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Cowboys 5 Biggest Needs as NFL Draft Approaches

Jess Haynie

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5 Biggest Needs

Today brings us officially one month away from the first night of the 2017 NFL Draft on April 27th. While there are still things that can happen in free agency, focus is quickly shifting to this year's rookie class as the best way to fill roster needs.

Yesterday, I formed a 53-man roster for the Cowboys using only the players we currently have under contract. This project helped to crystallize where Dallas should be looking to add talent through the remainder of the offseason.

After going through that exercise, here are what I see as the Dallas Cowboys' five biggest roster needs before the 2017 season begins:

DeMarcus Lawrence

DE DeMarcus Lawrence has yet to become the dominant pass rusher that the Cowboys need.

1. Defensive End

The Cowboys have plenty of bodies at the DE position. DeMarcus Lawrence, Benson Mayowa, Charles Tapper, and Damontre Moore are the official group while Tyrone Crawford and David Irving both have the versatility to play outside if needed.

The issue isn't bodies but abilities; none of these guys is a consistently effective pass rusher. The Cowboys defensive line, and perhaps the entire defense, could be dramatically improved by one truly great pass rushing DE who opponents have to focus on. Whether he's forcing the quarterback out of the pocket or drawing double teams, that player can set up his teammates for success.

With no question as to their biggest need, the Cowboys haven't been hiding it in their offseason strategy.  They are meeting with several of the drafts top pass rushing prospects. Dallas has also used free agency to shore up other holes throughout the roster, leaving them free to focus on defense and especially their greatest weakness at defensive end.

Dallas could still look at some of the veteran options, such as Chris Long or Elvis Dumervil, to provide some help. Still, the 28th pick remains their best option to find a potential game-changing pass rusher and keep them around for several years on a cheap rookie contract.

Orlando Scandrick

How much can the Cowboys count on Orlando Scandrick?

2. Cornerback

If the season started today, Dallas would be hoping that Anthony Brown can emerge as a number-one cornerback in just his second year. They would be counting on free agent Nolan Carroll to replace the reliable Brandon Carr. They would also need for Orlando Scandrick to maintain a strong level of play, and stay healthy, after just turning 30-year-old.

There's a lot of hoping in that plan, which is why the Cowboys should be hedging their bets with at least one significant draft pick spent on the cornerback position. If there's a run on pass rushers in the first round, I would have no issue with Dallas using their pick on a cornerback who could contend for significant playing time right away.

Scandrick's days are numbered; 2018 is likely his last year if his play doesn't call for an earlier release. The Cowboys need help now but especially for the very near future as both Scandrick and Carroll are on the downward side of their careers. Anthony Brown looked great for a sixth-round rookie but may never be more than a solid starter and slot corner.

Bill Parcells once said that you can never have too many good cornerbacks. Four capable players is a minimum for the modern passing era and Dallas may only have three. There's no telling if Leon McFadden or any of other guys can really contribute. I would expect at least one of our top three picks to be a cornerback.

Jeff Heath

Is Jeff Heath ready for a starting role at safety?

3. Safety

The Cowboys saw both Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox depart in free agency. That leaves just Byron Jones, Jeff Heath, and Kavon Frazier under contract, unless you also want to count the recently converted Jameil Showers.

Many, including me, think Heath can be a solid starter and provide little drop-off from what Church or Wilcox have done in that role. The Cowboys seem to think so, too, since they did not address their safety departures at all in free agency.

If you're okay with Heath as a starter, the depth chart may be a little more concerning.  Kavon Frazier, a sixth-round pick last year, played minimally in 2016 and would now be the only player even guaranteed to make the roster. Dallas need at least one more guy just to fill out the position, in case Jameil Showers can't make the change from quarterback to safety.

If there's a great safety prospect there for you in the first round, Dallas could still go ahead and take him. That player could compete with Heath for the starting job and then the loser would provide quality depth.  If both guys can play, you might even consider moving Byron Jones back to cornerback.

