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 WR Cole Beasley Wants Bigger Role, Blames Front Office
With free agency on the horizon, Cole Beasley isn't pulling any punches about his dissatisfaction with his role in the Dallas Cowboys offense. Could this have him wanting a change of scenery in 2019?
Today, Beasley made some big statements on his personal Twitter account. The first was only an appetizer.
Utilization is more important than money. https://t.co/qP8XoR6uBu
One has to think that Cole sees the success players with his skills have had in a system like New England's, or even just other more proficient passing offenses, and thinks he could do even more elsewhere.
But even when it was suggested that the firing of Scott Linehan could bring some new opportunities for Beasley in Dallas, the receiver dropped this bomb.
Honestly, the front office pushes who they want to get the ball to. I haven't been a huge priority in that regard. Maybe that will change but I'm not sure. More balls come my way in 2 minute drill where nothing is planned. https://t.co/ioih9BJJv1
Well, there's no denying his frustration there.
Some might be confused by this, given that Beasley was the most-targeted receiver or tight end in the 2018 offense. Only Ezekiel Elliott got more passes thrown his way.
However, Cole's role did diminish once Amari Cooper showed up. And in the Cowboys' playoff loss to the Rams, Beasley only got two targets the whole game. Cooper and Michael Gallup got nine targets each.
You could see where there was some executive agenda behind getting Cooper and Gallup the ball. Dallas wanted their trade of a first-round pick for Amari to be validated. They also are invested in Michael as a future starter. What Cole said isn't without merit.
Despite what he tweeted, though, Beasley did say that he was open to returning to the Cowboys.
Doesn't mean I'm gone. I'll play anywhere where I can make more of an impact. I would love for that to be Dallas or anywhere else that will give me more pops to make an impact. I just wanna ball. It's hard with 3 to 4 opps a game. https://t.co/zImZKxkAvD
So no, it's not time to put your Beasley jerseys on eBay just yet. But given these comments, it's clear that Cole is looking for more than money in his contract.
Will the Cowboys have a satisfying answer for him? And if Beasley does want a bigger role, will he also want to be paid closer to what he thinks he's worth?
It's easy to say it's not about money, but the two really do go hand in hand.
Free agency may not open until March 13th, but Cole Beasley is already showing his cards. How will the Dallas Cowboys respond?
Dallas Cowboys Pro Bowlers Show Promise for Future
The next class of players to join the Dallas Cowboys may be on the field at Mobile, Alabama this week for the Senior Bowl, but their young core is well represented in front of the Cowboys coaching staff at the Pro Bowl.
With Left Tackle Tyron Smith and Right Guard Zack Martin not participating, the Cowboys have six Pro Bowl participants. The improved health of their offensive line is still one of the best things going for this team in the early part of the offseason, expecting four-time Pro Bowl Center Travis Frederick to rejoin Smith and Martin as soon as OTAs.
A compilation of the best linemen in the NFC will have to do for Quarterback Dak Prescott and Running Back Ezekiel Elliott - making their second Pro Bowl appearance together. It took the addition of Wide Receiver Amari Cooper for the Cowboys offense to find their expected form under Prescott and Elliott in their third season, as Cooper will appear in his fourth Pro Bowl in as many years.
Both times Elliott's made the Pro Bowl, he's done so as the league's rushing champion.
Hardly on track to reach Orlando with the Oakland Raiders, Cooper put up 725 yards and six touchdowns on 53 catches in nine regular season games for the Cowboys. He followed up this resurgent performance with seven catches for 106 yards in the Wild Card Round vs. the Seahawks and six for 65 and a touchdown at the Rams in the Divisional Round.
The Cowboys shouldn't be done adding talent at wide receiver, with Cooper serving as the bold reminder of what Prescott can do with dynamic talent on the outside. Moving on from Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan already this offseason, the next steps towards building the offense around Dak's strengths is yet to be determined.
Meanwhile, their established strengths will be on display, and not just on offense at the Pro Bowl. Making strides as one of the best young defenses in the league this season, Cowboys rookie Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch will be joined by Defensive End DeMarcus Lawrence and Cornerback Byron Jones.
Though its unlikely their coaching will match the intensity of the season, the best thing these three defenders have going for them is more time under Passing Game Coordinator Kris Richard. One of Richard's first moves with the Cowboys was moving Jones to cornerback, where he became a first-time Pro Bowler.
Unable to reach his full athletic potential at safety, Jones was the elite corner the Cowboys needed at a position still in need of depth. His length and range should make him a fixture in Richard's secondary for a long time.
