It may seem premature to some to start looking at what the Cowboys will need next season, but one of the reasons I think Jerry Jones has repeatedly failed as a General Manager is that he is more of a fan of what's going on right now, rather than a forward-looking planner.
Hopefully, Stephen Jones is paying attention to what is happening in college right now, and already thinking about next season.
One of the important things to look at when planning for the future is how personnel moves will impact the Salary CAP, and how current contractual commitments limit options. As much as fans like to talk about certain college players with whom they are enamored, the reality is that the commitments teams have already made are going to influence the decisions they make on draft day.
This is the first article in a series of five articles which will look at the Dallas roster, and predict the draft priorities of the Cowboys in 2015.
With an eye on how current players impact the Salary CAP, and their current level of play, let's look at the current Cowboys roster, and find out where the holes in 2015 will be, and where the prior commitments will likely lead them away from certain players. This first article will deal with the offensive skill positions.
Tony Romo is in the first year of his 6 year, $108 million contract extension. While some think paying him an average of $18 million is a waste of money, the reality is that this is probably going to prove to be a bargain basement type of deal for an experienced starting QB.
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Brandon Weeden is in the first year of a two-year minimum salary contract. Although he is 30 years old, this former 1st round pick from 2012 has few miles on his football odometer, and his strong arm and low salary make him a keeper for the next two seasons.
Dustin Vaughan surprised a lot of us when the Cowboys kept him on the final roster after training camp. One of three undrafted free agents to make the team out of camp (Davon Coleman and Tyler Patmon were the other two), the Cowboys must see something they like in Vaughan to use a roster spot for him. Like Weeden, Vaughan is on a minimum contract, making the backup QB spot a bargain for the Cowboys for the next couple of years.
[su_box title="Conclusions - Quarterbacks" style="glass" box_color="#002b5c" radius="2"]Unless Romo’s back completely gives out, the Cowboys are committed to him for at least another 3 seasons. They have zero incentive to spend a high draft pick to find Romo’s eventual successor in the 2015 draft. Also, they already have a former 1st round pick with NFL experience, plus a developmental prospect playing backup QB. So, even spending a low round pick on a quarterback seems unlikely.
With a scheduled $17.5 million salary in 2015, and a $27.8 million CAP charge, it is almost a guarantee that the Cowboys will restructure Romo’s contract in 2015 to make room to re-sign other young offensive stars such as Dez Bryant and DeMarco Murray.[/su_box]
STARTING RUNNING BACK
DeMarco Murray is poised to have a career year. I know that some will blame his upcoming season on this being a contract year for him. I’ve never believed that players perform better in contract years. The NFL graveyard is littered with the dead careers of many, many players who were duds in their “contract years.” The real reason that Murray will have a career year is that the Cowboys have finally put a decent offensive line in front of him. Combine that with Romo’s recovering back, and the Cowboys will lean heavily on Murray. I expect him to have at least 1,600 yards from scrimmage, and he might approach 2,000 total yards.
The issue for the Cowboys is that in 2015, Murray will be a free agent. If Murray believes the Cowboys are committed to the run, it is likely they will be able to keep him, but it will cost some money to do so. This means the Cowboys will need to make some cuts in other areas on the team.
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BACK-UP RUNNING BACKS
Joseph Randle is the primary back-up running back who would fill in for Murray if he were to get injured. I was against drafting Randle in 2013, hoping instead that the Cowboys would consider Zac Stacy or Latavius Murray. But Randle has played with more power this year than in his rookie season. He is actually a very good scheme fit for the zone blocking style of offense the Cowboys like to play. Randle is also a very valuable member of the special teams coverage units. He is still under contract for 3 more seasons.
Lance Dunbar is considered by many to be the stereotypical “change-of-pace” back. Tom Landry is actually the one who invented the idea of a 3rd down running back specialist in the late 70’s. When Tony Dorsett took over the starting running back position, Landry created a specialist role for Preston Pearson as an excuse to get him on the field.
