The offseason isn’t completely over. There are still some teams cutting veteran players after the draft and there should be several more after the important June 1st date. Trades can also happen as teams look to unload surplus talent at one position for future draft picks or to shore up areas of need.
What needs could the Dallas Cowboys still address between now and the start of Training Camp in July? Taking their new rookie class into consideration, here’s a look at the strength of every roster position and where they may direct some attention.
The following are listed in order of strongest to weakest:
Special teams are rarely sexy but our guys come pretty darn close. Dan Bailey is the best kicker in league history, L.P. Ladouceur is a flawless long snapper, and Chris Jones is a top-five punter in net yardage. What’s more, Lucky Whitehead had the fifth-best kickoff return average in the league.
Dallas also does well in kickoff and punt coverage. They were 15th in the league in yards allowed on kickoffs and 11th in yards on punts. The biggest blemish was due to a single play; a 100-yard kickoff touchdown by the Giants’ Dwayne Harris in Week 11. Take out that play and the average moves up considerably.
Dallas just re-signed special teams leader Jeff Heath to a four-year deal. It appears they will retain most of their key coverage players and may have added a couple of good ones with sixth-round picks Kavon Frazier and Anthony Brown.
Best of all, Whitehead should no longer be losing touches to Cole Beasley. He clearly has the spark of a top return man and should have some more big plays with increased opportunities.
2. Guard & Center
The interior line positions can be so interchangeable, particularly with depth, that it’s best to view them together. No matter how you slice it in Dallas, though, this is clearly the strength of their offense.
Dallas boasts league-leading talent in guard Zack Martin and center Travis Frederick, both of whom are arguably the best at their positions or at least in the top five. La’el Collins was already a high performer as a rookie and stands to make a major stride in his second year, likely joining his teammates as one of the NFL’s elite.
This is also one of their best depth positions. Ron Leary was the starter when DeMarco Murray led the NFL in rushing in 2014. Joe Looney, who they signed in March, is a versatile center-guard option with 10 career starts in the least two years. They also now have Chaz Green, a third-round pick last year, moving to guard as a backup option.
You’ve been hearing the accolades and hype of Ezekiel Elliott for days, so I want make all of the redundant points. Suffice to say that some are already predicting he will be the most productive running back in the NFL next year.
A big part of that faith is the Cowboys’ offensive line. That’s why guys like Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris, who might be forgotten on other depth charts, remain major factors. Their talent is able to shine past any diminishing physical gifts because of the blocking in front of them. They are experienced players who know how to find the hole and get the most out of every carry, which is important when those touches don’t come as often.
Lance Dunbar is an ideal low risk, high reward variable. He was emerging as a key offensive weapon last year before being to a knee injury. Dallas re-signed him to a one-year deal with the hope that he could be that player again, though he may not be available until the middle of the year. If Dunbar has his same explosiveness, the combination of he and Elliott could make this the league’s most dynamic backfield.
Though not quite as impressive as their interior line brothers, the tackles are still one of the best units on the team. Tyron Smith isn’t the issue; he is as good as what he does as Martin and Frederick. If you didn’t hear it, rookie Laremy Tunsil recently said that Smith was his favorite offensive tackle to watch in football.
Doug Free is the weak link of the line, though only in a relative sense. He is a great run-blocker with liabilities in pass protection, which is true of many right tackles in the NFL. Free has cut down significantly on holding penalties from a few years back when many were calling for his head.
Charles Brown was re-signed to resume his role as the swing tackle. He’s a seven-year veteran with 23 career starts. He’s not as impressive a backup as Leary but the Cowboys settled on Brown after going through a bit of a carousel of options last offseason, plus thought enough of him to bring him back. However, with no guaranteed money in his deal, Brown could easily be back on the market if the Cowboys find an upgrade between now and final cuts.
It says a lot about Jason Witten that he’s about to be a 34-year-old, 14-year veteran and is still one of the most reliable options in the game. Witten’s certainly not the quickest guy out there but his precise routes still get him open and he remains one of the best third-down options that Tony Romo could ask for. I will never doubt Witten until he gives me a reason to.