Vander Esch becomes the 11th Cowboys rookie to make a Pro Bowl, the third on the defensive side of the ball. Surely the Wolf Hunter will look forward to another week of football, going from eight man HS player to one-year starter at Boise State and finally a Cowboys fixture at linebacker.
The Cowboys did what was thought to be proved impossible this season by fielding a competent defense (mostly) without Sean Lee. Vander Esch and teammate Jaylon Smith deserve the credit here, with Leighton making a larger immediate impact than ever expected as the 19th overall pick.
Last but nowhere near least is DeMarcus Lawrence, much closer to the Cowboys top priority in free agency this offseason than an afterthought at his second Pro Bowl. Putting together consecutive seasons with at least ten sacks, the Cowboys don't have to see anything further from their top pass rusher to do whatever it takes to re-sign him.
The rest of the Cowboys "Hot Boyz" have a lot of potential and promise, but Lawrence is a rare proven commodity at defensive end with 25 sacks in his last 32 games. Rushing the passer in the Pro Bowl is a relatively futile task, but the Cowboys know Lawrence is capable of saving his best plays for the biggest moments. Also a dominant run defender, there simply shouldn't be a reality where the Cowboys are forced to field a defense without Lawrence at left end in 2019 and beyond.
The Cowboys at the Pro Bowl will tell you they'd prefer to be missing the game in preparation for the Super Bowl. Getting within two games of this feat after a 3-5 start is still impressive enough for the Cowboys to feel great about their future, in large part because of the six players representing America's Team this week.
Handing out Hardware for the Dallas Cowboys 2018 Season
The 2018 NFL season for the Dallas Cowboys was literally a roller coaster ride with as many ups and downs as the Texas Giant. Through the first seven games of the season the Cowboys alternated home wins with road losses to get to 3-4. They made as big of a personnel move as they've made in recent years when they traded for Amari Cooper only to all to 3-5 in his debut on Monday Night Football to the Tennessee Titans.
Then the team went on an improbably five game winning streak to put themselves in position to win the NFC East for the third time in five years by mid December. The Cowboys were able to pick up the win in the wild card round over the Seattle Seahawks before being ousted by Todd Gurley, C.J. Anderson, and the Los Angeles -- battering -- Rams' offensive line.
The season always ends with a little disappointment for 31 of the NFL's 32 teams, but this year felt different at the end because of where they were to start the season and after eight games. After the Tennessee game, this team was written off. They were Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant. They stormed back and made the 2018 season a memorable one, even if it didn't end with a sixth Lombardi Trophy.
Let's give out some post season awards to your Dallas Cowboys.
Dak Prescott, Quarterback
Many will scoff at this choice and think it could be Ezekiel Elliott, and I understand, but nobody had a greater impact on the Dallas Cowboys making the playoffs and winning their matchup with the Seattle Seahawks than Dak Prescott did.
Over the final eight games of the season, Dak averaged 278 passing yards per game, 2 total touchdowns, and threw only three interceptions. His numbers down the stretch over a 16 game pace were phenomenal. On 71.6% passing, he was on pace for 4,450 yards, 24 passing touchdowns, eight rushing touchdowns, only six interceptions on the season, with a passer rating of 103.4.
Not to make this about Dak, but I'm going to make this about Dak. 2nd in success rate, 3rd in EPA and EPA/play among playoff QBs. #CowboysNation https://t.co/Evyf73uzJ9
His play in the win over the Seattle Seahawks was instrumental in getting the victory to move on to the divisional round. Though they fell short against the Los Angeles Rams, Dak was able to bring them back from 16 down early in the second half to make it a one score game in the end.
Dak Prescott is still a developing player, and in reality, all players are trying to grow their game. Every season. Prescott is a good quarterback, who is on his way to being great and we saw this season the potential that he has.
He threw for a career high 455 yards against the Eagles and three touchdowns and then threw for 387 yards and four touchdowns against the New York Giants. There's evidence now that Dak can throw the ball, and that should scare teams.
In the playoffs, Prescott stepped up and was a big reason why the Cowboys beat the Seahawks and hung in there against the Rams.
Offensive Player of the Year
Ezekiel Elliott, Running Back
Three years, two rushing titles, and it almost seemed like a "meh" season for Ezekiel Elliott. Sure he had some big games, but only a couple times this season did it feel like Elliott took over the game. Some of that is due to the offensive line injuries and inconsistencies, but some of that may be due to Elliott who saw a much bigger workload than he had in his career to date.
