In part one of this three-part series, we looked at the offensive positions that the Cowboys need to fill or upgrade in the upcoming offseason. Now we’ll take a look at the upcoming defensive needs.
The defense has had a good year in 2015 but they suffer from a lack of sacks and turnovers. Worse, the Cowboys have multiple contracts expiring and could have as many as 5 new starters in 2016. So there are some major upgrades that need to be addressed while also filling several critical voids. Let’s take a look at each of the unit’s upcoming needs.
Well, the good news is that Orlando Scandrick will be back, but we do not know if/when he will be back to his pre-injury level. So will he be a starter or will he be the slot corner? For the sake of this article, let’s assume he is a starter and will move to slot in nickel situations. What else will the Boys need at corner?
With Tyler Patmon gone, I’m not sure who will be the backup slot corner, which would tend to make me think Dallas will need to address this backup need. Terrance Mitchell is playing slot now, but is that out of necessity more than preference? I really do not see them with Mitchell and Deji Olatoye both on the roster to start next year. One will go back to the practice squad; most likely Olatoye. My personal belief is that the Boys will address the backup slot corner either in the middle rounds of the draft or by signing a veteran backup.
So what about the three outside corner positions? You have to think that Mitchell could take the 5th corner position on the team due to his versatility and tough, physical play. So that leaves the two outside corner positions.
Most people believe Brandon Carr is gone. The Boys will dump his 13mil salary and use it to upgrade the corner position (or other positions). I agree. Not that he will be gone but that the Boys will not pay him 13mil. I am sure the Cowboys will ask him to take a cut this year. Carr could probably get another team to pay around 3.5-4 million (around the top 45 salaries) per year on the open market. So if the Boys came to him and guaranteed the 13mil but split it over two or three years, you would think that Carr would be foolish to turn it down.
By doing this, the Boys make Carr one of the primary three outside corners. He will be either the two or three (assuming Scandrick is the one) and that should also free up money for the Boys to look at signing a veteran shut-down corner. If there is a difference maker in the 8-10 million dollar range then the Boys should pull the trigger. If they do this, expect them to draft a corner in the mid-rounds to be the primary slot backup.
However, if they do not feel good about free agent options, another option would be to bring back Morris Claiborne. He can fill the second corner position and be the lead outside corner in the nickel. He had a good year and will probably be a fairly affordable option (4 to 4.5 million). It’ll be interesting to see if/what the Cowboys offer.
Another option would be to use one of their first two picks to get a corner who could start fairly early in his career. If they go with an early draft pick, expect them to get a seasoned vet to back up the slot and provide insurance for the rookie.
The last option is to use the 13mil in Carr’s salary to re-sign him, re-sign Claiborne, and to draft an impact rookie in the first three rounds. But that is probably not in the works. But we’re dreaming a little now, right?
Number of Positions: 5
Players: O. Scandrick, B. Carr, TBA (Mitchell or Olatoye), TBA (Draft Pick), TBA (Vet, maybe Claiborne)
Upgrade Needed: Starting outside corner (slot will be upgraded with Scandrick returning)
Optimal Scenario: Carr reduces salary 60%, Claiborne is re-signed, draft a great young corner in the 2nd or 3rd round who will contribute and be the primary backup for the slot corner.
Jeff Heath is a free agent though I would be surprised if the Boys did not re-sign him. He is their backup to the backup insurance, and he is the special team’s guru.
So the only need at safety should be at backup free safety. This is a position that could go either way, draft or veteran free agent. I would think that because there are so many other free agents needed that the Cowboys would try to draft and develop someone. I could see a 4th or 5th round pick being used for a free safety.
However, if an opportunity to draft an elite free safety presented itself early in the draft, Jones could be used as a corner next year and that would eliminate the need to draft a corner. This is another scenario that could play out that gives the Cowboys more options during the draft, which is definitely a good thing.
Number of Positions: 5
Players: B. Jones, B. Church, J. Wilcox, TBA (Heath most likely), TBA
Upgrade Needed: Free Safety (keeping Jones there)
Optimal Scenario: Cowboys draft a starting corner early in the draft which allows Jones to stay at free safety. The Boys then draft a good developmental free safety prospect in the mid-to-late rounds.
