OXNARD, Calif. — Ezekiel Elliott’s not at training camp. Dak Prescott’s learning to work with a new offensive coordinator, one who happened to be a teammate just 19 months ago. Travis Frederick is coming back from Guillain-Barre syndrome. And there are contracts ticking towards expiration all over the place.
This kind of noise is nothing new to the Cowboys—it’s as much a part of who they are as the star on their helmets, and there’s plenty of it this year.
But there’s also the fact that they believe this is the franchise’s deepest, best roster since 1990s.
“I think it’s there,” says Dallas COO Stephen Jones, from his makeshift office in the Oxnard Residence Inn, which is about the distance of a Prescott-to-Amari Cooper throw to the post from the practice field. “The ’06, ’07, ’08 [teams], that was difficult, because you didn’t have the depth. I would say if you were to put a ding on that group, injuries would hurt you. … We believe this roster, because of the depth, is right there with that ’90s roster.
“The depth we had on that roster, the defensive line depth was crazy, we had some good backup offensive linemen, although I don’t know that we ever called upon any. We just had a good group, and a hell of a 53-man roster. And [scouting chief] Will [McClay] and I were just going over the roster today, and there are gonna be some tough, tough cuts, guys who are gonna be on football teams that we’re not gonna have room for. It is a good problem.”
They’d argue some of the above problems are good ones, too. The belief internally is that new offensive coordinator, 30-year-old Kellen Moore, will prove a revelation, and be a boon for Prescott, in merging college concepts with the existing offense. Frederick’s ability to get back to his old level is a question, but the team developed Joe Looney behind him last year. And the chief reason for the contractual logjam is that the team has hit on draft picks and, thus, has guys to pay.
That said, there is a flip side to all of that.
“We’re not going to have it long, this depth,” Jones said, “because we’re gonna have to pay these guys.”
Indeed, the time is now for the Cowboys. And the Joneses aren’t afraid to say it.
In this week’s Game Plan, we’re two weeks deep in training camp visits, and we’re getting to your questions on …
• A young Raiders team.
• My top five teams in the AFC.
• The value of running backs, and what will likely happen with Melvin Gordon and Ezekiel Elliott’s holdouts.
• The most impressive rookie I’ve seen so far.
But we’re starting in Oxnard, where the Cowboys hold training camp, because 2019 brings awfully big stakes.
What began with Dallas building the league’s most fearsome offensive line—punctuated with the decision to draft Zach Martin over Johnny Manziel in April 2014—has bloomed into the Cowboys emerging as one of the NFL’s most efficiently run operations. You can see it in how they’ve drafted, how they’ve developed talent, how they carried out succession at quarterback and how they’ve empowered young assistants like Moore and Kris Richard.
And it’s come together at a sweet spot generated in a combination of young talent on rookie contracts, pricey veterans with good ball left and experienced pieces to give depth to the overall picture.
As Jones said, that won’t last forever. So, yes, there’s a sense of urgency here.
“I think there is,” Jones says. “Jerry’s pretty much said it. I know [head coach] Jason [Garrett] feels it, obviously he’s in the last year of his contract. We just feel like it’s time to take the next step around here. We’re not satisfied that people are saying, ‘Well, you’ve really drafted well for 10 years.’ Or, ‘You’ve put together a hell of a roster.’ That’s not good enough anymore. I mean, we’ve been doing that.
“Even in the 2000s, we had a couple shots there and didn’t get to the championship game, damn sure didn’t get to a Super Bowl. That’s not good enough. We’ve got to take the next step. We’ve got to have a successful season. We’ve got to have success in the playoffs. We’ve got to get in there and give ourselves a chance.”
There’s tangible angst in Jones’s voice, and he’s right—the last time Dallas made the NFC title game was 24 years ago, the year of the third title of the Aikman/Irvin/Emmitt Era. In three of the last five years they’ve fallen short in the divisional round, and twice it’s happened in soul-crushing fashion (Aaron Rodgers’s throw to Jared Cook, Dez Caught It).
