Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith and defensive end Charles Tapper both made their NFL debuts on Sunday night, one year later than either would have liked. Members of the Cowboys 2016 rookie class, Smith and Tapper made impacts that continue the successful legacy of one of the franchise's all-time drafts.
Starting at middle linebacker, Jaylon Smith had seven tackles and was one of the leaders in shutting down the New York Giants' offense. The Cowboys' division rival was held to just 233 total yards and only 35 of those came on the ground. Smith showed his athleticism and reading ability on several stops. He also had a forced fumble that should have been called but the officials blew it.
Charles Tapper did not start but had one of the Cowboys' three sacks on Eli Manning. He nearly had another, getting a hand on Manning but just didn't have the right angle to finish the play. Considering the team leader in sacks last year (Benson Mayowa) only had six for the season, it's hard to not get excited anytime we see a Cowboy get to the quarterback.
Even if Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott were the only products of the 2016 draft, it would still go down as a good year. But the Cowboys defense has also benefited; DT Maliek Collins and CB Anthony Brown both started last night's game and made critical plays along the way. Jaylon Smith is now also a starter at middle linebacker, a critical position in any defensive scheme.
Unlike Brown or Collins, who have been unexpectedly good based on where they were rated coming out of college, the only surprise with Jaylon Smith is his health. Smith has had to work back from a horrible knee injury that many felt would be career-ending. That he was able to start on Sunday night and play the majority of snaps is nothing short of a medical marvel. It's a testament to the professionals who helped him, but also Jaylon for the hard work and diligence needed to make it happen.
Some have said that Jaylon Smith was the most talented player in the entire 2016 class, not just for the Cowboys but the entire draft. Consider that; Joey Bosa has been one of the most instantly productive DE prospects to come out in a long time. RB Ezekiel Elliott and CB Jalen Ramsey were both about as highly rated at their positions as you can get. For Smith to even be considered on their level, if not superior, is special.
Charles Tapper also lost his rookie season for health reasons; a spinal defect that was detected after he joined the Cowboys and had to be surgically repaired. It not only stole the 2016 season from him but limited Tapper's work during the last offseason and preseason. It's impressive that he could come out and make an impact so quickly after so much missed time.
A fourth-round pick in 2016, taken at the start of the round 34 picks ahead of Dak Prescott, Tapper was considered a potential steal after being misused at Oklahoma as a 3-4 defensive end. Many felt he could blossom with more freedom to go after the quarterback in the 4-3 scheme, and it only took one game for Charles to show why.
Don't forget, Charles Tapper set a record at the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine. His 4.59 time in the 40-yard dash was the fastest ever for a player listed at 270 pounds or more. Fourth-round picks aren't spent lightly and Rod Marinelli is assuredly picky about who he adds to his defensive line. If Tapper keeps making plays, it will be yet another testament to this scouting department.
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Indeed, the 2016 draft class is already the crowning jewel of the brain trust headed by Will McClay, Stephen Jones, and Jason Garrett. It's perhaps the single greatest haul of talent that the Dallas Cowboys ever brought in, even eclipsing the work of Jimmy Johnson in the early 90s.
What's so amazing is how much better it can still get. Charles Tapper could be on his way to joining Maliek Collins and Anthony Brown as key defensive contributors. And if Jaylon Smith reaches his full potential, he may be as much a star on defense as Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott are on the other side of the ball.
It's just one week, of course, but it's a debut that both players and all Cowboys fans and followers have waited over a year for. Despite all of the anticipation, Jaylon Smith and Charles Tapper didn't disappoint.
Cowboys 2018 Free Agents: LB Kyle Wilber
While not one of the glamour players for the Dallas Cowboys, linebacker Kyle Wilber has been a steady and reliable asset for six seasons. He is set to be a free agent this offseason, and his return to Dallas is hard to project.
A fourth-round pick in 2012, Wilber has only started 16 games but been active for nearly all of them. Even when not having a major part on defense, Kyle has been standout special teams player almost every season.
