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
Zack Martin, Xavier Woods Suffer Preseason Injuries, Cowboys Down 2 Starters
Last Saturday night didn't end well for the Dallas Cowboys, who saw multiple players go down throughout the game, most notably Zack Martin and Xavier Woods. Preseason injuries are always the more painful ones, and when we're talking about someone like Martin, it just makes it worse.
Martin suffered a knee injury and was ruled out after going down. ESPN's Todd Archer tweeted out that a source had claimed the injury was a hyper-extended left knee. This surely would be great news considering the fear right now is a season-ending injury.
A source said the initial diagnosis of Zack Martin is a hyperextended left knee, but he will undergo an MRI on Sunday. The Cowboys do not practice again until Monday and play Aug. 26 against the Arizona Cardinals. Depending on the severity of the... https://t.co/1MPbJfQph8
Zack is set to have an MRI on Sunday and the team is hopeful the injury isn't that serious. We probably won't see the All-Pro left guard return in the preseason but could see him back on the field as soon as September 9th when the Cowboys kick their season off at Carolina.
Besides Zack Martin being the best offensive guard in the NFL, the Cowboys' offensive line depth is definitely not good. If his injury proves to be worse than what the front office believes, this offense will have to play without arguably their best player.
As we nervously await more news on Martin's knee, there are more injured players to talk about.
Xavier Woods injured his hamstring as he made an effort to intercept the ball and was also ruled out for the game. We still don't know about the severity, but we do know it's the same hamstring that he dealt with last year.
Although Woods isn't anywhere near Zack Martin as a football player, his injury comes at the team's weakest position in depth. Jeff Heath, Kavon Frazier and Xavier Woods are the Cowboys' only legitimate safeties that will earn a roster spot.
If the hamstring injury is serious enough to keep him sidelined for multiple weeks, we could see the Cowboys getting outside help for the defensive backfield. Whether that means trading for Earl Thomas, some other safety or looking at the free agents available, I don't see the team going into the season with two safeties on the roster.
For now, we need to wait for more results regarding both of these players who will be detrimental to this team's success in 2018. The Cowboys suffered more injuries than these ones, though.
And the injuries continue... Jameill Showers is down on the Cowboys sideline with what looks like a knee injury. Still down. Duke Thomas Datone Jones Bo Scarbrough Xavier Woods and the big one, Zack Martin That's the injury list for the Cowboys tonight.
Datone Jones has been impressive during his stay in Dallas and is a quality DT and was ruled out for the game after getting tangled up with the Bengal's offensive line. Seventh-round draft pick Bo Scarbrough suffered a hip injury and is apparently not severe either.
Compared to Woods' and Martin's injuries, these ones won't keep Cowboys' fans up at night. However, hopefully they all turn out to be okay and ready to play as soon as possible. The team's starters make this team a legit threat in the NFC, but when it comes to depth, they're not in a good position.
Sean’s Scout: Starting Front 7 Sets Tone Early, Cowboys Depth Falters in Loss to Bengals
The Dallas Cowboys are halfway through their 2018 preseason. Given the injuries they're left to deal with to Zack Martin, Xavier Woods, and Jameill Showers, the Cowboys were happy to see their first home game of the season come to an end when it did. Despite the 21-13 loss, the Cowboys starters made another strong impression before exiting for backups that once again failed to hold the lead.
This is a game I'm looking forward to getting another look at on film, but for now here are a few thoughts the first time through.
- Rookie Connor Williams is still a work in progress at guard, as he'll get himself in trouble trying to catch rushers too often.
This "catch blocking" is not uncommon for young offensive linemen, particularly ones learning a new position in preparation to start on the league's best front. On the Cowboys second drive of the game, Williams was caught back in his stance dealing with a twist from the Bengals with Left Tackle Tyron Smith.
The result of the play was an incomplete pass on third down from Dak Prescott. With Williams' footwork being as consistent as it has, I wouldn't worry too much about his upper body technique and strength improving greatly before week one of the regular season. Perhaps most importantly, Williams has looked smooth playing in space, something the Cowboys are prepared to ask the second round pick to do plenty of.
- With Randy Gregory back in the lineup, the Cowboys potential to have a great rotation of defensive ends was on full display.
The play that stands out is a tackle for loss by Safety Jeff Heath. On the play, Defensive End Tyrone Crawford did a great job setting the edge against the run, allowing Heath to come down and make the aggressive play.
Crawford created penetration against a tight end, staying disciplined in his rush lane from the right defensive end position to force the run outside.
On the Bengals' offensive series prior to this play by Heath, the Cowboys forced a punt following a missed Andy Dalton throw to A.J. Green. Despite not being tight in coverage on third down, Randy Gregory looked sharp coming off the edge to rush Dalton slightly.
With Taco Charlton also looking strong against the run, and rookie Dorance Armstrong continuing to develop as a weak side pass rusher, the possible match ups the Cowboys can create up front are seemingly endless.
Almost all of them will include last year's sack leader DeMarcus Lawrence, who was also disruptive on nearly every snap in this game.
- Give credit to Joe Looney for handling the reps he did at center, but the backup interior lineman left a lot to be desired from this position.
It should come as no surprise that Looney is a better guard than center, or that the Cowboys would look significantly worse at center without Travis Frederick in the lineup.
