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Early Projection of the Dallas Cowboys Starting Defense

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- Week 2: Dallas Cowboys At Washington Redskins
AP Photo / Brandon Wade

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.

Defensive Line

Taco Charlton - Starting Right Defensive End

Projecting The Cowboys Starting Defense - Pre Training CampAfter 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 

Cowboys Headlines - "We Hate Them" Ex-Eagle DT Cedric Thornton Speaks On Former TeamCedric 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

The Cowboys Defense Have Young Foundation Players To Build Around

Nov 6, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Maliek Collins (96) sacks Cleveland Browns quarterback Cody Kessler (6) during the second half at FirstEnergy Stadium. The Cowboys won 35-10. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

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.

Cowboys Headlines - Reel Talk: Could DeMarcus Lawrence Fill the Cowboys Void at Right Defensive End? 2

Dallas Cowboys DE DeMarcus Lawrence (Smiley N. Pool/The Dallas Morning News)

Linebackers

Sean Lee - Starting WILL Linebacker

Sean LeeSean 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

Projecting The Cowboys Starting Defense - Pre Training Camp 1The 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

Cowboys Headlines - Damien Wilson "Eyeing" Bigger Defensive RoleDamien 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.

Secondary

Dallas Cowboys Player Profile: FS #31 Byron Jones 5

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

2017 Cowboys Draft Target: Louisiana Tech S Xavier WoodsThis 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

Anthony BrownSimilar 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

Dallas Cowboys: 5 Players To Watch At Rookie Minicamp 2Last 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.

Overview

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!


Born in 1995, loved Football but more importantly the Dallas Cowboys since day one. Living in Redskins Country flying the Blue and Silver flag as high as possible. Covering the Dallas Cowboys for InsideTheStar.com and CowboysNation.com. Catch me on twitter @ConnorNFLDraft!

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23 Comments
  • Mr. Jaguar

    Don’t forget. Lewis and White, they are both ball hawks

  • leo thomas

    I like these young players stepping up

  • Albert Smith

    They need to put Scandrick in the nickel when healthy he’s best there put Awuzie on the outside.

  • Kevin Black

    I think you’ll see the starting CBs against the NY Giants will be: Nolan Carrroll on the right, Orlando Scandrick on the nickel and Anthony Brown on the left. This is all barring injury.

    Now, by the end of the season, I see the starting CBs will be: Chido Awuzie on the right, Jourdan Lewis on the nickel and Anthony Brown on the left. This is all barring injury.

  • Travis Diggs

    Scandrick showed us last year he cant guard odell or none of those top receivers, he’s always played his best in the slot. Halfway through this season I think this whole secondary will be young with Awuzie, Lewis, and Woods. I like the Woods move the most because Cowboys fans really expect Heath to be the guy from the playoff game all season, Is he really that guy??? Xavier Woods will complement Byron Jones really well

    • Hammer33

      Is Xavier Woods that guy???? At least Heath has proven to be an NFL level safety. Woods has prove nothing. Anyone but Heath, even a 6th round pick.

      • Travis Diggs

        The only reason why people think Heath can be that guy is because we seen him in ONE game that stood out, outside of the playoff game when else last year did we hear Heath’s name called , thats not a proven safety He’s the special teams leader. America always wants the ” great white hope story” Halfway through the season we’ll be right back here talking about how he couldnt keep the starting job

        • Hammer33

          I’ll spin it around on you. How many people don’t think Heath can play because he’s the best white whatever. Race plays no part in this story, or shouldn’t. You brought it up so I assume it’s an issue for you.

          Heath has played solid football for 3 years. Not hearing his name isn’t necessarily bad if you’re a safety. His coaches, front office and teammates think highly enough of him to give him the chance.

          If you have only noticed in one game, then maybe you don’t pay attention. I guess we’ll see, cause he’s getting his shot. Of course, he’s white so he’s not really fast or athletic.

          Stupid comment.

          • Travis Diggs

            Stupid comment or real comment?? On a average defense you will get every shot to seperate yourself from the pack, in 3 years he’s been back up to back ups but he’s your guy right?? Back up to JJ wilcox who couldnt cover worth a damn, that says alot about his skills, like I said ONE game, name another game last year he impacted….??? I’ll wait. Jeff heath is known because he paralyzed a guy from seattle, thats how we know who he is

          • Hammer33

            Wow, I’m done

            You’re an idiot

          • Travis Diggs

            I love how passionate white people are over Jeff heath, its hilarious. Even dc.com and insidethestar mock him by calling him “the greatest cowboy alive” LMFAO.

