I thought it would be an interesting exercise to see what kind of team the Cowboys would be fielding if the season started today. They have 62 players under contract right now, which is nine more than they'll have in Week One. How set are they at some positions, and how much more work is needed at others?
We're going to divide this up into separate articles for the offense and defense. Here's a projection of what the Cowboys offense would look like using the currently signed players:
Tony Romo, Kellen Moore, Jameil Showers
If Dallas decides to wait one more year before drafting a quarterback than this could easily be the QB depth chart in 2016. They may just go with two quarterbacks if Showers or some other prospect isn't worth holding with a roster spot.
Moore isn't the Messiah that some claim him to be but at least he's been around a while and will now have a full offseason with the Cowboys. It is important to remember that Moore was signed in September last year so missed out on training camp and preseason with Dallas. There is the possibility for him to be much improved in our system in 2016.
Personally, I'm not very high on Moore and would like to see the Cowboys spend at least a mid-round pick on a QB to work with. I wish they could have landed Matt Moore as a backup option and hope they will pursue one more veteran, also. They could run with what they have, but I sure hope they look to improve.
Darren McFadden, Lance Dunbar, Rod Smith, Ben Malena
Dallas just re-signed Dunbar yesterday and will hope he can return to the role he was serving last year. That alone would take some touches way from McFadden, who needs to be handled carefully after such a heavy workload last year.
Given injury concerns for McFadden and Dunbar you'd assume that they will keep four runners this year. Smith is a bruiser and Malena is a speed back, but neither is at all proven. Dallas also has to think about the future with both McFadden and Dunbar on expiring deals. I imagine they will draft someone of consequence in April.
I don't expect the Cowboys to add anyone of note here. Williams and Butler will likely compete for a starting job and they will be happy with the loser of that battle as a backup. Whitehead should be locked in to his roster spot for return duties alone and was starting to find an offensive niche late last year.
Jason Witten, James Hanna, Gavin Escobar, Geoff Swaim
Hanna's new contract pays him an average of $2.75 million a year, which is pretty rich for a backup. That deal tells me Hanna is now ahead of Escobar on the depth chart. What's more, Dallas may utilize Hanna as a backfield blocker rather than add a more traditional fullback.
If he has been passed by Hanna, will Escobar even be on next year's roster? It's the last year of his rookie deal and he's owed $1.3 million. He could be released for about $1 million is cap savings. Escobar will certainly be in camp and preseason, but could Dallas cut him for cheaper depth options? He will need to start making some plays again, like the one pictured here, to save himself.
The Cowboys have the bare minimum right now for next year; two starters and a veteran swing tackle. They will certainly have some younger prospects in camp and may even draft one in the middle rounds as an eventual replacement for Free. However, this was their trio last year and they could stick with it if need be.
GUARD & CENTER
Green was drafted as a tackle but was taking practice snaps at guard last year, and at least one Cowboys insider says that's where he will be going forward. Leary is back for at least one more year an overqualified backup.
Backup center is the glaring issue here. Mackenzy Bernadeau is gone and neither of these backups has shown the ability to play that role. The emergency plan seems to be having Martin slide over and play it, but I imagine they will bring in some prospects before we get to Oxnard.
~ ~ ~
As you can see, there is at least a workable team among these players but still opportunities for better depth and long-term prospects. One more quality running back is the most glaring need, though personally I want to see them with more behind Tony Romo as well.
The good news is that, unlike with the defense, Dallas can go into April's draft without feeling forced to fill any holes. They can stick to their board and go with the best talents.
Speaking of the defense, look for that breakdown tomorrow.
Cowboys Sign WR Devin Smith, Former 2nd-Round Pick
The Dallas Cowboys have reportedly signed Receiver Devin Smith, previously with the New York Jets, to a futures contract. Smith was a 2nd-round pick, 37th overall, in the 2015 NFL Draft.
Before going pro, Devin was a college teammate of current Cowboys Ezekiel Elliott, Rod Smith, and Noah Brown. They were all members of the 2014 Ohio State Buckeyes team that won the National Championship.
Smith's agent, Jason Bernstein, tweeting the following earlier today:
Congrats to WR Devin Smith @dsmithosu for signing with the #DallasCowboys! Welcome back. https://t.co/hCMYoE8fEh
Thus far, Smith's NFL career has been marred by injuries. He has suffered two ACL tears in the same knee and only been able to appear in 14 games. He was waived by the Jets last summer and was not with any team last season.
Overall, the 2015 class of receivers has been disappointing. Amari Cooper has been a star and other later-round picks like Tyler Lockett, Stefon Diggs, and Jamison Crowder have been good. But the other big names of the class, such as Kevin White, Breshad Perriman, and DeVante Parker, have not lived up to the hype.
