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.
Will Dallas Cowboys Address Backup RB in Free Agency or 2019 Draft?
The Dallas Cowboys' backup running back spot may not seem like a high priority compared to other 2019 offseason issues. But all it takes is one bad play for Ezekiel Elliott to be lost, and the Dallas offense leans too heavily on the RB position to take his backup plan lightly. Will the team be looking to improve the talent behind Zeke through free agency or the draft?
Right now, the only running backs signed to the Cowboys' roster are Elliott, Darius Jackson, and Jordan Chunn. The backup for the last few seasons, Rod Smith, is currently an unrestricted free agent.
Jackson and Chunn have a combined six carries for 16 yards in their careers, and all of those came from Darius in the Cowboys' meaningless 2018 regular-season finale. Chunn spent all of his rookie season on the practice squad.
A sixth-round pick for Dallas in 2016, Darius Jackson is on his third stint with the Cowboys after stops in Cleveland and Green Bay in between. He has flashed some electric running ability at times but clearly hasn't been able to stick with a team. Could 2019 be his chance?
Jordan Chunn was an undrafted free agent out of Troy last year. He's a big, powerful runner with some deceptive athletic moves as well.
What stands out most with both of these guys isn't positive, though, and that's their mutual inexperience and draft capital. Would the Cowboys really leave their RB depth chart so thin when they're trying to make a championship run?
Dallas could be hoping to eventually re-sign Rod Smith at a bargain price. He's a solid backup and special teams leader, and the longer he sits unsigned in free agency then the lower his price should be.
But is it time for the Cowboys to invest more in their other running backs? Not only is 2019 a critical year, but upcoming contract negotiations with Elliott could make it a wise move.
This upcoming season is the last one of Zeke's standard rookie contract. Dallas will have to decide if they want to sign him long-term or let him play 2020 on his fifth-year option as a former first-round draft pick, which would pay him about $9 million.
Signing or drafting a player of consequence now, and having them under contract over the next few seasons, would give the Cowboys some added leverage in contract negotiations with Elliott.
What's more, who's to say that Zeke's impressive durability will just continue? He's already had a lot of touches in three years, even with the six suspension games. Maybe it's time to find someone who you don't mind giving some of the workload to?
Some of the top free agents available likely won't want the reduced role, and money, that playing behind Elliott will mean. That would take guys like Jay Ajayi and C.J. Anderson off the list.
What about older veteran who can still ball, like Marshawn Lynch, Darren Sproles, or Doug Martin? You might not want them as a featured player anymore but they could still be effective on limited touches. Joining a potential contender like the Cowboys in a supporting role could be exactly what these guys are looking for.
Other free agent options would be players who are used to backup roles, such as Isaiah Crowell, T.J. Yeldon, or Spencer Ware. They would be probable upgrades from Rod Smith but for minimal money if they stay unsigned much longer.
The draft is another way to add some RB talent, and it could be the smartest one. A drafted player, even as high as Dallas' second-round pick, would have a four-year rookie deal at a minimal salary.
One player that could make a lot of sense for the Cowboys is Justice Hill out of Oklahoma State. He brings a change of pace from Elliott as a smaller, quicker back and could be available for them during Day 2 of the draft.
Hill was featured as a potential Cowboys target by our Brian Martin a few weeks ago.
You might say that having Elliott makes any sort of serious draft pick at running back a wasted pick. But with Zeke turning 26 after the 2020 season, the Cowboys might be willing to let someone else give him a huge deal and move on to a much cheaper option.
And again, who says that Elliott makes it through another 16-game season and playoffs without a major injury? It can happen to the best of them.
Clearly, this could go any number of ways. Dallas might bring back Rod Smith or some comparable player for a cheap, easy answer at backup running back. Maybe they invest in a more proven free agent, or perhaps they draft someone early enough to matter.
However it goes, let's just say that I highly doubt Darius Jackson will be RB2 come September.
Dallas Cowboys Head Toward NFL Draft with No Glaring Needs
When the offseason began after the Dallas Cowboys fell to the Los Angeles Rams in the divisional round of the playoffs, it was clear that they were a team on the rise, but had several areas they needed to address as free agency and the draft approached.
The team had holes or depth issues at safety, defensive tackle, swing tackle, wide receiver, defensive end, and tight end. Through the first two weeks of free agency, the Dallas Cowboys have taken care of each of those areas.
With the signings of George Iloka, Christian Covington, Cameron Fleming, Randall Cobb, Tavon Austin, Kerry Hyder, and Jason Witten, The Dallas Cowboys have set themselves up to approach the draft with “clear eyes and a full heart.”
As they head into April with the NFL Draft looming, the Cowboys won’t be held back by positional need and can allow their draft board to do the work for them and just add good players. It’s an excellent position to be in as they don’t have to reach for a player at a position of need they may not like as much because they have a veteran presence filling that need.
