Last night, the National Hockey League held their expansion draft to welcome their 31st franchise - the Vegas Golden Knights. With football always on my mind, I immediately started thinking of the Dallas Cowboys' that are most important to this team's future - as Vegas picked through every team's roster to take players that were unprotected.
Rookies and second-year players did not need additional protection by their clubs, meaning that in a hypothetical NFL expansion draft following these same rules the Cowboys' core would remain mostly intact.
Thanks to Will McClay and Dallas' front office, franchise players like Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott won't have to worry about removing the star from their helmet in this scenario. Instead, here is the list of protected Cowboys I came up with - again using the NHL rule of seven protected offensive players, three defenders, and a goalkeeper (which will be a specialist here).
NFL Expansion Draft: Cowboys Offense Protected List
LT Tyron Smith Age: 26
Franchise left tackles are hard to come by, unless you're the Dallas Cowboys. Tyron Smith is already by far the best in the game, especially important to the Cowboys considering he signaled the beginning of their process in building the league's best offensive line.
(Spoiler alert: Measures will be taken to keep this offensive line together further down this list)
Aside from finding a franchise QB, hitting on a top pass rusher is the second hardest thing to do in building a NFL roster. Cowboys Nation knows all too well what this struggle is like, but fortunately their All-Pro left tackle makes mitigating any defensive end thrown his way much easier than it possibly should.
C Travis Frederick Age: 26
Remember when Travis Frederick was one of the worst picks of the 2013 NFL Draft, as the Cowboys' 31st overall pick? Four years later, one of the smartest and toughest players in the league has represented America's Team in three Pro Bowls and been named an All-Pro.
Protecting Frederick, like Smith, is simply a must in maintaining the Cowboys' integrity - which starts with their star-studded offensive line, in this case at the center.
G Zack Martin Age: 26
The best guard in the NFL, Zack Martin is about to get paid what he deserves by the Cowboys. Putting him on this protected list ensures that he could remain with Dallas in an expansion draft situation, and is as necessary a move as any team with a player of Martin's caliber should make.
RT La'el Collins Age: 24
The last of Dallas' offensive linemen I chose to protect, La'el Collins obviously does not have the accolades or experience that Smith, Frederick, and Martin do - making up for it with more than enough upside to warrant protection.
With Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott ineligible to be on this list, it is imperative to protect as many of the blockers that make them successful as possible, making Collins a needed member of this list as he will be transitioning to right tackle in 2017.
Collins was a first round prospect as a tackle out of LSU, and has already flashed immense talent at guard with the Cowboys, making his long-term projection with Dallas critically important to sustain.
WR Dez Bryant Age: 28
As if being this team's top WR wasn't enough to earn protection, Dez Bryant put up elite numbers down the stretch of his first season with Dak Prescott as his QB. The Cowboys' running game, and offensive continuity as a whole, expects to be even better in 2017 - meaning Dez Bryant could see a return to his healthy 2014 form that resulted in 1,320 yards and 16 touchdowns.
Bryant is also regarded by plenty as the heart and soul to this team, and is understandably a fan-favorite player that shouldn't be objected to having to leave the Cowboys in any expansion draft.
TE Jason Witten Age: 35
Protecting Witten may come as a surprise to some considering his age, but with the offensive line, quarterback, running back, and top receiver in place, it only makes sense to retain Jason Witten on his quest for that elusive Super Bowl with the Cowboys.
Any expansion team would love to add Witten's veteran presence, making it more important to secure his future in Dallas.
Aside from Witten, the Cowboys' depth chart at TE is full of uncertainty at the moment, and they certainly don't have another player at the position worthy of expansion draft protection.
WR Cole Beasley Age: 28
While now-protected TE Jason Witten was a security blanket for Tony Romo throughout his career, Cole Beasley was that type of target for Dak in his rookie year. With a career high in receptions and yards, Beasley is an invaluable part of Scott Linehan's offense predicated on creating mismatches across the field.
The Cowboys also drafted Ryan Switzer in the fourth round this year, an electrifying rookie that has received Beasley's reps as a similar player through OTAs, meaning that protecting Beasley keeps the dream of pairing these two slot WRs together a reality.
NFL Expansion Draft: Cowboys Defense Protected List
Fortunately, with only three spots to protect defensive players with, the Cowboys' class of rookie defenders along with promising 2016 picks like Maliek Collins, Anthony Brown, and Jaylon Smith are already protected.
What makes this trio interesting still is that there aren't many normal "veterans" to hold onto along with these young players on Rod Marinelli's defense, instead enough potential in some developing stars to warrant building around for the future.
S Byron Jones Age: 24
Byron Jones has just two full years of experience at a variety of positions in Dallas' secondary, but suddenly finds himself as a necessary leader for this unit. Jones has made more and more plays on the ball with every game experience he gets, and means so much to the Cowboys' defensive identity.
