Bringing back third-year Running Back Darius Jackson as their former sixth round draft pick from 2016, the Dallas Cowboys have their entire draft class of two years ago back on the roster. For how long members of this nine-pick class will remain with America's Team remains to be seen, but now is as good a time as ever to reevaluate where things stand with these players.
Experiencing the playoffs as rookies only to miss out last season, this Cowboys draft haul has quickly become the foundation of a roster reversing the aging process every year.
Dak and Zeke. Zeke and Dak. However you want to pair the starting quarterback and running back of the Cowboys together, the 2016 Draft will always be remembered as one that brought this franchise a premier running back - maximizing the talent of their offensive line - and improbable fourth-round QB.
It wasn't until just before this draft that Ohio State's elite RB prospect was linked to the Cowboys. As soon as he was, Elliott and his star potential with the star on his head caused plenty of excitement.
Elliott's Cowboys career has also caused plenty of controversy, as the 2016 league rushing leader was eventually forced to serve a six game domestic violence suspension a year ago. Not going down without a fight for his innocence and public perception, Elliott's case dragged on and brought everything around him and his team down.
It wasn't only Elliott's absence that Dak Prescott was unable to overcome, but if the Cowboys are going to return to the playoffs in 2018 they'll need nothing short of the 16 game performance Elliott produced as a rookie.
In doing so, Elliott can firmly secure his status as the blue chip starter the Cowboys absolutely needed their fourth overall pick to be when turning the disaster of 2015 into a running back.
Of course, it was a slew of Tony Romo injuries that derailed the Cowboys in 2015. Destined for a similar faith in 2016, Dak Prescott was able to change the direction of this franchise forever.
The amount of change the Cowboys have gone through in their roster and coaching staff since being left with no choice but to start Prescott as a rookie -- later keeping a healthy Romo behind the hot-handed Prescott as he completed a 13-3 campaign -- is truly stunning.
While outside the Cowboys building, the perception of Prescott entering year three is that he must prove he deserves everything he's been given, this team could not be more committed to his skills.
Stepping up as a vocal leader of the Cowboys while preparing to silence any critics behind a healthy offensive line, Prescott is as solid of a starting quarterback as the Cowboys could have hoped to ever get in the 2016 Draft. They did so with the 135th overall pick.
Only UDFA Cooper Rush and rookie Mike White sit behind Prescott, presenting no threat to his starting job.
As mentioned, the Cowboys 2016 draft class was immediately tabbed as a historically good crop of talent for Dallas. To be on the right side of history, you need good fortune along the way, and the Cowboys are getting that with their 34th overall pick Jaylon Smith.
Smith's story, as deserved, is well understood. If healthy entering the draft, the Cowboys would have had to choose between Smith and Zeke Elliott at fourth overall. Given both players' college production and pedigree, this wouldn't have been an easy choice.
Fortunate enough to land both players, Smith was a heartwarming but controversial pick in the second round for the Cowboys. With nobody holding him to higher expectations than Smith himself, the Cowboys stood by the Notre Dame linebacker every step of the way prior to his miraculous week one debut.
Putting Jaylon Smith on the field as a starter in the NFL was a medical miracle for the Cowboys, but it takes more than this to exceed at middle linebacker. Only getting stronger as his rookie season came to an emotional end, Smith is currently practicing without his foot brace. Fewer limitations will only give Smith that much more confidence to handle a larger role in Rod Marinelli's defense, with passing game coordinator Kris Richard also envisioning Smith lining up all over the field.
Due to the unproven nature of their LB depth, the Cowboys entered this year's draft compelled to address the position at 19th overall. Drafting Leighton Vander Esch to coexist with Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith, as opposed to replacing either starter, the Cowboys now find themselves with three starting linebackers capable of lining up at multiple positions and in varying sets.
The last player I'd put in this category is Safety Kavon Frazier. Mostly a special teams contributor for the Cowboys thus far, Frazier has flashed as a hard-hitting safety with a nose for the football in limited snaps. With everything in the Cowboys young secondary tying back to Kris Richard's looming impact, Frazier can certainly earn a larger role on defense.