Lucky Whitehead

The Cowboys could use an upgrade over Lucky Whitehead as their primary return man.

4. Receiver/Returner

While he has flashed his natural return ability at times, Lucky Whitehead has never been able to consistently make plays and help the Cowboys' field position. He also hasn't made enough impact on offense to keep his roster spot secure.

Dallas needs more speed on offense. Brice Butler was thought to be a potential field stretcher but didn't make an impact last year. If they could find both a speed receiver and return man in the same draft pick, that would be a very strong acquisition.

Both Butler and Whitehead are easily expendable. Butler only has $300k of dead money if released and Whitehead has almost none. If the draft yields a talent who can replace one of them and handle return duties, or simply be a more talented player with greater upside, then you don't have to worry about finding room.

Jaylon Smith

The mystery surrounding Jaylon Smith keep linebacker as a potential need.

5. Linebacker

The Cowboys are hoping that Jaylon Smith, last year's second-round pick, will come in and realize his elite potential.  Many felt Smith would have been a top-five pick in the 2016 draft if not for his major knee injury that occurred in Notre Dame's final game. At this time, reports are that his rehab has progressed well enough to expect him to play.

Until we see Smith playing, and really until he proves that he can stay on the field without re-injury, there is still a major question mark at linebacker. Sean Lee is still a top talent but will turn 31 this July. Guys like Anthony Hitchens and Damien Wilson are solid but nothing special. The depth is limited after the departures of Justin Durant and Andrew Gachkar in free agency (assuming neither returns).

The Cowboys can certainly use another talented linebacker. With Hitchens, Wilson, and Kyle WIlber all able to handle the strong side, it would be ideal to bring in someone with the coverage skills to back up Lee and Smith.  In a few years, perhaps that player would replace Lee in the starting lineup.



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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9 Comments

9 Comments

  1. Rich

    March 27, 2017 at 6:46 pm

    I think backup RB is more of a need than WR. Mcfadden is on a 1 year contract and Morris is on the trade block.

    • Jess Haynie

      Jess Haynie

      March 28, 2017 at 7:11 am

      Fair point, but Dallas could still go into 2017 with McFadden and Morris (or Rod Smith instead of Morris) and be okay. I think they need upgrades over Whitehead and/or Butler immediately.

  2. Ethan Chazin

    March 27, 2017 at 7:51 pm

    So it sounds like:
    R1 DE/CB
    R2 DE/CB
    R3 SS
    R4 WR
    R6P1 RB
    R6P2 BPA
    R7 BPA

    • Jess Haynie

      Jess Haynie

      March 28, 2017 at 7:13 am

      If the talent lines up then that lineup would be ideal. I’m a big “BPA” advocate, though, so it will come down to what happens with those 27 other picks that set the table for us.

      • Ethan Chazin

        March 28, 2017 at 12:09 pm

        I never understood the boa versus draft for need argument can’t you draft bpa factoring in need? Every NFL team has roster weaknesses so you wouldn’t just draft top talent st a position you are deep in. End of the day getting a cb ss and de are top 3 needs hope we can get top talent at all 3 positions

        • Jess Haynie

          Jess Haynie

          March 28, 2017 at 1:39 pm

          Oh, I’m with you. “BPA” should always be factored against need. I think of it like a basic formula; “Talent + Need = Value.” For example

          You think WR is a “9” talent but you only have a “5” need. Meanwhile, A defensive end is a “7” talent but you have a “10” need. I’m taking the DE.

  3. John Williams

    John Williams

    March 28, 2017 at 1:03 am

    Yeah, I agree with DE still being the top priority and it seems there are a few guys at the back end of the first that will be available and can help right away; Charles Harris, Takk McKinley, Carl Lawson all could be potential RDE for the team.

