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.
Cowboys Wishlist: Connor Williams Turns It Around
The Dallas Cowboys are on the road again as they travel to Indianapolis to face a hot 7-6 Colts team that's trying to sneak into the AFC Playoffs. It will be a tough challenge for a team that's struggled when playing out of AT&T Stadium but the Cowboys have changed a lot since they were a 3-5 unit. This time, they're one of the hottest teams in the NFL and are one win away from clinching the NFC East.
We surely are in for a great game. Without further ado, I hope you enjoy this week's edition of "Cowboys Wishlist."
Wish #1: Leighton Vander Esch Outplays Darius Leonard
As impressive as Leighton Vander Esch has been for the Dallas Cowboys, he's not alone in the Defensive Rookie of the Year race. On today's game, he'll meet his match in Colts LB Darius Leonard. A second rounder himself, Leonard leads the league in tackles with 135. He also is responsible for 11 tackles for loss, seven sacks, four forced fumbles and one interception.
Vander Esch, otherwise known as "Wolf Hunter" doesn't have such incredible stats, but playing time is a big reason why. His play has been pretty impressive, though. Ranked as the top rookie linebacker by PFF, hell be out there to prove who's the better player. I really wish he outplays Leonard en rout to the DROY award.
Wish #2: No Turnovers From Dak
455 yards, three touchdowns and another game-winning drive were more than impressive from Dak Prescott. I really have faith in him as the Cowboys' QB. But we can't ignore the three turnovers he was responsible for in such a close game versus the Philadelphia Eagles.
This game will be different. The Colts are a legit threat in the NFL right now and the Cowboys won't be the home team. Without Martin on the field, Prescott is likely to be pressured. If that's the case, he needs to watch out and avoid fumbles in the pocket.
It's really important the team takes care of the ball if they want the win versus Andrew Luck and company. I specifically wish Dak Prescott has a good game and does something he's done fairly well throughout his career: take care of the ball.
Wish #3: Connor Williams Turns It Around
Expectations were sky-high for second round pick Connor Williams. A starter in week 1, injury and poor play sidelined him in favor of Xavier Su'a-Filo. With Zack Martin out for the game, Williams has another opportunity to shine. This time he'll be lining up as the team's right guard between C Joe Looney and RT La'el Collins.
It's very important to remember Williams is only a rookie. Just because we're used to offensive line rookies to have immediate success for Dallas doesn't mean every one the team brings in will be as great starting off. A rough start is not the end of the world for Williams. Also worth noting, the majority of his playing time came under now-fired OL coach Paul Alexander. I'm convinced he'll turn things around and will become an important player for the Cowboys soon.
For now, I wish he takes advantage of the opportunity to play and does a great job to be considered again for the LG spot once Martin returns.
Wish #4: Amari Cooper Keeps It Up
The impact Amari Cooper has had on this team is quite frankly unbelievable. He should really be seen as this season's savior for the Cowboys. While the defense is winning games, without Cooper the offense would still be terrible and results wouldn't be the same. He has more than justified the first round pick the Jones traded away to get him.
In a big, road game like this one, I hope he keeps it up and has another huge performance. Whether it is multiple scores or a 100-yard game, I simply want to see him shine again.
Cowboys, Colts Week 15 Injury Report
The Dallas Cowboys can clinch the NFC East with a win this week, while the Indianapolis Colts are fighting to stay alive in the AFC wild card race. Only one team can accomplish their goal, and both have some big names on the Week 15 injury report.
We'll begin with the visiting Cowboys, who could be getting at least one star player back while another is already confirmed to miss the game.
- TE Geoff Swaim (wrist) - OUT
- G Zack Martin (knee) - OUT
- DL David Irving (ankle) - OUT
- WR Tavon Austin (groin) - Questionable
- WR Lance Lenoir (illness) - Questionable
- OT Tyron Smith (neck) - Questionable
- DE Randy Gregory (personal) - Questionable
- LB Sean Lee (hamstring) - Questionable
Yes, sadly, Zack Martin will be out tomorrow. The good news is that Connor Williams got the entire week to practice with the starters at right guard. You can read much more about this situation and it's impact on the game here, courtesy of our own Sean Martin.
Also ruled out, as they have been for a while now, are TE Geoff Swaim and DL David Irving. Swaim is still recovering from wrist surgery but has not been placed on injured reserve, so the team must feel he could be back for the playoffs. Irving could return as soon as next week.
