While the NFL free agent market seems to have come to a sudden halt recently, there is still plenty of offseason left for the Dallas Cowboys to add new talent and make other other moves, Next month's NFL Draft is major event still coming, but free agency is also far from over.
Today, I thought it would be a good exercise to construct a 53-man roster using just the players we already have under contract. This should give us good insight into where the Cowboys' biggest needs are and, more than likely, where their focus will be in the upcoming draft.
Before we get started, a couple of ground rules:
- Tony Romo is still under contract but I'm going to assume that he won't be a Cowboy next year. My belief is that he will retire if nothing else happens.
- Randy Gregory is currently suspended through the regular season, so we'll assume that won't be changing. There are still some legal remedies he could pursue but we'll deal with that if it ever comes.
So, now that we're all on the same page, let's build a roster.
Dak Prescott, Kellen Moore
After one of the most spectacular rookie seasons in NFL history, Dak Prescott's hold on the Cowboys' quarterback position couldn't be tighter. He will go into 2017 as the unchallenged starter and with that expectation for many years to come.
Kellen Moore was re-signed from free agency and brings system familiarity that no other veteran option could offer. Some have groaned after Moore failed to win any games in 2015, but the Cowboys clearly feel that Moore can bring something to the table.
With Prescott's youth and Moore as the veteran backup, we could easily see Dallas go back to keeping just two quarterbacks on the 53-man roster. This was their policy many years during Tony Romo's tenure.
Running Back (4)
Ezekiel Elliott, Darren McFadden, Alfred Morris, Keith Smith (FB)
There's no questioning the roster spots for Elliott and McFadden. Also, Keith Smith emerged last year as a solid blocking fullback who provides versatile value at linebacker and special teams. He should feel secure in his job.
The big question now is what happens with Alfred Morris. Dallas could release him for about $1.6 million in cap relief, but they have yet to make that move even after re-signing McFadden. The Cowboys may be holding on to Morris through the draft, or even through final cuts, just to see how things shake out.
I would not be surprised to see Dallas add a speed back with receiving skills as a replacement for Lance Dunbar. That player could push Morris out the door eventually.
Dallas surprised most of us be re-signing both Williams and Butler. The moves speak to a strategy of counting on returning offensive talent to yield the same results as last year, leaving you free to focus on defense in the draft.
Last year's training camp darling, Andy Jones, is expected to push for a job this offseason. He could force Butler out the door; Dallas gave Butler little guaranteed money to leave him expendable if needed. However, we could also see a mid-round WR talent drafted that will compete with both Butler and Jones.
You may be wondering who's going to return kicks with Lucky Whitehead gone. We'll get to that later.
Tight End (4)
Jason Witten, James Hanna, Geoff Swaim, Rico Gathers
If the Cowboys spend their first-round pick on offense it will almost assuredly be at tight end. Many expect for 2017 to be Witten's last year before retirement.
My preference is that Dallas use this year to see what they already have in the cupboard. James Hanna got a nice contract last year to return as the backup TE but injury kept him from playing. Geoff Swaim was looking like a solid all-around player before also getting hurt. Rico Gathers remains an intriguing physical specimen who reportedly had a great year on the practice squad.
If none of these guys earn your trust next season, then you can spend a high pick on Witten's replacement or look to free agency. A first-round talent should be able to come in and play immediately, which isn't needed right now with Witten still here.
Offensive Tackle (4)
Tyron Smith, Chaz Green, Emmett Cleary, Byron Bell
After signing Bell just a few days ago, the Cowboys appear to be loading up on guys to compete for the right tackle position after Doug Free's retirement. Bell has started in 72 of the 78 games he's played in since entering the league in 2011.
Don't assume that Bell is the front-runner with that experience. The Cowboys got to see how Chaz Green and Emmett Cleary look in starting roles last season and both performed well. Green was a third-round pick in 2015 and the team would love to see him take over at right tackle.
If Green does win the job, his injury history could push Dallas to keep an extra offensive tackle on staff beyond just the usual swing tackle. Bell, who can also play guard, would fit that role nicely with his versatility.
