After losing Terrell McClain, Barry Church, Morris Claiborne, Brandon Carr, and J.J. Wilcox to free agency, the Cowboys had a lot of work to do to rebuild this defense. Adding Taco Charlton, Stephen Paea, Nolan Carroll, Chidobe Awuzie, Xavier Woods, Jourdan Lewis, and Marquez White to the mix was quite the start. Plus Jaylon Smith and Charles Tapper.
Knowing what we know about suspensions (David Irving and Nolan Carroll) and players rehabbing from injury, I wanted to take a swing at predicting the 2017 Dallas Cowboys starting defense.
Taco Charlton - Starting Right Defensive End
After being drafted with the 28th overall pick in the first round of this year's draft, the Dallas Cowboys will rely heavily on Taco Charlton to play a pivotal role for the defense.
Charlton has the traits to play all over this defensive line, but everything we've heard from Stephen and Jerry Jones suggests he will get the start at RDE.
Cedric Thornton - Starting 1-Technique
Cedric Thornton received a four-year, $18 million contract last year in free agency to be a difference maker on the defensive line. Thornton ended up being a back-up last year, getting pushed down the depth chart due to the productive play of Terrell McClain.
Thornton had flashes last year of being a disruptive player, but struggled to show that consistently.
Thornton will have to be on his "A" game again this training camp with the Cowboys bringing in Stephen Paea during free agency. After spending a year in Dallas and learning a new scheme, we may see a whole different player in Cedric Thornton come the start of the season.
Maliek Collins - Starting 3-Technique
One of the many rookie standouts from last season, Maliek Collins was quite the surprise after being selected in the third round of the 2016 NFL Draft. After injuring his foot last offseason, he missed training camp and all of the preseason, and was projected to start the year on PUP.
Collins, surprisingly, did not start the year on PUP and played a decent amount of snaps in the beginning of the year and had success. But he really got going at the back-end of the season, getting five sacks playing in his final eight games.
Collins will be looked at as one of the leaders on the defense this year after finishing second in sacks.
DeMarcus Lawrence - Starting Left Defensive End
This may be the toughest position to decide on. Tyrone Crawford was neck and neck with him, but I gave the nod to Lawrence. We all know DeMarcus Lawrence as the guy Dallas traded up for in the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft, and has yet to live up to those high expectations.
While Lawrence hasn't set the world on fire, he definitely wouldn't be considered a bust in my book either.
When healthy, you see the type of player he could potentially be, but that is the main issue with DLaw.
He's never healthy.
In his four years with the Cowboys, Lawrence had his most productive year playing on the left side, finishing that year with eight sacks.
Lawrence knows the importance of this year; he will be a free agent at the end of the 2017 season. With only nine total sacks on his resume, DeMarcus Lawrence is due for a big year.
Sean Lee - Starting WILL Linebacker
Sean Lee is one of the few question marks on this roster.
When healthy, Lee can and will play any three of the linebacker spots. Sean Lee stayed healthier and seemed to make more plays last year than in previous years after moving from the MIKE to the WILL.
While he did have more tackles and seemed to be around the ball more, his turnover numbers were non-existent. Lee finished the year with zero interceptions and zero forced fumbles. That is something I'm sure he will try to improve on this offseason.
Jaylon Smith - Starting MIKE Linebacker
The biggest mystery on this Cowboys defense is no surprise: Jaylon Smith. Is he healthy? Is he wearing the brace? Can he be productive with the brace?
There are so many questions surrounding Jaylon Smith right now it's almost funny to read.
One thing is certain, Jaylon Smith is on the field and doing what every other healthy linebacker on the Cowboys' roster is doing.
Smith still has almost four months before the start of the season. The progress he's made since this time last year has been remarkable. We'll have to wait and see, but I have a good feeling #54 will be staring Eli Manning in the eyes come September 10th.
Damien Wilson - Starting SAM Linebacker
Damien Wilson was one of my favorite players on the Cowboys roster last year. The team hasn't had the sideline to sideline player (excluding Sean Lee) of Wilson's caliber in what seems like forever.
While still young, Damien Wilson showed his ability to start and make plenty of plays last year and -- to me -- earned himself a starting job as a strong side linebacker.
