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Cowboys’ Job Security: QB, WR, TE

Jess Haynie

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Cowboys Blog - Cowboys' Job Security: QB, WR, TE

With eight games in and at least eight to go, it seemed a fine time to evaluate the roster. There are many different perspectives you can go with, but if you know me at all then you know I love to put my General Manager hat on. Today we're going to look at players within the context of job security, the likelihood that they will still be Cowboys next season. Today we'll look at the quarterbacks, receivers, and tight ends. Tomorrow we'll hit the running backs and offense line. And then over the weekend we'll cover the defense.

QUARTERBACKS

Tony Romo - Signed through 2019

If the needle has moved at all on the Cowboys' appreciation of Romo during the first part of this season, it's only increased in his absence. The highest-rated passer in 2014, Romo will hopefully return to the field next week in Miami and pick up with the same level of play. Even if the season is over for the Cowboys, seeing strong play from Romo will be inspiring for next year's campaign.

Romo's future with the team was never in doubt. Even if they wanted to part ways, the $31 million in dead money makes it practically impossible. Romo will certainly be the quarterback through 2016 and likely a year or two beyond, provided he can hold up physically.

LIKELIHOOD TO RETURN: 100%

Matt Cassel - 2016 Unrestricted Free Agent

Dallas has recently treated their backup quarterback position with more hubris than in years past, content with the risky Brandon Weeden over more trustworthy options like Brad Johnson, Jon Kitna, and Kyle Orton that have backed up Romo before. Cassel would be more akin to those players and I could easily see Dallas offering him a solid one or two-year deal to stick around.

The big question for Cassel and the Cowboys will be if Dallas finally looks to the draft for Romo's eventual replacement. I don't see Dallas spending a high enough pick, like first or second round, to where they'd be comfortable with that guy as their primary backup. Even if they bring in a rookie for grooming, I expect Cassel or some other veteran would still be the number-two guy next year.

LIKELIHOOD TO RETURN: 70%

Brandon Weeden - 2016 Unrestricted Free Agent

Even if Dallas can't get Cassel to stick around they will likely look elsewhere for a veteran backup. Weeden hasn't shown any growth from the player he was last year, let alone how he played in Cleveland. I might look at it differently if he was still under contract, but I can't see much reason to negotiate a new deal with him.

I'm only giving Weeden's return the slimmest of chances in the possibility that they simply can't find anybody better in free agency if Cassel's not retained.

LIKELIHOOD TO RETURN: 10%

WIDE RECEIVERS

Dez Bryant - Signed through 2019

I don't need to explain this one, I hope. Dez just got a new deal and has plenty of X's left to throw up in Dallas.

LIKELIHOOD TO RETURN: 100%

Terrance Williams - Signed through 2016

Williams has been disappointing this year but not enough to be shown the door. He will only count $872k against the cap in the final year of his rookie contract. Even if he falls out of the starting lineup next year, that's still a great salary for an experienced backup. They have no reason to cut him loose.

LIKELIHOOD TO RETURN: 100%

Cole Beasley - Signed through 2018

Like Dez, Beasley just got a new deal and isn't going anywhere anytime soon. He reminded everyone what an asset he is last week and should only keep that production going once Romo returns.

LIKELIHOOD TO RETURN: 100%

Devin Street - Signed through 2017

There was talk during the offseason from some Cowboys insiders that Street was every bit as good as Terrance Williams. I haven't seen that on the field, and it's not like Williams has been lighting it up.

Street will get every opportunity to keep his job next year in camp and preseason. However, it's not hard to see Brice Butler, Lucky Whitehead, or some new face from the draft or even the current practice squad work their way up and force Street out. I'll give him a slight edge as the incumbent, but I think he'll be in a dogfight for his job.

LIKELIHOOD TO RETURN: 60%

Lucky Whitehead - Signed through 2017

We've not only seen Lucky get used more on offense lately but he rewarded the team's trust with a big kickoff return against the Eagles. He has special skills and won't be easy to let go. Anyone near the bottom of the roster can't be too much of a lock, but if he keeps showing than Whitehead could all but secure his spot before the season's over.