Overall, this was a disappointing game for the Cowboys thin offensive line depth. Paul Alexander's unit was unable to give quarterbacks Cooper Rush and Mike White a fair chance to settle into the game.
Looney's contact balance was suspect throughout the evening. Not the most powerful player, it's important for Looney to play with leverage and balance, which he did inconsistently last night.
Awaiting news on Zack Martin's first quarter injury still, the Cowboys should have already been concerned about their backups at tackle, with the guard position becoming a late concern now.
- This is becoming the standard for Jaylon Smith, but I did not see one Bengals blocker effectively slow him down.
The power that Smith is playing with is an outstanding sign for continued success. Not only is Smith physically up for the challenge of starting at MIKE for the Cowboys, but he's physically dominating opponents with strength, speed, and range.
Whether he was running laterally and avoiding blocks with great awareness, or attacking the pocket, Smith's path to the ball was rarely impeded against the Bengals.
No matter who the Cowboys lined up in their front seven, the group did a great job setting a strong tone. Antwaun Woods was once again impressive at the one technique position inside, and Brian Price made a flash play from this position late in the game as well.
Thanks to Smith's gap shooting ability, and the Cowboys willingness so far this preseason to be creative with the Notre Dame product, the team's defensive tackles don't have to be asked to do too much. Holding their spots while drawing blockers will be more than enough to free Smith and the rest of the Cowboys linebackers to make plays.
- Chidobe Awuzie's interception in the second quarter is a reminder of just how high the second-year cornerback's potential is.
Sure, Awuzie's length put him at an advantage to take a leap into year two once Kris Richard arrived as the Cowboys passing game coordinator.
Being productive on the ball, as Awuzie was here, is a testament to just how athletic he is as a boundary cornerback though. A beat late recognizing the ball coming his way, Awuzie remained in perfect position to get a hand on this pass.
Doing so with an explosive leap off the ground and full extension, Awuzie snagged the ball with one hand before bringing it into his body to secure another turnover for the Cowboys first team defense.
The Cowboys cornerback depth proved suspect beyond Awuzie and Byron Jones in this game, but being as good as they already are on the boundary is a huge step in the right direction for Rod Marinelli's defense.
I also thought that UDFA Tyree Robinson did a great job answering the bell at safety, showing up a number of times in run support with the Cowboys in desperate need of depth at his position.
It's in the slot, where Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis continue to feel the pressure of competition, that the Cowboys are struggling to find the right starter - even trying Lewis on the outside well into the fourth quarter of this game.
✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭
The Cowboys will remain in their home state to conclude their training camp and preseason. Needing to see more out of their second and third team, practices will resume at The Star on Monday before another preseason game at AT&T Stadium.
This time, it will be the Arizona Cardinals coming in for a Sunday Night Football tune up. The Cowboys starters could very well see even more playing time than they have through the first two weeks, giving them a better chance of sustaining success and coming away with a preseason win.
CIN 21, DAL 14: Dak Prescott Continues Strong Preseason in Loss
The games may not count yet, but Dak Prescott looks ready for the 2018 season. The Dallas Cowboys quarterback continued his strong preseason play in the team's 21-13 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.
Prescott played three series, going 10/15 for 86 yards and a touchdown. He got the offense out of trouble a few times with his feet, avoiding sacks and ultimately getting the scoring pass off on a redzone scramble.
Dak's strong play has coincided with shutdown performances from the starting defense. The Cowboys' first-team defenders have yet to allow a score in two preseason games. Tonight, the Bengals were forced into four punts and two turnovers on their first-half possessions.
Overall, the Cowboys are a combined 24-7 in the first halves of their first two preseason contests.
The second half has been the problem, and for two weeks now Dallas' reserves have squandered halftime leads and given up losses. Thankfully, most of the responsible players will not be on the final 53-man roster.
- There were several concerning injuries for the Cowboys tonight. None was scarier than when All-Pro guard Zack Martin went out with a knee injury, but it does not appear to have been serious. Starting defensive backs Byron Jones and Xavier Woods also got banged up; Byron returned to the game but Woods did not. Defensive lineman Datone Jones also left with a knee injury.
- Even more concerning was the play of the second-team offensive line. Chaz Green was typically awful, but we also saw swing tackle Cam Fleming struggling and just an overall lack of protection for the backups quarterbacks. Green got benched in the second half and may have finally played his way off the team.
- Credit to Terrance Williams for getting open in the endzone to give Dak Prescott a receiver for the touchdown throw. Even with his warts, Williams' two years of experience playing with Dak can't be ignored in deciding who makes the team.
- Tight end Blake Jarwin continues to run with the starters on offense and may have quietly taken the job away from Geoff Swaim.
- Darius Jackson took advantage of some extra playing time tonight after Bo Scarbrough left with a hip injury. He broke off a few nice runs to amass 42 yards on just six carries, plus had four receptions.
- We finally get to see Dan Bailey kick a field goal again, and it was an easy 35-yarder with no issues.
- Shout out to Chidobe Awuzie for one of the pretty interceptions that a Cowboys DB has made in some time. Awuzie had to bend like Beckham (Odell, that is) to get a hand on the ball, then tipped it to himself for the pick.
- Preseason fun continues for the Cowboys next Sunday when they host the Arizona Cardinals on NBC's Sunday Night Football.
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