With training camp beginning on Monday, the offseason is pretty much over. After going 13-3 but losing in their first playoff game, the Dallas Cowboys enter 2017 with the goal of significant postseason success. Right now, Las Vegas has them second in Super Bowl odds behind the New England Patriots.
Even with the Super Bowl in their sights, the Cowboys would just like to be back in the NFC Championship Game. Dallas hasn't played in the semifinals since 1995, which was also the last time they won a Lombardi Trophy.
Clearly, the Cowboys need to be better than they've been in over 20 years. So, one might wonder, did the 2017 offseason help them toward that goal? Position by position, did the Cowboys get stronger or weaker, better or worse, than last year?
Dak Prescott returns and there are high hopes for his second-year development. While the "sophomore slump" does exist, Prescott's work ethic and personality, plus his astounding rookie season, give you confidence that he won't take a step back. The great quarterbacks in NFL history typically get better in their second year, and Prescott's rookie season was perhaps the greatest of all time.
The concern here is with depth. Last season, the Cowboys lost presumed backup Kellen Moore during training camp and then lost Tony Romo in the third preseason game. Dak Prescott was certainly not the typical third-string QB, but that was the position he held before Moore went down.
In 2017, Tony Romo will be calling games for CBS while Kellen Moore is the only quarterback of note on the depth chart. They also have journeyman Zac Dysert and undrafted rookie Cooper Rush going into camp, neither of whom projects to make the 53-man roster.
Given the events of last season, it's hard to look at this year's group and feel entirely secure. Even if Kellen Moore is a better player now than what we saw in 2015, the same overall depth simply can't be claimed compared to what we had last year with Romo in the mix. Hopefully, Prescott will make it a moot point. But if something bad happens, we are going to feel the difference in a painful way.
Final Verdict: WORSE
Whatever happens with a possible suspension, Elliott should be back and his same dynamic self for at least 14 games or more. Considering it took him a couple of weeks to really find his way last season, a couples games missed probably won't be any big difference from 2016.
This one, like quarterback, comes to the depth. There's reason for optimism as Darren McFadden will hopefully put in a full season, rather just the three games he played in 2016. If so, McFadden should be a more effective player with his snaps than what Alfred Morris was. Darren's running style and receiving ability are better suited to what the Cowboys do on offense, not to mention his experience from starting in 2015.
Whether the number-three back is Morris, Rod Smith, or someone unexpected, that player likely won't see much time. Elliott will get the workhorse touches and McFadden will get most of what's left. It's the perceived upgrade of McFadden over Morris that really moves the needle here.
Final Verdict: BETTER
The Cowboys re-signed Terrance Williams and Brice Butler this offseason. The top three of Williams, Dez Bryant, and Cole Beasley will be back and now get a full offseason to work with Dak Prescott. This can only be a good thing for the offense.
Another positive is, hopefully, a healthier Dez Bryant. Dez has missed 10 games over the last two years and struggled with nagging injuries even when playing. He is reportedly in better condition right now and could be ready to look like a franchise WR once more. A more consistently dynamic Bryant can have a positive effect on the entire offense.
Fourth-round pick Ryan Switzer should also bring a boost. He is expected to at least take Lucky Whitehead's job and might push Brice Butler out of the way also. Many feel Switzer is another Cole Beasley, and how Scott Linehan will utilize both of them in the offense is one of the more exciting thing to look for this year.
There should be healthy competition for the last spot or two on the depth chart. Butler and Whitehead will be contending against rookie Noah Brown and prospect Andy Jones. Whoever emerges from the pack should be a worthy addition to the roster.
Final Verdict: BETTER
It doesn't make you a bad fan to admit that Witten's slowing down in these final years. Subject to the effects of aging like the rest of us, Jason's athleticism has taken a hit even though his skills aren't diminished. He can't be quite the dominant player we remember from peak years, but he's still one of the better tight ends in the game and a matchup problem for opponents.
