Lost in the hubbub of the big awards at last Saturday's NFL Honors show was the Dallas Cowboys' offensive line being named Offensive Line of the Year. The glory may not last long for some of the league's best blockers, though, as the 2017 offseason should come with some roster changes.
2016 was the first year that this award has been given and they couldn't have picked better recipients . Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, Doug Free, and Ronald Leary were the foundation that helped the Cowboys' rookie stars on offense, quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott, have tremendous seasons.
With expiring contracts and salary cap concerns on the horizon, how might Dallas' award-winning offensive line look different in 2017?
Ronald Leary is set to be an unrestricted free agent. The Cowboys will likely let Leary go and give the job back to La'el Collins, who was the starter in 2015. There are a few reasons why this is the most logical move.
Some have argued that Leary is the better player. It's easy to look at the seasons DeMarco Murray had in 2014 and Ezekiel Elliott last year, with Leary starting at guard, and develop that perception.
However, La'el Collins not only had Darren McFadden carrying the ball in 2015 but the absence of a passing game when Brandon Weeden, Matt Cassel, and Kellen Moore were at quarterback. His two full games in 2016 were at the start of the year when Ezekiel Elliott was still adjusting to NFL speed.
Dallas needs to find out quickly what Collins is worth. This is the final year of his contract, although Dallas will be able to give him a Restricted Free Agent tender in 2018. Still, whether it's deciding what level of tender to give or maybe giving Collins a completely new contract, the Cowboys need to see how he performs.
Not only do the Cowboys need to find out more about La'el Collins but Ronald Leary may quickly plateau as an asset. As has been known throughout his career, Leary has a knee condition which puts his long-term future in question. He has already played more and longer than some thought possible.
If not for Collins, Dallas might be willing to keep giving Leary short-term contracts as long as his knees allow. However, Collins' potential is too great to leave on the bench and Leary is too good to be a backup again. He should easily find a starting job elsewhere and deserves that opportunity.
I wrote extensively a few weeks ago about why Dallas needs to part ways with Doug Free. To summarize, he has become too much of a liability in pass protection and still generates too many penalties. Free is still a great run blocker but at this point that doesn't outweigh his negatives.
Another big reason is financial. Dallas can create $5 million in cap space by cutting Free. Dallas is going to need some cash as they try to sort out Tony Romo's contract and find some needed upgrades on defense.
Of course, creating cap room is only worthwhile if you don't have to turn around and spend it all on a replacement. A quality free agent right tackle can cost about as much as we'd save by releasing Doug Free. That has led some to think he should just be retained for one more year.
I see it differently. For one, Dallas has a few in-house options with Chaz Green, a former third-round pick, and reserve Emmett Cleary. Both looked good in limited duty when playing for Tyron Smith at left tackle. In many cases, someone who can handle playing on the left is even better when they go to the right.
If a Cleary-Green battle for the job doesn't do it for you, Dallas could also look for a cheaper veteran option. Can we really say that Doug Free in 2017 would be much better than some other veteran, age 30-35, willing to play one a one-year deal for the veteran minimum? Free's play last year leaves that open to debate.
La'el Collins to Right Tackle?
Some have suggested that Dallas could solve both of their problems by moving La'el Collins to right tackle. Collins played left tackle at LSU but has been at guard since entering the NFL in 2015.
Collins started at right tackle when he joined the Cowboys but ended up at guard before the end of preseason. How much of that is due to Collins struggling at tackle has never been confirmed. Dallas may have simply felt his best position with the highest upside was at guard.
Could the Cowboys cut Doug Free, move La'el Collins into his spot, and then keep Ronald Leary? It's not out of the question, but it all comes down to three factors:
- Do the Cowboys think Collins can be effective enough at RT?
- Does Dallas feel moving Collins would stymie his development?
- Do the Cowboys trust Ron Leary to keep going?
Unfortunately, we can't know the answers to those questions. Dallas will make it clear how they feel about all of these issues in how they handle the upcoming offseason.
For all that's unknown, though, it seems likely that at least one or two of the starting offensive line positions will change. Hopefully, even if some players leave, that award-winning level of play will not go with them.
Could Cowboys Have Another “Ezekiel Elliott vs. Jalen Ramsey” Debate?
The debate over "Ezekiel Elliott vs. Jalen Ramsey" for from the 2016 NFL Draft has never really stopped in Dallas. From before that draft until now, Cowboys fans still argue over which player the team should have taken. For the team, could they face that question again in the next few years?