Decisions regarding the linebackers will get interesting. Sean Lee will be there unless he retires due to concussion issues. By the way, if I’m the Cowboys, I shut him down so he is ready for 2016. That would also allow us to see what Damien Wilson has and give him some valuable playing time.
Anthony Hitchens is also going to be on the roster, hopefully as the primary backup to the Will and Mike positions. Wilson is on the roster and will be another backup Will. I actually think Wilson may turn out to be the best outside edge blitzer the Boys have.
Andrew Gachkar is also signed and will continue to be a vital player on special teams. I also like him better than Hitchens as a backup MIKE, but that is just me.
Now this is where the fun starts. Kyle Wilber and Rolando McClain are free agents. So there goes your best middle and strong side LBs. Yes, I know that Hitchens starts at strong, but he is not built for the position and so the Boys should look for a starting Sam LB that should be fairly affordable in free agency.
The Cowboys have Mark Nzeocha on the roster, but I’m not convinced the Cowboys will keep him unless they keep seven LBs. I think the last decision may come down to the Boys keeping 4 safeties and 7 LBs or 5 safeties and 6 LBs. If they do keep him, he will be primarily on special teams and the backup for the Sam LB position.
So what I envision is the Boys needing to replace a starting Mike LB and Sam LB. Though the chances of getting both with all of the other needs are pretty slim. You would think they bring in at least one vet. I do not think you will be able to get a starting Mike unless you use one of the first two picks, possibly the third. I do not think they value the Sam position enough to draft a SAM linebacker in the first three picks and I don’t think you can get a starter drafting in the fourth or later. So I think they address the LB position in free agency.
My guess is they re-sign McClain and pick up an affordable veteran who will play the SAM position and help on special teams.
Number of Positions: 6, possibly 7
Players: S. Lee, A. Hitchens, D. Wilson, A. Gachkar, possibly M. Nzeocha, TBA (Vet), TBA (probably draft)
Upgrade Needed: Starting LBs at middle and strong
Optimal Scenario: Re-sign McClain and sign a starting quality strong side LB
The DE position will likely be tumultuous and have the most change. Greg Hardy and Jeremy Mincey are both free agents and my gut says that neither will be back. Well, I say it’s 50/50 that Hardy returns.
Randy Gregory has not had the year we expected and will probably not be ready to start next year, so let’s slot him as the third DE and pass rush specialist.
DeMarcus Lawrence is getting better and I project him as the starting DE. But on which side he will play depends on who they sign in free agency.
So if that scenario plays out, the Boys will need to find a starting DE and a fourth backup DE. It wouldn’t surprise me if Dallas bring in a bigger run stuffing DE and use a third or fourth round draft pick on an undersized speed rusher in the mold of Lawrence and Gregory. This would move Lawrence back to the right side DE position.
If the Boys do re-sign Hardy (or someone like him), then look for them to draft a bigger DE that can be teamed with Lawrence on the left.
The DT is another position that will have change. Jack Crawford is a free agent; as is Nick Hayden. But the Boys do get Terrell McClain back at the one.
It looks like David Irving is the real deal and will play both DE and three-technique. I think he will be the primary swing DE/DT on game day. Basically, he will fill the position of fourth DT and fourth DE.
I project Ryan Russell to play the three-technique mostly. Hopefully, he is getting stronger and working on his explosiveness. But like Irving, he will play both DE and DT.
Of course the Boys have Tyrone Crawford signed long-term as the three, but it would not surprise me if he splits his time evenly between the one-technique and the three-technique. Personally, I think he makes a better one than three. He is a nightmare for centers.
The Boys are likely to keep 9 positions, so let’s look at what positions need to be filled. Working from lowest priority to highest:
9. Swing DE/DT – Ryan Russell
8. Fourth DE – TBA (Possibly Irving, if Jack Crawford is re-signed for backup three)
7. Back Up One-Technique – Terrell McClain
6. Back Up Three-Technique – David Irving
5. Third DE – Randy Gregory
4. One-Technique – Tyrone Crawford (could fill three if one technique is signed)
3. Left DE – TBA (If Hardy is signed, then Lawrence will fill)
2. Right DE – DeMarcus Lawrence
1. Three-Technique – TBA (Could be filled by Crawford if one-technique is signed)
So to summarize, there are three positions that will need to be filled. A starting DT (could be one or three), a starting DE, and the fourth DE. But if Jack Crawford is re-signed then Irving will be moved to cover the fourth DE and that will leave you with only the two starting positions which need to be addressed.