But, if you harken back to the days of Emmitt Smith, you realize that a good running team doesn’t actually need a “change-of-pace” back if they have a primary running back that can block and catch passes, too. Murray is that type of running back, which makes Dunbar less valuable. Also, Dunbar is in the final year of his rookie contract.
Ryan Williams was a 2nd round pick of the Cardinals and is currently on the Practice Squad. Many fans liked the way he ran the ball in preseason, but Williams' lack of development in his pass protection blocking skills, his late preseason injury, plus his uselessness on special teams convinced the Cowboys to make him their final cut back in August. If Williams can use this year to improve his blocking and also begin to contribute on special teams, look for him to challenge Dunbar for a roster spot in 2015.
[su_box title="Conclusions - Running Backs" style="glass" box_color="#002b5c" radius="2"]DeMarco Murray will be a priority Free Agent for the Cowboys to sign in 2015. With Murray having such a great year so far, the Cowboys will need to come to the table with a generous offer to keep him. Using Marshawn Lynch and LeSean McCoy’s contracts as a guide, the Cowboys will need to offer him between $7.5 – 9 million per year, over a 4-5 year contract. Don’t be surprised if the Cowboys offer Murray a 5 year, $40 million contract.
If this happens, then the Cowboys will not be using a high pick on a running back in 2015. And it is unlikely they need to use a low pick on a running back either. Ryan Williams gives them the leverage to resign Dunbar cheaply, or just promote Williams.[/su_box]
STARTING TIGHT END
Jason Witten is still considered one of the premier tight ends in the NFL. I believe that will change in 2014. Witten is now 32 years old, and is entering his 12th season in the NFL. With the emergence of DeMarco Murray, and the hiring of Scott Linehan, expect Witten’s number to drop dramatically in 2014. If Witten gets 50 catches this year for over 400 yards, I will be surprised.
Witten is still under contract for another 4 seasons, but is in the 4th year of his 7 year contract. Because of his high profile as a leader of the team, it is unlikely that the Cowboys will cut him in 2015. But after 2015, the Cowboys will likely release Witten as his production continues to fall.
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BACK-UP TIGHT ENDS
Gavin Escobar is not Jason Witten. But he can be the equivalent of Jay Novacek for the Cowboys. Like Escobar, Novacek was a long lanky slow-footed tight end who was not good at blocking. Nevertheless, he was vital to the Cowboys success in the early 90’s. Escobar might never reach the Hall of Fame level that Cowboys fans have become accustomed to with Witten, but don’t be surprised if he becomes the Cowboy's starter in 2016.
James Hanna is the epitome of a journeyman backup player; the type of player every decent team needs for depth. Hanna is not only a decent blocker in the run game, but is a valuable member of the Special Teams units. In the 3rd year of a 4 year contract, expect Hanna to play out his rookie deal. This is how 6th round draft picks should be used.
[su_box title="Conclusions - Tight Ends" style="glass" box_color="#002b5c" radius="2"]The Cowboys are pretty set at tight end for the next two seasons. Don’t expect them to be using a draft pick in 2015 on another tight end. While the Cowboys will undoubtedly sign some rookie free agents for training camp, they have no pressing need at this position. And with Scott Linehan calling the plays, expect the tight end position to be de-emphasized in the overall scheme of the Cowboys attack.[/su_box]
STARTING WIDE RECEIVERS
Dez Bryant, many fans are worried that the Cowboys failure to resign Dez Bryant to a multiyear contract extension prior to the start of the season will cause the Cowboys to lose their most talented player in 2015. That worry is misplaced. Both the Cowboys and Bryant are committed to keeping the star wide receiver in Dallas for the foreseeable future. So, even though Bryant is ostensibly a free agent after this season, he’s not going anywhere. If all else fails, the Cowboys will use the franchise tag to keep him in Dallas; but, with both sides wanting to get a deal done, this probably won’t be necessary.