LIKELIHOOD TO RETURN: 75%

Brice Butler - Signed through 2016

The Cowboys have Butler's original rookie contract having traded for him with Oakland. He is a cheap option with experience and has even shown up in a few games for Dallas. He will likely compete with Street for a roster spot next offseason, and I think he has a great shot at making it.

LIKELIHOOD TO RETURN: 50%

TIGHT ENDS

Jason Witten - Signed through 2017

Witten's last game as a Cowboy, barring injury, will be because he's retiring. There's no sign of that from Jason in at least the next few seasons.

LIKELIHOOD TO RETURN: 100%

Gavin Escobar - Signed through 2016

Drafting Escobar made a lot of sense if you were preparing for the future without Witten, or if you planned on getting him plenty of work in the receiving games. Neither of these appear to have been in the Cowboys' plans, making that pick pretty questionable in retrospect.

Escobar should return to play out his rookie deal. I'm leaving out a slight chance, though, that Dallas looks to move him to a team needing a starting tight end that could be enticed by Escobar's athleticism. They could then look to add a more balanced player with better blocking skills, or just stick with James Hanna, moving forward.

LIKELIHOOD TO RETURN: 90%

James Hanna - 2016 Unrestricted Free Agent

Hanna's in a tough spot as he enters free agency. He's done well when called upon here but hasn't been given enough opportunities to show his stuff. Dallas likely values him more than any other NFL team will, which could help him to at least find work.

The issue will be Hanna's asking price and ambition. He's likely going to have to take a minimal deal for Dallas to keep him, given that he'd be no better than the number-three player on the depth chart. If he willing to accept a low salary and a lesser role here for fear of what could happen on the open market? Only he knows.

LIKELIHOOD TO RETURN: 50%

Geoff Swaim - Signed through 2018

The seventh-round rookie will at least be back for another offseason and has shown solid potential. I imagine he will be at least the fourth tight end, if not the third, next season.

LIKELIHOOD TO RETURN: 75%



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

Dallas Cowboys 2019 Training Camp Preview: Wide Receiver

Jess Haynie

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Can WR Michael Gallup Eclipse 1,000 Receiving Yards as a Rookie?

The biggest story of the Cowboys' 2018 season was the mid-season arrival of Amari Cooper and the way it turned Dallas into a playoff-bound contender. Wide receiver remains a key component of the team this year, and today we'll look at how the talent stacks up with only a week to go before 2019 training camp.

Cooper is back and all signs point to him getting a long-term contract in the near future. He is the undisputed number-one receiver and has reestablished himself as one of the better one in the NFL after a brief downtime in Oakland.

Last year's third-round pick, Michael Gallup, rose to the number-two spot throughout last year and eventually was beating Cole Beasley in targets by the playoffs. There are reasonably high hopes for his continued development; Dallas could boast one of the best WR tandems in football by the end of 2019.

With the aforementioned Beasley bolting for Buffalo in free agency, the Cowboys made one of their splashier signings in veteran Randall Cobb to replace him. Cobb has struggled with injuries his last few years in Green Bay, but he's still just 28 and has produced at a higher level than Cole ever did.

If Randall's healthy, he brings more security to the position as a player who can step into a starting role if needed. But ideally, if Cooper and Gallup hold their spots down, Cobb will be a major threat as the slot receiver. He has real potential to upgrade that spot from Beasley, which isn't a knock on Cole but the reality of Cobb's talent.

Here is our projected depth chart for the Cowboys' WR position in 2019. We're going to treat the top three receivers as starters, since WR3 plays the majority of offensive snaps in the modern NFL.

  1. Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, Randall Cobb
  2. Allen Hurns, Noah Brown, Tavon Austin
  3. Cedrick Wilson, Devin Smith, Lance Lenoir
  4. Jalen Guyton, Reggie Davis, Jon'Vea Johnson

As with most of the Dallas roster in 2019, we have a firm grip on who the starters are. But there's a lot of competition for the bottom of the depth chart, and WR exemplifies that as well as any position on the team.