          • Hammer33

            I like how dismissive black people are of white atheletes.

            You’re a racist ass.

          • Travis Diggs

            Just stating facts Maybe their racist facts but their facts, how many white dbs are their in the league?? I can count Smith and Weddle on my one hand and their both slow. White people arent typically fast, am i lying?? So why should i feel comfortable about Heath , he’s definitely not weddle or smith. He’s a average safety which means everybody on the roster has a chance I chose the more athletic black guy and yall chose the peoples champ. Thats simple. When odell and company come to dallas for week one I dont want that slow safety back there Thats it

          • Hammer33

            My hope is that you’re young. I’m sure these conversations go on between you and your friends. And I’m sure you believe them.

            When you post the racist shit have, you have to hope that a lot of people don’t read it. Some may believe it and get in your corner, most will just shake their heads and move on.

            Oh, BTW. Heath ran a 2.55 20. They don’t time the 40 in pro ball. He’s the FASTEST dude on the cowboys, two years running. Gotta drive the brothers crazy. And yes, in my line of work I get that type of information.

            You won’t believe it. But coming from your background, I wouldn’t expect an open mind.

            Good luck

          • Travis Diggs

            Not young just educated in a sport and topic that makes most people uncomfortable. While you may believe Heath is that fast, then why has he only made it past back up safety on a average defense, this team emphasizes player flex heavy, why hasn’t he been used in the kick return or punt return, they rather use bum ass lucky whitehead Cowboys nation have to get out of their emotions with Jeff he will be ok, but he will not be a starter for this defense Sorry

          • https://InsideTheStar.com/ Bryson Treece

            Who’s mocking him? Forget 2013. Every player has bad years. And it’s GOAT btw, not greatest Cowboy alive.

            As for the white/black thing; making that distinction just worsens the problem. Th intent doesn’t even matter. ijs

          • Travis Diggs

            Fair point. I personally have no problem with Jeff Heath as a player for this defense , the topic and main issue was him starting. The cowboys have brought in a draft class with many young and athletic players i do believe will impact this defense early on. Heath will get his playing time but my issue was him taking command of the back end of this defense like Church did. I only brought race in the topic because Heath gets the benefit of the doubt because he’s white How does a special teams player get this much hype when he’s barely on the field, we all know why. He’s treated by Cowboys nation like he’s going to be the savior of the defense If that was the case, don’t you think he woulda started by now???

          • https://InsideTheStar.com/ Bryson Treece

            I’ve never been a huge fan of Heath, aside from the INTs. And that’s the thing these last 2 years; when he’s on D, he INTs more than anyone else on the team. People remember that more than his lack of playing time and/or skills. I don’t think he can command the D as well as Church, or even Wilcox. But he’s a good rotational player. Has spark. Maybe more.

            The move away from Wilcox and Church might be an opening. Coaches could’ve seen the releases coming this year and put more focus into teaching him while the vets held things down. If Heath’s potential is clear enough to them, that’s very possible.

            But camp will help.

            The race thing on the football field is a bit ridiculous. Fans can do w/e, but if black/white still matters for getting on the field, I can’t tell. Not in Dallas, at least. But every position is a bit different (e.g., QB, TE verses RB, WR). All told, I don’t see a black safety or a white safety, I see INT or no INT; blown coverage giving up the deep ball, or Eli crying again.

            Just a pet-peeve about racism for me. Let the politicians play their games; the only colors that matter on ITS are blue and silver.

  • Russ_Te

    This will be a fantastic camp with all of these wide open position battles. How that goes is only a guess right now of course. However;

    Jones at SS, don’t think so. Too talented to play up in the scrum, not big enough to avoid injury there. The fact that he has to be on the field, as the most talented DB, allows some decent projections for how the pieces fit though.

    Jones is probably starting the year at FS, but if Woods comes on big this year, then you have to put him in the starting lineup because of his ball skills. That can only be at FS – again, too small for SS.

    So that moves Jones back to CB. He has 4.3 speed and can leap, and with more reps at CB has a great chance to excel there.