    They desperately need a guy who is that game changing pass rusher, like DeMarcus Ware was. Even if they got someone with Greg Ellis quality, that would significantly help the rest of the defense.

    Someone who can get there a split second faster than the other guys will really help the secondary and linebackers make plays on the ball in the passing game.

    Thankfully this is a very deep draft at positions of need; CB/DE/S. If they went with those three positions in the first three rounds, I think we will be alright.

    If DE is the first round selection, I could see someone like Kevin King as the second round selection.

    Heath is certainly a playmaker and can hold his own in the run game. Byron Jones deep middle ability allows them to go with a slightly lesser talent at SS.

    • Jess Haynie

      Jess Haynie

      March 28, 2017 at 7:18 am

      Agreed on everything. Last year I actually compared Joey Bosa to Greg Ellis, not thinking he’d be quite the stud that he turned out to be. Turns out I should’ve gone with Emmanuel Ogbah, who I also wanted.

      • John Williams

        John Williams

        March 30, 2017 at 2:44 am

        Still remains to be seen on Bosa. Just like we have to see Dak continue to improve or at the very least play at the same level he showed in 2016. Bosa has to do the same as well.

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Dallas Cowboys

Cowboys WR Cole Beasley Wants Bigger Role, Blames Front Office

Jess Haynie

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Cole Beasley

With free agency on the horizon, Cole Beasley isn't pulling any punches about his dissatisfaction with his role in the Dallas Cowboys offense. Could this have him wanting a change of scenery in 2019?

Today, Beasley made some big statements on his personal Twitter account. The first was only an appetizer.

Cole Beasley on Twitter

Utilization is more important than money. https://t.co/qP8XoR6uBu

One has to think that Cole sees the success players with his skills have had in a system like New England's, or even just other more proficient passing offenses, and thinks he could do even more elsewhere.

But even when it was suggested that the firing of Scott Linehan could bring some new opportunities for Beasley in Dallas, the receiver dropped this bomb.

Cole Beasley on Twitter

Honestly, the front office pushes who they want to get the ball to. I haven't been a huge priority in that regard. Maybe that will change but I'm not sure. More balls come my way in 2 minute drill where nothing is planned. https://t.co/ioih9BJJv1

Well, there's no denying his frustration there.

Some might be confused by this, given that Beasley was the most-targeted receiver or tight end in the 2018 offense. Only Ezekiel Elliott got more passes thrown his way.

However, Cole's role did diminish once Amari Cooper showed up. And in the Cowboys' playoff loss to the Rams, Beasley only got two targets the whole game. Cooper and Michael Gallup got nine targets each.

You could see where there was some executive agenda behind getting Cooper and Gallup the ball. Dallas wanted their trade of a first-round pick for Amari to be validated. They also are invested in Michael as a future starter. What Cole said isn't without merit.

Despite what he tweeted, though, Beasley did say that he was open to returning to the Cowboys.

Cole Beasley on Twitter

Doesn't mean I'm gone. I'll play anywhere where I can make more of an impact. I would love for that to be Dallas or anywhere else that will give me more pops to make an impact. I just wanna ball. It's hard with 3 to 4 opps a game. https://t.co/zImZKxkAvD

So no, it's not time to put your Beasley jerseys on eBay just yet. But given these comments, it's clear that Cole is looking for more than money in his contract.

Will the Cowboys have a satisfying answer for him? And if Beasley does want a bigger role, will he also want to be paid closer to what he thinks he's worth?

It's easy to say it's not about money, but the two really do go hand in hand.

Free agency may not open until March 13th, but Cole Beasley is already showing his cards. How will the Dallas Cowboys respond?



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Dallas Cowboys

Dallas Cowboys Pro Bowlers Show Promise for Future

Sean Martin

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Dallas Cowboys Pro Bowlers Show Promise for Future

The next class of players to join the Dallas Cowboys may be on the field at Mobile, Alabama this week for the Senior Bowl, but their young core is well represented in front of the Cowboys coaching staff at the Pro Bowl.

