The Cowboys gave up a season-high 169 yards on the ground in their Wild Card loss to the 49ers.
While question marks at receiver and along the line are products of this offseason, Dallas’ run defense was a weakness last year. It ranked just 23rd in yards per carry allowed (4.5) and was particularly bad against the run late in the season.
Dallas surrendered an average of 130 yards per game over the final 10 weeks of the regular season. In its playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers, it gave up 149 yards on the ground.
Yet, the Cowboys have done little to bolster their run defense in the offseason. They didn’t draft a linebacker until taking Damone Clark in the fifth round and didn’t add a starter in free agency. Dallas also lost interior defender Brent Urban in free agency.
The Cowboys may get a boost from the return of 2021 fourth-round pick Jabril Cox, who is coming off of a torn ACL. However, this is a weakness Dallas may have to address externally.
Some quality run defenders—such as defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi and linebacker Dont’a Hightower—remain unsigned, and the Cowboys should think long and hard about acquiring one of them.
Dallas has $20 million in cap space available, according to Spotrac, and using some of that to address the run defense would make a ton of sense. Run defense was a liability last year, and as things stand, the Cowboys are not poised to be any better in 2022.
Vander Esch and Jabril Cox are the top candidates to play linebacker snaps next to Micah Parsons this season.
Thankfully, last year showed glimpses of Vander Esch’s rookie form. He was playing his best ball late into December and was one of the few standouts in the Cowboys’ playoff loss to the 49ers. That momentum was enough for Dallas to give Leighton a one-year deal to come back and prove he’s worth an even greater commitment.
What helped Vander Esch have that late-season surge in 2021, and do those factors still exist now? Thankfully, all of these are still in effect and could have even greater impact this season.
1. Improved Confidence
This is a twofold factor; Vander Esch’s confidence in his health and in his performance.
One of the biggest issues we’ve seen in Leighton’s play since 2019 is a hesitance and lack of aggression. This is only natural after being diagnosed with neck issues that threaten your career and beyond. Unfortunately, timidity doesn’t work for playing any NFL position and especially linebacker.
Additionally, a lack of confidence after down years causes many players to start second-guessing on the field. Again, this doesn’t work in football and can be lethal for linebackers in the open field.
The Vander Esch we saw at the end of 2021 looked far more sure of himself and more willing to dive into the fray. Assuming those carry into this season, Leighton should consistently be a far more effective player.
Kellen Moore is facing a lot of pressure to maximize the Cowboys talent on offense.
And somewhere off to the side is the lingering belief that while Moore might be particularly gifted (and that is the view of the Jones family, for certain, and quarterback Dak Prescott shares that view as Dallas tries to maintain a “top-10 offense’’), Kellen isn’t even the best play-caller inside The Star.
That honor could easily go to the head coach, Mike McCarthy, who served as his own play-caller for a perennial winner in Green Bay.
But along comes PFF’s offering of a ranking of play-callers in the NFL. ... and the guy at the very top might be an almost consensus pick as at least belonging somewhere up there. Pro Football Focus ranks Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid No. 1 in the league as a play-caller.
Who is No. 2? Reid is followed by Cowboys coordinator Moore.
Then come a bundle of guys who obviously oversee successful offenses: Bucs coordinator Byron Leftwich, 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan, Rams head coach Sean McVay and Packers head coach Matt LaFleur.
As a group of six, that seems a sound collection. We might argue that if we were to survey our own NFL people, and media people, and fans, Shanahan and McVay would be viewed as having been ranked too low. And subjectivity being what it is - and bless PFF’s hearts, this isn’t about analytics near as much as it’s simply “opinion’’ - Kellen Moore’s ranking is probably the most “controversial’’ of all of them.
Cowboys land both starting cornerbacks on PFF’s top 10 list for press coverage - Todd Brock, The Cowboys Wire
It might not be easy for young cornerbacks like Kelvin Joseph or Daron Bland to see the field much in 2022.
Brown’s presence in the top ten may surprise fans who were ready to run the veteran out of town after a poor showing versus Las Vegas on Thanksgiving. But he’s actually the perfect complement to Diggs and his style of play, good enough to come in ninth overall on this list, just ahead of Baltimore’s Anthony Averett.
“While Brown is certainly great at bullying opposing receivers, leading to his four defensive pass interference penalties against the Raiders in 2021, he plays in an advantageous system in Dallas. Trevon Diggs’ presence allows Brown to frequently match up with an opponent’s No. 2 receiver, and the quick pressure the Cowboys get from DeMarcus Lawrence and Micah Parsons minimizes how long he has to cover for. So, while Brown is strong in press coverage, his ranking here is likely inflated due to his environment.”
2022 NFL rookie updates: Offseason notes, impressions on all 32 first-round draft picks - Todd Archer, ESPN
Tyler Smith will have a much better chance to stand out when the pads come on at training camp, but already has veteran Zack Martin impressed.
24. Dallas Cowboys
Tyler Smith, G
How he has fared so far: It’s difficult to judge linemen without pads on, but Smith has shown he could be ready to start the opener at left guard and also saw some first-team work at left tackle, giving Tyron Smith some rest.
“As a rookie your head can swim a little bit because of different things that happen at guard and then you kick out to tackle and it’s ‘Oh, there’s a lot of space out there,’ but he’s done a nice job,” All-Pro guard Zack Martin said. “The No. 1 thing is he works hard and he’s eager to learn. We can work with that all day.” — Todd Archer
The Cowboys currently only have one kicker, UDFA Jonathan Garibay from Texas Tech.
5. Dan Bailey, K, 2011-2017
Bailey was an undrafted free agent out of Oklahoma State who turned out to be a Pro Bowl kicker. From 2005-2010, the Cowboys struggled to find the right kicker. When Dallas picked him up ahead of the 2011 season, he had to compete with three other kickers in order to earn a spot.
That season, Bailey set a franchise rookie record with 32 field goals made and tied a Cowboys record with 26 field goal attempts made in a row. His incredible accuracy throughout his first three years earned him a massive (for a kicker) seven-year, $25 million contract back in 2014.
For many years, Bailey and Justin Tucker went head to head as the best kickers in the league. Since the team decided to cut him in 2017, the Cowboys have yet to find a longstanding, reliable kicker like him. Bailey provided longevity and unexpected success that the team probably never imagined they’d get out of a UDFA.
Hopefully, the same thing happens in 2022 for Texas Tech kicker Jonathan Garibay.
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