    So it’s only a guess, but by Thanksgiving my projection is Awuzie and Jones at starting CB’s, Woods starting at FS, and somebody at SS not named Heath.

    Now you factor in Jaylon Smith. If healthy he has to stay in the game on long downs – again too talented not to. So where you would normally have 6 or 7 DB’s in for a long down, this defense might go with one less so that Smith can stay in the game. I think if this pans out that offenses will not know what he is doing on the play. Might cover, might blitz.

    • Hammer33

      Again, anyone but Heath. Most fans, including you are clueless.

      • Russ_Te

        Not able to give specific rebuttal then…
        ;^)

        • Hammer33

          Rebuttal to what? You, or the racist idiot?

        • Hammer33

          Nah, I’ll save my debates for live humans. Trying to get across an idea online is impossible.

          BTW, my apologies for calling you clueless. I’m sure you have your reasons for your opinion.

          Have a good one

Dallas Cowboys

Dallas Cowboys 2018 Position Strength Rankings

Jess Haynie

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Cowboys 2017 Roster Projection: Preseason Week 2
Richard Mackson / USA TODAY Sports

At this point in the offseason, the Dallas Cowboys have mostly assembled their 2018 roster. A few moves could still come between now and Week One, but we have a pretty good idea now of who will be on the team this season. As such, it seems a good time to assess the strength of the team by each position.

For an added wrinkle, I went back and found a similar article written in 2016. At that time, the positions were ranked as follows:

  1. Special Teams
  2. Guard/Center
  3. Running Back
  4. Offensive Tackle
  5. Tight End
  6. Defensive Tackle
  7. Safety
  8. Quarterback
  9. Wide Receiver
  10. Linebacker
  11. Cornerback
  12. Defensive End

How much have things changed in the last two years? Where have the Cowboys built the team, and what's fallen behind in the process? Is the team stronger now than in 2016?

Ezekiel Elliott

Dallas Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott

1. Running Back

Arguably the best RB in the NFL, Ezekiel Elliott alone keeps this group high on the list. But solid and intriguing depth behind him puts the RBs on top for 2018.

Rod Smith's exciting blend of power and athleticism pushed veteran Alfred Morris out of view last season. He returns as Zeke's primary backup, capable of big production and explosive plays. His five-catch, 118-yard receiving performance last season against the Giants showed what a versatile weapon he could be.

Dallas traded for veteran speedster Tavon Austin and are calling him a RB this year. How he is worked into the offense remains to be seen, but the Cowboys clearly have some ideas for this very specific type of player. He is far better version of what they once had in Lance Dunbar.

Rounding things out is draft steal Bo Scarbrough from Alabama, a bruiser whose old-school style fits the Cowboys offensive well. The lanes Dallas' offensive line can provide will allow Bo to get a head full of steam, and that is bad news for would-be tacklers.

But again, this all comes back to Elliott. The fury that Zeke should play with this year after last season's issues may be the Cowboys' most important element in 2018. If he's back to retake the RB throne, Elliott could carry Dallas to big things this season.

Dallas Cowboys: Ranking Top 5 Most Indispensable Players 1

Dallas Cowboys C Travis Frederick (AP Photo/James D Smith)

2. Guard & Center

Any positions where the Cowboys can arguably say they have the league's best player have to be near the top of the rankings. In Center Travis Frederick and Guard Zack Martin, Dallas can make that claim without much room for debate.

The question at left guard does create some room for concern. Ronald Leary's free agency departure left a hole that got band-aided with veteran Jonathan Cooper last year. He's now a 49er, and Dallas drafted Connor Williams out of Texas to assumably take over.

Williams will be converting from tackle, though, and is a rookie. Thankfully, if he can't make the transition right away, the Cowboys have a few solid backup options.

Veterans Joe Looney and Marcus Martin both have starting experience and could step in if needed. Also, Dallas could opt to move La'el Collins back to guard and start Cam Fleming at right tackle.

Whoever's at LG, he gets play between Frederick and Tyron Smith. As we've seen the last few years, that means you can get away with a lesser talent in the role and still have one of the league's top lines. The stability provided by guys like Frederick and Martin makes that possible.

