Dorance Armstrong Jersey

—Long-armed (34 ¾”) edge-rusher with impressive burst and agility on a frame (6’4″, 257

lbs) that can be built up.

—Raw athlete with the tools to be developed into a special edge-rusher. Smooth, twitchy

mover.

—Excellent burst out of his stance; can beat blockers with his length or his first step.

—Uses his hands well to create space or redirect blockers; has a great stiff arm.

—Shows a variety of pass-rush moves and doesn’t have to win with just speed. Likes to work

inside or spin off blockers.

—Light for a 4-3 defensive end and may have to play in space.

—Needs to continue adding size and strength.

—Only recorded 1.5 sacks in 2017.

—Combine and pro-day athletic testing did not match what we saw on him. His 40 time (4.87)

was disappointing.

—Lacks the power to set the edge in the run game.

Dorance Armstrong is a tough projection because his tape didn’t match his workouts, and his

production dropped in 2017. He requires a bit of imagination to see what he could develop

into, but that adds risk to his profile.

Jersey No. 74 should be short-lived for rookie defensive end Dorance Armstrong, as no

Cowboy has worn that number in the regular season since Hall of Famer Bob Lilly retired.

Don’t sleep on Armstrong for that reason, though, as he has a chance to develop and bring

a new infusion of talent into a right defensive end position group for Dallas that sorely

needs it.

The RDE spot has been a hole on the Cowboys roster ever since they released DeMarcus Ware

in 2014. They tried filling that hole in 2015 free agency with Greg Hardy and that blew up

in their faces. The Cowboys then drafted Randy Gregory in the second round that year. He

has missed most of his career with suspensions, although he is working to get reinstated

this season. Last year’s first-round pick Taco Charlton wasn’t able to grab the starting

job in his first year, which disappointed many fans. So the future of the position on the

Cowboys is still wide open for someone to snatch.

Now, no one should expect Armstrong to shoot to the top of the depth chart in his first

season. There’s an adjustment period for any rookie defensive end, let alone one that was

drafted in the fourth round. Being drafted in the fourth round doesn’t mean he lacks the

talent or upside to become a starter, though.

While the effort Armstrong showed on tape certainly fits the “right kind of guy” mantra

Jason Garrett strives for, his athletic and physical profile is what makes him a unique

talent for the Cowboys.

The combination of length and bendability is exactly the kind of pass-rush skill the

Cowboys have been missing opposite DeMarcus Lawrence.
While some fans might be worried about Armstrong’s 40-yard dash time, his former head

coach at Kansas David Beaty gave his explanation for why his combine time didn’t match the

tape.

“Well, Dorance has never weighed 260 pounds since he’s been here. He came in very, very

heavy. I’m not sure who exactly he was training with, but my way of dealing with him would

not be carrying that kind of weight. The guy we know, one of his biggest attributes is his

speed and quickness . . . Dorance never ran even remotely close to the (4.87) times he ran

for the scouts. He’s been a high 4.5 to mid 4.6 guy every day when he was at the right

weight: I think what they’re going to see is one of the most explosive guys develop in the

NFL when it comes to getting off that edge. They found them a pass rusher. They got them a

guy, no doubt.”

The Cowboys front office hopes it’s found itself a pass rusher as there are a lot of

question marks on the edge moving forward with Lawrence being a free agent next year, Taco

Charlton’s development uncertain, Gregory’s inability to stay in the league and Tyrone

Crawford’s contract making him a possible cap-casualty starting in 2019.

The Cowboys need more of these defensive end investments to hit, and Armstrong is hoping to

cash in for the Cowboys in a big way.

In this series, Cowboys Wire will be counting down the days until the regular season opener

against the Carolina Panthers with a profile of the player whose jersey number matches the

days remaining. On June 28, 74 days remain. Next up, No. 73 Joe Looney.

The Cowboys head into 2019 with two defensive ends who are worthy of starting. That is,

they will have two if they can get DeMarcus Lawrence re-signed. He and Randy Gregory make

up a talented pair of ends. The Cowboys also have Tyrone Crawford who has the versatility

to play on the end or move to the interior when needed. So in reality, that’s three guys.

Rod Marinelli likes to rotate his player so we’re looking for a fourth to join that party.

The two main candidates are Taco Charlton and Dorance Armstrong. Will one of them emerge in

2019 to stake a claim?

The first-round pick in 2017 is starting to hear the “bust” label more and more. Through

two seasons in the league he only has four sacks. Three of those came in his rookie year

when he got hot down the stretch. That mini-hot streak led many to believe that 2018 would

be his break out year. That didn’t happen. Early in the year he was making some plays, but

not like you would expect from a first-round pick. Then he hurt his shoulder and eventually

was made inactive for a few weeks when the coaching staff wasn’t happy with his

attitude/effort.

Last year Charlton played in 11 games and was in on 39.2% of the snaps on defense for the

year. He had one sack, five TFLs and seven QB hits. (Snap counts from Football Outsiders).

Armstrong was a rookie in 2018 after being drafted in the fourth round. The Cowboys were

very excited to get him that late in the draft as they thought he would go earlier.

Armstrong played in 15 games last year but only managed to put up half a sack on the year.

He did manage to help out on special teams where he accumulated quite a few snaps.

Overall in those 15 games, he got half a sack, one TFL and three QB hits. He played on

26.7% of the defensive snaps.

The Dallas Cowboys have talent at the defensive end position — DeMarcus Lawrence emerged as one of the NFL’s best defensive players in 2018, Tyrone Crawford is a solid veteran, and Kony Ealy is a former second-round pick that still has the talent to be a factor in a defensive line rotation. Taco Charlton was the 28th pick of the 2017 NFL Draft and began to show promise during the latter parts of last season. Oh, and there is a chance that Randy Gregory is eligible to play as soon as this September.

Even still, the Cowboys saw a player fall to them in the fourth-round that they could not pass up. A prospect that was once earning first-round hype after a huge breakout campaign in 2016 — Dorance Armstrong from the Kansas Jayhawks.

The Houston native and former North Shore High School star was tabbed as one of five potential steals in the 2018 NFL Draft by Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples.

Let’s take a look on why the Cowboys wanted to add Armstrong to their defense.
Pass-rushing

The aspect of Dorance Armstrong’s game that gives him a chance to be a special player in the NFL is his ability to rush off of the edge and get to the quarterback. Playing defensive end in a 4-3 defense in 2016, Armstrong thrived and lived in opponents’ backfields each and every Saturday. The 2016 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year made 56 tackles, 20 tackles-for-loss, and got to the quarterback ten times during his sophomore season on the collegiate level.

This first clip shows Armstrong flying right past Tech Tech’s right tackle and forcing Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes to rush his throw.

The replay shows Armstrong’s burst as soon as the ball is snapped. The right tackle has no chance, and Mahomes is taken down to the turf early in the game. Those hits definitely add up over the course of four quarters.

Later in the first quarter, Armstrong is lined up as a stand-up rusher. Armstrong’s speed immediately gives him an advantage and the offensive lineman has no chance to stop him from affecting the play.

Here’s another look at the sack. Armstrong’s versatility allowed Kansas to use his talents in a variety of different ways. Unlike the first play, Armstrong is not in a 3-point stance; instead, he is standing up and immediately starts his route to the quarterback. The talented pass rusher is able to get by the right tackle and get in Mahomes’ blind spot, resulting in Armstrong’s first of two sacks in the game.

If sacking one first-round quarterback isn’t enough for you, here’s Armstrong getting by Oklahoma’s right tackle and getting to 2017 Heisman Trophy winner and 2018’s number one overall draft pick Baker Mayfield. Nice spin move!

And this last clip shows how Armstrong can affect passing plays without getting all the way to the quarterback, as he deflects preseason 2018 Heisman Trophy contender Will Grier’s pass.

The Kansas star isn’t at his best in run support, but he is still capable of making some plays in that area. Here are a few examples of Armstrong defending the run.

In this first clip, Armstrong is lined up as the left defensive end in a 4-3 scheme for Kansas. Mayfield and Oklahoma are running opposite of Armstrong’s direction, but he used his speed and athleticism to track down the running back, Joe Mixon, behind the line of scrimmage.
Another look shows that OU does not block Armstrong on the read-option play, which forces him to make a decision on whether to stay home and force the quarterback to hand the ball or go immediately for the back and risk giving up a big gain on a QB keeper. Armstrong’s length and athleticism makes him a threat to tackle both the back and Mayfield — should he have kept it.In this next clip, Armstrong lines up at defensive end in the four-man front but immediately cuts inside. He reads where West Virginia running back Kennedy McKoy is going, and his quickness allows him to track the ball carrier down.Finally, Dorance Armstrong was known throughout his career for the Jayhawks as an elite pass rusher; but in this play below, Armstrong makes a huge splash play — creating a turnover in the red zone and recovering the fumble as well.

Another look at the play shows Armstrong stand the ball carrier up and immediately start grabbing for the football. After finally ripping the ball out, he finishes the play off by falling and recovering the fumble. Not only does he play the run well here, but he makes a play that can potentially change a game.

