We're a week removed from the 2017 NFL Draft. With all of the picks and the wave of undrafted free agent signings now known, it's a good time to take stock of the Cowboys roster and see what it may look like after final cuts.
Obviously, a lot will happen between now and the end of preseason. Injuries and surprising play, for good or bad, can move guys up and down the depth chart. What we think of some of these guys now could change dramatically after a big preseason performance.
That said, we'll do the best we can. Here is my best guess, based on current information, at the Cowboys 53-man roster come Week One.
Dak Prescott, Kellen Moore
With no draft picks spent on a developmental QB, Dallas will likely go back to the days of having just two passers on the active roster. They did sign Florida's Austin Appleby and Central Michigan's Cooper Rush as undrafted free agents, one of whom will likely be on the practice squad next year.
Barring injuries or a very unexpected surge from one of the rookies, Prescott and Moore should go unchallenged in their roles. Despite his 2015 struggles and missed time last year, Dallas still thought enough to bring Kellen back and leave him without any real competition for the backup job. It's a vote of confidence from the front office, even if many fans don't share it.
Running Backs (4)
Ezekiel Elliott, Darren McFadden, Rod Smith, Keith Smith (FB)
With Elliott getting workhorse carries it takes some of the pressure off the rest of the depth chart. Once he came off the Non-Football Injury list last year, McFadden was clearly the number-two back and pushed Alfred Morris into oblivion. As I wrote about yesterday, I don't expect Morris to make the 2017 roster.
Rod Smith provides far better value as a third running back than Morris. He has been a strong special teams player and gives a short-yardage option in case Zeke's not available. After last year, he could also serve as a backup fullback.
There won't be any competition at FB this year, though, as Keith Smith emerged as a solid starter. He doesn't get the same number of snaps as some of the top FBs in the league, but Smith shows up as a run-blocker and provides versatility both on special teams and as an emergency linebacker.
The top three were never in doubt. To the surprise of many, Dallas re-signed Williams to a four-year deal and will have all of the same primary skill-position players on the offense. As Stephen Jones said in a recent press conference, they did not foresee being able to draft or sign anyone who could give them an upgrade so bringing Terrance back made the most sense.
Dallas used a fourth-round pick to add North Carolina's Ryan Switzer, who should knock Lucky Whitehead off the roster as the new primary return man. He has been compared to Cole Beasley (and all the other small white receivers) and should compete for targets immediately.
I had a tough time deciding between Noah Brown and Brice Butler. Ultimately, I went with Brown given his raw ability and what he could be after the coaches get their hands on him. Dallas seems ready to move on from Butler, giving him a minimal one-year deal that felt like nothing more than insurance. As long as Brown or another young guy, like Andy Jones, step up then Butler should be gone.
Tight Ends (4)
Jason Witten, James Hanna, Geoff Swaim, Rico Gathers
This foursome has felt set for a while. While Dallas could have used a high pick on Witten's eventual replacement, it's always seemed more prudent to use 2017 to see just what all of these current options can really do. If a young guy like Swaim or Gathers can really blossom, you may have found your answer for a fraction of the cost.
We should not dismiss James Hanna, either. Dallas clearly thought highly of him last year when they re-signed him for almost $3 million per season. Hanna is the best blocking TE and has the athleticism to be dangerous in the receiving game. He will have to fight off the youngsters for his spot, but Hanna has the skills to do it.
Offensive Tackles (4)
Tyron Smith, Chaz Green, Emmett Cleary, Byron Bell
Doug Free's retirement left a big question mark on the right end of the Cowboys' offensive line. I was content with a competition between Green and Cleary for the job, but Dallas also signed veteran Byron Bell as another contender.
Chaz Green will have the advantage as a former third-round pick. Teams are naturally biased towards drafted players, particularly when they went that high. That will be the tiebreaker if everything's even between Chaz and the other two guys.
