When the Dallas Cowboys start training camp in July, there will be various feelings of job security throughout the 90-man roster. Throughout the NFL, players know when they're already locked in to a position or role on a team or when they're fighting for survival.
Today, we're going to look at how secure the Cowboys' players should feel in 2018. This not only applies to if they make the final roster, but also their position as a starter or key roleplayer.
The offensive players were covered earlier this week. So naturally, today we're going to focus on the defense.
Tier 1 - The Untouchables
DE DeMarcus Lawrence, LB Sean Lee
Immediately, you will notice a sizable difference in the number of players on certain tiers between offense and defense. For example, the top tier on offense had six players and there are only these two on defense.
That is to be expected when one of side of the ball is under renovation and the other is more established, as is the case in Dallas. The investments made in the offensive line have already paid off and there are clear starters in place at quarterback and running back.
The Cowboys are still waiting to see if recent picks like Taco Charlton, Maliek Collins, or their two young corners eventually become clearly entrenched starters. As it stands, they have only have two guys who have clearly defined starting roles in 2018.
One of them is the franchise-tagged DeMarcus Lawrence, whose breakout 2017 season has made him one of the premiere pass rushers in the NFL. He will be back next year, and hopefully for many more to come, as the crown jewel of the Cowboys' emerging defensive line. He will get as many reps as he can physically handle.
The veteran leader of the defense, Linebacker Sean Lee, will also return to his starting role. As long as his body holds up, Lee will be a fixture on nearly all defensive schemes and packages. We could see more rotation with Jaylon Smith or Leighton Vander Esch as the team prepares for the future, but Sean will be a clear first-teamer throughout the year.
Tier 2 - Slightly Touchable
LB Jaylon Smith, CB Chidobe Awuzie, CB Jourdan Lewis
These young players should all have significant roles on the team, and almost certainly as starters. However, their youth does leave the slightest room for questioning.
Every report you hear about Jaylon Smith right now is glowing, both his play on the field and his medical progress. If it holds through August, he should be a starter and major factor right alongside Sean Lee this season.
Any kind of injury setback with that knee, though, and Dallas could easily get scared into limiting his reps. Damien Wilson is still here if the Cowboys start wanting to limit Smith's reps again.
As for the corners, Awuzie and Lewis are looking like one of the best young tandems in all of football. But with Byron Jones moving back to corner, Dallas may elect to have him as a starter and move one of the sophomores into a nickel role.
That said, in the modern NFL there are essentially three starting cornerbacks on defense. Teams utilize their nickel scheme more than any other these days. So no matter what, Chido and Jourdan will both be on the field a lot next year.
Tier 3 - On the Team, But Where?
DE Taco Charlton, DE Dorance Armstrong, DL Tyrone Crawford, DL David Irving, DT Maliek Collins, DT Jihad Ward, LB Leighton Vander Esch, LB Damien Wilson, CB Byron Jones, CB Anthony Brown, S Kavon Frazier, S Jeff Heath, S Xavier Woods
These next two tiers are heavy, and that speaks to the ongoing makeover of the defense. Of these two groups, anywhere from 6-9 players won't make the 2018 roster.
There are a lot of options on the defensive line right now, but Taco Charlton's first-round pick keeps him safe in just his second year. His positive play to close 2017, and good reports out of the spring camps, cement his being on the team next year. Rookie Dorance Armstrong, drafted in the fourth round last April, should also make it on draft stock alone.
Veteran Tyrone Crawford is back for probably his last season, and his ability to play end or tackle gives him value despite a bad contract. Maliek Collins also returns, hopefully getting healthy and back to his rookie form after a slump last year. Jihad Ward, a former second-round pick that Dallas traded for during the draft, should also make it.
David Irving is too good to cut but his recent struggles and absence from camps and OTAs put a question mark on him. How big a role will Irving get next year if the team loses confidence in him over the remainder of the offseason?
Battling for playing time at linebacker will be first-round rookie Leighton Vander Esch and veteran Damien Wilson. One will start in the base defense and one will be a key reserve, but that competition should be fun to watch.
