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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Ezekiel Elliott vs Byron Jones Part II: The Case For Paying Zeke
It's a debate that has raged on social media for some time now and it likely won't slow down as the offseason progresses and the Dallas Cowboys begin to hand out massive contracts to their top players. Pay Ezekiel Elliott? Pay Byron Jones? If you could only pay one, which would you pay?
This week fellow Inside The Star Staff Writer, Kevin Brady took to Twitter to poll the populous and his results were a bit surprising to me.
if you can only pay one it should be
The results inspired me to see what would happen if I put the same poll on my timeline.
Inspired by my teammate @KevinBrady88, if you can only pay one, which would it be?
On Monday, Kevin wrote a piece looking at one of the difficult decisions facing the Dallas Cowboys this offseason or next. If the Cowboys could only extend Byron Jones OR Ezekiel Elliott, who should they choose? Kevin, as am I, is a firm believer in Byron Jones ability and says the Cowboys should extend them, and I agree. But let's look at the other side of the argument.
To begin, the Cowboys should and probably will get both guys contract extensions either this offseason or next. It's not impossible with the cap continuing to increase at a rate of about $8-12 million per year that the Cowboys will have the space to get the deals done that they need to get done. Ezekiel Elliott and Byron Jones included.
Byron Jones settled in nicely at cornerback during his first full season at cornerback and knowing what we know about Jones, he won't be satisfied with a second team All-Pro appearance. Expect him to get better. However, if there's a single player that represents the current identity of the Dallas Cowboys, it's Running Back Ezekiel Elliott.
The Cowboys made him the fourth overall pick in 2016 and haven't looked back in their plan to establish the running game. For his career Elliott has averaged 26.9 touches per game over the course of his 40 games.
Here's a look at what Elliott's per game and per 16 game paces look like through the first three seasons of his career.
As you can see from the table above, Ezekiel Elliott is averaging 131.2 total yards per game for his career. In his rookie season he had 1,994 total yards and he sat out the week 17 game against the Philadelphia Eagles when the Cowboys had the NFC and home field advantage locked up. In 2017, Elliott sat out six games and still had nearly 1,000 yards rushing. In 2018, Elliott broke through the 2,000 total yard barrier after seeing a huge increase in his targets and receptions.
Ezekiel Elliott has been everything the Dallas Cowboys could have hoped for and more. With the leadership role he's taken with the team, he's a player that leads both vocally and by example. There are few players on the Dallas Cowboys that give as much effort as he does each snap. How many times has it looked like Elliott was about to get dropped for a two or three yard loss only to grind through tackles to pick up a four yard gain? How many times has he bounced off tacklers to get to the first down marker? Ezekiel Elliott is the human personification of dirty yards, but don't let that fool you into thinking that Elliott can't take it to the house every time he touches the ball. Elliott's is a game breaker who threatens the defense every time he steps on the field.
In 2018, Elliott led the NFL in yards after contact, per Pro Football Focus. His 949 yards after contact in 2018 would have ranked 13th in the NFL in rushing, which was better than David Johnson's 940 yards rushing last season.
Not many running backs effect a football game like Ezekiel Elliott does.
Few players outside of the quarterback position are as much of a focal point for their offense while being an attention grabber for opposing defenses like Ezekiel Elliott is. In 2018, he saw eight or more men in the box on nearly 25% of his carries in 2018. Some of that is related to the Dallas Cowboys insistence on using two tight ends on 50% of their running plays (per Sharp Football), but the other aspect is related to how much they respect the Dallas Cowboys running game. Since the 2014, the Cowboys have been synonymous with running the football. DeMarco Murray, Darren McFadden, and now Ezekiel Elliott have been the faces of that running game behind the Cowboys elite offensive line.
Even in a down year for offensive line play from the Dallas Cowboys, Elliott still managed to lead the NFL in rushing for the second time in three seasons. Elliott made the Pro Bowl for the second time in three years as well. Were it not for the railroad job done by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in 2017, there's a really good chance that Elliott leads the league in rushing three years in a row and that the Dallas Cowboys make the playoffs all three seasons.
Sure, the running back position is undervalued in the NFL and rushing yardage can be replaced, but there are intangibles to Elliott's game that are very difficult to replace. His ability to grind out the dirty yards, break big plays, create yards after contact, pass protect, be a threat as a receiver, and his leadership make him a player that is difficult to replace.
Yes, Byron Jones was really good in 2018 and deserves to get paid by the Dallas Cowboys as well, but you'd be hard pressed to find a player on the Cowboys roster who has been as consistent and dominating week in and week out as Ezekiel Elliott has been over the last three years.
BREAKING: Cowboys Sign Ex-Packers WR Randall Cobb
According to multiple sources, the Dallas Cowboys have signed former Green Bay Packers Wide Receiver Randall Cobb to a one-year deal to help bolster their depth at the WR position and potentially become Cole Beasley's replacement.
Cowboys are giving former Packers' WR Randall Cobb a one-year, $5 million deal, per source. https://t.co/8KWFPjSP8T
The Dallas Cowboys met with Randall Cobb earlier this week, but he eventually left Dallas without a contract. He must've had a change of heart or just needed time to ponder the Cowboys offer, but regardless of what transpired in that short time he is now part of America's Team.
During his time with the Packers, Cobb accumulated 470 receptions for 5,524 receiving yards and 41 touchdowns. The eight-year veteran will now be expected to replace some of Cole Beasley's production out of the slot for the Dallas Cowboys.
After years of watching Beasley as the Cowboys slot WR, it will be really interesting to see Randall Cobb in that role. He's not as quick twitched as No. 11, but can be just as dangerous due to his ability to be more of a down the field receiver. He also brings added value in the return game and could compete with Tavon Austin to become the return specialist.
This could mean the Cowboys forgo drafting a wide receiver early in the 2019 NFL Draft, but I wouldn't put it past them. Regardless of what happens, this is an excellent addition.
Welcome to Cowboys Nation Randall Cobb!
REPORT: Dallas Cowboys Re-sign Long Snapper L.P. Ladouceur
L.P. Ladouceur is returning for his 15th season as the Cowboys' long snapper. The veteran free agent was re-signed by Dalals today to a one-year deal.
Thanks to Jason Witten's one-year sabbatical with Monday Night Football, Ladouceur has now been with the Cowboys for more consecutive seasons than any current player. He just turned 38 last week, but Louis-Philippe remains one of the top long snappers in football.
The Cowboys have signed long-snapper L.P. Ladouceur to a one-year deal worth $1.03 million and $90,000 in bonus money, but he will count $735,000 against the cap. This will be Ladouceur's 15th season with the Cowboys, tying Ed "Too Tall" Jones, Mark... https://t.co/2iDsi6RX7e
Retaining Ladouceur is an underrated move for the Cowboys given their situation at kicker.
Brett Maher was only 80% accurate overall on field goals last year. The team could be considering an upgrade in free agency.
Whether they bring Maher back or try someone new, having a long snapper with Ladouceur's performance perfection will make things much easier for them.
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