After a disappointing 9-7 season and a narrow miss of the playoffs, the Dallas Cowboys are having to ask themselves tough questions. This is a critical offseason for making sure the next generation of Cowboys players don't suffer the ongoing disappointments of the last one. To accomplish that, the Cowboys need to keep looking ahead when it comes to their roster.
Emotional attachment to veteran players will not help us going forward.
The impetus for this article came from a tweet I got last night, in response to an article I wrote about Orlando Scandrick's future with the Cowboys:
@CowboysAddicts why do beat writers always try to get ride of cowboy players? Dez, Scandrick Hanna. Tyron smith. Like damn. Can we keep our good players?!
First off, I would love to legitimately call myself a beat writer someday. If any of you work for a major media outlet, get at me.
To Kevin's point, though, the idea of "good players" is one fans seem to struggle with. Many of the same people who complain about ongoing disappointing seasons, and the Cowboys not being in the Super Bowl since Tom Brady was a freshman in college, seem desperate to cling to the players who are part of those failures.
Dez Bryant has dominated the headlines this week after Stephen Jones' comments indicated the team may be taking a hard stance on Bryant's contract in the coming months. It's clear the Cowboys' front office isn't happy with the return they're getting on the franchise-receiver money that Dez is making.
The thought of Dallas actually releasing Dez Bryant bothers many, and understandably so. Whether it's your #88 jersey or throwing up the "X," Bryant is one of the true faces of the team.
But that team hasn't been to the playoffs much during his time. The few times it has, Dallas hasn't made it past the second round.
That's not to say Dez, Orlando Scandrick, Tyrone Crawford, or even Jason Witten have been part of the problem. Football is too big a game for that kind of simple analysis. However, veteran players with big contracts are very dangerous in the salary cap era.
Every team has to find the right balance between veteran leaders and their higher salaries, and the young guys on rookie deals or otherwise low contracts. They also have to make sure the development of those young players -- who could emerge as leaders in third and fourth seasons, if not even sooner -- isn't being stunted by lost playing and practice time because of those lingering veterans.
Let's take the greatest current Cowboy, Tight End Jason Witten.
Easily the best TE in team history and a worthy Hall of Famer, Witten is far from the offensive weapon he once was. He can still get open with his impeccable route running, but those windows are smaller now, and his ability to make plays after the catch is almost entirely gone.
Thankfully, Witten hasn't been a burden to the team's salary cap, thanks to some smart contract work and cooperation on both sides. Jason continues to accept restructured deals that keep him well paid and allow the team to not carry much of a cap hit.
That said, Dak Prescott is losing the opportunity to develop chemistry with a guy who he could rely on for the next decade. None of James Hanna, Geoff Swaim, or Rico Gathers are probably that guy. Even if they were, they wouldn't be on the field enough because Witten still commands so much respect and deference from the organization.
That is the inherent problem with veteran leaders. You want their experience and influence, but many times what they actually offer on the field isn't as good as you'd like. They can still flash greatness at times, but those flashes become fewer and a little dimmer every year.
The young core with Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, their offensive line, and a rising number of young defensive stars is a wonderful foundation for the next era of Dallas Cowboys football. But as this season proved, the Cowboys have plenty of work left to do. They can't do that work without the cap space that some of these veterans are eating up, or the depth chart positions they occupy.
We all love Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, and other longtime favorites. We appreciate what they've done and we hate that they didn't get to bring a sixth Lombardi Trophy to Dallas. But in all honesty, that trophy's never coming until the Cowboys truly move on from the last generation, and embrace the future.
Dallas Cowboys OL Fails To Crack NFL.com’s Top 10
Often considered a top unit in football, the Dallas Cowboys offensive line seemed to take a step back in 2017. Mostly due to injuries and free agent departures on the left side, the Cowboys were unable to form the same solid unit we have seen in years past.
Despite their struggles, most would still consider them a top 5-10 offensive line in the NFL. At least, that's what I'd expect considering they still feature three All-Pro caliber players upfront.
Matt Harmon of NFL.com put together a list of the top 10 offensive lines in football based on performance in the 2017 season. The list was strictly developed through the use of next gen stats, which defined pressure as "pass-rushing play in which a defender gets within 2 yards of the opposing quarterback at the time of the throw or sack." In addition, "yards gained before close" was taken into account. This metric is meant to measure "the amount of rushing yards a running back gains before opposing defenders come within 1 yard of the player."
After compiling all of these stats, the Cowboys offensive line was left off of the list completely. Maybe even more surprising, however, was that the Philadelphia Eagles' line failed to crack the top ten as well. That's two lines with 3-4 Pro Bowl caliber players each missing the cut.
According to Matt Harmon the Cowboys allowed a pressure on 28.6% of Dak Prescott's dropbacks, 12th highest in the league. Dallas also ranked 20th in the league in YGBC in 2017.
