As the second week of Organized Team Activities get underway Tuesday, the Cowboys are still looking at a heap of questions that, while not the gut-wrenching type from last year, have reached far deeper into the teams’ makeup than many wanted to see back in February.
The departure of DeMarco Murray in March hurt. Say what you will about historical data and the offensive line – lord knows that I have – but right now Murray is an asset of any team he plays for and losing him hurts. That new shade of green on his jersey is just a twist of the proverbial knife.
The Cowboys swiftly tried to quell any fallout in the wake of Murray’s departure by signing Darren McFadden and bolstering an already stout offensive line with Chaz Green and La’el Collins in the 2015 draft, but those two guys are projected more at the depth level and don’t really solve anything beyond the line’s ability to withstand an injury along the way. Yet.
The plan in Dallas is Running Back by Committee (“RBC”).
McFadden, Joseph Randle, and Ryan Williams will be the answer in Murray’s absence, but will it be the right answer? As The Ticket’s Bob Sturm in Dallas/Fort Worth pointed out Sunday on Cowboys Cast, “In our heads we want a DeMarco Murray replacement and, in reality … this is probably a two or three man job.”
Retaining Murray would have been nice, had the value been there with three young Pro Bowl offensive linemen. Instead we’ve got to see if Randle, who Sturm rightfully says doesn’t have the trust of Head Coach Garrett right now, can step up; if McFadden can finally dispel the perception that he was a bust; and if Williams, a young RB with a career already full of injuries who sat on the practice squad last year, can become the guy many people thought he would be out of college.
I think Sturm was right; it is a two or three man job, making up for the production we enjoyed so much last year, and even that still requires a bit more than just plugging a guy – or three – behind this offensive line.
I like these guys, and I think that Darren McFadden might prove himself more valuable than he ever was in Oakland, but these guys aren’t just vying for starting order here. One of them has to stand out and become something of a workhorse for this unit to perform the way the Dallas Cowboys need to win games.
It’s been harped on and beaten to death, already. The 2013 defense was historically bad. Heading into the 2014 season, all the talk was about if this team could overcome the apparent shortcomings on D and win some football games.
Now, prior the 2015 season, the surprising performance of a lot of underachievers and no-names from last year has us quite optimistic. But why? Anytime you have a unit that pulls together and exceeds expectations, you have to consider the chemistry between the players, and that chemistry changed with the departures of Justin Durant, Bruce Carter, George Selvie, Henry Melton, and Anthony Spencer. They’re gone, which means five new guys have to get into the mix and that doesn’t always happen right away, or ever.
Greg Hardy is a little polarizing right now, and probably will be until a game or two after his suspension ends, which will be when we finally see what he can do. DeMarcus Lawrence got some quality time in last year but now faces his first year of full participation in an NFL offseason program and could come out the other side any number of ways different than we expect (or hope). Randy Gregory looks good but is entirely new to the team, as is Damien Wilson, if he even makes the team. Byron Jones is the type of guy you count on to start in his first year, but he’s another new piece that must be molded into the scheme and gel with the personnel on the defensive side of the ball.
Point being, you can’t just plug new guys in – of any skill level – and expect them to have a positive impact on a team that was driven purely by effort, and not so much talent, the year prior.
I’m optimistic. I am an optimist when I’m at my best. But just under the surface lies a sleeping realist that likes to pop his head up from time to time and point out the obvious … don’t count your chickens until they’ve hatched.
4 Depth Players to Keep in Mind on Dallas Cowboys Roster
Maneuvering through the NFL offseason is a funny task for committed football fans, especially those of Cowboys Nation. Prior to the start of each new season bringing hope for all 32 clubs to reach the Super Bowl, every NFL roster enters a tumultuous state. Talent will be added through free agency and the Draft, while promising players will also be shuffled around through practice squads and training camp releases.