Cowboys Place LT Tyron Smith On IR Before Week 17

Dallas Cowboys OT Tyron Smith

3. Offensive Tackle

Tyron Smith says he's healthier than he's been in some time, and that's wonderful news for the Cowboys. Smith's health issues last year were one of the key reasons for Dallas' struggles.

Tyron's return to good health and All-Pro performance is vital. But along with that, Dallas hopes for La'el Collins to blossom as he finally gets to stay at a position and develop. A restored Smith and a developing Collins at the tackles could push the Cowboys' offensive line to new heights this year.

After the Chaz Green debacle last year, Dallas invested in its depth chart by signing veteran Cam Fleming to a $2.5 million backup deal. He will be your swing tackle and a vast improvement from Green, who isn't likely to be on the team much longer.

While not the current projection, it's possible that Connor Williams is preferred at tackle and gets Collins sent back to left guard. In either case, Fleming provides an excellent insurance policy against any instability in the starting lineup.

Cowboys Draft - Beyond the Clock: Undrafted Wonder, Dan Bailey 2

Dallas Cowboys K Dan Bailey and P Chris Jones

4. Special Teams

If Dan Bailey is healthy again and hasn't lost his confidence, the Cowboys special teams will be back to being one of its biggest strengths. But Bailey's 2017 struggles can't be forgotten until he proves he's back to form.

Bailey's groin injury last year cost him games and affected his play when active. By the end of the year, it was hard to say if Dan's problem was mental or physical. Either way, this is a crucial offseason for him to show he's back to being one of the most automatic kickers in NFL history.

Thankfully, there will be stability around him with Punter (and FG holder) Chris Jones and Long Snapper L.P. Laoduceur returning to their roles. Jones has emerged as one of the league's best punters in recent years, thanks largely to his directional kicking and ball placement ability. And Ladoceur remains perfect since joining the Cowboys in 2005.

With Ryan Switzer getting traded last month, Dallas has an opening in their return game. The safe bet is Tavon Austin, whose speed and experience in the role should give him an advantage. But prospect Lance Lenoir could also make a push, and Cole Beasley also has served as return man. This question mark should not be taken for granted given the premium all NFL coaches place on field position.

Has CB Jourdan Lewis Earned A Starting Role?

Dallas Cowboys CB Jourdan Lewis (Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports)

5. Cornerback

What a change from two years ago! Once a major liability, the CB group is looking like the strength of the defense in 2018.

That starts with the young corner duo of Jourdan Lewis and Chidobe Awuzie, who exceeded expectations as rookies and could be one of the league's better tandems this season. Their growth will be bolstered by the arrival of new Defensive Backs Coach Kris Richard, arguably one of the best in the game.

The depth is strong as well. Anthony Brown is in his third year and has been a tremendous value for a sixth-round pick. He has played a lot for his humble beginnings, and at worst will be an exceptional fourth CB on the depth chart.

I say "fourth" because the third spot is probably going to Byron Jones, who is moving back to corner after two years at safety. Jones could be a starter by the end of summer, but at worst he should be the third CB rotating in heavily and appearing often in the nickel scheme.

After years of worrying about injury-prone and aging player at CB, the Cowboys seem to finally have a crop of young, exciting talent with loads of upside.

DeMarcus Lawrence

Dallas Cowboys DE DeMarcus Lawrence

6. Defensive End

Also making a big move up the rankings is DE, where DeMarcus Lawrence has emerged as one of the league's premiere pass rushers. While questions about his long-term future remain, Lawrence is secure for 2018 and should be terrorizing quarterbacks once again.

While Lawrence is better at this job than any of the cornerbacks, defensive end has more questions marks down the list. Taco Charlton had mixed reviews last year, mostly negative, but was improving as the season ended. He will need to make a big leap this season to change critics' minds.

Veteran Kony Ealy was signed to provide some insurance and should be solid depth, but he's failed to catch on with two teams now. Dallas has liked him for years, though, so Rod Marinelli must think he can get something out of Ealy that others haven't. He's been right about that before.

Randy Gregory's probably reinstatement is a major x-factor for the DE position. We can't say what kind of player he'll be at this point, but Gregory was a first-round talent who dropped due to personal issues just three years ago. He's still young and fresh, and hopefully won't be too far removed from the game to get back to work.

