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.
Is WR Cole Beasley Being Underutilized?
Like any competitor, Dallas Cowboys Wide Receiver Cole Beasley wants to play and be as heavily involved as possible when the lights come on and the game is on the line. He's become accustomed to to being heavily involved in the game plan, that is until WR Amari Cooper arrived in Dallas.
Since the arrival of Amari Cooper, Cole Beasley has seen his offensive role dramatically reduced. He is no longer Quarterback Dak Prescott's favorite target in the passing game and it even looks as if he is taken a stumble down the Cowboys WR depth chart. At best, he is their WR3 now behind Cooper and Michael Gallup.
That's quite a fall from grace for a player who was Dallas' top receiver the last few seasons and the most targeted in the first half of this year. I can almost guarantee he's not happy about not being utilized more in the passing game, but he's a team player and will do what it takes to win.
Unfortunately for Beasley, Cooper's arrival has changed the Cowboys offense. He is back to his old role of working the short intermediate routes now with Cooper and Gallup playing on the outside. Because of that his stats have taken a hit. His targets, receptions, and the chance to help his team win has dropped off significantly.
In the two games before Cooper joined the team, Beasley had 16 receptions for 157 yards and two touchdowns on 19 targets. The six games since he only has 17 catches for 138 yards on 26 targets. That's a huge drop in production and has nothing to do with his performance. It's how he's being utilized.
Beasley has been forced to take a backseat in the Cowboys aerial attack. Amari Cooper has been highly targeted, and rightfully so, and Michael Gallup is seeing more passes thrown his way as well. Not to mention, Ezekiel Elliott has been used more as a receiver also.
There are just too many mouths to feed and unfortunately Cole Beasley is the odd man out. The sad thing is, that might not change anytime soon with the way the Cowboys offense is playing right now. It's one of the reasons why they currently have the league's best winning streak going for them.
It's to hard make an argument for Beasley receiving more looks in the passing game with the way the offense is playing, with the exception of in the red zone, but I do believe he needs to be more involved. After all, he is still one of the Cowboys best WRs and can't be covered by anyone in the league one-on-one.
I don't know about you, but I'm hoping things will circle back around and he will once again be more involved in the passing game. His ability to get open is uncanny and it's a shame to not take advantage of that God-given gift.
What do you think, should Cole Beasley start being utilized more?
Time to see What Darius Jackson can do as Zeke’s Backup?
I hate to say it because I really like Rod Smith, but I think it may be time for the Dallas Cowboys to reevaluate the running back position as it pertains to Ezekiel Elliott's primary backup. Smith just hasn't been good this year, which is why I think it may be time to see what Darius Jackson can do if given the opportunity.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting the Dallas Cowboys move on from Rod Smith or demote him right now, but I would promote Darius Jackson from the practice squad to the active roster as insurance in case something were to happen to Zeke. It just seems the right time to make that move after #21's injury scare Sunday afternoon against the Philadelphia Eagles.
You may have forgotten, but Ezekiel Elliott had to spend some time in the medical tent Sunday against the Eagles. He was luckily able to return to the game not long after, but it did shine a spotlight on Rod Smith and the lack of depth behind him.
Despite how much I like Rod Smith, and I do, he just hasn't been the same player this season as he was last year as Zeke's fill-in. He is just not running with any kind of authority and has been too apt to run east and west instead of north and south. I think it's one of the reasons why the Cowboys have continued to give Zeke such a heavy workload, despite him being banged up.
Now, Rod Smith did look a little better against the Eagles, but I still believe it would be wise for the Cowboys to promote Darius Jackson to the active roster. Having more depth at such a physically demanding position is just smart football.
With the Dallas Cowboys playoff spot all but secured, it might be time to start thinking about lightening Ezekiel Elliott's workload just a little bit. Whether it's Rod Smith or Darius Jackson, the Cowboys have to find someone who can step in and be productive.