Dorance Armstrong was hyped up to be a potential first-round choice last offseason following a campaign in which he tormented offensive linemen each and every Saturday in 2016. But after a season which he played out of position and his production suffered because of it, the Cowboys were able to grab a potential pass-rushing gem on day three of the 2018 draft.

Armstrong is a freakish – but raw – athlete that possesses 34 3/4” arms to go along with his 6-foot-4 and 257 pound frame and a quick burst which makes him difficult for any offensive tackle to keep from getting into the backfield. While he is a little light for a 4-3 defensive end, Armstrong makes up for it with his quick first step and by using his hands to get by offensive tackles. As the only elite player on the Kansas roster, Armstrong was the focal point of scouting reports and often had to battle double-teams.

Dorance Armstrong has a high ceiling and the skill-set to flourish under Rod Marinelli in Dallas. The Cowboys found a franchise quarterback in the fourth-round of the 2016 draft; have they found a franchise pass rusher this time around?

Michael Gallup Jersey

ARLINGTON — That million dollar smile, as Cowboys offensive coordinator Scott Linehan calls it, was back on rookie receiver Michael Gallup’s face Thursday.

At least for a few hours.

Gallup flashed a wide smile as he walked toward the Cowboys’ locker room side by side with receiver Allen Hurns after their win over Washington.

It’s been an emotional week for Gallup, who learned just minutes after the Cowboys’ win Sunday in Atlanta that his brother Andrew had committed suicide on Saturday in Georgia.

Gallup didn’t travel back to Dallas with the team Sunday so that he could be there for his family. He told coach Jason Garrett on Monday night, however, that he wanted to play on Thanksgiving.

So Cowboys owner Jerry Jones sent his private plane Tuesday evening to Georgia to pick up Gallup. Late Tuesday, he met with receivers coach Sanjay Lal to get familiar with the game plan after missing the first two practices of the week.

Gallup, who didn’t speak to the media after the game, finished with two catches for 19 yards on six targets against the Redskins. But his final statistics didn’t matter.

That was evident after the game in an emotional scene in the Cowboys’ locker room. Garrett presented Gallup with the game ball and talked about his mental toughness. Gallup thanked his teammates for their support.

“I’m sure proud of these guys, and you would have been, too, if you had seen what they did with Michael Gallup in there,” Jones said. “They’ve given him a lot of support. I don’t want to get into the detail of it, but it was very meaningful. About as genuine, touching a moment as I’ve been a part of.”

Garrett also became emotional addressing the team after the win about Gallup, how important family is and how tough it is to deal with the loss of a loved one. He choked up mentioning how his father, Jim, could no longer spend Thanksgiving with him. Garrett’s father, a longtime Cowboys scout, died in February at 87.

“To go through the tragedy he did a couple of days ago and turn around and get back here, get ready for this game, it just shows the character of him,” quarterback Dak Prescott said. “It shows the man he is. He battles adversity. I’m just so proud of him and proud of the way he handled this. I don’t wish this on anybody, obviously. He is playing for his brother, he is living for his brother. That’s what is most important.”

Gallup grew up in an unconventional family. He is one of eight siblings, but six are adopted. Gallup, who is from Atlanta, is the only domestic adoption. He has three siblings from West Africa and two from India.

Andrew, who was from Sierra Leone in West Africa was the closest in age to Gallup. Andrew was only a few months older than Gallup. Gallup, Andrew and his adopted sister, Lydia (from India), graduated together in the same class at Monroe Area (Ga.) High School.

Andrew’s funeral is Friday evening in Dahlonega, Ga. Jones will again offer his private plane to fly Gallup back for the service.

“We wanted to play for him,” linebacker Jaylon Smith said. “We’re a tribe, we’re a unit, we love one another. For a guy to be strong and endure what he did and still go out and compete at a high level just shows his true character. So I love him, and I got his back through everything.”

I expect Gallup to have a really nice year in 2019. He made some big plays last season and showed why the Cowboys took him in the 3rd round. He only caught 33 of 68 passes from Dak, which means their connection must get considerably better. A lot of y’all blame Dak for the incompletions, but there’s more to a route than what you see at the end. Sometimes, the timing gets thrown off by what happens at the beginning or the middle of the route. Amari Cooper will draw some double coverage this year, which means Gallup will have a chance.

I expect Gallup to have a really nice year in 2019. He made some big plays last season and showed why the Cowboys took him in the 3rd round. He only caught 33 of 68 passes from Dak, which means their connection must get considerably better. A lot of y’all blame Dak for the incompletions, but there’s more to a route than what you see at the end. Sometimes, the timing gets thrown off by what happens at the beginning or the middle of the route. Amari Cooper will draw some double coverage this year, which means Gallup will have a chance.

Iloka has nine interceptions in 99 games, including 79 starts. He’s a good, solid NFL veteran but he’s not the difference between getting to the Super Bowl or not. He signed a contract for the minimum with $200 thousand guaranteed. The Cowboys can part ways with him anytime they get ready for little of no cost.

Every team is different. The Rams run their salary cap differently than the Cowboys. Zeke might want a new deal this season, but I think he’s more inclined to get it after the season. The Cowboys will have plenty of cap space next year to get it done. They still have to get Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper done. Early next offseason, I think he’ll get done. If not, they’ll put the franchise tag on his because that number is only about $11 million, which is a lot cheaper than trying to franchise defensive ends or quarterbacks.

Dez had a terrific three-year run, when he was one the best players in the NFL. He was an unstoppable force paired with the perfect quarterback for his skill set. Tony Romo has a dynamic passer who knew how to maximize Bryant’s athleticism. Cooper is much more of a route technician. He can run virtually every route on the route tree and he has terrific hands. The variety of routes he runs and his ability to create separation works better with Dak, which is why they’ve had more success.

  1. He’s adopted

He told 9News.com that he was adopted by his mother, Jenny, when he was just 10 months old. She had two kids of her own at the time she adopted Michael. He was one of six additions to the family through adoption: two were were from India, three from Africa, plus Michael, he told the news station.

Michael told the AP that he was given up for adoption by his mom because she “wanted me to have a better life.” He also said he’s received letters from his birth mom but has never met her.

“That would be amazing to find her, talk to her,” he told the AP.

Lyell said that the mindset for Gallup was formed when his adopted father left home when he was 10 years old.

“Michael, the youngest of eight children, including six that, like him, were adopted, took it upon himself to become the man of the house,” Lyell said. “He made sure the lawn was mowed, helped his mother trim the trees with a pink chainsaw he picked out for her at Sears and took care of any other chores that required a lot of physical strength. He was a strong-willed kid, even then, determined to accomplish whatever he set out to do.”

We ran the triple option. Our other quarterbacks were running quarterbacks. I was the only one who had to throw the ball,” he said. “I had some catches every now and then, maybe two or three each game. But, I wasn’t mainly a wide receiver for a while.”

Playing QB is something he has in common with another Cowboys pick from the 2018 NFL draft: LB Leighton Vander Esch.

Connor Williams Jersey

BOCA RATON, Fla. — This is what it’s like to be bullied for being bigger than everyone else. You’re called a tub of goo. Fat boy. Stupid. Lazy. You’re ignored and shunned.

This was life for Texas All-American tackle and NFL prospect Connor Williams growing up.

As he recounts those memories, Williams runs his fingers through his jet black hair, still glistening from the sweat of a 90-minute workout while training for the upcoming NFL draft. He breathes deep and hesitates because this is where the conversation becomes intense.

“I never hurt myself,” he begins slowly, “and I never really heard about kids cutting themselves and things like that until about my senior year in high school. I didn’t even know it was out there. If I knew it was out there, I might have resorted to that. I can see how kids get to that point.”

Today, Williams, who is 20 years old, is a mere six years removed from staring in the mirror, mentally replaying the bullying and wondering if things would ever get better.

This 6’5”, 305-pound mountain of a man is in the best shape of his career. In the first two weeks here at XPE Sports, where college players train for the NFL combine, he lost 20 pounds and gained a layer of muscle.

He is in peak professional shape, and an NFL scout told Bleacher Report that Williams “has the highest ceiling of any lineman in the draft. … He has 15 years ahead of him and a body built for the game.”

A body built for the game. The irony of that statement is not lost on Williams.

“I was so self-conscious of my body. I was bigger than everyone and heavier than everyone,” Williams continues. “Not only was I being bullied, but I was internally bullying myself.”

How intense did that bullying become? he is asked. Did he ever think of taking his own life?

“No, never. Because once I got home to my family, I could lean on them,” Williams says.

What if you didn’t have that? he’s asked. “It would be a completely different story.”

There’s an uncomfortable silence, and then Williams says: “Now I think, what about kids who don’t have the family support I had growing up and are going through the same thing? I want to tell them it gets better. Don’t give up—it gets better.”

Nationally, suicide is the second-most likely cause of death for individuals 15-24 years of age. Homicides are third.

Long before their three children were born, Jimmy and Debbie Williams agreed to one unshakable rule: If you hide the world from your kids, one day they’re going to hide their world from you.

