At this point in the offseason, the Dallas Cowboys have mostly assembled their 2018 roster. A few moves could still come between now and Week One, but we have a pretty good idea now of who will be on the team this season. As such, it seems a good time to assess the strength of the team by each position.
For an added wrinkle, I went back and found a similar article written in 2016. At that time, the positions were ranked as follows:
- Special Teams
- Running Back
- Offensive Tackle
- Tight End
- Defensive Tackle
- Wide Receiver
- Defensive End
How much have things changed in the last two years? Where have the Cowboys built the team, and what's fallen behind in the process? Is the team stronger now than in 2016?
1. Running Back
Arguably the best RB in the NFL, Ezekiel Elliott alone keeps this group high on the list. But solid and intriguing depth behind him puts the RBs on top for 2018.
Rod Smith's exciting blend of power and athleticism pushed veteran Alfred Morris out of view last season. He returns as Zeke's primary backup, capable of big production and explosive plays. His five-catch, 118-yard receiving performance last season against the Giants showed what a versatile weapon he could be.
Dallas traded for veteran speedster Tavon Austin and are calling him a RB this year. How he is worked into the offense remains to be seen, but the Cowboys clearly have some ideas for this very specific type of player. He is far better version of what they once had in Lance Dunbar.
Rounding things out is draft steal Bo Scarbrough from Alabama, a bruiser whose old-school style fits the Cowboys offensive well. The lanes Dallas' offensive line can provide will allow Bo to get a head full of steam, and that is bad news for would-be tacklers.
But again, this all comes back to Elliott. The fury that Zeke should play with this year after last season's issues may be the Cowboys' most important element in 2018. If he's back to retake the RB throne, Elliott could carry Dallas to big things this season.
2. Guard & Center
Any positions where the Cowboys can arguably say they have the league's best player have to be near the top of the rankings. In Center Travis Frederick and Guard Zack Martin, Dallas can make that claim without much room for debate.
The question at left guard does create some room for concern. Ronald Leary's free agency departure left a hole that got band-aided with veteran Jonathan Cooper last year. He's now a 49er, and Dallas drafted Connor Williams out of Texas to assumably take over.
Williams will be converting from tackle, though, and is a rookie. Thankfully, if he can't make the transition right away, the Cowboys have a few solid backup options.
Whoever's at LG, he gets play between Frederick and Tyron Smith. As we've seen the last few years, that means you can get away with a lesser talent in the role and still have one of the league's top lines. The stability provided by guys like Frederick and Martin makes that possible.
3. Offensive Tackle
Tyron Smith says he's healthier than he's been in some time, and that's wonderful news for the Cowboys. Smith's health issues last year were one of the key reasons for Dallas' struggles.
Tyron's return to good health and All-Pro performance is vital. But along with that, Dallas hopes for La'el Collins to blossom as he finally gets to stay at a position and develop. A restored Smith and a developing Collins at the tackles could push the Cowboys' offensive line to new heights this year.
After the Chaz Green debacle last year, Dallas invested in its depth chart by signing veteran Cam Fleming to a $2.5 million backup deal. He will be your swing tackle and a vast improvement from Green, who isn't likely to be on the team much longer.
While not the current projection, it's possible that Connor Williams is preferred at tackle and gets Collins sent back to left guard. In either case, Fleming provides an excellent insurance policy against any instability in the starting lineup.
4. Special Teams
If Dan Bailey is healthy again and hasn't lost his confidence, the Cowboys special teams will be back to being one of its biggest strengths. But Bailey's 2017 struggles can't be forgotten until he proves he's back to form.
Bailey's groin injury last year cost him games and affected his play when active. By the end of the year, it was hard to say if Dan's problem was mental or physical. Either way, this is a crucial offseason for him to show he's back to being one of the most automatic kickers in NFL history.
Thankfully, there will be stability around him with Punter (and FG holder) Chris Jones and Long Snapper L.P. Laoduceur returning to their roles. Jones has emerged as one of the league's best punters in recent years, thanks largely to his directional kicking and ball placement ability. And Ladoceur remains perfect since joining the Cowboys in 2005.
With Ryan Switzer getting traded last month, Dallas has an opening in their return game. The safe bet is Tavon Austin, whose speed and experience in the role should give him an advantage. But prospect Lance Lenoir could also make a push, and Cole Beasley also has served as return man. This question mark should not be taken for granted given the premium all NFL coaches place on field position.