A little over three years ago, the Cowboys drafted Elliott with the fourth-overall pick. In so doing, they also snubbed Ramsey; the cornerback expected to become a Cowboy and wound up going with the fifth pick to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Where you stand on this issue likely has a lot to do with how you value running backs. Some argued in 2016, and still do, that no RB is worth that high of a pick or paying top dollar for in future years. You've seen plenty of those opinions this offseason as talk of a long-term contract extension for Elliott has heated up.
Those same folks would have loved for Dallas to take Jalen Ramsey, who instantly became one of the NFL's top corners. And in 2021, with both players scheduled to become unrestricted free agents, they would probably rather see the Cowboys let Elliott walk away and use that money to add an elite player at a position like cornerback.
We mention Ramsey here because of his very public feud with Jacksonville over his contract. The team reportedly informed him they would wait until next year to do a long-term extension, and Ramsey made it known through social media that he was going to drive the price up. Given his known issues with Jaguars' VP Tom Coughlin, it could lead to a parting of ways.
If Jalen Ramsey hit the open market, and still want to be a Cowboy, could the CB end up in Dallas after all?
Let's hypothesize that both Ezekiel Elliott and Jalen Ramsey have to play 2020 on their fifth-year options. Now the Cowboys are having to decide if they want give Zeke a long-term deal, the franchise tag, or just let him go.
How does the prospect of potentially signing Ramsey, or some other elite talent at another position, sway Dallas' thinking? Could they decide that the best bang for their buck is to spend roughly $15 million per year at RB or at CB, OT, or somewhere else?
The Cowboys already have a Pro Bowl corner in Byron Jones but there's still a lot of uncertainty at the other starting position. Neither Chidobe Awuzie or Jourdan Lewis have been consistent enough and both will have expiring contracts in 2021.
Ezekiel Elliott will turn 26 that year. He will have five seasons of workhorse mileage. And this is the same Cowboys team that decided to let DeMarco Murray walk away a few years ago.
Of course, Elliott trumps Murray in almost every way. He's been elite every season so far, not just one, and has been far more durable. Assuming personal conduct issues don't remain a problem, Zeke will be much harder to let go of than DeMarco was.
However, the salary cap forces teams to think about the entire roster when making personnel decisions. Even if you can justify paying Elliott huge money, that means less for someone else. And even if it makes sense for a year or two, what about when Zeke is creeping closer to 30 years old?
Again, I mentioned Ramsey here because of the intrigue with his contract situation in Jacksonville and connection to Dallas from the 2016 draft. It would be quite ironic if the Cowboys, five years later, were again having to decide between the same two players.
But Jalen exemplifies a greater issue that Dallas faces in the coming years. Does it make sense to tie up so much money at running back and weaken yourself at other positions?
While RBs as special as Ezekiel Elliott don't grow on trees, it's still one of the easiest positions to fill. Assuming the Cowboys still have one of the NFL's top offensive lines in a few years, they will be tempted to try and get solid rushing production with a much cheaper ball carrier.
When Dallas let DeMarco Murray go and then drafted Ezekiel Elliott a year later, some thought it could be the start of a new trend in roster management. Draft a RB high, get 4-5 years out of him, and then let somebody else pay him the big money. Rinse and repeat.
But then Zeke came along and has been the stuff of legends. If he has a long-term career in Dallas, he will be right there with Emmitt and Dorsett in the top-three of all time Cowboys running backs.
Elliott isn't just highly productive but brings personality and excitement. Guys like that are hard to let go of; they are as valuable for marketing as they are on the field.
That said, a lot can change in the next year or two. More issues with the league office, or a major injury, could have a dramatic effect on how we see Elliott's long-term value. It may make the decision much easier.
But assuming Zeke remains as valuable as ever, the Dallas Cowboys could be facing another major quandary between the running back and other elite players like Jalen Ramsey. What most helps the team win, and what has the most value over multiple seasons?
Hopefully, Ezekiel Elliott keeps playing well enough to keep the debate going.
Cowboys OT Mitch Hyatt is an Undrafted Rookie to Watch
Going undrafted is hardly a death blow to a player's hopes of making it into the NFL. We've seen many examples of players who have lengthy careers despite humble beginnings, and plenty of them happened right here in Dallas. Could offensive tackle Mitch Hyatt be the next undrafted success story for the Cowboys?
Hyatt just finished his college career at Clemson as a four-year starter, two-time national champion, and two-time All-American. While not an elite draft prospect, many had Mitch rated as at least a 5th-7th round pick. His going undrafted was a surprise.
