Counting undrafted free agents, the Cowboys added 20 new players over the weekend - so basically Football Christmas is the best thing ever and we should all be excited about these new members of America's Team.
Equally as excited should be a few Cowboys that I think were given a vote of confidence by the team based on their roster status and the positions targeted in the draft.
Here is whose fan club in Cowboys Nation could be growing very soon.
CB Anthony Brown
Sure, the Cowboys drafted three cornerbacks in this draft, but each was selected with a direct acknowledgement of the existing CB depth in Dallas. The highest defensive back drafted, 60th overall pick Chidobe Awuzie, is already being considered as a "chess piece" player with the instinctive cover skills to play both outside and in the slot as well as at deep safety.
Awuzie will join Byron Jones as the match up weapons for the Cowboys' secondary, but players like this can only go so far without solid starters locked into roles like Anthony Brown's. The second-year player may not dominate at multiple positions, but he proved an above-average starter at CB as a rookie sixth round pick.
The Cowboys are so committed to their youth at cornerback that rumors have even surfaced about trying to trade veteran slot CB Orlando Scandrick, a move that would only further bump Anthony Brown up the depth chart.
What Anthony Brown will bring to the back-end of Rod Marinelli's defense at cornerback in 2017 is invaluable, and the Cowboys realize that.
QB Dak Prescott
You've likely heard already this offseason that, "Dak Prescott was only good in 2016 because of his offensive line, Ezekiel Elliott, and wide receivers", and these conversations likely took place with Eagles, Redskins, or Giants fans.
There is no question at all that the Dallas Cowboys are committed to Dak Prescott as their franchise quarterback, with a core in place ahead of the draft to feel pretty good about Prescott leading this offense to great things once again.
With that said, the NFL Draft should also be looked at as an opportunity to add to your existing strengths in addition to addressing needs. A case could have been made for an early pick to be used at RB, WR, RT, or TE.
Instead, the first of just two picks the Cowboys dedicated to Scott Linehan's offense came in the form of North Carolina WR Ryan Switzer at 133rd overall - followed by Ohio State WR Noah Brown in the seventh.
Excitement is already building for the role (or multiple of them) that Ryan Switzer could carve out in Dak's offense, but the point remains that Dallas' offense is ready to dominate so long as Prescott remains sharp entering year two.
S Jeff Heath
Instilling confidence in the greatest football player to ever walk the earth may have been an easy task for Will McClay and the Cowboys front office this weekend, but nonetheless the veteran safety and special teams ace still looks to enter 2017 with an expanded defensive role following a draft that brought in just one safety - Xavier Woods.
When the Cowboys' safeties were at their best a year ago, they were able to rotate in fresh legs with the likes of the now-departed J.J. Wilcox and Barry Church. This rotation included Jeff Heath, who most notably was all over the field in Dallas' home playoff loss to Green Bay.
Jeff Heath being a magnet for the football is something Cowboys Nation wants to see more of, along with rookie Xavier Woods. Both will have to earn their chances to play this summer in training camp, and you better believe these Cowboys coaches will be pushing to get the most out of Heath.
RT Chaz Green
As somewhat expected, the Cowboys felt good enough with the job they did adding depth at RT following Doug Free's retirement to not use a draft pick on the offensive line. While Byron Bell and Emmett Cleary remain in place to add some solid depth, Chaz Green is certainly Dallas' preferred starter on the right side.
Green's biggest issue in the league since 2015 has been his durability, as he's proven on the field to fit in perfectly with the likes of Zack Martin, Travis Frederick, and Ronald Leary filling in for LT Tyron Smith.
Chaz Green will face competition to earn this key starting job, but it won't come from any rookie draft picks.
TE Rico Gathers
Another spot the Cowboys did not address in the draft was TE, despite having many more questions than answers at the position currently. For a short while, tight end was in the conversation for the 28th overall pick should an O.J. Howard or David Njoku slide, but even Njoku being available to them didn't prompt the Cowboys to let pass rusher Taco Charlton get away.
The TE spot doesn't need to be a focal point of the Cowboys offense thanks to their running game and presence out wide, but relying on two injured players in James Hanna and Geoff Swaim to backup Jason Witten is questionable team building.
Still a "secret weapon" to many, Rico Gathers could also be factoring into the Cowboys' plan at TE - as he has made strides to learn football ever since being placed on the practice squad for 2016. While there, Gathers was paid that of a full-time player, an early sign that the team was committed to seeing the end results of his transition from basketball to football.
Should this transition work out and Rico Gathers wears out the middle of the field in the passing game while using his frame as a blocker, the former Baylor hoops star will literally become a big part of the silver and blue's success moving forward.
These are five Dallas Cowboys that will have to live up to some heightened expectations following the last integral part of 2017's roster build - the NFL Draft. Where the Cowboys decided to allocate their draft assets shows confidence in some, and puts even more pressure on others facing job security questions.
