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If you are reading this today then you did it. You survived the 2015 Dallas Cowboys season. Pat yourself on the back and take a deep breath because 2016 is looking a lot brighter. In order to think about next season, the coaching staff must decide who they will keep and who they will lose via free agency.
Take a look at my prediction on who will and who will not be wearing that star on their helmet next season.
*RFA (Restricted Free agent)
Players The Cowboys Will Keep for 2016
Yes, I know he has nearly missed 40% of games with the Dallas Cowboys in 4 years, but he has improved. This season something about him made me go, "I like what Morris Claiborne brings to this secondary". He wants to win and I love the competitive edge he brings to the table. Plus this secondary needs help and if he stays healthy, he is a good option. (Way better than Carr) Plus he wants to come back.
Cowboys do not RELEASE The Kraken. In those terms I strictly mean keep Greg Hardy because Hardy wants to come back. He had this to say, "I would love to stay here". He can be the difference in the pass rush as you saw in the video above. Hardy had 6 sacks & 1 interception on the 2015 season. Hardy struggled in the last month of the season, but with more to prove in 2016, I expect him to be hungry.
Rolando McClain is a very good middle linebacker when he is interested. What do I mean? If you watched the games, you saw either a motivated or a lazy McClain. When next to Sean Lee he played some great football at times. Best play I saw all season was the pick six he had against the Dolphins, which happened to be Romo's return from injury. So as long as you are playing good football, so is he. Re-sign the run stopping, good in coverage linebacker to a one-year deal and reevaluate it at the end of 2016. Hopefully, he wants to return.
Lance Dunbar/Robert Turbin
Lance Dunbar was on pace for his best season yet after becoming a reliable target out of the backfield from Tony Romo. Once Lance tore his ACL, well that was it for the speedster. Dunbar has ways to change the game and really push this team. If you remember week one when Romo threw the game winning Touchdown to Jason Witten, on that final drive Dunbar was a machine in picking up yards. I believe Romo will fight for him to return if needed.
Robert Turbin didn't play much, but when he did, he played tough. Why not re-sign him to be a backup to McFadden & Dunbar or if you draft a RB, make Turbin the inactive 4th string and have him be ready to go when needed. I believe Turbin returns on a cheap one or two-year deal.
Also staying: James Hanna, Jack Crawford, Jeff Heath, Tyler Clutts, & Ron Leary.
"It's Going, Going, Gone!"
Great leader, but he is 32. Does not play as much as he did last season. Went from having 6 sacks to 0. The defensive line is getting better and Mincey just continues to get worse. Pretty simple, sorry but goodbye Jeremy Mincey.
When Brandon Weeden wasn't getting the job done in the wake of Tony Romo's injury, we all thought Matt Cassel was a way better option. We (including me) were all wrong. Cassel won one game as a Dallas Cowboys starter and lost the rest. Cassel is old and didn't impress...anyone. Goodbye & thanks for trying.
Off his rookie contract and he has yet to impress. He is a backup and I understand that, but we continue to always draft linebackers anyway so why keep him? 25 total tackles all season and plus, I like Damien Wilson. Goodbye and good luck.
Danny McCray was brought back to Dallas in hopes of helping the play on special teams. The problem was he didn't help at all, Danny McCray had only 3 combined tackles this season and he was outplayed by Jeff Heath, who seemed to always make special teams plays and be a valuable player on defense. With that being said, Heath will be signed back over McCray because you can honestly find a rookie to play special teams and for a cheaper cost.
Also leaving: Mackenzy Bernadeau, Charles Brown, Casey Walker, Josh Thomas, & Rodney Smith.
Cowboys 2018 Breakout Candidates: TE Geoff Swaim
For the 2018 Dallas Cowboys, the retirement of Tight End Jason Witten was one of the biggest developments of the offseason. It leaves a gaping hole in their offense, and no major free agent or high draft pick was added as a clear replacement. As such, fourth-year veteran Geoff Swaim may be in line for a breakout season.
A seventh-round pick in 2015, Swaim has stuck in Dallas with strong run-blocking and special teams play. His offensive production has been limited to just nine catches and 94 yards, thanks largely to the stranglehold that Witten kept on the TE position. Geoff has only been targeted 11 times in the passing game over three seasons.
But with Witten leaving, as well as veteran backup James Hanna, Swaim is now the elder statesman of the TE group. Even his limited playing time in the NFL thus far puts him way ahead of Rico Gathers, Blake Jarwin, or rookie Dalton Schultz.
Based on reports from the offseason practices and camps, Geoff is getting the first crack at becoming the new starter. It makes sense given his experience edge, but also his proficiency as a run blocker.
The Cowboys will likely lean on Ezekiel Elliott heavily this year, particularly early in the season. The passing game will need time to find itself with Witten and Dez Bryant gone. They'll want to ease Dak Prescott into heavier workloads as he and his new receiving options get acclimated.
Geoff Swaim will be one of those new options. And even though his reputation is for blocking, don't take that to mean he's not athletic.
We've seen Swaim on the move as a blocker and also in the passing game, and he's certainly got some wheels. That could make him a deceptive weapon on play-action and other passing plays out of running formations.
In some ways, losing Witten and Bryant makes the Cowboys' offense less predictable than in the past. Defenses will be less sure who to focus on, and that also creates opportunities for the new receivers.
