With the rival Philadelphia Eagles overcoming major injuries at QB, LB, and along the OL to reach Super Bowl LII, it is understandable for Cowboys Nation to feel like the Dallas Cowboys have never been further from an elusive sixth Lombardi trophy. Since their last Super Bowl, the Cowboys haven't even reached the NFC Championship Game -- a contest the Eagles just dominated 38-7 with their backup quarterback.
A more even-headed look at the Cowboys roster tells a different story, though. Devastated by key injuries of their own in 2017, the Cowboys' young core of talent is still just a year removed from winning 13 games and the NFC East in 2016. Stringing together consecutive successful seasons remains a struggle for Dallas, and finding stability in the NFL requires a critical evaluation of your entire roster and coaching staff each offseason.
Knowing already that Head Coach Jason Garrett, Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan, and Defensive Coordinator Rod Marinelli will all return in 2018, I've already turned my attention to this Cowboys roster, and ways they can improve.
With ten picks in the fast-approaching 2018 NFL Draft, the Cowboys may be in prime position to add depth to an already talented squad, with few glaring needs for new starters. As things stand now, here are the areas I could see rookies or free agent acquisitions coming in to start right away on America's Team next season.
Yesterday here at Inside The Star, I discussed if it was time for the Cowboys to add another first round talent to their offensive line with the 19th overall pick they currently hold. Jonathan Cooper is a free agent after starting 13 games and looking better than he has at any point in his injury-plagued career. Cooper would start 2018 recovering from yet another injury though, as he left the field in Philadelphia during week 17 -- with the Cowboys playing starters despite being eliminated from playoff contention.
In a move that would go against their recent philosophies on team building, if the Cowboys allow Jonathan Cooper to walk in free agency, it would surely open the door for a new starter to come in at left guard.
Byron Bell has experience at both guard and tackle -- a "swing" ability the Cowboys could desperately use for depth on the offensive line -- but is also a free agent who didn't perform well in place of Tyron Smith at LT this season.
The only players with experience at guard and not on expiring contracts with the Cowboys are Chaz Green and La'el Collins, as Joe Looney is also a free agent.
With Collins firmly locked in as the starter at RT, and Green moving from LG to a backup OT position before the season, the Cowboys could very well find themselves in the market for a new starter to slide between Smith and Travis Frederick in 2018.
David Irving and Brian Price are set to hit free agency as well. Irving's 2017 season was derailed by a four-game suspension, and followed by a concussion that kept him out of all but eight games. Claimed off of waivers by the Cowboys in September, Price showed some flashes at the 1T position through eight games of his own before having his first season in Dallas end on IR with a knee injury.
For a defensive line that exceeded expectations in 2017, thanks almost entirely to DE DeMarcus Lawrence, defensive tackle remains one of the Cowboys' biggest overall needs.
Identifying the Cowboys need for bodies on the defensive interior begins with finding the best spot for third-year player Maliek Collins.
Excelling as the 3T in 2016, Collins was asked to play as a 1T in 2017. Seeing his production dip with this position change, I believe Collins projects best as the Cowboys long-term starter at 1T. When he isn't shooting a gap with good initial quickness, Collins is limited as a refined pass rusher. Keeping him as an athletic, space eating 1T will allow him to play to his strengths more often.
There's no doubt David Irving's best plays with the Cowboys have come at the 3T DT position, and if the Cowboys are preparing to move on from this match-up nightmare, they'll need to add a starting-caliber DT to the rotation.
The 3T position has been called the most important in Rod Marinelli's entire defense, and the impact a DT consistently pushing the pocket could have on the rest of the front seven is hard to understate.
Defensive tackle appears to be a relatively deep position in the draft this year, which will show just how much the Cowboys value a position they've neglected for too long.
Though he was not used in this role much as a rookie, Taco Charlton showed the ability to kick inside to 3T at Michigan, and may be an in-house option for the Cowboys here, along with mid-season pick up Datone Jones.
Finally, finding a suitable starter at RDE to rush opposite DeMarcus Lawrence should be a top priority for the Cowboys this offseason. Benson Mayowa was the team's sack leader from this spot in 2016, but proved expendable this season with just one sack.
Taco Charlton started his Cowboys career at RDE, but was quickly moved into a role that played to his strengths in rotation at LDE.
There's been some buzz that troubled-DE Randy Gregory could return to the Cowboys in 2018, but even still, he's far from an every-down rusher -- nor a player who can be relied upon.
Tyrone Crawford will remain with the Cowboys in 2018, serving as their utility man while amazingly finding ways to contribute at RDE out of desperation this season.
The Cowboys defense showed a ton of potential near the end of 2017, and is a unit that could do great things moving forward, assuming this team fixes their offensive woes. Turning the corner to become an elite defense may be as simple as that, as the Cowboys should be in the market for an immediate starter to come at opposing quarterbacks with speed from the right edge.
Perhaps the biggest positive to come out of the Cowboys' 9-7 season is the progress of their young secondary. Starting rookies Jourdan Lewis and Chidobe Awuzie at cornerback paid off throughout the year. Awuzie battled injuries to make a positive impact, while Lewis proved every bit the elite cover man he was on tape at Michigan.
Where things were not as clear in this new-look Dallas secondary was at safety.
Boosting Jeff Heath into a starting role was supposed to create even more turnovers and big plays from this group, but instead Heath looked lost in coverage far too often alongside Byron Jones. Per usual, Jones was asked to do a little bit of everything for the Cowboys, looking his best when playing at depth, as opposed to being outmatched against the run down in the box.
In a box-safety role, rookie Xavier Woods flashed a lot of potential, adjusting to having a lot thrown his way with the Cowboys even asking their sixth round pick to play some nickel CB. This is also a role Kavon Frazier was productive in with limited opportunities, and the Cowboys don't seem to be in any hurry to give their special teams ace a larger role at safety.
Ideally, both Jeff Heath and Xavier Woods are not on the field for every snap at safety. In a scheme that wants to keep every pass in front of them, Dallas absolutely needs a solid rotation of safeties that can provide contrasting looks. This is where Heath and Woods can excel as second or third level defenders, creating an opening for a true starting safety to come in this offseason.
A safety that can play the run, but more importantly play with sideline-to-sideline range and instincts should see plenty of snaps right away with the Cowboys.
✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭
If you agree with the majority of this list, two things become clear about the Cowboys outlook for the future.
- Their needs remain on defense, and
- this is a great sign of just how close the roster is -- with a defense that already has a solid foundation in place.
Lacking the depth needed to overcome injuries to starters and make a deep run into the playoffs, the Cowboys may not be in the market for many new starters this offseason. Instead, with the coaching staff mostly still intact, the team can focus on further improving areas of strength to become a force in the NFC sooner rather than later.
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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