Zack Martin, La'el Collins, Jonathan Cooper
With Ronald Leary headed to Denver, the left guard job goes back to Collins. Still just a third-year player, Collins will hopefully blossom and build on the flashes of elite talent we saw in 2015.
Veteran Jonathan Cooper was re-signed to provide experienced depth and perhaps push Collins a little for the starting job. Cooper was once a first-round pick who has had his own injury problems. We could also see Byron Bell, who was expected to move to guard last year before injury, competing with Cooper for the backup job.
Travis Frederick, Joe Looney
This position feels solidified with the All-Pro starter and the veteran backup. Dallas might add some younger guys to compete with Looney, but for now he should be expected to return.
Defensive End (4)
DeMarcus Lawrence, Benson Mayowa, Charles Tapper, Damontre Moore
Everyone expects Dallas to add a pass-rushing end in the upcoming draft. It's hard to project who will be there at the 28th pick, and you'd be right to be worried that that player won't be able to provide the sort of catalytic spark that this defensive line needs.
Lawrence, Mayowa, and Tapper will certainly be here to compete for jobs. Lawrence should at least be a solid starter and could really shine if he moves back to his natural position as the strong-side end. Mayowa and Tapper should provide quality depth and rotation duty but neither is likely able to bring a significant improvement to the pass rush.
Whatever rookies the Cowboys add will likely push Damontre Moore out by final cuts. The underachieving DE was signed a few weeks ago but has never played up to his third-round pick potential.
Defensive Tackle (5)
Tyrone Crawford, Maliek Collins, David Irving, Cedric Thornton, Stephen Paea
Assigning position for some of defensive linemen is tricky business. Crawford and Irving will both likely play snaps at defensive end throughout the season, either due to injuries or just certain personnel packages.
By signing Stephen Paea to replace Terrell McClain, the Cowboys have at least stocked up the DT position and shouldn't need to address it in the draft. They already have a young stud in Maliek Collins and plenty of veteran depth to go with him.
Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith, Damien Wilson, Anthony Hitchens, Kyle Wilber, Mark Nzeocha, Jeremiah George
Even with Justin Durant and Andrew Gachkar leaving in free agency, the Cowboys still have a solid crew at linebacker. Jaylon Smith's debut will hopefully lock down the middle, leaving Anthony Hitchens and Damien Wilson to compete for the strong-side position. The loser of that battle will still be a key backup.
Kyle Wilber brings veteran depth and special teams value. Mark Nzeocha will hopefully stay healthy and build on a strong 2016 preseason.
I expect Dallas to keep seven linebackers due to Sean Lee's age and Jaylon Smith's health concerns. Right now the only other guy under contract is Jeremiah George, a fifth-round pick by Jets in 2014. George will likely be competing with several rookie prospects for a job.
Orlando Scandrick, Anthony Brown, Nolan Carroll, Leon McFadden, Jeremiah McKinnon
With Brown and Carroll stepping into the spaces occupied by Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr, Dallas shouldn't be too bad off compared to last year. Their goal in the draft, though, is no doubt to improve their depth and perhaps even find a second starter.
If they can't, Leon McFadden at least brings experience as a fourth cornerback. Sadly, he is best known for getting burned by the Steelers' trick play last season.
McKinnon was an undrafted free agent who Dallas kept until final cuts last year. He was on the Titans practice squad in 2016 but then Dallas brought him back in January. That he was still on the Cowboys' radar is intriguing and makes me want to keep an eye on him this July.
Byron Jones, Jeff Heath, Kavon Frazier, Jameil Showers
Like at cornerback, Dallas will almost certainly be adding some talent here. Few would be surprised to see them use their first-round pick on a new starter.
That said, I am comfortable with Jeff Heath starting if needed. He has a nose for the ball and might play even better if he gets full-time starter reps in practice.
The depth is the real concern now. Dallas will be hoping that Kazon Frazier can at least be a capable backup despite little playing time in his rookie season. He will likely be competing for that job with another drafted talent or perhaps even a veteran addition still to come.
Dallas converted Jameil Showers from quarterback to safety last year while he was on the practice squad. We'll have to wait until training camp to see how that goes. If he can apply QB smarts to safety, Showers could be surprisingly dangerous in the role.
