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'll begin with players #41-50. The rest of list will be unveiled daily throughout the week. By all means, use the comments section to chime in and tell me why I'm an idiot for not giving your favorite player more credit.
50. Alfred Morris, RB
This may seem low for a player with Morris' name recognition, but it's indicative of where I feel he is right now with the Cowboys. In fact, I highly doubt that he's even on the team in 2017.
After failing to impress as the backup running back last year, Morris lost the job to Darren McFadden immediately when DMC was activated from the Non-Football Injury list. He wasn't heard from again until the meaningless Week 17 game.
With Dallas re-signing McFadden this offseason, Morris will be fighting off younger players for the number-three spot. Rod Smith is expected to compete, providing additional value on special teams and as a backup fullback. Undrafted rookie Jahad Thomas offers a skill set similar to the departed Lance Dunbar and could find work.
Still just 28-years-old, Morris could be of interest to other NFL teams. Dallas may look to trade him before final cuts. Regardless of how it happens, I do not expect Alfred to be a Cowboy this season. They save $1.6 million in cap space if he's not on the 2017 roster.
49. Kavon Frazier, S
One of the team's four draft picks from the sixth round of the 2016 Draft, Frazier didn't get much playing time in his rookie season. He only dress for nine games and was almost never seen on defense, getting mostly special teams work when active.
The exits of Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox seemed to open the door for Frazier to have a larger role in 2017, but competition soon arrived with the signing of veteran Robert Blanton and the drafting of Xavier Woods. Dallas was reportedly high on Woods, having a mid-round grade on him. However, Stephen Jones once said the same about Frazier.
Having a year in the Cowboys system already, Kavon should have an advantage over Blanton and Woods. He should at least make the team this year, but where he is on the depth chart remains to be seen.
48. Rod Smith, RB
After making the 53-man roster initially to compete for the fullback job, Rod eventually lost out to Keith Smith and was reduced to a special teams role. He was released after seven games and finished the year on the practice squad.
Smith returns to the Cowboys and the halfback position in 2017. He is an intriguing physical prospect at 6'3" and over 230 pounds but still having some quickness and receiving skills. ESPN's Todd Archer recently reported that Rod was getting more work in recent summer practices than veteran Alfred Morris, but that may have just been due to Morris' age and status.
As already mentioned, I think Rod Smith makes the team as the third RB over Morris. He offers more value with the different roles he can play and more upside as a younger player.
47. Lucky Whitehead, WR
With the drafting of Ryan Switzer last April, the writing seems to be on the wall for Whitehead. However, as Ric Flair has so often reminded us, "To be the man, you've gotta' beat the man."
Fighting for his job with the Cowboys this summer, Lucky should be highly motivated. Dallas isn't just going to hand everything to Switzer; the rookie still has to take them from Whitehead. And it's not like Lucky, who is just 25 and entering his third year, isn't also learning new things in the early stage of his career.
We've seen Whitehead used on offense in specific packages and his occasional spark in the return game. There's no questioning his athletic ability, but he will need to stay on the coaches' good side during training camp. He was benched for a game last season for being late to a team meeting.
46. Rico Gathers, TE
The intrigue is swirling around this basketball-turned-football player, but Rico is still the low man on the TE depth chart. He will need to have a big camp and preseason and to move past James Hanna or Geoff Swaim.
At 6'8", Gathers is a natural matchup problem for any defense. If he's picked up enough technique to use the physical gifts, Rico can be a unique weapon for the Cowboys offense. He will get every opportunity to prove himself, but the transition from Baylor basketball to Cowboys Football may be more than just one year can accomplish.
Dallas was willing to let Gathers sit on the practice squad last season, making him open to other team to sign away. Given that, it's possible that the hype around Gathers isn't quite the same within the organization. They're certainly intrigued, but he may not be as close to a roster spot as many fans assume.
45. Ryan Switzer, WR
As we discussed with Lucky Whitehead, Switzer has arrived with a lot of expectations already for a fourth-round pick. Many have penciled him in as the primary return specialist and expect him to take offensive touches away from Lucky Whitehead and perhaps even Brice Butler.
In 2006, Dallas spent a fourth-round pick on a smaller return specialist named Skyler Green out of LSU. Green didn't have quite the same hype as Swizter coming in, but he went from a mid-round pick to not even making the Week One roster.
I bring Green up just to try to help everyone stay a little balanced here. Switzer has a lot of people excited, and rightly so, but the leap from college to the NFL is a tough one. Ryan should certainly make the team and perhaps have a strong impact for a rookie, but nothing is guaranteed.
44. Byron Bell, OL
Signed to a minimal one-year deal last March, Bell brings 72 career starts and position flexibility to the Cowboys offensive line. While currently projected as a backup, his tremendous experience edge over teammates could help Bell compete for the open starting job at left guard.
