The dust is starting to settle, and the Dallas Cowboys roster for 2018 and starting to become clearer and clearer as we approach training camp and the upcoming NFL season. After all of the drama from free agency surrounding Dez Bryant, to the retirement of Jason Witten and the NFL Draft, Cowboys Nation is getting closer to seeing a brand new team.
A big question at this juncture, however, is did the Cowboys really improve from 2017? They added new pieces, got some new toys in a few trades and now can see a tiny glimpse into the future of the squad. But did they improve?
People everywhere who follow the Cowboys knew what they needed to address the most after the 2017 season: Wide receiver, defensive tackle, guard, linebacker, safety, and eventually tight end was pushed as a bigger priority with the subsequent retirements of James Hanna and Jason Witten. As far as if the team improved, we'll have to break it down.
There's no question that Dak Prescott is the starter and the presumed quarterback of the future. Cooper Rush came in as an undrafted free agent from Central Michigan and outplayed Kellen Moore in the preseason, eventually becoming the new backup quarterback.
In a surprising move, the Cowboys used a fifth round pick on Western Kentucky quarterback, Mike White. White was a name that rose up draft boards as a solid developmental project. In his final two seasons as a starter, he was able to throw for 8,540 yards, 63 touchdowns and complete 66.5% of his passes.
The player, himself, isn't bad. In fact, some draft analysts had Mike White as a third round prospect, and Dallas got a two-round value out of it. What it does bring into question, however, is if Cooper Rush's job is in jeopardy?
Is this move strictly for competition? Will the team decide to keep all three? Did the Cowboys waste a pick?
In terms of skill, all of these players are quality quarterbacks, but using a draft pick on a quarterback, after Cooper Rush seemed to have earned the job, only raises more questions instead of answers. The team will have time to answer but for right now, this doesn't seem like a smart move.
The Cowboys backfield is the team's car, and they only really needed some gas. What they got instead was an Xzibit-style pimped out makeover.
Ezekiel Elliott is one of the game's young superstars and is firmly sitting in the driver's seat. After serving his 6-game suspension last year, Elliott looks ready to get back into the game.
Rod Smith offered not only some solid backup effort, but position flexibility and special teams play. Smith was all over the team last season; at tailback, full back, slot receiver, kick returner.
It seemed the team would add a 3rd down back, which they did by trading with the Rams. In exchange for a sixth round pick, the Cowboys got for former first-rounder Tavon Austin, and then followed it up with announcing intentions to play him exclusively at running back, adding speed and hands that the backfield needed.
Thought they were done? Nope.
In the 7th round, the Cowboys added one of college footballs most punishing runners, Bo Scarborough from Alabama. A physical back who should be looking forward to running between his new center and right guard. The backfield already looked set, but adding this beast is just overkill in the best way.
The last brick has been lain and the Great Wall of Dallas is complete. Not only does the team have their starters, but they have a great collection of backups who can step in and play well for the squad.
Left guard was a big need for the team. Johnathan Cooper did a solid job last season, but not so well that the team was giving him an extension. Instead, they looked 201 miles South to University of Texas Offensive Lineman Connor Williams.
An All-American tackle, he looks set to step inside next to Tyron Smith and solidify arguably the best offensive line in football.
Another question was the swing tackle, the tackle who backs up both La'el Collins and Tyron Smith on both sides. Last season, the job was split between Chaz Green and Byron Bell, with undesirable results.
The Cowboys improved in that department by signing Cameron Fleming, a player some thought would get starter money, but instead went to Dallas at an affordable rate. In New England, he started 20 games in four seasons, and only allowed 7 sacks during that time. Adding Fleming gives the Cowboys and their fans some relief and relaxation in the event one of the tackles is hurt.
I'm not sure how losing your number one and two tight ends in the same off-season can possibly make you think the position has improved. Full disclosure.
Jason Witten, one of the game's greatest tight ends who will be in the hall of fame one day, and James Hanna occupied the tight end one and two spots for a number of years. Witten was a reliable receiver and both were good blockers throughout their time.