The nice thing with Bell is that he could also play guard, giving him versatility that should preserve a roster spot even if he doesn't win the starting job. Given Chaz Green's injury history, I see them keeping Cleary around also.
Zack Martin, La'el Collins, Jonathan Cooper
While we may regret having to lose Ronald Leary in free agency, the picture above reminds us that La'el Collins is seen as a first-round talent. This was always his job; only an injury kept him away from it last year. Now he has to play up that level to reward the Cowboys' faith.
As long as he can stay healthy and motivated, Jonathan Cooper should hold down the backup job. He's a former first-round pick who's had bad luck with injuries and never finding the right fit. If he really stands out, there's potential for him to earn a starting role while Collins gets moved out to right tackle. That's another reason why Byron Bell's potential as an interior player comes in handy.
Travis Frederick, Joe Looney
There's not much to say at this spot. Frederick is as entrenched as they get with his long-term deal and 1st-team All-Pro status. He, Tyron Smith, and Zack Martin will all be Cowboys longer than most guys on the current roster.
Joe Looney feels secure as the backup center but could see competition from Jonathan Cooper. I expect both to make the team, though, as veteran options for a team looking to make a championship run.
Defensive Ends (4)
DeMarcus Lawrence, Benson Mayowa, Charles Tapper, Taco Charlton
Four may seem light but keep in mind that David Irving and Tyrone Crawford have flexibility to play DE as well. These are clearly the top four options as outside rushers, though, and how the snaps get divided will be interesting to track all season.
We've seen Lawrence play at a high level, getting seven sacks in the final eight games of 2015. If he can avoid injury and get back to that then he may still earn a contract extension. However, Dallas didn't spend a first-round pick on Taco Charlton for nothing. Even if Lawrence has a good year, he may still get forced out by the rookie.
Charles Tapper brings plenty of intrigue, as well. Many felt he played out of position in college and will blossom as a 4-3 end. He will get every opportunity to do so as Rod Marinelli will keep tinkering until he finds the most potent mix.
Defensive Tackle (5)
David Irving, Tyrone Crawford, Maliek Collins, Cedric Thornton, Stephen Paea
This position is loaded with solid players but now we need someone to emerge as a star. The best candidates for that are Irving and Collins, who were both flashing greatness last season.
This season could be the last for all three veterans. Both Tyrone Crawford and Cedric Thornton could be cap casualties in 2018 and Stephen Paea was signed to just a one-year deal. If the young players emerge as we hope then these three may all be competing for a single spot as a veteran reserve next year.
Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith, Damien Wilson, Anthony Hitchens, Kyle Wilber, Mark Nzeocha, Jeremiah George
The Cowboys did not add any significant linebacker talent in the draft, as some thought they would, so this group should remain intact. Jaylon Smith's debut will likely be the most anticipated of any new face, even among our 2017 rookies and free agents.
Anthony Hitchens and Damien Wilson should battle for the SAM spot. Wilson was really coming on last year and probably has the edge, especially since Hitchens is in the final year of his contract. I expect Hitch to stick around as a primary backup, though, regardless of what happens.
Given injury concerns for Smith and Mark Nzeocha, I think Dallas will keep a seventh guy on the roster. I went with Jeremiah George given his experience (21 games played) and work as a special teams player. That spot is wide open, though, for a less established prospect to emerge.
Anthony Brown, Orlando Scandrick, Nolan Carroll, Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis
This may be the most interesting position now on the whole roster. The early picks spent on Awuzie and Lewis bring intrigue and competition. The rumblings that Scandrick might get traded could affect his play, for good or bad. And all eyes will be on Anthony Brown as we hope he builds on a standout rookie year to become a top corner.
Even with the youth infusion, I expect Nolan Carroll to stick around as a veteran backup. He signed a three-year deal and should do well in our scheme.
Sixth-round rookie Marquez White could push for a roster spot but, I'm afraid, just can't fight these numbers. Ten defensive backs is already a lot. Dallas will hope they can stash him on the practice squad, but that could be difficult given his profile.