What a change from two years ago! Once a major liability, the CB group is looking like the strength of the defense in 2018.
That starts with the young corner duo of Jourdan Lewis and Chidobe Awuzie, who exceeded expectations as rookies and could be one of the league's better tandems this season. Their growth will be bolstered by the arrival of new Defensive Backs Coach Kris Richard, arguably one of the best in the game.
The depth is strong as well. Anthony Brown is in his third year and has been a tremendous value for a sixth-round pick. He has played a lot for his humble beginnings, and at worst will be an exceptional fourth CB on the depth chart.
I say “fourth” because the third spot is probably going to Byron Jones, who is moving back to corner after two years at safety. Jones could be a starter by the end of summer, but at worst he should be the third CB rotating in heavily and appearing often in the nickel scheme.
After years of worrying about injury-prone and aging player at CB, the Cowboys seem to finally have a crop of young, exciting talent with loads of upside.
6. Defensive End
Also making a big move up the rankings is DE, where DeMarcus Lawrence has emerged as one of the league's premiere pass rushers. While questions about his long-term future remain, Lawrence is secure for 2018 and should be terrorizing quarterbacks once again.
While Lawrence is better at this job than any of the cornerbacks, defensive end has more questions marks down the list. Taco Charlton had mixed reviews last year, mostly negative, but was improving as the season ended. He will need to make a big leap this season to change critics' minds.
Veteran Kony Ealy was signed to provide some insurance and should be solid depth, but he's failed to catch on with two teams now. Dallas has liked him for years, though, so Rod Marinelli must think he can get something out of Ealy that others haven't. He's been right about that before.
Randy Gregory's probably reinstatement is a major x-factor for the DE position. We can't say what kind of player he'll be at this point, but Gregory was a first-round talent who dropped due to personal issues just three years ago. He's still young and fresh, and hopefully won't be too far removed from the game to get back to work.
If Gregory doesn't pan out, Dallas will hope that fourth-round rookie Dorance Armstrong can be an immediate contributor. They are the two best candidates to provide the athletic pass rusher, able to take on the left tackles, that the Cowboys need so badly.
7. Defensive Tackle
Dallas has a potential stud in David Irving and two known entities in Tyrone Crawford and Maliek Collins. The depth is nice, but the problem is that they're all best suited to play the same spot in the line.
If the Cowboys had brought back Terrell McClain a few weeks ago, it might've pushed the DT group higher up the rankings. He was the ideal guy to play the 1-technique tackle, having done it very well for Dallas in 2016. But McClain went to Atlanta and left the Cowboys with the same hole.
Barring any other free agent moves, Dallas will be hoping for a young prospect like Richard Ash or Brian Price to develop into a larger role. Otherwise, they may have to ask Collins to play the spot again as he did last year. It's not where Maliek belongs, negating his athleticism and limiting his play-making potential.
Ultimately, if Irving becomes the consistent threat that we hope for, then the rest of it doesn't matter much. The combined effect of Irving and DeMarcus Lawrence as strong-side terrors would make the rest of the line, and the entire defense, better than it's been in some time.
Whether or not we get the 2016 or 2017 version of Dak Prescott may be the most important question the Cowboys face this year. But Dak isn't the only one responsible for his performance.
With Dez Bryant and Jason Witten gone, the Cowboys' receiving options will be drastically different. This could set Dak free, allowing him to trust his reads rather than feeling like he has to force the ball to one of the team's stars.
But without a proven player drawing attention, it may make it harder for the receivers to get open. That was some of what we saw last year, though it was compounded by the absence of Ezekiel Elliott and the running threat.
Prescott was unquestionably rattled at times last season, but he had some good reasons to be. Leaks in the offensive line and the loss of his dynamic RB put far more pressure on him than in 2016, and the results were clear. Ideally, 2018 will look more like his rookie season both in the quality of teammates and his own play.
Behind Dak are two intriguing but unproven passers in Cooper Rush and rookie Mike White. Both should be on the roster next year, and the competition for the backup role will be fun to watch. Rush looked a potential undrafted gem last year, so if White can push him it means good things for the QB depth.
Sean Lee turns 32 in July and saw the return of some injury issues last year. While he could still certainly be the All-Pro leader we've come to love, nothing is certain at this stage in his career.