Speaking of returns, Sean Lee may be back on the field this Sunday. It's unknown yet how he'll rotate with Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith, but Dallas has the luxury of working him in slowly thanks to the play of their young duo.
Tavon Austin could also return this week, creating another new offensive wrinkle. Austin has been injured since the Jacksonville game and has yet to play since the Cowboys acquired Amari Cooper. Not only could Tavon do some interesting things in the offense, but he should bring some additional sizzle to special teams.
While appearing on the injury report, Randy Gregory missed practice this week for "family reasons" according to Jason Garrett. He could still play tomorrow.
- G Mark Glowinski (ankle) - OUT
- LB Skai Moore (neck) - OUT
- S Mike Mitchell (calf) - OUT
- WR T.Y. Hilton (ankle) - Questionable
- TE Ryan Hewitt (ribs) - Questionable
- S Clayton Geathers (knee) - Questionable
The big name here is Hilton, the star receiver who missed all practice this week with an ankle injury. Indianapolis has not ruled him out, wanting to give Andrew Luck's favorite target every opportunity to play. But it's not looking good, and a bad ankle could limit Hilton's effectiveness even if he goes.
Also hurt among the passing options is starting TE Ryan Hewitt, but he did practice full on Friday and should go. Not playing, however, is starting right guard Mark Glowinski. That means third-year player Evan Boehm should start, who just joined the team in October.
Indy's hurting at safety this week. Not only did starter Clayton Geathers miss the whole week of practice, but veteran backup Mike Mitchell is already ruled out. The Colts would have to rely on undrafted rookie George Odum if neither plays.
Fun fact before we go; former Cowboy Jihad Ward was picked up by the Colts after Dallas included him in their roster cuts to start the season. However, he landed on injured reserve back in October so won't get a chance at revenge.
Zack Martin Out, Connor Williams In at Right Guard for Cowboys at Colts
The Dallas Cowboys offensive line depth will be tested as they play for a chance to clinch the NFC East on Sunday at the Indianapolis Colts. Suffering a knee injury last week against the Eagles, Right Guard Zack Martin will not be able to play. In missing his first career start, rookie Connor Williams rightfully returns to the starting lineup as Martin's replacement.
The 50th overall pick from this year's AT&T Stadium hosted Draft has started eight games this season at left guard. Williams' last start happens to be in the last game Dallas lost, a week nine defeat to the Tennessee Titans. This opened the door for Xavier Su'a-Filo to become something of a sensation for Cowboys Nation as the starting left guard throughout the team's current five game win streak.
Pro Bowl guard Zack Martin has been ruled out of Sunday's game with a sprained knee. Rookie Connor Williams will start in his place.
Zack Martin being unavailable is hardly how Marc Colombo wants to prepare for the Cowboys first road game since week 11. Having both Su'a-Filo and Williams in the lineup will be valuable for the Cowboys moving forward though, as Williams could earn his job at left guard back from the right side.
While he won't nearly be expected to play at the level of Martin, Williams looked poised coming off the bench against the Eagles and helping the Cowboys offense score their final three touchdowns. Williams was on the field for all three of Amari Cooper's scores, as Dallas rushed for 34 yards on 11 carries with him in the game.
Williams flashed some of the traits that made him a top left tackle prospect out of college, flowing to the second level with ease and creating movement with quick feet at the point of attack. The Cowboys have forced him to remain game ready despite losing his starting position by finding a few emergency snaps for him in recent weeks, as well as special teams looks. The team has every reason to believe Williams is an ascending young player still.
The same cannot be said of Su'a-Filo, who simply has to focus on continuing to hold up at left guard again this week. With each passing win, Su'a-Filo's LG spot has become more of a liability in a Cowboys offense in need of a jump-start late in this 2018 season.
Consistent offensive line play is one of the few things that's clearly hurting the Cowboys as contenders in the NFC behind a stellar defense and game breaking wide receiver.
The Cowboys won't be at full strength against the eighth best rushing defense and 15th ranked passing defense in yards per game. With three separate chances to clinch the NFC East starting at the Colts and extending until the end of the regular season, the Cowboys stand to learn all they need to know about the offensive line that will start in the playoffs.
Martin, who's elevated his game to a new level this season despite this lingering knee injury, should be on track to return when the Cowboys come home to play the Buccaneers in week 16.
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