Byron Jones, Jeff Heath, Kavon Frazier, Robert, Blanton, Xavier Woods
Dallas went with five safeties last year, mostly because they were trying to keep Frazier secure as a developmental player. They may be in the same position again with Xavier Woods.
While he will have to fight for it, Jeff Heath should be your Week One starter. Veteran addition Robert Blanton could contend but is more likely to be an experienced backup and special teamer. He will have to outplay Frazier and Woods, though, to earn a job. Dallas would love to open up a roster spot if they can.
Dan Bailey (K), Chris Jones (P), L.P. Ladouceur (LS)
There's little doubt about these three. The one thing to watch is that Jones and Ladouceur are both on expiring contracts. Dallas should bring in young guys as camp bodies, but if one of them really stands out then things might get interesting. Dallas could decide hanging on to the younger prospect is more prudent.
How Does DT Christian Covington Factor in Cowboys 2019 Plans?
In what's become an almost forgotten move from this offseason, the Dallas Cowboys signed free agent Christian Covington in March to add depth at defensive tackle. After four years with Houston, Covington joins the Cowboys as they work to find consistency and increased solidity in the middle of the line. Can Christian help them do that in 2019?
Dallas gave Covington just a one-year, $1.5 million contract as 2019 free agency began. He is being asked to convert to a 4-3 DT after playing DE in the Texans' 3-4 defense.
In four years as a backup, Covington amassed 7.5 sacks and 65 tackles. He's coming off a career-high 3.5 sacks in 2018 in just 12 games. That's solid production for a 3-4 DE, and especially one whose job is to help set up guys like J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney to get to the quarterback.
The Cowboys have seen the transition work before. In 2013, Jason Hatcher had a breakout year with 11 sacks after converting to a 4-3 DT. That was Rod Marinelli's first year coaching in Dallas.
Marinelli must think he can do something with Covington as well. Dallas signed Christian just one day after free agency opened, clearly having targeted him ahead of time.
No, I don't think Covington is going to break out the way Hatcher did. And the Cowboys clearly felt they needed more help when they drafted DT Trysten Hill in April.
But the Covington addition shouldn't be ignored as we project who makes Dallas' 53-man roster this season.
Right now Dallas has Maliek Collins, Antwaun Woods, and Daniel Ross returning from last year's team. They've added Covington and Hill this offseason, and also still have Tyrone Crawford who can play on the inside.
Basic roster math offers little chance that all six of these players make the team. So who's most in danger?
Crawford has the bad contract and the potential for a suspension with his current legal issue. But he's also valuable for veteran leadership, as a previous team captain, and his versatility as a DE option.
Maliek Collins is entering the final year of his rookie deal, and the drafting of Trysten Hill suggests that he probably doesn't return in 2020. Dallas can save about $2 million by trading or releasing Maliek this year.
Dallas brought back Daniel Ross because it was easy; an Exclusive Rights Free Agent with a minimal contract. That said, he has flashed some ability and is more than just a camp body.
The only locks are the rookie Hill and Antwaun Woods, who was looking like the team's best DT by the end of last season. The rest of the depth chart will be some combination of Collins, Covington, Crawford, or Ross, and that's if undrafted rookie Daniel Wise doesn't also push for a roster spot.
It'd be easy dismiss Covington given his minor contract and lack of time in the system. But Dallas signed him for a reason, and they made it their very first move when free agency began.
If I had to put money on who does and doesn't make the team in 2019, I'd bet on Christian Covington before Maliek Collins or Tyrone Crawford. All three could make it, but I'm less confident in the other two.
Where Does Dak Prescott Rank Among NFL Quarterbacks?
The quarterback position is one of the most difficult positions to evaluate in the NFL. As hard as it can be for a quarterback to understand and execute an offense against a defense that is trying to keep them off balance, it can be equally difficult to try and determine where each quarterback ranks compared to his peers.
