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.
2018 Cowboys: What can we Expect from the Rookies?
Every season, rookies come in with the pressures of being the future of the franchise and are often expected by everyone to be able to contribute right away. The Dallas Cowboys are no exception. Not many of these rookies will be day-one starters, but most will be given the opportunity to take playing time away from some of the veterans.
The team is without Dez Bryant, Jason Witten and Orlando Scandrick after years with the team. This season, there will be new faces getting more time due to the huge holes left by the departure of their aging vets.
Some rookies are going to be asked to start right away, while others are only going to play selectively. It's probable that all will see the field at some point this season, but only a few will need to make an immediate impact from day one.
Leighton Vander Esch
The Cowboys will probably start off with Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith and Damien Wilson as the starters in the linebacker group. This means Leighton Vander Esch likely will come off the bench to fill in at both the MIKE and WILL linebacker spots in rotation.
It's uncertain which spot will be his spot for the future, but with the health history of Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith, Vander Esch is going to see plenty of time this season. Going forward, his true spot will reveal itself the more he plays.
Connor Williams is the only rookie that I'm comfortable saying is a day-one starter.
The only hole in the starting group among the offensive line was the left guard. Williams comes off a stellar college career at Texas where he only allowed one sack in his time there. Not only does Williams fill the final spot along the line, he could potentially be the next pro bowl offensive lineman among a group of already elite players.
His priority will be at left guard, but with the injury history to Tyron Smith, he also gives the Cowboys some extra insurance at left tackle. Connor Williams is not only a starter right away, but is probably the team's most valuable rookie.
What Dak Prescott needed was players who are good at route running, separating from coverage and that don't drop passes. Michael Gallup checks all three boxes.
The starting trio of wide receivers at the moment looks like Allen Hurns and Terrance Williams on the outside, with Cole Beasley in the slot. I think it's likely that we see Gallup play all over the field given his versatility and Dallas's need for play-makers.
Gallup was among my top-5 best wide receiver prospects in the draft, so hopefully it doesn't sound too biased when I say, I expect Gallup to be one of Dak's most frequently targeted receivers this season.
The team doesn't have Dez Bryant, Brice Butler or Ryan Switzer anymore and the team needs to find their next number one. Gallup will be given a shot throughout the year to be just that.
Dorance Armstrong Jr.
The good news for Dorance Armstrong's development is also bad news for his playing time; the Cowboys are flushed with defensive end talent and won't need his help very much right away.
He likely won't get a lot of playing time this year, almost as a defacto red-shirt year, but he can use it as quality learning time and play some when needed.
Dalton Schultz may have lucked into a starting job. The retirements of James Hanna and Jason Witten created a huge gap for the Cowboys at their number one and two starting tight end spots. The team also has Rico Gathers, Blake Jarwin and Geoff Swaim on the roster, but it'll be interesting to see if Schultz not only has the blocking skills to take the number one spot, but also the receiving skills to do so.
The team may end up keeping all four tight ends but Schultz might be given every opportunity possible to earn a starting spot. If not, he'll take over Geoff Swaim's role as the third tight end, who only comes in on special teams and sub packages.
The hope is the former but he's going to see the field no matter what due to the large need at the position.
Mike White was brought in to compete with Cooper Rush for the team's number two quarterback spot. He has the ball skills to compete for the position but he'll start off as the team's third string quarterback.
If he can push Rush the way Rush pushed Kellen Moore last season, the team may go another direction yet again at the back up position.
As a rookie, he may be stuck as the third quarterback, meaning he won't see any action at all in 2018, even in blowouts. He also likely won't be put on the practice squad neither, likely being too valuable of a prospect to let go. Don't expect to see White this season, aside from preseason.
Chris Covington gives the team valuable depth for the linebacker group. Except for injury, Covington will only be used on special teams or rotations. He was a late round pick, meaning he needs more time to develop than some of the other picks.
He may get his shot at a starting job in a year or two, but 2018 probably isn't his year. He's got plenty of talent but he isn't the rookie linebacker that will be given the most looks this off-season.
Cedrick Wilson is going to come in and play the position that Brice Butler had a season ago, but might have a higher ceiling thanks to his more impressive college career when compared to Butler's. He will be the team's deep threat and his skills compare to Michael Gallup.
While this year Wilson is likely the fourth or fifth wide receiver, and the team's deep threat option, by this time next season, we may see Wilson be named as the other starting wide receiver on the opposite side of Gallup. For this season though, he may not get as many chances early in the season as he will as the year goes along.
The team has its lead dog in Ezekiel Elliott, and their speed/receiving threat out of the backfield in Tavon Austin. Scarbrough will have to compete with Rod Smith as the team's short yardage back. Rod Smith gives the team position flexibility, and plays several different roles, which may give Scarbrough a chance.
He is not in any way going to take carries away from Elliott, and won't be the first change-of-pace option the team has, not with Tavon Austin. We may only see him 5-10 offensive plays a game, especially on two yards or less to gain, or maybe even goalline situations.
He was an exciting player at Alabama, but he'll be a role player in Dallas.
Despite Going Undrafted, Kameron Kelly A Welcome Addition to Cowboys Secondary
The Dallas Cowboys best move of the offseason may very well be hiring Kris Richard as their new passing game coordinator. Despite not signing any free agents or drafting added talent for Richard to work with in the secondary, the Cowboys have plenty of reasons to feel great about their current starters - along with an intriguing class of UDFAs.