Special Teams (4)
Dan Bailey (K), Chris Jones (P), L.P. Ladouceur (LS), Quincy McDuffie (KR/PR)
No surprises at kicker, punter, or long snapper, I'm sure. The one thing we might see is a young long snapper coming in to compete with 36-year-old Ladouceur, but it will take a lot to mess with perfection.
I've put McDuffie here as the return specialist as a placeholder. I think Dallas is probably done with Lucky Whitehead after uninspiring play and some behavior issues last season. McDuffie was a standout return man in the CFL, but I imagine he will be competing with several other prospects this year.
Despite Changes, Cowboys Offense Still Runs Through Ezekiel Elliott
We've talked a lot this offseason about the changes at Offensive Coordinator and slot receiver, or how Jason Witten's return will impact the tight end position. But while all of these will impact the Dallas Cowboys' offense in 2019, the constant feature remains Running Back Ezekiel Elliott and the rushing attack.
From 2016 to 2018, since the Cowboys drafted Elliott, Dallas has ranked 1st, 3rd, and 10th among NFL teams in "run vs. pass" play calls. That's only logical; you don't spend a fourth-overall pick on a RB and then not make him the featured player in your offense.
Zeke has certainly rewarded Dallas' decision; Elliott has led the league in total rushing two out of three years, and he led in yards-per-game in 2017 while dealing with his suspension.
Leaning on Elliott has been smart business based on his effectiveness, plus the investment in the offensive line over the last several years.
Dallas has now sunk three first-round picks (Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin), one second (Connor Williams), and now two thirds (Chaz Green and Connor McGovern) on building up their front wall. They've spent a lot of money to keep their All-Pro guys around, plus La'el Collins.
Some would try to paint the run-heavy approach as how the team is trying to hide the weaknesses of Dak Prescott at quarterback. But in 2014, with DeMarco Murray at RB and Tony Romo at QB, the Cowboys were still 3rd in the league in rush vs. pass attempts.
This isn't about Zeke or Dak, or any other specific player. This about a team philosophy that starts at the top with Jason Garrett, and that isn't going to change even with Kellen Moore taking over as the new Offensive Coordinator.
We're all excited to see what new wrinkles comes from getting rid of Scott Linehan. We highly anticipate the development of Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup in the offense, coupled with the addition of Randall Cobb. We're salivating at what Blake Jarwin might become under the tutelage of the great Jason Witten.
Heck, maybe we'll see fullback Jamize Olawale's receiving skills put to more use. Perhaps gadget guys like Tavon Austin or rookie Tony Pollard will be deployed in more creative ways.
And yes, Dak Prescott's growth is another major factor in Dallas' 2019 success. It's especially interesting, and even concerning, as talks are ongoing about his long-term contract.
But make no mistake, this is still the Ezekiel Elliott show. Even if a few more of his carries become receptions in Moore's scheme, Zeke should still get the lion's share of the touches.
That's why this week's news about his incident in Las Vegas is so troubling. It probably won't lead to a suspension, but we saw what happened in 2017 when Elliott was missing for over a third of the season.
While Dallas should be better able to withstand losing Zeke now than it was two years ago, it may still be more than Prescott, Cooper, and the rest could handle. It definitely wouldn't put the Cowboys in good position to compete for a Super Bowl.
In the end, the 2019 will still come down to how well Dallas runs the ball. It's the engine; nothing else matters if the rushing game doesn't set everyone else up for success.
Don't ever take it for granted. This is still Ezekiel Elliott's offense.
What Would a Successful Season Mean for Kellen Moore’s Future?
Out of every chess piece moved by the Dallas Cowboys this offseason, the decision to name 30-year old Kellen Moore might be the most interesting one. Not only that, but it could be the one that makes the biggest impact on the team. After all, the Cowboys are ready to go talent wise.
With Kellen Moore taking up a new role, it's intriguing to imagine what a successful season would mean for his future with the Dallas Cowboys. Truth be told, Moore is in a pretty fortunate position to debut as an offensive coordinator. He'll be driving a unit full of talented players with almost no weak links. Last year, it wasn't the lack of quality players lined up that had the offense struggling throughout the season, but the guy in charge.
