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Cowboys 2019 Offseason: Building a Depth Chart With Current Contracts

Jess Haynie

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Cowboys 2017 Roster Projection: Preseason Week 2
Richard Mackson / USA TODAY Sports

In just a little over a month, a new league year and the start of NFL free agency will be upon us. Even before then, teams will start making decisions on their own free agents and identifying their biggest roster needs. The 2019 Dallas Cowboys will be looking to fill out their depth chart and build on their playoff appearance this season.

I thought we'd strip things down to the most basic level. If the Cowboys had to play next year with only the guys currently under contract, what would that team look like? Where would the biggest strengths and weaknesses in the roster be?

Obviously, that won't happen. Dallas will re-sign some of their own free agents, bring in a few others, and add a new crop of rookies from the 2019 Draft. But this exercise helps us to see what the biggest offseason priorities are.

As a reminder, here's the list of the players whose contracts expired in 2018:

Dallas Cowboys 2019 Free Agents

  1. DE DeMarcus Lawrence
  2. WR Cole Beasley
  3. DL David Irving
  4. WR Tavon Austin
  5. LS L.P. Ladouceur
  6. TE Geoff Swaim
  7. LB Damien Wilson
  8. FB Jamize Olawale
  9. DT Daniel Ross (Exclusive Rights)
  10. DT Caraun Reid
  11. OT Cameron Fleming
  12. RB Rod Smith
  13. LB Justin March-Lillard
  14. DE Datone Jones
  15. G/C Marcus Martin
  16. S Darian Thompson (Restricted)

Of those players, only Jones, Martin, and Swaim (injured reserve) were not on the 53-man roster at the end of 2018. That means 13 of our most recent depth chart members, nearly a quarter of the group that played in the Cowboys' last game, are not under contract for next year.

So again, what would it look like if Dallas didn't re-sign these guys or add any additional talent this offseason? Let's start with the offense.

Based only on players currently under contract for 2019 and beyond, here's what the offensive depth chart would look like:

Cowboys 2019 Offseason: Who's Under Contract on Offense?

Before we go further, one name you might notice missing here is WR Allen Hurns. That is because the 2019 portion of his contract is actually a team option year, and Dallas has yet to exercise that option. Technically, until they do, Hurns is also set to be a free agent this offseason.

What are the biggest issues in the depth chart above? The most glaring loss would seem to be at receiver, with the absences of Hurns, Cole Beasley, and Tavon Austin thinning out the depth chart quite a bit. Would the Cowboys really be interested in playing next year having to rely heavily on Noah Brown, or even Terrance Williams, as a third man?

You also have to be concerned about your RB depth. Darius Jackson has flashed things at times but has been floating around the league for three years now.

Rod Smith was more than just a reliable backup; he also was one of your top players on the special teams coverage groups. What's more, with fullback vacant, Smith could have stepped into that role as well. Dallas didn't get much out of Jamize Olawale in 2018, but you still need a guy for certain packages and situations.

Lastly, your backup offensive tackle has to be a concern. I threw Stanton's name in there as one of a few names signed to the roster, but there is no swing tackle in that mix who inspires confidence right now. Re-signing Cam Fleming or finding a suitable replacement should be a major offseason priority.

So yeah, there are some holes to fill on offense. But the real problems for the team are on the other side of the ball.

Cowboys 2019 Offseason: Building a Depth Chart With Current Contracts

The starting lineup doesn't sound terrible on paper. After all, minus DeMarcus Lawrence, that's about the same crew you had last year. But we've seen what life is like without a top pass rusher, and the Cowboys' defense would quickly fall from grace without "Tank" or someone else on his level.

The biggest depth problems are at DT and LB. I plugged Shittu, a practice-squad holdover, in there at DT because he was the only guy left, but Dallas needs to do better. I also included Ross because he's an Exclusive Rights Free Agent and was a solid player last year, so it's a virtual lock that Dallas will be bringing him back.

Still, it's not a deep group. And it's the same group that got run all over by the Rams in the playoff loss. Ideally, the Cowboys will be making a real investment in the position and bumping Collins or Woods into a rotation role.

At linebacker, Sean Lee is still under contract for now but that isn't likely to stand. He's one of the easy salary cap casualties to project given his diminished role and high cap hit. But with Damien Wilson also a free agent, that would even further drain an already thin group.

If the Cowboys really want to make a championship push in 2019, they have to do some real work here. They need to get better in the interior defensive line and in the backfield, hopefully turning guys like Maliek Collins and Jeff Heath into primary reserves instead of starters.

Don't forget about special teams this offseason, either. Dallas could stand to upgrade from Brett Maher's 80% accuracy on field goals, and long snapper L.P. Ladouceur is a free agent.

Thankfully, the Cowboys have loads of cap space to work with and a solid foundation carried over from last year's playoff team. Even without a first-round pick this year, they have all the resources to improve and be a real contender next season.

But clearly, as this exercise showed us, they have plenty of work to do to make it happen.