All of that to say, despite criticism for appearing stagnant so far this offseason on the heels of a 9-7 campaign, nobody knows what the Dallas Cowboys will actually look like in 2018. This is why I've decided to feature four under the radar players on the current Cowboys' roster below, all of which provide depth at positions of need.
TE Blake Jarwin
An undrafted free agent out of Oklahoma State, Blake Jarwin found his way onto the Cowboys' practice squad for 2017.
Jarwin showed enough promise early in his Cowboys career to earn fans on the coaching staff and throughout the organization, as he was promoted to the active roster in week eight. The Philadelphia Eagles were reportedly in position to snatch Jarwin from the Cowboys - who protected their versatile tight end.
The TE position remains unsettled for the Cowboys in 2018 and beyond, with Jason Witten's production clearly declining. The Cowboys will also be on their third TE coach in three seasons this year, transitioning to Doug Nussmeier.
Nussmeier brings no previous experience as a TE coach specifically, meaning the team's overall philosophy on the position will still be determined heavily by Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan. Favoring tight ends that can block in the running game over those with higher upside as receiving threats, Jarwin is a name to keep in mind as a tenacious blocker that plays with sound technique.
WR Lance Lenoir
This past summer, I had the chance to interview Dallas Cowboys WR Lance Lenoir following his signing with the team out of Western Illinois. In that interview, Lenoir shows off the confidence he took into training camp as a receiver that would have a hard time making the team.
By the end of this long season, the Cowboys went from being perceived as deep and talented at WR to in need of new play makers on the outside.
Perhaps pressing a bit through the preseason, Lenoir did provide practice depth as a reliable pass catcher and punt returner, struggling on special teams in live action and ultimately spending the season on the practice squad.
The 2018 NFL Draft features a deep class of talented receivers, and the Cowboys would be wise to draft one with real potential that can push up the depth chart in a hurry. As far as current options on the roster to fill this position, WR Lance Lenoir can't be overlooked as an athletic target with NFL size and strength - entering his second season in Dallas.
DT Datone Jones
A mid-season acquisition from the Green Bay Packers, Datone Jones flashed as a defensive tackle in the limited opportunities he received. A five-year league veteran, Jones showed the ability to play with power and leverage at the 1T position - a spot the Cowboys are thin at right now.
Jones' versatility also suited him well, playing with impressive burst and disruptive ability as a pass-rushing 3T.
The addition of one more starting caliber DT could truly put this Dallas defensive front over the edge. With how much Defensive Coordinator Rod Marinelli believes in his DL rotation though, players like Datone Jones can prove immensely valuable.
DT Lewis Neal
Similarly to Jones, Lewis Neal is a fan-favorite defensive tackle for the Cowboys. Neal has absolutely earned the attention he's gotten, a UDFA out of LSU that plays the 1T position better than expected given his size.
The Cowboys have gotten by in recent years with smaller, more mobile players at this interior DT spot, with Neal being their latest post-draft steal to make an impact.
Lewis Neal appeared in seven games for the Cowboys this season, finding ways to help those around him by anchoring the line of scrimmage and disengaging with active hands and a quick base. This is a player that should be a valuable part of the team's depth on the defensive line.
✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭
The year-to-year nature of the NFL can be a wonderful thing (unfortunately, ask any Eagles fan right now). Part of this reality is understanding that none of the players listed above may actually stick with the Dallas Cowboys for 2018.
Next week's NFL Scouting Combine will kick "draft season" into full gear however, as the Cowboys will be working to better understand their teams needs and how they can be addressed.
Jarwin, Lenoir, Jones, and Neal all contributed or showed the promise to do so at positions the Cowboys must improve at this season - warranting a closer look through this dull portion of the offseason.
Cowboys 2018 Free Agents: RB Alfred Morris
After two seasons of providing veteran depth for the Dallas Cowboys, running back Alfred Morris is about to be a free agent again. Does the 29-year-old still have value for the club, or will Dallas go with younger options in 2018?