Could WR Noah Brown Help the Cowboys at Tight End?

Dallas Cowboys WR Noah Brown

One guy who feels like a lock is Noah Brown, the 2017 7th-round pick who has proven himself a valuable special teams player with the potential for more. Brown's physical receiving style has reminded us of a young Dez Bryant in his limited playing time, and he's even shown enough power to be deployed as a small tight end in some situations.

On paper, veterans Allen Hurns and Tavon Austin would round out the WR depth chart. Hurns has the most experience as a former starting WR and offers security if Cooper or Gallup should go down. Austin has versatility, rare speed, and the special teams work as a return specialist to justify his presence.

But Hurns also has a $6.25 million cap hit that Dallas can shed $5 million of if he's released. And Tavon's value may take a big hit if rookie RB Tony Pollard steals his reps as the offensive gadget player and in the return game.

These veterans will have to fight for their spots. A prospect like Cedrick Wilson, who the team was high on in 2018 as a rookie but lost to injury, could easily challenge them. There's also Lance Lenoir, who has return ability and has been with the team for two seasons.

Undrafted rookie Jon'Vea Johnson was one of the buzz names coming out of mini-camps and OTAs. If the praise continues now, Johnson could easily push his way onto the bottom of the roster. He appears to be a favorite of Cowboys WR Coach Sanjay Lal.

One more guy to watch is Devin Smith. He was a 2nd-round pick of the Jets in 2015 but has struggled with knee injuries the last few years. Dallas signed him last January as a reclamation project, and clearly there's something there that once made him a Day 2 pick.

This is a loaded group at WR in 2019, which is great for the Cowboys and unfortunate for those who deserve a roster spot but won't find one. Will the veterans like Hurns and Austin fight off the young guys, or will someone like Johnson be the next undrafted rookie to succeed in Dallas?

~ ~ ~

OTHER 2019 CAMP PREVIEWS



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Is Ezekiel Elliott the Most Dominant Running Back in the NFL?

John Williams

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Safe to Say, Ezekiel Elliott Not an Offensive Line Product

There's no player in football that is more hotly debated at the moment than Dallas Cowboys Running Back Ezekiel Elliott. Though much of the debate surrounds his potential contract extension, which would likely make him the highest-paid running back in the NFL, there's also been a lot of debate about his standing as the best running back in the NFL.

On Thursday, Bleacher Report's Kristopher Knox released his list of the most dominant players at each position. It's a fantastic read and not just because he listed Ezekiel Elliott as the most dominant running back in the NFL.

It's certainly easy to see where he's coming from despite the debate that rages across the NFL's fanbases. Ezekiel Elliott's lead the NFL in rushing two of the three season's he's been in the league. Both of those seasons, Elliott only played 15 games, getting the benefit of the Cowboys playoff positioning being solidified prior to week 17. In 2017, he would have probably ran away with the league's rushing title again, which would make him the three-time defending rushing champion heading into 2019.

In that 2017 season when he missed six games and had a game against the Denver Broncos where he only rushed for seven yards on nine carries, Elliott still finished in the top 10 in rushing.

In 2018, he bested Saquon Bakley by 127 yards rushing. Had Elliott played in the week 17 finale last season and rushed for his season average, he would have won the rushing title by more than 200 yards. And he did that in what many considered to be a down season for Ezekiel Elliott and the Dallas Cowboys rushing attack. Pro Football Focus even graded Elliott as the 30th best running back for 2018.

In 2018, Elliott had 2,000 total yards, besting his 2016 number of 1,994 total yards as a rookie. His rushing total was down in 2018 from 2016, but he still had an excellent season.