Number of Positions: 9
Players: T. Crawford, T. McClain, D. Lawrence, R. Gregory, D. Irving, R. Russell, TBA (DE starter), TBA (4th DE), TBA, (starting one or three technique).
Upgrade Needed: Starting One/three-technique, starting DE, backup three.
Optimal Scenario: Re-sign Hardy (or an equivalent impact rusher), draft an explosive three-technique, move Tyrone Crawford to one-technique and re-sign Jack Crawford to back up the three (along with Irving).
That’s my assessment of the defensive needs the Boys should address this offseason. The Cowboys could wind up with a new starting DE and DT. In addition, they could have one or two new starting LBs. Finally, the Cowboys will likely have at least one new starting corner (not even counting Scandrick coming back) and could have two if they Boys cannot agree to a contract with Carr.
So there is a possibility that half of the Cowboys defensive starters will be new next year. That is a lot of change for a unit that performed well this year.
Tomorrow, in Part 3 of this series, I'll dive into some of the trends and analyze possible next steps in a little more detail. Stay tuned.
Dallas Cowboys 2019 Draft Needs: Impact of Free Agency Moves & Rumors
With most of the marquee NFL free agents already off the market, many are already turning their eyes to the 2019 Draft. Whether a glaring need went unaddressed or the needs have simply changed, the draft offers the next big opportunity for teams like the Dallas Cowboys to stock talent for next season.
While they've been conservative so far this offseason, Dallas has been active in the last few days in covering bases and giving itself more flexibility for the draft. They don't want to have to reach on a talent because of a need, nor do they want to tip their hand too much to the rest of the league.
As of now there are still some significant acquisitions that could happen. Dallas has visited with veteran Safety Eric Berry and Defensive Lineman Malik McDowell, plus are reportedly in trade talks with Miami for Defend End Robert Quinn. Any of these moves could have a big impact on their need levels for the draft.
We've already seen some changes thanks to offseason activity. With Tuesday's signing of Randall Cobb, plus moves to retain Tavon Austin and Allen Hurns, Dallas may not be looking at a receiver as early as we might've thought. The same can be said for Jason Witten's return and the tight end position.
If the draft were today, without accounting for any of the players that the Cowboys have had talks with but remain unsigned, here's how I would rank the team's 2019 draft needs:
- Defensive End
- Defensive Tackle
- Tight End
- Running Back
- Wide Receiver
- Offensive Tackle
- Quarterback (Mike White is their drafted backup project for at least another year.)
- Punter (Could add someone to compete with Chris Jones and save some cap dollars.)
- Fullback (They re-signed Jamize Olawale, who they barely use anyway. Zero need here.)
I put safety on top because it's the spot that could most use an immediate upgrade and has some pressing future need. Dallas didn't make the big move for Earl Thomas that many hoped for and Jeff Heath's contract expires after this season. Hopefully, a second-round talent could compete for a starting job now and at least replace Heath in 2020.
Even with the Kerry Hyder signing defensive end has some major red flags. DeMarcus Lawrence has sworn he would holdout without a long-term deal. Randy Gregory is suspended again, and now Tyrone Crawford is now facing potential league action from an incident with police last week. Unless the Cowboys think Taco Charlton is going to make a big push in his third year, they could be hurting for a pass rush in 2019.
I expect things with Lawrence will get resolved, and I doubt Crawford will get suspended for more than a game or two if at all. But Dallas could still use another solid DE if they don't get this deal for Robert Quinn done.
Remember, the 2019 Cowboys aren't working with a first-round pick. Barring a trade, they'll be waiting until the 58th pick to make their first selection. That limits the impact potential of their picks and makes what they do with the Day 2 picks all the more critical.
So what if the Cowboys pull off these three potential moves, adding Berry, McDowell, and Quinn? Each player would help to address the top three needs on my list.
Eric Berry hopefully solves the immediate upgrade need at safety, though it may not do much for the future. He turns 31 this year and was released by Kansas City because of multiple injury issues. Dallas could still consider taking a rookie prospect, perhaps even releasing Jeff Heath for cap savings if needed.