That is a topic we will explore here at Inside The Star later in the week, but for now be ready to keep a closer eye on these five players over the summer. Every time Jason Garrett pushes the mantra "Compete", the guys on this list should pay special attention.
History Suggests a Contract Extension for Ezekiel Elliott is a Crapshoot
If rumors are true, Running Back Ezekiel Elliott and Melvin Gordon could be following in the footsteps of Le'Veon Bell by threatening to hold out not only training camp, but the 2019 season if they're not rewarded with contract extensions from their respective teams. It's a bold strategy, especially considering the history of long-term extensions previously given to running backs.
Contract extensions for running backs is always a controversial topic. It's not only one of the easier positions to replace, but the shelf life for a NFL RB is a short one due to the physical nature of the position. Players bodies break down quicker, meaning their lifespan in the league on average is between just 3 to 5 years.
For the most part, the market value for running backs around the league would suggest the position isn't one teams like to invest a lot of resources in. Although, there was an uptick in the market last year when Todd Gurley signed a four-year deal worth $14.375 million a year and then David Johnson signed for three years worth $13 million a season. Those two contracts could be the starting point for Ezekiel Elliott.
Ezekiel Elliott's camp knows all of this and so do the Dallas Cowboys. But, handing out upwards of $14 million to a position that has such a short shelf life in the league is a crapshoot at best, even to a player as talented as Zeke. History hasn't been kind to running backs who receive a long-term extension. In fact, it's really hard to put a finger on one single RB who has lived up to their contract extension.
Take Todd Gurley and David Johnson for instance. Gurley already has long-term concerns about his health, and Johnson missed nearly all of the 2018 season due to an injury. Both players are currently the top paid at the position right now, but they're not the only examples of why the Cowboys should be cautious offering Zeke a contract extension.
The RB tier below Todd Gurley and David Johnson are making around $8 million a year after receiving a contract extension. Unfortunately, the results are about the same. Devonta Freeman ($8.25 M) and Jerick McKinnon ($7.5 M) missed nearly all of the 2018 season due to injuries after being rewarded with long-term deals. Only LeSean McCoy ($8.01 M) has come close to living up to his deal, but even he has struggled off-and-on with injuries.
Need more convincing?
Let's take this back a little bit further. Chris Johnson, Johnathan Stewart, DeMarco Murray, DeAngelo Williams, Ray Rice… I can go on and on. Even players such as Arian Foster who remained productive after receiving an extension struggled with injuries. If you haven't yet, you may start to see a trend here.
Now, I'm not saying the Dallas Cowboys shouldn't extend Ezekiel Elliott. Personally I'm on the fence about it and would be fine with them going either direction. But, they absolutely have to be cautious with the way they handled this. History is a good indicator they may not get the same kind of production from Zeke as they have previously.
Do you think the Cowboys should give Ezekiel Elliott a contract extension?
Dallas Cowboys 2019 Training Camp Preview: Linebacker
The linebacker position went from liability to luxury in 2018, thanks largely to the emergence of a pair of dynamic young talents. Now seen as one of the strengths of the Dallas Cowboys' defense, what questions remain for the linebackers as we await the start of the 2019 training camp?
Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch are the nucleus now at linebacker, if not the the Cowboys' defense as a whole. The days of worrying if Sean Lee can stay healthy are over; we now have two players capable of elite play and the versatility to handle multiple spots.
Lee isn't gone; the longtime defensive captain accepted a pay cut and a lesser role to stay in Dallas this year. He is still expected to start in the base defense, moving to the strong-side LB role that Damien Wilson vacated.
Indeed, the top-three linebackers for 2019 are easy to project. Jaylon and Leighton are the new leaders and Sean will get as much playing time as his body can handle.
This year, which is unusual for reserve players, the second team is almost just as predictable.
Here's the projected Linebacker Depth Chart for the 2019 training camp:
- Leighton Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith, Sean Lee
- Joe Thomas, Justin March-Lillard, Chris Covington
- Kyle Queiro, Andrew Dowell, Luke Gifford, Nate Hall
There may not be a position on offense or defense with less x-factors than linebacker. Almost just as likely as the starters, Joe Thomas, Justin-March Lillard, and Chris Covington should have the second-team spots locked down.
Thomas is especially valuable, having the skills to step into a larger role if Sean Lee suffers from age or injury. If Lee were to go down, we might see Jaylon Smith move into the SAM spot and Thomas playing as WILL in the base defense.
Dallas re-signed Justin March-Lillard this offseason. He played in all 16 games last year as a backup and special teamer, and his experience will make him hard to oust.
Chris Covington was a 6th-round pick last year and has the body to play SAM but also experience at other spots in college. Dallas would love to see him grow into a larger role the way other recent 6th-rounders like Anthony Brown and Xavier Woods have.
One potential challenger could be Jalen Jelks, the 7th-round defensive end that Dallas just drafted last April. Jelks has the body and athleticism to play a hybrid LB/DE role, and could challenge as the backup SAM. We don't know if the Cowboys will give Jelks a chance at LB, but it may be the only way to keep him on the 53 given all the talent at defensive end.