Still running around in shorts at The Star for OTAs, the Cowboys have rolled with two rangy safeties in Jeff Heath and Xavier Woods for the most part so far. An unproven position on the roster though, Kavon Frazier will get his chance, particularly when the pads come on.
Drafting a pair of defensive linemen in 2016, the Cowboys DL looks ready for a big year - so long as all their cogs in Marinelli's machine stay in place. Two players that have battled through injuries are Defensive End Charles Tapper and Defensive Tackle Maliek Collins.
Where Collins has yet to miss a regular season game, handling the challenge of playing wherever the Cowboys need him on the interior, Tapper has just two career games under his belt.
Already setback again with a concussion, the odds are increasing by the day in Dallas that Tapper's career highlight will be sacking Eli Manning in week one of 2017. The potential to play as a speed rusher at right end has been forgotten about not only due to Tapper's unavailability, but the continuing resources the Cowboys have put into the position with Taco Charlton and Dorance Armstrong.
The final number crunch on the Cowboys defensive line may also include a reinstated Randy Gregory. In working out who will be left off the roster at this position, it is very possible that Tapper becomes an unfortunate casualty from this talented 2016 draft.
The only reason Maliek Collins is not firmly listed as a 'developing starter' here is because of the Cowboys inability to play him to his strengths consistently. Bouncing back from the same foot injury that he's again dealing with entering 2018, Collins was a force to be reckoned with at the all-important 3T spot as a rookie.
As we sit here today, the Cowboys are even more uncertain at DT than they were in 2016, meaning Collins' role will remain fluid. David Irving, the starting 3T that forced a technique change for Collins, has still yet to report to OTAs for Dallas.
Regardless of where Collins is playing, this is a valuable player that the Cowboys drafted for his traits at 67th overall. If ever given the chance to focus on being an interior pass rusher again, Collins can easily outplay this draft stock and boost the level of play for the entire Cowboys defense.
Fringe Players with Potential
Rounding out our discussion of the Cowboys 2016 draft class is Cornerback Anthony Brown, Tight End Rico Gathers, and Running Back Darius Jackson.
The only thing all three players share in common right now is that it's nearly impossible to project any real contributions for them in 2018. Doing his absolute best to prove everything the Cowboys touched in 2016's draft turned to gold, Anthony Brown looked like a sixth-round steal that would be here to stay.
Turning over nearly their entire secondary around Brown before last season, the Cowboys saw Brown regress as an outside starter while rookies Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis stepped in brilliantly. Now, Byron Jones also finds himself down at CB this season, forcing either Brown or Lewis into the slot.
From this slot position, Brown was able to salvage portions of his 2017 season, playing with the quickness needed to mirror smaller receivers. Doing much of the same for 16 games as a rookie, Jourdan Lewis has a chance to be one of the best inside CBs in the league, relegating Brown to a depth option.
Kris Richard will surely embrace the opportunity to continue working with Brown. If he's able to find any resemblance of the Purdue product's rookie form, Anthony Brown will be much more than a fringe player -- although I've already discussed the potential for Brown to miss the cut on this Dallas roster entirely.
Did I mention the Cowboys found a pot of gold at the end of their rainbow (shadowed in the clouds of a 4-12 season) in the 2016 draft? This jackpot would have been enviously successful for the Cowboys if they were able to convert Baylor basketball star Rico Gathers into a capable NFL tight end.
Looking the part of a mismatch target in the passing game last preseason, Gathers had some in Cowboys Nation crowning him as the heir to the now-retired Jason Witten. Life comes at you fast in the NFL though (see the timeline on Witten's very retirement), and Gathers is anything but ready to see real playing time in Dallas.
To say Gathers' 2017 season was taken out from under him due to injury is only fair to an extent. The third-year TE recently admitted to being healthy earlier than ever perceived, with the Cowboys staff choosing to keep him off the active roster.
Waiting until the fourth round to address their depth at TE in this year's draft, Dalton Schultz stands in the way of Rico Gathers along with Blake Jarwin and Geoff Swaim. From top to bottom this is far from the most proven group, and Gathers unfortunately finds himself near the bottom of a lackluster depth chart.