So instead of fighting Connor’s battles, Jimmy and Debbie had to tactfully decide when to engage in what they felt was inappropriate bullying and when to let Connor handle the situation himself.

When he was nearly twice the size of kids his age in elementary school, it wasn’t easy intervening. Other parents wouldn’t understand.

When Connor was in fifth grade, when he had size 11 shoes and weighed 160 pounds, they allowed his brother, Dalton, who was in 12th grade, to take him to wrestling practice to release some aggression.

No one could pin him.

“You see it all the time. Kids are raised in artificial environments, and one day they have to live in the real world and the real world is different from the environment they’re raised in,” Jimmy Williams said. “I was big on just letting them handle their own stuff. We learn from adversity. If kids never suffer, they’re not going to learn much.”

So as the bullying took place, Jimmy and Debbie offered Connor support at home but tried their best to step in only as a last resort.

Invited to a sleepover by two schoolmates, Williams was picked on unmercifully until he called his parents to pick him up.

Ordered to leave the table in the cafeteria in middle school when the football players arrived, Williams ate alone in the library.

Made fun of by classmates for the way he talked, as he rolled his R’s when speaking his mother’s native Spanish, Williams eventually decided to say nothing at all.

The truth is, Connor doesn’t regret being bullied. It forced him to take a serious look at himself, his life and who he wanted to be. “It made me want to prove everyone wrong,” he says. But that doesn’t mean he had to like it.

He was the boy who had to choke down being the giant in elementary school. That’s because those purposely mocking him and calling him names knew if he were to fight back, he’d be sent to the principal.

Early on he fought back a number of times before the inevitable sunk in: He had to absorb all that bullying because there was no other option.

“I can remember sitting in the principal’s office and asking him, ‘How do I defend myself?’” Connor says. “He said, ‘It doesn’t matter. You can’t raise your hands to anyone.’ So I just had to take all that s–t day after day, year after year.”

“I wanted to go after every one of those kids,” Debbie says. The emotion is building and she turns quiet, reflecting on what her youngest son went through. “He was a boy, you know? Just a young boy trying to fit in.”

But she resisted.

When asked to name those who bullied him, Williams recoils. He doesn’t want to expose anyone.

It has nothing to do with putting things in the past, moving on or letting go. It has everything to do with protection.

Imagine that—the boy who was tormented and bullied for years is trying to protect the people who made his young life miserable. “Because the last thing I want to see is social media turning on those guys,” Williams says.

So he gave names but asked that they remain anonymous in the story. Two of three schoolmates contacted wanted to talk and didn’t mind having their names used. Another asked for anonymity.

All three learned of Connor’s story from a video piece two years ago on the Longhorn Network.

— Austin Michaelis, a schoolmate of Connor’s: “I do remember in elementary school, I was a captain on the football team and wasn’t mature enough to understand that I was leaving him out. If things he said were going on and I didn’t notice, that makes me just as bad or guilty even if I wasn’t the one who bullied him. It kind of really hit me when I saw his story. I just reached out to him on Twitter and said, ‘If that was me, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to do it.’”

— Jace Kennedy, another schoolmate: “I was the only one who would, I guess, play-fight with him. It got intense here and there. We got into it before a football game one time. I knew what got under his skin. He knew what got under mine. I guess I never really thought of it as bullying because Connor was just so much bigger than all of us and could have crushed us. I will tell you this: When Connor is drafted, I will be the first to buy his jersey and wear it proudly.”

— The schoolmate of Connor’s who chose to remain anonymous: “It was bullying. It was. It’s hard to say that now. It wasn’t just Connor; there were others who got it, too. I guess kids will be kids, but that’s really just an excuse. But yeah, Connor got a lot of it. It was wrong, and I feel horrible about it. I was watching his story on the Longhorn Network and thought, Man, we were assh–es, punks. I can’t imagine the courage it took for him to talk publicly about it. Hopefully one day I’ll have the courage to apologize to him.”

But it wasn’t just Connor’s schoolmates. Since Connor spoke publicly about his problems with bullies, his own siblings have had to reassess childhood interactions with him.

— His brother, Dalton, who is seven years older and set school records as the University of Akron quarterback in 2012: “I was probably hard on him, too. Maybe I contributed to it in some ways. I’m seven years older and he wants to hang out with me and my friends, and he’s just my little brother. So we’d kind of gave it to him. I remember those things happening, but as a kid, you’re not aware how much an impact it’s making on your brother. For him to have gone through that and be where he is today, it’s an unreal story.”

— His sister, Morgan, who is six years older: “I was not a huge help. It was not uncommon for Connor to be the butt of a joke. I feel bad being part of it, but that’s what siblings do. When I was in college, when he was starting to really go through hard times, that’s when I started being there for him and helping him. He went from this kid that everyone ragged on to someone who is doing everything right. He is such a good person now. I don’t think he fully understands what the metamorphosis looks like from the outside.”

They all talk about Connor’s ability to focus on what’s important, how once he makes a decision, it becomes all-consuming. Like losing weight. Or becoming an honors student. Or doing what many thought he shouldn’t have done this past season at Texas: return from a knee injury suffered against USC on Sept. 16 and play the season’s final three games instead of shutting it down and preparing for the NFL draft.

Late last year, in Connor’s first game back after his injury, Texas was playing at West Virginia, and Dalton, in the skybox as a WVU graduate assistant, looked down on the field during an early timeout.

“The Texas players were shuffling around. Everyone on both teams is waiting for the ready whistle—and there’s Connor at the line of scrimmage, in his position, standing and slowly rocking back and forth and looking straight ahead,” Dalton said. “I thought, Man, he’s ready. The whistle blows, Connor doesn’t move, bends, gets in his stance and is ready to roll. He was dominant in that game.”

Williams’ father says he’s seen that same fierce determination a few other times as well, most significantly the day Connor walked up to him and said he was sick and tired of being bullied.

He was 14 years old when he declared he had walked around the track at middle school for the last time while others were picked to play football. So his father put up two pullup bars in the garage, threw on the P90X workout series and began taking Connor on daily trips to the YMCA.

The weight came off, puberty kicked in, and life began to change in a matter of months.

“I never told him he had to work out or he had to get in shape or he had to change who he was. He had to come to that realization himself,” Jimmy says.

It didn’t take long for Williams to begin reshaping his body and changing the dynamic of his life. By his sophomore year, the boy who was tormented for much of his young life was Big Man On Campus. A year later, every major college program was offering him a scholarship to play football.

Four years after that, he’s on the verge of making millions playing a game bullies kept him from not so long ago.

When he was young, Williams would stare at the ceiling late at night and wish once, just once, he wouldn’t be standing there humiliated when the last pick was chosen for a football game. In late April, he’ll be in the green room at the NFL draft, surrounded by his family and friends. Jimmy and Debbie and Dalton and Morgan.

Connor’s uncle, Ray, will be there, too. He was a star quarterback in high school in Texas, a position of royalty if there ever was one. But he was paralyzed during his senior season and has never walked again. Now he’ll see his nephew walk on stage and shake hands with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and join an elite group of men.

Suffering and persevering. Growing and learning.

This has been Williams’ life. And it’s only just beginning.

“I wouldn’t trade what happened to me for anything,” he says. “It made me who I am today.”

It also left him with a strong desire to help other kids deal with bullying.

“That’s why this story is so important,” he says. “It would be great if other young kids didn’t have to go through it.”

Leighton Vander Esch Jersey

It was the morning after the first round of the draft, and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and his son Stephen had just finished an emotional conversation with Jason Witten. The great tight end, a franchise cornerstone for 15 years, was done with football.

As Witten walked away, Jerry and Stephen looked out the windows of their offices at The Star, where the Cowboys work and train. The blades from a helicopter, a white Airbus H145 with a star on the tail, were casting shadows on the practice field as it descended.

Anticipation built around the facility. The team’s first-round draft pick was aboard.

As Leighton Vander Esch stepped off the helicopter into the Texas sun, the moment was not lost on Stephen Jones.

“There’s one 6’5″, light-haired, good-looking guy who loves to play walking out the door,” Jones says. “There’s another one walking in. It was a little eerie, if you will. When we interviewed Leighton, he exuded that kind of character that Jason has.”

The moment was not lost on Vander Esch, either. He was about 1,700 miles from his former home in Riggins, Idaho—and about a billion miles away culturally. He was moving from a place you can barely find on a map to the place where all NFL roads lead. He was stepping into a life of starring for America’s Team, sharing a locker room with Zeke Elliott and Dak Prescott, playing in a stadium with high-kicking Cowgirls, artwork worthy of a museum and video boards that hang like magnificent clouds.

“A huge wake-up moment for me,” he says. “It was like, ‘This is my home?'”

And somehow, he’s not out of place here. Not even a little.

Somehow, he isn’t too far from home in a sprawling metropolis in the Southwest.

Somehow, the expectation of being the next great Cowboy hasn’t gotten to him, either.

Vander Esch is “destined to be one of the all-time greats,” according to Cowboys Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman.

