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Identifying Replacements for Cowboys Departed Free Agents

Sean Martin

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Cowboys Free Agency: Is LB Anthony Hitchens A Priority?

The Dallas Cowboys approached free agency with a familiar focus on re-signing their own players. While this isn't the flashiest way to add talent, it is a proven way to compete, especially considering the prospects the Cowboys have developed well enough to offer second contracts.

For as many homegrown players as the Cowboys have leading the way, they did allow the likes of Anthony Hitchens, Jonathan Cooper, and Brice Butler to depart this offseason.

Whether through signing other free agents or drafting, the Cowboys are weeks away from sorting out who fills in for these players on their deep 90-man roster. Here are my predictions for the early favorites in Dallas when looking to fill in these roles.

Has Anthony Brown Lost His Spot in Dallas Cowboys Secondary? 1

Dallas Cowboys CB Anthony Brown

Cornerback Orlando Scandrick: Anthony Brown

When Orlando Scandrick defected from the Cowboys to the Washington Redskins, he left behind a void that covered 85% of last season's defensive snaps. Scandrick's effectiveness as the Cowboys slot cornerback can be fairly called into question despite his veteran status, losing a step over the last few seasons.

Turn the page to 2018, and the Cowboys are in position to have some of the best depth at slot CB in the league. Under new Passing Game Coordinator Kris Richard, this potential has already been on display at the Cowboys previous OTAs and mini camp.

Last year's standout rookie Jourdan Lewis could progress even further by kicking inside for his second season. To earn this role vacated by Scandrick, he'll have to first beat out Anthony Brown. Looking to recapture his form from a stellar 2016 season, Brown plays with the speed and awareness that the Cowboys expected from Scandrick in his prime.

Now, they can expect to hold up at cornerback without Scandrick thanks to Anthony Brown, as well as Jourdan Lewis and Duke Thomas.

Defensive End Benson Mayowa: Dorance Armstrong

It's unfortunate the Cowboys don't have bigger shoes to fill when it comes to Benson Mayowa, moving on to the Arizona Cardinals after totaling seven sacks in two seasons for the Cowboys. Mayowa was never able to truly hold down the starting job at right defensive end, a position the Cowboys will still deal with uncertainty at in Oxnard.

Awaiting the reinstatement status of Randy Gregory, the Cowboys also have Tyrone Crawford and Taco Charlton prepared to play in rotation at RDE. In terms of replacing what they had in Mayowa, rookie Dorance Armstrong fits the mold well.

Both athletic rushers with length and flexibility on the edge, it's unclear how much Armstrong will be asked to contribute in his first season. Having a similar plan after signing Mayowa would have been ideal for the Cowboys, but moving forward with this depth across the entire defensive line is an overall team strength for DC Rod Marinelli to maximize.

Working with a defensive end like Armstrong, who peaked with 10 sacks as a Junior in 2016 at Kansas, Marinelli and the Cowboys should look at anything they get out of this 'high ceiling' prospect as an added bonus in 2018.

Offensive Tackle Byron Bell: Cameron Fleming

If this season is truly going to be a prove it year for Quarterback Dak Prescott, the Cowboys must avoid the major injuries that completely wrecked his offense a year ago. Most notably, this offensive line did not play up to their own standards when Jonathan Cooper and Tyron Smith were out.

Committed to protecting Prescott again, the Cowboys prioritized their backups at tackle and guard to bring in Cameron Fleming and Marcus Martin. Fleming will serve as a replacement to Byron Bell, who finds himself with the Green Bay Packers now.

Where Bell struggled at left tackle with his footwork and overall movement ability, Fleming is a proven tackle that knows how to win, signing in Dallas by way of the New England Patriots. He is the ideal swing tackle to be ready for either Smith or La'el Collins, something never said about Bell.

Kam Chancellor's Seahawks Career Ends, Will Earl Thomas be Next to Leave?

Dallas Cowboys LG Connor Williams

Left Guard Jonathan Cooper: Connor Williams

This one is as easy as it gets, and part of the reason I named Williams the Cowboys rookie with the most upside last week. Now with the San Francisco 49ers, Jonathan Cooper left behind a starting job at left guard for the Cowboys in free agency.

