Recently USA Today released its predictions for the 2017 NFL season. A lot of it seemed reasonable, though there were a ton of teams with 10 wins or more, including your Dallas Cowboys at 12-4.
Here's the summary of their Dallas Cowboys prediction.
"Dallas Cowboys (11-5): The league should be ready for Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott — assuming he isn't suspended — this time around; that celebrated O-line is breaking in two new starters; and the defense could be a hot mess. Still, there's no denying this club's offensive firepower. The Cowboys play four of their five November games at home, a good point to make a move in the standings."
There are some things I disagree with here, but that is another discussion for another time. However, that seems a reasonable expectation for America's Team.
One surprising prediction was where they put the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots.
Many, including Las Vegas, have the Pats as the favorite to hoist the Lombardi Trophy for Tom Brady's record-breaking 6th time. It's a bold prediction, considering only two teams have ever gone undefeated in the regular season. The 2007 Patriots and the 1972 Miami Dolphins.
Their prediction got me thinking, what would it take for your Dallas Cowboys to run the table in 2017.
Now you might be saying, the Dallas Cowboys are nowhere near what the '72 Dolphins or '07 Patriots were, but you might be overlooking one thing.
The Cowboys offense will be a juggernaut in 2017.
Like the Patriots and the Dolphins before them, the Dallas Cowboys will be extremely difficult to slow down, let alone stop on offense.
Here are six things that need to happen for the Dallas Cowboys to go 16-0.
1. Dak Prescott Makes Elite Leap
What occurred in 2016 with Dak Prescott was extraordinary. His season was one of the best two or three rookie seasons of all-time. Even among all NFL quarterbacks, his first season as a pro stands out as a great season.
He was great in 2016, but if the Cowboys want to win every game this season, then Dak Prescott needs to join the elite ranks of Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, and Drew Brees.
The offense is one of the best in the league already and were nearly unstoppable in 2016. If Dak and the Cowboys can get off to fast starts against teams and give the defense and running game a lead early, there is no reason they can't become an elite offense.
2. Defensive End Becomes Elite Pass Rusher
A lot of the 2017 season will hinge on the offense continuing to get better and better, but the defense also needs to make improvements.
As a team, they were about average at rushing the passer. Where they were really good was in the fourth quarter when the team had a lead. The problem last season was consistency. We never knew where the pressure was going to come from, or who would come up with the big sack.
Maliek Collins appears to be the elite 3-technique tackle that the team has been looking for. Now they just need to find that defensive end that can take a game over.
Dominant defenses have at least one guy who can consistently get pressure or at the very least command the attention of the offense.
DeMarcus Lawrence is in a contract year. All the tools and skills are there, it's time to put it together. All he needs is a little luck on the injury side of things. 2017 may be the year of his breakout.
3. Byron Jones Becomes a Turnover Machine
On the great defenses of the past decade plus, players like Ed Reed for Baltimore, Troy Polamalu for Pittsburgh, John Lynch and Ronde Barber for Tampa Bay, there were guys who could create turnovers.
Dallas has lacked a guy who can consistently intercept the ball.
Byron Jones has the athletic ability and football awareness to be a five interception a season guy, but has yet to put it together. Already adept at deflecting passes away, Jones is working on tracking the ball in the air this offseason.
His work with the Frisco Roughriders seems to have paid off. It's been reported that he's been creating turnovers and being a force in the secondary in the early part of training camp.
While the defense hasn't had their pass rushing sack artist, they've made do with a bunch of guys being able to create pressure.
The one thing they haven't been able to find is the guy who consistently creates turnovers.
In 2017, expect Byron Jones to be that guy.
4. Dez Bryant Plays 16 Games
In the second half of last season, Dak Prescott and Dez Bryant displayed great chemistry.
After starting off the season a bit slow, then being injured, Dez came back with a fury in the last 10 games he played.
If we project the last ten games of the season over 16 games (not counting week 17, where he played one series), Bryant would have had 76.8 receptions, 1,244.8 yards, and 14.4 touchdowns.
Those are dominant numbers for a receiver in a run first offense. If Dez plays 16 games, and there's no reason to believe he won't, look for him to produce similar numbers to his All-Pro 2014 season.
5. Clear Eye View
If the early returns from training camp are any indication, the Dallas Cowboys have found their Brian Urlacher.
Since making the move to the 4-3 under Monte Kiffin a few years ago, all eyes have been focused on the health of Sean Lee at the all important weak side linebacker spot.
The middle linebacker spot is just as important. For years it's been average to good play at MLB, but with Jaylon Smith, the Cowboys have finally found that fearsome MLB that 4-3 teams crave.
