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.
Will Dallas Cowboys Address Backup RB in Free Agency or 2019 Draft?
The Dallas Cowboys' backup running back spot may not seem like a high priority compared to other 2019 offseason issues. But all it takes is one bad play for Ezekiel Elliott to be lost, and the Dallas offense leans too heavily on the RB position to take his backup plan lightly. Will the team be looking to improve the talent behind Zeke through free agency or the draft?
Right now, the only running backs signed to the Cowboys' roster are Elliott, Darius Jackson, and Jordan Chunn. The backup for the last few seasons, Rod Smith, is currently an unrestricted free agent.
Jackson and Chunn have a combined six carries for 16 yards in their careers, and all of those came from Darius in the Cowboys' meaningless 2018 regular-season finale. Chunn spent all of his rookie season on the practice squad.
A sixth-round pick for Dallas in 2016, Darius Jackson is on his third stint with the Cowboys after stops in Cleveland and Green Bay in between. He has flashed some electric running ability at times but clearly hasn't been able to stick with a team. Could 2019 be his chance?
Jordan Chunn was an undrafted free agent out of Troy last year. He's a big, powerful runner with some deceptive athletic moves as well.
What stands out most with both of these guys isn't positive, though, and that's their mutual inexperience and draft capital. Would the Cowboys really leave their RB depth chart so thin when they're trying to make a championship run?
Dallas could be hoping to eventually re-sign Rod Smith at a bargain price. He's a solid backup and special teams leader, and the longer he sits unsigned in free agency then the lower his price should be.
But is it time for the Cowboys to invest more in their other running backs? Not only is 2019 a critical year, but upcoming contract negotiations with Elliott could make it a wise move.
This upcoming season is the last one of Zeke's standard rookie contract. Dallas will have to decide if they want to sign him long-term or let him play 2020 on his fifth-year option as a former first-round draft pick, which would pay him about $9 million.
Signing or drafting a player of consequence now, and having them under contract over the next few seasons, would give the Cowboys some added leverage in contract negotiations with Elliott.
What's more, who's to say that Zeke's impressive durability will just continue? He's already had a lot of touches in three years, even with the six suspension games. Maybe it's time to find someone who you don't mind giving some of the workload to?
Some of the top free agents available likely won't want the reduced role, and money, that playing behind Elliott will mean. That would take guys like Jay Ajayi and C.J. Anderson off the list.
What about older veteran who can still ball, like Marshawn Lynch, Darren Sproles, or Doug Martin? You might not want them as a featured player anymore but they could still be effective on limited touches. Joining a potential contender like the Cowboys in a supporting role could be exactly what these guys are looking for.
Other free agent options would be players who are used to backup roles, such as Isaiah Crowell, T.J. Yeldon, or Spencer Ware. They would be probable upgrades from Rod Smith but for minimal money if they stay unsigned much longer.
The draft is another way to add some RB talent, and it could be the smartest one. A drafted player, even as high as Dallas' second-round pick, would have a four-year rookie deal at a minimal salary.
One player that could make a lot of sense for the Cowboys is Justice Hill out of Oklahoma State. He brings a change of pace from Elliott as a smaller, quicker back and could be available for them during Day 2 of the draft.
Hill was featured as a potential Cowboys target by our Brian Martin a few weeks ago.
You might say that having Elliott makes any sort of serious draft pick at running back a wasted pick. But with Zeke turning 26 after the 2020 season, the Cowboys might be willing to let someone else give him a huge deal and move on to a much cheaper option.
And again, who says that Elliott makes it through another 16-game season and playoffs without a major injury? It can happen to the best of them.
Clearly, this could go any number of ways. Dallas might bring back Rod Smith or some comparable player for a cheap, easy answer at backup running back. Maybe they invest in a more proven free agent, or perhaps they draft someone early enough to matter.
However it goes, let's just say that I highly doubt Darius Jackson will be RB2 come September.
Dallas Cowboys Head Toward NFL Draft with No Glaring Needs
When the offseason began after the Dallas Cowboys fell to the Los Angeles Rams in the divisional round of the playoffs, it was clear that they were a team on the rise, but had several areas they needed to address as free agency and the draft approached.
The team had holes or depth issues at safety, defensive tackle, swing tackle, wide receiver, defensive end, and tight end. Through the first two weeks of free agency, the Dallas Cowboys have taken care of each of those areas.
With the signings of George Iloka, Christian Covington, Cameron Fleming, Randall Cobb, Tavon Austin, Kerry Hyder, and Jason Witten, The Dallas Cowboys have set themselves up to approach the draft with “clear eyes and a full heart.”
As they head into April with the NFL Draft looming, the Cowboys won’t be held back by positional need and can allow their draft board to do the work for them and just add good players. It’s an excellent position to be in as they don’t have to reach for a player at a position of need they may not like as much because they have a veteran presence filling that need.
