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 move on to the players ranked #31-40. We'll see some key backups as well as players who may be contending for starting jobs.
40. Cedric Thornton, DT
The Cowboys gave Thornton a four-year, $17 million contract to join the team in last year's free agency. That kind of money tell you they expected him to have a significant role, likely starting, on the 2016 defense.
However, Dallas didn't know that Terrell McClain was finally going to have a healthy and productive season. They also didn't know that they'd be drafting Maliek Collins and that he'd turn out to be a third-round steal. Thornton fell to the bottom of the depth chart, but that had more to do with the talent in front of him than any failings on his part.
The 2017 situation isn't much different. Collins is going to be the focal point at DT and there's still Tyrone Crawford to consider. Dallas also signed veteran Stephen Paea, a former Rod Marinelli player in Chicago. Thornton will still make the team with no cap relief available from shedding his contract, but his role may not increase much from last year.
39. Joe Looney, OL
While much of the offensive line is being shaken up, Looney should be a stable presence and resume his role as backup center. If he gets a shot at the left guard starting job, "Jumbo Joe" could be competitive. He was used as a sixth blocker in limited packages last year.
The veteran's versatility as an interior line reserve will make him hard to cut. That's a good thing for Looney, because his contract makes it very easy. He is only guaranteed $50k of the $850k in 2017.
The backup center role is where Looney's real security comes in. Dallas may give Jonathan Cooper a look there, but Looney is trusted and experienced. His biggest concern will be younger center prospects like Ross Burbank or Ruben Carter emerging during camp.
38. Charles Tapper, DE
While Jaylon Smith is the debuting player everyone is most interested in, Tapper may not be too far behind. A fourth-round pick last year, Charles hopes to meet the high bar set by his classmates from the 2016 draft.
Tapper missed his rookie year due to a spine defect that was discovered during the offseason. He had corrective surgery and is reportedly good to go for 2017. After the contributions that Maliek Collins and Anthony Brown made on defense last year, it's no wonder that fans are anxious to see what Tapper can do.
Many feel Tapper played out of position at Oklahoma, not getting to rush the passer as much as his skills would suggest. He will have no such issue in Dallas; the Cowboys are going to be looking for him to get to the quarterback as much as he can. If Tapper can show up early during training camp, he could carve out a big role quickly.
37. Geoff Swaim, TE
Before the 2016 season began, Swaim had risen to the number-two spot on the depth chart after James Hanna's injury and Gavin Escobar's fall from grace. He showed a little spark on offense early, having a catch for over 20 yards in each of the first two games.
There should be open competition for that second TE spot now between Swaim, Hanna, and perhaps even Rico Gathers. Both Swaim and Hanna are known as solid blockers with some receiving ability, so it's hard to give one the nod over another right now.
Swaim is four years younger and would be much cheaper next year, so Dallas would love for him to win the job. They could release Hanna for close to $3 million cap relief in 2018.
36. Kellen Moore, QB
The Cowboys clearly trust Moore to be their backup quarterback, adding no real competition for him in free agency or the draft. Barring injury, he a virtual lock to be the second QB and will probably be the only reserve passer that Dallas keeps in on the 2017 roster.
Moore's football intellect has been praised more than once by Cowboys coaches and others throughout his career. That is a handy trait to have in the QB room, making him an asset to Dak Prescott and the coaches as they work out gameplans. It's clear that Scott Linehan values Moore's presence, having brought him over from Detroit and likely being a key reason he was re-signed this year.
On just a one-year contract, Moore's contributions will hopefully all be behind the scenes. He can earn new deal with Dallas by being a resource to the offense. If Kellen does have to play, hopefully time in the system will allow him to perform better than in 2015.
35. James Hanna, TE
In last year's free agency, Dallas gave Hanna a three-year deal worth close to $3 million per season. They clearly liked what he offered and he was expected to be Jason Witten's primary backup. However, a knee injury cost Hanna all of 2016.
