The Dallas Cowboys 2017 Training Camp opens two weeks from tomorrow, meaning you're about to get bombarded with various "season preview" articles from this site and many others. Various players will be spotlighted as key figures in this year's camp, be it for their star status or for being part of an intriguing position battle.
Today, I thought we'd look at a few guys who seem to be flying under the radar as camp approaches. Despite this, I think any of these five guys could wind up with spots on the 53-man roster and perhaps even significant roles on this year's team.
Emmett Cleary, OT
Signed last September to replace an injured Chaz Green, Cleary was the swing tackle for 13 games and then started in the Week 17 finale. He had to come in for Tyron Smith during the Week 16 game against the Detroit Lions, playing very well in an important game against a playoff team.
Cleary is a massive 6'7" and has been floating around the NFL for four seasons. He went undrafted in 2013 and was with five different teams before finally landing in Dallas. Now, with real game experience and plenty of moving parts on the Cowboys offensive line, Cleary shouldn't be ignored as a contender for a roster spot.
As it stands, Cleary should be very competitive for the swing tackle role. Many are focusing on Chaz Green or veteran Byron Bell, but Cleary didn't look at all like a liability in the snaps he played last season. That alone should keep him in the conversation through final cuts, if not beyond.
Brice Butler, WR
Some are projecting that Butler won't even make the team, losing his roster spot to seventh-round rookie Noah Brown or some other younger player. However, Butler's experience, 6'3" frame, and exceptional top seed will make him hard to beat if he has a strong camp and preseason.
The one-year, $1.1 million contract that Butler got from the Cowboys last March speaks to his tenuous status with the team and why people think he could be expendable. At age 27, Brice is certainly in danger if younger players make noise. But with Dez Bryant missing 10 games over the last two seasons, Dallas won't be quick to cast aside veteran depth.
What's more, Butler's role in the offense could be enhanced by the development of Dak Prescott. If the playbook gets opened up and Prescott is willing to take more shots down the field, Butler's speed could be put to better use. He could provide a vertical threat that compliments the work of Bryant, Jason Witten, and Cole Beasley in the short and mid-range passing game.
Cedric Thornton, DT
Last year, Dallas gave Thornton a four-year, $17 million contract to join the defensive line. His playing time was cut short because of the unexpected rise of Maliek Collins and the sudden health of Terrell McClain. With McClain now in Washington, Thornton could finally have the larger role that the Cowboys anticipated when they signed him.
As always with Rod Marinelli's defense, Thornton will be rotating with other players. One will be free-agent signing Stephen Paea, a former Marinelli pupil in Chicago. Money talks, though, and Paea only got a one-year deal for $2 million to become a Cowboy. That may not mean much depending on how camp unfolds, but it at least shows what Dallas was willing to pay to acquire both players.
Terrell McClain played 500 total snaps last year, leaving plenty of work for new guys to take on. Thornton has the size to play the one-tech role and the athleticism to stay on in the nickel, meaning he could form a nice partnership with Maliek Collins. The Cowboys thought enough of Thornton last year to pay him well, and he should be a major factor in the 2017 plans.
Mark Nzeocha, LB
Held back the last two years with injuries, Nzeocha is a big and athletic player who could be called on for significant duties in 2017. The recent news about Damien Wilson's legal troubles only increases the potential need.
Last preseason, Nzeocha was looking a dominant player against the Rams' second-team offense. He followed the ball everywhere and even had an interception. He reminded you of Sean Lee, and there's no greater praise for a linebacker.
If Nzeocha can finally stay healthy, he could compete for the starting job SAM linebacker. If nothing else, he should be a primary reserve at other positions and appears to have the ability to play any LB spot. With the departures of Justin Durant and Andrew Gachkar, there is less veteran depth to contend with. Now in his third year, Nzeocha will hopefully be ready to become a contributor.
Kavon Frazier, S
It feel like Frazier has become an afterthought at safety, with many enamored over sixth-round rookie Xavier Woods. While Woods may be the shiny new toy, we're only a year removed from Frazier being a similarly-hyped rookie and inspiring hope of a late-round steal.
Along with cornerback Anthony Brown, Frazier was praised by Stephen Jones as being a player that the team had a fourth-round grade on in 2016. We saw what happened with Brown; injuries thrust him into significant playing time right away and Brown performed about as well as the veterans he was replacing. Frazier didn't those same opportunities with a loaded depth chart at safety.
