If you are like me, your mind has already moved to 2016 and what the Boys need to get back to the playoffs. Let’s not kid ourselves; the Boys are more than a Tony Romo away from making the playoffs. They need upgrades in a lot of positions.
For example, Tyrone Crawford is a good three, but good doesn’t win Super Bowls. What if we signed a quick pass rushing three and moved Crawford to the one technique; would the Boys then upgrade two positions? This is just one example of the types of decisions and changes that the Boys will need to make.
The Cowboys are also losing several key players and will need to either re-sign or replace them. I could make a case that the Cowboys could have as many as five new starters on defense. So, as they say, change is a coming.
So rather than publish another scorecard that will primarily be a repeat of almost every grade from every other week, I want to begin looking at what positions and upgrades the Boys will need in 2016. I will keep the same unit by unit structure but in this three-part series, let’s start looking at the positions in the context of what will need to be filled and/or upgraded.
If you’re the Cowboys front office, you probably can’t upgrade every position that you would like to upgrade; hard choices and tradeoffs will be necessary. Information is the key to understanding these tradeoffs and before we can look at which tradeoffs the Boys should make, we first need a full inventory of the upcoming needs.
As we get ready to start a new year, why not clear the disappointment that this year brought and once again start building up our excitement thinking of the possibilities 2016 could bring (possibly a playoff)? In Part 1 of this series today, let's look at what we want to do for 2016 on the offense first.
Romo will be back and leading the charge, but who will be behind him? That is the million dollar question (or multi-million actually). I do not foresee Matt Cassel being back as the primary backup. I am sure the Boys will want to forget about this year altogether. That means clearing the backup QBs and bringing in someone new to back Romo up. But since Romo’s window is realistically still three to four years, I don’t see Dallas drafting anyone in 2016 or 2017 for that matter.
I don’t see the Cowboys keeping three QBs on the roster either. So I expect whomever they bring in to be someone who has won in the league before. That means the staff will go out in free agency or trade to grab their guy. Robert Griffin III anyone? The “who” is for another article so for now, let’s just list backup QB as a need.
Number of Positions: 2
Players: T. Romo, TBA
Upgrade Needed: Backup QB
Optimal Scenario: Sign a winning starting quality backup like Griffin or Chad Henne
Running back is an interesting situation. I fully expect the Cowboys to draft a running back fairly early in the draft. And for all of the naysayers that talk about a running back not being an impact player, may I suggest they take a look at Todd Gurley and rethink that premise.
As I said, I expect the Boys to address the RB position in the first three rounds (assuming options are available and there are not significantly better options at other positions).
Lance Dunbar is a free agent though I assume the Boys will make a push to bring him back. Romo has finally developed chemistry with him. If Dunbar does return in his third-down role, how many positions will they keep? My guess is they will keep a primary backup (Darren McFadden), a third down back, and a fullback.
So if we have a rookie and McFadden, can we keep Robert Turbin as well? I don’t think so. There are just too many needs at other positions.
So to compensate, I think the Boys should train Lucky Whitehead to be the backup to Dunbar as insurance if Dunbar goes down. Doing it this way provides backup insurance for Dunbar without having to carry a fourth running back.
Now onto fullback, I believe there is absolutely a need of an upgrade. The Boys need a blocking back that can read where the hole is and move a linebacker out. It isn’t something they must address, but it would be nice to upgrade the position.
Number of Positions: 4
Players: TBA (Primary running back), D. McFadden, TBA (Dunbar hopefully?), TBA (fullback)
Upgrade Needed: Primary Running Back, Fullback
Optimal Scenario: Sign a game-changing RB in the first two rounds. Find a blocking fullback in rookie free agency.
The receiver position is fairly set. There is really only one question and one need.
The question is whether Devin Street or Brice Butler makes the team. One of them is going to be gone. I can envision a scenario where the Boys cannot find the right veteran receiver and so they stand pat with both of them. But even then it would be 50/50 that the Boys would just keep five receivers in that scenario. But in all likelihood either Street or Butler will be gone. So who stays?
I know the Boys receiver coach likes Street, but Butler has top-end speed and could be the primary backup to Terrance Williams; same type of receiver. Whitehead can back up Cole Beasley, so the slot position should be good too.
Problem - the Boys do not have anyone to back up Dez Bryant if he goes down. Williams is a different type of receiver so he cannot. Street has not shown he can do it. So I believe the Boys will bring in a proven veteran receiver as insurance if Dez goes down again. Someone like Houston got with Nate Washington or Charlotte got with Jerricho Cotchery this year. A solid veteran that has proven they can get 4 or 5 grabs a game when called upon.
