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When football season ends we find ourselves in a "what do I do now?" sort of space. In mid-February football-hungry folks are resorting to getting stoked for some NFL Combine action while counting down the days until - and dreaming up all sorts of hypotheticals in regards to - NFL Free Agency starts.
It's a song-and-dance that we put into practice annually, and it's always accompanied by three simple words, "I miss football." The offseason is a ritual unlike any other that we partake in as a necessary stretch of time to fill the gaps between respective kickoffs. The funny thing about the offseason though, is that beyond the structures of it things have a way of repeating themselves.
The offseason is built for narratives. It's hot take season out there and the temperature is only climbing. This is the time of year where every NFL team thinks they're in contention, and Team A is only one piece away while Team B is completely rebuilding.
The stories stay the same, the lone line of change being the team logo that they bare. The same can be said of each individual team with its core nucleus of players, as storylines are regurgitated as the tradition rolls on.
These are those storylines, you know the ones I'm talking about. We're seven months away from the 2017 Dallas Cowboys season officially starting, and between now and then we're going to hear all of these ad nauseam. You can see them coming from a mile - or an offseason - away.
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"Jaylon Smith Is Feeling Better Than He Did Pre-Injury"
Despite the NFL Draft not taking place until late April, the Dallas Cowboys already have one of this season's most talented "rookies" on their roster - 2016's 34th Overall Pick, Jaylon Smith.
Cowboys Owner/President/General Manager - and recent Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee - Jerry Jones has always been one for the theatrics, but when it comes to Jaylon Smith he's always anxious to say something new. At some point this offseason we're going to hear all about how Jaylon has healed (which will be great), and how he's at an even higher level of athleticism than he was when he was hurt during the Fiesta Bowl back in January of 2016.
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"The Cowboys Have A Tougher Road In 2017 Than They Did In 2016"
Thanks to the NFL's rotating schedule, 14 of any given team's 16 opponents in a season are known from now until the end of time. This rotating wheel of wonder handed the 2016 Dallas Cowboys the NFC North, AFC North, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, San Francisco 49ers, and of course their NFC East rivals.
2016 was a fourth-place schedule, which is what the Dallas Cowboys were in their division in 2015. This time around they've earned themselves a first-place schedule - you can view the 2017 Dallas Cowboys Opponents right here - that includes the NFC West, AFC West, Atlanta Falcons, Green Bay Packers, and division rivals.
As far as the calendar is concerned we've turned past Valentine's Day and we've already seen some talking heads from the national media succumb to this storyline. More will come. Save the chocolates for those dark days.
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"The Cowboys Could Explore The Read Option More In 2017"
For the first time in a decade the Cowboys are entering the offseason with total and complete plans for a starting quarterback that is not named Tony Romo - Dak Prescott. Young Dakota made a whole lot out of the situation that unfolded before him in 2016, but could Scott Linehan take a page out of Joseph Randle's playbook and go for some more meat off the bone?
Many people have called for the Dak-led Cowboys to utilize the read option more in their offensive play-calling. Prescott certainly has the athleticism to run the option, and his best pal running back Ezekiel Elliott is probably down for anything as long as he's wearing a football uniform.
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"Free Agent X Wants To Play With Dak And Zeke"
Thursday, March 9th will mark the beginning of Free Agency in the NFL, and it's going to be a day that requires us to set alerts for Adam Schefter's Twitter Timeline. There is no spectacle like football players looking for new places/teams to call home, and if you buy into the narrative then a lot of them could be looking at Dallas.
What narrative is that, exactly? You see, Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott are pretty charming young players in today's NFL. They're the darlings of football, they play for the Dallas Cowboys, and they're two of the best players in the game. It's widely believed that other players - seeing this phenomenon - will gravitate towards them in hopes of calling Dak and Zeke teammates.
We've already seen projected number one overall pick Myles Garrett make a plea to join the Cowboys, and he even mentioned Dak by name. At some point or another, the same will be said about some arbitrary free agent
that the Cowboys can't afford.
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"The Cowboys Are Better Off Without (Insert Free Agent That Leaves)"
There are a few things true of a majority of football fans, sports fans in general really. We're loyal to our team, we always think we have a shot, and we always try to spin things in a positive direction.