Remaining on the depth chart are a bunch of question marks.
Geoff Swaim has largely been a blocking tight end and only has nine career receptions going into 2018. Rico Gathers has shown a lot of promise and talent during his time in the preseason, but hasn't yet been able to see the field. Blake Jarwin has plenty of skill, but is still very raw. Finally, the Cowboys 4th round selection, Dalton Schultz, from Stanford, is not a very polished receiver but is an excellent blocker. It wouldn't surprise me to see him be one of the starters in 2018.
I would expect a rotation of all four tight ends in 2018 to find the next starting pair. James Hanna can be replaced but no one will ever be able to replace Jason Witten. All-time greats don't grow on trees. All the team can hope for is that the position doesn't suffer too much as a result.
The good news is that the main core from last season's dominant defensive line is back: DeMarcus Lawrence, David Irving, Maliek Collins, Taco Charlton and Tyrone Crawford. Add the return of promising players such as Lewis Neal and Charles Tapper, the additions of Kony Ealy and Jihad Ward, as well as drafting Dorance Armstrong Jr. and the team looks as deep along the defensive line as it has looked in years.
However, a big hole that needed addressing this off-season was finding a permanent nose tackle. Brian Price is a solid rotation player, and Maliek Collins has shown to be much more effective at the three technique. Yet the didn't address the need.
I expect the team to add another defensive tackle at some point to better fill the hole. Some options have been a possible reunion with Terrell McClain, who played in Dallas from 2014-16, or possibly undrafted defensive tackle, DeQuinton Osborne, who was the only rookie acquisition at the position.
The defensive line was a huge strength for the Cowboys in 2017, and I expect it to be in 2018 as well. Despite the nose tackle spot still being in question, the Cowboys front four rotation looks like it could be one of the league's best.
The Cowboys linebacker group took a huge hit this off-season with the losses of Anthony Hitchens and Kyle Wilber. This left the Cowboys with just Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith and Damien Wilson.
As a starting group, it's not a bad trio, but the Cowboys had no depth to spare. Even with the off-season addition of Joe Thomas from Green Bay, the team was in dire need of depth.
They addressed the need not once but twice in the NFL Draft.
They drafted Leighton Vander Esch from Boise State in the first round and Chris Covington in the 6th round. This group won't be able to be properly judged on if it has really improved or not until the team hits the field in the fall, but the depth looks fixed and the linebackers already look like they can be better than they were a year ago.
For the first time in a long time, the secondary looks like it will be a strength for the Cowboys and not a weakness.
New secondary coach, Kris Richard has come in from the Seattle Seahawks and is looking to revamp a very talented, young secondary. He was the key creator of Seattle's Legion of Boom, which caused terror for quarterbacks all around the league for years.
The move from safety to corner looks like a great move for Byron Jones. He'll be paired with second year players Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis, on the opposite side and in the slot, respectively.
Xavier Woods is the Cowboys' most talented safety and is the most likely to play the free safety position. The other safety spot will either be occupied by an improved, hard-hitting Kavon Frazier or Jeff Heath (The G.O.A.T).
The secondary looks as solid and as talented as it has ever looked. With a great coach who can mold the secondary to a level we know they are capable of, all signs are pointing up for the Cowboys defensive backfield.
Finally, the position you probably have the most questions about. Sorry for making you wait. No position group has seen more changes this off-season than wide receiver. Let's recap.
Losses: Dez Bryant, Brice Butler, Ryan Switzer
Acquisitions: Allen Hurns, Deonte Thompson, Michael Gallup, Cedrick Wilson, Tavon Austin (reported to be a RB)
In an effort to give the team more "Dak-friendly" receivers, the team parted ways with Dez Bryant, who seemed to have chemistry problems with Prescott. In response to that, the Cowboys have options in Allen Hurns and Deonte Thompson and draft picks Michael Gallup and Cedrick Wilson.