The group remains strong despite Gavin Escobar’s injury. His recovery from an Achilles tear will probably have him on the PUP list. That’s likely a big reason why Dallas re-signed James Hanna to a surprisingly lucrative three-year, $8.25 million contract. Hanna will not only be the backup tight end but is a key special teams player. With Dallas not having a fullback employed right now, either, I think Hanna may also end up as the lead blocker out of the backfield.
Geoff Swaim and Rico Gathers are both late-round picks (Swaim in 2015) who Dallas thought enough of to not risk trying to sign in free agency. They will get plenty of opportunity this offseason with Escobar out. Swaim flashed some good things as a receiver last preseason and has hopefully improved enough as a blocker to be a factor.
6. Defensive Tackle
We finally get to a defensive position! Tyrone Crawford did not have the breakout season we hoped for with his new contract but played most of the year with a torn shoulder. Hopefully he shows up now as the player Dallas is paying for. Cedric Thornton was a nice free agent acquisition who has the size to play the run but also some explosiveness to rush the pass. He should be an upgrade over the departed Nick Hayden.
The depth is hard to gauge because of all of the position flexibility of our reserves. You will see guys like David Irving and Jack Crawford playing inside and out. The two pure defensive tackles in reserve are veteran Terrell McClain and third-round rookie Maliek Collins.
McClain has looked very good the few times he’s been able to play, which is why Dallas is still hoping to get something out of him. He is on the final year of his contract and will need to be a contributor to make cuts. The Cowboys can gets $1 million back by cutting him with very little dead money.
Collins could be an immediate factor. He is ready-made to play the three-technique role in Rod Marinelli’s scheme. If he hits the ground running then we could even see him starting in the base defense so that Tyrone Crawford can help cover us at defensive end.
I have good expectations for what Crawford and Thornton will be as a starting duo. I’m especially excited for what they can accomplish once DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory are on the field and drawing some attention. I like how good of a fit Collins seems to be and we’ve already seen good work from Irving and Crawford when called upon. If McClain can finally live up then this group may be much stronger than we’ve seen in some time.
I am slotting Byron Jones as one of our starting safeties in this ranking. I think his presence as a true free safety will do wonder for our secondary. It will also allow for his fellow starter, likely Barry Church, to play closer to the line of scrimmage and do more of what he’s best suited for.
Church or J.J. Wilcox mocing to the bench is another boon for the overall strength of the position. I assume it will be Wilcox, who despite his issues would still make an exceptionally strong and versatile backup. Jeff Heath is also back and, though a better special teamer than safety, has experience and a few nice plays on his resume.
Stephen Jones says that they had a fourth-round grade on rookie Kavon Frazier. Coincidentally, one third-party scouting report compared Frazier to Barry Church. He may not even dress some weeks but he seems like a decent option for the bottom of your depth chart.
Tony Romo has consistently been in or near the top five in passer rating his entire career. Dallas is hoping that drafting Elliott will allow Romo to get back to where he was in 2014 with DeMarco Murray; the league’s most efficient passer with career bests in completion percentage and TD/INT ratio. If Romo is healthy and still has that gear then there’s no reason think he won’t be a MVP candidate again.
The reason I have to downgrade quarterback is the depth. As was so clearly evidenced last year, things fell apart with Romo out of the lineup. We can’t be sure how healthy he is and how long that collarbone will hold up until we see him on the field. That means the depth becomes an important consideration.
Kellen Moore was better than Matt Cassel or Brandon Weeden but still couldn’t win a game and threw more interceptions than touchdowns. The Cowboys say they have faith in Moore to win games, but I’d like to see one before I put much stock in him. They also drafted Dak Prescott in the fourth round and it’d be foolish to expect much from him this year. He is a developmental player in every sense of the word.
9. Wide Receiver
Dez Bryant is elite when healthy but has to have all of his physical gifts handy to be effective. He’s not a polished enough player to still make a major impact when hindered by injury, which has been proven consistently throughout his career. Hopefully he’s full healthy and back to being one of the league’s best this year.
