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.
Today we will look at the players ranked #11-20. Now we're getting into that upper tier; starters and key rotation players who will have a heavy hand in how the Cowboys fare in 2017.
20. Jaylon Smith, LB
Is this too high for a guy who's never taken a NFL snap? Maybe, but that's where expectations are for Smith as he makes his delayed professional debut. Considered an elite, top-five talent in the 2016 draft class, Jaylon fell to the early second because of a major knee injury late into his college career. Dallas sat through his rehab period and are now hoping to have a dynamic playmaker added to their defense.
The ceiling for a healthy Jaylon Smith is about as high as it gets. He can make plays in coverage as well as he can blitz the quarterback. The Cowboys are hoping that pairing Smith with Sean Lee will give them perhaps the most dangerous linebacker combination in the NFL, particularly in their nickel scheme.
Of course, major injuries sometimes need more than one year for the player to get fully right. It takes time to build confidence in your body again, even if it's structurally okay. Jaylon in 2017 is not only getting used to NFL football but also his repaired and rehabbed knee. It may take time for him to meet the lofty expectations.
19. David Irving, DE/DT
Speaking of expectations, Irving brought on plenty with his late-season play in 2016. The versatile physical specimen, who can play either end or tackle, had three sacks in the Cowboys Week 15 and 16 games. He turns just 24 in August, leaving fans very excited about his long-term potential.
At 6'7″, Irving can be a matchup problem for any blocker. He should be a big part of the defensive line rotation this year, especially with his versatility. Irving may not be starting in the base defense, but you can expect to see him in on critical passing downs and in many other packages.
Irving's rise hit a speed bump this offseason with a suspension for PED use. He will miss the Cowboys' first four games on 2017. Despite this setback, David should still be a major factor this season.
18. Terrance Williams, WR
Many were surprised when Dallas re-signed Terrance to a four-year, $17 million contract this offseason. Nevertheless, the move brings continuity to the offense for the Cowboys' young quarterback and keeps a solid player in the mix.
The greatest complaint against Williams is that he can't fill Dez Bryant's shoes as a go-to receiver when Bryant misses time. Otherwise, Terrance performs adequately and sometimes makes very athletic plays. He is also a very good run blocker, which is important for a team looking to lean on Ezekiel Elliott.
Because of Cole Beasley and Jason Witten, Williams is never going put up the numbers that one typically thinks of from the other starting receiver. This does lead to some unfair criticism. Clearly, the Cowboys valued Terrance enough to keep him in town.
17. Benson Mayowa, DE
As I wrote about a few weeks ago, Mayowa has almost been forgotten in all of the talk about who can help the Cowboys' pass rush. Considering he was the team leader in sacks last year, Benson deserves far more attention.
As the linked article covers in more detail, Mayowa came on strong as the season progressed and was averaging nearly a sack each game in December. This is a player who got little use in Oakland as a 3-4 pass rusher before joining Dallas and converting to the new scheme. If last year was just the beginning of his development, Mayowa could be a major player in the 2017 defense.
Most of Dallas' defensive ends are better suited to play on the strong side. Mayowa is more of the prototypical weak side rusher, suited for going up against NFL left tackles. If he can prove himself against Tyron Smith in training camp, Benson will certainly earn the coaches' confidence to take on the rest of the NFL's top blockers.
16. L.P. Ladouceur, LS
Nobody on the Cowboys roster can claim absolute perfection at their profession except for Louis-Philippe Ladouceur. The team's long snapper since 2005, Ladouceur hasn't had a bad snap in his entire professional career. At 36-years-old, he returns to keep making life easier for Dan Bailey and Chris Jones.
Consider the gravity of just one bad snap on special teams. Picture the ball soaring over a punter's head, or not having a clean snap on a critical game-winning field goal. These single moments can win or lose games, and Ladouceur has spent 12 seasons making sure nobody can blame the long snapper.
Every year, the Cowboys bring in a young prospect to to give their veteran some rest. Zach Wood was here last camp and returns in 2017. If a younger player can earn the team's trust, Dallas might finally make a switch to prepare for the future. You can't top perfection, though, so it's always difficult for anyone to push Ladouceur out the door.