Bell has played both guard and tackle for the Panthers and Titans. He is coming off a major lower-leg injury last summer that cost him all of 2016. Still just 28, Bell is in prime age for an offensive lineman and has reportedly hit his weight incentives so far in his new Cowboys contract.
Even with his solid resume, making the roster won't be easy for Bell. He's up against a lot of competition with Jonathan Cooper, Chaz Green, Emmett Cleary, and Joe Looney all vying for positions along the offensive line. Experience will help, but it will need to show up in his performance for Bell to have a shot.
43. Kyle Wilber, LB
Now entering his sixth year with the Cowboys, Wilber is a trusted veteran in a fairly young group of linebackers. Only he and Sean Lee have played more than three seasons. While never flashy, Wilber is a solid depth option who also plays on special teams.
The youth movement could be a problem for Wilber in 2017. Along with Lee, Jaylon Smith and either Anthony Hitchens or Damien Wilson should take up the starting spots. One of Wilson or Hitchens will then be a primary backup, either capable of playing the SAM position that Wilber is suited for.
If younger guys like Mark Nzeocha and John Lotulelei also show up this year, Dallas might lean on upside and let Wilber go. They can save about $1.25 million in cap space if he's released.
42. Stephen Paea, DT
With Terrell McClain leaving in free agency, Rod Marinelli brought in one of his former Bears players in Paea. The veteran powerhouse will compete to play the one-tech role on the defensive line and be a big part of Marinelli's rotation.
While he shouldn't have trouble making the roster, Paea will have to fight for playing time. Expectations are high for second-year stud Maliek Collins. Veterans Tyrone Crawford and Cedric Thornton are also in the DT mix. The primary battle will be between Paea and Thornton; Dallas signed Thornton for a larger role last year but he got beat by McClain in the offseason.
There is no question that certain packages and schemes will get Stephen Paea on the field in 2017. How often, though, will depend on how the next two months go.
41. Brice Butler, WR
Many were surprised when Dallas re-signed Butler in free agency. Getting just a one-year deal for a little over $1 million, it is a "prove it" year for the 27-year-old receiver. Opportunities may be tough to come by, though, as Brice will have new competition in the Cowboys offense.
We've already talked about Ryan Switzer and his expectations. Also in the conversation are rookie Noah Brown and second-year prospect Andy Jones. If these young guys have good camps and preseasons, it's very possible that Butler will not make final cuts. He only got $300k in guaranteed money from Dallas, making him an easy cut and little more than an insurance policy.
That said, Butler has the talent to rise above the pack. He may get more chances to be a vertical threat if Dak Prescott's playbook gets opened up more. With plenty of options for the short and mid-range passing attack, Dallas may be able to make better use of Butler than last season if Dak gets more aggressive.
Cowboys WR Cole Beasley Wants Bigger Role, Blames Front Office
With free agency on the horizon, Cole Beasley isn't pulling any punches about his dissatisfaction with his role in the Dallas Cowboys offense. Could this have him wanting a change of scenery in 2019?
Today, Beasley made some big statements on his personal Twitter account. The first was only an appetizer.
Utilization is more important than money. https://t.co/qP8XoR6uBu
One has to think that Cole sees the success players with his skills have had in a system like New England's, or even just other more proficient passing offenses, and thinks he could do even more elsewhere.
But even when it was suggested that the firing of Scott Linehan could bring some new opportunities for Beasley in Dallas, the receiver dropped this bomb.
Honestly, the front office pushes who they want to get the ball to. I haven't been a huge priority in that regard. Maybe that will change but I'm not sure. More balls come my way in 2 minute drill where nothing is planned. https://t.co/ioih9BJJv1
Well, there's no denying his frustration there.
Some might be confused by this, given that Beasley was the most-targeted receiver or tight end in the 2018 offense. Only Ezekiel Elliott got more passes thrown his way.
However, Cole's role did diminish once Amari Cooper showed up. And in the Cowboys' playoff loss to the Rams, Beasley only got two targets the whole game. Cooper and Michael Gallup got nine targets each.
You could see where there was some executive agenda behind getting Cooper and Gallup the ball. Dallas wanted their trade of a first-round pick for Amari to be validated. They also are invested in Michael as a future starter. What Cole said isn't without merit.
Despite what he tweeted, though, Beasley did say that he was open to returning to the Cowboys.
Doesn't mean I'm gone. I'll play anywhere where I can make more of an impact. I would love for that to be Dallas or anywhere else that will give me more pops to make an impact. I just wanna ball. It's hard with 3 to 4 opps a game. https://t.co/zImZKxkAvD
So no, it's not time to put your Beasley jerseys on eBay just yet. But given these comments, it's clear that Cole is looking for more than money in his contract.
Will the Cowboys have a satisfying answer for him? And if Beasley does want a bigger role, will he also want to be paid closer to what he thinks he's worth?
It's easy to say it's not about money, but the two really do go hand in hand.
Free agency may not open until March 13th, but Cole Beasley is already showing his cards. How will the Dallas Cowboys respond?
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.
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