When Dez goes out the Cowboys’ lack of depth shows. Terrance Williams has been a very good second receiver but does not have the hands or consistency to step into Dez’s shoes. What’s more, Brice Butler was coming on strong last year and could challenge Williams for his spot on the depth chart. If Butler gets equal reps with Williams now, which of them will Romo have a better rapport with by the end of preseason? And if Dez does get hurt again, will either of them be able to keep the offense flowing?
Cole Beasley is entrenched as the slot receiver, both contractually and by his steady play. The loser of a Williams-Butler battle will still be a very solid depth option. Lucky Whitehead should still be around as a return specialist if nothing else, but last year was starting to find a nice role in the offense. He may get more touches early in the year while Lance Dunbar is out.
Sean Lee and Rolando McClain are one heck of a duo but don’t play together often enough. In two seasons they’ve appeared in the same game just 10 times, and even then one or both are often nursing some kind of injury. If they could just be available and at their best together it would be a significant boon for the defense.
There’s a big drop from those two to the rest of the group. Dallas has plenty of depth in terms of solid reserves but none who’ve shown they can come in and play close to the level of Lee or McClain. Anthony Hitchens got our hopes up as a rookie in 2014 but was not as good last year. There’s also no standout from among this group to start as the strongside linebacker, though Kyle Wilber would seem to be the early front-runner.
Dallas added a lot of talent in second-round pick Jaylon Smith but he likely won’t help this year. Even if he comes back from injury earlier than expected, Smith will have missed all of the offseason work and can’t be relied on. Anything he gives you this year is gravy.
With Byron Jones moved to safety (per my own projection) it leaves Orlando Scandrick, Brandon Carr, and Morris Claiborne as an experienced but suspect trio. Scandrick is coming off a major ACL injury and, though the best corner the Cowboys have had since Terence Newman, is hardly one of the league’s top players.
Carr and Claiborne are both guys who’ve probably been miscast in the Cover 2 scheme but play hard and do the best they can. Claiborne is coming off his best year, which is relative to being an overall first-round bust, and Dallas is hoping he can build on that and perhaps earn a contract going forward. Carr finally accepted a pay cut and will play out his contract as a steady but unspectacular veteran.
Terrance Mitchell and Deji Olatoye both got our hopes up with some late-season interceptions, which are rare in these parts, but could be fighting for a single roster spot now. Dallas spent a sixth-round pick on Anthony Brown, who also got the “fourth-round grade” compliment from Stephen Jones. I would pick Olatoye to stay over Mitchell just because he provides a more unique size dynamic than the other corners, which could be useful in certain matchups.
Did you have any doubt?
It was already the Cowboys biggest pre-draft concern and they didn’t address it until the fourth round of the draft, meaning the needle can’t have moved very much. I like Charles Tapper and think he could be a steal, having played out of position at Oklahoma. Even if he starts during the Lawrence and Gregory suspensions, though, expectations shouldn’t be too high for any mid-round rookie.
It’s not like Lawrence and Gregory are sure thing when they get off suspension, either. Lawrence looked great to end last year but we said the same thing in 2014, though that was a much smaller sample size. Gregory flashed nice stuff in the 2015 preseason but got hurt and never returned to that form. Luckily, suspensions don’t cost these guys offseason work so they will be able to get all of the development they need up until Week One.
Dallas spent a good bit, close to $3 million a year, to bring in an unknown in Benson Mayowa. That salary speaks to some pretty strong hopes for what he can be and makes him one of the most intriguing players once we get to Oxnard. He and Tapper could be competing to remain the starting weakside end even after Gregory comes back. There’s also rookie Ryan Russell, who was a ghost last year and needs to show some solid matter before you can factor him in.
As mentioned before, guys like David Irving, Jack Crawford, and even Tyrone Crawford may factor into the defensive end mix early on. There’s even a possibility that Dallas could play Lawrence on the weakside and keep one of these guys at the other side if they’re more effective than the young prospects.
The best thing you can say about the position right now is that Dallas has at least acquired a lot of options and has a premiere coach in Marinelli to get the most out of them. Will that be enough to get you through Weeks 1-4, or even the season as a whole? Only time will tell.