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.
History Suggests a Contract Extension for Ezekiel Elliott is a Crapshoot
If rumors are true, Running Back Ezekiel Elliott and Melvin Gordon could be following in the footsteps of Le'Veon Bell by threatening to hold out not only training camp, but the 2019 season if they're not rewarded with contract extensions from their respective teams. It's a bold strategy, especially considering the history of long-term extensions previously given to running backs.
Contract extensions for running backs is always a controversial topic. It's not only one of the easier positions to replace, but the shelf life for a NFL RB is a short one due to the physical nature of the position. Players bodies break down quicker, meaning their lifespan in the league on average is between just 3 to 5 years.
For the most part, the market value for running backs around the league would suggest the position isn't one teams like to invest a lot of resources in. Although, there was an uptick in the market last year when Todd Gurley signed a four-year deal worth $14.375 million a year and then David Johnson signed for three years worth $13 million a season. Those two contracts could be the starting point for Ezekiel Elliott.
Ezekiel Elliott's camp knows all of this and so do the Dallas Cowboys. But, handing out upwards of $14 million to a position that has such a short shelf life in the league is a crapshoot at best, even to a player as talented as Zeke. History hasn't been kind to running backs who receive a long-term extension. In fact, it's really hard to put a finger on one single RB who has lived up to their contract extension.
Take Todd Gurley and David Johnson for instance. Gurley already has long-term concerns about his health, and Johnson missed nearly all of the 2018 season due to an injury. Both players are currently the top paid at the position right now, but they're not the only examples of why the Cowboys should be cautious offering Zeke a contract extension.
The RB tier below Todd Gurley and David Johnson are making around $8 million a year after receiving a contract extension. Unfortunately, the results are about the same. Devonta Freeman ($8.25 M) and Jerick McKinnon ($7.5 M) missed nearly all of the 2018 season due to injuries after being rewarded with long-term deals. Only LeSean McCoy ($8.01 M) has come close to living up to his deal, but even he has struggled off-and-on with injuries.
Need more convincing?
Let's take this back a little bit further. Chris Johnson, Johnathan Stewart, DeMarco Murray, DeAngelo Williams, Ray Rice… I can go on and on. Even players such as Arian Foster who remained productive after receiving an extension struggled with injuries. If you haven't yet, you may start to see a trend here.
Now, I'm not saying the Dallas Cowboys shouldn't extend Ezekiel Elliott. Personally I'm on the fence about it and would be fine with them going either direction. But, they absolutely have to be cautious with the way they handled this. History is a good indicator they may not get the same kind of production from Zeke as they have previously.
Do you think the Cowboys should give Ezekiel Elliott a contract extension?
Dallas Cowboys 2019 Training Camp Preview: Linebacker
The linebacker position went from liability to luxury in 2018, thanks largely to the emergence of a pair of dynamic young talents. Now seen as one of the strengths of the Dallas Cowboys' defense, what questions remain for the linebackers as we await the start of the 2019 training camp?
Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch are the nucleus now at linebacker, if not the the Cowboys' defense as a whole. The days of worrying if Sean Lee can stay healthy are over; we now have two players capable of elite play and the versatility to handle multiple spots.
Lee isn't gone; the longtime defensive captain accepted a pay cut and a lesser role to stay in Dallas this year. He is still expected to start in the base defense, moving to the strong-side LB role that Damien Wilson vacated.
Indeed, the top-three linebackers for 2019 are easy to project. Jaylon and Leighton are the new leaders and Sean will get as much playing time as his body can handle.
This year, which is unusual for reserve players, the second team is almost just as predictable.
Here's the projected Linebacker Depth Chart for the 2019 training camp:
- Leighton Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith, Sean Lee
- Joe Thomas, Justin March-Lillard, Chris Covington
- Kyle Queiro, Andrew Dowell, Luke Gifford, Nate Hall
There may not be a position on offense or defense with less x-factors than linebacker. Almost just as likely as the starters, Joe Thomas, Justin-March Lillard, and Chris Covington should have the second-team spots locked down.
Thomas is especially valuable, having the skills to step into a larger role if Sean Lee suffers from age or injury. If Lee were to go down, we might see Jaylon Smith move into the SAM spot and Thomas playing as WILL in the base defense.
Dallas re-signed Justin March-Lillard this offseason. He played in all 16 games last year as a backup and special teamer, and his experience will make him hard to oust.
Chris Covington was a 6th-round pick last year and has the body to play SAM but also experience at other spots in college. Dallas would love to see him grow into a larger role the way other recent 6th-rounders like Anthony Brown and Xavier Woods have.
One potential challenger could be Jalen Jelks, the 7th-round defensive end that Dallas just drafted last April. Jelks has the body and athleticism to play a hybrid LB/DE role, and could challenge as the backup SAM. We don't know if the Cowboys will give Jelks a chance at LB, but it may be the only way to keep him on the 53 given all the talent at defensive end.