15. Anthony Brown, CB
From a 2016 sixth-round pick to a likely starter in his second year, Brown has had a stunning start to his NFL career. Injuries to Morris Claiborne and Orlando Scandrick led to Brown starting nine games as a rookie, and early on the young corner showed little drop-off from his veteran teammates.
Even if the Cowboys go with veteran Scandrick and Nolan Carroll as the base defense starters in 2017, Brown will see plenty of time in the nickel and other packages. At the least, he should be starting for whatever amount of time Carroll gets suspended for his recent DWI arrest.
Personally, I think Anthony will be a full-time starter and am very excited his second year. The work he will get this offseason higher up on the depth chart, going against the starting offense, will be invaluable for his development. After whiffing on a big money free agent and a first-round pick at corner, how ironic would it be for Dallas' next great CB to be a late-round gem?
14. La'el Collins, OT
All indications are that Collins, who has played left guard for the last two years, will move to right tackle to replace the retired Doug Free. The move has been met with mixed reaction, though most are confident that Collins can at least do a solid at the position.
The knock on the move, and this is the way I lean, is that Collins had superstar potential at guard and probably not the same upside at tackle. At times, La'el flashed things at guard that reminded you of Larry Allen. But injuries took him off the field last year and now circumstances have made right tackle the greater concern.
Collins was still a first-round prospect in the 2015 draft after playing tackle at LSU, so there's reason to think he can still be an exceptional player at his “new” position. If he can match Doug Free's run-blocking prowess while also cleaning up a few of pass protection and penalty issues, it will least be an upgrade that should keep the Cowboys' offensive line as one of the league's top units.
13. Orlando Scandrick, CB
The veteran leader at cornerback now, Scandrick will hope to finally have a healthy season after two tough years. He missed all of 2015 with two ligament tears in his knee and was playing through injury for much of last year, missing four games and being limited in several others.
While he's been the slot corner for some time, Scandrick may have to move outside to make up for the losses of Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne. Much of this upcoming camp will no doubt be used to decide where Orlando, Anthony Brown, Nolan Carroll, and perhaps the two rookies are best suited in the nickel scheme.
Turning 30 last February, Scandrick needs to have a strong year to avoid be swept away by the youth movement on defense. The Cowboys can terminate his contract next year for some cap relief. However, his veteran presence and a strong performance in 2017 could easily keep him around.
12. Maliek Collins, DT
While Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott were the shining stars of the 2016 draft class, Collins was one of the surprising steals who have helped make it a special crop of young talent. The third-round pick quickly emerged as the most consistent player on the line, playing more total snaps than any other defensive tackle.
With the athleticism to play as the three-technique tackle but also the size to play as the one-tech, Maliek will be pivotal to the Cowboys' defensive schemes this year. He could wind up playing spot depending where Dallas wants to fit in other players, opening up various potential matchups. The idea of Collins and David Irving working together in the middle already has me excited.
With five sacks as a rookie, Collins could also become part of the remedy to the Cowboys' pass-rushing issues. If he can develop into a consistent interior threat, things will get easier for all of the defensive ends trying to attack the quarterback. It's just another reason why Maliek deserves the recognition as a key player in 2017.
11. Byron Jones, S
Now entering his third year and firmly entrenched at safety, Byron Jones is ready to take his reputation to the next level. At times he was one of the top-rated safeties in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus, but the Cowboys need Jones to leave no doubt in 2017 that he's one of the best in the business.
That mainstream notice generally comes from big plays, and that's an area where Byron has struggled so far. He didn't get his first interception until Week 15 of his sophomore season, and Dallas needs more that one turnover every 30 games from a starting safety. Jeff Heath has done better in limited reserve duty.
Outside of the interceptions, Jones has been solid-to-exceptional in all other areas. He had made the highlight reel with athletic pass deflections and also been good in run support. His ability to play man coverage on tight ends and even receivers helps the Cowboys be more creative in their blitz formations. With just a few picks, Byron can get the national recognition that the rest of his game deserves.