The prospects of Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, Byron Jones, and Xavier Woods working with Richard to sharpen their skills with Seattle's "Legion of Boom" fabricator is as good as it gets. In a very short period of time, the cornerback position has turned into one of the hardest spots for fringe players to make the Dallas Cowboys roster.
Don't tell this to San Diego State's Kameron Kelly. Neither Richard or Kelly may be household names around the NFL, but San Francisco 49ers Cornerback Richard Sherman certainly is. Sherman also happens to be the player the Cowboys are looking for Kelly -- an undrafted free agent that didn't receive a single college offer from "power five" schools -- to emulate.
Given all that Sherman meant to Richard's defenses since being drafted by his Seahawks in the fifth round of the 2011 NFL Draft, these feel like impossible expectations for Kelly to live up to.
The 6015 (6' 1 5/8") defender didn't even play the same position as Sherman until his final collegiate season, slowly making the transition from WR to DB at SDSU by starting as a Sophomore and Junior at safety.
Now just another player in a blue jersey with white numbers at The Star, Kelly is looking to earn the star on a team that may look to remain young, deep, and most importantly versatile in the secondary by keeping one or more UDFAs.
That is, if any of these long shot players deserve a spot on the final 53-man roster. Kelly already has an edge on this field, blessed with the length and daunting frame that allows Richard and the Cowboys to dream of featuring their own Richard Sherman.
"I think he’s trying to turn me into his next Richard Sherman or something". - Dallas Cowboys Cornerback Kameron Kelly
Kris Richard is going to coach everybody he comes across hard. He knows no other way. Kam Kelly is already embracing this, seeing the Cowboys vision for him and not backing down from the challenge.
Turn on the tape for this "diamond in the rough" prospect, and you'll see a player that carries this same competitive toughness onto the field.
Will a DB compete / tackle ? Top of screen- flat footed read on bubble- trusts eyes and goes ! Just checking boxes- I see you, kameron Kelly of SDSU.... https://t.co/fJM4s16Eq1
Kelly joins Charvarius Ward, Donovan Olumba, and Tyree Robinson as the Cowboys class of UDFAs at both cornerback and safety. An athletic DB out of Oregon, Robinson has made a strong initial impression with several plays on the ball in drills so far.
However, it was Kam Kelly that set up an interception for Jameill Showers in yesterday's practice by getting in the face of rookie Wide Receiver Michael Gallup.
Projecting anything that resembles a starting lineup for the Cowboys defense in the last week of May is silly. So too is realistically expecting Kelly, Ward, Olumba, or Robinson to ever crack this lineup.
The Cowboys could find themselves without enough practice snaps to go around for starting caliber players like Awuzie, Lewis, Jones, Anthony Brown, and even Marquez White. This does not bode well for Kam Kelly, who is only going to continue generating buzz from fans and the Dallas media.
For now, Kelly is getting his chance though. The Cowboys are ever-so-slowly getting back into form for 2018 - doing so with many familiar faces no longer on the roster. This team is going to look different on both sides of the ball come September, and Cowboys Nation can only hope it's for the better given the impressive amount of depth all over the field.
Kam Kelly won't back down from the depth the Cowboys have at CB, expecting to impress his new coach Kris Richard in the mold of three-time All-Pro Richard Sherman.
WR Terrell Owens Featured As A Cowboy On Madden 2019 Cover
It's been a tumultuous few years for former Cowboys wide receiver Terrell Owens, to say the least. Based on his numbers Owens deserved to be a first ballot Hall of Famer, but due to his off field "antics" and poor relationships with voters, Owens was kept out of the Hall of Fame until this year.
Now that he will be inducted into the Hall of Fame this Summer, Terrell Owens has earned another honor: cover athlete for EA Sports' upcoming Madden video game.
Madden has become a staple of football culture over the years, and being placed on the cover of their Hall of Fame edition is pretty special.
What came as a surprise, however, is that Terrell Owens is featured as a Dallas Cowboy on the cover of the game.
@terrellowens will be on the cover of #Madden19 Hall of Fame edition
Terrell Owens played on a multitude of teams during his NFL career, spending 3 seasons with the Cowboys from 2006-2008. People tend to forget how great the Tony Romo-to-Terrell Owens connection was in Dallas, especially during their 13-3 2007 season.
That year, Owens caught 81 balls for 1,355 yards and 15 touchdowns. He also earned First Team All Pro honors during the same season.
This is the first time the Cowboys uniform has ever graced the cover of a Madden game, and the second time Terrell Owens will be on the cover of a professional football video game. The first time came as an Eagle on the cover of ESPN NFL 2K5, ironically just one year before Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb was the cover athlete for Madden 2006.
Terrell Owens then announced the news himself on Twitter, by tweeting out the following video.
It's that time! I've made my decision to return to football. Madden 19 HOF #stayready https://t.co/pLL4lTAhD2
Terrell Owens is arguably the greatest (talent wise) receiver to ever play for the Cowboys, though he lacked the longevity to match any of the stat totals of guys like Michael Irvin and Dez Bryant. It's a shame the 2007 season ended the way it did, and that 2008 was such an utter disaster.
Those Cowboys teams were really talented, hence why they won 11 games and another division crown after Owens' departure in 2009.
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