Terrance Williams. Those who know me know how heavily I was campaigning for the Cowboys to pick Williams with their 2nd round pick in 2013. Fortunately, the Cowboys were still able to get him in the 3rd round, and his emergence allowed them to move on from the disastrous contract they gave the always overrated Miles Austin.
One of the big reasons I was so strongly in favor of drafting Williams (aside from the fact he led the nation in receiving yards) was his tenacity at blocking downfield. Keep an eye out for Williams when Murray is running the ball, and you’ll see that he’s already developed into one of the better blocking wide receivers in the NFL. Personally, I believe that Williams is in for a long career with the Cowboys, and is an ideal compliment to Bryant.
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BACK-UP WIDE RECEIVERS
Cole Beasley is the Cowboys version of a Wes Welker or Danny Amendola. Although small, he seems to be able to stay healthy and has a knack for making first downs whenever he touches the ball. His quickness allows him to get immediate separation, and as Witten’s touches decline, expect Beasley to become more and more of a safety blanket for Romo in 2014. Beasley is in the last year of his contract, so if he plays exceptionally well, the Cowboys are in danger of losing him in 2015 to free agency. However, with only 3 years in the league, Beasley will be a restricted free agent, giving the Cowboys the right to match offers other teams might make.
Devin Street is a tall, lanky talented rookie. If the Cowboys lose Beasley in 2015, Street could step in as the 3rd receiver, with Dez Bryant moving in to the slot position in 3 wide receiver sets.
Dwayne Harris, like Beasley, is in the last year of his contract, and is eligible to be become an unrestricted free agent in 2015. Although he sits below Beasley on the depth chart, Harris may be more valuable to the team because of his return skills. Expect the Cowboys to try to resign Harris in 2015. But also expect him to get some interest from other teams.
[su_box title="Conclusions - Wide Receivers" style="glass" box_color="#002b5c" radius="2"]With 3 of their top 5 receivers scheduled to be free agents in 2015, it is highly likely the Cowboys will lose at least one of them. Beasley will get a qualifying offer, and a raise in 2015. But given the NFL’s general hesitancy to sign restricted free agents, I expect Beasley to be back. On the other hand, the Cowboys might allow Harris to walk. If they do, then expect them to target a kick returner in the mid to late rounds as a replacement for Harris.
I would keep an eye on the talented college kick returners this year to see who the Cowboys might target with their 4th through 6th round picks in 2015.
As for Bryant, restructuring Romo’s contract will give the Cowboys plenty of room to resign him next year. One of the likely reasons the Cowboys were unable to sign Bryant to a contract extension this offseason was because of the success they had signing Tyron Smith to a long-term deal. Smith’s contract ate up the available CAP space, and the Cowboys needed to keep some CAP room in 2014 in case they need it for replacement players if and when other players get injured. But Bryant will command – and will get – a contract which rewards him as one of the best 5 receivers in the NFL. Jerry Jones has never shied away from paying his stars, and Bryant will be no exception.
Bryant may not get the $16.2 million per season that Calvin Johnson earns, but he will sign for more than the $12 million per season that Miami paid Mike Wallace. It wouldn’t surprise me to see the Cowboys give Bryant a 7 year, $105 million contract at an average of $15 million per season – right behind what Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald make. Keep an eye on contract extension negotiations for both A.J. Green and Julio Jones. Both of those players are up for contract extensions in 2015, and someone is going to set the market price.[/su_box]
2015 FREE AGENT & DRAFT OUTLOOK
The Cowboys can create about $30 million in CAP space next season with a very few strategic moves.
The big free agent signings in 2015 will be at Wide Receiver and Running Back. The Cowboys will likely spend a big chunk of money locking up Murray and Bryant in long-term contracts. The Cowboys prepared for the need to sign Murray and Bryant by releasing Ware last season, and not offering a new contract to Hatcher.