In addition, the team has to determine what the franchise will look like in a year or two. We’ll probably get some answers in the coming weeks, but most of the questions will likely be answered based on how the 2019 season goes.
With that in mind, there’s no better time than right now to dive into what’s ahead for this group, starting with...
The contracts.If I had to rank the likelihood of deals getting done before Week 1, I’d go Elliott, Prescott, Cooper, with the first two close to one another, and the third a ways behind them.
For Elliott, my sense is the Cowboys are willing to get close to, and maybe nudge past the four-year, $57.5 million extension the Rams gave Todd Gurley last summer. Likewise, I’ve heard the team is ready to break the $30 million APY barrier for Prescott. Ultimately, I think contracts in that neighborhood, with the right structure, will be difficult for the 2016 draft picks to pass up, so long as there’s a little more negotiation between now and Week 1.
Cooper’s deal, on the other hand, is on the backburner for now, and the feeling I’ve gotten there is that the player’s camp is largely responsible for hitting the pause button, because he’s making $13.9 million this year and there’s no reason to move for anything that isn’t really good. Michael Thomas’s deal helped his cause. Extensions for Julio Jones and Tyreek Hill could move the market. So Cooper’s in a good spot.
I figured the Cowboys would have at least one of these three contracts done by now, but Jones isn’t surprised that not one is signed yet.
“It’s not personal. It’s business,” Jones says. “We’re trying to keep a team together, it’s not gonna save us any money, whatever we save. It’s not like we’re out here trying to save money for our family. I mean, we’re out here saying, ‘We gotta save a little bit here, a little bit there, a little bit on each one, which could allow us to keep two or three more guys rather than maybe one more guy.’ …
“And it’s not their job to run our cap, it’s our job to figure out how to keep people. Fair enough, very fair. But it’s not personal. It’s not one of those things where we’re trying to be difficult. We’ve had tough negotiations with players forever. Emmitt missed two games. Emmitt’s the all-time rushing champion, one of the best ever to put on a Cowboys helmet. Had tough negotiations with Michael, and eventually got him done. These things are hard.”
Making it harder is the volume of homegrown pieces after those guys in line—corner Byron Jones, defensive tackle Maliek Collins and right tackle La’el Collins are 2020 UFAs, and linebacker Jaylon Smith is a 2020 RFA. A good problem to have, yes. But still a complicated one.
The balance.If players have contracts on their minds, it can often cause problems. They might play outside the bounds of what they’re asked, knowing a big payday is ahead. If one guy gets paid, another who doesn’t might have hard feelings. We’ve seen these things before.
This season McClay and Garrett have tried to fill the roster with players won’t spend a season worrying about their bank account, even if it will be hard for anyone not to.
“The best players I’ve been around are able to compartmentalize things in their life,” Garrett says. “They understand this is a business. And there’s a time to take care of that business. But the best ones know when it’s time to get to work, and focus on what they need to do. Everyone’s respectful of how you have to handle business. We get that. Every situation is different. But when it’s time to go to work, it’s time to go to work. …
“And that’s one of the many reasons you want those kinds of guys on your team. We used the expression around here for a long time—the right kind of guy. With the right kind of guy, it’s all about loving football, wanting to work at it and be a part of a team, all those things. And we got a lot of those guys on our team, that’s how we built our team.”
The coach.When I asked Garrett about his own contract situation—as was the case in 2014, he’s going to coach out his deal, which will be up at year’s end—he said, “I didn’t even think about it once, I’ve never really thought about my contract ever.” But it will, for sure, be a storyline over the coming months.
“Our point with Jason—‘You have done it before’, and let me tell something, he’s special like that,” Jones says. “And of course, Jerry’s made it very clear and I feel the same way, I want Jason Garrett to coach for the next 10 years. If we go out and we kill it, he’s made himself a lot more money than he would have if we’d signed him last year. We know he’s gonna say, ‘OK, I did it, now pay me.’ And fair enough. So he’s got all his chips pushed to the middle.”
