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Cowboys 2018 Draft Needs: Tight End

Jess Haynie

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Jason Witten, Redskins

Since 2004, tight end Jason Witten has started all but two games for the Dallas Cowboys. While he is set to return in 2018, the team should already be thinking about the future. As such, they may take a new TE high in this upcoming draft.

While one would expect Witten to retire after this year, nothing is certain. The elder statesman of the roster, Jason can likely remain a Cowboy as long as his heart desires and his body allows. He's too much of a leader and ally of the coaching staff for anything less.

Witten's contact runs until 2021. While that was simply an accounting mechanism to keep his salary cap hit lower, it does mean he can technically keeping coming back until it expires or the team releases him.

It would be nice if Dallas was already grooming somebody to take Witten's spot, but none of their current backups have shown enough to merit that assumption.

Part of that is on the coaches and Jason, though. His stranglehold on the TE position has left few snaps for other guys to ever show their stuff. Not even second-round picks like Martellus Bennett or Gavin Escobar could get much run behind the cornerstone Cowboy.

Cowboys Headlines - Cowboys Have Another Option To Play Fullback On Roster 1

Dallas Cowboys TE Geoff Swaim (James D. Smith via AP)

The rare glimpses we've had of Geoff Swaim and James Hanna make them seem like competent players with upside. But "rare" is the key word there, and guys taken in the sixth and seventh rounds of their drafts aren't expected to take over such a critical offensive position.

What's more, both may not be long for the roster.

Swaim's rookie contract expires after 2018. He may earn a new deal to remain a depth piece, but it would probably be similar to the modest contract that Hanna got in 2016.

Speaking of, Hanna is now in the final year of that deal. He turns 29 in July and is unlikely to get a new contract after this season.

In fact, Hanna may not even make this year's squad as Dallas can create $2.75 million in cap space by releasing him. If the team ends up pursuing a trade for Earl Thomas, even with the savings from releasing Dez Bryant, they might need a little more cap room to facilitate that deal and their other offseason business.

Even if not for cap reasons, Dallas may go with younger players in 2018. They may want to give Swaim more responsibility to see if he merits a new deal.

They may also want to finally see what Rico Gathers can do.

Rico Gathers, Rams

Dallas Cowboys TE Rico Gathers

While quarterback Cooper Rush was the star of the 2017 preseason, Gathers wasn't far behind. Now entering his third season, the converted basketball player has yet to appear in a regular season game.

Officially, Gathers missed last season with issues related to a concussion as well as injuries to his jaw and neck. But there is also talk that the coaches aren't sold on his attitude, which typically means work ethic.

Rico has a lot of ground to make up from not playing football in college. While he can be a dynamic threat against backup defenders in preseason, it takes way more to earn regular season snaps.

Some guys couldn't make the transition no matter how hard they tried. If Gathers isn't giving max effort, he may never get a chance.

Also on the roster is Blake Jarwin, an undrafted free agent last year. The Cowboys thought enough to sign him to the active roster last October to avoid his being poached by the Eagles, but that's about all we know.

So while the team has some intriguing players behind Witten, the prospect of Jason's retirement next year means they want to be ready. There are some solid Day 2 prospects in this draft class, and Dallas will certainly have them on the radar.

While I wouldn't expect a TE in the first round, a Friday selection is a strong bet.

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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!

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NFL Draft

Cowboys Draft Target: Washington Safety Taylor Rapp

Kevin Brady

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Cowboys Draft Target: Washington Safety Taylor Rapp
AP Photo/David Zalubowski

While most fans are hoping the Cowboys snag a different safety who played his football in the state of Washington, Huskies safety Taylor Rapp should be towards the top of their draft targets on day two.

The Cowboys have some decisions to make when it comes to their back-end, particularly at safety. Do they want to pursue a full time strong safety type who can play in the box, allowing Xavier Woods to play solely as the centerfield free safety? Or would they rather add a hybrid safety who can play in that deep third role, giving their defense more flexibility in how they utilize Woods moving forward?

If their answer to this question is to go with a more traditional strong safety, and slot Woods into one permanent role, then Washington's Taylor Rapp could be the right man in this draft class.

The Player

Taylor Rapp is not the single-high safety that I would typically value high in an NFL draft. He lacks the range to really play that centerfield role, and doesn't have the speed or agility to project to this role in the NFL. No one ever gets behind him, but that's more due to ridiculously deep alignment than excellent coverage skills.

Where Rapp does excel, though, is playing forward and downhill. Rapp is aggressive both in his pursuit of plays and in his tackling. He tackles with good technique as well, and can absolutely lay the wood when coming up to hit receivers over the middle. Rapp plays how you'd expect your old-school strong safety to play, and projects as a split-zone and box safety at the next level.

Rapp isn't anything special in man coverage, but he executes well at times. He's at his best when asked to cover tight ends in man coverage, something which would certainly be valued both in today's NFL and on this version of the Cowboys' defense. I wouldn't be as comfortable lining him up against shifty slot receivers over the middle, but he can match up well physically with tight ends in man.

Overall, Rapp is one of the best tacklers I've seen in this draft class so far, and with his instincts, size and physicality he will serve as a solid strong safety at the next level.

The Fit

I don't see Taylor Rapp as the typical versatile chess-piece the Cowboys have valued when drafting defensive backs in recent years. He does what he does well, but they would be ill-advised to mess with his alignment too often or try to make him fit into a different role. He's not going to move all over the field like Xavier Woods can, but he can certainly fit the Cowboys' current need for a strong safety.

Many fans want the Cowboys to pursue Landon Collins in free agency, but if they strike out there, Rapp could be their consolation prize in the NFL draft.