Byron Jones - Starting Strong Safety
Byron Jones has cemented himself as one of the key pieces on this defense. Whether it's his ability to lock onto a tight end and keep him quiet, or come up and make a huge stop on a running back, Jones is a top player on this defense.
While I listed Byron as a strong safety, he will play all over in the secondary.
Xavier Woods - Starting Free Safety
This may surprise a few people. Woods was drafted in the sixth round of this years draft and has Jeff Heath currently in front of him on the depth chart. I think before the start of the season Xavier Woods will beat Jeff Heath out and take over as the starter.
Woods has a play making ability similar to Jeff Heath, but I think he brings more to the table.
The Cowboys play a lot of three safety sets when in nickel or dime so there will be plenty of plays where Byron Jones, Xavier Woods, and Jeff Heath are all on the field making plays.
Anthony Brown - Starting Cornerback
Similar to Maliek Collins, Anthony Brown was a big surprise last season as a rookie. Brown was thrown into the deep end early and kept his head above water.
Due to injuries to Morris Claiborne and Orlando Scandrick throughout the year, Anthony Brown was forced to play, and even start last season as a rookie. Brown will look to earn an even bigger role on the defense during training camp.
Orlando Scandrick - Starting Cornerback
Scandrick is one of the few veterans the Cowboys' have as an option at cornerback. Scandrick had a down year last year after coming back from a gruesome knee injury in 2015. With a full offseason to get fully healthy, I predict Scandrick returns and is the player he was in 2014.
Chidobe Awuzie - Starting NICKEL Cornerback
Last but not least we have second round pick Chidobe Awuzie. And yes, I know this would bring my total to 12 players. The Cowboys play a ton of nickel defense. Which normally means a linebacker goes off the field (Damien Wilson) and an extra secondary player comes on the field (Chidobe Awuzie).
This is where Chidobe Awuzie would get the start in nickel situations.
We're not sure yet whether the new Cowboy will be playing outside or inside, so my prediction is in nickel situations. Orlando Scandrick would slide inside to the slot and Chidobe Awuzie and Anthony Brown would start on the outside.
When we look at the starting defense I put together here, it becomes clear just how young the defense is. The average age is 24 years old. While that is a good thing, the veterans on this team need to lead by example. On the field and off the field.
This is a very early projection and I will be doing a final prediction on the starting defense after training camp. Some of our questions will likely be answered and we may even leave training camp with more questions. After free agency and the draft, there is plenty of competition up and down this defensive depth chart.
Hope you enjoyed my predictions and would love to hear yours as well!
How Does DT Christian Covington Factor in Cowboys 2019 Plans?
In what's become an almost forgotten move from this offseason, the Dallas Cowboys signed free agent Christian Covington in March to add depth at defensive tackle. After four years with Houston, Covington joins the Cowboys as they work to find consistency and increased solidity in the middle of the line. Can Christian help them do that in 2019?
Dallas gave Covington just a one-year, $1.5 million contract as 2019 free agency began. He is being asked to convert to a 4-3 DT after playing DE in the Texans' 3-4 defense.
In four years as a backup, Covington amassed 7.5 sacks and 65 tackles. He's coming off a career-high 3.5 sacks in 2018 in just 12 games. That's solid production for a 3-4 DE, and especially one whose job is to help set up guys like J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney to get to the quarterback.
The Cowboys have seen the transition work before. In 2013, Jason Hatcher had a breakout year with 11 sacks after converting to a 4-3 DT. That was Rod Marinelli's first year coaching in Dallas.
Marinelli must think he can do something with Covington as well. Dallas signed Christian just one day after free agency opened, clearly having targeted him ahead of time.
No, I don't think Covington is going to break out the way Hatcher did. And the Cowboys clearly felt they needed more help when they drafted DT Trysten Hill in April.
But the Covington addition shouldn't be ignored as we project who makes Dallas' 53-man roster this season.
Right now Dallas has Maliek Collins, Antwaun Woods, and Daniel Ross returning from last year's team. They've added Covington and Hill this offseason, and also still have Tyrone Crawford who can play on the inside.
Basic roster math offers little chance that all six of these players make the team. So who's most in danger?
Crawford has the bad contract and the potential for a suspension with his current legal issue. But he's also valuable for veteran leadership, as a previous team captain, and his versatility as a DE option.