If Gregory doesn't pan out, Dallas will hope that fourth-round rookie Dorance Armstrong can be an immediate contributor. They are the two best candidates to provide the athletic pass rusher, able to take on the left tackles, that the Cowboys need so badly.

David Irving, Redskins

Dallas Cowboys DL David Irving

7. Defensive Tackle

Dallas has a potential stud in David Irving and two known entities in Tyrone Crawford and Maliek Collins. The depth is nice, but the problem is that they're all best suited to play the same spot in the line.

If the Cowboys had brought back Terrell McClain a few weeks ago, it might've pushed the DT group higher up the rankings. He was the ideal guy to play the 1-technique tackle, having done it very well for Dallas in 2016. But McClain went to Atlanta and left the Cowboys with the same hole.

Barring any other free agent moves, Dallas will be hoping for a young prospect like Richard Ash or Brian Price to develop into a larger role. Otherwise, they may have to ask Collins to play the spot again as he did last year. It's not where Maliek belongs, negating his athleticism and limiting his play-making potential.

Ultimately, if Irving becomes the consistent threat that we hope for, then the rest of it doesn't matter much. The combined effect of Irving and DeMarcus Lawrence as strong-side terrors would make the rest of the line, and the entire defense, better than it's been in some time.

Jekyll or Hyde: Year 3 "Prove It" Season For Dak Prescott?

Dallas Cowboys QB Dak Prescott

8. Quarterback

Whether or not we get the 2016 or 2017 version of Dak Prescott may be the most important question the Cowboys face this year. But Dak isn't the only one responsible for his performance.

With Dez Bryant and Jason Witten gone, the Cowboys' receiving options will be drastically different. This could set Dak free, allowing him to trust his reads rather than feeling like he has to force the ball to one of the team's stars.

But without a proven player drawing attention, it may make it harder for the receivers to get open. That was some of what we saw last year, though it was compounded by the absence of Ezekiel Elliott and the running threat.

Prescott was unquestionably rattled at times last season, but he had some good reasons to be. Leaks in the offensive line and the loss of his dynamic RB put far more pressure on him than in 2016, and the results were clear. Ideally, 2018 will look more like his rookie season both in the quality of teammates and his own play.

Behind Dak are two intriguing but unproven passers in Cooper Rush and rookie Mike White. Both should be on the roster next year, and the competition for the backup role will be fun to watch. Rush looked a potential undrafted gem last year, so if White can push him it means good things for the QB depth.

Sean Lee

Dallas Cowboys LB Sean Lee

9. Linebacker

Sean Lee turns 32 in July and saw the return of some injury issues last year. While he could still certainly be the All-Pro leader we've come to love, nothing is certain at this stage in his career.

Behind Lee are even more questions marks. Hopes are high for Jaylon Smith both how will he respond to a larger role, both physically and mentally? The hype from his "top five talent" rookie days hasn't gone away, which means lofty expectations that Jaylon will have to work hard to meet.

The first-round pick spent on Leighton Vander Esch came with a wide range of reaction. Like Taco Charlton last year, many denounced the pick and are just waiting to be proven right. Vander Esch should be given a lot of work right way, perhaps even a starting role, but it may take the full season to see what kind of player he really is.

Damien Wilson provides a nice veteran presence, either the third starter or a primary depth option. He can play a few spots and will hopefully give similar value to what Anthony Hitchens did in past seasons.

Things are a little thin behind these guys, which is a cause for concern. Any injuries could expose the lack of depth quickly, making linebacker one of the team's bigger liabilities this season.

Allen Hurns

Dallas Cowboys WR Allen Hurns

10. Wide Receiver

As we said, Dez Bryant's gone and that alone leaves the position in a state of major change. Dallas brought in Allen Hurns to hopefully provide much of what Bryant did, but Hurns has never shown he can be the top receiver in an offense. His best years in Jacksonville came with Allen Robinson drawing the attention.

Hopefully, Dallas will have found some news ways to get Cole Beasley involved. The leading receiver in 2016, Beasley got keyed on by opposing defenses last year and it caused problems for Dak Prescott. We still need Cole to be known for his play, not his rapping, and it's on Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan to fix what wasn't working last year.

Terrance Williams was supposed to get a chance to step up this year, but his arrest last weekend for public intoxication could mean a suspension of worse. Williams does have value given his experience in the system, but Dallas may be done with him after disappointing play and now a personal conduct issue.