Dallas saw Wilber's value in 2016 and gave him a two-year extension after his rookie contract expired. Now, though, Kyle turns 29 in April and it may be time to give his roster spot to a younger option with more upside.
It's impressive that Kyle Wilber's lasted this long with the Cowboys. He was drafted to play outside linebacker in the team's 3-4 scheme at that time under Rob Ryan. When Monte Kiffin arrived in 2013 and the switch was made to the 4-3, Wilber was able to transition and stick around for five more seasons.
Wilber's depth value and special teams play earned him $3.25 million over the last two years. Would the Cowboys offer him a similar deal to stick around for another couple of seasons, or is it time to move on?
One factor helping Kyle is that even though Special Teams Coordinator Rich Bisaccia left for the Oakland Raiders, the Cowboys promoted from within. Keith O'Quinn has been here since before Wilber's time and knows what he brings to the table. He could push to keep one of his veteran leaders around.
Another consideration is that Dallas isn't flush with linebacker talent at the moment. Anthony Hitchens is a free agent, and if he doesn't return then that only leaves Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith, and Damien Wilson as the known entities.
The Cowboys haven't allowed age to stop them from doing business with Justin Durant the last few seasons. He was 31 when the team signed him last year for veteran depth and insurance.
Could Dallas offer Kyle Wilber a similar deal, one or two years max at a minimal salary, to stick around? It's very possible, and especially if they let him see what free agency has to offer for about a month.
Even if 2017 was the end of his Cowboys run, Wilber has been a success as a fourth-round pick. He's been there when needed and been a leader on special teams. Earning a second contract with your original teams is always an accomplishment.
We'll have to wait and see if he gets a third.
Cowboys 2018 Free Agents: OT Byron Bell
Offensive tackle became a problem position for the Dallas Cowboys in 2018. One guy who helped the situation was veteran backup Byron Bell. He is now a free agent, but Dallas could may be interested in bringing him back next year.
Bell was signed last March to provide depth and insurance on the offensive line. He had experience at both guard and center, starting almost every game since entering the NFL in 2011. Byron had missed all of 2016 with an ankle injury while a member of the Tennessee Titans.
After spending the first part of the year at the bottom of the depth chart, Bell was called into duty after a disastrous performance by Chaz Green in the team's Week 10 game against the Atlanta Falcons. With starting left tackle Tyron Smith injured, Green got the start and was obliterated by Falcons defensive end Adrian Clayborn to the tune of six sacks.
Byron got the start the following week against the Philadelphia Eagles, and he was clearly better than Green. He would remain the team's swing tackle the rest of the season and got another start in the meaningless Week 17 finale.
Now Byron Bell is a 29-year-old free agent. With Chaz Green seemingly a failed experiment, Dallas has to figure out what to do about their depth behind Tyron Smith and La'el Collins. Could they be in the market to re-sign Bell?
Given his vast starting experience and position flexibility, Byron may have some other suitors in free agency. Offensive linemen age slower than other positions, so 29 isn't the same mark of death that a running back or corner might deal with.
A likely scenario here is that Dallas, assuming they'd like to have Bell back at all, would let him test free agency and then hopefully re-sign him later in the offseason to a minimal contract. Like last year, he would make sense for insurance at the position and especially if the team is going to part ways with Green.
What's more, Byron has increased value after a year in the Cowboys system. Also, in 2017 he was coming off an entirely missed season with the ankle injury. He's a more attractive asset in 2018.
That increased value could be seen by other teams, too. While Bell has had his ups and downs, he's accomplished enough that his name will be noticed among other free agents. A team with major needs on the offensive line might even consider him to compete for a starting job.
We don't know what the Cowboys' interest level is in bringing Byron Bell back, but they may have competition for his services. Given the role he filled to finish 2017, he could wind up an underrated free agent departure this offseason.
