With the NFL trade deadline coming and going yesterday without the Dallas Cowboys making a move, their roster for the remainder of the 2017 season is effectively set, sitting at 4-3 with the strong possibility that RB Ezekiel Elliott will not play again until week 15 at the Oakland Raiders.
The Cowboys' young roster is still in a good position to compete, with a 2-0 NFC East record and both meetings with the division leading Eagles ahead.
Ahead of their week nine return home to face the Chiefs, here is how I would rank the Cowboys' roster by position on offense and defense.
1. Offensive Line
This part is easy. The Cowboys' offensive line got off to a slow start on the season in sparking this running game, but both Jonathan Cooper at LG and La'el Collins at RT have transitioned nicely as new starters to open things up on the ground.
The Cowboys offensive line is still the best in the NFL by a decent margin.
In Dak Prescott I trust. Prescott has accounted for 17 touchdowns in seven games, proving that the Cowboys truly found a franchise quarterback in last year's draft. Prescott's yards per attempt may be down from 2016, but #4 has been surgical in the pocket, putting the ball where it needs to be and mostly keeping Dallas ahead of the chains.
Whether or not they play with Ezekiel Elliott for the next six weeks should do little to slow down Dak Prescott's outstanding play, and adding rising QB2 Cooper Rush along with film-room extraordinaire Kellen Moore firmly places quarterback near the top of this list.
3. Defensive End
If you told me that I would be writing this article on October 31st (Happy Halloween!) and putting the Cowboys' edge rushers as their third best unit, I would have been dumbfounded at where the sack production was coming from.
With a healthy DeMarcus Lawrence accounting for 10.5 of the Cowboys' 25 sacks thus far, this team is pressuring opposing quarterbacks with a deep rotation off the edge.
Across from Lawrence at LDE, Tyrone Crawford has amazingly been active as a RDE. It is the consistent production from both of these starters paired with the expected contributions that David Irving, Benson Mayowa, Taco Charlton, and perhaps even Charles Tapper later in the year will make that puts DE at number three on this list.
4. Running Back
Just how far down to slide RB on these rankings was one of the hardest decisions, as we simply don't know how the Cowboys' offense will respond to a probable running back by committee approach.
Should their workhorse, three-down player in Ezekiel Elliott be taken off the field, the Cowboys can turn to a trio of Darren McFadden, Alfred Morris, and Rod Smith to replace his skills in different ways.
McFadden is the proven veteran that's been held by Dallas for the better part of two years in the wake of Elliott facing league discipline. Becoming the featured back in 2015, McFadden ran for 1,089 yards but only three touchdowns.
Only a bulk of carries will tell Cowboys Nation if McFadden still has some of that burst and elusiveness left to be effective. If not, it likely means more of Alfred Morris, who has done little in his frustrating efforts taking Elliott off the field again this season.
Brought in because of his scheme fit, Morris has appeared run down ever since transitioning from the Redskins to Cowboys - leaving only Rod Smith as a "change of pace" back with some solid downhill rushing ability and ample talent as a pass catcher.
Will the Cowboys win games without Ezekiel Elliott at RB? Nobody knows.
Will they still be able to run the football with some success? I think so, making RB my fourth strongest unit on the squad.
The story of the Cowboys' 2017 season thus far is told pretty well through the numbers they've had available at the linebacker position. Without Sean Lee, Rod Marinelli's defense is simply lost.
These past two weeks, Dallas has been able to put both Lee and Anthony Hitchens back on the field together, and as a result they've allowed less than 300 total yards in both games.
Just a few weeks ago, I was one of the loudest critics for Jaylon Smith to be taken off the field for his own protection, but even he has taken some strides in his confidence and MIKE LB ability to help the middle of the Cowboys defense.
So long as the Cowboys offense does what they set out to do each week, a defense that has their full linebacker corps will win them games.
6. Wide Receiver
This is a position of need for the Dallas Cowboys. Dez Bryant is still the leader of the Cowboys passing offense at WR, but getting him the ball consistently has been difficult for Scott Linehan. Bryant has 19 career games with two catches or less, three of which have come this season.
Last year's leading receiver, Cole Beasley, has also not been utilized the same way - catching just 18 passes thus far, after snagging 37 through seven games in 2016.
Terrance Williams has been Terrance Williams once again, and fan-favorite Brice Butler has not shown the Dallas coaches enough consistency to take Williams off the field for Butler more.
This leaves rookie WR Ryan Switzer, who has only been thrown the ball twice for two short receptions. Switzer has carried the ball three times for insignificant gains of three yards each time as well.
