Yesterday here at Inside The Star, I outlined seven Dallas Cowboys players with the most to gain at this year's training camp. While this marked the team's upbeat arrival to sunny Oxnard, California, the reality is their upcoming practices will go a long way in determining which 37 players miss the cut from 90 down to 53.
That is why today, I'll be taking a look at players that may have others breathing down their neck on the depth chart as camp gets underway. Many positions around the team are being coached by new additions to Jason Garrett's staff, offering a rare fresh start for some players to capitalize on and others to succumb to expectations.
Here are four Cowboys that could lose the most ground with the team in this last portion of the offseason.
The NFL has yet to weigh in on Terrance Williams' May 19th arrest in Frisco, meaning that discipline could still be coming to make matters worse. As it stands currently, Williams is beginning camp as something of an oddity to new WR Coach Sanjay Lal and the Cowboys offense.
Along with Cole Beasley, Williams is a reminder of what once was for the Cowboys pass catchers. A lackluster group under coach Derek Dooley, headlined by Dez Bryant's disappointing 2017 season, Williams stands alone as a player that could continue to frustrate in 2018.
The Cowboys should ideally be leaning on Williams to show young receivers like Michael Gallup and Cedrick Wilson the way, and I believe the starting Y-WR job is still his to lose at the moment. All around him are faster, more dynamic targets that were brought in with Quarterback Dak Prescott's strengths in mind though.
Williams is averaging just over 48 receptions and 581 yards in two seasons with Prescott as his quarterback. With diminishing production, particularly throughout his five years as a scoring option, Williams has proved to the Cowboys long ago that he'll never be a true number one receiver.
I know, the Cowboys and Prescott himself claim they don't need such a receiver to succeed, but it would sure be nice to expect progress from Terrance Williams. Instead, it will be the progress of not only rookies Gallup and Wilson but Allen Hurns and Deonte Thompson too that potentially cause Williams to fade into the season.
The Cowboys will need to get creative with their receivers to get the most out of this unit, a change in philosophy that could easily go over Williams' head.
Tight End Rico Gathers
In his introductory press conference, Jason Garrett alluded to "three or four" tight ends the Cowboys are excited about, although the roster currently features five.
It may be entirely too early to tell which tight ends will have the task of replacing Jason Witten for the Cowboys in 2018, but the team's dismissive attitude towards Rico Gathers is nothing new.
Frequently calling the 2016 seventh round pick's work ethic and commitment into question, the Cowboys have not been able to find a role for the converted basketball player either in the passing or running game.
Gathers' potential as a receiver is higher than that of Geoff Swaim, Blake Jarwin, or rookie Dalton Schultz. This leaves plenty of room for the Cowboys to end up looking foolish for never giving Gathers a fair chance, but even without a decided starter at TE it seems like Gathers is beginning camp as an afterthought.
The optimistic way to look at things is that Gathers has plenty of time to change his fortunes, as the Cowboys haven't begun actually practicing in Oxnard yet. Another month's worth of practice would do little do displace what has been over two years of stubbornness from the Cowboys towards Rico Gathers, and the looming separation of the two parties may be inevitable.
Whether or not this counts as ground lost or simply the Cowboys plan for Gathers all along will be determined by his consistency level at practices.
Defensive End Charles Tapper
Now feels like as good of a time as any to remind everyone that availability is the best trait that any player can possess. It's easy to lose sight of this as we get caught up with daily team updates coming down for the first time in over a month, but not so much so when considering Charles Tapper's unfortunate career in Dallas so far.
The fourth round pick of 2016 has managed to play in just two games for the Cowboys. Constantly set back by injuries, the time has come for the team's defensive depth to potentially pass up Tapper.
There's no doubt that Tapper's skill set can still help the Cowboys rotation of pass rushers, but justifying a roster spot over any of the defensive ends preparing to work with Rod Marinelli as soon as this afternoon could prove difficult.
New to this group is rookie Dorance Armstrong, FA signing Kony Ealy, and the recently reinstated Randy Gregory. Adding DeMarcus Lawrence, Tyrone Crawford, and Taco Charlton makes finding as much as consistent reps for Tapper a struggle -- a promising player that finds himself a long way from this team's final roster.
Linebacker Damien Wilson
How exactly the Cowboys deploy their linebackers throughout this training camp is something I'll be keeping a close eye on. Adding rookies Leighton Vander Esch and Chris Covington to the mix while also signing Joe Thomas, the Cowboys feel better prepared to deal with losing Sean Lee.