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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Dallas Cowboys

History Suggests a Contract Extension for Ezekiel Elliott is a Crapshoot

Brian Martin

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Contract Extension With Ezekiel Elliott a Crapshoot at Best

If rumors are true, Running Back Ezekiel Elliott and Melvin Gordon could be following in the footsteps of Le'Veon Bell by threatening to hold out not only training camp, but the 2019 season if they're not rewarded with contract extensions from their respective teams. It's a bold strategy, especially considering the history of long-term extensions previously given to running backs.

Contract extensions for running backs is always a controversial topic. It's not only one of the easier positions to replace, but the shelf life for a NFL RB is a short one due to the physical nature of the position. Players bodies break down quicker, meaning their lifespan in the league on average is between just 3 to 5 years.

For the most part, the market value for running backs around the league would suggest the position isn't one teams like to invest a lot of resources in. Although, there was an uptick in the market last year when Todd Gurley signed a four-year deal worth $14.375 million a year and then David Johnson signed for three years worth $13 million a season. Those two contracts could be the starting point for Ezekiel Elliott.

Ezekiel Elliott's camp knows all of this and so do the Dallas Cowboys. But, handing out upwards of $14 million to a position that has such a short shelf life in the league is a crapshoot at best, even to a player as talented as Zeke. History hasn't been kind to running backs who receive a long-term extension. In fact, it's really hard to put a finger on one single RB who has lived up to their contract extension.

Ezekiel Elliott, Le'Veon Bell, Todd Gurley

RBs Ezekiel Elliott, Le'Veon Bell, Todd Gurley

Take Todd Gurley and David Johnson for instance. Gurley already has long-term concerns about his health, and Johnson missed nearly all of the 2018 season due to an injury. Both players are currently the top paid at the position right now, but they're not the only examples of why the Cowboys should be cautious offering Zeke a contract extension.

The RB tier below Todd Gurley and David Johnson are making around $8 million a year after receiving a contract extension. Unfortunately, the results are about the same. Devonta Freeman ($8.25 M) and Jerick McKinnon ($7.5 M) missed nearly all of the 2018 season due to injuries after being rewarded with long-term deals. Only LeSean McCoy ($8.01 M) has come close to living up to his deal, but even he has struggled off-and-on with injuries.

Need more convincing?

Let's take this back a little bit further. Chris Johnson, Johnathan Stewart, DeMarco Murray, DeAngelo Williams, Ray Rice… I can go on and on. Even players such as Arian Foster who remained productive after receiving an extension struggled with injuries. If you haven't yet, you may start to see a trend here.

Now, I'm not saying the Dallas Cowboys shouldn't extend Ezekiel Elliott. Personally I'm on the fence about it and would be fine with them going either direction. But, they absolutely have to be cautious with the way they handled this. History is a good indicator they may not get the same kind of production from Zeke as they have previously.

Do you think the Cowboys should give Ezekiel Elliott a contract extension?



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Dallas Cowboys 2019 Training Camp Preview: Linebacker

Jess Haynie

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Leighton Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith

The linebacker position went from liability to luxury in 2018, thanks largely to the emergence of a pair of dynamic young talents. Now seen as one of the strengths of the Dallas Cowboys' defense, what questions remain for the linebackers as we await the start of the 2019 training camp?

Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch are the nucleus now at linebacker, if not the the Cowboys' defense as a whole. The days of worrying if Sean Lee can stay healthy are over; we now have two players capable of elite play and the versatility to handle multiple spots.

Lee isn't gone; the longtime defensive captain accepted a pay cut and a lesser role to stay in Dallas this year. He is still expected to start in the base defense, moving to the strong-side LB role that Damien Wilson vacated.

Indeed, the top-three linebackers for 2019 are easy to project. Jaylon and Leighton are the new leaders and Sean will get as much playing time as his body can handle.

This year, which is unusual for reserve players, the second team is almost just as predictable.

Here's the projected Linebacker Depth Chart for the 2019 training camp:

  1. Leighton Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith, Sean Lee
  2. Joe Thomas, Justin March-Lillard, Chris Covington
  3. Kyle Queiro, Andrew Dowell, Luke Gifford, Nate Hall

There may not be a position on offense or defense with less x-factors than linebacker. Almost just as likely as the starters, Joe Thomas, Justin-March Lillard, and Chris Covington should have the second-team spots locked down.

Joe Thomas, Cardinals

Dallas Cowboys LB Joe Thomas

Thomas is especially valuable, having the skills to step into a larger role if Sean Lee suffers from age or injury. If Lee were to go down, we might see Jaylon Smith move into the SAM spot and Thomas playing as WILL in the base defense.

Dallas re-signed Justin March-Lillard this offseason. He played in all 16 games last year as a backup and special teamer, and his experience will make him hard to oust.

Chris Covington was a 6th-round pick last year and has the body to play SAM but also experience at other spots in college. Dallas would love to see him grow into a larger role the way other recent 6th-rounders like Anthony Brown and Xavier Woods have.

One potential challenger could be Jalen Jelks, the 7th-round defensive end that Dallas just drafted last April. Jelks has the body and athleticism to play a hybrid LB/DE role, and could challenge as the backup SAM. We don't know if the Cowboys will give Jelks a chance at LB, but it may be the only way to keep him on the 53 given all the talent at defensive end.

