No matter who the Cowboys draft in 2017, none of those rookies may bring the same level of intrigue to next season as linebacker Jaylon Smith. A second-round pick last year, Smith has elite potential but an ongoing knee issue that hurt his draft stock and is still a cause for worry.
Jaylon's talent, which most feel would've put him in the top five of the 2016 draft class, has Cowboys fans salivating. However, they are also rightly concerned about just how many eggs Dallas are going to put into his basket.
For example, check out this question I received on Twitter recently:
The Cowboys already used a second-round pick, the 34th pick overall, to acquire Jaylon Smith. That is a big egg on its own. What's more, not signing or drafting other linebacker prospects because of your hope in Smith's progress is its own form of investment. The more trust that the Cowboys put in Jaylon, the worse they might get burned.
The team expects for Jaylon to a contributor in 2017. Stephen Jones said the following a few weeks ago:
"I think the sky's the limit. I think he's got a great opportunity -- if he keeps on his current path -- to be a dominant player for us. Now to say I expect that when he's not there yet? That's tough to have that expectation. But I think we do expect him to contribute and be a big part of our defense this year."
There's a fine line between expectation and hope. Relying on Jaylon Smith to step into a starting role, presumably as the middle linebacker, is not without danger. Even if his body holds up, Smith would still be a redshirt rookie two years removed from playing. For all his potential, he may not be ready to start just yet.
The good news is that Dallas still has Anthony Hitchens, who has started 26 games for them over the last three years. While not spectacular, Hitchens has been solid and is a decent insurance policy for 2017.
However, 2017 is also the final year of Hitchens' rookie contract. If Jaylon Smith doesn't pan out then Dallas will be facing having to overpay to keep Hitchens out of necessity. Barring a major surge by Mark Nzeocha as a linebacker prospect, they would have a bare cupboard and no leverage.
This is where the draft comes into play. Dallas has several reasons to be motivated to add talent at linebacker, and perhaps even as high as another second-round pick.
- Insurance against Jaylon Smith's career never taking off
- Additional depth replacing departures of Justin Durant and Andrew Gachkar
- Replacement for Anthony Hitchens in 2018
- Additional competition for Hitchens and Damien Wilson for 2017 starting role at SAM
This is a little further down the road, but also consider that Sean Lee only has so much longer to play. Lee is currently signed through 2019 and will turn 34 after that season. Assuming he plays out that contract, Dallas may be ready for a young player. Plus, given Sean's injury history, there's reason to think they may need a new player even sooner.
Clearly, Dallas has plenty of reason to look at linebackers in the 2017 NFL Draft. The uncertainty around Jaylon Smith is a big factor, but there are several others we've outlined that should motivate the Cowboys.
As if we didn't have enough defensive needs, right?
Dallas Cowboys 2019 Offseason Preview: Offensive Tackle
The Dallas Cowboys would seem fairly settled at offensive tackle for 2019, with last year's starters both still under contract and set to return. But the need for a reliable backup has become increasingly important, and Dallas may also want to use this offseason to start planning for the future.
Tyron Smith and La'el Collins return to their starting roles, but not without some concern. Smith has now missed three games in each of the last three seasons, though a few of those have been for veteran rest at the end of the year.
We all remember the Chaz Green debacle in 2017 Atlanta. That led to the Cowboys paying veteran Cameron Fleming $2.5 million last season to come and play as the swing tackle, and Smith's ongoing issues with health will make his backup an offseason priority once more.
Meanwhile, Collins has started every game since taking over as the right tackle in 2017. He's been solid but not a star, which is a disappointment after his draft year hype and some of the talent he flashed at left guard during his first two seasons.
2019 is a contract year for La'el. He will turn just 27 by the 2020 season, making him an attractive potential free agent. But his play has arguably not lived up to his current salary, which has him as one of the higher-paid right tackles in the NFL already.
Anyone who has the privilege of playing next to Zack Martin has no excuses.