The Cowboys are known for trying to reclaim players who once had high draft status and bad starts to their careers. They are clearly hoping to cash in on Smith's previously perceived potential, which had him projected as a possible first-round talent at one time.
For both Devin and Dallas' sake, we hope it's a success!
DeMarcus Lawrence Named Top Free Agent Of The 2019 Class
Much has been made about the Dallas Cowboys 2019 free agent class. Dallas has a ton of cap space moving forward, but they are going to "have" to pay many of the key players on their roster over the next two offseasons in order to keep their young core together.
Of course, when you're drafting, that's the goal. To draft so well that when your own players become free agents, you go ahead and pay them to keep them around, rather than overpay on the free agent market for external players.
One of the major pieces the Cowboys will have to retain this offseason is defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence. And while Cowboys Nation often thinks of Lawrence as underrated around the league, the NFL has caught onto his importance as he enters free agency this Spring.
ESPN.com ranked their top 10 free agents for 2019, with DeMarcus Lawrence clocking in at number one, over elite players like Jadeveon Clowney and Le'Veon Bell.
ESPN's top 10 free agents for 2019 and what Le'Veon Bell should be looking to command based on previous measures. https://t.co/aJ7H1n001t
DeMarcus Lawrence is going to command big time money, likely even Khalil Mack-type money. But the fact of the matter is that he has earned it. Lawrence has been the heart and soul of the Cowboys defensive line the last two seasons, and the most consistent edge player on the team as well.
Not only has he been an effective pass rusher, but DeMarcus Lawrence also plays with a relentless motor against the run that can sometimes be rare to find in those premier pass rushers. He really is a jack of all trades at defensive end, and should be priority number one for the Cowboys this offseason.
Thankfully, I can't imagine the Cowboys not retaining DeMarcus Lawrence and extending him in the coming months.
When it Mattered Most, Cowboys Offensive Line Protected Dak Prescott
Throughout the 2018 NFL season, one of the major story lines surrounding the Dallas Cowboys was how frequently Dak Prescott was taking sacks. It's an area that the Cowboys will have to look at in the offseason to better protect their franchise quarterback moving forward. In the playoffs, however, Dak Prescott and the offensive line were much better at keeping their prized possession upright than they were in the regular season.
In the regular season, Dak Prescott was sacked 56 times for an average of 3.5 times a game. There was only one game where he wasn't sacked at all, way back in week two against the New York Giants. Four times this season, the Cowboys' quarterback was sacked five or more times. The New Orleans Saints got him for a season high seven times.
According to Pro Football Focus, Dak was "kept clean" -- not pressured -- on 63% of his drop backs during the regular season, which ranked 25th in the NFL. When kept clean, Prescott completed 74.1% of his passes, which was good for 5th in the NFL during the regular season. He was under pressure 37% of the time, which was the sixth highest rate in the NFL and his completion percentage dropped to 52.6%, still good for 10th in the NFL. It was better than Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, Patrick Mahomes, Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, and Baker Mayfield.
During the playoffs, Prescott's "kept clean" percentage rose from 63% to 68% and he was only sacked once in each game. The one sack against the Los Angeles Rams probably shouldn't have been called a sack as the referee blew the whistle because Prescott was "in the grasp"...
...of his offensive lineman.
During the playoffs, the Cowboys offensive line kept the pressure off of Prescott at a better rate, allowing him to be pressured on only 31.9% of his drop backs. Meaning he was kept clean at an improved rate from the regular season at 68.1% of his drop backs. This while playing against two teams that are really good at rushing the passer. The Los Angeles Rams and the Seattle Seahawks both finished in the top half of the league in sacks this season and feature players like Aaron Donald, Jarran Reed, and Frank Clark who all had double-digit sacks.
As we know, pressure rates and sacks aren't all completely on the offensive line. The quarterback, wide receivers, and the play calling all factor in, but the Cowboys are trending in the right direction with their pass protection. A full offseason for Connor Williams in the Dallas Cowboys strength and conditioning program, better health for Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, and -- fingers crossed -- Travis Frederick, should all help the offensive line play at a higher level heading into the 2019 season.
It can't be overstated how important it will be to get Travis Frederick back into the fold this season. Joe Looney was good, and that might be overstating it a bit. He was not noticeable on most plays during the season, but getting your All-Pro center back will tremendously help the offense in every facet of the game. Frederick's one of the smarter players in the NFL, who helps everyone on the offense to see the blitzes and calls out the protections. Both his mental and physical ability will be a welcomed site when the Cowboys begin practicing in the offseason.
With another year of growth for the quarterback and for the young pieces along the offensive line, and with a full offseason for Dak Prescott to grow with Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and Blake Jarwin, the Cowboys should be better next season at keeping the quarterback clean.
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