None of them are the play-maker that Bryant was, but they all have the ability to run crisper routes, which Prescott relies on. You shouldn't be shocked if two or three of these players become main targets in the passing game.
A shocking move was the trade of Ryan Switzer after a solid rookie season. With the trade for Tavon Austin, and subsequent position change, Switzer became expendable. It wasn't a popular decision, but it made trimming the receiving core easier.
Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley, Noah Brown, Hurns, Thompson, Gallup and Wilson are the receivers on the team currently. However, Dallas usually only keeps maybe five or six on the team. Don't be surprised by anymore trades or cuts to come.
The receivers should have better chemistry with Dak Prescott than Dez Bryant had, but don't hold your breath on any big plays you hope can come from this group on day one.
BREAKING: WR Terrance Williams Gets Dropped by Dallas Cowboys
The Dallas Cowboys have ended their six-year relationship with Wide Receiver Terrance Williams. According to multiple sources, they have declined a team option on Williams' contract and he will now be an unrestricted free agent in 2019.
The move will reportedly save the Cowboys $2.25 million in salary space this year.
Williams was the team's third-round pick in 2013 and started 68 of the 83 games he played in. He developed into a solid number-two receiver by the end of his rookie deal in 2016 and was given a new four-year contract that offseason.
Terrance Williams career w/ the Cowboys is done. Sources say the club has declined the WR's option for 2019, making him a free agent. The move is no surprise. He caught just 2 passes for 18 yards last season. His departure frees up $2.25 million on the cap.
After another decent year in 2017, things took a bad turn for Terrance last season. It started with an offseason arrest for public intoxication that eventually led to a three-game suspension, although Williams served that while on injured reserve.
The Cowboys already appeared to be giving Williams' spot away when they made several offseason acquisitions at WR; Allen Hurns, Michael Gallup, and Tavon Austin all were brought in even before Terrance's arrest.
While Williams did start in two of Dallas' first three games in 2018, he only had three passes his thrown his way. The team finally put him on IR due to ongoing complications with a surgically-repaired foot.
While it didn't end well, Terrance Williams' time in Dallas was ultimately a solid return for a third-round pick. He made a few big plays and was a proficient run-blocker, good enough to start in almost 75% of the team's games since he was drafted.
The Cowboys now hope that another third-round pick, Michael Gallup in 2018, will do bigger and better things.
Dallas Cowboys 2019 Offseason Preview: Wide Receiver
The Dallas Cowboys' year in 2018 was marked by big moves at wide receiver. Dez Bryant was released in April and then a first-round pick was traded in October to add Amari Cooper. Could this 2019 offseason offer anything close to that level of activity?
Unlike last season, Dallas should enjoy some stability in its starting lineup at receiver. Cooper returns at a much higher price, with the $13.9 million cap hit from his fifth-year option coming into player. Amari cost just $412k against the Cowboys' salary cap last year.
That huge jump in cap cost may hurt but Cooper backed it up with his Pro Bowl play in 2018. The top WR contracts average $15-$17 million per year, so even now Dallas is arguably getting Amari at a bargain.
The Cowboys didn't give up a first-round pick for a year-and-a-half rental, so we can expect them to seek a long-term extension with Cooper in the near future. With the contracts of DeMarcus Lawrence and Dak Prescott more immediate concerns, any new deal for Amari probably won't come until the middle of the season or in 2020.
Not only is WR1 set for next year but Michael Gallup appears locked in as the other starter. Of his 68 targets last year, 40 came in the second half of the year. It was a great season for a third-round rookie, and there are high hopes for Gallup's development in his first full offseason.
The stability up front is a blessing for the Cowboys, but it doesn't relieve them of big decisions at the WR position this offseason. They face a particularly critical choice when it comes to the free agency of Cole Beasley.
It's hard to believe Beasley's already been in Dallas for seven seasons. An undrafted gem, Cole has been one of the team's most reliable offensive players for some time. He led them in receiving in 2016 and has been one of the most efficient, QB-friendly options for the last several years.