The truth of the Free Agency era in the NFL is that you're going to lose someone you like in it. Someone is going to leave whether it's for more money, a better opportunity, or just because they're leaving. When this happens to the Dallas Cowboys with one of their current free agents this season, members of Cowboys Nation and narratives near and far will all talk about how we're suddenly better off without that player and his services.
Let's remember that, shall we?
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"The Lack Of Back Issues This Season Will Make Dan Bailey Even Better"
In the aftermath of the Cowboys Divisional Playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers, a shocking detail about Dan Bailey's 2016 season came to light - he played, and kicked, since Week 4 with a herniated disc in his back.
Bailey finished 2016 27 of 32 on field goal attempts, still making him one of the top kickers in the National Football League. If we're being honest though, there was an obvious disconnect in his game and that piece of information solved that puzzle.
With an offseason to rest up and get the body right, it's easy to assume that Dan Bailey will be even more dynamite - Dan-o-mite? - this upcoming season. That assumption will be made near and far, but however far it is Dan could still make a field goal from there.
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"Jason Witten Is Focused On 2017 And Nothing More"
Earlier this week Jason Witten won an Ocho on a special Valentine's Edition of OchoLive. While I would understand if it was, I doubt that is going to be the peak of his offseason activities over the next few months.
No, perhaps Jason and the family will take a vacation and have a new experience. Whatever the case we know that "Gold Jacket Witt" is nearing the end of his playing time in the NFL, but he will definitely be back in action this upcoming season.
It really is insane that the clock is ticking so loudly on Jason Witten's career already, but he has remained focused that he is playing this season and unsure of anything beyond that. This idea will circle back quite a few times until September football begins. Witten will take the route of another Jason and handle things day by day.
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"Charles Tapper Looks Like A Star Pass Rusher In Workouts"
Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Maliek Collins, Anthony Brown, and the prospect of Jaylon Smith should be enough for folks to be happy with a draft class, but nope not Cowboys Nation. The people demand more and the people demand Charles Tapper!
Amazingly the Cowboys drafted two players in the first 101 picks of the 2016 NFL Draft on the defensive side of the ball that didn't see a lick of regular season action - Jaylon Smith and Charles Tapper. We know all about Jaylon Smith's progress thanks to all his Twitter videos, but what of Defensive End Charles Tapper?
The Cowboys need some serious rushmen if they're going to make it any further than the Divisional Round of the Playoffs and a man charged with some of that responsibility is indeed Tapper. At some point or another he's going to have a great workout and it'll send us all into a tizzy. Just steer into the ice, folks.
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"La'el Collins' Return Will Take The Cowboys Offense To A New Level"
Somebody who missed a majority of the 2016 Dallas Cowboys party was La'el Collins. The third-year Guard from LSU has had a really interesting career so far in the NFL, beginning with the unpredictable circumstances that affected his draft stock.
When La'el originally signed with the Cowboys three years ago he made it known that Dallas was assembling one of the greatest offensive lines this game has ever seen. His rookie campaign saw the type of player that would back that statement up across the course of his career, but an injury early in 2016 gave Ron Leary the chance to shine in La'el's spot.
Leary will very likely be on a new team in a month, leaving the Cowboys to "settle" for a healthy La'el Collins. He is essentially a first-round player on an offensive line that features three of them and that blocks for another in their running back. The possibilities make one foam at the mouth which is why it'll be all over the headlines.
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"We're In A New Era Of Dallas Cowboys Football"
There's a ton that has changed regarding America's Team over the last 365 days or so. A new rookie-of-the-year-winning franchise quarterback has arrived, the next great running back is here (and led the league in rushing), there is a Coach-of-the-Year-winning caliber man leading the organization, and Cowboys Owner/President/General Manager Jerry Jones is a Pro Football Hall of Famer.
These aren't your father's Dallas Cowboys, heck they're hardly your Dallas Cowboys. The most renowned organization in professional sports underwent a pretty serious makeover across the life of the 2016 season, and that included some changes with some serious ripple effects.
These will certainly always be the Dallas Cowboys, but they've indeed changed. They're better, smarter, wiser, faster, and carved by a Hall of Fame hand. A new era is upon us, and it's hard not to get lost in it.