Backup running back appears to be the only position where the Cowboys could use some depth, but that player for this team is more of a special teams player who gets limited snaps on offense because of the greatness of Ezekiel Elliott. It’s generally a position where there is a lot of talent deep in the draft and undrafted free agent pool, which allows the Cowboys to be patient filling that need behind the NFL’s leading rusher.
Mother than that, if the Dallas Cowboys has to go play a football game and win today, they’d be in great shape to do so.
On the flip side, however, the Cowboys can still add players at defensive tackle, wide receiver, tight end, safety, and defensive end because they aren’t restricted by big contracts to those veteran players. Each of them came to the Cowboys on one-year deals. The veterans that they signed would prohibit them from drafting at that same position, and that’s the point.
The Cowboys have created a formula that works really well for them. Sometimes it get frustrating watching the team not make any big splashes in free agency, especially that first week when other teams are bringing in big-name players to add to their rosters. That formula has led them to a 48-32 record over the last five seasons with three NFC East titles, and two playoff wins, and three divisional round appearances.
And the playoff runs could have been deeper with a bit of luck and correct officiating.
The Dallas Cowboys have set themselves up really well as they now set their sights on the NFL Draft at the end of April. Though they won’t have a first round pick to add to their talent pool, the Cowboys have shown that they can find talent in the second round and beyond. This year will be no different.
Now it’s time to sit back and trust the process.
Cowboys Have Had Quiet, Yet Successful, Free Agency
Yet another free agency without a big splash by the Dallas Cowboys. What a surprise. Despite entertaining Earl Thomas rumors for a long, long time, the Cowboys' front office has stuck with its philosophy of not overpaying free agents and building the team mainly through the NFL Draft. However, they've actually had some pretty good signings over the last few days that will really benefit the Cowboys when the season comes around.
They've done so with inexpensive free agents who will contribute at a high level on their respective positions. Sure, top free agent signings are fun. But many times, they end up backfiring to teams for spending so much money in one single player. At the end of the day, the Cowboys' way has gotten the team three NFC East Championships since 2014. Many factors come into play, but their team building philosophy can't be as bad as many claim it to be.
The most recent acquisition came in form of former Cincinnati Bengal and Minnesota Viking Safety George Iloka. The Cowboys had a desperate need at the defensive backfield and finally they've done something about it. On a heavy safety market, the Cowboys sat tight while watching the top free agents get top contracts around the league, including Landon Collins' record breaking deal with the Washington Redskins.
Now, they've gotten a guy who can play both safety positions. I'll be surprised if he doesn't take Jeff Heath's job. He's played as a free safety most of his career but being a good tackler, he should do a good job in the box. Iloka will also shine on special teams in Dallas.
So far, my favorite signing may be that of former Green Bay Packer, Randall Cobb. The Cowboys had an important need at the wide receiver position despite counting with Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup leading the room. Cole Beasley is a tough guy to replace and although Cobb may not be a better slot receiver than him, he certainly has the experience and the skill set to be a starting slot WR. What's more, he'll only cost the Cowboys five million while Beasley got a four year deal with which he'll earn $17M over the first two years.
Cole Beasley will be missed, but the good thing is the front office did a pretty good job at filling the concerning hole on offense. Cooper, Gallup and Cobb are definitely not a bad starting trio to have.
Other under the radar moves will also help the Cowboys. Kerry Hyder may not be a well-known in the NFL but he'll surely contribute to this defensive line as a rotational player. Hyder had eight sacks in 2016 with the Detroit Lions before suffering an Achilles injury in 2017 and dealing with a scheme change last season. Hyder will surely be happy about being back to a 4-3 defense in Dallas.
Christian Covington was another overlooked signing. Covington will help on the interior of the defensive line and although he'll likely not be a starter, he'll be an important piece in the rotation for a very reasonable contract ( also a one-year deal).
For a football team that's constantly criticized for not being active in free agency, the Cowboys have done something at pretty much every position where they need help. Safety, defensive end, defensive tackle, wide receiver and tight end have all been addressed this offseason prior to the NFL Draft. This will give them great flexibility in April and could lead to a pretty good "best player available" strategy.
Now granted, there are still concerns regarding the young "to be extended" group of players. DeMarcus Lawrence hasn't reached an agreement with the Cowboys and will continue to postpone surgery until he does. If the front office doesn't strike a contract with the star pass rusher, it won't be possible to consider this offseason a good one no matter what happens. Dallas can't let him leave.
In the meantime though, they've had a pretty quiet yet successful March. And they're not done yet. Robert Quinn could end up wearing the Star if a trade with the Miami Dolphins does end up taking place. We'll see if the Cowboys continue to build on an already pretty good free agency.
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