Dez Bryant being one of the best red zone targets in the entire NFL certainly elevates this unit as he helps them finish drives with touchdowns, but as the Cowboys passing attack opens up these next few weeks it will be fascinating to see who can step up out of this group of pass catchers that have all settled into niche roles.
7. Defensive Tackle
It is here that we find the single most important position in Rod Marinelli's scheme, the 3T DT. With turnover for consecutive seasons at the spot and the lack of a productive 1T though, it is hard to put defensive tackle higher on this list despite the ridiculous numbers David Irving is putting up while lining up inside.
Irving's five sacks in three games at DT have forced Maliek Collins, a perceived breakout star at the position, to slide over to the 1T position. This is not a position that suits Collins' skills all that well, as he is much better working up the field and disengaging blockers on his way to the quarterback.
In a perfect world, Stephen Paea doesn't retire mid-season due to recurring knee injuries, leaving Dallas with a formidable 1T to rotate Collins and Irving at the three. Without Paea however, the likes of Brian Price and Richard Ash have performed as well as the Cowboys could hope inside at defensive tackle.
David Irving is going to continue being a game wrecker at DT for the Cowboys, but the same can't be said for any of the other rotational players here.
When you lose two veteran starters at CB in one offseason, it is hard to fill in a secondary quickly and expect things to work. Amazingly, the Cowboys have been decent at the CB position without being able to rely on sophomore Anthony Brown.
Brown's frequent struggles in coverage is the main reason CB falls so far down this list, as he has left Orlando Scandrick and Jourdan Lewis as the team's two capable cornerbacks.
When healthy, Scandrick has mostly been his usual self in the slot, and the best sign of hope for the Cowboys at CB is the play of rookie Jourdan Lewis. Getting fellow rookie Chidobe Awuzie on the field has been a nightmare for Dallas though, limiting their numbers in the back end defensively.
The Cowboys knew that this would be a transitional year at the CB position, and this transition is going better than expected. Jourdan Lewis is a star in the making.
For now, their lack of depth and experience here slides cornerback down the list.
9. Tight End
Jason Witten could walk into Canton and get a bust and jacket from the Pro Football Hall of Fame anytime he wants. This is of course the leader at TE for the Cowboys once again in 2017, and behind Witten the team has worked James Hanna and Geoff Swaim into regular roles as run blockers.
As a rookie, Dak Prescott had Cole Beasley as his perceived security blanket, but this role has shifted back towards Jason Witten this season.
Geoff Swaim is still a promising young player that is developing well for the Cowboys, but my concern at TE has been with James Hanna. Getting him back on the field as an extra blocker was critical for the Cowboys, but he has not been the same player at the end of the line of scrimmage.
It is highly unlikely that Rico Gathers will contribute on offense this season, leaving these three tight ends as the guys to get it done for the Cowboys.
It says a lot about the overall state of the Cowboys roster when I had such a hard time putting any position last on this list. Another spot that was depleted through free agency, the Cowboys surprising pass rush has made up for some problems in the back end with continuity at safety.
Rotating three safeties in different packages worked brilliantly for Dallas in 2016, but this rotation has yet to be set the same way this season. Finding Byron Jones a reliable partner at safety has not gone as planned, as Jeff Heath quickly proved that he is solely a rotational player.
Without being able to rely on Heath as a "starter", the Cowboys have had to put a ton of warranted confidence into rookie Xavier Woods. Naturally, Woods has his shortcomings as well with failed opportunities to tackle in space and stop the run.
Perhaps unexpectedly, it is the Cowboys front seven carrying their secondary at the moment, and it is a struggle to offer opposing offenses varying looks in the back end right now due to the situation at safety.
This is how I see the 2017 Dallas Cowboys roster breaking down by position. A concluding thought on these rankings should be that the Cowboys are pretty well off, with their main problem at some key positions being lack of proven experience.
Young players are getting opportunities to prove themselves all over the field, making it an exciting time for the Cowboys as a whole despite the Ezekiel Elliott situation.
The Cowboys pass rush has finally arrived, and with it they have a defense that can certainly support an elite offense led by their franchise quarterback Dak Prescott and league-best offensive line.
Let me know where you agree or disagree with these rankings by leaving a comment below!
Cowboys Twitter Tuesday: Addressing the 2019 53-Man Roster
For the Dallas Cowboys, the NFL, and the NFL fanbase, the waiting game for the start of training camp has begun. As Tom Petty says, "the waiting is the hardest part." The Dallas Cowboys go open training camp in about five weeks. The first preseason game is 53 days away and week one is less than three months away at this point. It's so close we can taste it.