Beasley's contract expiring this year is only one issue. He has become very vocal lately about wanting to be a bigger part of the offense. His targets dropped tremendously over the course of 2018, which was especially evident when Cole got just five total passes thrown his way in the two playoffs games.
If Beasley wants a larger role, does that also mean he wants more money? He was making a little over $3 million/season on his last deal.
With Gallup on a cheap rookie contract, Dallas could afford to pay raise Beasley's compensation a bit. But if they don't plan to use him more than they did last year, then perhaps the two parties just aren't a good fit at this point.
If Cole walks in free agency then the Cowboys will now have to find a new number-three receiver. The next best option would be Tavon Austin, but he is also a free agent. However, he could likely be re-signed for a fraction of what Beasley would want.
Austin has the physical skills to be an offensive weapon but he doesn't have the reliable hands that Beasley does. Even if Dallas wants Tavon back solely for his skills on punt returns, they may not be ready to make him a bigger part of the offense.
One option might be promoting Noah Brown, whose at times has reminded us of a young Dez Bryant with his physical playing style. His blocking ability would lend itself to the single-back formations Dallas likes to run out of, and he's flashed some good hands in limited opportunities.
In that scenario Amari Cooper would likely play out of the slot, which he's certainly capable of with his quickness. The same would be done if Dallas went with another internal solution, such as Allen Hurns or Terrance Williams.
That said, the Cowboys are unlikely to pick up the second-year option on Hurns' contract, not wanting to pay him over $6 million in 2019 after last year's low production. It also doesn't seem likely that they want to keep Williams after last year's issues.
Taking all of that into consideration, Dallas may very well be doing some WR shopping in free agency. Fortunately for them, it's a favorable market if you're looking for a slot receiver.
On top of Beasley and Austin already in the free agent pool, Golden Tate could at least match Cole's play if not potentially offer an upgrade. Baltimore's John Brown, Tampa's Adam Humphries, and Washington's Jamison Crowder are all other proven options. Emmanuel Sanders, while not currently a free agent, is a very possible cap casualty for the Broncos.
Guys like Humphries and Crowder are younger than Beasley and could provide better long-term value on their contract. That may be a more attractive option at this point for the Cowboys.
Dallas won't need to add a lot of bodies at WR thanks to a few young prospects. They still have Lance Lenoir and Cedrick Wilson under contract, plus signed 2015 second-round pick Devin Smith as a potential rehabilitation project.
But again, these guys are all just bodies right now. Lenoir has had his opportunities and not done much with them, though he does offer some value as a potential return man. Wilson spent his rookie season on injured reserve.
The Cowboys could still look at a receiver with one of their mid-round draft picks, but it's hard to get much production early there. Last year's play from Michael Gallup was a surprise for a third-rounder.
It's far more likely that Dallas will either work things out with Cole Beasley or pursue a veteran replacement in free agency.
So no, thankfully, we don't have to worry about any monumental changes at the top of the WR depth chart in 2019. But Beasley was more than just a third receiver, and keeping or replacing him will have a significant impact on the offense going forward.
If Dallas is truly ready to commit to Dak Prescott as the quarterback of the future then they can't take anything about his receiving options lightly. Therefore, wide receiver remains an important offseason focus for the Cowboys in 2019.
Defense, Not Offense, Should Be Dallas Cowboys Offseason Focus
Last week our own Brian Martin asked whether offense or defense should be the priority for the Dallas Cowboys this offseason. We know that the team will look to make some additions on both sides of the football to help their team take the next step toward hopefully contending for a Lombardi Trophy in 2019.
Brian took the stance that the Cowboys front office brain trust of Jerry Jones, Stephen Jones, and Will McClay along with Head Coach Jason Garrett should prioritize the offensive side of the football.
Here’s what he had to say:
Surprisingly enough, the Dallas Cowboys really don't have any glaring needs on the defensive side of the ball either. After finishing as one of the top defensive units in 2018, they will have nearly all of their starters returning for the 2019 season. But much like on the offensive side of the ball, there could be two starting spots up for grabs...