“You talk about a guy at 255 pounds, and he runs a 4.6-second 40-yard dash,” Aikman said on the Thanksgiving national broadcast of Cowboys-Redskins. “He’s big, physical, and he can run, and he matches up against tight ends. I watched him last week match up against Atlanta, and the job he’s able to do, he’s an old-school linebacker in size and new school in his ability to cover and run.”

Vander Esch, a candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year, isn’t just killing it on the field. The player they call “The Wolf Hunter” is owning the moment, celebrating big plays with a howl.

If everything goes according to the Cowboys’ plan on Saturday, when they host the Seahawks in the wild-card round of the playoffs, howls will be echoing throughout AT&T Stadium.

The town Vander Esch called home, about three hours north of Boise, has a population of 419 people—well, 418 since the April draft. It would take everyone in town, times 239, to fill the stadium he now calls home.

They couldn’t get cellphone coverage in Riggins until Vander Esch was about nine years old. It’s still spotty. He was one of 11 kids in his graduating class from Salmon River High School, where he played eight-man football on a team that sometimes had no more than 12 on the roster.

He and his family—dad Darwin, mom Sandy and older sisters Shannon, Christon and Morgan—lived on about 300 acres in a canyon between two national forests, where the Little Salmon River flows into the Salmon River. From those rivers, Vander Esch reeled in many a meal and earned some spending money as a whitewater rafting guide.

Nearby Seven Devils Mountain was the place for hunting and snowmobiling, and the Vander Esch clan did a lot of both. Darwin owned Heaven’s Gate Outfitters in Riggins, and the kids learned to hunt at the same time as they were learning their ABCs.I

’m not a big fan of the whole “Plan B” thing.

I mean, you hear people all the time be like, “If what I really want to happen doesn’t work out, I guess I’ll go with Plan B.” And I get it. I really do. But sometimes, there’s no room for a Plan B, you know? Sometimes in life it’s just gotta be Plan A or bust.

Like: No alternatives. One path. Period.

That was definitely my mindset growing up (more on that in a bit), and — now that I think about it — that do-or-die, go-for-broke mentality is one this Cowboys team ended up adopting earlier in the season.

Flashback to about five weeks ago.

We’re sitting there at 3–5, coming off an ugly loss on Monday night to the Titans. It seems like maybe our shot at the playoffs is slipping away. Everything’s just … bad. We still believed in each other at that point, of course, but our record wasn’t what we needed it to be. There’s only so many games in a season. And halfway through, it was just not looking good for us. At all.

So we show up at the facility, and Coach Garrett sits us all down in the team room.

He doesn’t beat around the bush. He just puts it out there.

“There’s no margin for error now,” he tells us, with this fired-up look in his eye. “We got ourselves into this position. And now it’s up to us to get us out of it.”

Our season was on the line. Backs against the wall. The only option out there was to win the rest of our games.

That was it. There wasn’t an alternative route.

It wasn’t like we could somehow lose a few more games and just bank on the Redskins and Eagles losing some too.

No.

We’re 3–5. We need to go out and win all of our games now. That’s what he’s telling us.

And sitting there, in that meeting, you could tell guys were hearing him. There was just a certain vibe in that room, you know what I mean? Like guys were fully realizing that our season was at a critical point.

Then Coach spent a bunch of time talking from the heart about adversity, and fighting through, and how the only way to get beyond tough times is to put your head down and push forward. I guess sometimes that stuff can come off as corny or whatever, but that whole moment — the talk, the realness of it all, the whole do-or-die thing — it all just really resonated.

We totally bought in, each and every one of us. We were all just like, “He’s right. This is on us. We gotta to get through this and not have this bad start define our season.”

And, I don’t know, it’s almost like this team has been on a mission ever since.

Now, five weeks later, we’re 8–5. We’ll be going for our sixth straight win this coming weekend.

So, yeah….

Do or die. No alternatives. No Plan B’s.

Just go out and do what you need to do. Period.

And, man, I gotta say … this so fun right now.

Just flying around. Hitting people. Making plays.

I’m loving every minute of this, that’s for sure — just living in the moment, and having the time of my life. And this run we’ve been on has definitely made my rookie season in Dallas even more incredible than I could’ve ever imagined.

By now I guess a lot of football fans have heard my story: Small-town Idaho kid, no 11-on-11 football team in high school, too skinny to get any Division I offers, had to walk on at Boise … all that stuff. Cowboys fans are probably sick of hearing it at this point. And it does kind of get old after a while talking about those same things over and over again. (Hopefully, after a little time, my play on the field will speak for itself, and people will focus on that more than on how much I weighed in high school or how many people live in my hometown.)

Leighton Vander Esch’s family home rests on a flat patch of land carved into the side of a mountain. Seven Devils Road juts west off Highway 95 and marks the southern border to Riggins, Idaho, the town about three hours north of Boise where Vander Esch was raised. Before Leighton’s father, Darwin, used an industrial bulldozer to fashion a driveway into these hills, no lot existed. The address is their own creation.

In all, the property encompasses 300 acres. At the top of the mile-long road, up a treacherous incline, lies a small clearing that overlooks all of Riggins. Every sight from Vander Esch’s youth is visible from this perch. There’s the confluence of the Salmon and Little Salmon rivers, home to the area’s best fishing holes. There’s Shorts Bar, a small beach with impossibly fine sand where he’d take half-day rafting trips. In the distance, the mountain peaks that hosted hunting camps dominate the skyline. Riggins is nestled into a canyon between two national forests, and is hardly the sort of place known for producing premium NFL talent. When Carson Wentz entered the league two years ago, the Eagles quarterback was seen as a small-town boy stepping into the spotlight. Wentz’s hometown of Bismarck, North Dakota, has a population of 72,417. Riggins has a grand total of 406.

On Thursday night, Vander Esch is set to become a first-round pick in the NFL draft, capping a story as unlikely as any in this year’s class. With no starts to his credit by his third year at Boise State, he headed into the 2017 season as an unknown to NFL evaluators. Following a campaign that included 141 tackles, fifth in the FBS, he has risen up draft boards faster than any other player.

As an eight-man-football star at Salmon River High School, Leighton had no guarantee that his name would even make it to the coaching staff in Boise. But after he led the Savages to four combined state titles in two sports, tales of his greatness trickled out of the canyon and into the valley. He came to college as a curiosity, a piece of folklore that had descended down the mountain. He left as a revelation. After turning heads with an otherworldly performance at this year’s combine, the linebacker has become the subject of widespread scouting fascination, the prospect equivalent of Paul Bunyan.

As he prepares for the next step, he knows that people will question the veracity of his feats. For a kid from Riggins, Idaho, it’s nothing new. “That’s what it will always be,” Vander Esch says. “I had that small-school atmosphere at Boise. Everyone wants to doubt it. You never get away from it: Are you still going to be good enough?”

The sign outside River Rock Cafe, Vander Esch’s favorite breakfast spot, is one of the many tributes to him around town. “Go Leighton,” it reads on a cloudless morning in late March. “All the way to the NFL.” As Vander Esch folds his 6-foot-4 frame into a booth near the window, owner Kim Olson walks over to greet him. “I’m glad I didn’t miss you,” Olson says. “I had to leave yesterday, and I told the girls, ‘OK, I want a phone call if [Leighton] comes in. I want to know what’s happening.’”

When the cafe opened in 2007, Riggins was abuzz. This is a place where Main Street is the only street that runs through town, and any addition causes a significant stir. Rumors swirled last summer that a brand-new grocery store was replacing the pothole-filled parking lot in the middle of Riggins. A year later, Vander Esch still can’t believe that his town has Whitewater Market, its own miniature version of an Albertsons. “It’s the nicest store that we’ve ever, ever had,” he says, still with an air of disbelief.

Everyone knows everyone around here, has some bond connecting the threads of their lives. Olson’s son, Jake Manley, was a senior fullback at Salmon River High when Vander Esch was a freshman. By then, Savages head coach Charlie Shepherd Sr. had known Vander Esch for years. Growing up, Leighton was inseparable with Shepherd’s two boys, Charlie Jr. and Jimmy, and Leighton started filming varsity football games in the third grade. Shepherd had long imagined that the team would thrive once Vander Esch and his sons got to high school, so he slotted Leighton in as a starting outside linebacker as a shrimpy 140-pound freshman. There was no question about Vander Esch’s athletic ability; the concern was his tendency to run around blocks instead of barreling straight through them.

To indoctrinate the 5-foot-10 15-year-old to the rigors of varsity football, Shepherd pitted Vander Esch against Manley in every drill imaginable. With Leighton giving up three years and 40 pounds, practices turned into one-sided affairs. “He would just run me over, run me over, and run me over,” Vander Esch says.

Sean Lee Jersey

Sean Lee has played either middle or weak side linebacker during the first nine years of his Cowboys career.

He’ll complete the position sweep this season by focusing much of his time on the strong side.

“As the game has changed, the standup linebacker positions can be similar at times,” Lee said Wednesday night between home runs at an event to raise money for the Salvation Army. “There are different responsibilities.

“Learning some of those different responsibilities, I’ll be working on (that) and I have great help from coach (Ben) Bloom. And then there will be times when I’ll be in similar positions I’ve been in.”

