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.
Dallas Cowboys 2019 Offseason Preview: Linebacker
One of the brightest spots on the Dallas Cowboys' projected 2019 roster is linebacker. The young pair of Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch have already emerged as one of the league's best duos. But that doesn't mean that the Cowboys have no work to do at the position this offseason.
Having Jaylon and Leighton does take a lot of pressure off. Most teams utilize their nickel scheme more than any other these days, which generally utilizes just two linebackers, in the increasingly pass-focused NFL. And thankfully, both Smith and Vander Esch have shown great skills in pass defense.
But there's still a semi-starting role to get figured out in the base 4-3 scheme. Damien Wilson has held the strong-side or "SAM" position for the last few years and has an expiring contract.
What's more, Dallas has a big decision to make regarding the contract of Sean Lee, which is ripe for terminating with $7 million in salary cap savings possible.
It's highly unlikely that the Cowboys would keep both Lee and Wilson. If they decide to re-sign Damien, Lee will be cut to help fund that move and others. If Sean is kept on, Wilson will almost surely be looking for a starting role somewhere else in free agency.
Even if the Cowboys do make Lee a cap casualty between now and March 13th, they may still allow Wilson to test free agency and then try to re-sign him later at a discount. He's unlikely to attract the same attention that Anthony Hitchens got last year.
Another factor in all of this is Joe Thomas, a free agent addition last year who provided good depth and could potentially start in 2019. He is scheduled to count $2.2 million against the cap, which is fine for a primary reserve but a bargain for an occasional starter.
A core of Smith, Thomas, and Vander Esch gives the Cowboys a good foundation to build from. Smith can play the SAM in the base scheme and Thomas can be the primary backup to Jaylon and Leighton in the nickel.
However, going that route would deplete the depth chart. Chris Covington, a sixth-round pick last year, would be the only noteworthy player under contract. Dallas would need to find at least two more guys to fill out the group for 2019.
They could look at re-signing backup Justin March-Lillard, who would at least bring some familiarity and veteran experience. But that might still leave them looking for more of a primary reserve, which would be especially vital if Thomas is promoted to a starting role.
The projected LB free agent pool for 2019 should make it a buyer's market. Dallas may be able to re-sign Damien Wilson or even add an upgrade, like perhaps the Vikings' Anthony Barr, at a relative bargain. There should be ample options for depth as well.
Barring an extremely favorable value opportunity, don't expect the Cowboys to spend a significant draft pick at linebacker. The fourth-round is the earliest I could see one going based on other needs, and even then it would need to be someone they really like.
Good drafting is why Dallas has flexibility and leverage this offseason. The picks they invested in Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch appear to have made LB a strength of the team for the next several years.
There is still business to attend to, but the Cowboys won't have to be too concerned with linebacker in 2019 thanks to their young stars.
Xavier Woods Versatility Key in Dallas Cowboys FA Safety Pursuit
There has been a debate going on among Cowboys Nation for more than a year now about the prospects of bringing in Seattle Seahawks Safety Earl Thomas. Now with free agency approaching, there are several other names that the Dallas Cowboys could consider when looking to upgrade the safety position. Landon Collins, Tyrann Mathieu, and Tre Boston are several of the many quality and really good safeties that are hitting the free agent market in a few weeks. It's a group with varied skill sets and abilities, which makes the debate even more interesting. The Dallas Cowboys, however, will be able to take a look at all of them when free agency opens March 13th because of one player; Xavier Woods.
Xavier Woods, the Cowboys fifth round draft pick from the 2017 NFL Draft just finished his first full season as a starter for the Cowboys and played really well. In two years he's shown the ability to cover from the slot, play deep, play in the box, be a force over the middle, and make plays on the football. He's one of the more versatile players on the defense with his ability to play all over the field. That versatility allows the Dallas Cowboys' front office an advantage when approaching the names mentioned above.
The Dallas Cowboys don't have to be locked in to one particular type of safety. When people talk about Landon Collins, they label him a "box safety." Earl Thomas is a traditional free safety. Tre Boston is a similar player to Earl Thomas and Tyrann Mathieu is like Collins. The Cowboys can go into free agency with the freedom to explore their options and do their due diligence when it comes to these players.
That's a distinct difference from this offseason to last.
Last offseason, the feeling was that the Dallas Cowboys had to go get Earl Thomas. The safety position was so weak that the Cowboys were going to be playing at a disadvantage in the high-flying, pass-heavy NFL. Xavier Woods proved in his first full season that he can be a productive, play making starter in the NFL and should only continue to improve.
According to Pro Football Focus, Xavier Woods was sixth in the NFL in passer rating against among safeties with at least 352 coverage snaps. His 62.8 passer rating allowed in his coverage was tied with Eric Weddle, better than Derwin James, Reshad Jones, Adrian Amos, and Maliek Hooker. Of the safeties drafted in the 2017 draft class, only Eddie Jackson from the Chicago Bears had a better passer rating against than Xavier Woods.
The Dallas Cowboys got a really good player in Xavier Woods and as they get ready to potentially make a run at a big name safety, they can feel confident that whoever they end up signing will be a good fit with Woods. He can play in the box or cover receivers and tight ends. You can run more two deep safety looks, because he has the range to play it.