Each week, I'll gather questions from you the Cowboys Nation community. Each week, we'll hone in on a specific topic based on your questions. So whether it's roster related, salary cap focused, or you have a fantasy football question, don't hesitate to send it to me on Twitter.
This week, we're going to take a look at the Dallas Cowboys 53-man roster.
@john9williams Who contributed to last year's team that won't make this year's team?
The 53-man roster will be one of the more debated topics over the next couple of months as the Dallas Cowboys get ready for training camp and the preseason. Every year there are surprises and we should expect the same this year. The Dallas Cowboys have incredible depth through the roster and so there will be at least one name that doesn't make the final 53-man roster who had an impact in 2018.
To answer Jesus' question, I think the easy answer is one of the wide receivers be it Noah Brown, Allen Hurns, or Tavon Austin. This might be a hot take, but I'm going to go a different direction and say guard Xavier Su'a-Filo.
In 2018, Su'a-Filo started eight games for the Dallas Cowboys and though he started out strong for them midseason, his play tailed off before he was injured allowing Connor Williams to regain his starting spot at left guard. The Dallas Cowboys coaching staff loves position flexibility, especially along the offensive line. Su'a-Filo, though he's a solid backup guard option, doesn't have the ability to play multiple positions along the line like his teammates.
Connor Williams can play guard and tackle. Connor McGovern will get snaps at guard and center, and to hear him talk, he can play tackle as well, though that's probably a bit of a stretch. Joe Looney, the Dallas Cowboys starting center for 2018, has the ability to flex out to guard if you need him to.
Because the Dallas Cowboys will have difficult decisions to make at wide receiver and defensive line, they can afford to go light along the offensive line because of the flexibility of players like Williams, Looney, and McGovern.
@john9williams #CowboysQuestions do we extend Dak before game #1? How many WRs on 53?
I'm gonna leave the Dak Prescott question for another day and address the wide receiver question as several people asked about that position group in particular.
The wide receiver group is a really deep group. With Amari Cooper, Randall Cobb, and Allen Hurns, it features three guys who've had at least one 1,000 yard season in their career. Michael Gallup is an ascending player. Tavon Austin is a really nice punt returner and offensive puzzle piece that can take the top off the defense with his downfield speed. I think four of those five are locks to make the roster.
According to Jeff Cavanaugh from 105.3 The Fan in Dallas, the team really likes Allen Hurns and his ability to play inside and outside in the formation. He's solid veteran depth at a low cost.
Then if you include Noah Brown's ability as a receiver and as a blocker, I think you have a very versatile and dangerous group in the passing game. Though the coaches really like Brown's ability to block in the run game, if they don't use him in the passing game, it tips their hand to the defense that the team is going to run. If they're going to keep him on the roster, they have to use him. It's a waste otherwise.
Brown and Hurns to me are on the roster bubble at wide receiver. Talented players like Cedric Wilson, Devin Smith, Jon'vea Johnson, Jalen Guyton, and Reggie Davis have all stood out at one point in time or another during OTAs and minicamp and will make the decision difficult for the coaching staff.
In my most recent roster projection, I had the Dallas Cowboys keeping six wide receivers; Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, Randall Cobb, Tavon Austin, Allen Hurns, and Noah Brown. Being a team on the verge of contending for a Super Bowl, I think they go with veterans who can help them win now.
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That'll do it for this week's edition. Make sure to get your questions in via Twitter, or you can leave them in the comment section for next week's post. Also, don't forget to check out Inside The Star's newest podcast, Cowboys Weekly featuring Managing Editor Bryson Treece and Senior Writer Jess Haynie.
Does Darius Jackson Have A “Puncher’s Chance” Of Landing On Final Roster?
Remember Darius Jackson?
The sixth round running back was an instant fan favorite of Cowboys Nation, as the fanbase hoped Dallas had found the explosive RB2 behind Ezekiel Elliott they needed in the very same draft. Jackson, however, had an up-and-down preseason in 2016 and ended up being waived from the team to make room for Darren McFadden later in the year.
Jackson has bounced around the league a bit since then, joining both the Cleveland Browns and Green Bay Packers at different points. He's back with the Cowboys, however, looking to fight his way onto the team's final roster.
But does the fourth year running back have more than a puncher's chance to do so?
The Cowboys spent much of the 2019 NFL Draft rebuilding their running back depth. First, they drafted Memphis back Tony Pollard hoping to find a versatile and dynamic threat to compliment the workhorse that is Ezekiel Elliott. Then, in the seventh round, Dallas took another Ohio State running back in Mike Weber who fits more of the "traditional" running back form.