Byron Jones' ceiling over the coming years in a new-look secondary for the Cowboys is best seen in the silver and blue, meaning he gets protected.
DL David Irving Age: 24
What does it say about the state of the Dallas Cowboys' defensive line that David Irving - facing a suspension for the first four games of 2017 - is the player that likely deserves protection the most.
With Taco Charlton already safe, Irving's age paired with his upside as a steal from the Chiefs in 2015 have been on full display at both DT and DE with the Cowboys. Defensive Coordinator Rod Marinelli prides himself on being able to develop any level of talent along his line, and David Irving is one of the few players in recent memory that has shown any form of quick development potential.
LB Sean Lee Age: 31
Linebacker Sean Lee has played in 14 and 15 games respectively over his last two seasons, shaking the "injury prone" label that may have caused the only sliver of doubt when it comes to protecting his future with the team.
Jaylon Smith's future is unfortunately still an uncertainty at the LB position, leaving Lee as the only experienced, sure thing this unit has to lead by example and make big plays.
NFL Expansion Draft: Cowboys Specialists Protected List
In place of the goaltender spot for NHL teams in their expansion draft, I decided to let the Cowboys specifically protect one of their specialists. This three-man unit has been one of the best and most consistent as of late, with K Dan Bailey, P Chris Jones, and LS L.P. Ladouceur all consistently doing their job at a high level.
K Dan Bailey
When it comes down to it, Bailey is the only Dallas specialist that puts points on the board. An extension of the offense, Bailey is 21 of 29 from 50 or more yards in his career and is the team's career leader in made field goals.
An undrafted success story, the Cowboys shuffled through some kickers before settling in with Bailey in 2011 - a process they do not have to go through again anytime soon.
It is truly amazing how well off the Cowboys appear on paper when you go through the exercise of protecting their future like all NHL teams were asked to do recently. Tough decisions had to be made on both sides of the ball, but the 11 players retained above paired with the already protected first and second year guys keep the Cowboys near the top of contenders in the NFL.
Best of luck, expansion NFL teams. You're going to have to get through Dallas.
Should Cowboys Consider Trading for Disgruntled Packers S Josh Jones?
Despite their insistence that upgrading the safety position was a top offseason priority, the Dallas Cowboys haven't really done much to improve the backend of their secondary. They did sign former Minnesota Vikings and Cincinnati Bengals Safety George Iloka as a free agent and drafted Donovan Wilson in the sixth-round in this year's NFL Draft, but neither player looks like a clear-cut upgrade at this point. Fortunately, there's still time to find Xavier Woods' counterpart for 2019.
Xavier Woods is the only clear-cut starter at safety currently on the Dallas Cowboys roster. Other than that, your guess is as good as mine as to who starts opposite him this season. With that in mind, the Cowboys should be keeping all of their options open, including acquiring players who get released or even making a trade for someone they like. The latter is what I want to talk about today.
A potential safety who could be put on the trade block that I'm kind of intrigued with is Josh Jones, who has reportedly requested a trade from the Green Bay Packers.
Packers safety Josh Jones is skipping the voluntary OTAs and working out in Florida because he's hoping to be traded, a source told ESPN. The source said the 2017 second-round pick believes it would be best for both parties if they parted ways. Story coming on ESPN shortly.
Josh Jones clearly sees where he stands with the Green Bay Packers after they signed Adrian Amos in free agency and drafted Darnell Savage Jr. 21st overall in the 2019 NFL Draft, thus his absence from OTA's and trade request. He understands the business and knows he's not going to see the field much behind those two, meaning his best chance for playing time would be in a different uniform.
It's not all that shocking Jones has requested a trade. Even before the Packers added Amos and Savage he wasn't receiving a lot of playing time. He's just never seemed to fit into what Green Bay was trying to do on the backend of their defense. It may be in the best interest of both parties to mutually part ways. This is where the Dallas Cowboys come in.
I believe Josh Jones is exactly the type of safety Kris Richard would like to pair Xavier Woods with on the backend of the Cowboys defense. He fits the criteria Richard likes in his defensive backs as far as size, length, and speed are concerned. And, he also has the kind of skill set/mindset to become that Kam Chancellor "enforcer" type of strong safety.
Josh Jones is at his best when he can play around the line of scrimmage, much like Chancellor was during his time with the Seahawks. But, Jones also has the ability to be a factor in coverage as well. The only real question here is whether or not he's an upgrade over the likes of Jeff Heath, George Iloka, and maybe even rookie Donovan Wilson?
In all honesty, I don't have the answer to that question. Josh Jones really hasn't received a fair opportunity to prove himself in his first two years in the NFL. I believe the skill set is there to start in the league, but there's not much there to back up that belief.