While I do have some issues with the methodology of these statistics, the final result is actually hard to argue with. Down the stretch the Cowboys offense was downright pathetic at times. Regardless of how highly we thought of them prior to the year, the offense didn't perform to their standards, or the standards of a top ten unit.
Heading into 2018, however, I do expect this offensive line to begin to regain form. La'el Collins should continue to improve on the right side, and he is already an adequate starting right tackle regardless. I also expect Dallas to address their left guard spot, potentially within the first two rounds of the 2018 NFL Draft.
In the end the success of this line may hinge on the health of Tyron Smith, though. When healthy, Smith is the best left tackle in all of football. But that "when healthy" caveat has certainly hurt the Cowboys offense.
The way the front office handles their offensive line this offseason will play a huge role in the success, or lack thereof, of the Cowboys in 2018.
Cowboys 2018 Free Agents: CB Bene Benwikere
After playing sparsely for the Dallas Cowboys in 2017, veteran cornerback Bene Benwikere is set to be an unrestricted free agent. Could he stay in Dallas, or will he have to find work elsewhere?
Dallas was concerned about its CB depth with heavy reliance on young players and Jourdan Lewis barely participating in the offseason. Therefore, the Cowboys traded a sixth-round pick to the Cincinnati Bengals for Benwikere just before Week One.
After a stellar rookie season with the Carolina Panthers in 2014, Bene had suffered a steep fall before landing in Cincy. Injuries and poor play got him cut midway through 2016 by the Panthers, and then Benwikere bounced from Miami to Green Bay before finally signing with the Bengals in the 2017 offseason.
Though a few years removed from being an All-Rookie Team standout, Bene Benwikere is still just 26 and may still draw interest from scouts who remember his better days. He is likely counting on that, because the Cowboys' secondary is starting to fill up.
The Cowboys currently have exciting sophomores Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis expected to start in 2018. Anthony Brown is back for his third season and will be active on game days.
Orlando Scandrick's future is cloudy, but Dallas won't get much cap relief from releasing him this season. They may elect to keep the veteran for one more year, which would all but fill out the CB depth chart.
Even if Scandrick leaves, talk that Dallas may move Byron Jones back to corner from safety would only leave Benwikere in the same disadvantaged position for finding work.
The best chance that Bene Benwikere has to stay with the Cowboys is if new Defensive Backs Coach Kris Richard remembers him from 2014. Coaches often feel that can get more out of a player than the last guy, and Richard may see potential in Benwikere that his last few teams couldn't unlock.
Four years ago may be too long, though, and especially with a fresh new crop of young players coming into the league. Especially if they keep Scandrick, Dallas may want to use the rest of their roster spots on younger prospects.
As it stands, Bene Benwikere is unlikely to return to the Cowboys. However, given the flashes of potential he once showed in the NFL, you can't be certain that Dallas won't want to give him one more chance.
Cowboys 2018 Free Agents: OL Joe Looney
Dallas Cowboys backup offensive lineman Joe Looney was active for all 16 games of 2017 and never had to start. That is exactly what you want from a reserve player, and Looney has been relied on as security for the interior o-line for two years now. However, he enters 2018 as an unrestricted free agent.
A six-year veteran, Looney turns 28 years old in August. He has two years in the Cowboys system and is still in his physical prime. Able to play guard or center, "Jumbo Joe" is a nice value with versatility and familiarity.
Dallas got Looney on the cheap in 2016, signing him to a two-year deal at just $1.68 million. While he hasn't been seen much over the last two seasons, coming out of the Cowboys' offensive line could raise his profile in this free agent market compared to last time.
For example, the last guy to hold Joe's role in Dallas was Mackenzy Bernadeau. Dallas paid him $5.7 million from 2014-2015 to be the versatile backup at guard and center. Looney is at a comparable point now in his career.
Dallas may not want to give Joe Looney that kind of raise, but they may have to given other issues on the line. Starting guard Jonathan Cooper is also a free agent and was injured in Week 17. Chaz Green was tried at guard last year and failed.
Even if they didn't need Loooney to play guard, he is also the backup center and the currently the best candidate on the roster for that role.
While nobody wants Looney as the starting left guard in 2018, but Dallas may not want to give Cooper a new deal given his injury history. La'el Collins appears locked in at right tackle, so the Cowboys may feel the need to pay more to keep Looney in case the offseason doesn't provide a better option.
If the Cowboys are inspired to retain Joe Looney, it could mean raising his annual salary from about $800k to close to $3 million. Even with more cap flexibility than they've had in recent years, that's still a big jump that Dallas won't take lightly.
Clearly, Joe Looney's return in 2018 is not an easy decision. He could be a solid veteran depth option for some teams and might even find starting work if someone's desperate enough.
With Dallas facing some uncertainty on the offensive line, that gives Looney the leverage in any upcoming contract negotiations.
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