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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.
Cowboys 2018 Breakout Candidates: TE Geoff Swaim
For the 2018 Dallas Cowboys, the retirement of Tight End Jason Witten was one of the biggest developments of the offseason. It leaves a gaping hole in their offense, and no major free agent or high draft pick was added as a clear replacement. As such, fourth-year veteran Geoff Swaim may be in line for a breakout season.
A seventh-round pick in 2015, Swaim has stuck in Dallas with strong run-blocking and special teams play. His offensive production has been limited to just nine catches and 94 yards, thanks largely to the stranglehold that Witten kept on the TE position. Geoff has only been targeted 11 times in the passing game over three seasons.
But with Witten leaving, as well as veteran backup James Hanna, Swaim is now the elder statesman of the TE group. Even his limited playing time in the NFL thus far puts him way ahead of Rico Gathers, Blake Jarwin, or rookie Dalton Schultz.
Based on reports from the offseason practices and camps, Geoff is getting the first crack at becoming the new starter. It makes sense given his experience edge, but also his proficiency as a run blocker.
The Cowboys will likely lean on Ezekiel Elliott heavily this year, particularly early in the season. The passing game will need time to find itself with Witten and Dez Bryant gone. They'll want to ease Dak Prescott into heavier workloads as he and his new receiving options get acclimated.
Geoff Swaim will be one of those new options. And even though his reputation is for blocking, don't take that to mean he's not athletic.
We've seen Swaim on the move as a blocker and also in the passing game, and he's certainly got some wheels. That could make him a deceptive weapon on play-action and other passing plays out of running formations.
In some ways, losing Witten and Bryant makes the Cowboys' offense less predictable than in the past. Defenses will be less sure who to focus on, and that also creates opportunities for the new receivers.
Obviously, Swaim's breakout potential is dependent on Prescott looking his way. But unless Dak has undergone a major change in his playing style, a TE working in the short and middle parts of the field is someone he'll rely on plenty.
With training camp and preseason still to come, calling Geoff the starter right now is just an assumption. There is still time for one of the other prospects to impress and climb the ladder.
But right now, there's clearly no better candidate to claim the spot than Swaim. He has the most critical skill as a blocker, and his potential in the passing game is underrated. It's his job to lose.
The guy with only nine career catches could get that in a single game this year. Therefore, Geoff Swaim is clearly one of the major breakout candidates for the 2018 Cowboys.
Cowboys 2018 Breakout Candidates: LB Jaylon Smith
No single player on the Dallas Cowboys roster right now may be more primed for a breakout season than Linebacker Jaylon Smith. His ascension as a player isn't just a big gain for the Cowboys defense, but it may be vital to their success in 2018.
Smith joined the Cowboys as a high second-round pick (34th overall) in the 2016 NFL Draft. Potentially a top-five elite talent in that class, Jaylon's stock fell after a severe knee injury in his final college game. It was unknown if he could ever play football again, but Dallas took the risk based on Smith's incredible upside.
After Jaylon sat out his rookie year to fully rehab. In 2017, he was able to play all 16 games and started in six. That alone was a huge win for Smith and the Cowboys.
Jaylon's performance last year wasn't great, but understandably so after all the missed time. He also had to regain confidence in his knee, which is critical for a linebacker with all of the directional changes during plays.
Still, Smith got better as the season went. And even amidst the struggles, there were flashes of his instincts and potential.
This offseason, reports of Jaylon's improving health are fueling increased optimism. He is now playing without a knee brace and that means more confidence. If Smith fully trusts his body now, it will make him far more dangerous on the field.
With Anthony Hitchens leaving in free agency, Dallas needs Jaylon to be a bigger factor this year. If he doesn't take the next step, it could leave the Cowboys vulnerable at linebacker in 2018.
True, Dallas drafted Leighton Vander Esch in the first round of last April's draft. But it's always dangerous to ask a rookie to do heavy lifting, and especially one who is seen as a raw talent like Vander Esch.
Ideally, anything Dallas gets from Leighton this year will be gravy. Their goal is to rely on veteran Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith, with Damien Wilson also available as a solid fallback option.
But when you mention Sean Lee, you have to mention health concerns. After two encouragingly healthy seasons in 2015 and 2016, Lee was back to having some issues last year and missed five games.
That is all the more reason why Dallas needs Jaylon to be ready for more this year. If Lee misses time again, Smith is the best suited to take over the roles that Sean leaves behind.
Thankfully, all signs point to big things for Jaylon Smith in 2018. His body appears healed and there's no questioning his work ethic and desire. If the mental aspect of football has also developed, he could be everything the Cowboys hoped when they drafted them.
Despite Late Push as Rookie, Will Taco Charlton Struggle to See Field in 2018?
It feels like ages ago that the Dallas Cowboys spent the 28th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft on Michigan Defensive End Taco Charlton. Perhaps this is a result of the constant distancing fans have made from this unpopular pick, or the corresponding moves the Cowboys have made at DE since drafting Charlton.
These moves include using the franchise tag on DeMarcus Lawrence after seeing him explode for 14.5 sacks, spending a fourth round pick this year on Kansas' Dorance Armstrong, and seeing Randy Gregory reinstated in time for training camp.
Across the entirety of the Cowboys roster, there will be plenty of "odd men out" that miss the cut down to 53 players. Defensive end remains one of the most cluttered spots on the current 90 man roster however.
Prior to establishing the depth the Cowboys now have up front on defense, they did Taco no favors by starting his career at right defensive end. While Gregory may still be a long way from earning the starting role here, similarly styled players like Armstrong have the edge here over Charlton.
This relegates Charlton to the strong side, where he always projected best out of college. By the time the Cowboys realized this a season ago, they also knew a franchise pass rusher was playing his way into the team's long-term plans.
Lawrence's stellar consistency off the edge reduced Charlton's role in the Cowboys rotation of pass rushers. An ideal spot for the rookie to develop with less pressure on him, Charlton's opportunities to continue playing left end may only be reduced this season.
The first-round pick is capable of kicking inside at defensive tackle, a position the Cowboys could certainly use help at. However, asking Charlton to go through another position shift would only halt the progress that took quite a bit of patience from Dallas to see.
It's far from unheard of for the Cowboys to do this with their young players, but for now Charlton remains a defensive end looking to make his impact. The Cowboys are in much better position now than they were at this time a year ago when it comes to setting expectations for him to do so.
Given everything he showed on tape at Michigan as well as in his pre-draft interviews, Charlton is a player that needs to succeed at the task at hand. When this plan is altered, the 6'6" pass rusher is much less effective -- without even considering any athletic struggles that Charlton has compared to other prototypes at defensive end.
As a unit, the Cowboys defensive line has all the pieces to be very effective this season. Taco Charlton is a piece to this puzzle, a backup left end that must find a way to flourish in this role.
For most former 28th overall picks, doing so would be considered a fall from grace. For the Cowboys, it's simply an example of strong roster building that's forced life to come at Charlton quickly. How he responds with a full season under his belt will make or break the hype this deep Cowboys defensive line has garnered, lead of course by the starter at Charlton's position in DeMarcus Lawrence.
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