With the Dallas Cowboys coming to town to face our Los Angeles Rams to open the 2016 preseason, I linked up with Dave Halprin from Blogging the Boys, the SB Nation community for fans of the Dallas Cowboys, to get the insider look at just who the Rams are facing this weekend.
Let's start with the expectations game. Obviously, last year was a huge step back. What is the expectation for 2016? Is it just to keep Tony Romo healthy and get on the better side of .500? Is there a sense, and I'm actually quite ashamed of myself that I got to this in the first question, that there is some unfinished business in terms of avenging the Dez Bryant catch call?
Well, there's the expectation, which is the realistic view, and the hope, which is the optimistic view. I think the hope (being optimistic) is that the team can return to the level of the 2014 Cowboys who went 12-4 and won a playoff game. That obviously revolves around the health of Tony Romo, without him, the season could easily go sideways again. Having Dez Bryant fully recovered and healthy will also be a key as is the drafting of Ezekiel Elliott to fill the DeMarco Murray role. I think most fans think that if Romo and Dez are healthy, there is no reason the offense can't be one of the best in the league, and they'll need that to cover for a defense that is not on the same level as the offense. So the hope is that they are the 2014 Cowboys, but even the expectation (the realistic view) is probably win the NFC East and get into the playoffs, at minimum. The East is a weak division, even a 9-7 record could potentially win it. If the Cowboys are healthy and they can't get back to the playoffs, then it will be considered a major disappointment and a rethinking of things will be in order.
How do Cowboys feel about the Ezekiel Elliot pick? Is there any concern after seeing Todd Gurley win the rookie of the year for 2015 despite featuring on the league's worst offense yardage-wise?
When the Cowboys made the pick of Ezekiel Elliott, there was definitely a split among fans. Some wanted him as he's one of the most complete backs to come out of college in a while. He can run, he can catch and he can pass protect. Behind the Cowboys offensive line, fans are seeing a dominant running game, one that can control a game in put the team on a similar path as the 2014 team. On the other hand, plenty of Cowboys fans thought the team should have gone defense, maybe pick Jalen Ramsey. That would have helped the defense and Dallas could have picked up a talented running back later in the draft. So there has been a split. But, having said that, most Cowboys fans think that Elliott will thrive behind the Cowboy powerful run-blocking offensive line. The fact that the Cowboys still got Darren McFadden to rush for over 1,000 yards last season, without a credible passing game threat, is a testament to what this offensive line can accomplish. With Elliott behind them, the Cowboys will force teams to stack the box and open up the passing game for Romo and Co. Dallas' offense should have no problem putting up yards and points if the team stays healthy.
Defensively, how are things shaping up? With all the personnel turmoil (Greg Hardy, Randy Gregory, Rolando McClain, Jaylon Smith), are you concerned the defense could take a major step back in 2016?
Now here's the downside of all the rosy talk about the Cowboys you've read above. Their defense is questionable and depending on how you view the stats, are middle-of-the-road to downright bad. The real problem for the Cowboys, more than anything else, is their lack of a credible pass rush. The suspensions to DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory make that an even bigger issue, as they were being counted on as the two defensive ends to bring the pressure. Instead, at least for the first four games without Lawrence (Gregory might not play at all because of a 10-game suspension and his drug issues), the Cowboys will be trying to get by with unproven talent. They have improved at defensive tackle where they brought in Cedric Thornton, and the have a handful of inexperienced but really athletic prospects at end, but we really won't know much until they actually play. Losing McClain at the Mike linebacker also hurts. Even though he has issues off the field, when he played he was very good at times, and he could be a force stopping the run as well as covering backs and tight ends. Without him the Cowboys probably lose some ability in his backup, Anthony Hitchens. One thing the Cowboys really need to do on defense in 2016 is create some turnovers. They were awful in that respect last year and it really hurt the team. Dallas does have some playmakers on defense like Sean Lee, Tyrone Crawford and second-year safety Byron Jones, but overall it is definitely the weak link on the team. If they can be an average defense in points allowed, the offense should be able to overcome that. But if they leak like a sieve, there are going to be a lot of shootouts that could cost the Cowboys.
Let's talk about the game. Obviously, we've got to sort out the back end of these rosters. What UDFAs and back of the 90-man roster candidates are you eager to see from your side? Any players that have gotten positive reports out of camp?
As discussed above, we are very anxious to see the Cowboys defensive line play. Benson Mayowa, who won't play this week because of injury, is someone Cowboys fans want to see, he has enormous athletic ability. In this game, players like David Irving, Ryan Russell, Mike McAdoo and rookie Charles Tapper are going to get a lot of reps and scrutiny at defensive end. Cowboys fans really want to know if any of these guys can play. Also, the Cowboys have a big issue at backup quarterback. Veteran Kellen Moore was supposed to be the guy, but he broke his leg last week, so Dallas is going with rookie Dak Prescott and second-year player Jameill Showers for now. They want to see how well they can handle the job before deciding if they will go out and bring in a veteran. All eyes will be on those two in the game. Other guys who are of interest include UDFA WR Andy Jones who has made a name at practices so far. Running back Darius Jackson is a guy who could possibly move Darren McFadden off the roster if he plays well. And rookie tight end Rico Gathers is an interesting subject, he hasn't played football in over nine years. He was a basketball player at Baylor and has tremendous physical skills, but can he turn those into production in football? Should be fun to watch.
Anything Rams fans should be prepared for in this game? Any gameplan or schematic things the Cowboys have said they're going to work in? We know Jared Goff won't start the game at QB. Does that potentially alter how you guys will rotate personnel?
I don't think the Cowboys are going to do anything in particular for the Rams and I don't think Jared Goff's status will affect anything they will do. Instead, the Cowboys will be concentrating on running their base offense and seeing if the two young quarterbacks can handle it. They need to know how these guys at backup quarterback will do so they can make a decision about bringing in a veteran. So I expect them to run their base on offense, including a fair amount of passes to give them both opportunities to prove they can handle it. On defense, they really want to get after the passer, but not through blitzes. They want to see if their defensive ends can make one-on-one plays. They also want to run through the linebackers not named Sean Lee to see how they hold up in game situations.
Thanks to Dave for the time.