If Williams goes, veteran Deonte Thompson may get a larger role than originally anticipated. Like Bruce Butler the last few years, Thompson has speed that the other WRs don't. But unlike Butler, Deonte needs to make consistent plays on the opportunities he gets.

Third-round rookie Michael Gallup brings major intrigue, with some thinking he could be the team's best receiver by the end of the year. While not a gifted athlete by NFL standards, Gallup execute well and makes plays on technique and will. Those guys tend to do very well in the pros, and one of them is the most decorated receiver in NFL history.

So much remains unknown at WR, which isn't always a bad thing. Opposing defenses may need time to adjust to the new look Cowboys, which could be an advantage early on. But that means Scott Linehan will need to up his game from last year when the team was woefully predictable. Perhaps Bryant and Witten's departures will help in that area, though.

Cowboys Training Camp: 5 Fringe Players Fans Should Follow

Dallas Cowboys safety Kavon Frazier (Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports)

11. Safety

The young duo of Kavon Frazier and Xavier Woods is exciting, but still very unproven. With only a few years of combined experience, can they become major factors this season?

Jeff Heath is still around and could still be starting this year. Even if he does, one of Woods or Frazier should be his running mate and the other a regular part of the rotation.

One of our major talking points this offseason has been the Cowboys' potential trade for Earl Thomas, and that would obviously cause a big change in how we perceive safety as a whole. But until that happens, we have to count on who's actually here.

As we mentioned with the cornerbacks, a major factor here is the arrival of Kris Richard. Will the new coach be able to teach his young prospects the things that made guys like Thomas and Kam Chancellor household names in Seattle? Or will pedigree, with Woods and Frazier both being just sixth-round picks, limit their upside?

Dallas must believe enough in them to move Byron Jones back to CB, but belief doesn't win games. Only time will prove if the Cowboys's faith in their young safeties was wise.

Geoff Swaim

Dallas Cowboys TE Geoff Swaim

12. Tight End

Jason Witten's retirement caught everyone off guard, and it left Dallas without a clear successor in place. As such, it drove the TE position from one of relative security to the bottom of our rankings.

Fourth-year veteran Geoff Swaim has the best shot at starting next year. He is an exceptional blocker with solid receiving skills, which works well in a run-focused offense like the Cowboys have. But Swaim only has nine catches in his career, so who really knows what he can do with consistent targets.

Rico Gathers is everyone's favorite project player, but the college basketballer has yet to appear in an NFL game. Only the coaches know his progress, and if his technical skills are anywhere close to what's needed to make his football transition a success.

Rookie Dalton Schultz could push for time early, and perhaps even a starting role if he's a quick learner. Schultz may have the most upside as a receiver but wasn't known for his blocking in college, which will be an issue in Dallas if he doesn't develop fast. That was why Gavin Escobar could never get into the mix.

The proposed to move to more of a spread offense will reduce some of the importance of the TE position, but it's still a major component. Dallas just lost one of the best to ever play, and even in his diminished state Witten was still reliable and a high volume target. Someone will have to make a gigantic leap to even come close to filling his shoes.


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Dallas Cowboys

Cowboys WR Deonte Thompson Benefits Most From Terrance Williams Issue

Jess Haynie

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Cowboys WR Deonte Thompson Benefits Most From Terrance Williams Issue

The fallout from Cowboys Receiver Terrance Williams' arrest yesterday remains to be seen. Whether or not it costs him a roster spot is hard to say, but a suspension is likely. Whatever the case, veteran Deonte Thompson stands to be the biggest beneficiary of Terrance's issues.

Signed last March to a minimal one-year, $1.8 million contract, Thompson is a 29-year-old late bloomer who only last season got some notice in Buffalo. Given the limitations of the Bills' passing game with Tyrod Taylor at quarterback, Dallas clearly hopes that Deonte could do more with a more traditional offense and passer.

The Cowboys acquisition of Thompson was quickly overshadowed after they picked up Allen Hurns just a few weeks later. Deonte was actually signed just a couple of days after Hurns' release from Jacksonville, so it's fair to question if Dallas would have even signed him if they'd already picked up Hurns.