The move to strong side linebacker is no surprise. Leighton Vander Esch was brilliant as a starter on the weak side during Lee’s injury-plagued 2018 season. Jaylon Smith continues to improve in the middle.

The Cowboys lost their starting strong side linebacker, Damien Wilson, to Kansas City in free agency. It always made sense to move Lee to that spot as the defense strives to get its three best players at the position on the field.

“That’s a dream come true to play with two young guys who love football,” Lee said of lining up alongside Vander Esch and Smith.

“All-Pro players who played unbelievable last year and really willed our team from a tough record early in the season, to snap back and get into the playoffs is really because of those guys, how well they played and the whole group, the whole defense.”

Regular season, offseason, draft season … Be the smartest Cowboys fan in any season!

When it comes to Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee, you know about the talent, the play-making ability. Here are 10 things you might not know about him:

Fortunately for Cowboys fans, Lee didn’t enter into the family business. Lee comes from a family of lawyers, including his grandfather, Donald J. Lee, a former federal judge in Western Pennsylvania who was given a lifetime appointment by President George H. W. Bush. Lee’s father, Craig, and uncles Christopher and Kevin were also lawyers.

His family’s lessons transferred to the field.

“I have a passion for the game,” Lee said. “I want to be on the field no matter what… When I was young I’d go fishing with [my grandfather] The Judge, and he would always preach about how to work hard and what it might bring.

“That’s what I do.”

Though the Lees preferred suits and ties to shoulder pads, that doesn’t mean the family lacked in athletic talent. Sean’s older brother, Conor, was a kicker at the University of Pittsburgh and graduated as the Big East’s all-time leader in field goal percentage at 83.3%. He also never missed an extra point in his collegiate career, making a school-record 113 in a row. In fact, the Lee family patriarch, Craig, said Conor was the better natural athlete, but that Sean’s work ethic is what made him successful.

“Sean was always more tenacious,” Craig Lee said. “You’d tell him to shoot 100 free throws a day, and he’d shoot 200.”

Cowboys coach Jason Garrett echoes the sentiments. His praise for Lee ranges from “outstanding” and “instinctive” to a “physical leader,” “committed” with “intensity.”

“Guys look to him, not only for the practical part of communication but just the example that he sets each and every day,” Garrett said. “He does that in our building. He does that out in the community. He’s a special guy to have on your team. He’s certainly one of the cornerstone players in this organization.”

Among Lee’s community service endeavors, he teamed with JCPenney to take kids from the local Y on a special holiday shopping experience at the Stonebriar Centre JCPenney store. In addition to a meet-and-greet opportunity, Lee helped the kids select gifts for their families.

He also partners with the Dreambuilders Foundation on programs that serve children and families in need in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Though Lee’s now bulked up to 238 pounds to play linebacker in the NFL, he wasn’t always so big. In fact, Lee played safety in high school, weighing in at just over 200 pounds. He made 95 tackles and had four interceptions as a senior at Upper St. Clair high, and he also ran for 1,240 yards and 21 touchdowns on 187 carries as a running back.

Travis Frederick Jersey

THE COLONY — At some point you don’t notice a finger or toe remains numb. What felt strange for so long slowly becomes part of your new normal.

Then, toward the end of the season, a breakthrough. You stub your toe.

“It hurt,” Travis Frederick remembered. “It hurt a lot. So at that point it was a good thing because there were times I’d kick the wall and I got nothing out of it.”
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Frederick reflected on his battle with Guillain-Barre syndrome while raising money for Blocking Out Hunger, a foundation he established to help feed children from low-income situations. Frederick won’t take part in team drills during organized team activities or next month’s mini-camp, but that has more to do with offseason shoulder surgery than his return from the autoimmune disease.

The Cowboys center assumes he’ll be cleared for the start of training camp in July.

“I feel good at where I am right now,” he said Tuesday night. “As far as strength goes, I feel like I’m back, close to if not full strength.”

It’s been nine months since doctors discovered Frederick suffered from a disease that weakens the muscles and attacks the peripheral nervous system. A player who didn’t miss a game his first five years in the NFL was forced to sit out the 2018 season.

The stubbed toe was a telling moment in Frederick’s journey back. So was the decision shortly after that to have surgery on his shoulder.

The initial injury occurred during his first two seasons in the league.

Frederick doesn’t remember for sure. He didn’t pursue surgery earlier for the 180-degree labrum tear because the muscles stabilized the area and there was no damage to the rotator cuff. Besides, he didn’t relish the four- to six-month recovery period.

Still, Frederick wanted to get on top of it before it became an issue. He considered having surgery when he went on the injured list last season but was advised against it.

“There are a few risks involved there, going under anesthesia,” Frederick said. “They have to put you on a paralytic when you’re doing the shoulder surgery.

“When your muscles are already paralyzed and then you add the paralytic to it, sometimes it can be difficult coming out of that.”

So Frederick waited. When doctors cleared him for surgery on Jan. 9, three days before the team’s playoff loss to the LA Rams, it meant he was far enough along in his recovery from Guillain-Barre that it was no longer a concern.

“To me, it was a really good sign,” he said. “I was in good enough shape to do that, and also from the recovery standpoint, I was able to do all of the rehab, had enough muscle there.”

Frederick is lifting slightly less in the weight room than he normally would at this time of year, but that corresponds with where he is in his rehab from shoulder surgery, not any limits from Guillain-Barre.

The shoulder is also the reason he’ll be restricted to individual drills over the next four weeks and won’t punch the heavy bag or ram into the blocking sleds.

Does he experience any lingering effects from the autoimmune disorder?

“The explosive movement, that’s just trailing a little bit,” Frederick said. “I think that’s a little remnant from the Guillain-Barre.

“I don’t want to go into a physiology lesson, but that’s the last thing that comes. When those nerves come back, there are little stops in them and it becomes less and less of those as you heal more. Those are the things that slow the nerves down.

“They’re conducting fully now, they’re just not conducting quite as quickly as you’d want them to, and that’s the explosion.”

Weekly visits with his neurologist are no longer needed. His next session is several weeks down the road and is more about checking for any potential long-term damage than assessing where he stands at the moment.

Returning to the field isn’t the goal for Frederick. The goal is to perform at the level that earned him four consecutive Pro Bowl appearances before this unexpected episode in his career.

“Yeah, I don’t think there’s any reason to come back if you can’t do it at that level,” Frederick said. “To me, it’s important to do everything that I can to help our team. It excites me and invigorates me every day to come into work and see the guys that we have on our team.”

Club officials anticipate Frederick will be at least partially cleared for the start of training camp. That’s the next test.

“That’s going to be an important step to my return, being able to go through [practice in pads] and there’s going to be rust. You’re going to have to knock the rust off during training camp.

“You can do the movements on air as much as you want, but it’s not until you’re going against a live person that you feel football.”

It will be the best feeling Frederick has had since he stubbed his toe near the end of last season.

Cowboys center Travis Frederick lost the 2018 season before it even started. He almost had much, much more taken away from him.

An August 2018 diagnosis of Guillain-Barre Syndrome sidelined Frederick for months; the autoimmune disease causing numbness and a loss of strength that left Frederick “less than a week out from not being able to walk anymore,” he said in February as he embarked on a hopeful return to the field. Now participating in the team’s off-season program, the four-time Pro Bowler has his sights set on a full recuperation in 2019 and return to form as one of the best centers in the game.

“I feel good about where I am at,” Frederick told reporters over the weekend, according to Clarence Hill, Jr. of the Star-Telegram. “It’s hard to judge percentage where you are at because the only thing we have to judge off of is strength numbers. We haven’t been able to get to the strength numbers because I am not benching. I don’t have a bench standard and I am not squatting. I am rebounding from hernia surgery as well, so I am still easing back in after that.”

Frederick’s presence and participation in last week’s workouts was cause for celebration among his teammates, but the Wisconsin product is purposely taking it slow.

“I have been working out with the team,” Frederick said on Saturday. “We eased kind of back into that to make sure that everything’s healthy and stable before we start going heavy, but as far as on-the-field stuff, I’m doing almost everything. We’ll have some stuff modified in OTAs, but most of that is for the shoulder. You don’t want to re-injure something while it’s coming back from the surgery. But as far as on the field, I feel good, and in the weight room in my other auxiliary lifts, I’m doing really well there as well. So for the most part, I feel really good. We won’t know until I get out there and put the pads on and take my first rep whether or not it’s going to go well.”

Frederick admits that the first step on this long road to recovery was simply identifying his opponent through a battery of tests. “There were a lot of things thrown out over the course of time,” It behaves a lot like MS [multiple sclerosis]. It behaves a lot like polio, West Nile. A lot of things, as you do more tests, you rule those out. There is not a test that says this is what it is.”

Even once the determination of Guillain-Barre Syndrome was made, the mystery still wasn’t solved right away.

“I had never heard of it,” Frederick admitted. “Neither did most people, not even the doctors. The neurosurgeon had only seen it twice. He is one of the top neurosurgeons in the country. When you have something that’s rare, that’s when you know there is something going on. That’s why it took a little bit for the diagnosis. It’s hard.”

