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Are Cowboys Free Agent Signings in Position to Succeed?

Sean Martin

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What Happens if WR Allen Hurns Doesn't Pan Out?
(AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)

There are three avenues through which NFL teams acquire talent. The best franchises take advantage of all three to capitalize on small windows of opportunity, signing the right free agents, drafting well, and pulling off trades. Being applauded for their overall youth as a team entering 2018, the Dallas Cowboys are built this way thanks to their commitment to the draft.

The Cowboys even made two trades during this year's NFL Draft from AT&T Stadium, leaving the weekend with nine rookies, Tavon Austin, and Jihad Ward -- trading away WR Ryan Switzer.

It's free agency that's held the Cowboys back from regularly contending in the NFC East though. Gone are the days of the Cowboys breaking the bank for the best available names each offseason, instead opting to fill out their roster depth with free agents.

Not even this approach has worked in recent memory for the Cowboys though. Positions targeted in free agency remain the same ones with legitimate concerns on the depth chart.

Last season, it was a FA haul of Byron Bell, Robert Blanton, Nolan Carroll, Ronnie Hillman, Datone Jones, Damontre Moore, and Stephen Paea that collectively lead to the Cowboys stumble out of the playoff picture at 9-7.

Defensive Tackle Datone Jones is the only player to make it through the season, still with the squad for 2018. Expectations have been raised for the sixth-year veteran now, with Maliek Collins out with a foot injury and David Irving suspended for the first four games of the season again.

This pressure put on players brought in only to provide depth is how the Cowboys have set themselves up for failure by botching free agency. With last year's class hopefully behind them, let's now take a look at what the Cowboys should actually be getting from their 2018 free agent signings.

The Cowboys emphasis on signing their own free agents sees Guard Joe Looney and Long Snapper L.P. Ladoucuer return this season. New to the Cowboys are wide receivers Allen Hurns and Deonte Thompson, offensive linemen Cam Fleming and Marcus Martin, Defensive End Kony Ealy, and Linebacker Joe Thomas.

The effectiveness of this FA class, and how well the Cowboys manage to snap their streak of shallowness because of it, falls squarely on the shoulders of Allen Hurns for now.

The Cowboys should feel comfortable in their investments on Fleming and Martin, both experienced backups to the league's best OL. If called upon, Martin's game may not be on par with the starting four around him, but Fleming is a two-time Super Bowl champion tackle for the New England Patriots that joins the Cowboys as a swing option.

At least on the surface, the Cowboys have seemingly done enough at linebacker to not ask too much of Joe Thomas. Mostly a special teams contributor for the Green Bay Packers, Thomas has some upside at linebacker in coverage, but so too does 19th overall pick Leighton Vander Esch.

Thomas2

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Paired with Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith, Damien Wilson, and even sixth round pick Chris Covington, the Cowboys would have to lose significant depth at LB to be relying on Thomas.

Just how much the Cowboys will rely on Kony Ealy to aid their pass rush in 2018 is yet to be determined. Given the team's numbers at defensive end, Ealy can be anything from a training camp cut to starting right end at this time. On his third team since 2017, Ealy has yet to put together all of the traits that the Cowboys and other teams sought in the 2014 draft.

ealy1

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The second round pick will be competing with rookie Dorance Armstrong, Tyrone Crawford and Taco Charlton in Oxnard. It may very well be the reinstatement status of Randy Gregory that decides Ealy's faith though, with the Cowboys not in any hurry to move on from either Crawford or Charlton.

Which brings us back to not only Allen Hurns but Deonte Thompson. Rehashing the unproven nature of the Cowboys receivers is tiresome at best without any on-field activities to judge their progress. The Cowboys have put themselves in position where Hurns' past production will have to speak for itself however, easily the most proven WR on the roster with 2,699 career receiving yards and 21 touchdowns.

Hurns5

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Coming off of consecutive seasons where Hurns failed to break 500 receiving yards, playing in just 21 games during this stretch, Hurns will have every opportunity to grab the WR1 job that the departed Dez Bryant "left behind".

On one hand, the Cowboys have made moves outside of free agency to adapt to Dak Prescott's strengths and become a more open offense. With the other, their deal for Hurns will only be rewarded if he produces like the player he was in 2015 (his only 1,000 yard season), despite being a similar player to Bryant and less of a "spread" option.

Of course, a younger player outperforming an older one is never a bad thing in the NFL, but the Cowboys are already holding third-round rookie Michael Gallup to lofty expectations. This further adds to the pressure on Hurns, signed by the Cowboys through 2019 with a chance to resurrect his career and earn a long-term deal.