As for what Garrett has to do to keep his job, Jones said there isn’t a win total in his head, or a stage of the playoffs to reach (although he did mention getting back to the championship game). He believes the right move will make itself apparent naturally.
“There’s a lot of extenuating circumstances that go down and, in general, we all know we want to take that next step,” Jones says. “But to define, ‘Hey, there’s certain things we have in our mind’, I mean, you’re gonna know it, he’s gonna know it, we’re all gonna know it. It’ll be like, ‘hey, let’s do it.’ And we’ve done it before, and it was wonderful. We signed him to a new five-year contract and paid him more money than we would’ve had we extended him.”
The lessons.Some look at the 2014 draft—when Jerry Jones was overruled on Manziel—as a turning point to a more responsible time in team-building in Dallas. The results line up with that idea. The Cowboys have made the playoffs in three of the last five years, and the only losing season in there was largely a result of a quarterback injury.
The roster’s in great shape, too, because Dallas learned from where it slipped before. So as the Cowboys have to pick and choose who to pay within its fertile crop of young talent, there’ll be lessons from prior years applied in how they piece the next era – when the Elliotts and Prescotts and Coopers are a lot wealthier – together.
“Late 2000s, we had a lot of good football players, and we were trying to figure out how to massage everything, and we got to where we were real top-heavy in terms of our roster—that’s what happens when you start to pay these guys this kind of money,” Jones says. “You’re not going to have the ability [to keep everyone]. You’re going to have to keep drafting well, because that’s gotta be your depth, young guys coming through the door.”
So to confirm, I asked Jones if he would like to avoid being as top-heavy?
“You’d like to avoid it,” he responded.
In a little less than a month, this picture will be clearer. Either Elliott will be paid or he won’t. Either he’ll be with the team or he won’t. Prescott might have a new contract, he might not. Cooper probably won’t, but crazier things have happened than a team and star player changing course on something like this.
Those are the variables, but one thing is for certain—there’ll be plenty of pressure on this franchise this fall, regardless.
“The big thing, why we’re so laser-focused, whatever we’ve doing the last 25 years hasn’t worked,” Jones says. “So now we gotta have the urgency to take the next step. We want to get in that championship game and play to get into a Super Bowl, and then play to win one—win another Super Bowl ring. We’ve done it before, seems like forever, but we’ve done it before, we know it can happen, we know we can do it, we know we’ve got good personnel, we know we’ve got good coaches, we know we’ve got a good organization.
“Now, we’ve gotta go execute. And we feel like we’ve got the proper pieces in place. We’re damn sure not resting on what we have. People always ask, ‘Do you feel pretty good about your roster?’ No, if I could upgrade it, if Will could, if Will came in tomorrow and said, ‘Hey, I got a guy’, then we’re making a move if it’s available and it fits. The urgency is there. Everybody feels it.”
Which is to say, these practices in Southern California could be the start to something big. Or the precursor to something new.
On to your mail …
From Joe (@Breshlo): How did Raiders look against Rams? Did [Josh] Jacobs, [Johnathan] Abram, [Clelin] Ferrell stand out at all? Who stood out from either side?
Hey Joe—I’m actually at the Oakland airport right now, coming from Raiders camp in Napa. And I think the Raiders looked more talented and faster than they were a year ago. Of the guys you mentioned, I’d say Johnathan Abram stood out to me, in energy, aggression and personality (something that many people saw on the first episode of Hard Knocks). He reminds me a lot of Rodney Harrison in how he carries himself, and I think the Raiders saw a little bit of that in who he is as a player.
The other thing that stood out was the command Jared Goff has over the Rams offense. He seems more vocal now, which makes sense going into Year 4, with some of the added responsibility that Sean McVay and his staff are putting on his plate, and a 23-year-old, in Brian Allen, lining up at center. It’s good news, too, for a group that’s trying to become more adaptable in the wake of the Super Bowl loss.
From Keith_Cast (@cast_keith): How is the Cowboys backfield looking if Elliott really does hold out?