Even with Dez Bryant's release, the depth chart still didn't look good for Thompson. He was clearly behind Hurns and Cole Beasley and was likely battling with Terrance Williams for targets. Once the team drafted Michael Gallup in the third round, things looked even worse for the veteran.

Deonte Thompson

Dallas Cowboys WR Deonte Thompson

But now, if Williams is going to miss time or be gone completely, Deonte Thompson could find himself with a big role to start the year.

While Gallup is exciting, he's also a rookie. Thompson has been a starter the last few years and played in a few different systems. Dallas may lean on his experience early if Terrance is gone either temporarily or permanently.

One reason the Cowboys brought Deonte in was for speed, and that value doesn't change regardless of who else is on the roster. Essentially, Thompson is the new Brice Butler; intriguing qualities but just no consistent production at other stops.

If Deonte can do more with what Dallas throws him than Butler did, he might carve out a steady role. Brice always seemed to follow up his big plays with blunders, never gaining any real momentum during his time as a Cowboy.

Before Williams' arrest, there was a legitimate question as to whether or not Thompson would even make the 2018 roster. If younger prospects like Noah Brown and Lance Lenoir made noise, perhaps Dallas would've just let the 29-year-old walk.

But with Terrance's availability now the big question, Thompson's experience becomes vastly more important. It could mean a big early role in 2018.

Depending on what he does with his opportunity, Deonte Thompson could've gone from an offseason afterthought to a major part of the team's success.


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Player News

Is Terrance Williams Roster Spot Safe with Dallas Cowboys?

Sean Martin

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Is Terrance Williams Roster Spot Safe with Dallas Cowboys?

This will hardly be the last article written about the wide receivers of the Dallas Cowboys entering the 2018 season. However, we can only hope it's the last off-field incident that will factor into the difficult decisions the Cowboys will make on their final depth chart at WR. Yesterday, veteran Wide Receiver Terrance Williams was arrested for public intoxication after leaving the scene of a crash involving his Lamborghini.

Ian Rapoport on Twitter

Cowboys WR Terrance Williams released a statement on his recent arrest detailing several facets of the incident: "I have always been an upstanding citizen and handled the situation the best way I know how.

Details concerning the severity of the incidents that led to Williams arrest remain somewhat unclear. His on-field production certainly has not been though, putting himself in an expendable position by failing to catch a touchdown in 2017 and only going for over 100 yards once.

Handling this Terrance Williams situation in whatever the "right way" is will be yet another critical decision the Cowboys make under Head Coach Jason Garrett. A team that has clearly valued continuity under Garrett, there is precedent for the Cowboys keeping a now-troubled player like Williams if the void he'd leave behind is too large.

It is widely believed that this is a Cowboys coaching staff working to keep their jobs in 2018. Losing Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, and Terrance Williams in one offseason may very well be too much.

Already dealing with a broken foot that expects to keep Terrance Williams out of football activities until training camp though, it is becoming increasingly easier for Williams to become forgotten about in new WR Coach Sanjay Lal's room.

New additions to this unit include FA signings Allen Hurns and Deonte Thompson, along with rookies Michael Gallup and Cedrick Wilson. Joined by the likes of KD Cannon, Lance Lenoir, and Malik Earl, all of these receivers are going to stake their claims for a spot on the Dallas Cowboys before Williams even catches another pass from Dak Prescott.

Takeaway Tuesday: What We Learned From Cowboys Loss To Packers

Dallas Cowboys WR Terrance Williams (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)

Once perceived to be fighting for positions below Hurns, Williams, and Cole Beasley as locks on the final 53 man roster, Williams' arrest is the epitome of "next man up" in Dallas. Even if Williams remains with the team in 2018 - as cutting him would only make moral sense for the Cowboys, not financial - his days as a starting receiver may very well be numbered.

As mentioned, this won't be the first look we have at the status of the Cowboys receivers. I'm already on record having high expectations for Michael Gallup, and believe Cedrick Wilson was one of the steals of the draft for the Cowboys in the sixth round. The unproven nature of this pass catching unit (through to TE with rookie Dalton Schultz) is going to make for fascinating training camp battles, competing for spots in an offense that could still be one of the league's best.

Tell us what you think about "Is Terrance Williams Roster Spot Safe with Dallas Cowboys?" in the comments below. You can also email me at Sean.Martin@InsideTheStar.com, or Tweet to me at @SeanMartinNFL!


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