No, he's not as good as Landon Collins. Let me make that perfectly clear. But for a day two pick Rapp could fit a similar role to what Collins would here in Dallas: a strong safety who will play primarily in the box and cover tight ends in man.



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NFL Draft

Should the Dallas Cowboys Make Offensive Tackle a Draft Priority?

Brian Martin

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Should Dallas Cowboys Make Offensive Tackle a Draft Priority?

The 2019 NFL Draft will be an interesting one for the Dallas Cowboys. From the outside looking in it doesn't seem as if they have any clear "needs" that need to be addressed. But, if you were to dive deeper into their roster you'd probably discover things might not be as stable as we'd like to believe.

The Dallas Cowboys could obviously stand to upgrade several positions. So far this offseason wide receiver, tight end, and safety have been at the forefront of the discussion, but one position not being mentioned is offensive tackle. Why?

There has to be growing concerns within the organization about Tyron Smith's inability to stay healthy for an entire season. He has a bothersome back and it has continued to make him unavailable for at least two or three games these past few seasons. How much longer can they afford to roll the dice with his back issues?

Then there is La'el Collins, who is entering a contract year in 2019. Collins' best attribute during his time with the Cowboys is probably his availability. He's battled through some injuries himself these past couple years, but managed to play through it. Unfortunately though, his career has been up-and-down since taking over as the starting right tackle. It's probably time to find his successor.

La'el Collins

Dallas Cowboys RT La'el Collins

Sadly, Dallas doesn't have much offensive tackle depth behind Smith and Collins. Cameron Fleming, the Cowboys swing tackle in 2018, is now a free agent and is probably looking to join a team where he can earn a little more playing time. The only other OT candidate on the roster might be Connor Williams, but even that's an unknown sense he's never played tackle in the NFL.

I don't know what the Cowboys brass thinks of all of this, but I find it more than a little concerning. We know all too well what happens when the OT play isn't up to par. Chaz Green anyone!? That game alone against the Falcons is one we would all like to forget, but serves as a reminder of just how important it is to have an emergency plan in place.

The Cowboys of course have one or two ways of solidifying their tackle position. They can use free agency once again to find a swing tackle like they did with Cameron Fleming last year, or they can use one of their draft picks this year. The latter seems to be the wiser move, especially with Collins' contract coming to an end.

The Dallas Cowboys may have Tyron Smith and La'el Collins as their starters for the upcoming 2019 season, but it's never too early to start preparing for the future. That's why it wouldn't surprise me at all if Dallas used one of their draft picks this year on an offensive tackle. In fact, I'd encourage it.

I really like the idea of providing some competition at the RT position. If La'el Collins wins out fine. The rookie OT can then serve as the swing tackle and take over next season when Collins' contract expires. But, if the rookie wins Collins could also be become a trade asset. Sounds like a win-win to me.

Do you think offensive tackle should be a Dallas Cowboys draft priority?



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NFL Draft

Cowboys Draft Target: Kentucky CB Lonnie Johnson Jr.

Kevin Brady

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Cowboys Draft Target: Kentucky CB Lonnie Johnson Jr.

Since Kris Richard has taken over the back-end of the Dallas Cowboys defense, they have clearly shown a bias towards a "type" of cornerback. Richard, looking to build this Dallas unit in a similar form to his Seattle teams, has prioritized long corners both in height and arm length.

As his responsibilities within the organization increase, it's only fair to expect Kris Richard to have more say in who the Cowboys' defense acquires in terms of talent. This means we should anticipate more defensive backs who fit his type, such as Kentucky Wildcats cornerback Lonnie Johnson Jr.

The Player

So why does Lonnie Johnson fit the mold of what Kris Richard tends to look for? Well, for starters, he is 6'3" and 206 lbs with 32 1/4" arms. He's a long corner with excellent size and the trait profile which indicates he could be the perfect candidate to play cornerback in Dallas.

But while he might look great on paper, the tape is always the most important factor for evaluating and projecting talent. And, for Johnson, the tape isn't all-that great. Despite his length, Johnson struggled mightily in press-man coverage at Kentucky. Too often he is late or ineffective with his hands, leaving him susceptible to being blown by by the opposing receiver. He often loses balance due to poor footwork, and is rather average with his hips and quick change of direction.

Where Johnson was his best in college was in zone coverage, playing his deep third of Kentucky's cover-three look. Rarely did he allow receivers behind him in zone coverage, and displayed good instincts when deciding whether to jump routes or play more conservatively when playing in that deep third. He was not nearly as comfortable underneath, and Kentucky didn't ask him to play in that role too often. Because of how big he is, Johnson is able to contest at the catch point regularly, yet he only deflected 9 passes in 2 years.

What gives me the most hope for Lonnie Johnson as a prospect (besides his length) is his Senior Bowl performance. Johnson impressed daily at the Senior Bowl, looking more comfortable in man coverage and playing much better in his press technique.

Was this Johnson becoming more comfortable over time and a sign of things to come at the next level, or was it an anomaly that we shouldn't read too much into? The answer to that question is up to the individual teams, but his combine performance will play a huge role in how those teams answer.

The Fit

As I've discussed already, Lonnie Johnson Jr. fits what Kris Richard tends to look for in his cornerbacks. He is long, tall, and relatively athletic, making him a clay piece for a coach like Richard to develop.

The question is, however, how much development can really occur? The highs for Johnson are rather high when he maximizes his natural abilities on the field. But too often he is sloppy in technique, or looks lost in man coverage. Whether or not Richard can "fix" Johnson completely may never be seen, but teams (especially this one) could fall in love with him as a prospect for what he can become if it all comes together.



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