I've always considered myself an optimist when it comes to the football team we all obsess over daily, and the Dallas Cowboys 2016 season gave us plenty of reasons for such optimism. Now begins the long haul of an NFL offseason and roster build, with months until we'll see anything resembling America's Team on the field again. The question we have to ponder until then is simple - what will the Cowboys actually look like at the start of the 2017 season?
Cowboys Nation is certainly expecting the team to look like a Super Bowl contender, and with this optimist's approach to the coming free agency period and NFL Draft you'll practically be touching the Lombardi Trophy in Minnesota.
Cowboys 2017 NFL Free Agency Approach
The Dallas Cowboys will have 18 of their own players hit the free agent market this offseason, and if their recent strategy tells us anything about how they'll approach these players, expect many of them to become the priority free agents for Dallas to re-sign.
The Cowboys also won't have much cap space at all to work with in free agency, so retaining their own quality guys at the right prices should be viewed as a win for this portion of the offseason.
Re-Signed 2017 Dallas Cowboys Free Agents
- CB Brandon Carr
- SS Barry Church
- DT Terrell McClain
- LB Justin Durant
- WR Terrance Williams
- QB Kellen Moore
- SS J.J. Wilcox
Remember, this is an optimist's approach to the entire offseason for the Cowboys, and it is unlikely that all seven of these free agents can stay with the team for 2017.
With that said, the Cowboys should be ecstatic if they can retain Brandon Carr, Barry Church, and J.J. Wilcox for their secondary. All three players have tons of valuable starting experience, and shouldn't break the bank on the open market. This core would prove to be a formidable group - stable enough to inject rookie draft picks into with the expectation of them succeeding.
You wouldn't consider me an optimist if I also didn't try to fix the much-maligned Cowboys defensive line this offseason, and the first step of this before the draft is bringing back DT Terrell McClain. Finally healthy through most of 2016, McClain proved to be the perfect starter at the 1T DT position for Rod Marinelli. The 3T spot is the most important position in Marinelli's scheme, and with a young starter like Maliek Collins at the spot, it would help to keep an experienced 1T playing next to him in McClain.
Justin Durant is the last defender I would like this team to keep for 2017, but is also probably the most expendable - making this list for pure optimism purposes. Sean Lee and (fingers crossed) Jaylon Smith expect to hold down the depth chart at LB for some time to come, and the depth behind them is solid with young players like Damien Wilson and more experienced ones with potential like Mark Nzeocha. Even still, Durant is a good guy to keep around as a veteran with a knack for big plays, and should not draw much interest from other teams.
The offensive side of the ball is much more set for the Dallas Cowboys, as my optimistic offseason includes re-signing WR Terrance Williams and QB Kellen Moore. Out of all seven names above, Williams is by far the most optimistic name to expect back, as the market for receivers with traits like his should easily get too expensive for the Cowboys in a hurry.
More realistically, QB Kellen Moore could continue to work with Scott Linehan, providing the valuable stable backup option to Dak Prescott. We'll address the elephant in the room that is this offseason's approach to Tony Romo, but some inexpensive option is going to have to back up Prescott in 2017 - and there are few outside options as good and simplistic as Kellen Moore.
Getting The Most Out Of Tony Romo
Tony Romo is not going to be a member of the greatest football team in the entire universe come the 2017 NFL season. Even in an article where I've allowed myself to be as optimistic as possible - a lifelong Romo supporter too - this reality has to be accepted as near-fact at this point.
In fact, the most optimistic approach to Tony Romo this offseason may not even be finding a way to keep him, as the cap implications would directly contrast the approach outlined above in keeping other key free agents.
Romo's release also wouldn't help the Cowboys much, but a potential trade certainly would. While trading a player that NFL executives from around the league will expect to be released is no easy task, I optimistically wouldn't rule Jerry Jones out of making any clutch deals.
A deal for Tony Romo won't land the Cowboys a superstar, but based on Will McClay and staff's recent draft success, any extra third round pick could land a diamond in the rough - or become part of a larger trade package on draft night.
The Cowboys most optimistic 2017 offseason plan involves trading the greatest QB in their franchise's history. Isn't this sport weird?
