Mailbag: Cowboys defense must improve; Adam Gase may be safe - Sports Illustrated

Mailbag: Cowboys Need to Improve on Defense; Adam Gase Should Survive the Season

Plus, the best rookies through two weeks, the Raiders and Cardinals look for real, Week 2 may have really changed things for Justin Herbert, Josh Allen has developed very well and more.
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Two weeks down, 15 to go. Conclusions to draw? Keep reading …

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

From Sean A. Williams (@Reallionnaire): In your opinion.... what do the Cowboys need to do to solidify themselves atop the NFC East? And it may be a bit early but where do you see University of Miami QB D’Eriq King going in the draft?

Sean, the Cowboys have to get better on defense in a hurry, because it looks like natural attrition has taken its toll—the team lost Byron Jones in March, and has gone through injuries (of varying seriousness) to Leighton Vander Esch, Sean Lee, Gerald McCoy and DeMarcus Lawrence—and Sunday was not pretty.

Mike McCarthy and Kellen Moore’s offense, on the other hand, has been plenty capable, with Dak Prescott now settling in, Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup playing well, CeeDee Lamb producing as a rookie and Ezekiel Elliott looking like Ezekiel Elliott. As long as the line holds up—and getting Tyron Smith back is important, of course—the Cowboys will be able to score with most teams, which puts the onus on new DC Mike Nolan to find a fix on D.

As for King, I’ll plead ignorance on this one. I haven’t dug in quite enough yet. And certainly guys like Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray have opened a door for shorter, smaller quarterbacks the last few years. But I’m not sure on King. I asked around and had one evaluator tell me he had King at a full inch and a half shorter than Murray, and he’s not the player, or passer, that the ex–Heisman winner was.

One scout told me he saw King as a more athletic Malcolm Perry. The ex-Navy quarterback, you may remember, was a seventh-round pick of the Dolphins, who promptly moved Perry to receiver. He wound up making their roster and has been inactive the first two weeks.

From Not who you think I am (@DonRidenour): Best rookie through two weeks?

Don, I’d say the most impressive rookies through two weeks are Joe Burrow and Chase Young. The former has looked natural and cool playing the most challenging position to play in all of sports. He led what should’ve been a game-winning drive against the Chargers, then kept bringing the Bengals back last Thursday night in Cleveland. Young, simply, has been one of the best defensive players in the NFL through two weeks.

Those are the easy answers. A little tougher to see: The Browns and Jets really seem to have hit on their first-round tackles. Playing left tackle for the first time, Jedrick Wills Jr. has finally shored up the hole that Joe Thomas left three offseasons ago, stabilizing a line that was a hot mess last year. Meanwhile, Mekhi Becton looks like Baby Bryant McKinnie at left tackle in New York, finally filling the void D’Brickashaw Ferguson left a few years back.

I’m intrigued to see more from Lamb in Dallas and C.J. Henderson in Jacksonville, as well. Both guys have flashed potential. And keep an eye on safety Kyle Dugger in New England—whose learning curve coming from Lenoir-Rhyne hasn’t been as steep as expected.

From Was Adam Gase Fired Today? (@GaseWas): How many more weeks do Jets fans have to suffer with Gase?

Thanks for staying on brand, Gase Was. I think you have to give your coach the year. And I’d say the only way I’d reverse course on that is if things get so toxic that it risks the development of guys like Becton, Sam Darnold, Quinnen Williams, etc. If not, you could well be getting your principal owner back from the U.K. by the end of the year (Woody Johnson’s ambassadorship is likely wrapping up), and my guess would be, even if he can’t officially order it, he would get word across the pond that a major decision like that shouldn’t be made before his return.

That said, I don’t know that Woody’s resurfacing as the man in charge—that's presuming the controversy that enveloped him a couple of months back doesn’t prevent that—is necessarily a great thing for those at One Jets Drive. When he left in 2017, Mike Maccagnan was GM, Todd Bowles head coach and Neil Glat was team president, and all those positions (and many more) have turned over since, with hires made by Woody’s brother Christopher.

