I’ve sure as anything written this statement 53 times this offseason already but the LA Rams are set to host the Dallas Cowboys in Week 1 to debut SoFi Stadium. As previously noted, the game is on Sunday Night Football.
And as I’ve proclaimed here and a few other places, these two teams played in Week 15 of last season and the Cowboys were the victor that time. As I told RJ Ochoa of Blogging the Boys on the podcast we did this week, the two teams are also different than they were last time but also the same in many respects.
It’s all very exciting.
To learn even more about the Cowboys, I sent five Qs to Dave Halprin, also of BtB, and in return he sent me five corresponding As.
Q - The Cowboys have a number of really talented players on the defense but I can’t say that I know who the best player on that side of the ball is right now. From your point of view, if you had to pick one, who makes the Cowboys defense click?
A - That’s an interesting question because the guy is who the most talented isn’t necessarily the guy who makes it click. For me, the most talented player on the Cowboys defense is DeMarcus Lawrence. We’ll see how new players like Everson Griffen and Aldon Smith pan out, but Lawrence has been the Cowboys best player on their defense for a few years. Even though he had a down year last year in terms of sacks, he did everything else well like pressure, QB hits, playing the run, absorbing double-teams, etc.
But, for the Cowboys defense to work, at least in how it was run previously, they need a healthy Leighton Vander Esch running sideline-to-sideline, snuffing out runs and playing his best. When he is on his game, the defense plays better, if he’s having a bad game or is hurt, it doesn’t seem to function as well. There is one caveat though, the Cowboys have a new defensive scheme and coordinator this year, and with no preseason games and limited training camp coverage, we aren’t exactly sure how it will look this year.
Q - Potentially related to that question: Where were Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch at in their development process when they last played? I know Smith hasn’t missed any games and that Vander Esch sat out seven last season but when they last played in a game, were they both still trending completely upwards or have there been any setbacks in their development and have their been any really important updates on them in training camp?
A - Jaylon Smith didn’t have as good a 2019 as he did in 2018 (even though he made the Pro Bowl last year). His development sort of plateaued and without Vander Esch (because of injury), it just didn’t work as well. The good news for Cowboys fans is that new coordinator Mike Nolan has swapped their positions. Vander Esch is now the MIKE and Smith is the WILL. This should free Smith up to use his athletic gifts a lot more, including blitzing which is something he does very well. Vander Esch has to prove he is healthy and can stay that way. His neck injury (narrowing of the spine) isn’t something that is going to go away, but they are hoping that the recent surgery will allow him to play ball without any hindrance. That’s the biggest issue around him, he has to be healthy and ready to go.
Q - Does Dallas plan to utilize the tight end in the passing game at all and how important was Jason Witten to the production of everyone else (Dak, Zeke, Amari, the offensive line) since 2016, even having sat out a year?
A - Okay, first off we must give proper honors to Witten, when he was in his prime he was as good a complete tight end as there was in the game. He could catch and block, and did both very well. Having said that, at the end of his career he was nothing more than a seven-yard receiver with absolutely no YAC. He could still manage to get open underneath, but the dynamic part of his game was gone.
Blake Jarwin is a very different tight end. He is much closer to being a wide receiver and he is very adept at working the seam and getting downfield. He has some YAC in his game. They will use the other tight ends primarily as blockers, but expect Jarwin to receive the biggest share of targets going to the tight ends. Witten was important as a safety valve at the end of his time, but Jarwin is a different kind of player. They will use him to attack downfield.
Q - How do you expect the offensive line to perform with Joe Looney, Connor Williams and Cam Erving as starters in Week 1?
A - That is a big question mark. Joe Looney played center in 2018 in place of Travis Frederick when Frederick sat out the year with his disease. He played okay, but he’s not Fredrick. So that’s certainly a step down. Connor Williams is improving his game as he goes along and he seems to be fully recovered from his knee injury from last season. He’s the least worry out of the three guys you mentioned.
The big issue is Cam Erving at right tackle instead of La’el Collins. Collins has become one of the best right tackles in the game and the Cowboys are going to miss him the first few weeks. We haven’t seen much of Erving with no preseason games, but if there’s going to be a weakness on the line, that will be it. Expect the Cowboys to give him plenty of help with tight ends, backs and receivers chipping on that side. .
Q - If you had to bet on one player in the secondary still being a starter for the Cowboys in three years, who would it be?
A - Trevon Diggs, but that’s sort of cheating since he’s a rookie and will be on a cheap contract for the next four years. All we’ve heard from training camp is how well he’s progressing, and he certainly has the talent as a second-round pick who could have gone late in the first.
But if you’re asking about some of the veterans who are coming up for contracts in the future. then I would probably go with Xavier Woods. He hasn’t exploded yet, but he is a quality safety who looks like his best years are still to come. Out of everyone back there besides Diggs, he’s the guy who can likely become a star, or at least a high-level player.