...If Cole Beasley does indeed leave via free agency, that's a big blow to the passing game. But, it's not just him. Other than their rushing attack, the Cowboys offense was ranked in the bottom half of the league in nearly every other category. With Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan now gone we can hope that improves, but that doesn't mean improving the offense shouldn't be the Cowboys main offseason focus though.
Brian Martin - Inside The Star
I get his reasoning, though I disagree with the first point being made. Yes, the defense has a lot of really good players that are developing, but I think there a couple obvious areas where upgrades can be made. First, at safety, where Jeff Heath continues to be a frustrating player, as evidenced by the final play against the Rams. Secondly, the defensive tackle spot could definitely use an infusion of talent.
I believe the priority needs to continue to build on a defense that was surprisingly good, and downright dominant in their win over the New Orleans Saints, in 2018. However, despite finishing sixth in the NFL in points allowed, seventh in yards allowed, and fifth in rushing yards allowed, they were middle of the pack against the pass and had the sixth worst third down conversion percentage allowed.
They were a defense that got away with being excellent against the run and excellent in the red zone, allowing a touchdown only 51% of the time their opponent reached the red zone. They allowed the sixth fewest touchdowns in the NFL, and yet when they got into the playoffs, they weren’t nearly as good.
Sure, they held the Seattle Seahawks top ranked rushing attack in check for the game, holding them to only 73 rushing yards. The Seahawks threw for only 226 yards, but there offensive staff was insistent on running the football even though Russell Wilson was playing pretty well in the second half. The Seahawks were hitting the Cowboys for big plays that allowed them to make the game closer than it should have been. Had they tilted the run-pass ratio a bit more to put the ball in Russell Wilson's hands earlier in the game, it's possible that the game has a different outcome.
Against the Rams, we saw the Dallas Cowboys interior get bullied while both CJ Anderson and Todd Gurley rushed for more than 100 yards. Maliek Collins and Antwaun Woods were good for a lot of the year as the primary defensive tackles for the Dallas Cowboys, but with them ailing because of injury and illness, the Cowboys didn't have many answers for the Rams offensive interior. Their ineffectiveness in the divisional round led to Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch, and Sean Lee being generally ineffective as well.
While the Dallas Cowboys can feel pretty good about what the defense did last season, there's no way they can go into the 2019 season satisfied with what they'll be working with. In addition to playing the their NFC East opponents twice, with the Eagles and Giants able to score points and the Redskins typically a tough matchup, they'll play the New England Patriots, the Los Angeles Rams, the Green Bay Packers, the Minnesota Vikings, the New Orleans Saints, and the Detroit Lions. All of those teams are capable of scoring a lot of points if the defense isn't having its best day. Throw in teams like the New York Jets, Buffalo Bills, and Chicago Bears, and you have three young offenses that are growing and fully capable of scoring points as well.
The Dallas Cowboys front office has to go into the offseason ready to make upgrades to their defensive personnel. With the safeties that are available this offseason -- Earl Thomas, Landon Collins, Tre Boston, Tyrann Mathieu, and several other intriguing names -- the Cowboys will have an opportunity to upgrade the safety position. Between the draft and free agency, defensive tackle will be a high priority position for the Cowboys.
I know that many are looking at the offense and the steps that they need to make moving forward to be legit contenders, and they do have some improvements to make, but they look to be a unit that is trending in the right direction. Some better coaching for Dak Prescott and the offense should help them moving forward. A full offseason for Dak to work with Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, Blake Jarwin, and Dalton Schultz should improve the chemistry between Prescott and his top receiving threats.
Yes, there are areas that need to be upgraded on offense and they may have to deal with filling the gap left by Cole Beasley if he does leave. The front office, however, can't go into the offseason satisfied with where they sit on the defensive side of the football. They are building something and are a couple of pieces away from having a truly elite defense. Finding those couple of pieces -- a safety and a pass rushing defensive tackle -- are of the utmost priority this offseason if the Dallas Cowboys want to head back to the postseason in 2019.
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