The only significant losses the Cowboys can expect in their offensive skill positions are Lance Dunbar and Dwayne Harris. With Ryan Williams waiting in the wings, and the development of Randle, I don’t expect the Cowboys to spend any draft picks on a running back, but they could use a late round pick on one if a talented player drops to them - or if Randle's off the field issues continue.
On the other hand, I think the Cowboys will actively target a kick returner in the 2015 draft. Harris fans may not like it, but spending a mid to late round draft pick on a replacement returner is a better use of resources than signing Harris to an overpriced contract.
The Cowboys could choose a defensive back or running back with very good kick return skills. But they will likely target a wide receiver with kick return skills, because that fills two needs with one player.
2015 Draft Need – Kick Returner/Wide Receiver – target rounds 4-7
2015 Draft Option – Back-up Running Back – target rounds 6-7 or undrafted free agent
Cowboys Land CB in Matt Miller’s way-too-early 2020 NFL Mock Draft
What better way to kick off the 2019 NFL regular-season and the start of college football then a way-too-early 2020 mock draft? Well, you're in luck. Matt Miller, one of my favorite draft analysts, just released his latest 2020 NFL Mock Draft for Bleacherreport.com and you may be surprised as to who he selected for the Dallas Cowboys.
One of the reasons I enjoy Matt Miller's work above many other so-called "draft analysts" is because he has his ear to the ground and has a pretty good connection with scouts around the league. That kind of information is pretty invaluable, but he also has a solid understanding of team "needs". Add all of that up and you get a really solid guesstimate of who could be on a certain teams radar, in this case the Dallas Cowboys.
Let's take a look at who Matt Miller predicted the Dallas Cowboys could draft in the 2020 NFL Draft with their first-round selection. Miller set this particular mock draft according to current Super Bowl odds from Caesar's Palace.
25. Dallas Cowboys
The Pick: CB Bryce Hall, Virginia
Matt Miller predicting the Dallas Cowboys select Cornerback Bryce Hall with there first-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft definitely seems like a plausible possibility. He knows the Cowboys can't afford to pay everyone and he even said as much. With Byron Jones and Anthony Brown entering a contract year in 2019 and with Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis having expiring contracts after 2020, Dallas' secondary could definitely need addressing.
The Cowboys know this as well which is why they probably attempted to add some developmental depth to the CB position through the 2019 NFL Draft when they took Mike Jackson in the fifth-round. Jackson has the attributes they look for in their corners, but in no way has he looked like he'd be ready for a starting role next season. That makes Miller's Bryce Hall selection a definite possibility.
According to Miller's 2020 mock draft Bryce Hall is the fourth secondary player to come off the board. There were three cornerbacks selected ahead of him and one safety. He does fit the mold Kris Richard prefers in his CBs (6'1", 200) and also has the physical playing style in press coverage Richard likes as well. All in all, this is a very solid prediction for the Dallas Cowboys.
Whether or not the Dallas Cowboys would choose to select a CB this early is unknown at this point. But, it certainly seems like a high possibility considering all the corners with expiring contracts in a year or two. I think the Cowboys could look into taking a tight end or a safety with their first-round pick as well, but again it's way too early to have any kind of clue as to how their draft board will look like when the 2020 NFL Draft rolls around.
I don't know about you, but I'll be keeping a closer eye on Bryce Hall this season just in case Matt Miller is correct. I'd like to get a head start to see just how well he would fit, or not, with the Dallas Cowboys.
Do you like the Bryce Hall selection for the Dallas Cowboys?
2020 RB Options for the Cowboys if Things Turn Ugly With Ezekiel Elliott
The Dallas Cowboys could have a Le'Veon Bell-type situation on their hands in regards to Ezekiel Elliott. It's been reported Zeke is contemplating a holdout until his financial demands are met by way of a contract extension. This could put the Cowboys between a rock and a hard place.
