The Dallas Cowboys open training camp on July 24th, just a few weeks away. Inspired by the NFL’s recent Top 100 list, I thought it would be interesting to try rank just the Cowboys players against one another. This should also give us a sense of who will make up the majority of the 53-man roster after final cuts.
The players are ranked based on a variety of factors. Overall talent and performance, legacy with the franchise, and the importance of their position (e.g. left tackle vs. guard/center) were all considered. I also looked at their projected role in 2017.
We've finally reached the Top 10 of our list. You probably already know most of the names, but how do the top-tier Cowboys stack up against each other? Who, in this one writer's opinion, is the most important player on the roster?
10. Cole Beasley, WR
Leading the Cowboys in catches and receiving yards last year, Beasley has gone from a nifty slot receiver to one of the faces of the franchise. He was clearly Dak Prescott's favorite target in clutch moments, seemingly always able to get open and make the catch when the pressure's on.
The timing of Beasley's emergence is fortunate for Dallas as Jason Witten, the longtime security blanket in the offense, is nearing the end. For the next few years at least, Beasley should remain a major factor in the passing game. Even if Dez Bryant is fully healthy in 2017, Beasley could still lead the team in catches as teams focus on Dez and leave him room to wreak havoc underneath.
For however long he remains a Cowboy, Beasley will be one of the fans' favorite players. He plays bigger and tougher than he looks. Cole's social media game is also one of the strongest on the roster. He makes it look fun while being a highly effective player; the ultimate combination for sports entertainment.
9. Jason Witten, TE
It feels weird having Witten outside of the Top Five, but that's what happens after 14 seasons. In what may very well be his last ride with the Cowboys, Jason enters 2017 still a figurehead and leader but not quite the same receiving threat as in his prime.
As we just discussed, Cole Beasley showed more chemistry with Dak Prescott last year. They connected in those crucial moments when we're so used to seeing Tony Romo find Witten. This isn't a bad thing; a Prescott-Beasley relationship has more shelf life than any rapport he'd build with Witten at this point.
That said, Jason's impeccable route-running still allows him to get open despite declining athleticism. He had 69 catches last year and still provides security at the tight end position, much-needed in 2017 with a shaky depth chart behind him. All Cowboys fans hope that, if this is Witten's last season, he goes with a championship bang.
8. Dez Bryant, WR
It's been three years since Bryant was putting up double-digit touchdowns and 1,000-yard seasons, but he still commands plenty of respect. Still just 28, Bryant is capable of putting up those franchise WR numbers again if he can stay healthy. A second year with Dak Prescott will also do wonders for his potential production.
Bryant's impact can't just be measured in stats. He attracts a lot of attention and opens things up for others, especially Cole Beasley working underneath. If Dez can have a strong start to 2017, that effect will be magnified and help Beasley, Jason Witten, Terrance Williams and others to enjoy success.
Along with the on-field impact, Dez is one of the emotional leaders of the team. He is now one of the veterans on a suddenly young Cowboys offense. His passion and energy are never lacking, and hopefully his health and performance will match in 2017. Bryant can play a major role in helping the Cowboys achieve their championship goals.
7. Dan Bailey, K
Did I just put a kicker above Dez, Witten, and Beasley?
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Bailey isn't just one of the two best kickers in the NFL today, but he may be one of the two best in NFL history. Games can be won and lost off the foot of a kicker, so having one who is as money as Bailey is crucial for a team trying to build a lasting legacy. Just ask Patriots fans how they feel about Adam Vinatieri and Stephen Gostkowski.
Or, go ask Bills fans how they feel about Scott Norwood.
The Cowboys felt so good about Bailey after his first three seasons that they signed him to a seven-year contract in 2014. This may seem excessive for any kicker, given how suddenly they have been known to drop off, but Bailey is as icy and consistent as they come. Still just 29-years-old, he should remain a fixture in Dallas for many seasons to come.
6. Ezekiel Elliott, RB
I won't fight anyone who says that Le'Veon Bell or David Johnson are better pure talents than Elliott. They're both outstanding players. But like we saw all those years with Emmitt Smith, the combination of great talent and ideal circumstances are what make the NFL's top rushing attack
Zeke not only brings the great production but his personality is infectious. His hop into the Salvation Army kettle bell last year was applauded nationally, with even ardent Cowboys haters calling for the league to withhold the usual petty fine. Elliott's entire persona, from his flashy running style to his big smile, have him on pace to be the biggest star in Dallas.
With recent front office comments that Elliott's workload should increase in 2017, there is potential for Zeke to break some major NFL records. His 1,631 yards last year made for the fifth-best season in Cowboys history, 214 yards shy of DeMarco Murray's record. Few would be surprised if Elliott gets on top of the franchise record books, but I hope we'll be looking at those league-wide records come December.