Even with his many trips to the Pro Bowl, Tyron Smith isn't immune to contract talk. The 2020 offseason presents Dallas with about an $8 million cap relief opportunity by releasing Smith. It would only leave them with about $5 million in dead money, which is less than they've had when releasing stars like DeMarcus Ware, Tony Romo, and Dez Bryant in recent years.
While still just 28 years old, Tyron has been getting increasingly bothered by nagging injuries. Bad backs and necks tend to become lifelong issues, and we've already mentioned the games he's missed over the last few seasons.
When healthy, Smith is still about as good as they come at left tackle. But could his health issues spark an early decline in skill? And if it happens as soon as 2019, could Dallas start looking at that cap space more intently?
With Cameron Fleming now a free agent and these 2020 question marks looming on both starters, there's a good argument for the Cowboys to spend their second or third-round pick at offensive tackle.
Ideally, a "Day 2" rookie would be able to take over as the swing tackle this year. Dallas could still sign a veteran insurance policy to compete in camp and the preseason, or even carry both players next season.
But more important aspect would be taking a player now to groom for 2020, when you might need to make a big decision on either Collins or Smith's future. Or, at the very least, have a solid swing tackle in place for the duration of his four-year rookie contract.
That said, free agency starts a month-and-a-half before the NFL Draft. The Cowboys can't really afford to wait for the draft to find a swing tackle, or else they may wind up with nothing.
The simplest move would be to just re-sign Cam Fleming. He is an adequate player with plenty of experience, and could likely be retained for about the same salary as last year.
But given Fleming's age (26) and experience, which includes starting in playoff games and even a Super Bowl for the Patriots, he could attract teams looking for even more than just a backup. Thankfully, there a still a number of veterans out there if Dallas has to find a replacement.
One guy to consider, especially for just a one-year deal, is Ty Nsekhe from the Redskins. He's a native of Arlington, TX and has started 14 games over the last three seasons, backing up the oft-injured Trent Williams. On the negative side, Nsekhe turns 34 next October.
As a whole, this 2019 offseason doesn't present any immediate dangers. The Cowboys will need to figure out their swing tackle situation by either re-signing Fleming, adding a different veteran, or drafting a replacement.
But given the contract situations of Tyron Smith and La'el Collins in 2020, Dallas could make a move in the next few months to help prepare for a potential big change a year from now.
Dallas Cowboys 2019 Offseason Preview: Linebacker
One of the brightest spots on the Dallas Cowboys' projected 2019 roster is linebacker. The young pair of Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch have already emerged as one of the league's best duos. But that doesn't mean that the Cowboys have no work to do at the position this offseason.
Having Jaylon and Leighton does take a lot of pressure off. Most teams utilize their nickel scheme more than any other these days, which generally utilizes just two linebackers, in the increasingly pass-focused NFL. And thankfully, both Smith and Vander Esch have shown great skills in pass defense.
But there's still a semi-starting role to get figured out in the base 4-3 scheme. Damien Wilson has held the strong-side or "SAM" position for the last few years and has an expiring contract.
What's more, Dallas has a big decision to make regarding the contract of Sean Lee, which is ripe for terminating with $7 million in salary cap savings possible.
It's highly unlikely that the Cowboys would keep both Lee and Wilson. If they decide to re-sign Damien, Lee will be cut to help fund that move and others. If Sean is kept on, Wilson will almost surely be looking for a starting role somewhere else in free agency.
Even if the Cowboys do make Lee a cap casualty between now and March 13th, they may still allow Wilson to test free agency and then try to re-sign him later at a discount. He's unlikely to attract the same attention that Anthony Hitchens got last year.
Another factor in all of this is Joe Thomas, a free agent addition last year who provided good depth and could potentially start in 2019. He is scheduled to count $2.2 million against the cap, which is fine for a primary reserve but a bargain for an occasional starter.
