Film room: 3 Cowboys who should feel the most pressure to perform in 2021 - John Owning, Dallas Morning News
There’s some clear pressure on the veteran Cowboys linebackers this season.
Just like Vander Esch, Smith’s job was made much harder by the poor play up front, but it still doesn’t excuse Smith’s poor run fits and the fact that he’s a significant liability in man coverage. Smith’s run fits were inconsistent at best last year, which was exacerbated by his struggles taking on and playing through blocks. Smith also struggled a lot when isolated in man coverage last season, as he just doesn’t have the athletic traits to play tight coverage against tight ends or running backs, especially if they run an option or breaking route. I may be in the minority, but I believe both can still play good football, especially if they get better, more consistent play from the DTs in front of them; however, that’s nowhere near assured and both need to up their play regardless.
Given Dallas’ moves this offseason, it seems clear that either Smith or Vander Esch (maybe both) won’t be on the Cowboys roster in 2022. Vander Esch is scheduled to become a free agent that offseason, so it would be easy for Dallas to let him walk if his durability and performance issues continue to arise this season. And even though Smith is technically under contract until 2025, the Cowboys can actually cut him and save salary cap space in 2022, meaning the Cowboys could easily wipe their hands of him next year, as well.
Because of this, both are under immense pressure heading into the 2021 season. Not only do they have significant competition who will press them for playing time immediately, but they’re also both playing to have a job (or at least one with the Cowboys) in 2022.
Pressure up the middle could be the key to fixing the Cowboys defense in 2021.
It looks like we have addressed the defense up the middle, in the draft and free agency. Do you think this will enhance play on the outside (CB, DE and OLB)? This was always a thing with Tom Landry who always had great defenses. Rob: That's the goal. The biggest problem last season, in my opinion, was losing the line of scrimmage up the middle. Way too many rushing yards before first contact, making things tough on the linebackers. Way too much second-and-short, third-and-short. I agree they've made an effort to upgrade the run defense, first and foremost. And I agree that you build a team from the inside out. The offensive line has been the foundation on that side of the ball.
Jonny: I do think that, but I think patience and a big-picture perspective is important in evaluating the defense this year. I definitely think they're better but there will still be some tough moments on the outside. Kelvin Joseph will have to learn from mistakes just like Diggs did last year, and it isn't a total disaster if he actually takes a little longer to adapt to the NFL than Diggs did. And Diggs probably isn't finished with his learning curve, either. They just have to be good enough.
A few highly paid players are under lots of pressure to perform in 2021.
LB Leighton Vander Esch. When a defense struggles as badly as the Dallas Cowboys did last season, the higher the profile, the more criticism they receive. As a former first-round pick, there was plenty of scrutiny for Leighton Vander Esch. For the second consecutive season, Vander Esch missed a chunk of games. In total, he's missed 13 over the last two seasons. He wasn't all that impressive when he was on the field either, missing 16.7 percent of his tackles, struggling in pass coverage and registering few impact plays (one sack, one forced fumble).
It came as no surprise that the Cowboys elected not to pick up the fifth-year option on his contract. It would have paid him $9.1 million in 2022. Instead, he'll be playing the final season of his current contract for $2.1 million this season. Every indication from the Cowboys offseason moves this year has Vander Esch halfway out the door. They drafted Micah Parsons in the first round and followed it up by picking Jabril Cox later in the draft. They also signed Keanu Neal who figures to play some Will linebacker in subpackages if not full time.
The team will also have a decision to make on Jaylon Smith. He signed a massive extension in 2019, but it has an out in 2022. The likelihood both linebackers come back next season seems slim.
Taking a look at where the Cowboys draft class may fit in.
Round 3, Pick 11 (75th overall): Osa Odighizuwa, DT, UCLA. The retirement of Tyrone Crawford left a big hole for the Cowboys to fill on the defensive line this season. While a third round rookie won’t bring the same leadership ability Crawford was known for, Odighizuwa is a versatile rusher with good burst off the edge. This is a player that holds the point of attack against the run very well.
The Cowboys are hopeful that both Trysten Hill and Neville Gallimore can continue their positive trajectory in 2021, with Hill coming off a torn ACL. Both players would help ease the learning curve for a rookie like Odighizuwa as well as free agent addition Brent Urban. Defensive end Randy Gregory is also in position to play a full season for the first time in his Dallas career.
Keeping athletic linemen on the field that can play multiple positions in both three and four fronts should be a priority for the Cowboys given their depth, with Odighizuwa fitting nicely in this mix. Playing him alongside a pass rusher like DeMarcus Lawrence or having him on the field in a pressure package involving Jaylon Smith or Parsons is a role Osa can develop into in year one.
Back on the practice field, Cowboys QB Dak Prescott reaches another milestone in his tedious return from injury - David Moore, Dallas Morning News
The Cowboys signal-caller continues his road back towards live game action.
Prescott took the field for an organized practice with teammates on Monday for the first time since suffering his gruesome injury on Oct. 11 of last year. He came back and did it again Tuesday, this time in front of the media. The highest paid player in franchise history moved around the field smoothly. There was no limp, no sense of hesitation in his motions or reluctance to roll one way or the other to throw on the run.
Rust? Sure. But head coach Mike McCarthy was quick to stress it was really no different from any other quarterback at this phase of the offseason program. “He’s been moving with a lot of confidence for some time now,’' McCarthy said. “He’s really capable of doing everything that we’ve done the last few days. We’re just being cautious by keeping him out of the team periods. “But he looks great. He’s put a ton of work into this. I’d say he’s ahead of schedule.’'
The Cowboys are holding Prescott out of the few 11-on-11 drills they run in these practices. It’s a precaution. It will be that way for the remainder of organized team activities and the team’s mini-camp early next month.
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