Maneuvering through the NFL offseason is a funny task for committed football fans, especially those of Cowboys Nation. Prior to the start of each new season bringing hope for all 32 clubs to reach the Super Bowl, every NFL roster enters a tumultuous state. Talent will be added through free agency and the Draft, while promising players will also be shuffled around through practice squads and training camp releases.
All of that to say, despite criticism for appearing stagnant so far this offseason on the heels of a 9-7 campaign, nobody knows what the Dallas Cowboys will actually look like in 2018. This is why I've decided to feature four under the radar players on the current Cowboys' roster below, all of which provide depth at positions of need.
TE Blake Jarwin
An undrafted free agent out of Oklahoma State, Blake Jarwin found his way onto the Cowboys' practice squad for 2017.
Jarwin showed enough promise early in his Cowboys career to earn fans on the coaching staff and throughout the organization, as he was promoted to the active roster in week eight. The Philadelphia Eagles were reportedly in position to snatch Jarwin from the Cowboys - who protected their versatile tight end.
The TE position remains unsettled for the Cowboys in 2018 and beyond, with Jason Witten's production clearly declining. The Cowboys will also be on their third TE coach in three seasons this year, transitioning to Doug Nussmeier.
Nussmeier brings no previous experience as a TE coach specifically, meaning the team's overall philosophy on the position will still be determined heavily by Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan. Favoring tight ends that can block in the running game over those with higher upside as receiving threats, Jarwin is a name to keep in mind as a tenacious blocker that plays with sound technique.
WR Lance Lenoir
This past summer, I had the chance to interview Dallas Cowboys WR Lance Lenoir following his signing with the team out of Western Illinois. In that interview, Lenoir shows off the confidence he took into training camp as a receiver that would have a hard time making the team.
By the end of this long season, the Cowboys went from being perceived as deep and talented at WR to in need of new play makers on the outside.
Perhaps pressing a bit through the preseason, Lenoir did provide practice depth as a reliable pass catcher and punt returner, struggling on special teams in live action and ultimately spending the season on the practice squad.
The 2018 NFL Draft features a deep class of talented receivers, and the Cowboys would be wise to draft one with real potential that can push up the depth chart in a hurry. As far as current options on the roster to fill this position, WR Lance Lenoir can't be overlooked as an athletic target with NFL size and strength - entering his second season in Dallas.
DT Datone Jones
A mid-season acquisition from the Green Bay Packers, Datone Jones flashed as a defensive tackle in the limited opportunities he received. A five-year league veteran, Jones showed the ability to play with power and leverage at the 1T position - a spot the Cowboys are thin at right now.
Jones' versatility also suited him well, playing with impressive burst and disruptive ability as a pass-rushing 3T.
The addition of one more starting caliber DT could truly put this Dallas defensive front over the edge. With how much Defensive Coordinator Rod Marinelli believes in his DL rotation though, players like Datone Jones can prove immensely valuable.
DT Lewis Neal
Similarly to Jones, Lewis Neal is a fan-favorite defensive tackle for the Cowboys. Neal has absolutely earned the attention he's gotten, a UDFA out of LSU that plays the 1T position better than expected given his size.
The Cowboys have gotten by in recent years with smaller, more mobile players at this interior DT spot, with Neal being their latest post-draft steal to make an impact.
Lewis Neal appeared in seven games for the Cowboys this season, finding ways to help those around him by anchoring the line of scrimmage and disengaging with active hands and a quick base. This is a player that should be a valuable part of the team's depth on the defensive line.
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The year-to-year nature of the NFL can be a wonderful thing (unfortunately, ask any Eagles fan right now). Part of this reality is understanding that none of the players listed above may actually stick with the Dallas Cowboys for 2018.
Next week's NFL Scouting Combine will kick "draft season" into full gear however, as the Cowboys will be working to better understand their teams needs and how they can be addressed.
Jarwin, Lenoir, Jones, and Neal all contributed or showed the promise to do so at positions the Cowboys must improve at this season - warranting a closer look through this dull portion of the offseason.
Should Cowboys Consider Bringing Back Alex Tanney as Backup QB?
If the Dallas Cowboys aren't happy about their quarterback depth by the end of preseason, they should be looking to add someone from other teams' roster cuts. One player that could become available is a former Cowboy, Alex Tanney, and he may be one of the best options they'll have.
Tanney is currently with the New York Giants and served as Eli Manning's backup last year. He's floated around the NFL since going undrafted in 2012, being part of eight different teams.
Alex's tenure in Dallas came in 2013 when the Cowboys signed him just before training camp. Tanney flashed his potential during the preseason but it wasn't enough to get him on the 53-man roster. Dallas kept just two QBs that year, Tony Romo and Kyle Orton, and signed Tanney to their practice squad.
In November of that season, the Cleveland Browns poached Alex and signed him to their roster. Then came a series of stops with other teams' practice squad before finally landing with the Tennessee Titans, where he got his first and only playing time in a regular season game.
In 2015, Tanney finished the Titans meaningless regular-season finale. He completed 10-of-14 passes for 99 yards and one touchdown.
After spending last year with the Giants as the backup QB but never having to play, Tanney re-signed with New York for a two year deal this past March. But that was before the Giants spent their first-round pick on QB Daniel Jones
New York has kept three quarterbacks on the roster the last two years, but only kept two in 2016. With a clear top-two of Manning and Jones, and Daniel obviously their QB of the future, could they decide to let their other passers go at final cuts?
By only giving Tanney $75,000 in guaranteed money on his new contract, the Giants certainly left themselves the option of cutting him.
Alex Tanney now has seven years of NFL experience with multiple teams. He'll have just spent a full year and a second offseason with one of the Cowboys' division rivals, perhaps offering some insights into Pat Shurmur's system.