Frederick went on to detail the scary warning signs that crept up on him during last season’s training camp.

“I knew from the beginning that something wasn’t right. I had people in the organization that said they knew at the beginning something was wrong. I had no problem in minicamp. It was the first day of training camp that I felt numbness in my toes on the charter on the way out there [to Oxnard, California]. For most of training camp, I practiced without being able to feel my toes or my hands. So when I snapped the ball, I just trusted that the ball was there. You have a certain feeling when it hits the quarterback’s hands. I knew Dak [Prescott] well enough that it was there. The most telling thing, the reason we really looked into, more so than the numbness, was in the weight room and not being able to do much. In training camp, the weights are not that heavy and when I couldn’t do that, that is when it’s a red bell. Those are things you see in one-on-ones, getting pushed back. It could be because I was tired or having an off day. But when you have that and can’t feel your feet, it’s hard to maintain any sort of balance.”

Frederick spent the season rehabbing, but he maintained a strong presence with the team and even served as an informal coach for his fellow O-linemen during games. He feels the time spent studying the game from afar will only make him a better player once he steps on the field again. Now he’s close to that goal, and his fellow Cowboys say they can see the Frederick of old.

“I can’t overstate how important it is to have Travis back,” linebacker Sean Lee told the media, as per the team’s website. “To see what he dealt with during the year, some of the issues he did, and to see him running recently on the field, maybe looking faster? To have that back, it’s unbelievable.”

It may be unbelievable to Frederick, too. The star center admits now that there were times he couldn’t be sure he’d ever play again.

“That thought crosses your mind,” Frederick said. “That thought crosses your mind certainly at diagnosis and again when it was declining to the point where I was having a hard time walking. Those things definitely happened. But once the improvement started and it happened at such an impressive rate, it makes you think, ‘OK, maybe there’s a chance here, and if it continues at this rate, I don’t see any reason why I can’t be back to 100 percent.”

Zack Martin Jersey

Dallas Cowboys offensive guard Zack Martin didn’t suffer ligament damage to his left knee in Saturday’s 21-13 preseason loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero reported Sunday.

According to Pelissero, Martin has a hyperextended knee and a bone bruise. The Dallas Morning News’ David Moore had reported the Cowboys received “encouraging” results from an MRI on Martin’s knee and that they’re hopeful he’ll be available for Week 1 of the 2018 regular season.

Dallas opens the year Sept. 9 on the road against the Carolina Panthers.

Martin is coming off his fourth straight Pro Bowl season in 2017. He’s a big reason the Cowboys ranked fourth in adjusted line yards last season, per Football Outsiders.

The 27-year-old sat third in Bleacher Report’s NFL1000 year-end ranking of the top offensive guards.

“When he engages, Martin latches onto his defender like an octopus and starts pushing back right away,” B/R’s Doug Farrar wrote. “He’s able to match aggression with technique, making him one of the best power-blockers of his generation.”

The fact Martin avoided a more serious knee injury is great news for the Cowboys, who signed him to a six-year, $84 million extension in June.

Martin’s streak of 64 straight starts may not be in imminent danger either. Since Dallas selected him 16th overall in the 2014 draft, he has yet to miss a game in the NFL.

The Dallas Cowboys have locked down offensive guard Zack Martin by signing him to a six-year contract extension that makes him the highest-paid guard in NFL history, per Ian Rapoport of NFL Network.

The six-year contract is worth $84 million and $40 million guaranteed, Rapoport reported Wednesday. The deal includes the largest guaranteed salary for the position.

Andrew Norwell previously held these records after signing a $66.5 million deal over five years with the Jacksonville Jaguars in March, featuring $30 million in guarantees.

Martin has established himself as one of the best in the NFL at his position, earning a Pro Bowl selection in each of his first four seasons. He was named first-team All-Pro twice in this stretch, adding two more selections to the second team.
Pro Football Focus rated him as the No. 3 offensive guard in the league in 2016 and No. 2 overall in 2017 behind only David DeCastro of the Pittsburgh Steelers. He has especially excelled as a run-blocker, ranking as the top player at his position in the ground game.

Additionally, he has started all 64 regular-season and three playoff games for the Cowboys in his time in the league.

This skill set and durability are a big reason the organization was determined to sign him to a long-term contract.

“I think he’s an important part of our future,” Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said in July of 2017, per Rob Phillips of the team’s official website. “He represents everything we want our players to be about. He’s not only a great player on the field, he’s a great person off the field.”

Although the two sides weren’t able to come together on a deal prior to last season, the player remained confident in finding a long-term deal.

“I was lucky enough to be drafted here and I want to be here for my career,” Martin said in December, per Brandon George of the Dallas Morning News. “Hopefully we can get something worked out.”

They were finally able to come to an agreement, keeping intact one of the top offensive lines in the NFL that also features Pro Bowlers Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick. Although the team took a step back in 2017 while finishing with a 9-7 record, there is enough talent available to return to prominence in 2018.

With young stars like Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott still playing under their rookie contracts for the next few years, Dallas could remain a top contender in the NFC for several seasons.

The Dallas Cowboys have been without their star offensive lineman, Zack Martin, but Jason Garrett’s team could get the All-Pro offensive guard back on the field this afternoon.

Martin, who’s been dealing with an injury, has been questionable all week heading into today’s game against Tampa Bay.

The Cowboys’ star offensive lineman is currently going through a pregame workout on the field at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

Martin had said earlier in the week that he expected to play this afternoon against Tampa Bay.

“I’m feeling better, and I’m hopeful for this week,” Martin said per David Moore of the Dallas Morning News. “I’ve had a good couple of days, especially today.”

The Cowboys’ offense struggled without Martin last week, getting shut out by the Indianapolis Colts, 23-0, at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Dallas has a couple of other players dealing with injuries, too, as linebacker Sean Lee (hamstring), cornerback Anthony Brown (hand/back) and receiver Tavon Austin (groin) are questionable heading into today’s game.

The Dallas Cowboys’ offensive line, once thought of as the clear-cut best offensive line in the NFL, has taken a step back this season, in part due to injuries and in part due to inconsistent play.

Zack Martin, the team’s right guard, has remained a star, though. He’s arguably the best guard in the NFL and has been playing like it for years.

Unfortunately, the Cowboys appear to have lost Martin to injury against the Philadelphia Eagles tonight.

Martin, who signed a huge contract extension this offseason, was injured on a play in the first quarter against the Eagles. He was down on the field for several minutes, appearing to be in some serious pain.

Martin was eventually able to get up and walk off of the field. He was getting helped by some of the Cowboys’ trainers.

“Zack Martin limping off the field with assistance of the athletic training staff.”

Martin is currently in the blue injury tent, getting looked at by the Cowboys’ medical staff.

The right guard appears to be dealing with a knee injury.

“Zack Martin is in pain after reaching for his left knee. He has been playing through a sprained MCL. The Cowboys are playing with their backup right guard Xavier Su’a-Filo and have not had their starting center, Travis Frederick, all season.

The Cowboys and the Eagles are playing on NBC.

Stay tuned for more Zack Matin injury updates.

Tyron Smith Jersey

The Dallas Cowboys took the first step this week in what is certainly one of the tougher NFL roster-building challenges in years, by signing defensive end Demarcus Lawrence to a five-year, $105 million contract.

Next up for the team and owner Jerry Jones: Make decisions on potential long-term extensions for quarterback Dak Prescott, running back Ezekiel Elliott, wide receiver Amari Cooper, linebacker Jaylon Smith, cornerback Byron Jones, defensive lineman Maliek Collins and right tackle La’el Collins.

Clearly, all of those can’t be completed in the next year. Elliott might have to wait until next offseason, and both Collinses could be allowed to walk away.

But Dallas’…

Tyron Smith has developed into one of the cornerstones of the Cowboys offensive line. Here are 10 things you might not know about him.

Considered a five-star recruit and described as “an amazing right tackle prospect” by Rivals.com, Smith was ranked as the No. 6 offensive tackle prospect. The five guys ahead of him? Mike Adams, Baker Steinkuhler, Matt Kalil, Michael Brewster and Matt Patchan.

Scout.com listed him as the No. 1 offensive tackle prospect in the nation. In 2010, Smith won the Morris Trophy award as the Pac-10 (now called the Pac-12) conference’s top offensive lineman.

The Cowboys drafted Smith ninth overall in the 2011 NFL Draft. He was the first offensive lineman drafted in the first round by the Cowboys since Jerry Jones bought the team in 1989, and the highest in franchise history since John Niland in 1966.

Selecting Smith might’ve started a trend with Jones. In the drafts after Smith’s, the Cowboys have taken Travis Frederick (center) and Zack Martin (guard) in the first round.

ATLANTA — Pro Bowl left tackle Tyron Smith is a man of few words. But Cowboys fans will want to hear what he had to say about his injury to end Sunday’s game.

Smith suffered a stinger late in the win over Atlanta. He was injured on the final drive on a Dak Prescott 19-yard pass to Cole Beasley to put the Cowboys in position for the game-winning field goal.

Cameron Fleming played left tackle on the Cowboys’ final three running plays before the game-winning field goal with Smith getting checked out on the sideline.