Ezekiel Elliott is technically still under contract for two more seasons because of the fifth-year option he carries as a former first-round draft pick. Threatening to hold out seems a little premature, but Zeke has the Cowboys by the short hairs right now, meaning the leverage is on his side.
This is a situation that could, unfortunately, turn ugly, and quickly.
Check out Ep. 6 of Cowboys Weekly - Segment 1 for more discussion from Inside The Star on Ezekiel Elliott's Hold-Out situation:
The Cowboys have several other mouths to feed and Zeke may not be at the top the list considering his continued immaturity issues off the field. His on-field production is undeniable, but so are the red flags that keep popping up. It may be time for Dallas to look for his successor and fortunately, the 2020 running back draft class is a pretty good place to start.
Let's take a look…
Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin
Jonathan Taylor (5'11", 219) would probably be the ideal candidate to replace Ezekiel Elliott for the Dallas Cowboys. He is one of the more productive collegiate running backs expected to enter the 2020 NFL Draft and has the intangibles that are eerily similar to Zeke as far as size, speed, and power are concerned. Unfortunately, that likely makes him a top 10 selection, putting him out of reach of the Cowboys.
Taylor doesn't come without his warts though. As a true Junior, he's seen a lot of action in his three years as the starting RB for the Badgers. That wear-and-tear is a cause for concern because it could lead to durability issues once in the NFL. He also has struggled with his ball security. He's put the ball on the ground 12 times in the last two seasons, which will need to be cleaned up at the next level. But, there's no denying his talent.
D'Andre Swift, Georgia
D'Andre Swift (5'9", 215) is one of my favorite RB options in the 2020 draft class to replace Ezekiel Elliott if things turn ugly with the Dallas Cowboys. He doesn't have the same kind of production as Jonathan Taylor and is still somewhat under the radar because he's been stuck in a committee with the Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, and Elijah Holyfield the last two years. But mark my words, he will be the next great RB to enter the NFL out of Georgia. Swift could be as ideal of a candidate to replace Zeke as there is.
Dallas likes an inside runner with zone vision as well as someone who can be a threat in the passing game, and D'Andre fits the bill. Despite being a little smaller in size than Zeke, he still possesses the power to run inside. Then throw in his receiving ability, 32 catches for 297 yards and three touchdowns last season, and you have someone who is more than capable of replacing #21's offensive production. He's projected to be a late first-round pick, which could put him within striking distance of the Cowboys.
J.K. Dobbins, Ohio State
J.K. Dobbins (5'10", 214) could be someone who is already on the Dallas Cowboys' radar as a potential Ezekiel Elliott replacement. They seem to have a liking for Ohio State running backs (Zeke, Rod Smith, Mike Weber) and could turn to another Buckeye to carry the rock. Dobbins, an all-purpose back and native Texan (Houston, TX) checks all of the boxes the Cowboys typically look for in their featured back.
Dobbins has the size, speed, and vision to be a featured back in the NFL. He has rushed for over 1,000 yards his last two seasons while splitting time with Mike Weber and has averaged about 200 receiving yards during that time span as well. He's not the most physical back, but he keeps moving his feet upon contact. He also needs to improve in pass protection in order to become a true three-down RB in the NFL. But his vision, shorter area quickness, elusiveness, and patience as a runner are all top-notch.
Travis Etienne, Clemson
The breakout season of Quarterback Trevor Lawrence, unfortunately, overshadowed the Heisman-worthy year Travis Etienna (5'10", 200) had in 2018. In his first year as a starter, he rushed for 1,658 yards and 24 touchdowns, all the while averaging an impressive 8.1 yards per carry. If he can follow that up in 2019 he could become the most coveted back in the 2020 draft class and become a really intriguing option for the Dallas Cowboys.
Etienne will probably need to add a little bit more "good weight" and muscle to his frame if he wants to be considered a featured back in the NFL. If he can accomplish that and not lose any of his elusiveness or speed he should climb up draft boards. If not, he may not be of much interest to the Cowboys because they already have a similar RB in Tony Pollard. He does possess plug-and-play talent though, making him a potential Ezekiel Elliott replacement.