This isn't to say that Lee and Jaylon Smith won't be the Cowboys preferred options at linebacker, typically running out just two in their Nickel defense. A package that should be utilized more with the arrival of Passing Game Coordinator Kris Richard, all of the Cowboys linebackers are going to be tested in new ways.
While this should excite an athletic depth player like Damien Wilson, the fourth-year linebacker has done little to stand out in his development. If his SAM linebacker position is becoming a thing of the past in Dallas, so too may be Wilson depending on how tight the final roster crunch becomes.
Predicting the Cowboys to be strong enough at LB by the end of camp to move on from Wilson is simply not a smart approach to the roster, but by his own standards Wilson could end up disappointed in the role he carves out for the Cowboys defense.
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The Dallas Cowboys are out to prove a lot of people wrong this season, and you won't see me complaining if the four players above have their say in doing just that. These differences in evaluation paired with how the new-look Cowboys coaching staff will actually see this roster is what makes training camp so intriguing.
After months of pure speculation, it's time for things to be decided between the lines -- such as roster spots and playing time for the 2018 Cowboys over the coming weeks in Oxnard.
Dallas Cowboys 2019 Offseason Preview: Wide Receiver
The Dallas Cowboys' year in 2018 was marked by big moves at wide receiver. Dez Bryant was released in April and then a first-round pick was traded in October to add Amari Cooper. Could this 2019 offseason offer anything close to that level of activity?
Unlike last season, Dallas should enjoy some stability in its starting lineup at receiver. Cooper returns at a much higher price, with the $13.9 million cap hit from his fifth-year option coming into player. Amari cost just $412k against the Cowboys' salary cap last year.
That huge jump in cap cost may hurt but Cooper backed it up with his Pro Bowl play in 2018. The top WR contracts average $15-$17 million per year, so even now Dallas is arguably getting Amari at a bargain.
The Cowboys didn't give up a first-round pick for a year-and-a-half rental, so we can expect them to seek a long-term extension with Cooper in the near future. With the contracts of DeMarcus Lawrence and Dak Prescott more immediate concerns, any new deal for Amari probably won't come until the middle of the season or in 2020.
Not only is WR1 set for next year but Michael Gallup appears locked in as the other starter. Of his 68 targets last year, 40 came in the second half of the year. It was a great season for a third-round rookie, and there are high hopes for Gallup's development in his first full offseason.
The stability up front is a blessing for the Cowboys, but it doesn't relieve them of big decisions at the WR position this offseason. They face a particularly critical choice when it comes to the free agency of Cole Beasley.
It's hard to believe Beasley's already been in Dallas for seven seasons. An undrafted gem, Cole has been one of the team's most reliable offensive players for some time. He led them in receiving in 2016 and has been one of the most efficient, QB-friendly options for the last several years.
Beasley's contract expiring this year is only one issue. He has become very vocal lately about wanting to be a bigger part of the offense. His targets dropped tremendously over the course of 2018, which was especially evident when Cole got just five total passes thrown his way in the two playoffs games.
If Beasley wants a larger role, does that also mean he wants more money? He was making a little over $3 million/season on his last deal.
With Gallup on a cheap rookie contract, Dallas could afford to pay raise Beasley's compensation a bit. But if they don't plan to use him more than they did last year, then perhaps the two parties just aren't a good fit at this point.
If Cole walks in free agency then the Cowboys will now have to find a new number-three receiver. The next best option would be Tavon Austin, but he is also a free agent. However, he could likely be re-signed for a fraction of what Beasley would want.
Austin has the physical skills to be an offensive weapon but he doesn't have the reliable hands that Beasley does. Even if Dallas wants Tavon back solely for his skills on punt returns, they may not be ready to make him a bigger part of the offense.
One option might be promoting Noah Brown, whose at times has reminded us of a young Dez Bryant with his physical playing style. His blocking ability would lend itself to the single-back formations Dallas likes to run out of, and he's flashed some good hands in limited opportunities.
In that scenario Amari Cooper would likely play out of the slot, which he's certainly capable of with his quickness. The same would be done if Dallas went with another internal solution, such as Allen Hurns or Terrance Williams.
That said, the Cowboys are unlikely to pick up the second-year option on Hurns' contract, not wanting to pay him over $6 million in 2019 after last year's low production. It also doesn't seem likely that they want to keep Williams after last year's issues.
Taking all of that into consideration, Dallas may very well be doing some WR shopping in free agency. Fortunately for them, it's a favorable market if you're looking for a slot receiver.
On top of Beasley and Austin already in the free agent pool, Golden Tate could at least match Cole's play if not potentially offer an upgrade. Baltimore's John Brown, Tampa's Adam Humphries, and Washington's Jamison Crowder are all other proven options. Emmanuel Sanders, while not currently a free agent, is a very possible cap casualty for the Broncos.