If Frazier has the same talent and upside as Brown, and now a year of experience, he should be a real factor at the safety position. Dallas signed veteran Robert Blanton for insurance, but he could be the odd man out if Frazier and Woods both live up to their early expectations.
Cowboys Smart to Wait on Jason Garrett Contract Extension
Before the Cowboys' mood-changing victory over Jacksonville last Sunday, there was a lot of discussion of a possible contract extension coming for Head Coach Jason Garrett. The front office shut down those rumors, and they would be wise to keep doing so through the end of Garrett's current deal.
Jason's contract expires at the end of 2019, as do the current deals for Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan and Defensive Coordinator Rod Marinelli. If the 3-3 Cowboys continue at their current middling pace, Jerry Jones should feel no incentive to spare Garrett and his assistants "lame duck" status next year.
In my opinion, the stigma against coaches working on an expiring contract is overrated. Players are asked to do it all the time, and often it spurs them to greater performance than once they're comfortable with their job security.
That's not to say that I think Garrett or anyone on the coaching staff doesn't give max effort. And I understand the notion that players might start tuning a coach out if they feel like he won't be around for long.
But this isn't the NBA, where a player's contract is fully guaranteed and replacement coaches are hanging on trees in colleges and international teams across the glove. NFL players don't have the same leverage or luxury to go rogue.
Let's just consider the three scenarios for Dallas the rest of this year; positive, neutral, and negative. They can go one of these ways in 2018, and two of them would suggest Garrett doesn't need to stick around.
The positive outcome would be the Cowboys building on last week's win and getting back to their 2016 form. If they can win the NFC East and get into the playoffs, that's something that Jason Garrett and the front office and build from.
There will be a lot of dead money coming off the books next year from the contracts of Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, and a few others. Dallas should be able to get new deals worked out for Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, DeMarcus Lawrence, and still have resources to improve the rest of the roster.
But even if 2018 ends positively, why extend Garrett then? Why not see if he can finally have some sustained success the following season, rather than the up-and-down flow of the last few years?
Granted, Jason couldn't help Romo's injury in 2015 or Elliott's suspension last year. Those were major factors in the team's woes those seasons.
But the great coaches in the NFL consistently find ways to overcome adversity. Unfortunately, Garrett's Cowboys have consistently proven unable to do so.
Moving to the neutral, let's say today's 3-3 record leads to an 8-8 finish or even 9-7 without a playoff appearance. Outside of Travis Frederick's absence, what major issue can the team's failings really be blamed on?
Garrett has benefited from some clear issues that derailed his team in some seasons. 2018 doesn't offer the same scapegoat.
Whether the team holds a round .500 this year or struggles the rest of the way, it's hardly the time to commit to a long-term future with Jason Garrett.
I think Jason has some great qualities as a coach. I like the way he handles the media and seems to inspire his players. You can't question that the Cowboys play hard every week, even if they play poorly.
But at some point, Garrett's system has to be held accountable for the lack of success. This is his eighth season as the head coach, not counting the 2010 interim, and the Cowboys have little to show for his time in the big chair.
Even if the team takes a nosedive the rest of 2018, I see no reason to fire Jason Garrett before the offseason. There is no great option waiting in the wings.
That really makes the point, though; you could make a legitimate case for sending Garrett packing this year if the team falters. Given that, why would you begin to consider a contract extension anytime this year, or even next season, until you see some clear signs of improvement?
Even if "lame duck" status isn't ideal, it's not the devil that some make it out to be. Plenty of players, perhaps even the starting quarterback next year, will be facing the same situation. Maybe it will galvanize the team if Dak Prescott and Jason Garrett are both working to save their jobs.
Garrett has already been given more rope by his owner than a lot of NFL coaches have enjoyed through the years. Jerry Jones' loyalty should only go so far, though. Right now, the businessman in Jerry needs to see that investing more into Jason doesn't make sense based on his current data.
I hope that changes. I hope Garrett and the Cowboys are shining by the end of this year. And if things go well enough to finish 2018, then maybe I can live with a new contract for the head coach.
But now is too soon, and the team too shaky, for any contract extensions. It's time to let things play out with Jason Garrett and not make any moves until you have to, for good or bad.