4 Depth Players to Keep in Mind on Dallas Cowboys Roster
Maneuvering through the NFL offseason is a funny task for committed football fans, especially those of Cowboys Nation. Prior to the start of each new season bringing hope for all 32 clubs to reach the Super Bowl, every NFL roster enters a tumultuous state. Talent will be added through free agency and the Draft, while promising players will also be shuffled around through practice squads and training camp releases.
All of that to say, despite criticism for appearing stagnant so far this offseason on the heels of a 9-7 campaign, nobody knows what the Dallas Cowboys will actually look like in 2018. This is why I've decided to feature four under the radar players on the current Cowboys' roster below, all of which provide depth at positions of need.
TE Blake Jarwin
An undrafted free agent out of Oklahoma State, Blake Jarwin found his way onto the Cowboys' practice squad for 2017.
Jarwin showed enough promise early in his Cowboys career to earn fans on the coaching staff and throughout the organization, as he was promoted to the active roster in week eight. The Philadelphia Eagles were reportedly in position to snatch Jarwin from the Cowboys - who protected their versatile tight end.
The TE position remains unsettled for the Cowboys in 2018 and beyond, with Jason Witten's production clearly declining. The Cowboys will also be on their third TE coach in three seasons this year, transitioning to Doug Nussmeier.
Nussmeier brings no previous experience as a TE coach specifically, meaning the team's overall philosophy on the position will still be determined heavily by Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan. Favoring tight ends that can block in the running game over those with higher upside as receiving threats, Jarwin is a name to keep in mind as a tenacious blocker that plays with sound technique.
WR Lance Lenoir
This past summer, I had the chance to interview Dallas Cowboys WR Lance Lenoir following his signing with the team out of Western Illinois. In that interview, Lenoir shows off the confidence he took into training camp as a receiver that would have a hard time making the team.
By the end of this long season, the Cowboys went from being perceived as deep and talented at WR to in need of new play makers on the outside.
Perhaps pressing a bit through the preseason, Lenoir did provide practice depth as a reliable pass catcher and punt returner, struggling on special teams in live action and ultimately spending the season on the practice squad.
The 2018 NFL Draft features a deep class of talented receivers, and the Cowboys would be wise to draft one with real potential that can push up the depth chart in a hurry. As far as current options on the roster to fill this position, WR Lance Lenoir can't be overlooked as an athletic target with NFL size and strength - entering his second season in Dallas.
DT Datone Jones
A mid-season acquisition from the Green Bay Packers, Datone Jones flashed as a defensive tackle in the limited opportunities he received. A five-year league veteran, Jones showed the ability to play with power and leverage at the 1T position - a spot the Cowboys are thin at right now.
Jones' versatility also suited him well, playing with impressive burst and disruptive ability as a pass-rushing 3T.
The addition of one more starting caliber DT could truly put this Dallas defensive front over the edge. With how much Defensive Coordinator Rod Marinelli believes in his DL rotation though, players like Datone Jones can prove immensely valuable.
DT Lewis Neal
Similarly to Jones, Lewis Neal is a fan-favorite defensive tackle for the Cowboys. Neal has absolutely earned the attention he's gotten, a UDFA out of LSU that plays the 1T position better than expected given his size.
The Cowboys have gotten by in recent years with smaller, more mobile players at this interior DT spot, with Neal being their latest post-draft steal to make an impact.
Lewis Neal appeared in seven games for the Cowboys this season, finding ways to help those around him by anchoring the line of scrimmage and disengaging with active hands and a quick base. This is a player that should be a valuable part of the team's depth on the defensive line.
✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭
The year-to-year nature of the NFL can be a wonderful thing (unfortunately, ask any Eagles fan right now). Part of this reality is understanding that none of the players listed above may actually stick with the Dallas Cowboys for 2018.
Next week's NFL Scouting Combine will kick "draft season" into full gear however, as the Cowboys will be working to better understand their teams needs and how they can be addressed.
Jarwin, Lenoir, Jones, and Neal all contributed or showed the promise to do so at positions the Cowboys must improve at this season - warranting a closer look through this dull portion of the offseason.
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