Malik McDowell was considered a first-round talent in 2017 but has never played after a major ATV accident prior to his first training camp with Seattle. If he's finally recovered enough to return to football and play at his original potential, he could give Dallas a talent infusion that none of their draft capital could provide.
Robert Quinn has been around a while but will be just 29 in May, and is still putting up sacks at a solid rate. He's averaged 7.5 sacks the last two years with two different teams. He would go a long way to stabilizing things at defensive end and allowing Dallas look at guys like Gregory and Hyder as icing on the cake.
If Dallas lands all three players then I would adjust the list as follows:
- Tight End
- Defensive Tackle
- Running Back
- Defensive End
- Wide Receiver
If you think about it, the safety and tight end positions would be kind of similar in this scenario. You'd have Eric Berry and Jason Witten as the veteran stopgaps, Xavier Woods and Blake Jarwin as intriguing young guys with starting potential, and Kavon Frazier and Dalton Schultz as other young depth.
However, at every step, safety would be deeper and have more upside. Berry should have more to often than Witten, Woods is more proven than Jarwin, and Frazier is more experienced than Schultz.
Plus, we didn't even mention that you'd have Jeff Heath for experience and versatility at safety. Meanwhile, TE Rico Gathers probably won't be on next year's team.
So yes, I'd vault tight end to the top of the need list. Dallas may like Blake Jarwin but they could find a far more polished and talented player with the 58th pick.
Even with McDowell and Christian Covington added to the mix, Dallas would still be wise to address the defensive tackle position. They have several contract issues coming up at once in 2020.
Covington and Maliek Collins will be unrestricted free agents next year. The Cowboys will also likely want to finally shed Tyrone Crawford's contract, with $8 million in cap relief possible. That would leave them pretty bare at defensive tackle.
Dallas could make a move now to solidify their rotation and prepare for the future. They'd have a little more stability at defensive end with assumed multi-year deals for Lawrence and Quinn, making tackle the more immediate concern.
The backup running back spot can't be ignored, with only Darius Jackson and Jordan Chunn currently signed behind Ezekiel Elliott. If Dallas doesn't bring back Rod Smith between now and the draft, they may want to spend a high pick for Zeke's relief man and an additional offensive weapon.
Elliott's own contract will be up for discussion as soon. Having a talented player with a four-year rookie deal behind him could give the Cowboys much-needed leverage in any future talks with their franchise back.
~ ~ ~
We'll see if Dallas lands any of the players we've hypothesized about. Any of them would help lessen the need at their positions, but those would still remain important areas for the Cowboys to look at in the upcoming draft.
Ezekiel Elliott vs Byron Jones Part II: The Case For Paying Zeke
It's a debate that has raged on social media for some time now and it likely won't slow down as the offseason progresses and the Dallas Cowboys begin to hand out massive contracts to their top players. Pay Ezekiel Elliott? Pay Byron Jones? If you could only pay one, which would you pay?
This week fellow Inside The Star Staff Writer, Kevin Brady took to Twitter to poll the populous and his results were a bit surprising to me.
if you can only pay one it should be
The results inspired me to see what would happen if I put the same poll on my timeline.
Inspired by my teammate @KevinBrady88, if you can only pay one, which would it be?
On Monday, Kevin wrote a piece looking at one of the difficult decisions facing the Dallas Cowboys this offseason or next. If the Cowboys could only extend Byron Jones OR Ezekiel Elliott, who should they choose? Kevin, as am I, is a firm believer in Byron Jones ability and says the Cowboys should extend them, and I agree. But let's look at the other side of the argument.
To begin, the Cowboys should and probably will get both guys contract extensions either this offseason or next. It's not impossible with the cap continuing to increase at a rate of about $8-12 million per year that the Cowboys will have the space to get the deals done that they need to get done. Ezekiel Elliott and Byron Jones included.
Byron Jones settled in nicely at cornerback during his first full season at cornerback and knowing what we know about Jones, he won't be satisfied with a second team All-Pro appearance. Expect him to get better. However, if there's a single player that represents the current identity of the Dallas Cowboys, it's Running Back Ezekiel Elliott.
The Cowboys made him the fourth overall pick in 2016 and haven't looked back in their plan to establish the running game. For his career Elliott has averaged 26.9 touches per game over the course of his 40 games.