NFC East Showdown: Cowboys Offense Primed to Dominate Redskins
The Dallas Cowboys are probably as confident as they have been all season as an offense after completely manhandling the Jacksonville Jaguars defense last week. They were able to put up 40 points on the Jaguar's top-ranked defense and now have to do the same against their division rival, the Washington Redskins.
I don't think there would be any argument if I were to say the Washington Redskins defense isn't nearly as talented as the Cowboys faced last week with the Jaguars. In fact, the Redskins are ranked near the bottom of the league in almost every defensive category, which should have Dallas' offensive players primed for this matchup.
As things stand right now, the Washington Redskins are giving up 21.2 points per game which ranks 24th in the NFL. They are also giving up 344 total yards (25th in the NFL) and 227.2 passing yards a game (24th). The lone bright spot of their defense is stopping the run, where they are currently ranked 12th in the NFL and are only allowing 116.8 rushing yards to opposing running backs.
Luckily, the Dallas Cowboys and Quarterback Dak Prescott looked to have found a groove with their passing game last week against the Jaguars top-ranked passing defense. With the Redskins ranked near the bottom of the league in passing defense, I think the Cowboys should and probably will build upon the success they had last week.
Now, I fully expect the Cowboys passing game to find success once again against the Redskins, but I also believe Running Back Ezekiel Elliott to dominate on the ground like he has in the past against Washington.
Zeke only played in one game against the Redskins last season, but absolutely dominated in that contest. He rushed for 150 yards and two touchdowns a year ago and I wouldn't be surprised if he is close to that milestone this week as well, even if it is against the strength of Washington's defense.
I'm really hoping I'm not a being a little overconfident here, but I guess I'm just buying into the success the Cowboys had on the offensive side of the ball last week. The offense finally started to do the things that have made them successful in the past and I'm expecting that to carry over into this week.
I believe we will see Prescott using his mobility once again, although I don't know if he will rush for 83 yards. I'm also expecting to see Wide Receiver Cole Beasley heavily involved in the passing game again because Washington doesn't have a defensive back who can cover him. Of course, let's not forget Ezekiel Elliott. I'm expecting him have a big game as well.
Overall, I really don't see the Washington Redskins defense giving the Dallas Cowboys any problems on the offensive side of the ball as long as they execute the way they did last week. I know when these two teams square off against one another it's usually a slobber knocker, but I think the Cowboys are the better team and is the one that comes away with the victory.
Do you think the Dallas Cowboys offense will dominate the Redskins defense?
Can Dak Prescott Continue His Washington Domination On Sunday?
There has been a lot of change within the Dallas Cowboys since 2016.
One thing hasn't changed these past two years, however, and that is the Cowboys beating the Washington Redskins. In fact, since Dak Prescott took over as the starting quarterback in Dallas the Cowboys are 4-0 against Washington. Even as the sky was falling in Dallas a year ago, and the Cowboys offense looked like the worst in football, they still found a way to dominate Washington 38-14 and snap their then-three game losing streak.
In his four career games against Washington, Dak Prescott has quarterback ratings of 103.7, 108.9, 82.2, and 93.4. To put this into context, Prescott's average quarterback rating this season is 85.5 and that is really driven by his outlier positive rating of 118.6 against the Detroit Lions. To be fair, however, his 54.5 rating against Seattle was also a heavy outlier.
Prescott isn't the only Cowboy who has exercised this dominance over Washington, though. As Staff Writer John Williams has pointed out, Jason Garrett is 11-4 against the Redskins since becoming the Cowboys head coach, and Dallas has won six of their last eight against Washington since 2014.
So heading into Sunday's rematch with their division foe, history says the Cowboys should be feeling rather confident, right?
Well there's another streak occurring the Cowboys will actually be looking to break on Sunday. That, of course, is their winless start on the road this season.
Ironically the Dak Prescott-led Cowboys have actually been a good road team until now, going a combined 12-4 the past two seasons. And, since the new stadium opened in 2009, the Cowboys have been historically better on the road than at home, making this year's 3-3 start even more bizarre.
To put it simply, "somethings gotta give" on Sunday. Either Dak Prescott and the Cowboys will continue to beat up on the Redskins and get a leg up in the NFC East, or this horrendous road start will continue for another week.
Either way, I'm sure the takes will be hot on Monday morning.
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