If the 2006 Chicago Bears are any indication, having an All-Pro middle linebacker like Urlacher next to Lance Briggs (at WLB) is monumental. That tandem helped carry the Bears to a Super Bowl appearance with Rex Grossman at quarterback.
Smith is already showing the range and play-making ability that made him an All-American at Notre Dame. He has the talent, awareness, and even with only part of a nerve is looking explosive.
It's only a matter of when with Jaylon at this point. All indications are making week one more and more likely.
Dallas is on the verge of having several playmakers at all three levels of the defense. Smith and Lee would form one of the most dynamic and dangerous 4-3 linebacker tandems in the NFL.
6. Dominant Offense Ready to Roll
Like the dominant Patriots offense of 2007, the Dallas Cowboys have the makings of a deep and dominant offense.
Starting with Dez Bryant, then Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley, Brice Butler, Ryan Switzer and Noah Brown or Andy Jones make this wide receiver group one of the deepest and most versatile groups in the league.
The tight end group can perform as well. Jason Witten, though is getting aged, can still be a reliable weapon in the short to intermediate passing game.
James Hanna and Geoff Swaim are under the radar guys who can make a play through the air when called upon. If Rico Gathers is making the progress that it seems he's making (we'll know more during the preseason games), then he may be ready to contribute in some two and three tight end formations.
This doesn't even begin to mention the pass catching abilities of Ezekiel Elliott and Darren McFadden, who can both hurt you in the passing game.
They have more than 10 guys on offense that can hurt you in the passing game. If for some reason you are able to cover everyone and take away all of Dak Prescott's options, which is unlikely, he has the athletic ability and awareness to make you pay with his legs.
We all know the dominance that the run game brings Ezekiel Elliott behind their All-Pro offensive line. They were difficult to stop last year and will be incredibly difficult to slow this year.
If you focus on the run, Prescott has shown he can win through the air. If you play coverage, you're going to get gashed by Elliott and the offensive line.
The offense is poised to be elite in 2017. They have too many weapons to slow down, let alone stop.
There isn't a weakness on the Dallas Cowboys offense. If Byron Jones, DeMarcus Lawrence, and Jaylon Smith can play at a high level in 2017, there won't be many weaknesses on the defense, making 16-0 a real possibility.
Should Cowboys Consider Trading for Disgruntled Packers S Josh Jones?
Despite their insistence that upgrading the safety position was a top offseason priority, the Dallas Cowboys haven't really done much to improve the backend of their secondary. They did sign former Minnesota Vikings and Cincinnati Bengals Safety George Iloka as a free agent and drafted Donovan Wilson in the sixth-round in this year's NFL Draft, but neither player looks like a clear-cut upgrade at this point. Fortunately, there's still time to find Xavier Woods' counterpart for 2019.
Xavier Woods is the only clear-cut starter at safety currently on the Dallas Cowboys roster. Other than that, your guess is as good as mine as to who starts opposite him this season. With that in mind, the Cowboys should be keeping all of their options open, including acquiring players who get released or even making a trade for someone they like. The latter is what I want to talk about today.
A potential safety who could be put on the trade block that I'm kind of intrigued with is Josh Jones, who has reportedly requested a trade from the Green Bay Packers.
Packers safety Josh Jones is skipping the voluntary OTAs and working out in Florida because he's hoping to be traded, a source told ESPN. The source said the 2017 second-round pick believes it would be best for both parties if they parted ways. Story coming on ESPN shortly.
Josh Jones clearly sees where he stands with the Green Bay Packers after they signed Adrian Amos in free agency and drafted Darnell Savage Jr. 21st overall in the 2019 NFL Draft, thus his absence from OTA's and trade request. He understands the business and knows he's not going to see the field much behind those two, meaning his best chance for playing time would be in a different uniform.
It's not all that shocking Jones has requested a trade. Even before the Packers added Amos and Savage he wasn't receiving a lot of playing time. He's just never seemed to fit into what Green Bay was trying to do on the backend of their defense. It may be in the best interest of both parties to mutually part ways. This is where the Dallas Cowboys come in.
I believe Josh Jones is exactly the type of safety Kris Richard would like to pair Xavier Woods with on the backend of the Cowboys defense. He fits the criteria Richard likes in his defensive backs as far as size, length, and speed are concerned. And, he also has the kind of skill set/mindset to become that Kam Chancellor "enforcer" type of strong safety.
Josh Jones is at his best when he can play around the line of scrimmage, much like Chancellor was during his time with the Seahawks. But, Jones also has the ability to be a factor in coverage as well. The only real question here is whether or not he's an upgrade over the likes of Jeff Heath, George Iloka, and maybe even rookie Donovan Wilson?
In all honesty, I don't have the answer to that question. Josh Jones really hasn't received a fair opportunity to prove himself in his first two years in the NFL. I believe the skill set is there to start in the league, but there's not much there to back up that belief.