Byron Jones and Anthony Brown could challenge for starting roles given their experience edge on Awuzie and Lewis, but at the least they will be talented depth. Yesterday, I considered the possibility of Brown being traded before Week One but odds are he will be on the squad next year.
At safety, there are three guys competing for two starting spots. Will veteran Jeff Heath be able to fight off the young prospects Kavon Frazier and Xavier Woods? No matter what, all three will be on next year's team. And that's even if a certain safety from Seattle gets added, too.
Tier 4 - Bubble Players
DE Kony Ealy, DE Randy Gregory, DE Charles Tapper, DL Datone Jones, DT Richard Ash, DT Lewis Neal, DT Brian Price, LB Chris Covington, LB Justin March-Lillard, LB Joe Thomas, CB Kam Kelly, CB Duke Thomas, CB Charvarius Ward, CB Marquez White, S Marqueston Huff
You might think of veteran Kony Ealy as a roster lock, but his minimal one-year deal means Dallas could go with younger players if they ultimately decided to. Ealy should make it on his experience and the upside Dallas still sees in him, but $200k is the only thing guaranteed for him right now.
If he gets reinstated, Randy Gregory's return to football will be one of the most interesting stories this year. He could be exactly what this team needs as an athletic edge rusher, or his absence from the game may be too much to overcome. The same goes for Charles Tapper, whose ongoing injuries have kept the fourth-round pick from securing a role on the team.
There are several interesting prospects for the remaining defensive line spots; more than Dallas can keep. Datone Jones was an emerging force last year and should make the team, but guys like Richard Ash and Brian Price are younger and still growing. Lewis Neal was a preseason darling last year but has a lot of competition at that 3-tech tackle spot.
Rookie Chris Covington was a sixth-round pick and we've seen those guys not make the team before. There is a lot of opportunity at linebacker, though, so hopefully he can find work against more experienced depth options. Justin March-Lillard and Joe Thomas may be competing for the sixth and final LB spot this year.
Who will round out the CB depth chart? Rookies Kam Kelly and Charvarius Ward are getting buzz now, but last year it was Duke Thomas and Marquez White drawing interest. With only one or two spots for these four talents, the competition will be strong.
If Dallas keeps four safeties this year, Marqueston Huff has a leg up with his experience. He has played in 41 professional games for other teams since being a fourth-round pick 2014. Given the youth of Frazier and Woods, Dallas may lean toward a veteran over the far younger prospects competing with Huff.
Tier 5 - Longshots
With so much talent already on the bubble, it's going to be hard for any dark horse player to break through this year. However, almost every season sees someone come from nowhere to make a roster. 2018 could be no different.
Some guys have experience, like Defensive Tackle Daniel Ross. He was in the CFL from 2015-2016 and then bounced around a few NFL teams last year. He got some playing time last year after being a late-season addition by the Cowboys, but has an uphill battle against younger prospects this offseason.
Many of you likely have your own rooting interest among the longshots. Perhaps they went to your college or you just got intrigued by something you saw or read. We wish them all the best, but predicting any of them to make the team this year would be a stretch.
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.
Dallas Cowboys2 weeks ago
Will Cowboys OT La’el Collins Be a 2019 Salary Cap Casualty?
Dallas Cowboys1 week ago
3 Free Agent Targets for the Dallas Cowboys Offense
Player News2 weeks ago
A Lot Had to Happen for Amari Cooper to Join the Cowboys
Dallas Cowboys2 weeks ago
2019 Player Watch: Cowboys Should Keep an eye on Kyle Rudolph’s Situation
Dallas Cowboys1 week ago
Will Cowboys S Jeff Heath Be a 2019 Salary Cap Casualty?
Dallas Cowboys2 weeks ago
Will Cowboys WR Terrance Williams Be a 2019 Salary Cap Casualty?
Dallas Cowboys2 weeks ago
5 Pre-draft Moves Cowboys Should Consider Making in Free Agency
Star Blog2 weeks ago
3 Uncertainties Surrounding The Cowboys Offseason