I was actually pretty impressed, Keith, with Tony Pollard’s versatility. The day I was at Dallas training camp, Prescott was throwing to Pollard downfield, and his skills as a receiver really jumped out to me. Pollard’s draft classmate, Mike Weber, is a physical, aggressive, slashing-type back, who just needs to prove he can stay focused as a pro. I don’t think either guy is an NFL bellcow, but the two fit together nicely.
That said, neither guy is Elliott, and the situation here illustrates the value of the small top-tier of backs (Elliott, Saquon Barkley, Todd Gurley). It takes 2-3 backs to replicate what those guys bring to the table, and if you try that sort of platoon, you lose the queen-on-the-chess-board element that someone like Zeke presents.
From Matt (@bolt_laker): Do the Chargers look like a strong squad? How do their rookies look? Thanks.
Hey Matt! The Chargers have one of the most balanced rosters in the NFL, with a strong core of elite guys—Phillip Rivers, Joey Bosa, Casey Heyward, Derwin James, and Keenan Allen among them. So yeah, they look like a strong squad. The two biggest questions facing Anthony Lynn’s crew lie in who’ll play alongside Heyward at corner (Desmond King has the slot covered), and how the offensive line shakes out, especially with Russell Okung out.
Among the rookies, I’d keep an eye on second-round pick Nasir Adderley. He’s been nicked up, but the coaches love him, and he has the range to play the Earl Thomas role in Gus Bradley’s defense.
From TheMeekMaster (@meek858): Who blinks first, Melvin Gordon or the Chargers?
Gordon, I think. I can’t imagine the Chargers blink or move much from their offer, which is in the $10 million per range. To be clear, he’s a good player. But he’s not Barkley or Elliott. And problem for him is that the next tier of tailbacks down from those guys is pretty big; his issue isn’t that he can’t play, it’s that there are too many guys at his position can.
My guess is that Gordon winds up agreeing to something close to the Chargers’ offer—the team might sweeten the deal slightly, just so he can save face—or he reports without a new deal.
From Tom Kolibaba (@ababiloK): How closely are Panthers monitoring Elliott’s holdout? Think we'll see something similar from Christian McCaffrey next summer?
I don’t think the Panthers are paying too close attention to the Elliott holdout, but they’ll obviously be cognizant of its outcome. And I think both McCaffrey and New Orleans’ Alvin Kamara will have interesting contract cases next spring. Neither is the new prototype that Elliott or Barkley is—the 225-pound bruiser who can play all three downs. But both fit today’s NFL in a significant way, as Swiss Army knife backs. I’m not sure there’s a great example of a player like McCaffrey or Kamara right now on a big second contract, which could make those negotiations complicated.
While we’re here, I will say that I think most tailbacks that do hold out are right for doing it. It’s pretty tough to get paid as one, because so much of your prime is eaten up on a rookie contract. So when one does have leverage, he should use it. I’ll never blame someone like Gordon for trying. I just don’t think this one’s going to work out for him. And Elliott, at the end of this, I believe, will look smart for doing what he’s doing.
From Greg Deckerd (@Deck12G): Talk to me about #Rams plans for Gerald Everett.
Two sides to this, Greg. The first is that the Rams really like Everett and feel like he’s taken a nice step forward going into Year 3. McVay had a guy like him in Washington, in Jordan Reed, so there’s a template there within the offense for how the Rams can get more out of him.
The problem, right now, is how many mouths there are to feed. In that sense, I’d put Everett and Josh Reynolds in the same category. Both have had strong offseasons. Both have nice potential. I’m just not sure where either fits into an equation that factors in Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp and Tyler Higbee. We’ll see.
From Big Ben’s Radio Show (@DevinBushFan): What’s your evaluation of Devin Bush?
I’m not an evaluator, Big Ben, but I can tell you that the Steelers are very high on him, both as a player and as a leader. And as I heard it, their fascination with him as a player goes all the way back to Bush’s final season at Michigan last fall, which illustrates why they made such an aggressive move up in the first round (as aggressive as any draft-day trade they’ve made since taking Troy Polamalu in 2003) to get him.
