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.
Dallas Cowboys 2019 Offseason Preview: Linebacker
One of the brightest spots on the Dallas Cowboys' projected 2019 roster is linebacker. The young pair of Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch have already emerged as one of the league's best duos. But that doesn't mean that the Cowboys have no work to do at the position this offseason.
Having Jaylon and Leighton does take a lot of pressure off. Most teams utilize their nickel scheme more than any other these days, which generally utilizes just two linebackers, in the increasingly pass-focused NFL. And thankfully, both Smith and Vander Esch have shown great skills in pass defense.
But there's still a semi-starting role to get figured out in the base 4-3 scheme. Damien Wilson has held the strong-side or "SAM" position for the last few years and has an expiring contract.
What's more, Dallas has a big decision to make regarding the contract of Sean Lee, which is ripe for terminating with $7 million in salary cap savings possible.
It's highly unlikely that the Cowboys would keep both Lee and Wilson. If they decide to re-sign Damien, Lee will be cut to help fund that move and others. If Sean is kept on, Wilson will almost surely be looking for a starting role somewhere else in free agency.
Even if the Cowboys do make Lee a cap casualty between now and March 13th, they may still allow Wilson to test free agency and then try to re-sign him later at a discount. He's unlikely to attract the same attention that Anthony Hitchens got last year.
Another factor in all of this is Joe Thomas, a free agent addition last year who provided good depth and could potentially start in 2019. He is scheduled to count $2.2 million against the cap, which is fine for a primary reserve but a bargain for an occasional starter.
A core of Smith, Thomas, and Vander Esch gives the Cowboys a good foundation to build from. Smith can play the SAM in the base scheme and Thomas can be the primary backup to Jaylon and Leighton in the nickel.
However, going that route would deplete the depth chart. Chris Covington, a sixth-round pick last year, would be the only noteworthy player under contract. Dallas would need to find at least two more guys to fill out the group for 2019.
They could look at re-signing backup Justin March-Lillard, who would at least bring some familiarity and veteran experience. But that might still leave them looking for more of a primary reserve, which would be especially vital if Thomas is promoted to a starting role.
The projected LB free agent pool for 2019 should make it a buyer's market. Dallas may be able to re-sign Damien Wilson or even add an upgrade, like perhaps the Vikings' Anthony Barr, at a relative bargain. There should be ample options for depth as well.
Barring an extremely favorable value opportunity, don't expect the Cowboys to spend a significant draft pick at linebacker. The fourth-round is the earliest I could see one going based on other needs, and even then it would need to be someone they really like.
Good drafting is why Dallas has flexibility and leverage this offseason. The picks they invested in Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch appear to have made LB a strength of the team for the next several years.
There is still business to attend to, but the Cowboys won't have to be too concerned with linebacker in 2019 thanks to their young stars.
Xavier Woods Versatility Key in Dallas Cowboys FA Safety Pursuit
There has been a debate going on among Cowboys Nation for more than a year now about the prospects of bringing in Seattle Seahawks Safety Earl Thomas. Now with free agency approaching, there are several other names that the Dallas Cowboys could consider when looking to upgrade the safety position. Landon Collins, Tyrann Mathieu, and Tre Boston are several of the many quality and really good safeties that are hitting the free agent market in a few weeks. It's a group with varied skill sets and abilities, which makes the debate even more interesting. The Dallas Cowboys, however, will be able to take a look at all of them when free agency opens March 13th because of one player; Xavier Woods.
Xavier Woods, the Cowboys fifth round draft pick from the 2017 NFL Draft just finished his first full season as a starter for the Cowboys and played really well. In two years he's shown the ability to cover from the slot, play deep, play in the box, be a force over the middle, and make plays on the football. He's one of the more versatile players on the defense with his ability to play all over the field. That versatility allows the Dallas Cowboys' front office an advantage when approaching the names mentioned above.
The Dallas Cowboys don't have to be locked in to one particular type of safety. When people talk about Landon Collins, they label him a "box safety." Earl Thomas is a traditional free safety. Tre Boston is a similar player to Earl Thomas and Tyrann Mathieu is like Collins. The Cowboys can go into free agency with the freedom to explore their options and do their due diligence when it comes to these players.
That's a distinct difference from this offseason to last.
Last offseason, the feeling was that the Dallas Cowboys had to go get Earl Thomas. The safety position was so weak that the Cowboys were going to be playing at a disadvantage in the high-flying, pass-heavy NFL. Xavier Woods proved in his first full season that he can be a productive, play making starter in the NFL and should only continue to improve.
According to Pro Football Focus, Xavier Woods was sixth in the NFL in passer rating against among safeties with at least 352 coverage snaps. His 62.8 passer rating allowed in his coverage was tied with Eric Weddle, better than Derwin James, Reshad Jones, Adrian Amos, and Maliek Hooker. Of the safeties drafted in the 2017 draft class, only Eddie Jackson from the Chicago Bears had a better passer rating against than Xavier Woods.
The Dallas Cowboys got a really good player in Xavier Woods and as they get ready to potentially make a run at a big name safety, they can feel confident that whoever they end up signing will be a good fit with Woods. He can play in the box or cover receivers and tight ends. You can run more two deep safety looks, because he has the range to play it.