Dallas Cowboys 2017 NFL Draft
I did this three round mock draft for the Dallas Cowboys a few weeks ago, and when it comes to addressing positional needs, I think it is the perfect optimistic scenario.
It is still too early in the 2017 NFL Draft process to pinpoint specific prospects that could be targeted in each round by the Cowboys, but addressing the pass rush in the first round is a welcome idea.
Cornerback will also be a need (despite re-signing Carr in this hypothetical) for the Cowboys, and fortunately one that they will be able to address at seemingly any point in the draft with such an incredibly deep class this year.
Lastly in the mock, I added another WR despite finding a way to bring back Terrance Williams. Isiah Ford would be a welcome addition to the Cowboys offense, but again there will be plenty of skilled receivers to choose from in the draft.
Essentially, the easiest event this offseason for Cowboys Nation to be very optimistic about is the NFL Draft. Dallas' 2016 class might be their best ever, the 2017 class was nearly built for them, and this front office is as eager as ever to add the few key missing pieces to a roster that projects to be one of the league's best.
Trust the process.
Cowboys Player Development
Free agents were signed, rookies drafted, and the build up to 2017 Dallas Cowboys football couldn't be generating more hype. The second this team hits the field for a simple stretch, it will undoubtedly feel like football season once again, as our attention will shift to the development of some players that could be critical to overall success.
Avoiding the obvious names like Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott along with the free agents we re-signed above, here are some players that - if they take the necessary steps forward - will put the Cowboys over the top.
DT Maliek Collins
As mentioned, Collins earned the starting job at 3T DT as a rookie who missed most of the summer offseason program. This summer, the sky will be the limit for Collins to grow further in this role, especially if reinforcements are brought in elsewhere to add to the defensive line.
The Cowboys rotation of defensive tackles is one of their greatest defensive strengths, and Maliek Collins will have a chance to be the anchor of this group next season.
DT David Irving
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Everyone's favorite "orphan" defensive lineman, David Irving is the type of physical freak that epitomizes what the Cowboys defense has been for some time. The difference for Irving is that he has already shown legitimate development in working with his positive traits.
A long-armed and quick defensive end/tackle, it is critical that the Cowboys figure out exactly what position they want Irving at for all of 2017 early in this offseason - in order to ensure he can take even further strides in his game.
CB Anthony Brown
No matter who the Cowboys add in the back-end of their defense, second-year player Anthony Brown is going to be asked to take a big step forward in 2017. A sixth round pick from 2016, the speed Brown displayed on tape at Purdue suited him well when his awareness turned him into the draft steal he was.
There's no reason not to expect Brown to continue to take strides this offseason, but his progress should be monitored closely.
LG La'el Collins
With Ronald Leary expected to leave in free agency, a "new" starter will join the Cowboys offensive line in La'el Collins. Collins was of course the starter in place of an injured Leary in 2015, and fit in incredibly well before being injured himself in 2016.
The Cowboys have been very careful with how they have handled every move on their world-beating offensive line, so it goes without saying that they'll be very interested in every step of La'el Collins' recovery and development this offseason.
When you go from 4-12 to 13-3, you deserve to look at the future with some optimism. While I plan on continuing to do that through the 2017 offseason, my pessimistic approach to this offseason will come out tomorrow here at Inside The Star - you've been warned Cowboys Nation.
Dak Prescott Ranked as Third Least Consistent QB in NFL
Last season could've gone a lot better for Dak Prescott. After a remarkable rookie season, he wasn't able to meet the very high expectations put on him after leading the Dallas Cowboys to the #1 seed in the NFC in 2016.
Inevitably, the "sophomore slump" managed to get to Dak, even though the numbers make it seem worse than it really was. From his 13 interceptions in 2017, not even half can be completely blamed on him. However, even though he made improvements in his game, it's fair to admit that there was indeed, a slump in his second year in the NFL.
Earlier this week, NFL.com published an article listing the most and the least consistent quarterbacks in the league last season. The way the list works is measuring "their average 2017 swing in week-to-week passer rating." In the list, Dak Prescott is listed as the third least consistent QB in the league, with only Cam Newton and Derek Carr behind him.
Just like the Dallas Cowboys' had a roller coaster for a season, constantly shifting between winning and losing, Dak Prescott also struggled at remaining consistent. It makes a ton of sense, of course, for the Cowboys' 9-7 season had a lot of swings throughout the year.
