texas native and 2016 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year is trending upwards, even if he doesn’t always show up in the box score.
When Jason Witten abruptly retired to join the Monday Night Football booth, a need for a tight end became that much more important for the Cowboys. Some, wrongly, assumed that Dallas would grab a replacement for Witten on day two, but the front office decided to address different needs.
The Cowboys eventually grabbed Dalton Schultz in the fourth-round. The Stanford Cardinal native was utilized primarily as a run-blocker for Christian McCaffery and Bryce Love more-so than a pass-catcher, catching 55 passes for 555 yards and five scores in his collegiate career.
Thus far, Schultz has yet to become much of a factor in the Cowboys offense — only grabbing one pass for 12 yards, and that came against Washington. But with Geoff Swaim’s injury, the rookie has a chance to make an impact over the next few weeks.
Play action to #DallasCowboys rookie TE Dalton Schultz, who crossed the formation to leak out to the flat. pic.twitter.com/ycfH7vBe1x— John Owning (@JohnOwning) October 22, 2018
Will he be able to step up for Dak Prescott in the pass game while being a good enough blocker in the run game to stay on the field? Now is his chance to show us what he has got.