Last week, The Sporting News attempted to do just that with their 2019 Quarterback Rankings. It's a pretty good list, and I highly recommend checking it out.
This was the criteria for how Vinnie Iyer,
"These rankings are based on how each QB performed last season and the upside of how each might perform in 2019. No matter how many Super Bowl rings or MVP awards a QB has won, or the number of efficient passing seasons he has posted in the past, history is a small part of the equation. We thought about where each QB ended up last season in terms of effectiveness, production and durability, and then we thought even more about how his talent and offensive support set him up for success (or lack thereof) this season."
Vinnie Iyer - The Sporting News
Dak Prescott came in at number 14 on the list, three spots behind NFC East counterpart Carson Wentz.
Here's what NFL Analyst Vinnie Iyer had to say:
"Prescott dazzled as a rookie in 2016 and slumped as a sophomore in 2017. Last season, he was closer to his rookie form in a year that largely landed between both extremes. Prescott got hot in the second half of the season once he clicked with new No. 1 wideout Amari Cooper, creating a trickle-down effect that should continue with more legitimate overall weapons in 2019."
Vinnie Iyer - The Sporting News
While these lists are rather subjective and it can be a difficult task, I think Vinnie's pretty close on where Dak Prescott sits in the NFL at this point in his career.
It's hard to argue with his top five. Each could have an argument for being the best quarterback in the NFL. Patrick Mahomes just won the NFL MVP, Tom Brady has won all the Super Bowls, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers put up ridiculous numbers year in and year out, and Russell Wilson was just made the highest paid player in NFL history.
While I think Dak probably sits in the 9-15 range, here are the five quarterbacks ranked ahead or Prescott.
9. Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns
10. Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers
11. Carson Wentz, Philadelphia Eagles
12. Jared Goff, Los Angeles Rams
13. DeShaun Watson, Houston Texans
I feel there's an argument to be made that Prescott is a few spots to low.
As an avid Oklahoma Sooners homer, I find it a bit presumptuous to have Baker Mayfield as one of the 10 best quarterbacks in the NFL. Mostly because he's only played 14 games at this point in his NFL career. Mayfield had a tremendous rookie season and has given Cleveland Browns fans hope that the franchise is finally headed in the right direction. As much as I love Baker Mayfield and think he's going to be a great NFL quarterback, it's hard for me to put him in the top 10 at this point in his career.
Ben Roethlisberger is easily a top 10 quarterback. He has skins on the wall and over the last several seasons has been a prolific passer in the NFL. Some of the games he plays in the offseason talking about retirement aren't great, but it's hard to argue he hasn't had a borderline Hall of Fame career.
The most difficult argument I think comes when you compare Dak Prescott and DeShaun Watson. The two seem to be on similar career trajectories at this point.
Watson has a better passer rating, a slightly better completion percentage and has more total touchdowns per game than Dak Prescott for his career. If Watson had played as many games as Dak Prescott to this point, at his current touchdown rate, he'd have 108 total touchdowns. 23 more than Dak Prescott.
The two that I have the biggest issue with on this list are the two he gets compared to the most because they were taken first and second overall in the same draft that Dak Prescott was taken in the fourth round; Jared Goff and Carson Wentz.
Dak Prescott's thrown for near as many touchdowns as Carson Wentz, who leads the three, but if you consider how many touchdowns Prescott's rushed for in his career, he sits 13 total touchdowns ahead of Wentz and 16 total touchdowns more than Jared Goff. Dak Prescott has a better career passer rating than both of those quarterbacks and is right there in yards per attempt with both guys.
Dak Prescott can claim more team success than Carson Wentz. One could argue that Jared Goff didn't play his best on the way to representing the NFC in the most recent Super Bowl. Dak Prescott has started every game of his NFL career while Carson Wentz has missed eight games due to season-ending injuries each of the last two seasons. Durability is a huge issue for Wentz at this point. I'd rather have the guy who you know will be on the field.