It will be hard for any of the remaining LB prospects to work their way onto the roster. The top six have experience and upside that undrafted rookies will need to be exceptionally good to overcome. Only Kyle Queiro, who was on the practice squad last year, brings a little NFL experience to the table.
Of course, unexpected things can happen. The talent margin between late-round picks and undrafted guys can be slim; who knows if one of these prospects pushes March-Lillard or Covington out of the way?
But barring a surprise, we already have a good idea who the Cowboys' six linebackers will be in 2019. Will this year's training camp solidify that projection, or will we get some new evidence to consider?
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OTHER 2019 CAMP PREVIEWS
Tony Romo: Cowboys TE Jason Witten Will “Pick Up Right Where He Left Off”
There's no denying that the future holds a gold jacket for Dallas Cowboys Tight End Jason Witten. With everything he's done in his career, he'll go down as one of the three best tight ends in the history of the NFL when he finally hangs up his number 82 for good.
Most of the questions that have come surrounding the offense have focused on the tight end position this offseason. Even prior to Jason Witten announcing his return from the broadcast booth at ESPN to the NFL, tight end was one of the areas that was considered a draft need by most analysts. Since coming back, the questions may have altered, but they're there all the same. Now, we're wondering how much Jason Witten will play? Will Blake Jarwin and/or Dalton Schultz see significant playing time in the offense? Will Jason Witten be able to return to his pre-retirement form?
It's that last question that was answered pretty directly by Witten's former quarterback and NFL on CBS Analyst Tony Romo when he was on with Ben and Skin of 105.3 The Fan. In the way that only Tony Romo can, he illustrated what exactly will allow Jason Witten to return to the game without missing a beat.
"He'll pick up right where he left off. I don't think it's a big challenge for Jason (Witten). The reality of it is as long as, if you know the game the way he does, there are certain positions -- he plays one of them at tight end -- he's always going to have the nuance to get open. Let's say he runs the exact same he always did, to me , it's just that at that position, your ability to use leverage against somebody, make you think this and then do that. It's like the back pick in basketball. Just all of a sudden it gets you and you didn't even know it was coming and that guy is wide open. He's very intelligent with the game of football. I think he's going to pick up right from when he retired. I think you're going to see the same guy."
Tony Romo on 105.3 The Fan via Jon Machota of SportsDay DFW
Jason Witten has been one of the best route-running tight ends in the NFL during his time with the Dallas Cowboys. He's always been able to win with his intelligence and route running despite not ever being the quickest or most athletic tight end in the NFL.
Because of Jason Witten's knowledge and feel for the game, it's easy to see why a player like that could walk back into the NFL after taking a year off and remain a productive player for the Dallas Cowboys. It's why they didn't hesitate to bring him back in the offseason. Though it's been relayed that he'll have a somewhat reduced role, he'll be the starting tight end week one against the New York Giants.
While it's uncertain exactly how much Jason Witten can play, you know that he'll be available to play. Prior to his retirement, Witten played in 235 straight regular-season games. Not only is Witten's availability great to have, but so is his ability to win on third down and in the red zone. It will be a welcomed addition to a Dallas Cowboys offense that struggled in both of those areas in 2018.
In 2018, they were 10th in third-down conversion percentage in the NFL at 41.4%. That's down from ranking fifth in the NFL in 2017 at 42.9%. 1.5% may not seem like a huge difference, but that's two to three more first downs on the season. Being able to convert on third downs increases your chances of scoring. Scoring more helps you win.
They were 29th in red-zone scoring rate at 48% in 2018. The only teams in the NFL that were worse than the Dallas Cowboys were the New York Jets, Jacksonville Jaguars, and San Francisco 49ers. Only one other team in the bottom 10 in the league in red-zone scoring rate made the playoffs; the Houston Texans. In 2017, the Dallas Cowboys were sixth in the NFL in red-zone scoring percentage at 59.6% and that was without Ezekiel Elliott for six games and without Tyron Smith for three games.
Having Jason Witten's ability to get open in confined spaces will help everyone on the offense. Even after having a year off, Witten is a player that will have to be accounted for in those high-leverage situations.
There isn't a person in the world that knows Jason Witten the football player better than Tony Romo does. Their careers have been so intertwined that it's hard to think of one without thinking of the other. It's why one day when they're inducted into the Dallas Cowboys Ring of Honor, that it would be fitting for it to happen together.
If, as Romo believes, Jason Witten can pick up right where he left off, his veteran presence, leadership, and on-field ability are going to be a huge asset for a team that has Super Bowl aspirations in 2019. For the Cowboys to reach the Super Bowl and win their sixth Lombardi Trophy, they're going to need "Gold Jacket" Witten to return to his pre-retirement form.
And if Tony Romo believes he will, there's no reason to doubt Jason Witten. Do so at your own peril.
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