As we just discussed with Geoff Swaim, Hanna will have competition for that job now. He and Swaim are arguably neck-and-neck and the younger guy might get the tiebreaker because of age and upside.
Where Hanna could outshine Swaim is in the passing attack. He has tremendous athleticism for his size and could be a dangerous new wrinkle. The big problem for Hanna has been staying healthy. though, and that could sink him quickly with Swaim and Rico Gathers right on his heels.
34. Keith Smith, FB
While not a full-time starter because of the various formations used, Keith Smith has emerged as a trusted lead blocker for the Cowboys rushing attack. He graded out as one of the league's top fullbacks in 2016.
Smith not only gives you a backfield blocker but also plays a key role on special teams. He can even serve as an emergency linebacker, having played that position from 2014-2015 and in college.
With Rod Smith returning to halfback, Keith should go unchallenged for the fullback spot this year. The only threat would be Dallas using tight ends in the backfield, which they've done in past seasons, but all signs point to Smith returning to help clear paths for Ezekiel Elliott.
33. Chaz Green, OL
If he's not the starting left guard than he'll likely be the swing tackle, making Green an important figure in the upcoming training camp. The former third-round pick needs a healthy season to keep himself in the team's long-term plans.
Green has missed most of his first two years with a foot injury in 2015 and a back injury last year. He had surgery last December and should be a full participant going forward. Chaz is expected fight with veteran Jonathan Cooper at left guard, but he has the versatility to play different spots on the line.
It's possible that Green could still compete at right tackle. If he has a great camp, Dallas might decide to cancel plans on moving La'el Collins there and feel good about starting Green on the outside. That might be the ideal scenario, allowing Collins to stay at guard where many feel he has elite potental.
32. Nolan Carroll, CB
Signed to a three-year, $10 million contract last March, Carroll was expected to be one of the team's top three corners in 2017. That was before the draft, though, where Dallas spent their second and third-round picks on Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis.
As I wrote about a few weeks ago, Carroll's job security may have taken a very quick and unexpected hit. The addition of young talent, plus his DWI arrest last month, may have rendered Nolan expendable. He will likely suspended at least two games to start the season.
It is doubtful that Carroll will be released, but Dallas will have to get their young guys ready to play during the weeks that he'll be suspended. This could wind up in them keeping those spots on the depth chart, pushing Carroll down to the bottom.
Of course, it's too soon to know what the rookies will do. Carroll could easily return and be a primary piece in the secondary. The Cowboys certainly paid him enough to suggest that. How the veteran performs over Awuzie and Lewis will be one of the more interesting stories to follow during camp.
31. Darren McFadden, RB
Dallas re-signed McFadden last March, comfortable with him as the primary backup to Ezekiel Elliott. Even though he turns 30 in August, McFadden still showed the wheels last year to be effective and has a better running style for our scheme than Alfred Morris.
Where McFadden is especially good for Dallas is in his receiving and blocking skills, making him a perfect third-down back. He should be able to compliment Elliott well throughout the year and allow the Cowboys to get Zeke rest when needed.
That said, McFadden only got a one-year contract to come back. What's more, he only got $80k in guaranteed money. Dallas clearly has reservations about his age and injury history and are leaving their options open. The job is certainly McFadden's to lose, but the Cowboys are ready to have to change plans if needed.
Dallas Cowboys Pro Bowlers Show Promise for Future
The next class of players to join the Dallas Cowboys may be on the field at Mobile, Alabama this week for the Senior Bowl, but their young core is well represented in front of the Cowboys coaching staff at the Pro Bowl.
With Left Tackle Tyron Smith and Right Guard Zack Martin not participating, the Cowboys have six Pro Bowl participants. The improved health of their offensive line is still one of the best things going for this team in the early part of the offseason, expecting four-time Pro Bowl Center Travis Frederick to rejoin Smith and Martin as soon as OTAs.
A compilation of the best linemen in the NFC will have to do for Quarterback Dak Prescott and Running Back Ezekiel Elliott - making their second Pro Bowl appearance together. It took the addition of Wide Receiver Amari Cooper for the Cowboys offense to find their expected form under Prescott and Elliott in their third season, as Cooper will appear in his fourth Pro Bowl in as many years.