Maliek Collins is entering the final year of his rookie deal, and the drafting of Trysten Hill suggests that he probably doesn't return in 2020. Dallas can save about $2 million by trading or releasing Maliek this year.
Dallas brought back Daniel Ross because it was easy; an Exclusive Rights Free Agent with a minimal contract. That said, he has flashed some ability and is more than just a camp body.
The only locks are the rookie Hill and Antwaun Woods, who was looking like the team's best DT by the end of last season. The rest of the depth chart will be some combination of Collins, Covington, Crawford, or Ross, and that's if undrafted rookie Daniel Wise doesn't also push for a roster spot.
It'd be easy dismiss Covington given his minor contract and lack of time in the system. But Dallas signed him for a reason, and they made it their very first move when free agency began.
If I had to put money on who does and doesn't make the team in 2019, I'd bet on Christian Covington before Maliek Collins or Tyrone Crawford. All three could make it, but I'm less confident in the other two.
Where Does Dak Prescott Rank Among NFL Quarterbacks?
The quarterback position is one of the most difficult positions to evaluate in the NFL. As hard as it can be for a quarterback to understand and execute an offense against a defense that is trying to keep them off balance, it can be equally difficult to try and determine where each quarterback ranks compared to his peers.
Last week, The Sporting News attempted to do just that with their 2019 Quarterback Rankings. It's a pretty good list, and I highly recommend checking it out.
This was the criteria for how Vinnie Iyer,
"These rankings are based on how each QB performed last season and the upside of how each might perform in 2019. No matter how many Super Bowl rings or MVP awards a QB has won, or the number of efficient passing seasons he has posted in the past, history is a small part of the equation. We thought about where each QB ended up last season in terms of effectiveness, production and durability, and then we thought even more about how his talent and offensive support set him up for success (or lack thereof) this season."
Vinnie Iyer - The Sporting News
Dak Prescott came in at number 14 on the list, three spots behind NFC East counterpart Carson Wentz.
Here's what NFL Analyst Vinnie Iyer had to say:
"Prescott dazzled as a rookie in 2016 and slumped as a sophomore in 2017. Last season, he was closer to his rookie form in a year that largely landed between both extremes. Prescott got hot in the second half of the season once he clicked with new No. 1 wideout Amari Cooper, creating a trickle-down effect that should continue with more legitimate overall weapons in 2019."
Vinnie Iyer - The Sporting News
While these lists are rather subjective and it can be a difficult task, I think Vinnie's pretty close on where Dak Prescott sits in the NFL at this point in his career.
It's hard to argue with his top five. Each could have an argument for being the best quarterback in the NFL. Patrick Mahomes just won the NFL MVP, Tom Brady has won all the Super Bowls, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers put up ridiculous numbers year in and year out, and Russell Wilson was just made the highest paid player in NFL history.
While I think Dak probably sits in the 9-15 range, here are the five quarterbacks ranked ahead or Prescott.
9. Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns
10. Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers
11. Carson Wentz, Philadelphia Eagles
12. Jared Goff, Los Angeles Rams
13. DeShaun Watson, Houston Texans
I feel there's an argument to be made that Prescott is a few spots to low.
As an avid Oklahoma Sooners homer, I find it a bit presumptuous to have Baker Mayfield as one of the 10 best quarterbacks in the NFL. Mostly because he's only played 14 games at this point in his NFL career. Mayfield had a tremendous rookie season and has given Cleveland Browns fans hope that the franchise is finally headed in the right direction. As much as I love Baker Mayfield and think he's going to be a great NFL quarterback, it's hard for me to put him in the top 10 at this point in his career.
Ben Roethlisberger is easily a top 10 quarterback. He has skins on the wall and over the last several seasons has been a prolific passer in the NFL. Some of the games he plays in the offseason talking about retirement aren't great, but it's hard to argue he hasn't had a borderline Hall of Fame career.
The most difficult argument I think comes when you compare Dak Prescott and DeShaun Watson. The two seem to be on similar career trajectories at this point.
Watson has a better passer rating, a slightly better completion percentage and has more total touchdowns per game than Dak Prescott for his career. If Watson had played as many games as Dak Prescott to this point, at his current touchdown rate, he'd have 108 total touchdowns. 23 more than Dak Prescott.
The two that I have the biggest issue with on this list are the two he gets compared to the most because they were taken first and second overall in the same draft that Dak Prescott was taken in the fourth round; Jared Goff and Carson Wentz.