Obviously, Swaim's breakout potential is dependent on Prescott looking his way. But unless Dak has undergone a major change in his playing style, a TE working in the short and middle parts of the field is someone he'll rely on plenty.
With training camp and preseason still to come, calling Geoff the starter right now is just an assumption. There is still time for one of the other prospects to impress and climb the ladder.
But right now, there's clearly no better candidate to claim the spot than Swaim. He has the most critical skill as a blocker, and his potential in the passing game is underrated. It's his job to lose.
The guy with only nine career catches could get that in a single game this year. Therefore, Geoff Swaim is clearly one of the major breakout candidates for the 2018 Cowboys.
Cowboys 2018 Breakout Candidates: LB Jaylon Smith
No single player on the Dallas Cowboys roster right now may be more primed for a breakout season than Linebacker Jaylon Smith. His ascension as a player isn't just a big gain for the Cowboys defense, but it may be vital to their success in 2018.
Smith joined the Cowboys as a high second-round pick (34th overall) in the 2016 NFL Draft. Potentially a top-five elite talent in that class, Jaylon's stock fell after a severe knee injury in his final college game. It was unknown if he could ever play football again, but Dallas took the risk based on Smith's incredible upside.
After Jaylon sat out his rookie year to fully rehab. In 2017, he was able to play all 16 games and started in six. That alone was a huge win for Smith and the Cowboys.
Jaylon's performance last year wasn't great, but understandably so after all the missed time. He also had to regain confidence in his knee, which is critical for a linebacker with all of the directional changes during plays.
Still, Smith got better as the season went. And even amidst the struggles, there were flashes of his instincts and potential.
This offseason, reports of Jaylon's improving health are fueling increased optimism. He is now playing without a knee brace and that means more confidence. If Smith fully trusts his body now, it will make him far more dangerous on the field.
With Anthony Hitchens leaving in free agency, Dallas needs Jaylon to be a bigger factor this year. If he doesn't take the next step, it could leave the Cowboys vulnerable at linebacker in 2018.
True, Dallas drafted Leighton Vander Esch in the first round of last April's draft. But it's always dangerous to ask a rookie to do heavy lifting, and especially one who is seen as a raw talent like Vander Esch.
Ideally, anything Dallas gets from Leighton this year will be gravy. Their goal is to rely on veteran Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith, with Damien Wilson also available as a solid fallback option.
But when you mention Sean Lee, you have to mention health concerns. After two encouragingly healthy seasons in 2015 and 2016, Lee was back to having some issues last year and missed five games.
That is all the more reason why Dallas needs Jaylon to be ready for more this year. If Lee misses time again, Smith is the best suited to take over the roles that Sean leaves behind.
Thankfully, all signs point to big things for Jaylon Smith in 2018. His body appears healed and there's no questioning his work ethic and desire. If the mental aspect of football has also developed, he could be everything the Cowboys hoped when they drafted them.
Despite Late Push as Rookie, Will Taco Charlton Struggle to See Field in 2018?
It feels like ages ago that the Dallas Cowboys spent the 28th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft on Michigan Defensive End Taco Charlton. Perhaps this is a result of the constant distancing fans have made from this unpopular pick, or the corresponding moves the Cowboys have made at DE since drafting Charlton.
These moves include using the franchise tag on DeMarcus Lawrence after seeing him explode for 14.5 sacks, spending a fourth round pick this year on Kansas' Dorance Armstrong, and seeing Randy Gregory reinstated in time for training camp.
Across the entirety of the Cowboys roster, there will be plenty of "odd men out" that miss the cut down to 53 players. Defensive end remains one of the most cluttered spots on the current 90 man roster however.
Prior to establishing the depth the Cowboys now have up front on defense, they did Taco no favors by starting his career at right defensive end. While Gregory may still be a long way from earning the starting role here, similarly styled players like Armstrong have the edge here over Charlton.
This relegates Charlton to the strong side, where he always projected best out of college. By the time the Cowboys realized this a season ago, they also knew a franchise pass rusher was playing his way into the team's long-term plans.
Lawrence's stellar consistency off the edge reduced Charlton's role in the Cowboys rotation of pass rushers. An ideal spot for the rookie to develop with less pressure on him, Charlton's opportunities to continue playing left end may only be reduced this season.
The first-round pick is capable of kicking inside at defensive tackle, a position the Cowboys could certainly use help at. However, asking Charlton to go through another position shift would only halt the progress that took quite a bit of patience from Dallas to see.
It's far from unheard of for the Cowboys to do this with their young players, but for now Charlton remains a defensive end looking to make his impact. The Cowboys are in much better position now than they were at this time a year ago when it comes to setting expectations for him to do so.
Given everything he showed on tape at Michigan as well as in his pre-draft interviews, Charlton is a player that needs to succeed at the task at hand. When this plan is altered, the 6'6" pass rusher is much less effective -- without even considering any athletic struggles that Charlton has compared to other prototypes at defensive end.
As a unit, the Cowboys defensive line has all the pieces to be very effective this season. Taco Charlton is a piece to this puzzle, a backup left end that must find a way to flourish in this role.
For most former 28th overall picks, doing so would be considered a fall from grace. For the Cowboys, it's simply an example of strong roster building that's forced life to come at Charlton quickly. How he responds with a full season under his belt will make or break the hype this deep Cowboys defensive line has garnered, lead of course by the starter at Charlton's position in DeMarcus Lawrence.
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