Despite Witten's slow decline, the position should be stronger overall from 2016. James Hanna and Geoff Swaim offer experienced depth and should be better, at least as blockers, than Gavin Escobar ever was. Rico Gathers is a highly intriguing prospect who will be one of the most-talked-about players in camp.
Last year's group suffered from injuries to both Hanna and Swaim, while Gathers was too raw to play and spent the year on the practice squad. The combined contributions from all three, or even two if the Cowboys don't keep everyone, should make the group stronger and deeper than last season.
Final Verdict: BETTER
There is too much "wait and see" in the group right now to make a firm proclamation. Will La'el Collins be a better right tackle than Doug Free? Will Jonathan Cooper be able to match, or even play close to, the level of Ronald Leary? These are questions we simply can't answer until we see them against real competition.
Indeed, we can't even be sure where Collins will play or that Cooper is going to be a starter. There's still potential for La'el to end up back at guard while Chaz Green, Emmett Cleary, or Byron Bell play tackle. This is still a work in progress and the Cowboys are going to try different looks until they're sure they have the best possible lineup.
The core of Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin ensures that any starting five will still be a solid and effective line. Collins will be good at either guard or tackle, though perhaps not with the same potential greatness on the outside. Even if there is a hit from losing Ron Leary, it shouldn't do too much damage.
Final Verdict: TBD
We don't know if any one player is going to emerge as a great pass rusher, but the overall group should be better than last year. Dallas spent their first-round pick on Taco Charlton, will be getting the delayed debut of Charles Tapper, and have DeMarcus Lawrence playing in a contract year. They also anticipate further development from Benson Mayowa and David Irving.
While having that one guy getting double-digit sacks and going to the Pro Bowl would be nice, what really matters is how the team pressures opposing quarterbacks. Whether it's one or two guys or the collective work of the rotation, our main concern is that the passing defense improves overall. Rod Marinelli should have more and better tools to work with this year than he's ever had in Dallas.
Final Verdict: BETTER
If Year One was just a taste, Maliek Collins could be a monster in 2017. A full offseason with Marinelli could push Maliek into stardom, especially if we see some improvement on the edges to draw away blockers. The same goes for David Irving, though we have yet to see if he'll play more inside or at defensive end.
The depth shouldn't be any worse than last year. Terrell McClain will be missed, but veterans Cedric Thornton and Stephen Paea should be able to fill the void. We may also see Collins playing as the one-technique and allowing Tyrone Crawford to get back to his best position as the three-tech tackle. Whether it's Crawford or Irving playing that spot, the potential pass rush coming from either of them and Collins could create a lot of problems for blockers.
It is the expected growth of Collins and Irving that gives the DT position overall improvement in 2017. The effect they can have over a full season, both inside and for their pass rushing teammates, could be huge for the long-awaited quarterback pressure.
Final Verdict: BETTER
So much of this rides on the debut of Jaylon Smith. If he can play and is anything like the player we saw in college, Smith will combine with Sean Lee to form one of the best LB duos in the NFL. It will be an immediate upgrade over Anthony Hitchens and easily give Lee the best teammate he's ever had in Dallas.
The likely suspension of Damien Wilson shouldn't be too big a hit. Hitchens, Kyle Wilber, or the recently re-sign Justin Durant can fill the SAM role more than adequately. In truth, the third linebacker isn't nearly as important these days due to the more frequent use of the nickel scheme. Last year, Dallas used the nickel (three CBs) 452 times compared to just 182 uses of the base 4-3 defense.
Again, this really all comes down to Jaylon Smith. If he plays then we're looking at a major boon for the defense. If not, then we're really not much different from last year. Hitchens is a solid middle linebacker and either he or Durant will work with Lee in the nickel, same as last year.
Final Verdict: BETTER
Losing Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne won't come without some cost. Even though Dallas drafted Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis with the second and third-round picks, corner is one of the toughest position for guys to make the college-to-pro transition. Expecting either player to fill the shoes of the veteran departures right away may be asking too much.
Then again, Anthony Brown didn't seem to have much trouble last year. A sixth-round steal, Brown played plenty due to injuries to Claiborne and Orlando Scandrick and rarely looked like a rookie, let alone a Day 3 draft pick. His potential development in his second year is a major reason for optimism.