That, of course, opens up a host of questions. Does Woody want to hire his own coach? Is he willing to pay what’s left on Gase’s contract? Are we talking about a team that might have to make a decision between Sam Darnold and, say, Trevor Lawrence or Justin Fields?

No matter what, we’ve got an interesting four months ahead in Florham Park.

From Corey Sanford (@SanfordRaider): After Monday’s game, what is your prediction for the Raiders the rest of the season?

Corey, I think the Raiders are going to contend all year, and that’s because I think Jon Gruden’s still a top-10 coach with a very good staff, Derek Carr has shown himself capable of getting a team to the playoffs before and I believe Mike Mayock has drafted very well over the last two years. There are good young players all over the roster: Josh Jacobs, Johnathan Abram, Henry Ruggs III, Damon Arnette, Bryan Edwards and Hunter Renfrow have the look of a core you can build around.

Add that to one of the league’s best offensive lines, and an emerging star at tight end in Darren Waller, and there’s a lot to be optimistic about here.

Now, the Chiefs are the best team in football, and I don’t think the Chargers are going away either—regardless of who the quarterback is (we’re going to get to that)—meaning that Vegas is in for a battle in its own division, which makes a jump to 11 or 12 wins difficult to see right now. But I think Gruden’s crew is going to be in the mix all the way through.

From Michael Margolis (@MargolisMichael): Are the Arizona Cardinals for real?

Michael, if by for real, you mean a playoff contender, then yeah, I think that Arizona’s for real. Kyler Murray’s taken the step the Cardinals hoped he would, DeAndre Hopkins has been worth the price they paid, and the defense has been better than anyone expected—with additions like De’Vondre Campbell blending right in and young guys like Byron Murphy and Zach Allen showing signs of breaking out.

But to me maybe the most pleasant surprise of all is what’s in front of Murray. The offensive line was an abomination two years ago, before Kliff Kingsbury and Murray arrived, and it’s not like the team has taken big draft-pick or free-agent swings at fixing what went wrong in 2018. More so, they’ve gone in on smart, under-the-radar pickups, in bringing in vets like J.R. Sweezy and Kelvin Beachum.

Being able to add that way (they also drafted promising reserve tackle Josh Jones in the third round) was huge in Murray’s development. It also freed the team to spend resources elsewhere (see: Hopkins, DeAndre). Now, to be sure, it’s not like we’re talking about a top-five line here, and Murray himself helps mitigate issues with his mobility. But it’s still impressive, given where they were.

And it gives them a real chance in what’s a wide-open NFC West.

From Hey Hey, it's Ray Ray (@theraybergman): What kind of a short leash do you see Tyrod Taylor on now that Justin Herbert has demonstrated actual NFL skills?

Ray Ray, realistically, I think we went from one place (Herbert will get in only if the Chargers fall out of playoff contention) to another (if Taylor is holding back the Chargers’ offense, the coaches now have to consider a switch). The tough thing is that once you pull that lever and go to the rookie, there really is no turning back. And making that kind of call can be scary for a team that fashions itself a contender, like the Chargers do.

I wouldn’t underrate Anthony Lynn’s point earlier in the week either. Herbert’s lack of experience isn’t anything to sneeze at. And there were points when it showed up on Sunday. One I found was at the end of the first quarter. The Chargers were at fourth-and-five at the K.C. 34. Herbert chose to take a shot deep to Hunter Henry, who had two defenders chasing him, on a corner route. Meanwhile, the Chargers’ best offensive player, Keenan Allen, was open at the sticks, over in the left flat.

The Chargers had a shot to go up 14–0 on that possession. Instead, a few possessions later, K.C. was tying the game at seven. And in the NFL, with the games as close as they are on a week-to-week basis, and the talent disparity razor thin from team-to-team, those sorts of details in situational football matter. So Herbert has to get a better handle on those.