Najee Harris, Alabama
Najee Harris (6'2", 230) is yet another big, physical running back who has had to remain patient and wait his turn at Alabama, but 2019 could be his breakout season. With Bo Scarbrough, Josh Jacobs, and Damien Harris ahead of him on the depth chart the last two years, Najee saw limited playing time. But, when he did receive the opportunity to showcase his skill set he didn't disappoint. His physical talent could make him a top-5 running back come draft time.
Despite his limited playing time last the two seasons, he averaged over 6 yards a carry. He rushed for a career-high 783 yards and four touchdowns on just 117 carries in 2018 and should easily surpass those totals this season. In doing so he should become one of the more sought after RBs in the 2020 draft class. With the Cowboys, as Zeke's potential replacement, his physicality would pair nicely with Tony Pollard's slashing style. A Harris/Pollard duo could be just as productive as the Cowboys running game has been in the past.
The above five running backs are all potential Ezekiel Elliott replacements who I really like and will likely receive the most national attention due to the programs in which they play. But, they are only a few in what looks like a really strong 2020 RB draft class. Here a few honorable mentions you should also keep a close eye on as well.
- Cam Akers, Florida State
- Eno Benjamin, Arizona State
- Kennedy Brooks, Oklahoma
- Ke'Shawn Vaughn, Vanderbilt
- Kylin Hill, Mississippi State
I believe any of these running backs mentioned above at any point in the article could be in play for the Dallas Cowboys if they choose to play hardball with Ezekiel Elliott over his want for a contract extension. The 2020 running back draft class has a plethora of potential starters and this could be in the back of the Cowboys mind when they're determining where they want to spend their money. Paying top dollar for an RB might not fit in their budget, even for one as talented as Zeke.
Do you like any of these potential RBs as replacements for Ezekiel Elliott?
Cowboys Draft: Reviewing Kansas DT Daniel Wise
Throughout the post draft media process, the Cowboys' decision makers have been adamant that they found multiple draft-able players in undrafted free agency this year. Each of which, of course, will have an opportunity to compete for a roster or practice squad spot this summer.
One of those players who almost certainly had a draft-able grade despite fall through all seven rounds, is Kansas defensive tackle Daniel Wise.
At 6'3" and 290 pounds, Wise projects as a 3-technique in the NFL, and should compete for that very role on the Cowboys defense. Wise is not an overly bendy or athletic player, but he has a good initial quickness which allows him to penetrate gaps well. Wise plays with excellent effort, having the type of motor that I'm sure Rod Marinelli valued highly during the pre-draft evaluations.
A strong and powerful interior presence, Wise can offer some upside as a pass rusher as well. He has quick, active, and heavy hands. When combining his hands with his get-off, Wise is a real threat as a pass rusher. Maybe his most impressive pass rushing quality, however, is the effort which he plays with. Never giving up on a play, you'll have to block Wise until the final whistle or he will threaten for effort sacks.
In college, Wise was often asked to be a two-gap defender from the 5-technique, but that's just not where he'll be at his best. Rather, he should be used in the role the Cowboys likely envision for him, allowing him to play with power at the point of attack and disrupt the running game.
But what are Daniel Wise's chances of even making the team?
The Cowboys made a concerted effort to improve their defensive line this offseason, specifically on the interior. By adding free agents like Kerry Hyder and drafting Trysten Hill 58th overall, Dallas has improved what was considered a weakness during the postseason a year ago.
Not all of these talented defensive tackles will make the team, though, it's simply a numbers a game. And cutting an undrafted free agent will certainly be easier to do than cutting someone who will be owed real money, or was acquired through premium draft capital.
Regardless, Daniel Wise will have the chance to prove his worth during training camp and the preseason. And based on how he projects through his college tape and physical attributes, he'll likely make those final decisions very difficult on the Cowboys' staff.
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