At first, the philosophy of not needing a #1 wide receiver clearly blew up on the Cowboys face. The passing game in Dallas needed a spark and they didn't find it until they traded a first rounder for Amari Cooper. Cooper's impact on the team was clear right away as he put on impressive performances on a weekly basis.
But even when Cooper was at his best, the offense still presented relevant struggles. Despite getting more first downs, the Cowboys still had trouble scoring touchdowns when in the red zone and kept leaving points on the field.
Although he's been a controversial conversation among members of Cowboys Nation, there are a few reasons to be excited about what Kellen Moore can bring to the table as a young offensive coordinator. Ever since he declared for the NFL Draft out of Boise State, where he ran a very complex offense on his way to become the QB with most wins in NCAA history, he was seen by many as an extremely smart prospect. Many expected him to have a mediocre career as a player, but saw him as a potential coach down the line.
Now it's his chance to prove the world just how smart he is and his potential as a coach. He will not only be proving it to the Cowboys organization, but all of the NFL and college football teams. Don't forget what NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah mentioned a few months ago.
I've mentioned this before- Kellen Moore is a rising star and he'll be in the mix for HC gigs (CFB or NFL) in the near future. https://t.co/hLjOb4HAUc
With a great group of talent at his disposal, it's fair to imagine Moore having a pretty successful "rookie" season at a major coaching position. If he indeed manages to turn heads with the Dallas Cowboys offense in 2019, what does that mean for his future?
In a league that's turning to the young offensive-minded coaches thanks to guys like Sean McVay, is it possible one team decides to pull the trigger and make him an offer for a head coaching gig? It certainly would seem premature, but it's still a possibility in the NFL, where teams have become increasingly impatient with their coaches.
I definitely wouldn't be surprised if next offseason, we're concerned about another team (college or NFL) trying to snatch Moore off the Cowboys. I insist in pointing out this would be a premature decision if it does happen, since Moore has very little experience, but looking at the trend in the NFL it certainly could happen.
This might be the most important year in Kellen Moore's young career. For now, let's hope he does a good job leading Dak Prescott in his fourth year as a professional player and an offense that has a solid OL and a pretty good set of skill players.
Connor Williams Working as Left Tackle in Cowboys Practice
Second-year guard Connor Williams has been working as the Cowboys' left tackle during practice this week. While this isn't the plan for him in 2019, it does provide a glimpse into potential uses for Williams down the road and how Dallas might handle future offensive line moves.
Using Connor at LT this week has been a matter of necessity. The top players on that depth chart, Tyron Smith and Cameron Fleming, were not participating for other reasons.
With Tyron Smith getting a vet day and Cam Fleming not practicing because of a bruised shin, Connor Williams worked at left tackle Wednesday. He said it was his first left tackle snaps since he was at Texas. He said it felt like riding a bike after a little bit.
Indeed, Williams spent three years at left tackle in college. It was the last position he'd played before being drafted in the second round of the 2018 NFL Draft by Dallas, who immediately moved him to guard.
Connor started 10 of 13 games at guard last season. He played mostly on the left side, starting Weeks 1-9, before getting injured. Xavier Su'a-Filo played well enough in his absence that Williams didn't get the starting job back when he was healthy. However, when Zack Martin had to miss a few games at the end of the year, Connor started a right guard for those two weeks.
When Martin returned for the playoffs, Williams was back as the starting left guard in both postseason games.
Tyron Smith and Cam Fleming will be your starter and backup at left tackle next year. But for 2020 and beyond, Connor Williams' ability to play tackle creates some interesting possibilities.
La'el Collins will be an unrestricted free agent next year. Fleming will still have one year left on his deal and Dallas just spent a third-round pick on the versatile Connor McGovern. Throw in that Williams can play some tackle, and it seems as if they're covering bases for Collins eventual departure.
We could very well see a starting lineup in 2020 with McGovern at LG and Williams at RT. Another possibility is that Fleming starts at RT and Williams stays at guard, but can be moved to tackle if needed.
If nothing else, it's nice to know that Dallas has options. We may never see Connor Williams play a regular season snap at left tackle, but versatility is a great asset. It can greatly increase a player's value, and give his team some leverage and flexibility in roster management.
For the Cowboys, it does make you wonder what the future holds for the offensive line.
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