Both times Elliott's made the Pro Bowl, he's done so as the league's rushing champion.
Hardly on track to reach Orlando with the Oakland Raiders, Cooper put up 725 yards and six touchdowns on 53 catches in nine regular season games for the Cowboys. He followed up this resurgent performance with seven catches for 106 yards in the Wild Card Round vs. the Seahawks and six for 65 and a touchdown at the Rams in the Divisional Round.
The Cowboys shouldn't be done adding talent at wide receiver, with Cooper serving as the bold reminder of what Prescott can do with dynamic talent on the outside. Moving on from Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan already this offseason, the next steps towards building the offense around Dak's strengths is yet to be determined.
Meanwhile, their established strengths will be on display, and not just on offense at the Pro Bowl. Making strides as one of the best young defenses in the league this season, Cowboys rookie Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch will be joined by Defensive End DeMarcus Lawrence and Cornerback Byron Jones.
Though its unlikely their coaching will match the intensity of the season, the best thing these three defenders have going for them is more time under Passing Game Coordinator Kris Richard. One of Richard's first moves with the Cowboys was moving Jones to cornerback, where he became a first-time Pro Bowler.
Unable to reach his full athletic potential at safety, Jones was the elite corner the Cowboys needed at a position still in need of depth. His length and range should make him a fixture in Richard's secondary for a long time.
Vander Esch becomes the 11th Cowboys rookie to make a Pro Bowl, the third on the defensive side of the ball. Surely the Wolf Hunter will look forward to another week of football, going from eight man HS player to one-year starter at Boise State and finally a Cowboys fixture at linebacker.
The Cowboys did what was thought to be proved impossible this season by fielding a competent defense (mostly) without Sean Lee. Vander Esch and teammate Jaylon Smith deserve the credit here, with Leighton making a larger immediate impact than ever expected as the 19th overall pick.
Last but nowhere near least is DeMarcus Lawrence, much closer to the Cowboys top priority in free agency this offseason than an afterthought at his second Pro Bowl. Putting together consecutive seasons with at least ten sacks, the Cowboys don't have to see anything further from their top pass rusher to do whatever it takes to re-sign him.
The rest of the Cowboys "Hot Boyz" have a lot of potential and promise, but Lawrence is a rare proven commodity at defensive end with 25 sacks in his last 32 games. Rushing the passer in the Pro Bowl is a relatively futile task, but the Cowboys know Lawrence is capable of saving his best plays for the biggest moments. Also a dominant run defender, there simply shouldn't be a reality where the Cowboys are forced to field a defense without Lawrence at left end in 2019 and beyond.
The Cowboys at the Pro Bowl will tell you they'd prefer to be missing the game in preparation for the Super Bowl. Getting within two games of this feat after a 3-5 start is still impressive enough for the Cowboys to feel great about their future, in large part because of the six players representing America's Team this week.
Handing out Hardware for the Dallas Cowboys 2018 Season
The 2018 NFL season for the Dallas Cowboys was literally a roller coaster ride with as many ups and downs as the Texas Giant. Through the first seven games of the season the Cowboys alternated home wins with road losses to get to 3-4. They made as big of a personnel move as they've made in recent years when they traded for Amari Cooper only to all to 3-5 in his debut on Monday Night Football to the Tennessee Titans.
Then the team went on an improbably five game winning streak to put themselves in position to win the NFC East for the third time in five years by mid December. The Cowboys were able to pick up the win in the wild card round over the Seattle Seahawks before being ousted by Todd Gurley, C.J. Anderson, and the Los Angeles -- battering -- Rams' offensive line.
The season always ends with a little disappointment for 31 of the NFL's 32 teams, but this year felt different at the end because of where they were to start the season and after eight games. After the Tennessee game, this team was written off. They were Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant. They stormed back and made the 2018 season a memorable one, even if it didn't end with a sixth Lombardi Trophy.