And while I was there, I didn’t get the sense any had backed off the kind of affection they had for him pre-draft. So expectations are high—and the Steelers are counting on him to be a consistent presence in a linebacker rotation that’s still be worked out.
From David Meredith (@DMeredith28): Will we see defenses bounce back some this year, or even more offense?
David, I’d point you to the story I did with Gary Patterson a few weeks ago. The numbers actually show that defense started to catch up to offense in the last month of 2018. And I do think defensive coaches having an offseason to gather information on how to stop college-born spread offenses will make a difference.
But this will always be a cat-and-mouse game, one that’s been accelerated with how fast game tape travels now (guys can pull up whatever they want whenever they want now, which allows for much more efficient information sharing/stealing). Defenses will catch up to one concept, offenses move on to another. That’s just football.
From Larry Ingles (@labrin3): Do you believe the Cowboys will end up as a top-five defense this season?
Larry, the talent is in place for maybe not a top-five unit, but definitely one in the top 10 or so. And the offense, assuming Elliott’s back by Week 1, is suited to allow its defense to take over games. Having Smith and Leighton Vander Esch at linebacker is what you want in today’s NFL, and the defensive line and corner spots are deep, if lacking truly elite talents. The one question is at safety, and Xavier Woods has shown promise to emerge there.
From Fred Fantastico (@FredFantastico): Who’s been the most impressive rookie you’ve seen?
I don’t want to sound like a homer for my Buckeyes. But if 49ers’ Nick Bosa stays healthy (always a big if—he suffered an ankle sprain at practice on Wednesday), I’ll be surprised if he’s not Defensive Rookie of the Year, just like his brother was three years ago. I saw him go toe-to-toe with Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey, and more than hold his own. At one point, McGlinchey was visibly frustrated handling him. One staffer told me that, over the first two weeks of camp, Bosa simply doesn’t “stay blocked.”
On offense, I’m really looking forward to seeing Cardinals’ Kyler Murray and Raiders’ Josh Jacobs—both are gonna get a ton of opportunity, obviously, to be factors. And keep an eye on T.J. Hockenson in Detroit. It was pointed out to me that Matthew Stafford really prefers big, long targets (maybe a result of growing up as a player with Calvin Johnson), and Hockenson is without question one of those, as is fellow tight end Jesse James.
From Mark (@crowdedmar): Give me your top five AFC teams in order.
Mark’s putting me on the spot—Patriots, Chiefs, Colts, Chargers, Steelers. I can’t bet against New England. Their defense should be really, really good, and Tom Brady is the team’s margin for error on an offense that’s a little undermanned right now. And the Chiefs are clearly on deck, being an offside calls from the Super Bowl last year. The defense has undergone a level of turnover we probably haven’t seen in a contender since the 2001 Rams. But it was needed. And the offense will be electric. Again.
From there, I think the Colts have the best shot to be the team that leaps to 14–2, which is why I’d put them third. Three years into the Chris Ballard era, I don’t know that there’s a hole on that roster. And I have the Chargers and Steelers after those two, because I like the balance both have put around aging quarterbacks.
And now looking at it, I guess that means I’m going with the chalk, but if I had to fill out an AP ballot for the AFC, that’s how I’d do it right now.
From Chris Hart (@Who_Harted): Any guesses on how long [Dante] Scar[nnechia] will keep coaching in New England?
We’ll wrap here... Chris, I think it depends on how much further Bill Belichick goes. I tend to doubt he’ll continue into the next era. But, and this is just my opinion, my feeling is Belichick has that place close enough to a turnkey operation to the point where the guys who have been there forever (like Scarnecchia, RBs coach Ivan Fears and Bill himself) don’t have to work the way they used to in order to make it work.
And by the way, whatever they’re paying Scar isn’t enough. Look at the contracts of Nate Solder and Trent Brown to see what I mean.
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