Scandrick and Nolan Carroll will provide veteran help for their young teammates. If healthy, Scandrick is still a sold starter and perhaps the best corner on the team. Carroll may not be quite as good as Brandon Carr, but should still round out the group effectively.
While I love the Awuzie and Lewis picks and expect big things from both down the road, 2017 may be too soon to expect much. Even if it's just for the early part of the year, the transition will take time and will result in some bad moments for the defense. All it takes is one mistake for an opponent to hang seven points on you.
Final Verdict: WORSE
Even though Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox are gone, the development of Byron Jones could be enough to still improve the group overall. Now in his third year in the NFL and only his second as a full-time safety, Jones could be ready to take the leap into stardom that many have projected for him.
Jeff Heath's rise to the starting job could also yield results. With more interceptions per-snap than either of the two guys who left, the hope is that Heath's nose for the ball and Byron's growth will lead to many more turnovers.
The depth will be a little thinner. Instead of Wilcox and Heath, now sophomore Kavon Frazier and rookie Xavier Woods will be the reserves. Dallas also signed veteran Robert Blanton, but right now he projects as just veteran insurance and may not make the roster. The safety position will be younger across the board, but perhaps also with more upside than it's had in some time.
Final Verdict: BETTER
With one of the best kickers in NFL history, a consistently effective punter, and pure perfection at long snapper, the Cowboys' specialists make life easy for coach Rich Bisaccia. Until any of these guys start to show some wear and tear, Dallas can continue to enjoy their services and the confidence each inspires.
Where the team needs a boost is in the return game, and the hope is that rookie Ryan Switzer will bring it. While Lucky Whitehead has flashed play-making potential as a returner, he simply doesn't have consistency or enough big plays on his resume to keep the job.
Unfortunately, transitioning to the NFL may mean it takes Switzer some time to master the role. In fact, there's no guarantee he takes it away from Lucky right away. The good news is that, at worse, Dallas will have the same guys back there or at least the same level of play. They can only get better, and we're going to give Switzer the benefit of the doubt.
Final Verdict: BETTER
Cowboys OT Mitch Hyatt is an Undrafted Rookie to Watch
Going undrafted is hardly a death blow to a player's hopes of making it into the NFL. We've seen many examples of players who have lengthy careers despite humble beginnings, and plenty of them happened right here in Dallas. Could offensive tackle Mitch Hyatt be the next undrafted success story for the Cowboys?
Hyatt just finished his college career at Clemson as a four-year starter, two-time national champion, and two-time All-American. While not an elite draft prospect, many had Mitch rated as at least a 5th-7th round pick. His going undrafted was a surprise.
While he measures with good size at 6'5" and a little over 300 lbs., Hyatt lacks upper body strength. But he's overcome that deficiency through the years with work ethic, motor, and smarts.
For the Cowboys, it's a lot easier to help a guy gain strength than it is to try and improve motivation or intelligence.
Dallas was not the only team interested in Mitch Hyatt once he hit free agency. But from the rookie's own lips, he didn't have a hard decision to make.
“'I received a fair amount of calls. It was a pretty chaotic five to 10 minutes for me,'” Hyatt said. “'I had a whole bunch of people in my ear. But I knew what kind of team the Cowboys were, I knew what they were about.'”
Whether it was the reputation of the Cowboys organization, its vaunted offensive line, or the chance to work with Coach Marc Colombo, Hyatt was clearly drawn to Dallas. Another reason for that may have been the perceived opportunity to make the roster.
The Cowboys seem to already be preparing for life without La'el Collins in 2020, when Collins is set to hit free agency. They gave Cam Fleming a two-year deal which keeps him through next year, plus drafted Connor McGovern in the third round of the 2019 draft. It suggests Dallas isn't planning to pay La'l the significant money he should demand.
If Fleming gets promoted to the starting job at right tackle, that would leave a vacancy for swing tackle in 2020. Mitch Hyatt could be one of Dallas' options for that role.