Dak Prescott's thrown for near as many touchdowns as Carson Wentz, who leads the three, but if you consider how many touchdowns Prescott's rushed for in his career, he sits 13 total touchdowns ahead of Wentz and 16 total touchdowns more than Jared Goff. Dak Prescott has a better career passer rating than both of those quarterbacks and is right there in yards per attempt with both guys.
Dak Prescott can claim more team success than Carson Wentz. One could argue that Jared Goff didn't play his best on the way to representing the NFC in the most recent Super Bowl. Dak Prescott has started every game of his NFL career while Carson Wentz has missed eight games due to season-ending injuries each of the last two seasons. Durability is a huge issue for Wentz at this point. I'd rather have the guy who you know will be on the field.
If I were going to rerank Dak Prescott with the five quarterbacks ranked directly ahead of him, I'd go:
9. Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers
10. DeShaun Watson, Houston Texans
11. Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns
12. Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys
13. Carson Wentz, Philadelphia Eagles
14. Jared Goff, Los Angeles Rams
Of course, this is my attempt to be as unbiased as possible and would completely understand if you wanted to rank them differently. There's no perfect way to rank players in the NFL and I applaud the Sporting News guys for giving it this effort. I can see arguments for Ben Roethlisberger, Baker Mayfield, and DeShaun Watson ahead of Dak Prescott, but that's as far as I'm willing to go.
Dak Prescott is a top 12 quarterback in the NFL and an ascending player in this league.
If you were going to rank the six quarterbacks listed above, how would you rank them? Let us know in the comment section.
5 Worst Contracts for 2019 Dallas Cowboys
The Dallas Cowboys have done great work the last few years of shedding bad contracts and getting out of "salary cap hell." However, even this relative fiscal paradise of 2019 isn't perfect. Today, we're going to look at the five worst deals that Dallas still has on the books.
These contracts are only active as of now, in the middle of May, and could be gone by the time we gets to Week One. We'll discuss those possibilities as we go through each player.
What you'll realize fairly quickly with this exercise is that it's a stretch to even say the Cowboys have five "bad" contracts on the team at this point. That's how well the front office has done in learning from the past and getting things to a much more manageable and equitable point throughout the roster.
Maybe that changes in a few years. Some of the big contracts on our All-Pro offensive linemen may lose value as those players start to decline with age and/or health issues. Or perhaps the upcoming new contracts for Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper, Byron Jones, Ezekiel Elliott, and others will turn out to be retrospective mistakes.
But those are conversations and articles for future offseason. For here and now, 2019, here are the five worst contracts on the Dallas Cowboys roster.
DL Tyrone Crawford - $10.1 million cap hit
I know I've been picking on Crawford a lot lately, but that's what happens when you have easily the worst contract on the roster. Tyrone has the second-highest cap hit on the defense and sixth overall on the entire team, and that's an obvious imbalance compared to where he ranks among the Cowboys' top players.
This situation isn't Crawford's fault. Dallas thought they were making a shrewd move by giving Tyrone a sizable contract back in 2015. They expected him to blossom as the 3-tech DT under Rod Marinelli.
That boom never happened, and as a result Crawford's contract ultimately became a bust. He's been valuable as a leader and having DE/DT flex, but he's never been a top player on defense even when he was the highest paid.
I wrote more extensively on what Tyrone's future with the Cowboys might be, especially with the June-1st date looming for potential roster cuts. His job security has taken some big hits lately with the drafting of Trysten Hill and now legal issues, which could result in a minor suspension for Crawford in 2019.
We'll see if Tyrone Crawford makes it to the 2019 roster. He still has value with his versatility and generally solid play, but that overpaying contract could ultimately be his demise.
WR Allen Hurns - $6.25 million cap hit
The only other contract which is truly "bad" for the Cowboys belongs to veteran receiver Allen Hurns. It gives him the 11th-highest cap hit on the roster, and this for a guy who projects to be no higher than fourth on the WR depth chart.
The week before free agency opened in March, Dallas picked up an option to keep Hurns in 2019. It's always felt like an insurance move; Hurns can be released with just $1.25 million in dead money at any point this offseason.