Rod Smith has had his opportunities this year, but hasn't really been able to capitalize like we believed he could. It might be time to turn to Darius Jackson, a fan favorite, who unfortunately just hasn't been able to prove what he can do as of yet in a meaningful game. I think it's time we change that.
As much as I like Rod Smith, I might like Darius Jackson just a little bit more. I think he is kind of like a poor man's Ezekiel Elliott. He is just as athletically gifted and can be a threat as both a runner and a receiver out of the backfield. He just needs the opportunity to prove it.
There's really no way of knowing if I'm right or wrong about this, but I believe he is worthy of a roster spot on game day if nothing else. I'd rather have him and not need him then need him and not have him.
Do you think it's time to see what Darius Jackson can do?
Cowboys Lassoing NFC East Title as NFC Dark Horse
Well don’t look now but the Dallas Cowboys are in control of their division and anything short of a catastrophic collapse will see them hosting the first round of the playoffs. Dallas strengthened their grip on the NFC East by knocking off a divisional rival and the reigning Super Bowl champions with a 29-23 overtime win over the Eagles.
Those who have a favorite online sportsbook and wagered on the Cowboys were ecstatic to see Dak Prescott hit Amari Cooper for a 15-yard touchdown pass in overtime, thus covering the 3 ½ point impost that oddsmakers hung on Dallas.
The Cowboys have now won five consecutive games, with three of those over divisional opponents Philadelphia (twice) and Washington. But before we celebrate, we must consider that there's still a mathematical possibility of either Philadelphia or Washington stealing the division crown away from the Cowboys.
The Giants' only hope is an outside shot at a wildcard berth if they win outright but they've been eliminated from contending for a division title due to their 1-4 record against NFC East teams.
Essentially, all the Cowboys must do is win one of their three remaining games in order to celebrate a division crown. If Philadelphia or Washington loses any of their three games they will be out due to tie breakers that go in the Cowboys’ favor.
As of this moment, the Redskins are a disaster with no one under center to captain their rudderless ship, and the Eagles must defeat the Rams in LA, which would be considered a stunning upset seeing as any reputable online sportsbook is offering the Rams as 9 ½ point favorites as of this writing; then they must win at home against Houston and on the road against the Redskins.
Of course, the Cowboys are counting only on themselves to reel in the division title and with games at Indianapolis, home against the Bucs, and wrapping their season in New Jersey against the Giants, at least one win seems likely.
The addition of Amari Cooper to the Dallas offensive arsenal has been a game-changer as the former Oakland Raider hauled in 10 of 13 targets for 217 yards and three touchdowns, including the game-winner last Sunday against Philadelphia. He was the top-tier receiver Prescott had been lacking and his presence on the field improves both the passing game and running game by virtue of his dynamic playmaking abilities. Ezekiel Elliott has eclipsed the century mark in rushing yards in four of the six games since Cooper has been on the Cowboys roster.
Furthermore, Dallas has averaged 24.4 points per game over their last five wins with Cooper in the lineup, which is more than five points improved from where they were prior to their winning streak without him in a Dallas uniform.
In addition, Prescott has morphed from a game manager at 202 passing yards per game to a game breaker as evidenced by his 285.7 passing yard average in six games with his new target at his disposal.
Ultimately, the Cowboys will be tasked with turning all of this good mojo into a deep run into the postseason. We can now confidently say that there is one other team to consider besides the Rams, Bears, and Saints as this year’s NFC entrant into the Super Bowl. However, Dak Prescott will need to eliminate turnovers and interceptions if Dallas is truly going to contend against the powerhouses they will face in the playoffs.
Last Sunday, Prescott caught fire in the fourth quarter and ended with 455 yards passing, connecting on 42 of 54 passes with three touchdowns, but his two interceptions were converted into nine points by Philadelphia. As we move forward, Prescott will need to lead right from the get-go and understand that one poor decision can cost his team what is now a realistic shot at a championship season.
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