Even if the Cowboys don't keep Hyatt on the 53-man roster in 2019, they will likely try to put him on the practice squad. Ideally, a year of physical development there will make him a much stronger candidate for the 2020 season.
Of course, the reason we know those undrafted success stories so well is because they aren't typical. The odds are against Mitch Hyatt having any NFL career, but his collegiate success and intangibles speak to a guy who's worth taking a chance on.
If it works out, credit the Cowboys for continuing the tradition of Tony Romo, Miles Austin, Jeff Heath, and other undrafted players who became significant contributors.
Could CB Michael Jackson Prove To Be Cowboys Best Value Pick?
Looking back to the third day of the 2019 NFL Draft for the Dallas Cowboys, running backs Tony Pollard and Mike Weber are the most discussed players among fans and analysts. The front office made some pretty promising selections in the late rounds that could have important roles on the team in the near future. While many thought the Cowboys would be quick to add a rookie safety, it wasn't until the fifth round that the team drafted a defensive back, and it wasn't even a safety. Kris Richard got his guy Michael Jackson, from the Miami Hurricanes.
A few weeks apart from training camp, the 6-1 cornerback has been overlooked by many fans. Although the team got plenty of quality players in the late rounds, Jackson might end up being the best value pick when we look back to this rookie class a year from now.
In college, Jackson started 23 games between 2017 and 2018 as he racked up four interceptions and 10 pass deflections. He seems just like the kind of guy we know DB Coach Kris Richard loves. A tall, long, press cornerback with pretty solid range. Jackson is far from a player ready to start in the NFL, but Richard will have a lot of raw potential to work with.
When the former Seahawks defensive coordinator joined the Cowboys, he let it be known that he saw a lot of potential on Byron Jones. The 2015 first round pick's career was turned around after last season, when the team finally stopped moving Jones around the defensive backfield. As a full-time corner, Jones went on to become a second-team All-Pro last year.
While it would be unfair to compare Jones and Jackson, both of them arrived to the NFL with very different expectations, I can't help but wonder how far can Richard take the Miami product. Although it wasn't discussed as much, cornerback was an important need for the team because of a lack of depth and the uncertainty surrounding Jones' future on the team.
After an impressive 2018 season, extending Jones will be a huge challenge for the Cowboys front office. After all, there's a lot of homegrown talent due for big paydays. Who knows if when the day comes, the team will have what it takes to keep Jones in Dallas. Not to mention, Anthony Brown is entering his contract year. A solid nickel corner for the Cowboys could be gone, leaving Kris Richard's unit with very little depth.
Fortunately for the Cowboys, Michael Jackson has the size and potential to play in any spot in the secondary, giving Richard the chance to develop him at the position he wishes. After all, Richard will be in no hurry to get Jackson on the field. It's tough to imagine Jackson getting an important role for the upcoming season, but he could certainly get a few snaps throughout the year. Having said that, it's in the long run that the All-ACC second-team CB can truly prove his worth.
In an ideal world, the Cowboys would keep their current CB but the cold, hard truth is NFL teams can't keep all of their players all the time. Jackson might have to eventually step up to an important spot on the defense. If Kris Richard develops him properly, Dallas won't be that concerned about a couple of their CBs potentially leaving. We'll see if Michael Jackson is ready when his name is called.
Dorance Armstrong, Kerry Hyder Stand Out in Cowboys Practices
With Left Defensive End DeMarcus Lawrence rehabbing from offseason shoulder surgery, Defensive End Taco Charlton rehabbing a shoulder and foot injury, and Right Defensive End Randy Gregory currently suspended indefinitely, there have been plenty of snaps at defensive end for other players to make a name for themselves in the offseason training activities (OTAs) and this past week's minicamp. The two players that stood out above all others on the defense were defensive ends Dorance Armstrong and Kerry Hyder.
You might be asking yourself, "what does it matter? DeMarcus Lawrence and Robert Quinn are the starters. Why should we care about a couple of backups."