Dallas is likely hanging onto Hurns until they get through the preseason without any injuries to Amari Cooper or Michael Gallup. It'd be nice to have Allen if something happens to them; he has plenty of starting experience and can be an every-down receiver. Guys like Randall Cobb or Tavon Austin aren't built that way, while Noah Brown isn't experienced enough.
Assuming everyone gets to September intact then I expect Hurns will be released. It's hard to imagine Dallas carrying him as a backup with that cap hit, and especially if they have younger guys like Brown or Cedrick Wilson that they want to utilize.
So no, Hurns' contract shouldn't cost the Cowboys for long. If he stays then it's because he's needed for a starting role, in which case $6 million is reasonable. But if he's going to spend most of the year on the sideline, Dallas has an easy out that I expect they'll utilize soon.
LB Sean Lee - $6 million cap hit
This is another one where how bad the contract is could shift depending on how much the player is needed in 2019. Even with a negotiated pay cut, Sean Lee's still making more than most of the starting defense.
Paying Lee this much to play SAM and then backup Smith and Vander Esch on the nickel is a bit high, even for what he brings as a mentor and coach on the field. But Dallas was willing to overpay for the intangibles, plus the hope that Lee could still play at a high level if called upon.
The biggest concern with Sean Lee, as it's ever been, is his health. He can still ball but has reverted to injury-prone issues in recent seasons. Perhaps a lesser role with fewer snaps will help in that area.
Again, I don't even know if I'd call this a "bad" deal. We have yet to see how much Dallas plans to rotate Lee with their young studs, and he brings things to the LB room that a guy like Damien Wilson never could.
The major liability here is if Lee gets hurt, in which case Dallas basically has a solid chunk of cap space tied up in an assistant coach.
TE Jason Witten - $4.25 million cap hit
You can apply some similar logic to Witten's deal from what we just discussed with Sean Lee. If he contributes on the field then it's not a bad deal. But if age and time away from the game have caused Jason's skills to slip too far, then this is a lot of money to pay for a backup TE.
Like Lee, Witten will hopefully offer a great deal as a mentor for Blake Jarwin, Dalton Schultz, and any other young tight ends. He can't make them any more talented, but he can at least help maximize whatever potential they have.
But again, without actual on-field contributions, that mean you're spending valuable salary cap space on coaching. That money could've gone to someone like Jared Cook for a more simple and immediate boost to your offensive firepower.
As we said at the outset, most of these contracts are only conditionally bad. If Witten's year off allowed him to heal and rest and come back with renewed vigor in 2019, then it could wind up being a great deal for the Cowboys.
Father Time may ultimately be undefeated, but he doesn't win every round. Hopefully Jason can fight him off for at least one more year.
DE Taco Charlton - $2.74 million cap hit
Taco's disappointing start to his NFL career has made his rookie contact, which is usually team-friendly, a bit of dead weight on the Cowboys' books. Unless Charlton take a big step forward this year, the Cowboys are stuck paying him like a significant contributor for the next two seasons.
Dallas would get no cap relief cutting Taco this year; his cap hit stays roughly the same if cut after June 1st. It would also push another $1.35 million in dead money onto 2020. Therefore, unless the situation between team and player has become truly toxic, or a trade partner emerges, the Cowboys should hang on to their 2017 first-round pick at least thru 2019.
Ideally, Charlton will emerge this year as a more consistent and motivated roleplayer. There's little chance that he'll start with Robert Quinn coming in, but Charlton could still claim the role of a major rotation piece if he's had some more development.
If that happens, Taco's deal will become far less worrisome. That's a modest salary for a solid backup at most positions, and especially at defensive end.
If Charlton doesn't improve, though, Dallas will finally be able to get some savings if they cut his deal in 2020. In that scenario, he probably isn't around long enough to make this list a year from now.
~ ~ ~
What makes a contract bad or good is subjective. You might look at those huge cap hits on deals for guys like DeMarcus Lawrence or Zack Martin and think they're the biggest problems. But if you're getting All-Pro play at fair market value, you really can't criticize those salary numbers.
It will be interesting to see what happens the next few years with guys like Travis Frederick and Tyron Smith, whose health issues could change how we perceive their contracts. Both are still young enough to play at a high level, but could we adding one of them to this list in the next year or two?
A few years from now, we make look back on 2019 as an anomaly. Having to reach to find enough contracts to make this list is a great problem to have.
I just hope it stays that way.
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