Number of Positions: 6
Players: D. Bryant, T. Williams, C. Beasley, L. Whitehead, B. Butler (or Street), TBA (Veteran Receiver)
Upgrade Needed: Backup to Dez
Optimal Scenario: Sign a solid, proven vet that can play behind Dez and also steal some snaps from Williams
Jason Witten and Gavin Escobar will be on the team.
I don’t think they kept Geoff Swaim on the team all year to then cut him (I think he is Witten’s replacement in two years). So he should be on the roster too.
But James Hanna is a free agent. While he is primarily a blocking back here, he does have talent and could be utilized more with other teams. Because of that, I think the Boys will have a hard time keeping him. I just do not think there will be enough cap space to match other contract offers.
This will be a big blow to the Boys. It is no coincidence that the Boys running game got better when Hanna got healthy. So if the Boys cannot bring him back, they at least need to replace him with a solid blocking TE.
Number of Positions: 4
Players: J. Witten, G. Escobar, G. Swaim, TBA (Blocking TE)
Upgrade Needed: No upgrade, just replacement
Optimal Scenario: Re-sign Hannah, but if not, then sign a veteran blocking TE at a veteran minimum salary.
Center & Guard
Well, Ronald Leary is gone. Wish they had traded him and gotten something in return, but I understand why the Boys didn’t trade him. As they say, hindsight is 20/20 and now knowing how the season would wind up, they should have.
The only scenario in which I can envision keeping Leary is if La’el Collins moves out to tackle. That would move Doug Free to swing tackle and allow the Boys to sign Leary to play guard.
If Collins is a better tackle than Free then this is the perfect scenario. I would love to see the Boys experiment with Collins at tackle in the last two games of the year, now that they know they are eliminated in the playoffs. It should give them a couple of games against quality D-lines to determine if Collins has a future at right tackle.
It may be the best thing for the line in the long run because Leary brings a little nasty with him and gives the Boys an attitude. Collins is more athletic than I thought so he might be an upgrade at tackle. This also allows time for Chaz Green to season and get stronger.
But assuming the probable that Leary is gone, then what? You have your starters in Collins, Zack Martin, and Travis Frederick, but you lose two reliable backups Leary and MacKenzy Bernadeau. So this is clearly a position of need. Drafting a rookie too early doesn’t make sense because of the future investments in the three starters. But there is the concern a later round pick will not be ready to be the primary backup. So I think the Boys will have to sign a veteran backup and draft a rookie with potential and develop him. This is with an eye of eventually - probably in 2017 - of moving Collins to tackle and having this pick replace him. So I could see them drafting a guard in their first five picks.
My guess is that the Boys will try to bring back Bernadeau. He has more value to the Boys than most other teams. Bernadeau is proven, knows the offense, and can be center and guard. I would not be surprised to see the Boys offer him a three-year deal around 5 million.
Number of Positions: 5
Players: L. Collins, Z. Martin, T. Frederick, TBA (Free agent, possibly Bernadeau), TBA (probably a draft pick)
Upgrade Needed: No upgrade needed, just replacement of backups
Optimal Scenario: Re-sign Bernadeau for three years and draft a solid backup within first five rounds
Assuming the probable happens and Leary is gone and Collins is at guard then we have starters with Free and Tyron Smith. But like the guard position, we are pretty thin on backups. We have Green, but honestly I am not convinced he is the answer yet. He did not look good in camp before his injury. Not sure I am willing to bet on him being the primary swing backup just yet. So that means we need a veteran swing tackle. Charles Brown is a free agent and might be worth signing for a 1mil contract as insurance. But honestly, unless Brown has looked really good, if I am the Boys I would try to upgrade the position. Free is an okay right tackle, but he makes a great backup swing tackle. So if I am the Boys this is one starting position I would try to upgrade. By signing a starter, both the backup and starting position is better for two or three years.
Number of Positions: 4
Players: D. Free, T. Smith, C. Green, TBA (Proven free agent)
Upgrade Needed: Right Tackle
Optimal Scenario: Either sign Leary and move Collins to tackle or sign a free agent starting right tackle and have Free be the swing tackle until Green is ready (probably two years)
In summary, the Boys do not have a lot of need for starters in the offense. They need a starting running back and possibly a starting tackle. They look good from a starting perspective. However, they do have some critical backup positions that they need to address. In addition to the two starting positions mentioned, the Boys will need to address the backup QB, 3rd guard, swing tackle, 3rd receiver, blocking TE and developmental 4th guard.
Check back tomorrow for Part 2 of this series. I’ll put the defense into perspective with some looks at the key needs on that unit. I’ll wrap up this series with Part 3 this Thursday.
5 Points: Analyzing the 2018 Dallas Cowboys Schedule
Every year around this time, sports fans everywhere are reminded of just how dominant the National Football League is. The NFL schedule release is literally just the sharing of a calendar that has little meaning until after next week's NFL Draft, but still dominates headlines both before and after the event.