This year, as opposed to last, they have more certainty at the safety position because of Xavier Woods and the strides he took in 2018. There's no reason to believe that he can't continue to take a step forward for the Dallas Cowboys. His ability to play all over the field allows the Cowboys to be smart and patient in their pursuit of a safety upgrade this offseason.
3 Free Agent Targets From Cowboys NFC East Rivals
The free agency period in the NFL will be here in a little more than three weeks and the Dallas Cowboys will begin the annual tradition of trying to put together the best 53-man roster that they can come up with. Free agency is just one part of the equation that includes the draft, the signing of undrafted free agents, adding and subtracting from the roster during training camp, and picking up players after the final cut down day.
You can rest assured that Will McClay and the entire pro scouting department is doing their due diligence in anticipation of the March 13th start to the 2019 free agency period. They'll look high and low for players that can come in and be contributors for the Cowboys. Even within their own division.
Between the New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, and Washington Redskins, there are some interesting names to consider as the Cowboys peruse the free agent aisles of the NFL superstore. Some of those players like Landon Collins, Ronald Darby, Nick Foles, and Brandon Graham will be new releases that will cost you a pretty penny at the check out stand. Others like Haloti Ngata will be in the used and refurbished section. And then there are those who could be had at a reasonable or discounted rate.
Here are three from within the NFC East that the Cowboys could have their eye on.
Mario Edwards, Defensive Line, New York Giants
The former Oakland Raiders second round pick out of Florida State University has already played for two teams in his young four-year career. That isn't a good sign for Mario Edwards as he approaches free agency for the first time. You don't generally see many top 100 picks get released from the team that originally drafted as they usually wait as long as they can to see if the player is going to hit.
For Mario Edwards, he found himself caught in a numbers game and outplayed by two rookies in Oakland's training camp in 2018, leading to his release. It also sounds like the Raiders couldn't quite figure out where to put him on their defensive line.
We know that the Dallas Cowboys love looking around the league for those reclamation projects. Edwards could be the next David Irving or Antwaun Woods. A player that isn't highly thought of, but in the right situation and with the right coaching could flourish.
Edwards has played 14 or more games in three of his first four seasons, missing his second season with a hip injury. He totaled more than two sacks a season in those three seasons. He isn't by any stretch of the imagination someone who is going to come in and replace DeMarcus Lawrence or Randy Gregory, but he could be a nice depth piece with potential to see significant snaps both at defensive end and 3-technique defensive tackle.
Edwards could be the next Rod Marinelli special.
Jordan Matthews, Wide Receiver, Philadelphia Eagles
The Dallas Cowboys could be in the market for a slot wide receiver this offseason if Cole Beasley is allowed to walk in free agency, which seems like a near certainty. There are several intriguing options on the roster in Allen Hurns and Cedric Wilson that could play in the slot some, or play on the outside allowing Amari Cooper to play in the slot. They could also look to the draft for Beasley's replacement as well. In the free agent pool, there are several interesting names, one of which is Jordan Matthews.
Jordan Matthews just finished his second stint in Philadelphia and while he didn't have huge production in Philly in 2018 -- 20 receptions on 28 targets for 300 yards and two touchdowns, he's a player with a track record in the NFL and could be a "big slot" option.
In Matthews first three seasons in the NFL, he averaged 75 receptions on 115 targets for 891 yards and 6.3 touchdowns in his first stint with the Philadelphia Eagles. In 2014, Matthews caught 64 of his 67 receptions from the slot, which was second in the NFL that season. In 2015, he led the NFL in receptions from the slot with 81, while also scoring eight touchdowns. In 2016, his final year with the Eagles, he was ninth in the NFL with 53 receptions. So, in those first three seasons in the league, he averaged 67 receptions, 796.3 yards, and six touchdowns. He caught eight touchdowns in each of his first two seasons for the Eagles in the slot.
He's not the same player that Cole Beasley is, but he's a player that knows how to win in the slot and because of the past couple of years could be a cheaper option to try and replace Cole's production.
Jamison Crowder, Wide Receiver, Washington Redskins
If Jordan Matthews is the inexpensive option for the Dallas Cowboys in the slot, Jamison Crowder would require paying a pretty penny. Spotrac.com estimates that Crowder could be worth $8 million per year over four years on the open market.
Interestingly enough, he's never been as productive as Cole Beasley or Jordan Matthews, but because of his age and his work the last couple of seasons, injuries not withstanding, he's seen in a more positive light than Matthews.
Crowder is cut from a similar cloth as Beasley. Smaller in stature and uses quickness and speed to win games. As Cowboys fans, we know all to well the effect that he has in game. Crowder, however, has never had more than 66 receptions in a season and has only scored more than three touchdowns once in his four seasons in the NFL; back in 2016 when he scored seven.
Crowder is coming off of an injury this season that limited him to just nine games, 29 receptions for 388 yards and two touchdowns. In his three full seasons prior to 2018, Crowder averaged 64 receptions on 93 targets for 746 yards and four touchdowns.
If for some reason, his market comes in less than the $8 million per year that Spotrac.com is projecting, I'd be very interested in bringing Crowder to Dallas.
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Each of these guys offers something intriguing that the Dallas Cowboys could use. Whether it's a defensive lineman or a slot wide receiver, they all bring something to the table. The Dallas Cowboys need to approach this offseason with a "go for it" mentality, but if they continue to follow their free agency philosophy, Mario Edwards and Jordan Matthews could be nice pieces to add to the team that offer a lot of upside.
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