With no intentions on handing this job to Marcus Martin, the Cowboys couldn't pass on Texas standout Connor Williams at 50th overall in the NFL Draft. Keeping Williams in the state of Texas is much more than just a feel good story for everyone familiar with what he went through to battle back from injury, but one with massive implications on the Cowboys offense.

Idolizing Tyron Smith throughout his journey into football, Williams will now team up with Smith on the left side of the Cowboys offensive line. The results should be stunning for this athletic and cohesive front line, especially when factoring in Travis Frederick on Williams' right side, Zack Martin, and La'el Collins.

Linebacker Kyle Wilber: Chris Covington

Primarily a special teams ace for the Cowboys, Kyle Wilber followed Rich Bisaccia to Oakland this offseason. Joining Keith Smith with the Raiders, Wilber also leaves behind a depth option for the Cowboys at both SAM linebacker and defensive end.

While rookie Chris Covington lacks the strength and experience to play defensive end, he will have to emerge on special teams to make this roster as a sixth round pick. In doing so, Covington would be absorbing the primary duties of Wilber while developing as a backup at linebacker -- just as Wilber was if called upon.

Los Angeles Rams @ Dallas Cowboys: By the Numbers

Wide Receiver Brice Butler: Deonte Thompson

It's common knowledge at this point that the Cowboys are going with a receiver-by-committee approach for 2018. Most notably replacing Dez Bryant, who remains a free agent, the Cowboys have also found speed on the outside with Deonte Thompson and rookie Cedrick Wilson.

Thompson is a very similar player to now Cardinals WR Brice Butler, who never quite found his footing in the Cowboys offense. The same has been said about Thompson through multiple teams, seen last with the Bills where he caught 38 passes for 555 yards in 2017.

Like Butler, Thompson has no problem getting over the top, and is even more refined in his ability to run intermediate routes. The Cowboys have plenty of use for Thompson's speed should they choose to use it, something they couldn't consistently do with Butler.

Cornerback Bene Benwikere: Marquez White

Yet another Cowboys free agent that signed with the Cardinals this offseason, replacing Benwikere comes down to who makes the final 53-man roster for the Cowboys. Rarely contributing on defense as an average depth player, any backup cornerback that actually makes this team is effectively the "new" Benwikere.

I'll take Marquez White's year of experience and toughness to earn him a spot once again over the likes of Donovan Olumba and Kam Kelly. Even if White doesn't provide the special teams snaps that Benwikere could, he is a capable backup at both cornerback and safety, which is more than enough for the Cowboys to consider this an upgrade at the position.

Linebacker Anthony Hitchens: Jaylon Smith

Perhaps the biggest name to leave the Cowboys this offseason, Anthony Hitchens is reunited with Matt Eberflus as a high-profile signing with the Colts. Not re-signing a player as solid and reliable as Hitchens forced the Cowboys to rebuild a bit at linebacker, doing so by spending the 19th overall pick on Leighton Vander Esch.

Sure, Vander Esch may be getting the first crack at Hitchens' old MIKE LB spot, but I believe improvements from Jaylon Smith this season will closely resemble what Hitchens leaves behind.

Practicing without a brace and preparing for a monster season, the sky is now the limit for Smith in returning to his college form. At his best, it won't matter where the Cowboys deploy Smith, as his reaction ability and power against the run will help this defense get off the field.

The same was often said about Anthony Hitchens, who quietly handled duties at all three linebacker positions at different times in Dallas.

Linebacker Keith Smith: Jamize Olawale

Never doing without their fullback, the Cowboys traded for Jamize Olawale this offseason from the Raiders -- where Keith Smith joins Kyle Wilber and Ryan Switzer as former Cowboys. Smith justified his spot on the depth chart at fullback very well, playing 85% of the Cowboys special teams snaps while being an emergency option at linebacker.