That brings us to the newest addition to the Cowboys backfield, Darius Jackson. It would have been fascinating to see Jackson play elsewhere before returning to Dallas, as Cowboys faithful have always seen a ton of potential in the Eastern Michigan product. Injured through his only season in Cleveland though, Jackson joins the Cowboys for a second stint as if he never left.
Still in his way is Ezekiel Elliott and Rod Smith. These two backs alone may be enough to keep Jackson off the roster, projecting similarly to Smith in the way he brings a change of pace to the Cowboys running game.
Jackson's addition back to the Cowboys running backs room tells me that the team is still deciding what traits they value the most behind their workhorse in Elliott. Also adding Tavon Austin and Bo Scarbrough to this room, it's going to be difficult for Jackson to stand out. Enough big plays in the preseason would surely change this perception for Darius though, who is at the very least a capable back to give reps to leading up to the 2018 regular season.
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The Cowboys 2016 draft still has the potential to produce franchise players at critical positions. Already finding their quarterback and running back, Jaylon Smith is on his way to becoming a stud at linebacker. The same can hopefully be said about Maliek Collins moving forward, giving the Cowboys two players on both sides of the ball to feel good about as third-year contributors.
Add in anything from Charles Tapper, Anthony Brown, Kavon Frazier, Rico Gathers, or Darius Jackson, and any future success from the Cowboys will be forever linked to this draft class.
Welcome back, Darius Jackson. You bring good memories.
Starters Make Cowboys Serious Contenders, But Depth is a Concern
Playing in the National Football Conference, the Dallas Cowboys have a difficult task ahead of them if they are to be serious Super Bowl contenders. Even still, they've become a very underrated football team due to their 9-7 record last season. The Cowboys struggled in many areas and with the Philadelphia Eagles crowned as Super Bowl Champions, everyone has forgotten about America's Team.
2017 was an awful year for the Cowboys. It seemed like a roller coaster of success, putting up an impressive performance one week only to disappoint the next one. Let's be honest with ourselves here and talk about what really ended the Cowboys' last season.
As much as we talk about how there shouldn't be any excuses in football - the Eagles made a huge statement by winning it all with a backup QB and other key starters missing - we can't deny the impact of these injuries.
Anthony Hitchens, Sean Lee, Tyron Smith and Ezekiel Elliott all missed some time last year, affecting the team's performance week in and week out. Had the starters been healthy, the truth is this team would've been in the playoffs.
Heading into 2018, the Cowboys will face a very similar situation. This year, starters make Dallas a serious contender. Even if they're playing in a conference that will feature a lot of quality teams, the Cowboys are a team that could beat any team in the league if healthy.
Even the dreaded wide receiver position - which has been famous this offseason for the lack of a #1 receiver - won't be as bad as we make it out to be starter-wise. A starting trio of Allen Hurns, Michael Gallup and Cole Beasley doesn't really sound bad.
Heck, not even Jeff Heath and Xavier Woods starting at safety is concerning. They have what it takes to be decent starters. Sure, Heath isn't a guy who will make the Pro Bowl, but his skills will show on the field once the season starts in September.
The Cowboys' starters will do just fine this season. If the team's fate is up to them, they are in a very good spot. The same can not be said about depth, though.
Except for the defensive line, every other position lacks depth. If Sean Lee goes down, the linebackers stop looking like a three-headed monster. Same goes for the cornerbacks. Byron Jones, Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis seem like a good group but as soon as one of them suffers an injury, the Cowboys will be in trouble.
We're in for an exciting season with a lot of young talent waiting to breakout. The Cowboys are underrated this year. They may not be among the NFC's favorites, but they truly have what it takes to replicate the success they had in 2016. However, it seems like circumstances have to be ideal for them to make a run for the Lombardi Trophy.
With a little bit of luck, they'll bounce back this season.
The Dallas Cowboys WR Position Battle is Heating Up
Earning a spot on the Dallas Cowboys final 53-man roster is going to be a lot tougher in 2018 then it has been in years past. There is no shortage of position battles taking place right now to earn one of those coveted openings, but it's the battle taking place at receiver that's gaining steam and starting to heat up.