Personally, I'd be willing to part way with a late round pick if I were the Cowboys to acquire Josh Jones. I like the idea of bringing him in to work with Kris Richard and allowing him to compete for the starting job next to Xavier Woods. This is exactly the kind of low risk/high reward move Dallas likes to gamble on, and it could potentially pay off in a big way.
Where do you stand? Should the Cowboys consider trading for Josh Jones?
How Can The Cowboys Force More Turnovers In 2019?
2018 seemed like the beginning of a new era. A defensive era. For the first time in years the Cowboys were able to consistently lean on their defense during games, staying alive even as their offense sputtered and limped through stretches early in the season.
The defense was downright prolific some weeks. They carried the Cowboys to an inspiring home victory over the New Orleans Saints to put them in prime position to make the playoffs. They dominated the Wild Card game in key moments, making key stops and holding the Seahawks to just 22 points in the win. They featured one of the league's best individual pass rushers in DeMarcus Lawrence, an All Pro cornerback in Byron Jones, and one of the league's most exciting young linebacker duos.
For all of this success, this defense still lacked one thing. Takeaways.
The Cowboys forced only 9 interceptions in 2018, ranking 26th across the league. In fact, linebacker Leighton Vander Esch was actually tied with Xavier Woods for the team lead in interceptions with just 2. When it comes to total takeaways the Cowboys' defense was a little better off, though, finishing 16th in the NFL.
Part of the "problem" seems to be their philosophy. The Cowboys have finished 26th, 24th, 27th, and 31st in interceptions dating back to 2015. They've also finished 9th, 25th, 18th, and 19th in team defense DVOA over that same stretch. Clearly there was an improvement in total defense in 2018, but neither their team defense nor ability to take the ball away has been strong since 2015.
The bigger problem, really, is a lack of luck. While this sounds like a cop-out, takeaways often do come down to just that. Of course putting yourself in the right place at the right time to benefit from a batted pass or overthrown ball matters, but those bounces finding the right hands is usually a matter of luck.
Turnovers are incredibly volatile year to year, and as much as you'd like your players to "make their own luck," randomness does play a part here.
You can certainly argue the Cowboys have done their best this offseason to increase their chances at takeaways, however. By trading for defensive end Robert Quinn, re-signing DeMarcus Lawrence, and adding talented players to the middle of their defensive line as well, Dallas has put an emphasis on getting after the quarterback and corralling the opposing running game. Putting pressure on quarterbacks can force them into quick decision making or bad throws, which could in turn breed interceptions.
This is far from guaranteed, though. Plus the Cowboys play against some of the league's top quarterbacks this year, which hurts their chances of taking the ball away further.
In the end the Cowboys will need both the skill of their pass rushers and defensive backs to put them in good positions, and luck to smile down on them, if they'd like to turn around their takeaway numbers in 2019. And after all, this demoralizing trend has to reverse itself at some point, doesn't it?
Will It Be The Cowboys, Or Another Team, Who Pays Byron Jones After 2019?
After having his fifth year option exercised for the 2019 season, cornerback Byron Jones enters a contract year this Fall.
Jones inarguably had the best year of his career in 2018: earning not only his first Pro Bowl selection but also Second Team All Pro honors for his performance. Doing it all without an impressive stat sheet, Jones was able to let his film speak for itself throughout most of the year, and he became the number one cornerback we'd all hoped he could be when the Cowboys decided to take the freakishly athletic defensive back in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft.
This contract year is quite unique for Byron Jones, however. Next offseason the Cowboys will be forced to re-sign and extend just about all of their key contributors on both sides of the ball. DeMarcus Lawrence already got his contract, but Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Amari Cooper, and others still await their deals. Deals which the front office has all-but explicitly promised will come.
This leaves Jones, the former first round pick and now former All Pro, generally considered to be the odd man out. So while 2019 is a contract year for Byron Jones, he may be earning himself a contract from a completely different team.
Jones has had an interesting road to this contract season. One which would be a shame for the Cowboys to waste. Moving between cornerback and safety during the first three years of his career, Jones fell out of the coaches' good graces while playing out of his most natural position. Under Kris Richard's new regime, though, Jones had his best season to date. He looked to finally be comfortable in his role, and was now playing for a coach who believed he could be a special player.
Now that Byron Jones has found his place in the Cowboys defense, and has earned his way into conversations with the league's top cornerbacks, he's likely priced himself out of the Cowboys' future plans.
It's funny how that works out. Of course, Jones should go get paid, and I'd never fault a guy for maximizing his value on the market. But there's a good chance the Cowboys make the mistake of allowing a premier cornerback to walk out of their building next offseason. But if they want to retain players like Elliott and Cooper, they may not have any other choice.
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