With Left Tackle Tyron Smith and Right Guard Zack Martin not participating, the Cowboys have six Pro Bowl participants. The improved health of their offensive line is still one of the best things going for this team in the early part of the offseason, expecting four-time Pro Bowl Center Travis Frederick to rejoin Smith and Martin as soon as OTAs.

A compilation of the best linemen in the NFC will have to do for Quarterback Dak Prescott and Running Back Ezekiel Elliott - making their second Pro Bowl appearance together. It took the addition of Wide Receiver Amari Cooper for the Cowboys offense to find their expected form under Prescott and Elliott in their third season, as Cooper will appear in his fourth Pro Bowl in as many years.

Both times Elliott's made the Pro Bowl, he's done so as the league's rushing champion.

Hardly on track to reach Orlando with the Oakland Raiders, Cooper put up 725 yards and six touchdowns on 53 catches in nine regular season games for the Cowboys. He followed up this resurgent performance with seven catches for 106 yards in the Wild Card Round vs. the Seahawks and six for 65 and a touchdown at the Rams in the Divisional Round.

The Cowboys shouldn't be done adding talent at wide receiver, with Cooper serving as the bold reminder of what Prescott can do with dynamic talent on the outside. Moving on from Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan already this offseason, the next steps towards building the offense around Dak's strengths is yet to be determined.

Meanwhile, their established strengths will be on display, and not just on offense at the Pro Bowl. Making strides as one of the best young defenses in the league this season, Cowboys rookie Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch will be joined by Defensive End DeMarcus Lawrence and Cornerback Byron Jones.

Though its unlikely their coaching will match the intensity of the season, the best thing these three defenders have going for them is more time under Passing Game Coordinator Kris Richard. One of Richard's first moves with the Cowboys was moving Jones to cornerback, where he became a first-time Pro Bowler.

Unable to reach his full athletic potential at safety, Jones was the elite corner the Cowboys needed at a position still in need of depth. His length and range should make him a fixture in Richard's secondary for a long time.

Vander Esch becomes the 11th Cowboys rookie to make a Pro Bowl, the third on the defensive side of the ball. Surely the Wolf Hunter will look forward to another week of football, going from eight man HS player to one-year starter at Boise State and finally a Cowboys fixture at linebacker.

The Cowboys did what was thought to be proved impossible this season by fielding a competent defense (mostly) without Sean Lee. Vander Esch and teammate Jaylon Smith deserve the credit here, with Leighton making a larger immediate impact than ever expected as the 19th overall pick.

Last but nowhere near least is DeMarcus Lawrence, much closer to the Cowboys top priority in free agency this offseason than an afterthought at his second Pro Bowl. Putting together consecutive seasons with at least ten sacks, the Cowboys don't have to see anything further from their top pass rusher to do whatever it takes to re-sign him.

The rest of the Cowboys "Hot Boyz" have a lot of potential and promise, but Lawrence is a rare proven commodity at defensive end with 25 sacks in his last 32 games. Rushing the passer in the Pro Bowl is a relatively futile task, but the Cowboys know Lawrence is capable of saving his best plays for the biggest moments. Also a dominant run defender, there simply shouldn't be a reality where the Cowboys are forced to field a defense without Lawrence at left end in 2019 and beyond.

The Cowboys at the Pro Bowl will tell you they'd prefer to be missing the game in preparation for the Super Bowl. Getting within two games of this feat after a 3-5 start is still impressive enough for the Cowboys to feel great about their future, in large part because of the six players representing America's Team this week.

Tell us what you think about "Dallas Cowboys Pro Bowlers Show Promise for Future" in the comments below. You can also email me at Sean.Martin@InsideTheStar.com, or Tweet to me at @SeanMartinNFL!



