Better or Worse; Recapping the Cowboys 2017 Offseason ⋆
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Better or Worse; Recapping the Cowboys 2017 Offseason

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Dallas Cowboys

Better or Worse; Recapping the Cowboys 2017 Offseason

Better or Worse; Recapping the Cowboys 2017 Offseason

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?

Quarterback

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

Running Back

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

Dez Bryant, Jason Garrett, Cole Beasley

Receivers Dez Bryant, Cole Beasley, and Terrance Williams are back.

Receiver

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

Jason Witten

TE Jason Witten

Tight End

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

Cowboys Headlines - Is the Best Football Ahead for the Cowboys Offensive Line?

Offensive Line

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

Taco Charlton

DE Taco Charlton

Defensive End

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

Maliek Collins

DT Maliek Collins

Defensive Tackle

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

Jaylon Smith

LB Jaylon Smith (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

Linebacker

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

Anthony Brown

CB Anthony Brown

Cornerback

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

Safety

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

Dan Bailey, Chris Jones

K Dan Bailey and P Chris Jones

Special Teams

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

Jess Haynie

Cowboys fan since 1992, blogger since 2011. Bringing you the objectivity of an outside perspective with the passion of a die-hard fan. I love to talk to my readers, so please comment on any article and I'll be sure to respond!

7 Comments
  • George_Johnson

    I don’t disagree with your analysis except for QB. You say it is worse. I don’t think so but it depends also on how you analyze the situation. Romo was 1st team QB last year, K Moore 2nd team and D Prescott 3rd team. Had Romo and Moore not got hurt, this most likely would have stayed this way through the season. They did get hurt and Dak took over and was nothing but amazing for a rookie QB. He was so amazing its hard to see him actually having as much success in 2017. Your worse analysis doesn’t seem to factor a sophomore slump for Dak or Dak not having as much success even though he continues to improve at all. You seem to say they are worse because of K Moore. K Moore most likely is better than Sanchez so the only time they are worse than last year is towards the end of the season when Romo served as the 2nd team backup. If that is what you mean I agree but you didn’t say so. The only way I see them being worse in 2017 is if Dak has a sophomore slump. K Moore is likely to demonstrate why he is the 2nd team QB for Dallas during preseason games. I expect him to do well overall. If he doesn’t his career is probably about over. K Moore not doing well is very unlikely. In fact it wouldn’t surprise me if he did better than Dak in preseason games.

    • John Mathis

      It’s a nice thought and I hope you are right about Moore but maybe a bit optimistic. Hopefully Dak stays healthy and we don’t get to find out.Great positive outlook though, we need more upbeat fans like you.

    • Jess Haynie

      George, the analysis is based on the general depth we had with Romo, Dak, and Moore all to start the year. We were down to QB3 with Dak and he took us to 13-3. No way we’re going to have that same luxury in 2017. I do believe Moore will be better now than last year, or 2015, just based on general development and system familiarity.

      • George_Johnson

        Maybe I misunderstood your analysis and comments. I agree we don’t have a third string or even 2nd string QB like Dak was in 2016 for 2017. I am still shaking my head about how well he did as a rookie drinking from a fire hose. He has significant potential to be a star/franchise QB in the NFL. Dallas is lucky to have him considering how far down he was drafted. It also goes to show how off the so called draft experts and team experts can be on some players.

  • John Williams

    I disagree with Safety and Corner.

    I think Carr’s solid, yet unspectacular approach to the game will be missed, but not Claiborne. He missed to many games to begin with. To me Carroll and Carr are a push. Brown is an upgrade. Scandrick is healthier than last year and Awuzie and Lewis depth make the position much better than last year when Leon McFadden was counted on for snaps. I don’t worry near as much about an injury this season.

    At Safety, I don’t believe we are better without Barry Church. He was one of the few on the team that could produce takeaways. Now Heath might be more adept, but we’ve yet to see him in a full time role. Jones is the most important factor here, but I don’t think he needs to improve all that much. He’s a really good player to begin with.

    With you at QB. Moore is a question mark for sure.

    I think defensive end is the most intriguing position on the team. Can’t wait to see what we might get from Moore, Tapper, Mayowa, Taco, Crawford, Irving this year. It’s so deep and if we can get 3 or four of those guys to have 5 sacks a piece, that would be huge, especially considering that Collins may push for 8 sacks from the inside. I think the DL group as a whole will be much improved. Hopefully it will show in the situational pass rush as well. You know when Aaron Rodgers has the ball in the two-minute drill of a playoff game. Lol.

    • Jess Haynie

      I agree that Claiborne’s value was greatly reduced by his missed time, but he was our best corner when he was healthy. Brown may be an upgrade based on availability but not talent. I also think Carr was better than Carroll, though perhaps not by a wide margin.

      As for Church, in seven years he has 7 forced fumbles and 5 interceptions. Heath, who has been a backup for most of his FOUR seasons, has 3 FF and 4 picks. I don’t think we’re losing anything in the turnover department going to Heath. If anything, I think he will make more plays.

      • John Williams

        Stats don’t lie. You’ve got me there. I guess it was more perception regarding Church than reality.

        I’m no doubt excited for the secondary, but I want to see how it plays out. They are as deep as they’ve ever been at corner and safety and that is pretty exciting.

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