If the Dallas Cowboys are going to return to the playoffs in 2018, we now know the path they will take -- beginning on September 9th in Carolina against the Panthers.
Here are five of my initial thoughts on this team's schedule.
1. "Early" Bye Week Still Later Than Recent Seasons
The Cowboys' bye week falls in week eight this season, which is certainly nothing new. This team is used to having their bye earlier in the season, but week eight is actually the latest it's been over the last three seasons.
In Dak Prescott's rookie season, the Cowboys rolled to six straight wins following their bye week - all part of a longer 11 game win streak. In 2017, the Cowboys played their final three games with Ezekiel Elliott after the bye, improving to 5-3 and inspiring hope for a salvageable season before further injuries piled up.
This season, the Cowboys will come out of their bye week to host Monday Night Football at AT&T Stadium against the Tennessee Titans.
2. AFC South to Play A Huge Factor
Speaking of the Titans, it is the NFC East's year to face off against the AFC South. This has been an unpredictable division as of late, with the Jacksonville Jaguars emerging as early favorites following their improbable run to the AFC Championship Game.
Unlike the NFC East, the AFC South has been decided by who maintains stability at quarterback. The Colts are hoping to contend with Andrew Luck back on the field in 2018, as are the Texans with second-year QB Deshaun Watson.
The Titans overhauled their coaching staff in hopes of progressing QB Marcus Mariota further to make a run at the playoffs once again.
For the Cowboys, their meetings with the AFC South will carry extra weight - as all but one of them precedes a divisional game in some sense. Following back to back games at the Texans and home against the Jaguars, the Cowboys will visit the Redskins in week seven.
The first shot Dallas will get at the defending Super Bowl champions will be November 11th in Philadelphia, two weeks removed from their bye after facing the Titans.
Coming out of two games in 12 days through weeks 12 (Thanksgiving) and 13, the Cowboys will have little chance to come up for air against the Eagles in week 14. Their chance to regroup may come the following week, with a favorable December road game in Indianapolis against the Colts.
3. Revenge Against the Falcons
The Cowboys' week 10 game a year ago in Atlanta is truly where the 2017 season was lost. Playing without Ezekiel Elliott, the Cowboys looked lost on offense thanks to the added absence of All-Pro Left Tackle Tyron Smith.
The Cowboys' fight to carry on at 5-4 was buried into the Falcons' new turf, as was Dak Prescott that afternoon, sacked eight times.
Only a week removed on the calendar from meeting the Falcons on the same date, the Cowboys will again play at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in week 11 this season. The chance for revenge against the Falcons will also mark the only pair of consecutive road games this 2018 Dallas Cowboys team will play.
4. Running Through December
The national media may not want you to know that the Cowboys are a combined 6-2 in December over the last two seasons, as this team's fabled late season collapses remain a topic of conversation.
This point also stands as a great example of why breaking down team schedules in April is often a pointless exercise, but not obsessing over every twist and turn of the NFL as a yearly hobby is no fun. According to me.
It is no secret that the Cowboys will be relying heavily on Ezekiel Elliott in 2018, expecting their star running back to suit up for 16 games and carry the offense. If you believe that Prescott and Elliott paired together full-time again is enough reason for optimism about the Cowboys, their December schedule becomes even more favorable.
Aside from playing three of the four games indoors and away from the elements, the Cowboys will face three of the worst rushing defenses in yards per game allowed from last season in December. With the Eagles being the glaring exception (leading the league in this category), the Cowboys should have their way on the ground with the Colts, Buccaneers, and Giants over their final three games.
5. Thanksgiving Tradition
For the second time in three seasons, the Dallas Cowboys will host the Washington Redskins on Thanksgiving. The Cowboys were victorious on Thanksgiving in 2016 over the Redskins, 31-26.
The Cowboys have only lost to the Redskins once on Thanksgiving, facing them a total of eight times and dropping a 2012 bout with Washington 38-31 (Robert Griffin III's rookie season with the Redskins).
Riding a four game winning streak against the Redskins, the Cowboys get to face an Alex Smith led Washington team on Thanksgiving to wrap up their first series against the NFC East. Following week 12, the Cowboys will still have meetings with the Eagles and New York Giants.
Some may look at this year's division as a two-team race, but counting absolutely any team out of an NFC East race is foolish - even more so in April.
✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭
By this time next week, the Dallas Cowboys have a chance to look entirely different - adding as many as ten players at the 2018 NFL Draft. Only then will we have a better feel for how they stack up against this 2018 schedule.
Stay posted right here to Inside The Star for draft coverage live from Dallas, as I will be at AT&T Stadium for all seven rounds of picks alongside Slant Sports Draft Analyst Nick Flaherty.