At times, the team was missing its most important defender in Sean Lee. At others, Tyron Smith and/or Ezekiel Elliott weren't on the field either. This is not an attempt to excuse Dak, for he is partly at fault here, as is the entire team.
From week 10 to 12, Dak failed to throw for a touchdown but ended up throwing five interceptions. Later in the season, failing once again to get a TD pass in two straight weeks, he threw for two interceptions at Oakland then another two when hosting the Seahawks in Dallas.
In a season that will likely determine his future with the Dallas Cowboys, Dak needs to find a way to be more consistent week after week regardless of circumstance. Hopefully, with an improved offensive line and with Ezekiel Elliott leaving every suspension drama behind him, his offense will put him in position to have his best year yet.
In 2016 and in 2017, his Total Quarterback Rating has been in the top 4 among all quarterbacks, per ESPN. Now, this is not a stat that tells the whole story, but it does give you an idea of each quarterback's play. In a run-first offense and with a safe passer like Dak, I'm sure consistency will not be hard to deal with for the young QB next season.
As long as he takes advantage of the new set of targets he'll have at his disposal and his offense's powerful running back with recently-signed draftee Connor Williams, this offense will look a lot more like the one we saw in 2016.
We know Dak Prescott has a lot to prove. He has to make longer throws, throw more aggressively to get his receivers open, and more. But consistency is just as important. In order to be continuously successful and to be a contender year after year, you need that in your signal-caller. Even if key players on the team are down, he needs to be able to shine. It's a sixteen-game season, after all.
It's time for Dak to prove he can handle that.
Will Cowboys WR Noah Brown Do Enough to Make the Roster?
The Dallas Cowboys aren't short on numbers at wide receiver on their current 90-man roster. Looking to replace Dez Bryant and reshape their offense, the Cowboys will have to find the right group of pass catchers for Dak Prescott at their upcoming training camp.
The odd men out from this group will likely be the ones that can't sustain a consistent level of play, doing so across multiple units if needed. All ten receivers will have their flashes, but with only four being true locks to make the team, new Cowboys Wide Receivers Coach Sanjay Lal will be in on some tough decisions right away.
One such decision may be moving on from last year's seventh round pick Noah Brown out of Ohio State. Vouched for by former Buckeyes teammate Ezekiel Elliott thanks to his blocking ability on the outside, it may now be this strength in the run game and deficiency as a pass catcher that spells the end of Brown's run in Dallas.
Normally, a seventh round pick being on the roster bubble wouldn't be this noteworthy, but Brown clearly showed the potential to outplay this draft status as a rookie. Appearing in 13 games, Brown is a true X receiver, although not the dominant one the Cowboys are searching for.
Moving away from fielding a true number one receiver, the Cowboys did sign Allen Hurns to play this spot while prepared to spread the ball around to Williams, Beasley, and Gallup after that.
This leaves Thompson, Wilson, Cannon, Lenoir, McCay, Murdock, and Brown to prove their worth in other ways to make the roster. I've written plenty about the potential rookie Cedrick Wilson has, so I'll be expecting a strong showing from him to earn a role in the Cowboys offense.
Wilson's skill set could push a depth signing like Deonte Thompson off the team, although his ability to back up Cole Beasley/Tavon Austin on special teams is important. The same can be said about Lance Lenoir, who like Brown has the advantage over first year players given his trials through training camp and the preseason a year ago.
Long shots to make the team, Cannon, McCay, and Murdock fall just below this group -- and somewhere in the middle is Noah Brown.
Increasing his role on special teams as the season went on last year, Brown had fans throughout a coaching staff that is now drastically changed for 2018. From their shift to more speed on offense, to drafting of both Gallup and Wilson, calling Brown a fringe player on the Cowboys roster really sets up the fiery competition to come at wide receiver.
Should the Cowboys find a spot for Brown, one can only hope it means this new coaching staff has a clear plan for him to contribute on both offense and special teams outside of being a run blocker. A potential niche for Brown is his red zone ability, not afraid to put his body on the line for jump balls and fight through contact in his routes.
It won't be long until we sort out if this is enough to make the Cowboys as a wide receiver ahead of Quarterback Dak Prescott's third season.