5 Points: Analyzing the 2018 Dallas Cowboys Schedule
Every year around this time, sports fans everywhere are reminded of just how dominant the National Football League is. The NFL schedule release is literally just the sharing of a calendar that has little meaning until after next week's NFL Draft, but still dominates headlines both before and after the event.
If the Dallas Cowboys are going to return to the playoffs in 2018, we now know the path they will take -- beginning on September 9th in Carolina against the Panthers.
Here are five of my initial thoughts on this team's schedule.
1. "Early" Bye Week Still Later Than Recent Seasons
The Cowboys' bye week falls in week eight this season, which is certainly nothing new. This team is used to having their bye earlier in the season, but week eight is actually the latest it's been over the last three seasons.
In Dak Prescott's rookie season, the Cowboys rolled to six straight wins following their bye week - all part of a longer 11 game win streak. In 2017, the Cowboys played their final three games with Ezekiel Elliott after the bye, improving to 5-3 and inspiring hope for a salvageable season before further injuries piled up.
This season, the Cowboys will come out of their bye week to host Monday Night Football at AT&T Stadium against the Tennessee Titans.
2. AFC South to Play A Huge Factor
Speaking of the Titans, it is the NFC East's year to face off against the AFC South. This has been an unpredictable division as of late, with the Jacksonville Jaguars emerging as early favorites following their improbable run to the AFC Championship Game.
Unlike the NFC East, the AFC South has been decided by who maintains stability at quarterback. The Colts are hoping to contend with Andrew Luck back on the field in 2018, as are the Texans with second-year QB Deshaun Watson.
The Titans overhauled their coaching staff in hopes of progressing QB Marcus Mariota further to make a run at the playoffs once again.
For the Cowboys, their meetings with the AFC South will carry extra weight - as all but one of them precedes a divisional game in some sense. Following back to back games at the Texans and home against the Jaguars, the Cowboys will visit the Redskins in week seven.
The first shot Dallas will get at the defending Super Bowl champions will be November 11th in Philadelphia, two weeks removed from their bye after facing the Titans.
Coming out of two games in 12 days through weeks 12 (Thanksgiving) and 13, the Cowboys will have little chance to come up for air against the Eagles in week 14. Their chance to regroup may come the following week, with a favorable December road game in Indianapolis against the Colts.
3. Revenge Against the Falcons
The Cowboys' week 10 game a year ago in Atlanta is truly where the 2017 season was lost. Playing without Ezekiel Elliott, the Cowboys looked lost on offense thanks to the added absence of All-Pro Left Tackle Tyron Smith.
The Cowboys' fight to carry on at 5-4 was buried into the Falcons' new turf, as was Dak Prescott that afternoon, sacked eight times.
Only a week removed on the calendar from meeting the Falcons on the same date, the Cowboys will again play at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in week 11 this season. The chance for revenge against the Falcons will also mark the only pair of consecutive road games this 2018 Dallas Cowboys team will play.
4. Running Through December
The national media may not want you to know that the Cowboys are a combined 6-2 in December over the last two seasons, as this team's fabled late season collapses remain a topic of conversation.
This point also stands as a great example of why breaking down team schedules in April is often a pointless exercise, but not obsessing over every twist and turn of the NFL as a yearly hobby is no fun. According to me.
It is no secret that the Cowboys will be relying heavily on Ezekiel Elliott in 2018, expecting their star running back to suit up for 16 games and carry the offense. If you believe that Prescott and Elliott paired together full-time again is enough reason for optimism about the Cowboys, their December schedule becomes even more favorable.
Aside from playing three of the four games indoors and away from the elements, the Cowboys will face three of the worst rushing defenses in yards per game allowed from last season in December. With the Eagles being the glaring exception (leading the league in this category), the Cowboys should have their way on the ground with the Colts, Buccaneers, and Giants over their final three games.
5. Thanksgiving Tradition
For the second time in three seasons, the Dallas Cowboys will host the Washington Redskins on Thanksgiving. The Cowboys were victorious on Thanksgiving in 2016 over the Redskins, 31-26.
The Cowboys have only lost to the Redskins once on Thanksgiving, facing them a total of eight times and dropping a 2012 bout with Washington 38-31 (Robert Griffin III's rookie season with the Redskins).
Riding a four game winning streak against the Redskins, the Cowboys get to face an Alex Smith led Washington team on Thanksgiving to wrap up their first series against the NFC East. Following week 12, the Cowboys will still have meetings with the Eagles and New York Giants.