Jamize Olawale may not be an option at linebacker for the Cowboys, but the team should feel good about their depth elsewhere at this position. The bigger problem spot for Dallas exists at tight end, where Olawale can help relieve the need for a consistent threat by catching passes out of the backfield.

Olawale has certainly been an under the radar player this offseason for the Cowboys, but as we get a feel for what they have planned for him in Oxnard, Olawale should help the Cowboys move on from a player well-respected by coaches and fans in Keith Smith.

✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭

For the most part, the Cowboys have potential upgrades in place for their class of departed free agents. Each season's roster turnover is a humbling reminder of how important it is to capitalize on opportunity in the NFL. Realizing this despite being such a young team, the Cowboys signed the right veterans in free agency to avoid devastating injuries in 2018.

It will take expected contributions from veterans, draft picks living up to the billing, and free agents stepping up quickly for the Cowboys to contend this season. The pieces are in place for this roster to develop into one of the league's most talented by the end of the year however, where the best offensive line and running back in the sport become so much more important.

Tell us what you think about "Identifying Replacements for Cowboys Departed Free Agents" in the comments below. You can also email me at Sean.Martin@InsideTheStar.com, or Tweet to me at @SeanMartinNFL!



Born January 28th, 1996- Cowboys Super Bowl XXX. Point Boro Panther, Montclair State Red Hawk, and most importantly a proud member of Cowboys Nation! I host "Upon Further Review" on 90.3 WMSC FM and wmscradio.com every Friday from 1-4 PM ET. Twitter: @SeanMartinNFL.

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1 Comment
  • Ethan Chazin

    Sean, one of your better articles. Going try the roster free agent by free agent your article emphasizes how important it is to build a deep roster across the offense defense and S/T. I like what the front office has done in replacing players with upgrades in talent, youth AND experience. I really like the Fleming signing and hopefully that means goodbye to chaz green

Dallas Cowboys

Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott Takes Accountability for Week 3 Loss

Jess Haynie

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Ezekiel Elliott: NFL's History with Domestic Violence Shows Inconsistency, Hypocrisy 2
James D Smith via AP

Despite breaking 100 rushing yards for the first time this season, Cowboys Running Back Ezekiel Elliott took the blame for Dallas' loss in Seattle yesterday.

A 31-yard touchdown reception was called back in the second quarter because Elliott stepped out-of-bounds prior to making the catch. Dallas would go on to kick a field goal, making the score 7-3, but Zeke's error cost the team four points on the drive.

Early in the fourth quarter, with Dallas trailing 24-6 but starting to find offensive rhythm, Elliott ripped off a 26-yard run. But the play ended with Zeke getting caught from behind and the ball knocked out of his hands, and the Seahawks recovering.

While many might argue the the Cowboys' inept passing game was the real reason for the loss, Elliott took full responsibility when talking to the media afterwards.

"I had a poor performance today," Elliott said. "Did well in the run game, but overall, I dropped the ball. That loss is on me."

"You can say whatever, but at the end of the day, when you've got the ball in your hands, that's the team in your hands," Elliott said. "Me being a leader on the team, me being a better player on this team, I got to do a better job of taking care of the ball. That cost us the game."

While Zeke may not have loved his leadership yesterday, these comments show that the 23-year-old is developing into one.

Last year, Elliott had little to say to the media. That was likely for the best, though, while he was embroiled in all of the controversy surrounding his suspension and appeals.

But now, a year removed from that issue and in his third year with the Cowboys, Zeke appears to have found his voice again. He is still the catalyst for the Dallas offense, and the highest-drafted player on the entire roster.

For a player whose maturity has been called into question during the first two years of his NFL career, Ezekiel Elliott showed a lot of it yesterday. Hopefully, it helps his team to regroup and get back to winning as the seasoning continues.



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Game Notes

Sean’s Scout: Poor Execution, Timely SEA Passing Game Doom Cowboys

Sean Martin

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Sean's Scout: Poor Execution on Offense, Timely Seahawks Passing Game Doom Cowboys in Seattle
(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

The Dallas Cowboys have yet another disappointing loss to put behind them, or at least attempt to, as their struggles on offense carried into Seattle for week three. A desperate team in search of their first win at home, the Seahawks took full advantage of the Cowboys lack of preparation in the first half before capitalizing on mistakes to pull away 24-13.