Dallas Cowboys Most Important Backups Entering Training Camp
In less than two weeks, the Dallas Cowboys will be practicing in Oxnard, their final training camp tune up before the preseason and roster cuts. If last year is any indication, the Cowboys trim down to 53 players from 90 will be eventful as always. However, it was ultimately the depth of this final roster that failed the Cowboys in a 9-7 season falling short of the playoffs.
The loss of Ezekiel Elliott to suspension and Tyron Smith, Jonathan Cooper, and Sean Lee to injury was all too much for the Cowboys to overcome. Starting his career with a playoff appearance at 13-3, Quarterback Dak Prescott now enters a crucial third year, though he can only hope the team's free agent signings and rookies can help patch these holes.
Before the pads come on at training camp, here is a look at a few of the most important depth players the Cowboys have for 2018.
Offensive Tackle Cam Fleming
The Cowboys spent the 50th overall pick at this year's draft on their future Left Guard Connor Williams, making their signing of Cam Fleming more important. Should Williams grab hold of the starting spot left by Jonathan Cooper's departure, Fleming should serve as the Cowboys primary backup to Left Tackle Tyron Smith.
Joined only by Chaz Green and Kadeem Edwards on the depth chart at tackle, Fleming's experience should win out over the rest of the field. Also signing Guard Marcus Martin this offseason, it's clear the Cowboys want to avoid their offensive line breakdown from a year ago.
Cam Fleming needs to be in position to help the Cowboys do just that, unless Smith plays a full 16 games for the first time since 2015.
Wide Receiver/Running Back Tavon Austin
Whatever role Tavon Austin finds in the Cowboys offense, this is a play maker the Cowboys will have to get the ball to in a variety of ways. Expected to partially take the load off of Ezekiel Elliott as a running back while also being targeted in the passing game, Austin could very well influence the team's roster decisions at both RB and WR.
Two uncertain positions when it comes to depth, Austin's presence could mean bad news for Running Backs Darius Jackson and Bo Scarbrough, or Wide Receivers Lance Lenoir, KD Cannon, and Noah Brown.
We're still a long way off from knowing if a decision like this will be the right one for the Cowboys, but with so much uncertainty on offense entering 2018, Tavon Austin's importance could grow by the day in Oxnard.
Linebacker Justin March-Lillard
Needing to address the linebacker position heavily this offseason, the Cowboys locked in on Boise State's Leighton Vander Esch with their first round pick and selected him at 19th overall. With the 193rd overall pick, the Cowboys also added Indiana Linebacker Chris Covington.
Expected starters Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith, and Vander Esch will still need quality depth behind them to play to their strengths this season.
A healthy Lee is locked in as this team's starting WILL linebacker, but the Cowboys are expected to test both Vander Esch and Smith at the MIKE position.
"The loser of this battle" moving to SAM linebacker is not so simple, especially considering other athletic options the Cowboys have for this strong side role. Along with Damien Wilson, the Cowboys have also seen strides from Justin March-Lillard.
Capable of contributing on special teams and providing important snaps in Rod Marinelli's defense, March-Lillard should be a hard player for the Cowboys to leave off their final roster. If he survives to the final 53, expect him to also be active on game days in support of the Cowboys LBs.
Quarterback Cooper Rush
What exactly do the Cowboys have in second-year Quarterback Cooper Rush, an undrafted sensation out of Central Michigan? Showing the potential to be Dak Prescott's primary backup or an enticing trade piece to QB-needy teams as a rookie, Rush is now joined by a new rookie on the depth chart.
Drafting Mike White in the fifth round, the Cowboys have plenty of skill at quarterback this season. The scope of this list is not to cover how well the Cowboys are prepared to play without Prescott.
Playing with two quarterbacks or three on the roster will be a looming decision for the Cowboys though. Either Rush or White could prove they deserve the second and last QB spot, with Rush's progress from last year challenged by White's accuracy.
✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭
Of course, more Cowboys backups will emerge as ones to keep an eye on, once the Cowboys are back on the field. With several coaches and 'big name' players potentially needing this season to reach the playoffs for the Cowboys, a second straight season of depleted depth won't cut it.
Such is the nature of the Cowboys roster cuts, with the final 53 man roster set on September 1st.
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