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Handing out Hardware for the Dallas Cowboys 2018 Season

John Williams

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Sean's Scout: Cowboys Resilience Earns Prescott's 1st Playoff Win, Trip to Divisional Round

The 2018 NFL season for the Dallas Cowboys was literally a roller coaster ride with as many ups and downs as the Texas Giant. Through the first seven games of the season the Cowboys alternated home wins with road losses to get to 3-4. They made as big of a personnel move as they've made in recent years when they traded for Amari Cooper only to all to 3-5 in his debut on Monday Night Football to the Tennessee Titans.

Then the team went on an improbably five game winning streak to put themselves in position to win the NFC East for the third time in five years by mid December. The Cowboys were able to pick up the win in the wild card round over the Seattle Seahawks before being ousted by Todd Gurley, C.J. Anderson, and the Los Angeles -- battering -- Rams' offensive line.

The season always ends with a little disappointment for 31 of the NFL's 32 teams, but this year felt different at the end because of where they were to start the season and after eight games. After the Tennessee game, this team was written off. They were Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant. They stormed back and made the 2018 season a memorable one, even if it didn't end with a sixth Lombardi Trophy.

Let's give out some post season awards to your Dallas Cowboys.

MVP

Dak Prescott, Quarterback

Many will scoff at this choice and think it could be Ezekiel Elliott, and I understand, but nobody had a greater impact on the Dallas Cowboys making the playoffs and winning their matchup with the Seattle Seahawks than Dak Prescott did.

Over the final eight games of the season, Dak averaged 278 passing yards per game, 2 total touchdowns, and threw only three interceptions. His numbers down the stretch over a 16 game pace were phenomenal. On 71.6% passing, he was on pace for 4,450 yards, 24 passing touchdowns, eight rushing touchdowns, only six interceptions on the season, with a passer rating of 103.4.

John Williams ✭ on Twitter

Not to make this about Dak, but I'm going to make this about Dak. 2nd in success rate, 3rd in EPA and EPA/play among playoff QBs. #CowboysNation https://t.co/Evyf73uzJ9

His play in the win over the Seattle Seahawks was instrumental in getting the victory to move on to the divisional round. Though they fell short against the Los Angeles Rams, Dak was able to bring them back from 16 down early in the second half to make it a one score game in the end.

Dak Prescott is still a developing player, and in reality, all players are trying to grow their game. Every season. Prescott is a good quarterback, who is on his way to being great and we saw this season the potential that he has.

He threw for a career high 455 yards against the Eagles and three touchdowns and then threw for 387 yards and four touchdowns against the New York Giants. There's evidence now that Dak can throw the ball, and that should scare teams.

In the playoffs, Prescott stepped up and was a big reason why the Cowboys beat the Seahawks and hung in there against the Rams.

Offensive Player of the Year

Ezekiel Elliott, Running Back

Three years, two rushing titles, and it almost seemed like a "meh" season for Ezekiel Elliott. Sure he had some big games, but only a couple times this season did it feel like Elliott took over the game. Some of that is due to the offensive line injuries and inconsistencies, but some of that may be due to Elliott who saw a much bigger workload than he had in his career to date.

He was much more actively involved in the passing game this season as he more than doubled his previous career high with 77 receptions for 567 yards. Though he won the rushing title, this was the lowest rushing yards per game he's had in his short three-year career. Elliott only scored nine touchdowns this season, which tied with his 2017 total that he accrued in only 10 games.

Elliott struggled some in the red zone because the team struggled in the red zone. Some of those issues related to the offensive line and some because of the play calling, but you'd hope that Elliott would be able to overcome some of that where it mattered most.

Defensive Player of the Year

DeMarcus Lawrence, Defensive End

No player on defense has a bigger impact for the Dallas Cowboys than Defensive End DeMarcus Lawrence. Whether it's in the run game or the passing game, DeMarcus Lawrence is elite in both categories and makes life incredibly difficult on the opposing offense.