First, the backup defensive ends for the Dallas Cowboys will play. After DeMarcus Lawrence and Tyrone Crawford, the leaders in defensive end snaps in 2018, Randy Gregory got 44% of the snaps on defense and Taco Charlton saw 39%. Dorance Armstrong, who played sparingly as a rookie, saw 26% of the snaps. The defensive ends that make the 53-man roster are going to get playing time.
Secondly, there's no guarantee that DeMarcus Lawrence will be ready for week one. Tyrone Crawford, who was the starter at right defensive end in 2018, could miss week one if the NFL deems his offseason altercation is worthy of a suspension. That leaves a whole lot of potential snaps at the left defensive end spot if either of those two guys misses week one.
Dorance Armstrong, the Dallas Cowboys fourth-round pick from 2018, caught the eye of several observers from the media and finished his offseason with a strong minicamp.
"These coaches have to be happy with what they’ve seen from Dorance Armstrong during these practices. Armstrong has been mainly filling in for DeMarcus Lawrence on the left side, but on Wednesday he switched over to the right. There were several snaps where he was a handful for Cam Fleming to handle. Armstrong started off well last season before hitting the rookie wall. He physically looks bigger and is also now equipped with the knowledge of how he has to prepare to play at a high level the entire season. Keep an eye on Armstrong to make that jump from the first to second year."
Bryan Broaddus - DallasCowboys.com
Armstrong had a really nice training camp as a rookie and as Broaddus notes, tailed off during the regular season. Reports are that he's added size this offseason -- as most players do between their first and second year -- and if all the reports are correct, could be a breakout player in the making.
Kerry Hyder is another intriguing player and one of the more underrated offseason acquisitions by the Dallas Cowboys front office.
Coming from the Detroit Lions, where they used Hyder as a nose tackle in Matt Patricia's 3-4 alignment, he was played severely out of position. In 2016, playing primarily as a defensive end, Hyder recorded eight sacks for the Lions. In 2017, he suffered a torn achilles which kept him out all of that year.
Now with the Dallas Cowboys, he gets to return to his more natural defensive end position. And he's making some noise in these offseason practices.
D-Linemen never get any shine during OTAs, so today is for them. With Tyron Smith & La'el Collins sitting out today, Dorance Armstrong & Kerry Hyder absolutely wrecked practice. Murdered it. I legitimately don't think Dak would've gotten a single throw out if sacks were allowed.
Of course not playing against the starting tackles in Tyron Smith and La'el Collins will allow players to shine a bit more, but let's not forget that Cam Fleming started in the Super Bowl for the New England Patriots before signing with the Dallas Cowboys. Connor Williams, who has been getting snaps at tackle as well, is no slouch as a former All-American for the Texas Longhorns.
Here's what Bryan Broaddus had to say about Kerry Hyder in one of the previous OTAs his "Scout's Notebook" from May 22nd.
"I have to be careful with my love for veteran defensive linemen, but Kerry Hyder looks like a different man playing at end instead of head-up tackle. The coaching change in Detroit did him no favors last season. Having to play in a spot where he had to fight blocks all day to now working on the edge in space is a good thing for him. It appears that Hyder has his quickness back, but he also has some pass rush moves in his tool belt. I thought maybe they were going to use him as an under-tackle, but putting him back at end might be his best shot at making the roster."
Bryan Broaddus - Dallas Cowboys.com
The Cowboys found a really good player in Kerry Hyder. He's capable of playing some 3-technique defensive tackle if needed as well as on the edge. He has a good motor and is able to make plays in the running game.
With the emergence of Kerry Hyder and Dorance Armstrong this offseason, it puts Taco Charlton behind the eight ball as the team heads to Oxnard. If they continue to play well, it's a real possibility that Charlton could be a gameday inactive during the regular season, especially if Randy Gregory is reinstated.
However they end up being deployed, this group of defensive ends will cause fits for opposing offensive lines. They've been aiming for waves of pass rushers for Rod Marinelli's defense and for the first time since becoming defensive coordinator, he looks to have just that.
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