So with two new touted rookies behind the veteran Elliott, and fullback Jamize Olawale more than likely having a roster spot as well, there doesn't seem to be room for Darius Jackson on the Dallas Cowboys.
That didn't stop him from competing at OTAs, however. DallasCowboys.com named Darius Jackson one of their top ten "head turners" from the OTA practices, and considering that Mike Weber is banged up at the moment, Jackson will certainly have his opportunities to fight for that spot.
Still, the odds suggest that Darius Jackson will not be with the Cowboys come the Fall of 2019. Though he entered the league with some fanfare for a day three pick, his production has been more fitting of his draft grade than of his fan hype.
Jackson hasn't been the explosive player/receiving back that they're hoping Tony Pollard will be, nor has he been the every-down type backup runner that they seem to hope Mike Weber will be.
In the end, the Cowboys-Darius Jackson story is likely to close during this year's training camp.
Cowboys Camp: Strong Safety Battle One to Watch
When the Dallas Cowboys head to Oxnard, California for the start of training camp in late July, they'll have most of the roster settled. On paper, they're a team that doesn't have many holes on the depth chart.
They've added depth at every position and added playmakers on both sides of the football. On defense, there appears to be only one position where the starter heading into training camp may not be the starter come week one. Strong safety.
Veteran Safety Jeff Heath is currently running with the first team defense through the offseason portion of practices. George Iloka and Donovan Wilson were added to the strong safety depth chart featuring Heath and special teams ace Kavon Frazier.
While most teams would be excited about having a returning starter at the position, Heath's 2018 left a lot to be desired. Per Pro Football Focus, Heath missed 19 tackles on the season, which was second in the NFL. It seemed that Heath became more interested in attempting to strip the ball out of the ball carrier's hands than actually making the tackle, which became increasingly frustrating as he forced only a single fumble all season long. Though he had a lot of missed tackles, Heath did finish 15th in the NFL in Pro Football Focus' "stops," which are defined as a "play that results in a loss for the defense." Heath was third on the team in total tackles with 85 and tied with Jaylon Smith for third in tackles for loss with six.
The biggest competition for Heath at strong safety will be veteran George Iloka.
Signed to a one-year contract after spending time with the Cincinnati Bengals and Minnesota Vikings, Iloka comes to the Dallas Cowboys adding depth at free safety behind Xavier Woods. He also creates competition for Heath at strong safety, which should help Jeff Heath raise his game and get more consistent with his tackling. Iloka has experience and brings good size and length to the secondary, which should help them defend tight ends in the passing game.
Because of his injury, Kavon Frazier could see his playing time evaporate heading into 2019. If he's unable to get healthy and make an impression early, Frazier could miss out on the 53-man roster when the team makes their final roster cuts.
The player that stands to benefit the most from Kavon Frazier's injury, and the one I'm most interested in watching in the Dallas secondary the rest of the preseason is sixth-round draft pick, Donovan Wilson. The rookie from Texas A&M has made several plays in the secondary that stood out during OTAs. Here's what Bryan Broaddus of DallasCowboys.com had to say about Donovan Wilson during last week's minicamp.
"I haven’t written much about Donovan Wilson since rookie minicamp, but I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to mention a nice play he had during the two-minute drill. Kris Richard came with a blitz, which forced Cooper Rush to throw “hot” to Dalton Schultz. Wilson, from several yards away, saw Schultz look up and drove on the ball, arriving at the exact time it hit Schultz’s hands. With his left hand Wilson was able to drag the ball away, knocking it to the ground."
Bryan Broaddus - DallasCowboys.com
Wilson will be a player to watch in training camp. The Cowboys have had success finding defensive backs in the late rounds of the draft. Anthony Brown was a fifth-round pick in 2016 and Xavier Woods was a sixth-round selection in 2017. Now Wilson, with his aggressive and physical demeanor will have an opportunity -- this year or next -- to carve out some playing time in a secondary that needs more players who can create turnovers.
Strong safety is one of the few starting spots where there is actual competition for the incumbent starter. Pretty much every other position has returning starters locked into the starting lineup or, in Travis Frederick's and Robert Quinn's cases, a significant talent upgrade that makes them day-one starters.
The competition at strong safety should help everyone be better for the Cowboys in 2019. If Heath is able to hold off Iloka and Wilson to remain the starter, then he will have once again earned it. With the depth they have this season, including two guys who won't be liabilities in pass coverage, the Cowboys have options if Heath misses tackles in 2019 as he did in 2018.
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