The Cowboys dropping their second game in three weeks, both in similarly lackluster fashion, this will be a long week at The Star before Dallas kicks off against the Detroit Lions at home on Sunday.

Perhaps the Cowboys need not look any further than their next opponent to realize not all hope is lost for 2018. Like the Seahawks, the Lions were fighting to save their season yesterday, and did so with a home win against the now 1-2 New England Patriots.

If the Cowboys are going to reclaim their status atop the NFC East at any point this season though, some drastic changes are needed on offense. As always, here are my immediate notes on a Cowboys team that relied on their defense a few too many times in this latest loss.

  • I understand the Cowboys plan to use heavy personnel on offense against a defense with as much lateral speed as the Seahawks, but once again the execution from their wide receivers and tight ends was very poor.

By inviting defenders near the line of scrimmage, the Cowboys were challenging their offensive line to beat the Seahawks off the ball and potentially create some big plays for Ezekiel Elliott on the ground. Elliott did find some success as the game became further out of reach for his team, partially because of his own miscues.

The Cowboys' offseason approach at WR is yielding no immediate results, but so too is their confidence in Geoff Swaim, Blake Jarwin, and Rico Gathers to step up in the absence of Jason Witten. While Witten isn't the missing piece for the Cowboys pushing the ball down the field, their lack of a threat at tight end is a serious detriment to Dak Prescott.

An early second half sequence that really hurt the Cowboys in this game began with a Gathers false start, the team's second straight penalty. Byron Jones' holding penalty on a Seahawks punt backed the offense up to their eleven yard line, and Gathers' ensuing procedural penalty had Dallas driving from their own six.

The Cowboys would do well to earn a manageable third down, despite a predictable run for no gain on first and 15, but Michael Kendricks' sack of Prescott forced a three and out.

  • This will do little to take the heat off Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan, but the Cowboys bigger issue on offense was execution compared to play calling in this loss.

Yes, execution is also part of coaching, which makes not only Linehan but the rest of the Cowboys coaches along with Head Coach Jason Garrett responsible for the team's floundering 1-2 start.

The Cowboys finally saw Elliott involved in the passing game on an apparent second quarter touchdown, only to have Elliott step out of bounds before the catch. Settling for early field goals with good field position is typically a sign that a team is in for a long day on the road, and this is exactly the type of afternoon it was for Dallas.

Adding another Elliott fumble and two Dak Prescott interceptions only provides further context on how well the Cowboys defense is playing, keeping this game within reach until the closing minutes.

The Cowboys offense is a house of cards right now, deliberately played by those that should have been held to higher standards as early as last season. With enough talent on this side of the ball to turn things around, the Cowboys must quickly figure out the right layers to peel away before discovering the root of their offensive woes.

Whether or not this ends up being Linehan, or if he simply becomes the scapegoat for a team that's never truly wavered in their commitment to Prescott, it's hard to argue with a change in philosophy for a Cowboys offense still searching for identity.

The Cowboys certainly weren't more creative in this loss, even on their deceptive pitch to Tavon Austin for his second touchdown in as many weeks. That exact play has been used by plenty of teams in that situation this season. With each successful conversion, more teams will add it to their arsenal - the Cowboys being the latest, with nothing to truly show for it.

Cowboys Nation on Twitter

That Tavon Austin TD? Yep, it's a copycat league. https://t.co/ggILr2TRGi

  • The Seahawks first touchdown came as a result of two of the worst defensive plays of the year for the Cowboys. 

After being a great blitzing team through two weeks, the Cowboys poorly executed an aggressive third down blitz with the Seahawks on their 35-yard line. The result was a 19-yard conversion to running back Chris Carson. Both Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith were picked up easily by the Seahawks pass protection on the play.

On the very next snap, the Seahawks' speed beat the Cowboys as Jaron Brown freed himself for a 16-yard touchdown. Of course, Seattle would never look back after this second quarter score to open a 7-0 advantage.