Backup running back appears to be the only position where the Cowboys could use some depth, but that player for this team is more of a special teams player who gets limited snaps on offense because of the greatness of Ezekiel Elliott. It’s generally a position where there is a lot of talent deep in the draft and undrafted free agent pool, which allows the Cowboys to be patient filling that need behind the NFL’s leading rusher.
Mother than that, if the Dallas Cowboys has to go play a football game and win today, they’d be in great shape to do so.
On the flip side, however, the Cowboys can still add players at defensive tackle, wide receiver, tight end, safety, and defensive end because they aren’t restricted by big contracts to those veteran players. Each of them came to the Cowboys on one-year deals. The veterans that they signed would prohibit them from drafting at that same position, and that’s the point.
The Cowboys have created a formula that works really well for them. Sometimes it get frustrating watching the team not make any big splashes in free agency, especially that first week when other teams are bringing in big-name players to add to their rosters. That formula has led them to a 48-32 record over the last five seasons with three NFC East titles, and two playoff wins, and three divisional round appearances.
And the playoff runs could have been deeper with a bit of luck and correct officiating.
The Dallas Cowboys have set themselves up really well as they now set their sights on the NFL Draft at the end of April. Though they won’t have a first round pick to add to their talent pool, the Cowboys have shown that they can find talent in the second round and beyond. This year will be no different.
Now it’s time to sit back and trust the process.
Cowboys Have Had Quiet, Yet Successful, Free Agency
Yet another free agency without a big splash by the Dallas Cowboys. What a surprise. Despite entertaining Earl Thomas rumors for a long, long time, the Cowboys' front office has stuck with its philosophy of not overpaying free agents and building the team mainly through the NFL Draft. However, they've actually had some pretty good signings over the last few days that will really benefit the Cowboys when the season comes around.
They've done so with inexpensive free agents who will contribute at a high level on their respective positions. Sure, top free agent signings are fun. But many times, they end up backfiring to teams for spending so much money in one single player. At the end of the day, the Cowboys' way has gotten the team three NFC East Championships since 2014. Many factors come into play, but their team building philosophy can't be as bad as many claim it to be.
The most recent acquisition came in form of former Cincinnati Bengal and Minnesota Viking Safety George Iloka. The Cowboys had a desperate need at the defensive backfield and finally they've done something about it. On a heavy safety market, the Cowboys sat tight while watching the top free agents get top contracts around the league, including Landon Collins' record breaking deal with the Washington Redskins.
Now, they've gotten a guy who can play both safety positions. I'll be surprised if he doesn't take Jeff Heath's job. He's played as a free safety most of his career but being a good tackler, he should do a good job in the box. Iloka will also shine on special teams in Dallas.
So far, my favorite signing may be that of former Green Bay Packer, Randall Cobb. The Cowboys had an important need at the wide receiver position despite counting with Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup leading the room. Cole Beasley is a tough guy to replace and although Cobb may not be a better slot receiver than him, he certainly has the experience and the skill set to be a starting slot WR. What's more, he'll only cost the Cowboys five million while Beasley got a four year deal with which he'll earn $17M over the first two years.
Cole Beasley will be missed, but the good thing is the front office did a pretty good job at filling the concerning hole on offense. Cooper, Gallup and Cobb are definitely not a bad starting trio to have.
Other under the radar moves will also help the Cowboys. Kerry Hyder may not be a well-known in the NFL but he'll surely contribute to this defensive line as a rotational player. Hyder had eight sacks in 2016 with the Detroit Lions before suffering an Achilles injury in 2017 and dealing with a scheme change last season. Hyder will surely be happy about being back to a 4-3 defense in Dallas.
Christian Covington was another overlooked signing. Covington will help on the interior of the defensive line and although he'll likely not be a starter, he'll be an important piece in the rotation for a very reasonable contract ( also a one-year deal).
For a football team that's constantly criticized for not being active in free agency, the Cowboys have done something at pretty much every position where they need help. Safety, defensive end, defensive tackle, wide receiver and tight end have all been addressed this offseason prior to the NFL Draft. This will give them great flexibility in April and could lead to a pretty good "best player available" strategy.
Now granted, there are still concerns regarding the young "to be extended" group of players. DeMarcus Lawrence hasn't reached an agreement with the Cowboys and will continue to postpone surgery until he does. If the front office doesn't strike a contract with the star pass rusher, it won't be possible to consider this offseason a good one no matter what happens. Dallas can't let him leave.
In the meantime though, they've had a pretty quiet yet successful March. And they're not done yet. Robert Quinn could end up wearing the Star if a trade with the Miami Dolphins does end up taking place. We'll see if the Cowboys continue to build on an already pretty good free agency.
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