5. Dak Prescott, QB
It's tough to pick between Dak and Zeke. In fact, I was one who thought they should have been Co-Rookies of the Year. I put Prescott over Elliott here because of the superior responsibility of the QB position and the leadership role Dak has both on the field and off.
There is seemingly no end to the ways to praise what Prescott did last year. He was arguably the greatest rookie QB in league history. When you factor in that he didn't even get the job until about two weeks before the season started, it's an astounding accomplishment that will go down in the annals of Cowboys lore.
Understandably, some fear the "sophomore slump" for Dak's second season. But if you look back at the history of the truly great quarterbacks, they didn't have that issue. They generally built on the previous year. Prescott's efficiency numbers may take a hit if he starts to get more aggressive, but the things we last year were far more than just a bus driver. This is a precise, confident QB whose approach to the game should only lead to further growth.
4. Sean Lee, LB
The unquestioned leader of the defense, Lee is the only elite talent Dallas has on that side of the ball since DeMarcus Ware. His intelligence and consistency have earned him overdue Pro Bowl trips the last two years and now we just hope some of his teammates will start to get up to his level.
The most important stat for Sean is that he's played in 29 of the team's 32 regular season games the last two years. After so much missed time in the years before, including all of 2014, he appears to have finally put the injury bug behind him and is able to keep bringing his great talent to the field.
Even with all that missed time, Lee never had a season without at least one interception. Last year was the first that he didn't record a turnover, but it's safe to assume that was a fluke. The prospect of Lee joining forces with Jaylon Smith should have you salivating; they could easily form the best LB duo in the league.
3. Zack Martin, G
Many bemoaned the drafting Martin in 2014, looking at the picks already spent on Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick and feeling Dallas already had a strong offensive line. After three seasons, Zack is arguably the best guard in football and nobody seems to have any regrets.
Much like his first-round buddies, Martin is about to get a sizable long-term contract that will keep him as a foundation piece in the Cowboys offense. Mixing power with athleticism, there is no perceivable weak point to his game. Turning 27 in November, Zack is going to be elite for many years to come.
Trying to decide between Martin, Frederick, and Smith is really splitting hairs. They are each elite players at their position. I ultimately had to go by the responsibilities and potential risk at the three positions, and guard comes up short compared to center and left tackle. Zack still make a tremendous impact because of how good he is, but he'd also be the easiest to replace.
2. Travis Frederick, C
The act of the initial snap is easy to take for granted, but we've seen how disastrous it is when something goes wrong. That alone gives Frederick the slight edge on Martin; a critical component to every single offensive play.
Like the elite guard to his right, Frederick is both a mauler in the trenches and an athletic blocker in space. Their versatility allows the Dallas rushing attack to be equally open in its approach, focusing more on the weak points of the defense. They both also keep any interior pressure at bay, leaving pockets clean for the quarterback to make his throws.
The play of these two, along with Tyron Smith, is a huge part in the success that Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott had as rookies. The confidence they give to their young teammates is invaluable, and Frederick plays such a huge part in that in his relationship and connection with Prescott.
1. Tyron Smith, OT
The league's top defensive ends get paid a lot of money to go get the quarterback. Naturally, the league's left tackles get equally compensated to stop them. The team's highest-paid player after Dez Bryant, Tyron earns his money by taking on the league's best pass rushers and consistently shutting them down.
Of course, Tyron can't win them all. The problem with the tackle position is that a single bad play can have a major negative impact, be it with a sack, turnover, or even a holding penalty. The drive-killers put tackles under considerable scrutiny, which Doug Free certainly experienced his many years in Dallas.
Despite this microscope, we rarely hear Tyron Smith's name in a negative light. We're shocked when he is on the bad end of a play, which is a sign of just how good he is. As elite as they come and with the QB's blind side to guard, Tyron gets the top spot over his fellow offensive linemen and the Cowboys roster as a whole.
#WASvsDAL: Why This Game Holds Increased Importance
It feels incredibly cliche to call the week 7 match-up between the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins a "must win." Especially for someone like me who values statistics, logic, and analytics in sports.
But when the analytics agree with the narratives, those narratives do tend to get my attention. And this week that would appear to be the case.
According to Brian Burke of ESPN, the Cowboys's week 7 game has the highest playoff probability leverage in the entire NFC, and is second to only the Houston Texans' big game with Jacksonville around the entire league.
Playoff leverage for week 7. DAL, WAS, PHI, CAR, MIN, CHI with a lot on the line in the NFC. HOU, CIN, and JAX in the AFC.
What does this mean? Well playoff probability leverage is pretty intuitive. Basically it is the difference between a win this week and a loss this week in terms of probability to make the playoffs.
For the Cowboys that number is at 27%, with a win over Washington catapulting their playoff probability over 50%. On the other hand, a loss would take a big hit to their playoff hopes just 7 games into the NFL season.