He was much more actively involved in the passing game this season as he more than doubled his previous career high with 77 receptions for 567 yards. Though he won the rushing title, this was the lowest rushing yards per game he's had in his short three-year career. Elliott only scored nine touchdowns this season, which tied with his 2017 total that he accrued in only 10 games.
Elliott struggled some in the red zone because the team struggled in the red zone. Some of those issues related to the offensive line and some because of the play calling, but you'd hope that Elliott would be able to overcome some of that where it mattered most.
Defensive Player of the Year
DeMarcus Lawrence, Defensive End
No player on defense has a bigger impact for the Dallas Cowboys than Defensive End DeMarcus Lawrence. Whether it's in the run game or the passing game, DeMarcus Lawrence is elite in both categories and makes life incredibly difficult on the opposing offense.
On the season he had 10.5 sacks, finishing with double-digit sacks for the second year in a row. While that may not be as impressive as his 2017 total of 14.5, he was doing his thing with much less help along the defensive line. There wasn't another player who flirted with double-digit sacks this season. Though Randy Gregory, Maliek Collins, and Tyrone Crawford performed well, teams gave all of their attention to Lawrence in both the run and pass game.
And he was still amazingly effective.
Lawrence finished fifth among EDGE players -- 4-3 defensive end and 3-4 outside linebackers -- in tackles, fourth in the NFL in Pro Football Focus' "stops" measure with 44, and 15th in total pressures. Pro Football Focus ranked Lawrence as the seventh best EDGE defender, ninth best pass rusher, and the 12th best run defender. J.J. Watt and Khalil Mack were the only other EDGE defenders who ranked in the top 12 as both a pass rusher and run defender per Pro Football Focus.
DeMarcus Lawrence is heading into the offseason looking to get a long-term deal done.
Rookie of the Year
Leighton Vander Esch, Linebacker
While Connor Williams and Michael Gallup had really good starts to their NFL career's no rookie for the Dallas Cowboys was as impressive as 19th overall pick Leighton Vander Esch. He led the Dallas Cowboys in tackles and "stops" and had the second highest grade of any defender as graded by Pro Football Focus.
In tackles, he was second only to future Hall of Fame inductee Luke Keuchly and fellow rookie Darius Leonard. Vander Esch did all this while playing a limited number of snaps as the Dallas Cowboys eased him in at the start of the season and then attempted to find a way to have Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith, and Sean Lee on the field together.
It was an impressive year for the former Boise St. Bronco and the sky is the limit for Vander Esch. He's now played just his second season as a starter in 11-man football. If you remember, he didn't start for Boise St. till the 2017 season and had played 8-man football in high school.
I'm really looking forward to seeing what kind of progression Vander Esch can make to his game in 2019. He's going to be a great player.
Most Improved Player
Jaylon Smith, Linebacker
The 2017 season was not kind to Jaylon Smith. It was his first attempt at playing football since January of 2016 when he tore his ACL in the Fiesta Bowl. It was amazing that he was even playing, though he didn't play considerably well.
2018, however, was a different story.
Jaylon Smith could make a case for team MVP. He may not have had as many tackles as Vander Esch, or as many sacks, but by playmaking defensive EPA, he was nearly as effective at making big plays on defense as DeMarcus Lawrence.
Overall playmaking EPA rank among all NFL defenders: 5. DeMarcus Lawrence 7. Jaylon Smith 58. Leighton Vander Esch
EPA measures the effect a play will have on the score. Not all plays are weighted the same, as some weigh heavier because of down and distance, turnovers, etc. Jaylon Smith had an excellent season for the Dallas Cowboys and looks to be the guy that they thought he would be when they selected him at the top of the second round in the 2016 NFL Draft.
Having Smith and Vander Esch roaming around the middle of the field for the Dallas Cowboys moving forward is huge. They're excellent at moving in space and are excellent definitions of "sideline to sideline" players.
Jaylon Smith is one of the players I'm already looking forward to watching again in the 2019 season.
Comeback Player of the Year
Randy Gregory, Defensive End
After sitting out all but two games of the 2016 season and all of last season, Randy Gregory came back this season and had a good year. With only one sack in his career heading into the 2018 season, Gregory had a nice comeback year with five sacks and finished tied for second on the team with 37 pressures according to Pro Football Focus. According to Pro Football Reference, Gregory was second on the team in tackles for loss.
The Cowboys have Randy Gregory under contract for the 2019 season for just under $1 million.
✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭
The Dallas Cowboys have a lot to feel optimistic about as they look to roster build this offseason in preparation of the 2019 season. They have several ascending players playing key roles for them. This team looks primed to contend again in 2019.
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