If I were going to rerank Dak Prescott with the five quarterbacks ranked directly ahead of him, I'd go:
9. Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers
10. DeShaun Watson, Houston Texans
11. Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns
12. Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys
13. Carson Wentz, Philadelphia Eagles
14. Jared Goff, Los Angeles Rams
Of course, this is my attempt to be as unbiased as possible and would completely understand if you wanted to rank them differently. There's no perfect way to rank players in the NFL and I applaud the Sporting News guys for giving it this effort. I can see arguments for Ben Roethlisberger, Baker Mayfield, and DeShaun Watson ahead of Dak Prescott, but that's as far as I'm willing to go.
Dak Prescott is a top 12 quarterback in the NFL and an ascending player in this league.
If you were going to rank the six quarterbacks listed above, how would you rank them? Let us know in the comment section.
5 Worst Contracts for 2019 Dallas Cowboys
The Dallas Cowboys have done great work the last few years of shedding bad contracts and getting out of "salary cap hell." However, even this relative fiscal paradise of 2019 isn't perfect. Today, we're going to look at the five worst deals that Dallas still has on the books.
These contracts are only active as of now, in the middle of May, and could be gone by the time we gets to Week One. We'll discuss those possibilities as we go through each player.
What you'll realize fairly quickly with this exercise is that it's a stretch to even say the Cowboys have five "bad" contracts on the team at this point. That's how well the front office has done in learning from the past and getting things to a much more manageable and equitable point throughout the roster.
Maybe that changes in a few years. Some of the big contracts on our All-Pro offensive linemen may lose value as those players start to decline with age and/or health issues. Or perhaps the upcoming new contracts for Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper, Byron Jones, Ezekiel Elliott, and others will turn out to be retrospective mistakes.
But those are conversations and articles for future offseason. For here and now, 2019, here are the five worst contracts on the Dallas Cowboys roster.
DL Tyrone Crawford - $10.1 million cap hit
I know I've been picking on Crawford a lot lately, but that's what happens when you have easily the worst contract on the roster. Tyrone has the second-highest cap hit on the defense and sixth overall on the entire team, and that's an obvious imbalance compared to where he ranks among the Cowboys' top players.
This situation isn't Crawford's fault. Dallas thought they were making a shrewd move by giving Tyrone a sizable contract back in 2015. They expected him to blossom as the 3-tech DT under Rod Marinelli.
That boom never happened, and as a result Crawford's contract ultimately became a bust. He's been valuable as a leader and having DE/DT flex, but he's never been a top player on defense even when he was the highest paid.
I wrote more extensively on what Tyrone's future with the Cowboys might be, especially with the June-1st date looming for potential roster cuts. His job security has taken some big hits lately with the drafting of Trysten Hill and now legal issues, which could result in a minor suspension for Crawford in 2019.
We'll see if Tyrone Crawford makes it to the 2019 roster. He still has value with his versatility and generally solid play, but that overpaying contract could ultimately be his demise.
WR Allen Hurns - $6.25 million cap hit
The only other contract which is truly "bad" for the Cowboys belongs to veteran receiver Allen Hurns. It gives him the 11th-highest cap hit on the roster, and this for a guy who projects to be no higher than fourth on the WR depth chart.
The week before free agency opened in March, Dallas picked up an option to keep Hurns in 2019. It's always felt like an insurance move; Hurns can be released with just $1.25 million in dead money at any point this offseason.
Dallas is likely hanging onto Hurns until they get through the preseason without any injuries to Amari Cooper or Michael Gallup. It'd be nice to have Allen if something happens to them; he has plenty of starting experience and can be an every-down receiver. Guys like Randall Cobb or Tavon Austin aren't built that way, while Noah Brown isn't experienced enough.
Assuming everyone gets to September intact then I expect Hurns will be released. It's hard to imagine Dallas carrying him as a backup with that cap hit, and especially if they have younger guys like Brown or Cedrick Wilson that they want to utilize.