“I’ll be fine,” Smith said. “I’m good.”

And there you go. Smith said he’ll be OK to play Thursday in the Thanksgiving game against Washington.

Smith didn’t play at Atlanta a year ago because of injury. He was replaced at left tackle by Chaz Green, who gave up four of the six sacks by end Adrian Clayborn. The Falcons sacked Dak Prescott eight times a year ago with Smith out.

Foul play: Cowboys reserve receiver Lance Lenoir helped give the Falcons better field position Sunday to begin their game-tying touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter.

Lenoir, who has only been active for the last two games and used only on special teams, was flagged for a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty with 4:02 to play.

Lenoir hit Falcons punt returner Justin Hardy out of bounds to draw the flag. Hardy was a few yards out of bounds and hit well after the return had ended.

The penalty put the ball at the Falcons’ 32 instead of Atlanta having to begin the drive inside its own 20. Six plays later, quarterback Matt Ryan completed a game-tying, 34-yard touchdown pass to Julio Jones down the right sideline. Cornerback Chidobe Awuzie had single coverage on Jones and was beat for the score.

Two leaders of the Ravens’ top-ranked defense and the offense’s top lineman were named to the Pro Bowl on Tuesday night.

Ravens inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, safety Eric Weddle and right guard Marshal Yanda were honored, the third straight year the team has had at least three players make the all-star roster.

Mosley and Yanda were named starters, while kicker Justin Tucker and left tackle Ronnie Stanley are among the first and second alternates, respectively.

While the Ravens did not have a player lead at their position during the fan voting this season, the Pro Bowl selection process also considers equally the input of players and coaches. Voting concluded last…

ARLINGTON (105.3 THE FAN) – After sitting out for two weeks due to an injury, Dallas Cowboys lineman Tyron Smith is set to return for the game againt Philly.

Tyron has been dealing with a neck ‘stinger’ for the past two week, keeping him on the sidelines and in limited practice. He was listed as ‘questionable’ on Friday, but is set to make his return Sunday, according to reports.

Smith was active before Dallas’ Thanksgiving game against Washington, but didn’t play because he had discomfort in his neck while warming up. Smith said he sustained the neck injury the previous game against Atlanta.

Other Cowboys inactives include: Sean Lee, Mike White, Tavon Austin, Chris Covington, Geoff Swaim, David Irving and Taco Charlton.

Dallas Cowboys offensive tackle Tyron Smith said Saturday he feels “awesome” as he recovers from a knee injury suffered late in the 2017 NFL season.

Nick Eatman of the Cowboys’ official website provided comments Smith made about his recovery while attending a football camp held by teammate Tyrone Crawford.

“I’m feeling great now,” he said. “Actually, I feel like I’m in the best shape I’ve been in a while. I’ve taken this offseason to get back into it a little early and try to take care of my body a little more. I’m just doing the little small (rehab) things and I just feel awesome right now.”

Smith was limited to 13 appearances last year because of knee and back injuries and was also forced to leave a couple games early with those ailments.

The 27-year-old USC product remained effective when healthy. Pro Football Focus graded him as the league’s No. 20 offensive tackle.

He told Eatman he underwent MRI exams that confirmed he didn’t need any surgeries, but he started his offseason program early to avoid recurrence of the problems in 2018.

“I went to California and went to a facility out there and starting training and rehabbing a little early,” Smith said. “We just worked on the little things like stretching and taking pressure off my back and opening up my hips a little bit. It’s just little things but I’m feeling great.”

His presence on the left side of the line is crucial for the Cowboys, who dropped from fifth in total offense during the 2016 campaign to 14th in that category last year. Quarterback Dak Prescott was sacked 32 times, seven more than his 2016 Rookie of the Year season.

Smith added he’s “happy” with where he stands with just over three months until training camp and appreciates the Cowboys’ effort to bolster the line with free-agent additions Cameron Fleming and Marcus Martin.

Jason Witten Jersey

Looking to find a solution to the pass rush questions they faced this offseason, the

Indianapolis Colts went out and signed veteran Justin Houston during free agency.

One of the bigger signings the Colts have made in Chris Ballard’s three offseasons as

general manager, part of the plan is for Houston to help develop the young defensive

linemen, whether that be through conversations or simply leading by example.

While he wouldn’t be considered one of the younger guys on the defensive line, Denico

Autry has enjoyed picking the brain of the veteran edge rusher.

“I was like we got another piece to the puzzle. A great guy coming in,” Autry told

reporters Tuesday on the Houston signing. “It’s going to be deep. I was thinking about

that the other day. We got Justin Houston in and he brings a lot. Just walking around the

locker room with him alone, just talking to him, he helps out a lot.”

Autry himself was a free-agent addition during the 2018 offseason and wound up thriving in

the attacking defensive front. He led the Colts with a career-high 9.0 sacks on the season

working primarily as a three-technique, though defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus slid him

out to the edge at times as well.

The 28-year-old was only able to play in 12 games during his first season with the Colts.

With some new additions to the pass rush along with some hopeful development with younger

players, Autry could find himself in a situation where he surpasses his career-high of

sacks in a single season.

There are still some questions about the pass rush that won’t be answered until the pads

come on, but the addition of Houston should help the entire unit be more consistent and

productive.

The signing will also have an impact, whether directly or indirectly, on the improvement of

the pass rushers such as Autry.

One of the bigger free agency moves the Colts made in 2018 was bringing in defensive tackle

Denico Autry, who proved he was a versatile and productive piece when healthy.

The veteran defensive lineman worked all over the Colts front, playing the three-technique

and even kicking out to defensive end at times.

During his first season with the Colts, Autry played 12 games and recorded 37 tackles (28

solo), 13 tackles for loss, 11 quarterback hits and 9.0 sacks, all of which were career-

highs.

Autry struggled with some injuries during the first half, but was a big piece of the

defense in the second half as he didn’t miss a game over the final nine regular-season

contests.

Autry was brought in to be a pass rush specialist, and he proved to be just that leading

the team in sacks. He recorded 6.0 sacks over the last five games of the regular season

working from both the interior and on the edge.

The 28-year-old found ways to win with quickness on the interior, beating guards and

centers to their spot as soon as the ball was snapped. His strong play earned him

consideration for the Pro Bowl, which he wound up being a reserve. It doesn’t count as a

selection, but it shows he got some recognition for his strong play.

The Indianapolis Colts and defensive end Denico Autry reportedly reached an agreement

Wednesday on a three-year, $17.8 million contract.

Ian Rapoport of NFL Network reported details of the free-agent signing. Aaron Wilson of the

Houston Chronicle noted the deal includes $6.5 million in guaranteed money.

Autry signed with the Oakland Raiders as an undrafted free agent out of Mississippi State

in 2014. He steadily developed into a reliable piece of the team’s defensive line rotation

over the past four seasons.

The 27-year-old North Carolina native registered 100 combined tackles, 12 passes defended

and 10.5 sacks across 56 appearances for the Raiders. His 36 tackles and five sacks last

season were both career highs.

Autry, who will likely play defensive tackle in the Colts’ 4-3 formation, graded as the

league’s No. 56 interior defender in 2017, per Pro Football Focus.

In December, former Raiders teammate Justin Ellis praised the unheralded lineman’s raw

strength and scheme flexibility after working with him all season, according to Matt

Kawahara of the San Francisco Chronicle.

“I always demonstrate the O-lineman for him during the week,” Ellis said. “I can feel how

strong he is and he’s not even, like, against me. We know Denico’s a good pass-rusher,

inside and outside. I just thought he did the things that we know he can do.”

Autry should slide into a starting role for Indianapolis as part of a rotation with

Johnathan Hankins and Al Woods at tackle. He could also see some snaps on the edge on

rushing downs.

Colts defensive lineman Denico Autry has been fined $13,369 for unsportsmanlike conduct

during last week’s playoff loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero

reported.

Autry celebrated a fourth-down takedown of Patrick Mahomes with two pelvic thrusts,

directed toward an official no less. The sack dance came with Indianapolis trailing 24-7

midway through the third quarter. Autry, like McCringleberry before him, apparently just

couldn’t help himself.

  1. Rams cornerback Marcus Peters was fined $10,026 for unnecessary roughness against

Cowboys wide receiver Amari Cooper during L.A.’s win, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport

reported

  1. Patriots defensive end Trey Flowers was fined $20,054 for roughing Chargers quarterback

Philip Rivers in New England’s 41-28 win, Pelissero reported.

INDIANAPOLIS — As Chris Ballard began envisioning the pieces needed to build the

Indianapolis Colts’ new 4-3 defensive scheme, he knew having players with versatility up

front would be critical.

While the team would eventually want established starters at all four defensive line

positions, adding players with the ability to play both inside and on the edge — and

having the ability to play both spots with quickness and power — was going to be a major

component to the Colts’ general manager’s offseason roster-building plan.

So on March 15, one day after the start of the league’s free agency period, Ballard didn’

t wait long to add a player with all of those attributes, making Denico Autry the Colts’

first outside signing of the offseason.