Some may look at this year's division as a two-team race, but counting absolutely any team out of an NFC East race is foolish - even more so in April.
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By this time next week, the Dallas Cowboys have a chance to look entirely different - adding as many as ten players at the 2018 NFL Draft. Only then will we have a better feel for how they stack up against this 2018 schedule.
Stay posted right here to Inside The Star for draft coverage live from Dallas, as I will be at AT&T Stadium for all seven rounds of picks alongside Slant Sports Draft Analyst Nick Flaherty.
Cowboys TE James Hanna Retiring
In an unexpected bit of pre-draft news, Dallas Cowboys backup tight end James Hanna will be retiring after six seasons. He was drafted by the Cowboys in sixth round of the 2012 NFL Draft.
The news of Hanna's retirement was first reported by ESPN's Todd Archer:
The Cowboys will place James Hanna on the reserve/retired list as the tight end could not get over a serious knee condition that troubled him for most of the last two seasons, according to sources. Hanna was not involved in the early part of the team's... https://t.co/45BAZ2avSC
Hanna, who turns 29 in July, missed all of 2016 with that knee issue and has had two surgeries. He was active for all 16 games last season but wasn't used much on offense, only having four catches. James did catch his first and only NFL touchdown in the team's Week 4 loss to the Los Angeles Rams.
Many thought Hanna would be a salary cap casualty this offseason, but a retirement has the same effect on the cap. The Cowboys now save $2.75 million off his scheduled $3.5 mullion cap hit in 2018.
James Hanna has stuck around this long thanks to being a proficient blocker and one of the standout players on special teams. Geoff Swaim, entering the final year of his rookie deal, will likely be trusted to fill those roles.
That said, tight end was already a targeted position for the Cowboys in next week's draft. Losing Hanna only give the team more incentive to add more talent.
Optimistic Reports Emerge Around Randy Gregory
Good news are coming to Dallas just in time. Less than a week from now, the NFL Draft will be held in the Cowboys' home, the AT&T Stadium. But the team may count with a defensive talent many in Cowboys Nation have tried to forget for a while now. Randy Gregory's comeback may just happen.
There's a lot of positions in the roster that need more help than the defensive end one, but after finding the "War Daddy" Jerry Jones has always wanted in DeMarcus Lawrence, finding a RDE this offseason would be a dream scenario.
Sure, there's a lot of young talent in this football team and they'll be coming off a season that put a chip on their shoulders. Even so, they'll need all the help they can get.
Fortunately for the Cowboys, some help could come in form of a very talented pass rusher. Randy Gregory is reportedly applying for reinstatement very soon and according to Mike Fisher and Bobby Belt, there are positive reports around the situation.
Randy Gregory update: I'm told there is real momentum building. He is expected to apply for reinstatement in the week or two following next week's NFL Draft.
Cowboys Nation last saw the second round pick back in 2016, but his potential shouldn't be forgotten. Of course, the Cowboys shouldn't be considering Gregory for their 2018 plans, simply because there's risk of him not being available.
Even still, Dallas may get lucky at defensive end. After DeMarcus Lawrence has a breakout season in 2017, imagine the defensive line with Randy Gregory reinstated and rehabilitated to exploit his talent in the NFL.
UPDATE: We're told Randy Gregory camp is ready to present to NFL the fact the #Cowboys DE has passed a large number of drug tests, hasn't failed one since July 2016. https://t.co/Hjgu2CqRtC
Despite some TMZ "reports", it looks like Gregory has been clean for a while. It sure should make Cowboys' fans happy and not only form a football perspective. A comeback would definitely be something amazing. He has a chance to write a unique story for himself.
Everyone likes second-chance stories. Gregory is a guy who had his share of problems. By coming back to the NFL, he's showing players and fans that change is possible. This wouldn't just be epic for Dallas Cowboys fans but NFL fans in general.
If Dallas is fortunate enough to see Gregory reinstated by the NFL, their fight in the trenches might see a big upgrade next season. Randy still has a lot to work on and he might not even be a starter right away, but the potential is right there.
The Cowboys could become a team capable of dominating the line of scrimmage both on offense and on defense.
Hopefully, Gregory is able to come back and shine as a professional player. He, and NFL fans deserve a story like that.
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