Guys like Humphries and Crowder are younger than Beasley and could provide better long-term value on their contract. That may be a more attractive option at this point for the Cowboys.
Dallas won't need to add a lot of bodies at WR thanks to a few young prospects. They still have Lance Lenoir and Cedrick Wilson under contract, plus signed 2015 second-round pick Devin Smith as a potential rehabilitation project.
But again, these guys are all just bodies right now. Lenoir has had his opportunities and not done much with them, though he does offer some value as a potential return man. Wilson spent his rookie season on injured reserve.
The Cowboys could still look at a receiver with one of their mid-round draft picks, but it's hard to get much production early there. Last year's play from Michael Gallup was a surprise for a third-rounder.
It's far more likely that Dallas will either work things out with Cole Beasley or pursue a veteran replacement in free agency.
So no, thankfully, we don't have to worry about any monumental changes at the top of the WR depth chart in 2019. But Beasley was more than just a third receiver, and keeping or replacing him will have a significant impact on the offense going forward.
If Dallas is truly ready to commit to Dak Prescott as the quarterback of the future then they can't take anything about his receiving options lightly. Therefore, wide receiver remains an important offseason focus for the Cowboys in 2019.
Defense, Not Offense, Should Be Dallas Cowboys Offseason Focus
Last week our own Brian Martin asked whether offense or defense should be the priority for the Dallas Cowboys this offseason. We know that the team will look to make some additions on both sides of the football to help their team take the next step toward hopefully contending for a Lombardi Trophy in 2019.
Brian took the stance that the Cowboys front office brain trust of Jerry Jones, Stephen Jones, and Will McClay along with Head Coach Jason Garrett should prioritize the offensive side of the football.
Here’s what he had to say:
Surprisingly enough, the Dallas Cowboys really don't have any glaring needs on the defensive side of the ball either. After finishing as one of the top defensive units in 2018, they will have nearly all of their starters returning for the 2019 season. But much like on the offensive side of the ball, there could be two starting spots up for grabs...
...If Cole Beasley does indeed leave via free agency, that's a big blow to the passing game. But, it's not just him. Other than their rushing attack, the Cowboys offense was ranked in the bottom half of the league in nearly every other category. With Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan now gone we can hope that improves, but that doesn't mean improving the offense shouldn't be the Cowboys main offseason focus though.
Brian Martin - Inside The Star
I get his reasoning, though I disagree with the first point being made. Yes, the defense has a lot of really good players that are developing, but I think there a couple obvious areas where upgrades can be made. First, at safety, where Jeff Heath continues to be a frustrating player, as evidenced by the final play against the Rams. Secondly, the defensive tackle spot could definitely use an infusion of talent.
I believe the priority needs to continue to build on a defense that was surprisingly good, and downright dominant in their win over the New Orleans Saints, in 2018. However, despite finishing sixth in the NFL in points allowed, seventh in yards allowed, and fifth in rushing yards allowed, they were middle of the pack against the pass and had the sixth worst third down conversion percentage allowed.
They were a defense that got away with being excellent against the run and excellent in the red zone, allowing a touchdown only 51% of the time their opponent reached the red zone. They allowed the sixth fewest touchdowns in the NFL, and yet when they got into the playoffs, they weren’t nearly as good.
Sure, they held the Seattle Seahawks top ranked rushing attack in check for the game, holding them to only 73 rushing yards. The Seahawks threw for only 226 yards, but there offensive staff was insistent on running the football even though Russell Wilson was playing pretty well in the second half. The Seahawks were hitting the Cowboys for big plays that allowed them to make the game closer than it should have been. Had they tilted the run-pass ratio a bit more to put the ball in Russell Wilson's hands earlier in the game, it's possible that the game has a different outcome.
Against the Rams, we saw the Dallas Cowboys interior get bullied while both CJ Anderson and Todd Gurley rushed for more than 100 yards. Maliek Collins and Antwaun Woods were good for a lot of the year as the primary defensive tackles for the Dallas Cowboys, but with them ailing because of injury and illness, the Cowboys didn't have many answers for the Rams offensive interior. Their ineffectiveness in the divisional round led to Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch, and Sean Lee being generally ineffective as well.
While the Dallas Cowboys can feel pretty good about what the defense did last season, there's no way they can go into the 2019 season satisfied with what they'll be working with. In addition to playing the their NFC East opponents twice, with the Eagles and Giants able to score points and the Redskins typically a tough matchup, they'll play the New England Patriots, the Los Angeles Rams, the Green Bay Packers, the Minnesota Vikings, the New Orleans Saints, and the Detroit Lions. All of those teams are capable of scoring a lot of points if the defense isn't having its best day. Throw in teams like the New York Jets, Buffalo Bills, and Chicago Bears, and you have three young offenses that are growing and fully capable of scoring points as well.