The ultimate unknown right now is how many wide receivers the Dallas Cowboys choose to carry on their 53-man roster this season. Last year they decided to carry six, but they have been known to carry just five. Unfortunately, this means they will have to release some talented players and risk losing them to another team.
As things stand right now there may just be one, possibly two, roster spots up for grabs. I think the only thing we know for sure right now is Cole Beasley, Allen Hurns, Michael Gallup, and Tavon Austin are the only WRs who can feel secure their jobs are safe for 2018. Everybody else is playing a game of Survivor, just hoping their name isn't the one written down and their torch isn't snuffed out.
Terrance Williams' flame may be safe due to his current contract. The Dallas Cowboys can't save anything by releasing him, but it doesn't cost them that much either. It's unlikely he has a future with the team, so if someone were to prove themselves more worthy, his flame could be extinguished.
Last season I thought Noah Brown was ready to unseat Williams, but that never really materialized. Unfortunately, Brown hasn't really shown up as much as I thought he would this offseason, and missing the game against the San Francisco 49ers last week didn't do him any favors either. This doesn't bode well for him moving forward.
Deonte Thompson was signed as a free agent to provide some veteran experience and speed to the passing game, but that in no way means his job is secure. He needs to do something to show up a little more because his age and salary means a younger up-and-coming WR could make him expendable.
Second-year WR Lance Lenoir Jr. might just be the receiver who has stirred things up the most. He has not only created a buzz for himself in offseason practices, but he was able to carry it over into the preseason last week against the 49ers. His arrow trajectory is definitely pointing upwards.
I'd definitely hate to be the one to decide who stays and who goes when final cuts are made. It's not going to be an easy decision to make, because the outcome will definitely have an impact on the team's success this year.
All of these players were brought into help Quarterback Dak Prescott and the passing game reach new heights, so making the wrong move could be detrimental. The number of wide receivers and who the Dallas Cowboys decide to keep might be the most important decision they make before the season starts.
How would you predict the Dallas Cowboys WR position battle turning out?
Any Concern About Dan Bailey Not Playing Against 49ers?
With all the excitement of the Dallas Cowboys finally playing in a game last week against the San Francisco 49ers, it may have escaped your attention that Dan Bailey remained on the sideline the entire time. He didn't attempt one field goal or kick off once last Thursday, which in my opinion is a little concerning.
Dan Bailey joined Ezekiel Elliott and Sean Lee on the sideline as a healthy scratch last week. The decision to sit both Zeke and Sean Lee makes sense due to the physical demands of their positions, but sitting Bailey was a bit of a head scratcher. After all, it's not like he plays a physically demanding position like the other two.
I know. I know. Dan Bailey is an integral part for the Cowboys success moving forward. I'm not arguing that he's not, but after sitting out the majority of the 2017 season with a groin injury and lingering concerns about his health this year, not playing him at all against the 49ers is a bit confusing.
I don't believe there is any kind of kicking competition between Dan Bailey and Brett Maher, who handled all of the kicking duties against the 49ers last Thursday. Bailey will be the Cowboys kicker when the 2018 season gets underway in just a few short weeks. But, the question remains… Why didn't he receive any playing time?
Dan Bailey was never quite the same last season once he returned from his injury. Something was off and I don't know if it was more mental or physical, maybe a little of both. He just wasn't splitting the uprights like his normal self.
Unfortunately, we have seen this kind of thing happen in the past with one of the Cowboys kickers. Nick Folk went through a similar situation with an injury and never really bounced back. I'm just hoping history doesn't repeat itself.
Obviously, the Dallas Cowboys know more about what's going on with Dan Bailey than I do. But, you would think they'd have allowed him to attempt a field goal or at least an extra point in a game situation to build up his confidence once again. It's what I would have done.
Hopefully I'm just being a little paranoid and I'm reading more into this than there actually is. But, the fact I haven't heard any reasoning as to why Dan Bailey was held out last week is sitting a little uneasy with me. I'm just hoping it was precautionary in order to keep him as healthy as possible for the upcoming season.
Should we be concerned Dan Bailey was a healthy scratch last week?
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