This year, as opposed to last, they have more certainty at the safety position because of Xavier Woods and the strides he took in 2018. There's no reason to believe that he can't continue to take a step forward for the Dallas Cowboys. His ability to play all over the field allows the Cowboys to be smart and patient in their pursuit of a safety upgrade this offseason.
3 Free Agent Targets From Cowboys NFC East Rivals
The free agency period in the NFL will be here in a little more than three weeks and the Dallas Cowboys will begin the annual tradition of trying to put together the best 53-man roster that they can come up with. Free agency is just one part of the equation that includes the draft, the signing of undrafted free agents, adding and subtracting from the roster during training camp, and picking up players after the final cut down day.
You can rest assured that Will McClay and the entire pro scouting department is doing their due diligence in anticipation of the March 13th start to the 2019 free agency period. They'll look high and low for players that can come in and be contributors for the Cowboys. Even within their own division.
Between the New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, and Washington Redskins, there are some interesting names to consider as the Cowboys peruse the free agent aisles of the NFL superstore. Some of those players like Landon Collins, Ronald Darby, Nick Foles, and Brandon Graham will be new releases that will cost you a pretty penny at the check out stand. Others like Haloti Ngata will be in the used and refurbished section. And then there are those who could be had at a reasonable or discounted rate.
Here are three from within the NFC East that the Cowboys could have their eye on.
Mario Edwards, Defensive Line, New York Giants
The former Oakland Raiders second round pick out of Florida State University has already played for two teams in his young four-year career. That isn't a good sign for Mario Edwards as he approaches free agency for the first time. You don't generally see many top 100 picks get released from the team that originally drafted as they usually wait as long as they can to see if the player is going to hit.
For Mario Edwards, he found himself caught in a numbers game and outplayed by two rookies in Oakland's training camp in 2018, leading to his release. It also sounds like the Raiders couldn't quite figure out where to put him on their defensive line.
We know that the Dallas Cowboys love looking around the league for those reclamation projects. Edwards could be the next David Irving or Antwaun Woods. A player that isn't highly thought of, but in the right situation and with the right coaching could flourish.
Edwards has played 14 or more games in three of his first four seasons, missing his second season with a hip injury. He totaled more than two sacks a season in those three seasons. He isn't by any stretch of the imagination someone who is going to come in and replace DeMarcus Lawrence or Randy Gregory, but he could be a nice depth piece with potential to see significant snaps both at defensive end and 3-technique defensive tackle.
Edwards could be the next Rod Marinelli special.
Jordan Matthews, Wide Receiver, Philadelphia Eagles
The Dallas Cowboys could be in the market for a slot wide receiver this offseason if Cole Beasley is allowed to walk in free agency, which seems like a near certainty. There are several intriguing options on the roster in Allen Hurns and Cedric Wilson that could play in the slot some, or play on the outside allowing Amari Cooper to play in the slot. They could also look to the draft for Beasley's replacement as well. In the free agent pool, there are several interesting names, one of which is Jordan Matthews.
Jordan Matthews just finished his second stint in Philadelphia and while he didn't have huge production in Philly in 2018 -- 20 receptions on 28 targets for 300 yards and two touchdowns, he's a player with a track record in the NFL and could be a "big slot" option.
In Matthews first three seasons in the NFL, he averaged 75 receptions on 115 targets for 891 yards and 6.3 touchdowns in his first stint with the Philadelphia Eagles. In 2014, Matthews caught 64 of his 67 receptions from the slot, which was second in the NFL that season. In 2015, he led the NFL in receptions from the slot with 81, while also scoring eight touchdowns. In 2016, his final year with the Eagles, he was ninth in the NFL with 53 receptions. So, in those first three seasons in the league, he averaged 67 receptions, 796.3 yards, and six touchdowns. He caught eight touchdowns in each of his first two seasons for the Eagles in the slot.
He's not the same player that Cole Beasley is, but he's a player that knows how to win in the slot and because of the past couple of years could be a cheaper option to try and replace Cole's production.
Jamison Crowder, Wide Receiver, Washington Redskins
If Jordan Matthews is the inexpensive option for the Dallas Cowboys in the slot, Jamison Crowder would require paying a pretty penny. Spotrac.com estimates that Crowder could be worth $8 million per year over four years on the open market.
Interestingly enough, he's never been as productive as Cole Beasley or Jordan Matthews, but because of his age and his work the last couple of seasons, injuries not withstanding, he's seen in a more positive light than Matthews.
Crowder is cut from a similar cloth as Beasley. Smaller in stature and uses quickness and speed to win games. As Cowboys fans, we know all to well the effect that he has in game. Crowder, however, has never had more than 66 receptions in a season and has only scored more than three touchdowns once in his four seasons in the NFL; back in 2016 when he scored seven.
Crowder is coming off of an injury this season that limited him to just nine games, 29 receptions for 388 yards and two touchdowns. In his three full seasons prior to 2018, Crowder averaged 64 receptions on 93 targets for 746 yards and four touchdowns.
If for some reason, his market comes in less than the $8 million per year that Spotrac.com is projecting, I'd be very interested in bringing Crowder to Dallas.
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Each of these guys offers something intriguing that the Dallas Cowboys could use. Whether it's a defensive lineman or a slot wide receiver, they all bring something to the table. The Dallas Cowboys need to approach this offseason with a "go for it" mentality, but if they continue to follow their free agency philosophy, Mario Edwards and Jordan Matthews could be nice pieces to add to the team that offer a lot of upside.
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