Since that time, Autry has been ingrained as a theoretical starter along the Colts’

defensive line during offseason practices, working in as the No. 1 defensive tackle at the

three-technique spot.

He’s displayed the traits the Colts’ scouts saw in Autry when doing their homework on the

free-agent-to-be earlier this year.

“Just hard-nosed, effort, run all over the field. I can get in any position and play,”

Autry said when asked what Ballard told him he liked about his game. “So, I’ve got to

bring something to the table. So, that’s what they like about me.”

Autry — who turns 28 next month — gives the Colts a player entering the prime of his

career who has displayed flashes of solid play with at-times limited opportunities.

He was signed by the Oakland Raiders in May 2014 as an undrafted free agent out of

Mississippi State, and has spent the last four seasons in Oakland developing his craft on

defense while also turning into a leader on special teams.

Last season, despite starting just three games, Autry was able to collect a career-best 36

tackles, five sacks and seven passes defensed. In four seasons, he has combined to play in

56 games with 18 starts, collecting 100 tackles, 10.5 sacks, 12 passes defensed, two fumble

recoveries and causing one safety.

Jason Witten’s retirement from football and broadcasting career lasted less than a calendar year.

Witten, who announced his retirement on May 3, 2018 to join ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” as an analyst, announced Thursday he is returning for a 16th season with the Dallas Cowboys.

“The fire inside of me to compete and play this game is just burning too strong,” the tight end said in a statement, via the Cowboys’ official website. “This team has a great group of rising young stars, and I want to help them make a run at a championship. This was completely my decision, and I am very comfortable with it. I’m looking forward to getting back in the dirt.”

The Cowboys also enticed Witten with a financial incentive. Witten will receive up to $5 million to come out of retirement, a source told NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport. Witten’s deal has a base value of $3.5 million, Rapoport adds.

“I think [Jason Witten] felt like there was still some meat on the bone, some things he wanted to accomplish,” Jason Garrett said per the Dallas Morning News. “I think he loves it and he wants to be in this environment. There’s no doubt in his mind he can still play. There’s no doubt in my mind he can still play.”

With the veteran tight end’s return, the Cowboys’ passing attack just got a little better.

Witten, who turns 37 on May 6, entered the league in 2003 as a third-round pick with the Cowboys and went on to spend 15 seasons in Dallas, where he was a two-time All-Pro selection and an 11-time Pro Bowler.

Before announcing he was stepping away from football last season, Witten amassed 1,152 catches for 12,488 yards and 68 touchdowns. He ranks fourth all-time in NFL career receptions behind Hall of Fame wide receiver Jerry Rice (1,549), Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez (1,325) and Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald (1,303).

Witten’s departure last year left a void at the tight end position and in the Cowboys’ offense, which entered training camp without reliable options given the absences of Witten and wide receiver Dez Bryant, who was released during the offseason.

Dallas addressed the wide receiver position by adding Michael Gallup in the draft and trading for Amari Cooper during the regular season before the trade deadline. The tight end spot, however, failed to produce consistency that the Cowboys were accustomed to with Witten, as Blake Jarwin led the position group with 27 catches for 307 yards and three touchdowns.

Witten’s return should be welcomed with open arms by quarterback Dak Prescott and the entire Cowboys organization.

Jalen Jelks Jersey

FRISCO — With their final pick in the NFL draft, the Cowboys selected Oregon defensive end Jalen Jelks, No. 241 overall.

“Thinking about DeMarcus (Lawrence) on the other side of me is crazy,” Jelks said on a conference call with reporters after he was drafted. “I use to idolize him so much as a kid, trying to mimic everything he did on the field. Now I get the chance to practice with him and learn from him.”

In four seasons at Oregon, Jelks had 155 tackles, 30 tackles for a loss and 15.5 sacks.

During his junior season, he had career-highs in tackles (59), tackles for a loss (15.5), sacks (seven) and passes defended (seven).

Jelks said his greatest strength is his versatility.

“I played four or five different spots this season on the defensive line,” he said. “Wherever they need me to play. I’ll play special teams. I’ll do whatever they need me to do. I’m just ready to get to work with the Cowboys.”

Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones called the Jelks pick a “blinking light” because of how high he was on their draft board at the time. Jones used the same words to describe the team’s third-round pick, offensive lineman Connor McGovern.

Shares a birthday with one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time

Jelks was born on Aug. 3, 1996. He shares the same birthday as New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Brady was born almost two decades before (1977) the Cowboys rookie.

Desert Vista

Jelks played prep football at Desert Vista High School in Phoenix, Arizona. He earned all-state honors and was a consensus three-star recruit by ESPN, Rivals and other recruiting services.

The pass rusher chose Oregon over multiple Pac-12 and other division one programs.

The Cowboys rookie has many different interests outside of football, including drawing.

“I have have all kinds of sketch books at home. I just like to free my mind sometimes,” Jelks told KNXV-TV in Phoenix.

Jelks also likes outdoor activities. He used to skateboard when he was younger. Don’t worry Cowboys fans he won’t be skateboarding around Dallas anytime soon.

NBA superstar LeBron James is Jelks’ favorite athlete of all time, Jelks told NBC Sports Northwest while in college. Jelks is probably well aware that James’ favorite football team is the Cowboys.

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Oregon defensive lineman Jalen Jelks (97) in the first half during an NCAA college football game against Arizona State, Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

Rick Scuteri/AP

Oregon defensive lineman Jalen Jelks (97) in the first half during an NCAA college football game against Arizona State, Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

By SportsDayDFW.com Contact SportsDayDFW.com on Twitter: @SportsDayDFW

The Dallas Cowboys drafted defensive end/outside linebacker Jalen Jelks in the seventh round of the 2019 NFL Draft. Here are five things to know about the former Oregon Ducks player:

Shares a birthday with one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time

Jelks was born on Aug. 3, 1996. He shares the same birthday as New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Brady was born almost two decades before (1977) the Cowboys rookie.

Desert Vista

Jelks played prep football at Desert Vista High School in Phoenix, Arizona. He earned all-state honors and was a consensus three-star recruit by ESPN, Rivals and other recruiting services.

The pass rusher chose Oregon over multiple Pac-12 and other division one programs.

Artist

The Cowboys rookie has many different interests outside of football, including drawing.

“I have have all kinds of sketch books at home. I just like to free my mind sometimes,” Jelks told KNXV-TV in Phoenix.

Jelks also likes outdoor activities. He used to skateboard when he was younger. Don’t worry Cowboys fans he won’t be skateboarding around Dallas anytime soon.

Favorite athlete

NBA superstar LeBron James is Jelks’ favorite athlete of all time, Jelks told NBC Sports Northwest while in college. Jelks is probably well aware that James’ favorite football team is the Cowboys.

Seventh round steal?

Jelks’ high school coach, Dan Hinds, thinks the Cowboys got a steal in the seventh round.

“I thought he would go higher in the draft, but he’ll get in there and work hard and do what it takes to make it,” Hinds said, per azcentral.com.

ESPN’s Mel Kiper feels the same way. Kiper believed that Jelks was a third or fourth round talent, but said the former Oregon Duck didn’t quite live up to expectations in Eugene.

“Jelks just never had the production that I think his talent indicated was possible,” Kiper said before the draft, per The Register-Guard. “He’s got length and he’ll flash, so I think he could end up in the third- or fourth-round mix.”

FRISCO – Dallas Cowboys seventh-round pick (No. 58 overall) Jalen Jelks, the Oregon defensive lineman, met the DFW media this weekend via conference call here at The Star. Here is his “secret audio” congratulatory phone call from here inside The Star …

“I really didn’t. At the end of the day, talking to them back and forth, and trying to figure out numbers and situations, I was going off of player personnel, their coaching styles. They are probably the best fit. When I got the call and saw my name on the board, I just went crazy.”

“Think about DeMarcus (Lawrence) on the other side of me, a player I use to idolize so much as a kid trying to mimic everything he did, and now I get the chance to practice with him and learn from him.”

“There were a couple of places, but I don’t think they would’ve worked out as well as Dallas. That was probably going to be my first option and probably what I would’ve picked regardless over any other situation. I just felt that it would’ve been a good fit.”“My versatility. I played four or five different spots this season on the defensive line. Wherever they need me to play, I’ll play special teams. I’ll do whatever they need me to do. I’m just ready to get to work with the Cowboys.”“I was pretty bad at basketball, not going to lie. I like the camaraderie (about football) and showcasing everything you’ve got, but at the end of the day it’s about your teammates and everything you put into it. Basketball is just out there one-on-one these days.”

“It was, until I got that phone call. At that point, I just turned around and hugged my parents, and started crying. You have a lot of people calling you and hearing different things from different people, whether it was my draft grade or projections. You know how the Draft goes sometimes, it can be cutthroat. At the end of the day, I think the Cowboys made a great decision and I’m going to work my butt off for them.”“I promise I will outwork anybody you put on the table. That’s what I’ve been doing since I got to college. I’ve always been an underdog type. You try to fight for a position on and off the field, whether it’s film room, extra lifts, or taking care of your body or getting in that film room and learning the plays as soon as I can.”