Here's a look at what Elliott's per game and per 16 game paces look like through the first three seasons of his career.
As you can see from the table above, Ezekiel Elliott is averaging 131.2 total yards per game for his career. In his rookie season he had 1,994 total yards and he sat out the week 17 game against the Philadelphia Eagles when the Cowboys had the NFC and home field advantage locked up. In 2017, Elliott sat out six games and still had nearly 1,000 yards rushing. In 2018, Elliott broke through the 2,000 total yard barrier after seeing a huge increase in his targets and receptions.
Ezekiel Elliott has been everything the Dallas Cowboys could have hoped for and more. With the leadership role he's taken with the team, he's a player that leads both vocally and by example. There are few players on the Dallas Cowboys that give as much effort as he does each snap. How many times has it looked like Elliott was about to get dropped for a two or three yard loss only to grind through tackles to pick up a four yard gain? How many times has he bounced off tacklers to get to the first down marker? Ezekiel Elliott is the human personification of dirty yards, but don't let that fool you into thinking that Elliott can't take it to the house every time he touches the ball. Elliott's is a game breaker who threatens the defense every time he steps on the field.
In 2018, Elliott led the NFL in yards after contact, per Pro Football Focus. His 949 yards after contact in 2018 would have ranked 13th in the NFL in rushing, which was better than David Johnson's 940 yards rushing last season.
Not many running backs effect a football game like Ezekiel Elliott does.
Few players outside of the quarterback position are as much of a focal point for their offense while being an attention grabber for opposing defenses like Ezekiel Elliott is. In 2018, he saw eight or more men in the box on nearly 25% of his carries in 2018. Some of that is related to the Dallas Cowboys insistence on using two tight ends on 50% of their running plays (per Sharp Football), but the other aspect is related to how much they respect the Dallas Cowboys running game. Since the 2014, the Cowboys have been synonymous with running the football. DeMarco Murray, Darren McFadden, and now Ezekiel Elliott have been the faces of that running game behind the Cowboys elite offensive line.
Even in a down year for offensive line play from the Dallas Cowboys, Elliott still managed to lead the NFL in rushing for the second time in three seasons. Elliott made the Pro Bowl for the second time in three years as well. Were it not for the railroad job done by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in 2017, there's a really good chance that Elliott leads the league in rushing three years in a row and that the Dallas Cowboys make the playoffs all three seasons.
Sure, the running back position is undervalued in the NFL and rushing yardage can be replaced, but there are intangibles to Elliott's game that are very difficult to replace. His ability to grind out the dirty yards, break big plays, create yards after contact, pass protect, be a threat as a receiver, and his leadership make him a player that is difficult to replace.
Yes, Byron Jones was really good in 2018 and deserves to get paid by the Dallas Cowboys as well, but you'd be hard pressed to find a player on the Cowboys roster who has been as consistent and dominating week in and week out as Ezekiel Elliott has been over the last three years.
BREAKING: Cowboys Sign Ex-Packers WR Randall Cobb
According to multiple sources, the Dallas Cowboys have signed former Green Bay Packers Wide Receiver Randall Cobb to a one-year deal to help bolster their depth at the WR position and potentially become Cole Beasley's replacement.
Cowboys are giving former Packers' WR Randall Cobb a one-year, $5 million deal, per source. https://t.co/8KWFPjSP8T
The Dallas Cowboys met with Randall Cobb earlier this week, but he eventually left Dallas without a contract. He must've had a change of heart or just needed time to ponder the Cowboys offer, but regardless of what transpired in that short time he is now part of America's Team.
During his time with the Packers, Cobb accumulated 470 receptions for 5,524 receiving yards and 41 touchdowns. The eight-year veteran will now be expected to replace some of Cole Beasley's production out of the slot for the Dallas Cowboys.
After years of watching Beasley as the Cowboys slot WR, it will be really interesting to see Randall Cobb in that role. He's not as quick twitched as No. 11, but can be just as dangerous due to his ability to be more of a down the field receiver. He also brings added value in the return game and could compete with Tavon Austin to become the return specialist.
This could mean the Cowboys forgo drafting a wide receiver early in the 2019 NFL Draft, but I wouldn't put it past them. Regardless of what happens, this is an excellent addition.
Welcome to Cowboys Nation Randall Cobb!
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