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.
2018 In Review: CB Anthony Brown Bounces Back
To say it's been an up-and-down start to the career of young cornerback Anthony Brown would be an understatement.
As a sixth round pick in 2016, everything Brown contributed during his rookie season was a plus. Due to injury he was asked to step into a greater role as the season went on, and he performed well enough to make the front office comfortable allowing multiple veterans to walk for nothing in free agency the following Spring. Brown looked like a legitimate starting cornerback in the league, and when Dallas brought in Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis during the next draft, the young secondary seemed set.
Then 2017 happened. And Anthony Brown struggled. Really struggled.
These struggles, coupled with the emergence of both Lewis and Awuzie during their own rookie seasons, made Brown's status heading into 2018 rather uncertain. Some wondered if they would trade him for a day three pick, others thought Brown could even end up being cut. Jourdan Lewis and Anthony Brown were slated to compete for the nickel cornerback job in training camp, and as it turned out, all Brown needed was that one extra chance to compete.
Brown won the job outright during the preseason, and began 2018 as the starting nickel. A fan favorite, most thought Lewis would reclaim his rightful spot on the depth chart sooner or later, but Anthony Brown's play (and Kris Richard's preferences) kept Lewis on the bench for much of the season.
Simply put, Anthony Brown balled in 2018, and was the Cowboys' second best corner for most of the year. By the end of the season Chidobe Awuzie had regained form, but Brown and Byron Jones were the most consistently reliable corners on the roster all of 2018.
Brown tallied 44 tackles, 2 sacks, and an interception in 2018, and finished third on the team in pass breakups with 8. As the slot corner Brown had an excellent season, especially for a former sixth round pick.
Now he enters a contract year, and with the Cowboys having so many guys to pay over the next two offseasons, he could find himself as an unrestricted free agent in 2020. And if he can keep up his play from last year moving forward, he could be in for a nice payday that Spring.
How The Tables Have Turned for 2019 Dallas Cowboys
The 2018 season was a two-part tale for the Dallas Cowboys. The first is the story of a mediocre 3-5 team that couldn't get it going offensively. The second part is about a football team that turned its season around, made the playoffs, got a win in the postseason and ultimately lost to the team that ended up representing the NFC in Super Bowl LIII, the Los Angeles Rams.
Surely, 2018 didn't go as planned. The storylines leading to last season are actually very different from the ones we're hearing today. Let's take a look at a few examples of how the tables have turned for the Dallas Cowboys.
The need for a true WR1
Last season, Dak Prescott and the Cowboys preached the philosophy of not needing a #1 wide receiver. While that could've sound encouraging at the time, once the season began the team was proven wrong. They did need a WR1. Fortunately, this season we won't have to worry about it. This year, Dez Bryant shouldn't be a discussion topic among Cowboys' fans.
Amari Cooper is in the house. And he's been pretty good since he started playing with a Star on his helmet. If we have conversations about the WR position, they will not be about who's the #1 guy. With Michael Gallup showing up late in the season, it probably won't be about who is #2 either.
Back on top of the NFC East
Last year, the Dallas Cowboys were not really the favorites to win the NFC East. The Philadelphia Eagles had just made history by winning their first Super Bowl ever and it seemed like the Cowboys would have to get a wildcard spot to play in January. Now it's the Cowboys back on top after sweeping the Eagles and turning their once 3-5 season around.
That of course, means a tougher schedule next season. However, it's nice to be back on top of the division. These two teams will surely have an intense race for the division title next season. Maybe we even see them both in the playoffs for the second consecutive year.
Sean Lee's uncertain future
I'm pretty sure no one expected Sean Lee to be considered a potential cap casualty for the 2019 season. Even if he was, it would've probably been anticipating an injury or something like that. No one would've imagined that Leighton Vander Esch would be so good to take Sean Lee's job.