Let's give out some post season awards to your Dallas Cowboys.
Dak Prescott, Quarterback
Many will scoff at this choice and think it could be Ezekiel Elliott, and I understand, but nobody had a greater impact on the Dallas Cowboys making the playoffs and winning their matchup with the Seattle Seahawks than Dak Prescott did.
Over the final eight games of the season, Dak averaged 278 passing yards per game, 2 total touchdowns, and threw only three interceptions. His numbers down the stretch over a 16 game pace were phenomenal. On 71.6% passing, he was on pace for 4,450 yards, 24 passing touchdowns, eight rushing touchdowns, only six interceptions on the season, with a passer rating of 103.4.
Not to make this about Dak, but I'm going to make this about Dak. 2nd in success rate, 3rd in EPA and EPA/play among playoff QBs. #CowboysNation https://t.co/Evyf73uzJ9
His play in the win over the Seattle Seahawks was instrumental in getting the victory to move on to the divisional round. Though they fell short against the Los Angeles Rams, Dak was able to bring them back from 16 down early in the second half to make it a one score game in the end.
Dak Prescott is still a developing player, and in reality, all players are trying to grow their game. Every season. Prescott is a good quarterback, who is on his way to being great and we saw this season the potential that he has.
He threw for a career high 455 yards against the Eagles and three touchdowns and then threw for 387 yards and four touchdowns against the New York Giants. There's evidence now that Dak can throw the ball, and that should scare teams.
In the playoffs, Prescott stepped up and was a big reason why the Cowboys beat the Seahawks and hung in there against the Rams.
Offensive Player of the Year
Ezekiel Elliott, Running Back
Three years, two rushing titles, and it almost seemed like a "meh" season for Ezekiel Elliott. Sure he had some big games, but only a couple times this season did it feel like Elliott took over the game. Some of that is due to the offensive line injuries and inconsistencies, but some of that may be due to Elliott who saw a much bigger workload than he had in his career to date.
He was much more actively involved in the passing game this season as he more than doubled his previous career high with 77 receptions for 567 yards. Though he won the rushing title, this was the lowest rushing yards per game he's had in his short three-year career. Elliott only scored nine touchdowns this season, which tied with his 2017 total that he accrued in only 10 games.
Elliott struggled some in the red zone because the team struggled in the red zone. Some of those issues related to the offensive line and some because of the play calling, but you'd hope that Elliott would be able to overcome some of that where it mattered most.
Defensive Player of the Year
DeMarcus Lawrence, Defensive End
No player on defense has a bigger impact for the Dallas Cowboys than Defensive End DeMarcus Lawrence. Whether it's in the run game or the passing game, DeMarcus Lawrence is elite in both categories and makes life incredibly difficult on the opposing offense.
On the season he had 10.5 sacks, finishing with double-digit sacks for the second year in a row. While that may not be as impressive as his 2017 total of 14.5, he was doing his thing with much less help along the defensive line. There wasn't another player who flirted with double-digit sacks this season. Though Randy Gregory, Maliek Collins, and Tyrone Crawford performed well, teams gave all of their attention to Lawrence in both the run and pass game.
And he was still amazingly effective.
Lawrence finished fifth among EDGE players -- 4-3 defensive end and 3-4 outside linebackers -- in tackles, fourth in the NFL in Pro Football Focus' "stops" measure with 44, and 15th in total pressures. Pro Football Focus ranked Lawrence as the seventh best EDGE defender, ninth best pass rusher, and the 12th best run defender. J.J. Watt and Khalil Mack were the only other EDGE defenders who ranked in the top 12 as both a pass rusher and run defender per Pro Football Focus.
DeMarcus Lawrence is heading into the offseason looking to get a long-term deal done.
Rookie of the Year
Leighton Vander Esch, Linebacker
While Connor Williams and Michael Gallup had really good starts to their NFL career's no rookie for the Dallas Cowboys was as impressive as 19th overall pick Leighton Vander Esch. He led the Dallas Cowboys in tackles and "stops" and had the second highest grade of any defender as graded by Pro Football Focus.