On the season he had 10.5 sacks, finishing with double-digit sacks for the second year in a row. While that may not be as impressive as his 2017 total of 14.5, he was doing his thing with much less help along the defensive line. There wasn't another player who flirted with double-digit sacks this season. Though Randy Gregory, Maliek Collins, and Tyrone Crawford performed well, teams gave all of their attention to Lawrence in both the run and pass game.

And he was still amazingly effective.

Lawrence finished fifth among EDGE players -- 4-3 defensive end and 3-4 outside linebackers -- in tackles, fourth in the NFL in Pro Football Focus' "stops" measure with 44, and 15th in total pressures. Pro Football Focus ranked Lawrence as the seventh best EDGE defender, ninth best pass rusher, and the 12th best run defender. J.J. Watt and Khalil Mack were the only other EDGE defenders who ranked in the top 12 as both a pass rusher and run defender per Pro Football Focus.

DeMarcus Lawrence is heading into the offseason looking to get a long-term deal done.

Rookie of the Year

Leighton Vander Esch, Linebacker

While Connor Williams and Michael Gallup had really good starts to their NFL career's no rookie for the Dallas Cowboys was as impressive as 19th overall pick Leighton Vander Esch. He led the Dallas Cowboys in tackles and "stops" and had the second highest grade of any defender as graded by Pro Football Focus.

In tackles, he was second only to future Hall of Fame inductee Luke Keuchly and fellow rookie Darius Leonard. Vander Esch did all this while playing a limited number of snaps as the Dallas Cowboys eased him in at the start of the season and then attempted to find a way to have Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith, and Sean Lee on the field together.

It was an impressive year for the former Boise St. Bronco and the sky is the limit for Vander Esch. He's now played just his second season as a starter in 11-man football. If you remember, he didn't start for Boise St. till the 2017 season and had played 8-man football in high school.

I'm really looking forward to seeing what kind of progression Vander Esch can make to his game in 2019. He's going to be a great player.

Most Improved Player

Jaylon Smith, Linebacker

The 2017 season was not kind to Jaylon Smith. It was his first attempt at playing football since January of 2016 when he tore his ACL in the Fiesta Bowl. It was amazing that he was even playing, though he didn't play considerably well.

2018, however, was a different story.

Jaylon Smith could make a case for team MVP. He may not have had as many tackles as Vander Esch, or as many sacks, but by playmaking defensive EPA, he was nearly as effective at making big plays on defense as DeMarcus Lawrence.

Cowboys Stats & Graphics on Twitter

Overall playmaking EPA rank among all NFL defenders: 5. DeMarcus Lawrence 7. Jaylon Smith 58. Leighton Vander Esch

EPA measures the effect a play will have on the score. Not all plays are weighted the same, as some weigh heavier because of down and distance, turnovers, etc. Jaylon Smith had an excellent season for the Dallas Cowboys and looks to be the guy that they thought he would be when they selected him at the top of the second round in the 2016 NFL Draft.

Having Smith and Vander Esch roaming around the middle of the field for the Dallas Cowboys moving forward is huge. They're excellent at moving in space and are excellent definitions of "sideline to sideline" players.

Jaylon Smith is one of the players I'm already looking forward to watching again in the 2019 season.

Comeback Player of the Year

Randy Gregory, Defensive End

After sitting out all but two games of the 2016 season and all of last season, Randy Gregory came back this season and had a good year. With only one sack in his career heading into the 2018 season, Gregory had a nice comeback year with five sacks and finished tied for second on the team with 37 pressures according to Pro Football Focus. According to Pro Football Reference, Gregory was second on the team in tackles for loss.

The Cowboys have Randy Gregory under contract for the 2019 season for just under $1 million.

✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭

The Dallas Cowboys have a lot to feel optimistic about as they look to roster build this offseason in preparation of the 2019 season. They have several ascending players playing key roles for them. This team looks primed to contend again in 2019.



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