Personally, I'd be willing to part way with a late round pick if I were the Cowboys to acquire Josh Jones. I like the idea of bringing him in to work with Kris Richard and allowing him to compete for the starting job next to Xavier Woods. This is exactly the kind of low risk/high reward move Dallas likes to gamble on, and it could potentially pay off in a big way.
Where do you stand? Should the Cowboys consider trading for Josh Jones?
How Can The Cowboys Force More Turnovers In 2019?
2018 seemed like the beginning of a new era. A defensive era. For the first time in years the Cowboys were able to consistently lean on their defense during games, staying alive even as their offense sputtered and limped through stretches early in the season.
The defense was downright prolific some weeks. They carried the Cowboys to an inspiring home victory over the New Orleans Saints to put them in prime position to make the playoffs. They dominated the Wild Card game in key moments, making key stops and holding the Seahawks to just 22 points in the win. They featured one of the league's best individual pass rushers in DeMarcus Lawrence, an All Pro cornerback in Byron Jones, and one of the league's most exciting young linebacker duos.
For all of this success, this defense still lacked one thing. Takeaways.
The Cowboys forced only 9 interceptions in 2018, ranking 26th across the league. In fact, linebacker Leighton Vander Esch was actually tied with Xavier Woods for the team lead in interceptions with just 2. When it comes to total takeaways the Cowboys' defense was a little better off, though, finishing 16th in the NFL.
Part of the "problem" seems to be their philosophy. The Cowboys have finished 26th, 24th, 27th, and 31st in interceptions dating back to 2015. They've also finished 9th, 25th, 18th, and 19th in team defense DVOA over that same stretch. Clearly there was an improvement in total defense in 2018, but neither their team defense nor ability to take the ball away has been strong since 2015.
The bigger problem, really, is a lack of luck. While this sounds like a cop-out, takeaways often do come down to just that. Of course putting yourself in the right place at the right time to benefit from a batted pass or overthrown ball matters, but those bounces finding the right hands is usually a matter of luck.
Turnovers are incredibly volatile year to year, and as much as you'd like your players to "make their own luck," randomness does play a part here.
You can certainly argue the Cowboys have done their best this offseason to increase their chances at takeaways, however. By trading for defensive end Robert Quinn, re-signing DeMarcus Lawrence, and adding talented players to the middle of their defensive line as well, Dallas has put an emphasis on getting after the quarterback and corralling the opposing running game. Putting pressure on quarterbacks can force them into quick decision making or bad throws, which could in turn breed interceptions.
This is far from guaranteed, though. Plus the Cowboys play against some of the league's top quarterbacks this year, which hurts their chances of taking the ball away further.
In the end the Cowboys will need both the skill of their pass rushers and defensive backs to put them in good positions, and luck to smile down on them, if they'd like to turn around their takeaway numbers in 2019. And after all, this demoralizing trend has to reverse itself at some point, doesn't it?
Will It Be The Cowboys, Or Another Team, Who Pays Byron Jones After 2019?
After having his fifth year option exercised for the 2019 season, cornerback Byron Jones enters a contract year this Fall.
Jones inarguably had the best year of his career in 2018: earning not only his first Pro Bowl selection but also Second Team All Pro honors for his performance. Doing it all without an impressive stat sheet, Jones was able to let his film speak for itself throughout most of the year, and he became the number one cornerback we'd all hoped he could be when the Cowboys decided to take the freakishly athletic defensive back in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft.
This contract year is quite unique for Byron Jones, however. Next offseason the Cowboys will be forced to re-sign and extend just about all of their key contributors on both sides of the ball. DeMarcus Lawrence already got his contract, but Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Amari Cooper, and others still await their deals. Deals which the front office has all-but explicitly promised will come.
This leaves Jones, the former first round pick and now former All Pro, generally considered to be the odd man out. So while 2019 is a contract year for Byron Jones, he may be earning himself a contract from a completely different team.
Jones has had an interesting road to this contract season. One which would be a shame for the Cowboys to waste. Moving between cornerback and safety during the first three years of his career, Jones fell out of the coaches' good graces while playing out of his most natural position. Under Kris Richard's new regime, though, Jones had his best season to date. He looked to finally be comfortable in his role, and was now playing for a coach who believed he could be a special player.
Now that Byron Jones has found his place in the Cowboys defense, and has earned his way into conversations with the league's top cornerbacks, he's likely priced himself out of the Cowboys' future plans.
It's funny how that works out. Of course, Jones should go get paid, and I'd never fault a guy for maximizing his value on the market. But there's a good chance the Cowboys make the mistake of allowing a premier cornerback to walk out of their building next offseason. But if they want to retain players like Elliott and Cooper, they may not have any other choice.
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