The Dallas Cowboys front office has to go into the offseason ready to make upgrades to their defensive personnel. With the safeties that are available this offseason -- Earl Thomas, Landon Collins, Tre Boston, Tyrann Mathieu, and several other intriguing names -- the Cowboys will have an opportunity to upgrade the safety position. Between the draft and free agency, defensive tackle will be a high priority position for the Cowboys.
I know that many are looking at the offense and the steps that they need to make moving forward to be legit contenders, and they do have some improvements to make, but they look to be a unit that is trending in the right direction. Some better coaching for Dak Prescott and the offense should help them moving forward. A full offseason for Dak to work with Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, Blake Jarwin, and Dalton Schultz should improve the chemistry between Prescott and his top receiving threats.
Yes, there are areas that need to be upgraded on offense and they may have to deal with filling the gap left by Cole Beasley if he does leave. The front office, however, can't go into the offseason satisfied with where they sit on the defensive side of the football. They are building something and are a couple of pieces away from having a truly elite defense. Finding those couple of pieces -- a safety and a pass rushing defensive tackle -- are of the utmost priority this offseason if the Dallas Cowboys want to head back to the postseason in 2019.
Should Cowboys Address TE Need Via Free Agency?
A season after Jason Witten's retirement, the Dallas Cowboys still have a need at tight end. Replacing a future Hall of Famer is no easy feat so it's only logical that it would take longer than a season to feel good about who's in at tight end.
The Cowboys currently have two tight ends who could be pretty serviceable going forward. Fourth round pick Dalton Schultz did a very solid job as the team's TE2, specially toward the second half of the season. He turned into a pretty good run blocker and despite only racking up 116 yards in 12 catches, he's a guy the Cowboys' offense could use even more in the future.
Also on the team is Blake Jarwin, who functioned as the Cowboys' main tight end for most of 2018. His performance against the New York Giants in week 17 made us wonder whether or not he could be an important target on the Cowboys' offense.
These two could very well have more in them than what we've seen. With a new offensive coordinator in town, tight end is a position the Cowboys could start using way more. As Bobby Belt pointed out on Twitter a few weeks ago, Scott Linehan's offense doesn't benefit tight ends very much. Before we give a verdict on what Schultz and Jarwin can do, I'd like to see them work with Kellen Moore's offense.
One thing you consistently see when Scott Linehan takes over an offense is a drop in the starting tight end's production. Randy McMichael, Byron Chamberlain, and Jason Witten all saw drops in yards per catch, receptions per game, and yards per game once Linehan took over.
Here's the thing. If the Cowboys are not taking a tight end in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft, are they really upgrading what they already have? I'm not sure we'll be convinced about that if they draft a player for the position until the third or fourth round. Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not advocating for the Cowboys drafting a TE in the second round, because I believe there are more pressing needs on the team. However, signing a veteran free agent might be the better option for upgrading the position.
Should a veteran TE be an option?
This year, there are quite a few interesting names in the tight end market. Veterans such as Jared Cook, Tyler Eifert and even Antonio Gates will be looking for a new team pretty soon. I know, that would be "getting older." But it could also mean getting better. Building a solid TE committee with a veteran leading Blake Jarwin and Dalton Schultz could be the way to go for this football team.
Eifert is a great tight end... when he's on the field. Durability is his biggest weakness, as he hasn't played more than 10 games since 2016. The Cowboys could take a risk on him and constantly rotate him with Jarwin and Schultz. It may be a huge risk, but it could pay off big time. If the price is right, Eifert should be targeted by the front office.
The 2018 Oakland Raiders had a season to forget, winning only four games. Even still, Jared Cook's season was impressive. He finished the year with 896 yards and multiple 100-yard games. The biggest issue with Cook is his age. He turns 32 in April. But hey, he's literally coming off from a career year.
Jesse James is a younger guy who could also be worth it. He's not an a potent receiver, but he gets it done in the passing game and is one hell of a blocker. James could be a legit, cheaper option for the Cowboys in free agency.
There are a lot of names out there the front office could look at. Charles Clay was just released by the Buffalo Bills and Nick Boyle will be looking for new job after new arrivals pushed him out of the Baltimore Ravens' roster just to mention a few names.
We'll see what the front office's plans are soon enough, but right now, I'd say tight end is a need the Dallas Cowboys should at least try to address in free agency instead of the NFL Draft.
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