It will be hard for any of the remaining LB prospects to work their way onto the roster. The top six have experience and upside that undrafted rookies will need to be exceptionally good to overcome. Only Kyle Queiro, who was on the practice squad last year, brings a little NFL experience to the table.

Of course, unexpected things can happen. The talent margin between late-round picks and undrafted guys can be slim; who knows if one of these prospects pushes March-Lillard or Covington out of the way?

But barring a surprise, we already have a good idea who the Cowboys' six linebackers will be in 2019. Will this year's training camp solidify that projection, or will we get some new evidence to consider?

~ ~ ~

OTHER 2019 CAMP PREVIEWS



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Tony Romo: Cowboys TE Jason Witten Will “Pick Up Right Where He Left Off”

John Williams

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Did a Year Away Help Rejuvenate TE Jason Witten's Game?

There's no denying that the future holds a gold jacket for Dallas Cowboys Tight End Jason Witten. With everything he's done in his career, he'll go down as one of the three best tight ends in the history of the NFL when he finally hangs up his number 82 for good.

Most of the questions that have come surrounding the offense have focused on the tight end position this offseason. Even prior to Jason Witten announcing his return from the broadcast booth at ESPN to the NFL, tight end was one of the areas that was considered a draft need by most analysts. Since coming back, the questions may have altered, but they're there all the same. Now, we're wondering how much Jason Witten will play? Will Blake Jarwin and/or Dalton Schultz see significant playing time in the offense? Will Jason Witten be able to return to his pre-retirement form?

It's that last question that was answered pretty directly by Witten's former quarterback and NFL on CBS Analyst Tony Romo when he was on with Ben and Skin of 105.3 The Fan. In the way that only Tony Romo can, he illustrated what exactly will allow Jason Witten to return to the game without missing a beat.

"He'll pick up right where he left off. I don't think it's a big challenge for Jason  (Witten). The reality of it is as long as, if you know the game the way he does, there are certain positions -- he plays one of them at tight end -- he's always going to have the nuance to get open. Let's say he runs the exact same he always did, to me , it's just that at that position, your ability to use leverage against somebody, make you think this and then do that. It's like the back pick in basketball. Just all of a sudden it gets you and you didn't even know it was coming and that guy is wide open. He's very intelligent with the game of football. I think he's going to pick up right from when he retired. I think you're going to see the same guy."

Tony Romo on 105.3 The Fan via Jon Machota of SportsDay DFW

Jason Witten has been one of the best route-running tight ends in the NFL during his time with the Dallas Cowboys. He's always been able to win with his intelligence and route running despite not ever being the quickest or most athletic tight end in the NFL.

Because of Jason Witten's knowledge and feel for the game, it's easy to see why a player like that could walk back into the NFL after taking a year off and remain a productive player for the Dallas Cowboys. It's why they didn't hesitate to bring him back in the offseason. Though it's been relayed that he'll have a somewhat reduced role, he'll be the starting tight end week one against the New York Giants.

While it's uncertain exactly how much Jason Witten can play, you know that he'll be available to play. Prior to his retirement, Witten played in 235 straight regular-season games. Not only is Witten's availability great to have, but so is his ability to win on third down and in the red zone. It will be a welcomed addition to a Dallas Cowboys offense that struggled in both of those areas in 2018.

In 2018, they were 10th in third-down conversion percentage in the NFL at 41.4%. That's down from ranking fifth in the NFL in 2017 at 42.9%. 1.5% may not seem like a huge difference, but that's two to three more first downs on the season. Being able to convert on third downs increases your chances of scoring. Scoring more helps you win.

They were 29th in red-zone scoring rate at 48% in 2018. The only teams in the NFL that were worse than the Dallas Cowboys were the New York Jets, Jacksonville Jaguars, and San Francisco 49ers. Only one other team in the bottom 10 in the league in red-zone scoring rate made the playoffs; the Houston Texans. In 2017, the Dallas Cowboys were sixth in the NFL in red-zone scoring percentage at 59.6% and that was without Ezekiel Elliott for six games and without Tyron Smith for three games.

Having Jason Witten's ability to get open in confined spaces will help everyone on the offense. Even after having a year off, Witten is a player that will have to be accounted for in those high-leverage situations.

There isn't a person in the world that knows Jason Witten the football player better than Tony Romo does. Their careers have been so intertwined that it's hard to think of one without thinking of the other. It's why one day when they're inducted into the Dallas Cowboys Ring of Honor, that it would be fitting for it to happen together.

If, as Romo believes, Jason Witten can pick up right where he left off, his veteran presence, leadership, and on-field ability are going to be a huge asset for a team that has Super Bowl aspirations in 2019. For the Cowboys to reach the Super Bowl and win their sixth Lombardi Trophy, they're going to need "Gold Jacket" Witten to return to his pre-retirement form.

And if Tony Romo believes he will, there's no reason to doubt Jason Witten. Do so at your own peril.



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