But overall, we saw a lot of good from Herbert, and he can learn those things by playing. I don’t think we’re that far away from seeing that for ourselves. In fact, it’s not crazy to think that if Taylor gets a shot to play for another week or two, as Taylor recuperates from his punctured lung, that Herbert winds up taking the job from him. This, of course, isn’t Taylor’s first rodeo in that regard.

From JayTee (@jtobin920): Are the Detroit Lions better off now or better when Martin Mayhew was their GM? Seems to me they're going backward AGAIN.

Jay, I think on balance Mayhew did a good job—and he’s a respected voice in one of the NFL’s best front offices now, out in San Francisco. But there were things that cost him in the eyes of ownership. One was the mess of the 2011 draft, when the Lions (and Jim Schwartz deserves blame for this, too) took three red-flagged players consecutively, in Nick Fairley, Titus Young and Mikel Leshoure.

The memory of those sorts of things can linger, and they did when Martha Ford, who’d just taken over as controlling owner, was assessing how to address a 1–7 mess halfway through the 2015 season. Both Mayhew and team president Tom Lewand got whacked for it, and it’s not that difficult to understand why that happened. The Lions had made the playoffs just twice in the 15 years previous to that 1–7 beginning five years ago.

Bob Quinn was the man, on the football side, brought in to rework everything. And he has changed a lot. Five years in, the team’s core is made up chiefly of players he acquired—Trey Flowers, Kenny Golladay, T.J. Hockenson, Jarrad Davis, Jeff Okudah, Taylor Decker and Frank Ragnow. And that’s a result of a lot of guys he inherited (Darius Slay, Golden Tate, etc.) being jettisoned over the last couple of years.

So now, how the team comes back from an 0–2 start really is on Quinn and third-year coach Matt Patricia. This is their team. Let’s see where they take it.

From David Rose (@bigrose9): Are Vikings good enough to be out of the running for the top three QBs?

David, that’s a really interesting question. It does look like Minnesota’s gotten old in a few key spots, and you wonder now if some of the problems they have on the offensive line and in the secondary can be fixed on the fly—those tend to be areas where it’s difficult to mask problems.

But if you’re asking me about being in position to draft Trevor Lawrence, the answer is no. You’re going to have to be the worst team in the league to get the Clemson phenom, and the Vikings are still way too talented to be in the mix for that distinction. But could they be in shouting distance of Justin Fields or Trey Lance (a Minnesota native, by the way)? That’s not impossible, if things go the wrong way in a few crucial areas.

Also, having one of those guys on a rookie deal would make keeping Kirk Cousins around doable and give them the flexibility to move him if a suitor emerges somewhere. So we’ll see.

Josh Allen, Buffalo Bills, Fantasy Football

From Rush_Sanders (@Rush_Sanders): Is Josh Allen the quarterback everyone assumed Carson Wentz would be?

Rush, thanks for asking. I think the Bills have done a really nice job developing Allen over the last three years. And the focus has been on getting him more consistent mechanically, and getting him to play a less frantic game. At Wyoming, what was around him was so limited that he was regularly running for his life and playing streetball as a result.

Last year, they really wanted him to focus on taking easy completions, and signing veterans like Cole Beasley and Frank Gore (experienced as outlet/underneath receivers) were moves designed to help him do it. This year, by bringing in Stefon Diggs, they are putting him in a place to take more chances. And all along, they’ve made use of his athleticism within the offense, which compromises what the defense can do in passing situations.

All in all, it’s very logical. Allen’s in the right place. He’s talented. And now, he’s starting to deliver.

That doesn’t mean I’m out on Wentz, by the way. But I am concerned about where he is. In fact, right now, if I had the choice between the two, while I’d still take Wentz, I’d have to think about it pretty hard. Which I never figured would be the case, even six or seven months ago—and which says something about the trajectory of the two (remember, Allen’s three and a half years younger than Wentz) as we creep toward October.