A core of Smith, Thomas, and Vander Esch gives the Cowboys a good foundation to build from. Smith can play the SAM in the base scheme and Thomas can be the primary backup to Jaylon and Leighton in the nickel.
However, going that route would deplete the depth chart. Chris Covington, a sixth-round pick last year, would be the only noteworthy player under contract. Dallas would need to find at least two more guys to fill out the group for 2019.
They could look at re-signing backup Justin March-Lillard, who would at least bring some familiarity and veteran experience. But that might still leave them looking for more of a primary reserve, which would be especially vital if Thomas is promoted to a starting role.
The projected LB free agent pool for 2019 should make it a buyer's market. Dallas may be able to re-sign Damien Wilson or even add an upgrade, like perhaps the Vikings' Anthony Barr, at a relative bargain. There should be ample options for depth as well.
Barring an extremely favorable value opportunity, don't expect the Cowboys to spend a significant draft pick at linebacker. The fourth-round is the earliest I could see one going based on other needs, and even then it would need to be someone they really like.
Good drafting is why Dallas has flexibility and leverage this offseason. The picks they invested in Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch appear to have made LB a strength of the team for the next several years.
There is still business to attend to, but the Cowboys won't have to be too concerned with linebacker in 2019 thanks to their young stars.
Xavier Woods Versatility Key in Dallas Cowboys FA Safety Pursuit
There has been a debate going on among Cowboys Nation for more than a year now about the prospects of bringing in Seattle Seahawks Safety Earl Thomas. Now with free agency approaching, there are several other names that the Dallas Cowboys could consider when looking to upgrade the safety position. Landon Collins, Tyrann Mathieu, and Tre Boston are several of the many quality and really good safeties that are hitting the free agent market in a few weeks. It's a group with varied skill sets and abilities, which makes the debate even more interesting. The Dallas Cowboys, however, will be able to take a look at all of them when free agency opens March 13th because of one player; Xavier Woods.
Xavier Woods, the Cowboys fifth round draft pick from the 2017 NFL Draft just finished his first full season as a starter for the Cowboys and played really well. In two years he's shown the ability to cover from the slot, play deep, play in the box, be a force over the middle, and make plays on the football. He's one of the more versatile players on the defense with his ability to play all over the field. That versatility allows the Dallas Cowboys' front office an advantage when approaching the names mentioned above.
The Dallas Cowboys don't have to be locked in to one particular type of safety. When people talk about Landon Collins, they label him a "box safety." Earl Thomas is a traditional free safety. Tre Boston is a similar player to Earl Thomas and Tyrann Mathieu is like Collins. The Cowboys can go into free agency with the freedom to explore their options and do their due diligence when it comes to these players.
That's a distinct difference from this offseason to last.
Last offseason, the feeling was that the Dallas Cowboys had to go get Earl Thomas. The safety position was so weak that the Cowboys were going to be playing at a disadvantage in the high-flying, pass-heavy NFL. Xavier Woods proved in his first full season that he can be a productive, play making starter in the NFL and should only continue to improve.
According to Pro Football Focus, Xavier Woods was sixth in the NFL in passer rating against among safeties with at least 352 coverage snaps. His 62.8 passer rating allowed in his coverage was tied with Eric Weddle, better than Derwin James, Reshad Jones, Adrian Amos, and Maliek Hooker. Of the safeties drafted in the 2017 draft class, only Eddie Jackson from the Chicago Bears had a better passer rating against than Xavier Woods.
The Dallas Cowboys got a really good player in Xavier Woods and as they get ready to potentially make a run at a big name safety, they can feel confident that whoever they end up signing will be a good fit with Woods. He can play in the box or cover receivers and tight ends. You can run more two deep safety looks, because he has the range to play it.
This year, as opposed to last, they have more certainty at the safety position because of Xavier Woods and the strides he took in 2018. There's no reason to believe that he can't continue to take a step forward for the Dallas Cowboys. His ability to play all over the field allows the Cowboys to be smart and patient in their pursuit of a safety upgrade this offseason.
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