Morris was signed in March of 2016. At the time, it was assumed he would be the backup to incumbent starter Darren McFadden and perhaps even split carries.
But a month later, Dallas drafted Ezekiel Elliott and drastically changed the landscape at the running back position.
If Alfred suddenly seemed expendable, that quickly changed in June when McFadden broke his elbow. Morris wound being the number-two back after all, but he was rarely used as Elliott immediately became the workhorse RB and held that role for all of his spectacular rookie season.
Last year, we all know what happened with Ezekiel Elliott. Morris became the primary RB during Zeke's suspension and had solid numbers, averaging 4.35 yards on his 99 carries during that six-week stretch.
By Week 16, though, not only had Zeke returned but Rod Smith had started to break out from the depth chart. In the Cowboys' pivotal game that week against the Seattle Seahawks, Alfred didn't even get a touch behind Elliott and Smith.
Considering Smith's emergence last year, and him only being 26, it's easy to see why Dallas may not be looking to bring Alfred Morris back. They seem to have their one-two punch already set at the top of the RB depth chart.
What's more, Morris isn't likely to settle for a likely third-place role. He may not be interested in coming back to Dallas given the situation.
Thankfully for Alfred, he enters the free agent market with some good tape from 2017 showing that he can still produce. It's not a loaded crop of free agents this year and, despite his age, Morris could still find a good job somewhere. He's earned an opportunity to compete, if nothing else.
That opportunity likely won't come in Dallas, though. As I wrote about last month, the Cowboys have enough power already and need to add a speed option in their RB rotation.
That said, Alfred Morris spent the last two years giving Dallas good value for the money. He was a solid free agent pickup and his time as a Cowboy should be remembered fondly. At this point, though, I doubt that relationship will continue.
Though Promising, We Need To Relax About Safety Kavon Frazier
With the addition of former Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Kris Richard to the Cowboys' defensive coaching staff, fans are hoping that Dallas will create their own "Legion of Boom." Of course this is a lofty goal, but one worth pursuing nonetheless.
If the Cowboys are to recreate the Legion of Boom they will need their version of two vital pieces: Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor.
The Seahawks defense works, in many ways, because of these two players. Thomas' ability to play centerfield and literally defend sideline to sideline gives the Seahawks the freedom to use Chancellor where he's best, as a box safety. Chancellor is a big, physical safety who defends the run effectively in the box and can blanket tight ends in man coverage with his size and athleticism.
These safeties are arguably the most critical pieces to the Legion of Boom, though having a shutdown corner in Richard Sherman certainly doesn't hurt.
Realizing Chancellor's importance, Cowboys fans are hoping that current safety Kavon Frazier can fulfill this role in Dallas. Since being drafted by the Cowboys in 2016 Frazier has made his home on Special Teams. As an impressive tackler in both punt and kick coverage, Frazier earned himself time at safety down the stretch of the 2017 season.
All in all, Frazier played rather well. Against the Washington Redskins he stepped in and made a few splash plays at the line of scrimmage, causing Cowboys Nation to lose their minds. After that impressive Thursday night game, however, Kavon Frazier didn't really reach that same level of performance.
Frazier is still a liability when asked to cover, especially when asked to play as a two deep safety. He also struggles when taking angles at times, though playing downhill as a tackler is his best attribute. Frazier actually reminds me a bit of Barry Church, though over time Church became more refined in coverage than Frazier currently is.
Some have argued that Kavon Frazier's presence should stop the Cowboys from considering a first round safety. I would disagree, and actually believe that if Florida State's Derwin James is available, the Cowboys should consider making that pick.
If you could combine the athleticism and coverage abilities of Byron Jones with the physicality and "box safety" qualities of Kavon Frazier, you'd have a fantastic safety. Unfortunately, this isn't the Marvel Universe and we are left without any super heroes in the back-end.
Hopefully Kris Richard will figure out how to correctly place all of these pieces in the Dallas Cowboys secondary going forward.
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