No disrespect to Todd Gurley, Saquon Barkley, Alvin Kamara, Le'Veon Bell, or Chrisitan McCaffrey, but they don't have the credentials that Ezekiel Elliott brings to the table. Those guys are great running backs in their own right, but Elliott has lead the NFL in rushing in two of the three seasons he's been in the league and would have probably lead the league in 2017 had he not been suspended.

Per Game Table
Rushing Receiving
Rk Player From To Att Yds TD Rec Yds TD
1 Saquon Barkley 2018 2018 16.3 81.7 0.7 5.7 45.1 0.3
2 Le'Veon Bell 2015 2017 21.1 94.4 0.6 5.6 42.6 0.1
3 Ezekiel Elliott 2016 2018 21.7 101.2 0.7 3.4 30.0 0.2
4 Todd Gurley 2015 2018 18.0 78.4 0.8 3.2 32.5 0.2
5 Alvin Kamara 2017 2018 10.1 52.0 0.7 5.2 49.5 0.3
6 Christian McCaffrey 2017 2018 10.5 47.9 0.3 5.8 47.4 0.3
Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/18/2019.

Since 2015, only Le'Veon Bell has averaged more total yards per game than Elliott, but Elliott's close and he's not used as much in the passing game as Bell. Only Todd Gurley has a higher average of rushing touchdowns per game than Elliott.

Elliott's 3.4 receptions per game through the first three seasons of his career is only slightly better than Todd Gurley who ranks sixth among this group of players. The Dallas Cowboys attempted to get Elliott more involved in 2018 but didn't work him downfield enough in his targets for him to be anything more than a dump-off option. In 2019, the Dallas Cowboys should work to get him running more intermediate routes in the passing game because as we saw in the Detroit game last season, Elliott's got really good hands.

Historically, Elliott is off to a great start to his career. His first three years in the NFL compare quite favorably to two Hall of Famers and one of the most dynamic running backs of the early 21st century.

No player with more than 100 career attempts in the NFL has averaged more rushing yards per game than Ezekiel Elliott.

Think about that for a second. Through his first three seasons, he's averaged more rushing yards per game than Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders, Terrell Davis, Eric Dickerson, Adrian Peterson, Tony Dorsett, Walter Payton, and the list goes on and on.

If you look at what he's done compared to other players during their first three years. Only Eric Dickerson, Earl Campbell, and Edgerrin James averaged more rushing yards per game than Ezekiel Elliott in the first three seasons of their respective careers.

One of the things that people have used to knock Ezekiel Elliott has been the volume of carries that he's received, but there's a reason that the Dallas Cowboys lean on him so heavily. They've created a run-first identity and though at times it has made the offense somewhat inefficient, it's not because the player they're handing to is not a good player, but because every team in the NFL is expecting the Dallas Cowboys to run the football with Ezekiel Elliott.

In 2018 in particular, the Cowboys offensive coaching staff, namely the departed Scott Linehan, didn't do enough to create favorable matchups in the running game. Too often it was a first down run out of heavy personnel that the defense was expecting.

With two rushing titles already in the bag, there's no reason to expect anything different from Ezekiel Elliott in 2019. It's anticipated that the offensive gameplan and execution will be better in 2019 than it was in 2018. The offensive line will be better and with Kellen Moore as the offensive coordinator, there's a thought that the Dallas Cowboys are going to be less predictable moving forward.

The debate will continue to rage over the value of extending Ezekiel Elliott with a contract that will carry him to his age 28 or 29 season, but there is no debating that Ezekiel Elliott is the best and most dominant running back in the NFL.



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Is DeMarco Murray a Factor in Ezekiel Elliott’s Rumored Holdout?

Jess Haynie

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DeMarco Murray Expects Ezekiel Elliott to Rewrite Cowboys' Record Book

There's been a lot of talk this week about a rumored training camp holdout by Ezekiel Elliott, with the Dallas Cowboys' star running back seeking a renegotiated contract. If Zeke does actually hold out, I can't help but wonder if the Cowboys' handling of DeMarco Murray a few years ago isn't a factor in his decision.