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The same can be said about Deonte Thompson, who becomes the latest experiment as a deep threat in the Cowboys offense. Thompson is coming off a career season with the Buffalo Bills, hauling in 38 passes for 555 yards. His 14.6 yards per reception was a career best for any season Thompson played in at least three games.

Like Kony Ealy, Thompson's current roster status can range anywhere from a lock that pushes a rookie like Cedrick Wilson off the team to a player lost in the WR shuffle and looking for work outside of Dallas come week one.

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When ranking the players that will have the biggest impact on the Cowboys 2018 season, free agent WR Allen Hurns finds himself higher than the rest of their newly signed contributors. This is a refreshing change of pace from year's past, although there is plenty of time still for injuries to set in and previous players mentioned to be called upon.

Such is the importance of improving your roster from year to year in any way possible, something the Cowboys are pressing to do under Prescott's rookie contract.

Tell us what you think about "Are Cowboys Free Agent Signings in Position to Succeed?" in the comments below. You can also email me at Sean.Martin@InsideTheStar.com, or Tweet to me at @SeanMartinNFL!



Born January 28th, 1996- Cowboys Super Bowl XXX. Point Boro Panther, Montclair State Red Hawk, and most importantly a proud member of Cowboys Nation! I host "Upon Further Review" on 90.3 WMSC FM and wmscradio.com every Friday from 1-4 PM ET. Twitter: @SeanMartinNFL.

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Dallas Cowboys

Dallas Cowboys 2019 Training Camp Preview: Linebacker

Jess Haynie

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Leighton Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith

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:

  1. Leighton Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith, Sean Lee
  2. Joe Thomas, Justin March-Lillard, Chris Covington
  3. 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.

Joe Thomas, Cardinals

Dallas Cowboys LB Joe Thomas

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?

~ ~ ~

OTHER 2019 CAMP PREVIEWS



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Tony Romo: Cowboys TE Jason Witten Will “Pick Up Right Where He Left Off”

John Williams

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Did a Year Away Help Rejuvenate TE Jason Witten's Game?

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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Position Flex of Connor Williams, Connor McGovern Gives the Cowboys Options

Matthew Lenix

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Position Flex of Connor Williams, Connor McGovern Gives the Cowboys Options

The Dallas Cowboys find themselves facing an interesting situation heading into training camp later this month. They've stockpiled enough talent on the offensive line that now they have multiple players who can play multiple positions. This is better known as "Position Flex" around the Cowboys team facility, and it's highlighted by Connor Williams and rookie Connor McGovern.

Williams was drafted in the second round in 2018 out of Texas. Even though he logged 28 starts at left tackle during his days in Austin, he was brought in to play left guard opposite All-Pro Zack Martin. As a rookie, he started the first eight games before suffering a knee injury Week 10 against the Titans. He struggled due to his smaller size and being a natural tackle, showing he definitely needed to bulk up if he wanted to start on the interior of the offensive line. His back up Xavier Su'a-Filo was serviceable in his absence.

However, he did start two games at right guard in place of Zack Martin and performed pretty decent. This gave him much-needed experience in case of an injury in the future. He's shown he can adjust and be a solid lineman at more than one spot.

When All-Pro Tyron Smith had veterans day off during OTAs, Williams was seen taking snaps at left tackle, his natural position. La'el Collins is the starter at right tackle but is currently in a contract year. Set to be an unrestricted free agent in 2020, and with uncertainty, that he'll perform to the level needed to keep him as the starter or garner a big payday, the Cowboys have some insurance. This could create a situation where Williams is flexed outside if Collins hits the open market next year, only time will tell.

Position Flex of Connor Williams, Connor McGovern Gives the Cowboys Options 1

McGovern comes into the NFL with an advantage over his fellow lineman Williams. He was able to gain experience at multiple positions on the offensive line at Penn State. He started 21 games at right guard (9 as a freshman, 12 as a junior) and 14 games at center (13 as a sophomore, 1 as a junior). He's ideal to play on the interior seeing as he is naturally a little bigger than Williams, who had to pack on the pounds this offseason to deal with the responsibility of playing guard.

Now, the Cowboys can really see, if this is their thinking, who the five best guys are on the offensive line. If it were up to me, I would put Williams in direct competition with Collins for the right tackle position. This would allow McGovern to battle Su'a-Filo for the left guard spot. Also, with the health of All-Pro Center Travis Fredrick still up in the air, until the pads come on, McGovern's flexibility has added more insurance along with back up Joe Looney in case there's a setback before the season starts.

Multiple players with the skill set to move across the line if called upon. What more could you ask for as an offensive line coach? Plus, neither will be over the age of 22 during the season. The Cowboys have masterfully built the line of scrimmage on offense through the draft since 2011. Their dedication to dominating the trenches has them loaded with talent in said area. The only thing left is to wait for training camp to see where the chips fall.



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