So no, Hurns' contract shouldn't cost the Cowboys for long. If he stays then it's because he's needed for a starting role, in which case $6 million is reasonable. But if he's going to spend most of the year on the sideline, Dallas has an easy out that I expect they'll utilize soon.
LB Sean Lee - $6 million cap hit
This is another one where how bad the contract is could shift depending on how much the player is needed in 2019. Even with a negotiated pay cut, Sean Lee's still making more than most of the starting defense.
Paying Lee this much to play SAM and then backup Smith and Vander Esch on the nickel is a bit high, even for what he brings as a mentor and coach on the field. But Dallas was willing to overpay for the intangibles, plus the hope that Lee could still play at a high level if called upon.
The biggest concern with Sean Lee, as it's ever been, is his health. He can still ball but has reverted to injury-prone issues in recent seasons. Perhaps a lesser role with fewer snaps will help in that area.
Again, I don't even know if I'd call this a "bad" deal. We have yet to see how much Dallas plans to rotate Lee with their young studs, and he brings things to the LB room that a guy like Damien Wilson never could.
The major liability here is if Lee gets hurt, in which case Dallas basically has a solid chunk of cap space tied up in an assistant coach.
TE Jason Witten - $4.25 million cap hit
You can apply some similar logic to Witten's deal from what we just discussed with Sean Lee. If he contributes on the field then it's not a bad deal. But if age and time away from the game have caused Jason's skills to slip too far, then this is a lot of money to pay for a backup TE.
Like Lee, Witten will hopefully offer a great deal as a mentor for Blake Jarwin, Dalton Schultz, and any other young tight ends. He can't make them any more talented, but he can at least help maximize whatever potential they have.
But again, without actual on-field contributions, that mean you're spending valuable salary cap space on coaching. That money could've gone to someone like Jared Cook for a more simple and immediate boost to your offensive firepower.
As we said at the outset, most of these contracts are only conditionally bad. If Witten's year off allowed him to heal and rest and come back with renewed vigor in 2019, then it could wind up being a great deal for the Cowboys.
Father Time may ultimately be undefeated, but he doesn't win every round. Hopefully Jason can fight him off for at least one more year.
DE Taco Charlton - $2.74 million cap hit
Taco's disappointing start to his NFL career has made his rookie contact, which is usually team-friendly, a bit of dead weight on the Cowboys' books. Unless Charlton take a big step forward this year, the Cowboys are stuck paying him like a significant contributor for the next two seasons.
Dallas would get no cap relief cutting Taco this year; his cap hit stays roughly the same if cut after June 1st. It would also push another $1.35 million in dead money onto 2020. Therefore, unless the situation between team and player has become truly toxic, or a trade partner emerges, the Cowboys should hang on to their 2017 first-round pick at least thru 2019.
Ideally, Charlton will emerge this year as a more consistent and motivated roleplayer. There's little chance that he'll start with Robert Quinn coming in, but Charlton could still claim the role of a major rotation piece if he's had some more development.
If that happens, Taco's deal will become far less worrisome. That's a modest salary for a solid backup at most positions, and especially at defensive end.
If Charlton doesn't improve, though, Dallas will finally be able to get some savings if they cut his deal in 2020. In that scenario, he probably isn't around long enough to make this list a year from now.
~ ~ ~
What makes a contract bad or good is subjective. You might look at those huge cap hits on deals for guys like DeMarcus Lawrence or Zack Martin and think they're the biggest problems. But if you're getting All-Pro play at fair market value, you really can't criticize those salary numbers.
It will be interesting to see what happens the next few years with guys like Travis Frederick and Tyron Smith, whose health issues could change how we perceive their contracts. Both are still young enough to play at a high level, but could we adding one of them to this list in the next year or two?
A few years from now, we make look back on 2019 as an anomaly. Having to reach to find enough contracts to make this list is a great problem to have.
I just hope it stays that way.
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