It will be hard for any of the remaining LB prospects to work their way onto the roster. The top six have experience and upside that undrafted rookies will need to be exceptionally good to overcome. Only Kyle Queiro, who was on the practice squad last year, brings a little NFL experience to the table.
Of course, unexpected things can happen. The talent margin between late-round picks and undrafted guys can be slim; who knows if one of these prospects pushes March-Lillard or Covington out of the way?
But barring a surprise, we already have a good idea who the Cowboys' six linebackers will be in 2019. Will this year's training camp solidify that projection, or will we get some new evidence to consider?
~ ~ ~
OTHER 2019 CAMP PREVIEWS
Tony Romo: Cowboys TE Jason Witten Will “Pick Up Right Where He Left Off”
There's no denying that the future holds a gold jacket for Dallas Cowboys Tight End Jason Witten. With everything he's done in his career, he'll go down as one of the three best tight ends in the history of the NFL when he finally hangs up his number 82 for good.
Most of the questions that have come surrounding the offense have focused on the tight end position this offseason. Even prior to Jason Witten announcing his return from the broadcast booth at ESPN to the NFL, tight end was one of the areas that was considered a draft need by most analysts. Since coming back, the questions may have altered, but they're there all the same. Now, we're wondering how much Jason Witten will play? Will Blake Jarwin and/or Dalton Schultz see significant playing time in the offense? Will Jason Witten be able to return to his pre-retirement form?
It's that last question that was answered pretty directly by Witten's former quarterback and NFL on CBS Analyst Tony Romo when he was on with Ben and Skin of 105.3 The Fan. In the way that only Tony Romo can, he illustrated what exactly will allow Jason Witten to return to the game without missing a beat.
"He'll pick up right where he left off. I don't think it's a big challenge for Jason (Witten). The reality of it is as long as, if you know the game the way he does, there are certain positions -- he plays one of them at tight end -- he's always going to have the nuance to get open. Let's say he runs the exact same he always did, to me , it's just that at that position, your ability to use leverage against somebody, make you think this and then do that. It's like the back pick in basketball. Just all of a sudden it gets you and you didn't even know it was coming and that guy is wide open. He's very intelligent with the game of football. I think he's going to pick up right from when he retired. I think you're going to see the same guy."
Tony Romo on 105.3 The Fan via Jon Machota of SportsDay DFW
Jason Witten has been one of the best route-running tight ends in the NFL during his time with the Dallas Cowboys. He's always been able to win with his intelligence and route running despite not ever being the quickest or most athletic tight end in the NFL.
Because of Jason Witten's knowledge and feel for the game, it's easy to see why a player like that could walk back into the NFL after taking a year off and remain a productive player for the Dallas Cowboys. It's why they didn't hesitate to bring him back in the offseason. Though it's been relayed that he'll have a somewhat reduced role, he'll be the starting tight end week one against the New York Giants.
While it's uncertain exactly how much Jason Witten can play, you know that he'll be available to play. Prior to his retirement, Witten played in 235 straight regular-season games. Not only is Witten's availability great to have, but so is his ability to win on third down and in the red zone. It will be a welcomed addition to a Dallas Cowboys offense that struggled in both of those areas in 2018.
In 2018, they were 10th in third-down conversion percentage in the NFL at 41.4%. That's down from ranking fifth in the NFL in 2017 at 42.9%. 1.5% may not seem like a huge difference, but that's two to three more first downs on the season. Being able to convert on third downs increases your chances of scoring. Scoring more helps you win.
They were 29th in red-zone scoring rate at 48% in 2018. The only teams in the NFL that were worse than the Dallas Cowboys were the New York Jets, Jacksonville Jaguars, and San Francisco 49ers. Only one other team in the bottom 10 in the league in red-zone scoring rate made the playoffs; the Houston Texans. In 2017, the Dallas Cowboys were sixth in the NFL in red-zone scoring percentage at 59.6% and that was without Ezekiel Elliott for six games and without Tyron Smith for three games.
Having Jason Witten's ability to get open in confined spaces will help everyone on the offense. Even after having a year off, Witten is a player that will have to be accounted for in those high-leverage situations.
There isn't a person in the world that knows Jason Witten the football player better than Tony Romo does. Their careers have been so intertwined that it's hard to think of one without thinking of the other. It's why one day when they're inducted into the Dallas Cowboys Ring of Honor, that it would be fitting for it to happen together.
If, as Romo believes, Jason Witten can pick up right where he left off, his veteran presence, leadership, and on-field ability are going to be a huge asset for a team that has Super Bowl aspirations in 2019. For the Cowboys to reach the Super Bowl and win their sixth Lombardi Trophy, they're going to need "Gold Jacket" Witten to return to his pre-retirement form.
And if Tony Romo believes he will, there's no reason to doubt Jason Witten. Do so at your own peril.
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