The Cowboys' first round rookie truly earned the starting role as the defense's weak linebacker and he should keep it. With Sean Lee set to return to the field, I'm sure we didn't expect him to be a backup by now. We'll have to wait and see if the Cowboys decide to part ways with him. As a fan, it would certainly be painful. But we can't deny it would be a move that makes sense.
It's a crazy franchise on a crazy league. Who knows how things will go from now on, but the Dallas Cowboys certainly look like a promising team heading into the 2019 offseason. Here at Inside The Star, we'll continue to update you with the latest on your favorite NFL team.
Cowboys en Español: Volviendo a la Idea de Earl Thomas
El año pasado, Earl Thomas fue uno de los temas de conversación más frecuentes para los aficionados de los Dallas Cowboys. Después de que los Seattle Seahawks no le dieran su deseada extensión de contrato, Thomas se convirtió en un candidato a ser intercambiado de su equipo. Entre los favoritos estaban los Cowboys, quienes tenían una necesidad en su defensiva secundaria. Ahora que la temporada 2018 llegó a su fin, la misma necesidad por un safety de calidad está presente en Dallas.
Sólo que en esta ocasión, Earl Thomas no está bajo contrato con ningún equipo. Su último momento con el uniforme de los Seahawks fue en un carro de lesiones, donde salía lesionado en dirección a su vestidor. Esto mientras se despedía de su equipo con el dedo de en medio extendido hacia sus entrenadores y compañeros. Así concluyó su temporada y su carrera en Seattle.
Ahora, listo para cumplir los 30 años en mayo, Earl Thomas probará la agencia libre cuando comience en marzo. Y sin lugar a dudas, uno de los equipos candidatos a firmarlo serán los Dallas Cowboys. Es un equipo que a pesar de tener una de las mejores defensivas la temporada pasada, se vería muy beneficiada con la llegada de un profundo del calibre de Thomas.
A pesar de su edad y las lesiones, Thomas continúa siendo uno de los mejores en la liga. Su talento es innegable y tendrá toda la disposición de demostrar lo que vale cuando tome el campo la próxima temporada. Cuando llegue el momento, podríamos ver una guerra de ofertas entre varios equipos de la NFL para llevarse al veterano a sus respectivas ciudades.
La pregunta es: ¿estarán los Dallas Cowboys en esa guerra de ofertas?
Los Cowboys tienen espacio en el tope salarial. Sin embargo, este no durará mucho considerando que DeMarcus Lawrence está esperando su merecida y cara extensión después de jugar bajo la etiqueta franquicia en 2018. Además, jugadores que aún están bajo contrato también estarán buscando ofertas este offseason.
Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Amari Cooper, y Byron Jones están en la lista de quehaceres de la administración. Eso sin mencionar a Cole Beasley, cuyo contrato ya expiró y podría llegar a la agencia libre en marzo.
A pesar de esta complicada situación, los Dallas Cowboys deberían buscar conseguir a Thomas. Siendo sinceros, la defensiva tiene mucho talento y podría mantener su nivel en 2019. Pero hace falta un jugador en la posición de safety para llevar a esta unidad a otro nivel. Un nivel realmente capaz de ganar en postemporada enfrentándose a cualquier tipo de ofensiva. Sin importar que tan explosiva sea. Y además de esto, un jugador que sea capaz de robar el balón y hacer jugadas de impacto constantemente.
Cuando los Cowboys se enfrentaron a Seahawks en temporada regular, Thomas dio un buen ejemplo de esto interceptando en dos ocasiones a la ofensiva de Dak Prescott.
A pasos de un equipo de campeonato, un movimiento agresivo para obtener a Earl Thomas sería algo genial para Dallas. Vimos como los Rams de Los Angeles fueron agresivos al construir su equipo y llegaron hasta el Super Bowl este febrero. Quizá es tiempo de que Jerry Jones y compañía sean igual de agresivos y vayan por ese safety elite que la afición lleva pidiendo desde el offseason del año pasado.
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