Quick history lesson; in 2014, Murray ran for the most yards (1,845) in Cowboys history for a single season. But that was also the final year of his rookie contract, and Dallas chose to let DeMarco leave in free agency when the two sides were unable to agree on new contract.

Murray had just turned 26 when he hit free agency, and his four years Dallas had not had consistent production or availability. 2014 was the first time he was able to play at such a high level, or played a full 16-game season.

As you might remember, Murray left and joined the Philadelphia Eagles under Chip Kelly. As with most things during Kelly's time in Philly, it proved to be a disaster. DeMarco was released after one year and then had a couple of seasons in Tennessee before retiring.

The way it all turned out seemed to validate the Cowboys' decision. Perhaps Murray's big year in 2014 was more about adding Zack Martin and Ron Leary to the offensive line than DeMarco himself. He certainly didn't look like the same player at any other point in his career.

But Ezekiel Elliott and his agent may not be too worried about all of those nuances. They may be looking at the simple fact that the Cowboys allowed one of the most productive RBs in football in 2014 to just walk away in free agency.

Zeke may be worried that Dallas will allow him to do the same.

Ezekiel Elliott Already Has Second Rushing Title Locked Down

Dallas Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott

There are some important differences to note between Ezekiel Elliott and DeMarco Murray. For one, Elliott's been elite every season. He's led the NFL in rushing yards-per-game the last three years.

Zeke has also been faultlessly durable, missing no games due to injury. Murray had already missed 11 games his first three years before we even got to 2014.

However, there are some similarities that can't be ignored. While Elliott's never missed time for health reasons, he missed six games in 2017 due to a suspension for a domestic violence accusation. He also came dangerously close to missing more time this year due to an incident with a security guard in Las Vegas during the offseason.

Availability is availability, whether it's for behavioral issues or injuries. The team assumes the same risk either way.

Also, Elliott has had the same benefit of running behind this great Cowboys offensive line for the last three years. It hasn't been quite as good as 2014, with Ron Leary never being completely replaced, but he hasn't lacked for superior blocking compared to most NFL running backs.

Another factor; Zeke is due to turn 24 next week. That means he'd be 25 next year when playing on the 5th-year option, and about to turn 26 when he hits unrestricted free agency in 2021.

DeMarco Murray was also 26 when he hit free agency in 2015. And he'd only played four NFL seasons, while Zeke would have just finished his fifth.

Cowboys Blog - Cowboys CTK: DeMarco Murray Dominates #29 2

Former Dallas Cowboys RB DeMarco Murray (AP Photo/Brandon Wade)

I'm not saying that Murray and Elliott are the same player. Zeke has proven himself better over a long period of time and with less talent in front and around him. He's carried the offense without Tony Romo's passing or Jason Witten and Dez Bryant still in their prime, like DeMarco had in 2014.

But in 2015, with the prospect of competing for a Super Bowl well in reach, the Cowboys decided to gamble on the shaky Darren McFadden rather than pay DeMarco Murray market value. They trusted their system and offensive line to produce a successful running back.

Zeke may be worried that Dallas is preparing to take that same approach with him. They can keep playing him at a discount this year and in 2020, when even his raise to $9 million is still a bargain compared to guys like Todd Gurley and Le'Veon Bell.

In 2021 the Cowboys could then hit Elliott with the franchise tag. He'd make a ton that year, but without any of the long-term security that other elite RBs are currently enjoying.

In that scenario, Zeke would now be turning 27 the next time free agency rolled around. And the window for getting a multi-year contract may have passed.

That's three more seasons for a major injury to finally find him. If nothing else, it's about 45-50 more games of NFL mileage that could scare other teams off.

Again, this notion of Ezekiel Elliott holding out is just a rumor right now. It may have been floated just to get some easy clicks at Pro Football Talk, which is hardly a new strategy for them.

But in all fairness, you can see why Zeke might be considering it. There's a fair reason to question the Cowboys long-term loyalty, and it goes back to how they handled their last star running back.



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