While he measures with good size at 6'5" and a little over 300 lbs., Hyatt lacks upper body strength. But he's overcome that deficiency through the years with work ethic, motor, and smarts.
For the Cowboys, it's a lot easier to help a guy gain strength than it is to try and improve motivation or intelligence.
Dallas was not the only team interested in Mitch Hyatt once he hit free agency. But from the rookie's own lips, he didn't have a hard decision to make.
“'I received a fair amount of calls. It was a pretty chaotic five to 10 minutes for me,'” Hyatt said. “'I had a whole bunch of people in my ear. But I knew what kind of team the Cowboys were, I knew what they were about.'”
Whether it was the reputation of the Cowboys organization, its vaunted offensive line, or the chance to work with Coach Marc Colombo, Hyatt was clearly drawn to Dallas. Another reason for that may have been the perceived opportunity to make the roster.
The Cowboys seem to already be preparing for life without La'el Collins in 2020, when Collins is set to hit free agency. They gave Cam Fleming a two-year deal which keeps him through next year, plus drafted Connor McGovern in the third round of the 2019 draft. It suggests Dallas isn't planning to pay La'l the significant money he should demand.
If Fleming gets promoted to the starting job at right tackle, that would leave a vacancy for swing tackle in 2020. Mitch Hyatt could be one of Dallas' options for that role.
Even if the Cowboys don't keep Hyatt on the 53-man roster in 2019, they will likely try to put him on the practice squad. Ideally, a year of physical development there will make him a much stronger candidate for the 2020 season.
Of course, the reason we know those undrafted success stories so well is because they aren't typical. The odds are against Mitch Hyatt having any NFL career, but his collegiate success and intangibles speak to a guy who's worth taking a chance on.
If it works out, credit the Cowboys for continuing the tradition of Tony Romo, Miles Austin, Jeff Heath, and other undrafted players who became significant contributors.
Could CB Michael Jackson Prove To Be Cowboys Best Value Pick?
Looking back to the third day of the 2019 NFL Draft for the Dallas Cowboys, running backs Tony Pollard and Mike Weber are the most discussed players among fans and analysts. The front office made some pretty promising selections in the late rounds that could have important roles on the team in the near future. While many thought the Cowboys would be quick to add a rookie safety, it wasn't until the fifth round that the team drafted a defensive back, and it wasn't even a safety. Kris Richard got his guy Michael Jackson, from the Miami Hurricanes.
A few weeks apart from training camp, the 6-1 cornerback has been overlooked by many fans. Although the team got plenty of quality players in the late rounds, Jackson might end up being the best value pick when we look back to this rookie class a year from now.
In college, Jackson started 23 games between 2017 and 2018 as he racked up four interceptions and 10 pass deflections. He seems just like the kind of guy we know DB Coach Kris Richard loves. A tall, long, press cornerback with pretty solid range. Jackson is far from a player ready to start in the NFL, but Richard will have a lot of raw potential to work with.
When the former Seahawks defensive coordinator joined the Cowboys, he let it be known that he saw a lot of potential on Byron Jones. The 2015 first round pick's career was turned around after last season, when the team finally stopped moving Jones around the defensive backfield. As a full-time corner, Jones went on to become a second-team All-Pro last year.
While it would be unfair to compare Jones and Jackson, both of them arrived to the NFL with very different expectations, I can't help but wonder how far can Richard take the Miami product. Although it wasn't discussed as much, cornerback was an important need for the team because of a lack of depth and the uncertainty surrounding Jones' future on the team.
After an impressive 2018 season, extending Jones will be a huge challenge for the Cowboys front office. After all, there's a lot of homegrown talent due for big paydays. Who knows if when the day comes, the team will have what it takes to keep Jones in Dallas. Not to mention, Anthony Brown is entering his contract year. A solid nickel corner for the Cowboys could be gone, leaving Kris Richard's unit with very little depth.
Fortunately for the Cowboys, Michael Jackson has the size and potential to play in any spot in the secondary, giving Richard the chance to develop him at the position he wishes. After all, Richard will be in no hurry to get Jackson on the field. It's tough to imagine Jackson getting an important role for the upcoming season, but he could certainly get a few snaps throughout the year. Having said that, it's in the long run that the All-ACC second-team CB can truly prove his worth.
In an ideal world, the Cowboys would keep their current CB but the cold, hard truth is NFL teams can't keep all of their players all the time. Jackson might have to eventually step up to an important spot on the defense. If Kris Richard develops him properly, Dallas won't be that concerned about a couple of their CBs potentially leaving. We'll see if Michael Jackson is ready when his name is called.
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