Ideally, the Cowboys will be content at quarterback if Cooper Rush or Mike White can earn their confidence over the next two months. But after reported struggles from both during mini-camps and OTAs, there is reason for concern.
This will all be moot, of course, if the Giants decide to keep Alex as a their third quarterback. But there is reason to think he could hit the open market, and if so he may be one of the few decent options that Dallas has to try and improve their QB depth.
In the end, Alex Tanney may not be a better option than Rush or White. But if the Cowboys find themselves desperate by September, he should at least be worth a second look.
Saints WR Michael Thomas Will Drive Up Price for Cowboys’ Amari Cooper
Since he became part of the Dallas Cowboys, Amari Cooper has proved himself worthy of a long-term contract extension. The offense saw a complete turnaround once the former Oakland Raider arrived, picking up way more first downs and moving the ball down the field. With a solid #1 wide receiver, Dak Prescott's game improved and with it, the rest of the offensive performance. At this point, most of Cowboys Nation agrees on how important Amari Cooper is for the Cowboys' future.
At only 25 years old, Cooper has an entire career ahead of him. He's young, yet experienced. The front office is aiming to make Dak Prescott the team's quarterback in the long-term and it only makes sense to give him such a strong weapon in the passing game.
However, if the Cowboys are to keep Cooper, they are to pay a price tag. An expensive one. And the more time they take to sign him, the more they'll have to pay. Of course, this is true in just about every position in the NFL. But when it comes to WR, there's a bit more urgency.
Both Julio Jones and Michael Thomas, two of the best in the game, are seeking long-term extensions. Now granted, these two players may be in different scenarios given their ages (Julio is 30, Michael is 26) and the fact that Jones still has two remaining years on his current contract. Even still, both are in the discussion for being the top receiver in the NFL. In other words, they could be asking to become the highest paid receivers in the league.
In fact, Michael Thomas is reportedly asking for $22M per year. To put it in perspective, Odell Beckham's contract with the Browns, which made him the top paid receiver, averages $18M annually. Thomas is absolutely great, but he's asking for too much money. Whether he'll get it or not remains to be seen.
As much as we love Amari Cooper, he isn't in the conversation for being the best wide receiver in the NFL like Thomas is. Despite that, he'll surely land among the highest-paid. For Cooper, it seems like the floor for his deal is Adam Thielen's contract with the Minnesota Vikings, which averages $16.2M per year. He isn't getting paid anything less than that.
The ceiling though, could drastically change. He's not going to become the top paid in the league, but he could be very close. The thing is, that number could change quickly. At the moment, Odell Beckham sits atop the NFL pass-catchers averaging 18 million. We can only guess, but that could lead to Cooper getting paid around $17M per year.
But if Michael Thomas or Julio Jones get their deals done before, that price could drastically go up. If Thomas gets what he wants (and it's a big if), the ceiling for Cooper's annual salary would have become $4M more expensive.
Hopefully, the Dallas Cowboys get a deal done quickly. Amari Cooper is a great player, and in less than a season he clicked with Dak Prescott, who's also waiting for payday. Right now, we can only be glad neither is threatening to hold out and both are excited for training camp.
Coaches’ “Dislike” of TE Rico Gathers Won’t Keep Him Off Roster
Last year, there was talk that the Dallas Cowboys coaching staff had developed a sour taste regarding Tight End Rico Gathers. Whether it was his personality, work ethic or off-field activities, and if those reports are even accurate, it doesn't really matter. History has shown that NFL coaches will tolerate plenty if a player can help them on the field.
Most analysts have Gathers not making the Cowboys' 53-man roster in 2019. It means the end of a three-year development project that started when Dallas used a 2016 6th-round pick to take the former Baylor basketball player, hoping to convert his size and athleticism into a capable tight end.
If these are Rico's last few months with the Cowboys, don't blame his exit on any personal dislike on the part of the coaches. He will be gone for football reasons.
Do we think Jason Garrett was fond of Greg Hardy, who the Cowboys signed amid scandal in 2015? Do we think he always loved the way Dez Bryant handled himself? And what about all the other players who we knew so little about personally, but Garrett and his staff saw on a daily basis?
If Gathers gets cut, it's because Blake Jarwin and Dalton Schultz are better than he is. It's because Dallas didn't see enough need or value to keep four tight ends this year after Jason Witten's return.
Or maybe they'll see something in another former basketball player, free agent signing Codey McElroy, that Gathers just hasn't developed over these last three years.
Of course, the reasons why the coaches may be down on Rico could also be why he hasn't developed enough. If they feel he isn't serious enough about the game, that opinion is largely based on his lack of progress.
Look at what the Cowboys have been willing to deal with the last few years regarding Randy Gregory, who has plenty of personal issues but has worked hard when available. Contrast that with David Irving, whose lack of effort is why Dallas chose to let him walk in free agency.
Even before Garrett's tenure as head coach, Dallas has been willing to business with guys like Terrell Owens, Pacman Jones, and Tank Johnson despite known personality issues from previous teams. The Cowboys, like almost any NFL teams, are happy to work with just about anyone who can help them win.
So if we get to final cuts this year and Rico Gathers is released, as expected, don't go down the wrong mental path about why it happened. Don't start blaming Jason Garrett for being unable or unwilling to deal with certain personality types.
It will be about football. It will be because Gathers didn't become good enough of a player.
And after this much time, the blame for that will fall entirely on Rico. He's had more opportunity here than a lot of 6th-round picks get; the Cowboys have clearly been invested in seeing him succeed.
We've all been intrigued at what Rico Gathers could become, especially after some of his big preseason plays. But it appears the experiment is soon to end, and it will certainly be a disappointment.
Just be sure you blame the right person.
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