The Cowboys issues in coverage didn't stop here either, with Russell Wilson making the timely plays that Prescott left on the field. On Tyler Lockett's touchdown, pushing the Seahawks lead to 14-3, Kavon Frazier was beat to the spot in helping Chidobe Awuzie down the sideline.

Expecting the safety help to be there as it had been with Jeff Heath or even Xavier Woods (playing in his first game of the season), Awuzie still struggled to slow down Lockett, giving a below average cover player like Frazier no chance to get back in the play.

The Cowboys are committed to rotating their linebackers and safeties this season, and while the results have mostly been positive, they simply got caught with the wrong safety in the wrong spot here.

To make matters even worse, Seahawks safety Earl Thomas made these gaffs a "what could have been" moment for the Cowboys, turning the game with two interceptions against a team that may still make a push for his services.

Jon Machota on Twitter

Earl Thomas said a couple of Cowboys coaches said to him before the game, "You ready for the trade tomorrow?

  • It took a rough outing from Chidobe Awuzie to be fully appreciated, but Byron Jones was able to show why he's the best cornerback on the Cowboys right now.

On a positive note, the Cowboys are absolutely being rewarded for moving former first-round pick Byron Jones back to cornerback. This was one of the first decisions Kris Richard made upon his arrival to Dallas, looking to bring the Seahawks model to the Cowboys secondary.

Jones size and frame gave him a great chance to succeed under Richard before ever suiting up, but his awareness at cornerback has been off the charts. As opposed to dealing with players already at full speed or at the catch point when he was a safety, Jones is embracing being able to break on the ball and make more plays.

When the Seahawks needed a play through the air, they picked on Awuzie, who was exposed a bit for his tendency to sit on deep routes and react late to anything across his face. To start the game though, the Seahawks learned quickly that targeting Jones was a losing battle, unable to get anything behind him.

✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭

Week three was a great example of how much the NFL is a week-to-week league. Before kickoff in Seattle, the Cowboys were perceived to be entering an easier stretch to their season. Now, the Seahawks look like a team that can climb back into the playoff race, as do next week's opponent in the Lions for the Cowboys returning to AT&T Stadium.

It feels safe to say that at least two things are true of the Cowboys through these trying three games however. The Cowboys defense is already one of the best in the league, with the potential to get even better. Meanwhile, their offense is objectively one of the worst.

Whether or not the Cowboys offense is fixable is a question this staff must answer between now and next Sunday. As mentioned, it may feel like a long time until then, but for a team with as many issues as Dallas right now there will be little reprieve from salvaging relevancy (or trying to) in week four.

Tell us what you think about "Sean’s Scout: Poor Execution, Timely SEA Passing Game Doom 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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Player News

REPORT: Cowboys LB Sean Lee to Miss Games with Hamstring Injury

Jess Haynie

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REPORT: Cowboys LB Sean Lee to Miss Games with Hamstring Injury

Dallas Cowboys Linebacker and Captain Sean Lee will likely miss time with a hamstring injury suffered during the team's Week 3 loss to the Seattle Seahawks.

Lee, who'd hurt his other hamstring in Week 2 against the Giants, had to leave yesterday's game with a new injury to the alternate leg. His status was reported on today by NFL Network's Ian Rapoport.

REPORT: Cowboys LB Sean Lee to Miss Games with Hamstring Injury 1

Hamstring issues also bothered Sean Lee last year. He missed five games in 2017.

As Rapoport mentioned, the presence of rookie Leighton Vander Esch now takes far greater importance. The 2018 first-round pick looked good yesterday in relief of Sean, registering 11 tackles.

Another season of injury problems could put Lee's future with the Cowboys in jeopardy. In fact, it may only cement what was already a strong possibility.

Sean can be released next season for about $7 million in salary cap savings, and his replacement is already on the roster.

Lee is still a top NFL linebacker when healthy. But "when healthy" has been said far too often, and the Cowboys used their first-round pick this year to prepare for such a problem.

We'll see how long the 32-year-old has to sit out, and what impact that has on his career going forward.



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