In tackles, he was second only to future Hall of Fame inductee Luke Keuchly and fellow rookie Darius Leonard. Vander Esch did all this while playing a limited number of snaps as the Dallas Cowboys eased him in at the start of the season and then attempted to find a way to have Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith, and Sean Lee on the field together.
It was an impressive year for the former Boise St. Bronco and the sky is the limit for Vander Esch. He's now played just his second season as a starter in 11-man football. If you remember, he didn't start for Boise St. till the 2017 season and had played 8-man football in high school.
I'm really looking forward to seeing what kind of progression Vander Esch can make to his game in 2019. He's going to be a great player.
Most Improved Player
Jaylon Smith, Linebacker
The 2017 season was not kind to Jaylon Smith. It was his first attempt at playing football since January of 2016 when he tore his ACL in the Fiesta Bowl. It was amazing that he was even playing, though he didn't play considerably well.
2018, however, was a different story.
Jaylon Smith could make a case for team MVP. He may not have had as many tackles as Vander Esch, or as many sacks, but by playmaking defensive EPA, he was nearly as effective at making big plays on defense as DeMarcus Lawrence.
Overall playmaking EPA rank among all NFL defenders: 5. DeMarcus Lawrence 7. Jaylon Smith 58. Leighton Vander Esch
EPA measures the effect a play will have on the score. Not all plays are weighted the same, as some weigh heavier because of down and distance, turnovers, etc. Jaylon Smith had an excellent season for the Dallas Cowboys and looks to be the guy that they thought he would be when they selected him at the top of the second round in the 2016 NFL Draft.
Having Smith and Vander Esch roaming around the middle of the field for the Dallas Cowboys moving forward is huge. They're excellent at moving in space and are excellent definitions of "sideline to sideline" players.
Jaylon Smith is one of the players I'm already looking forward to watching again in the 2019 season.
Comeback Player of the Year
Randy Gregory, Defensive End
After sitting out all but two games of the 2016 season and all of last season, Randy Gregory came back this season and had a good year. With only one sack in his career heading into the 2018 season, Gregory had a nice comeback year with five sacks and finished tied for second on the team with 37 pressures according to Pro Football Focus. According to Pro Football Reference, Gregory was second on the team in tackles for loss.
The Cowboys have Randy Gregory under contract for the 2019 season for just under $1 million.
✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭
The Dallas Cowboys have a lot to feel optimistic about as they look to roster build this offseason in preparation of the 2019 season. They have several ascending players playing key roles for them. This team looks primed to contend again in 2019.
Dak Prescott And Amari Cooper Added To 2019 Pro Bowl
As is usual now that 30 teams' seasons have concluded, players on playoff teams are beginning to drop out of the 2019 Pro Bowl. Notably, New Orleans Saints quarterback/wide receiver connection Drew Brees and Michael Thomas each decided they will stay home next Sunday, rather than participate in the NFL's All Star game.
As replacements for these two, Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper have been added to the NFC Pro Bowl roster.
DallasCowboys wide receiver @AmariCooper9 and quarterback @dak have both been added to the NFC #ProBowl roster! → https://t.co/9HYuqBvi7z
For quarterback Dak Prescott this is his second Pro Bowl selection in his first three seasons. While Pro Bowl selections aren't always a great indicator of being a top tier quarterback, especially if added as an alternate, Prescott's selections do show that he has been among the NFC's best for much of his young career.
With Prescott on the NFC roster are Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky and Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, making this a very mobile quarterback depth chart.
This will be wide receiver Amari Cooper's third Pro Bowl appearance, and his first as a member of the Dallas Cowboys.
Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper had instant chemistry after adding the Pro Bowl wide out via trade midseason, and it's exciting to see them added to this All Star game together. Despite what some fans may think, both Prescott and Cooper do "deserve" to be additions to the game, boasting some of the best performances in the conference during the second half of the season.
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