Behind Lee are even more questions marks. Hopes are high for Jaylon Smith both how will he respond to a larger role, both physically and mentally? The hype from his “top five talent” rookie days hasn't gone away, which means lofty expectations that Jaylon will have to work hard to meet.
The first-round pick spent on Leighton Vander Esch came with a wide range of reaction. Like Taco Charlton last year, many denounced the pick and are just waiting to be proven right. Vander Esch should be given a lot of work right way, perhaps even a starting role, but it may take the full season to see what kind of player he really is.
Damien Wilson provides a nice veteran presence, either the third starter or a primary depth option. He can play a few spots and will hopefully give similar value to what Anthony Hitchens did in past seasons.
Things are a little thin behind these guys, which is a cause for concern. Any injuries could expose the lack of depth quickly, making linebacker one of the team's bigger liabilities this season.
10. Wide Receiver
As we said, Dez Bryant's gone and that alone leaves the position in a state of major change. Dallas brought in Allen Hurns to hopefully provide much of what Bryant did, but Hurns has never shown he can be the top receiver in an offense. His best years in Jacksonville came with Allen Robinson drawing the attention.
Hopefully, Dallas will have found some news ways to get Cole Beasley involved. The leading receiver in 2016, Beasley got keyed on by opposing defenses last year and it caused problems for Dak Prescott. We still need Cole to be known for his play, not his rapping, and it's on Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan to fix what wasn't working last year.
Terrance Williams was supposed to get a chance to step up this year, but his arrest last weekend for public intoxication could mean a suspension of worse. Williams does have value given his experience in the system, but Dallas may be done with him after disappointing play and now a personal conduct issue.
If Williams goes, veteran Deonte Thompson may get a larger role than originally anticipated. Like Bruce Butler the last few years, Thompson has speed that the other WRs don't. But unlike Butler, Deonte needs to make consistent plays on the opportunities he gets.
Third-round rookie Michael Gallup brings major intrigue, with some thinking he could be the team's best receiver by the end of the year. While not a gifted athlete by NFL standards, Gallup execute well and makes plays on technique and will. Those guys tend to do very well in the pros, and one of them is the most decorated receiver in NFL history.
So much remains unknown at WR, which isn't always a bad thing. Opposing defenses may need time to adjust to the new look Cowboys, which could be an advantage early on. But that means Scott Linehan will need to up his game from last year when the team was woefully predictable. Perhaps Bryant and Witten's departures will help in that area, though.
The young duo of Kavon Frazier and Xavier Woods is exciting, but still very unproven. With only a few years of combined experience, can they become major factors this season?
Jeff Heath is still around and could still be starting this year. Even if he does, one of Woods or Frazier should be his running mate and the other a regular part of the rotation.
One of our major talking points this offseason has been the Cowboys' potential trade for Earl Thomas, and that would obviously cause a big change in how we perceive safety as a whole. But until that happens, we have to count on who's actually here.
As we mentioned with the cornerbacks, a major factor here is the arrival of Kris Richard. Will the new coach be able to teach his young prospects the things that made guys like Thomas and Kam Chancellor household names in Seattle? Or will pedigree, with Woods and Frazier both being just sixth-round picks, limit their upside?
Dallas must believe enough in them to move Byron Jones back to CB, but belief doesn't win games. Only time will prove if the Cowboys's faith in their young safeties was wise.
12. Tight End
Jason Witten's retirement caught everyone off guard, and it left Dallas without a clear successor in place. As such, it drove the TE position from one of relative security to the bottom of our rankings.
Fourth-year veteran Geoff Swaim has the best shot at starting next year. He is an exceptional blocker with solid receiving skills, which works well in a run-focused offense like the Cowboys have. But Swaim only has nine catches in his career, so who really knows what he can do with consistent targets.
Rico Gathers is everyone's favorite project player, but the college basketballer has yet to appear in an NFL game. Only the coaches know his progress, and if his technical skills are anywhere close to what's needed to make his football transition a success.
Rookie Dalton Schultz could push for time early, and perhaps even a starting role if he's a quick learner. Schultz may have the most upside as a receiver but wasn't known for his blocking in college, which will be an issue in Dallas if he doesn't develop fast. That was why Gavin Escobar could never get into the mix.
The proposed to move to more of a spread offense will reduce some of the importance of the TE position, but it's still a major component. Dallas just lost one of the best to ever play, and even in his diminished state Witten was still reliable and a high volume target. Someone will have to make a gigantic leap to even come close to filling his shoes.