Cowboys TE James Hanna Retiring
In an unexpected bit of pre-draft news, Dallas Cowboys backup tight end James Hanna will be retiring after six seasons. He was drafted by the Cowboys in sixth round of the 2012 NFL Draft.
The news of Hanna's retirement was first reported by ESPN's Todd Archer:
The Cowboys will place James Hanna on the reserve/retired list as the tight end could not get over a serious knee condition that troubled him for most of the last two seasons, according to sources. Hanna was not involved in the early part of the team's... https://t.co/45BAZ2avSC
Hanna, who turns 29 in July, missed all of 2016 with that knee issue and has had two surgeries. He was active for all 16 games last season but wasn't used much on offense, only having four catches. James did catch his first and only NFL touchdown in the team's Week 4 loss to the Los Angeles Rams.
Many thought Hanna would be a salary cap casualty this offseason, but a retirement has the same effect on the cap. The Cowboys now save $2.75 million off his scheduled $3.5 mullion cap hit in 2018.
James Hanna has stuck around this long thanks to being a proficient blocker and one of the standout players on special teams. Geoff Swaim, entering the final year of his rookie deal, will likely be trusted to fill those roles.
That said, tight end was already a targeted position for the Cowboys in next week's draft. Losing Hanna only give the team more incentive to add more talent.
Optimistic Reports Emerge Around Randy Gregory
Good news are coming to Dallas just in time. Less than a week from now, the NFL Draft will be held in the Cowboys' home, the AT&T Stadium. But the team may count with a defensive talent many in Cowboys Nation have tried to forget for a while now. Randy Gregory's comeback may just happen.
There's a lot of positions in the roster that need more help than the defensive end one, but after finding the "War Daddy" Jerry Jones has always wanted in DeMarcus Lawrence, finding a RDE this offseason would be a dream scenario.
Sure, there's a lot of young talent in this football team and they'll be coming off a season that put a chip on their shoulders. Even so, they'll need all the help they can get.
Fortunately for the Cowboys, some help could come in form of a very talented pass rusher. Randy Gregory is reportedly applying for reinstatement very soon and according to Mike Fisher and Bobby Belt, there are positive reports around the situation.
Randy Gregory update: I'm told there is real momentum building. He is expected to apply for reinstatement in the week or two following next week's NFL Draft.
Cowboys Nation last saw the second round pick back in 2016, but his potential shouldn't be forgotten. Of course, the Cowboys shouldn't be considering Gregory for their 2018 plans, simply because there's risk of him not being available.
Even still, Dallas may get lucky at defensive end. After DeMarcus Lawrence has a breakout season in 2017, imagine the defensive line with Randy Gregory reinstated and rehabilitated to exploit his talent in the NFL.
UPDATE: We're told Randy Gregory camp is ready to present to NFL the fact the #Cowboys DE has passed a large number of drug tests, hasn't failed one since July 2016. https://t.co/Hjgu2CqRtC
Despite some TMZ "reports", it looks like Gregory has been clean for a while. It sure should make Cowboys' fans happy and not only form a football perspective. A comeback would definitely be something amazing. He has a chance to write a unique story for himself.
Everyone likes second-chance stories. Gregory is a guy who had his share of problems. By coming back to the NFL, he's showing players and fans that change is possible. This wouldn't just be epic for Dallas Cowboys fans but NFL fans in general.
If Dallas is fortunate enough to see Gregory reinstated by the NFL, their fight in the trenches might see a big upgrade next season. Randy still has a lot to work on and he might not even be a starter right away, but the potential is right there.
The Cowboys could become a team capable of dominating the line of scrimmage both on offense and on defense.
Hopefully, Gregory is able to come back and shine as a professional player. He, and NFL fans deserve a story like that.
Want to help make Inside The Star better?
We’re collecting feedback from our readers about the site. It only takes <2 minutes to complete, and can be done from any device.
Don’t worry, your information will not be shared with anyone but me (Bryson T.).
Star Blog3 days ago
Kris Richard Taking Over For Rod Marinelli Earlier Than Expected?
Star Blog7 days ago
Making Sense of the “Garrett Guys” Behind Cowboys Dez Bryant Release
Star Blog2 weeks ago
3 Cowboys Players Who Will Have a “Breakout” 2018 Season
Star Blog2 weeks ago
Cowboys Building a DL That Could Potentially Be Special
NFL Draft2 days ago
John’s 7 Round Cowboys Mock Draft, with Trades
Star Blog6 days ago
What Dez Bryant’s Departure Could Mean For La’el Collins
Star Blog7 days ago
Cowboys Aren’t Better Without Dez, But They Can Be
NFL Draft1 week ago
John’s 7-Round Cowboys Mock Draft