As you might expect, this game means a lot to the Redskins' playoff probability as well. Their playoff leverage this week is at 14%, but a win would mean "more" to Dallas than Washington based on the probabilities.
Fellow NFC East foe, the Philadelphia Eagles, also have a lot to gain/lose this Sunday, with their leverage sitting at 22%. According to Burke's model, the Eagles and Cowboys have the best chances of making the playoffs at this point, but if each team wins Sunday the Eagles will still have a higher percentage.
Of course a lot can and will change week to week, despite what the metrics say. The Cowboys still have two games remaining with the NFC East favorite Eagles this year, and will get another crack at Washington at home later in the season. Plus the Cowboys have a few NFC wild card and playoff contenders remaining on their schedule, such as the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons. (Yes, the 2-4 Falcons are very much alive in this crazy conference).
Still, the difference between 4-3 (2-0 in the division) and 3-4 (1-1 in the division) is huge, as is shown by Brian Burke's playoff probability leverage metric.
Cowboys WR Tavon Austin Skipping Surgery, May Return in 2018
A groin injury sustained last week against Jacksonville won't send Tavon Austin to injured reserve, at least for now. The Dallas Cowboys receiver has elected to forego surgery at this time, giving him a chance to return to action in 2018.
There was concern that Austin could land on IR initially following the Jaguars game, but he sought a second opinion this week. It appears that this new information was enough for Tavon and the Cowboys to decide that surgery can wait.
Sounds like WR Tavon Austin will not have surgery at this time after getting a second opinion on his groin injury. He could miss a few weeks, however. #cowboyswire
Austin should miss this Sunday's game with the Washington Redskins. He has been the team's punt returner this season and a useful tool on offense, playing mostly receiver but also lining up the backfield at times.
Despite his limited opportunities, Tavon is tied with Cole Beasley for the team lead with two receiving touchdowns in 2018.
How long Austin will remain out is unknown at this time. After the Washington game, Dallas will have their bye week and then host the Tennessee Titans on Monday Night Football.
Both of these are games that the Cowboys, feeling good after a blowout victory over Jacksonville, should be able to win without Austin. But they would certainly like him back for the Week 10 road game with the Philadelphia Eagles.
In Tavon's absence, Cole Beasley will likely field punts. We may see more of Deonte Thompson in the speed routes that Austin ran on offense, though Dallas could also finally see what recently returned Brice Butler has to offer.
With an expiring contract this year, Tavon will likely want to get back soon and trying to improve his stock for the 2019 offseason. Hopefully, he can still have a positive impact on his value and the Cowboys season in the weeks ahead.
Terrance Williams: Details, Impact of 3-Game Suspension
Terrance Williams was already missing games on injured reserve, but now the Dallas Cowboys receivers is going to lose some money as well. Williams was finally hit with a three-game suspension by the NFL, starting immediately, for his public intoxication arrest last May.
Dallas placed Terrance on IR in Week 5 just a day before their game against the Houston Texans. Williams had been struggling with a foot issue since the offseason, which included a surgery that he hadn't fully recovered from.
Many were surprised that Williams wasn't suspended to start the season, given that his arrest occurred several months prior. But when charges were eventually dropped after Terrance took part in some required alcohol education courses, it appeared the league might be letting the issue go.
However, as Cowboys fans know all too well, Roger Goodell's NFL operates its own judicial system.
In Williams' case, the suspension will only result in lost game checks. Players still get paid when on IR, but Terrance will lose that amount of his $3.5 million base salary.
Because he can serve the suspension while injured, Terrance will still be eligible to be recalled from injured reserve in December after sitting the mandatory weeks.
The real issue for Williams now is how this event, and his general fall from grace in the Cowboys offense, will affect him in the next offseason.
Terrance is in just the second season of a four-year, $17 million contract he signed in 2017. If he's released after this year, Dallas would save $2.25 million of his scheduled $4.75 million cap hit in 2019.
Williams' cap hit isn't the issue by itself. That would be a bargain for a significant contributor in your offense, even if he was just the third receiver.
But Terrance appears to have fallen well below that spot on the depth chart. Cole Beasley, Allen Hurns, and Michael Gallup are the top three receivers these days, and veteran Deonte Thompson has also been getting looks. Dallas also brought back Brice Butler a few weeks ago, though he hasn't really been worked in yet.
Not only that, but the Cowboys will have the option to recall Noah Brown from IR in just a few more weeks. He was one of their more intriguing young prospects prior to getting hurt.
Dallas could let Terrance come back next year to compete, hopefully with full health and less personal baggage. But after six seasons, they may be ready to move on to players with more room to grow.
For now, though, Terrance Williams is out of action and out some money. We'll see what the future holds.
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