After a deflating 9-7 season that felt like things went south every two weeks, it's hard to look into 2018 with optimistic eyes. Even still, Dallas Cowboys fans should really be optimistic about next year. The team that had a ton of needs just months ago, has made a tremendous job of filling up the roster with capable talent.
A solid free agency and a pretty outstanding Draft class will put the Dallas Cowboys in position to bounce back from 2017 and replicate the success they had in 2016. Despite being in a division featuring the defending Super Bowl champions, the Cowboys will have what it takes to fight for the NFC East Title.
The concerns that surrounded this football team have been very reduced since the free agency period began. On offense and on defense, the holes the team had felt for a brief moment pretty insurmountable, specially when Dez Bryant was expected to be released.
Now, wide receiver is a position that has Cowboys Nation feeling confident. Sure, Bryant's gone, but the WR room in Dallas is currently loaded and will feature a handful of players that promise to be productive under Dak Prescott's offense.
From the signing of Allen Huns to the third-round rookie Michael Gallup, the Cowboys have done their best to forget about Bryant's departure. With veterans like Cole Beasley on the roster and other young talents like Noah Brown and even late-round draftee Cedrick Wilson, the Cowboys WR group is in a pretty good place. Having said this, I wonder where Terrance Williams will fit. He could end up being a backup.
Despite being one of the strongest units on the team, offensive guard went from being a need to a priority after the team let Jonathan Cooper walk in free agency. Perhaps the best pick in the Draft, at least from a value perspective, was Connor Williams. The Texas product was, in the eyes of many, a first-round talent who could play as a tackle or a guard.
After stealing him with the 50th overall selection, the Cowboys offensive line will return as one of the best in the league with arguably five first-round talent players.
The one position that should be a concern for the Dallas Cowboys on offense is tight end. With Jason Witten unexpectedly retiring, the team will have to move on from one of the most reliable players in NFL history to a young guy. Whether it'll be Blake Jarwin, Geoff Swaim, rookie Dalton Schultz or Rico Gathers, it's impossible to know.
The tight end battle will be fun to watch during the offseason, specially since these are promising yet unproved players.
There are veteran free agents on the market, such as Antonio Gates, Coby Fleener and Marcedes Lewis. If the front office feels like they need some help, they could always turn to one of these guys. On the other hand, if they trust their young talent, why bring a progress stopper?
From a defensive perspective, safety and the interior defensive line might be the bigger concerns.
They seem to be set at cornerback, with Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis coming off from very promising rookie seasons. With Byron Jones moving to cornerback full-time and new coordinator Kris Richard in town, I dare say CB will be a strength for Dallas.
Safety, though, feels like a big need. The Earl Thomas story-line might not be over yet, but at the end of the day, it'll be tough to get a deal done there.
It seems like the Cowboys will head into 2018 with Xavier Woods as a starting safety, which has Cowboys Nation excited. Woods was a fan-favorite prospect in the 2017 NFL Draft process and a guy many had high hopes for in his rookie season.
Woods has what it takes to develop into a capable starter. Kavon Frazier and Jeff Heath will also be fighting for the starter role during training camp. Last season, Heath started in the 15 games he played, so it's easy to think he has the edge on this battle.
As for the front seven, the Cowboys linebacker position remains a question mark because of Jaylon Smith's and Sean Lee's health issues. With both of them healthy and first-round pick Leighton Vander Esch on the field, big things await the Dallas Cowboys defense.
The defensive line counts with a pretty good group of talent, specially from a depth point of view. With David Irving and DeMarcus Lawrence coming off of career years, the question is whether or not they'll have enough supporting cast.
The defensive tackle room is loaded with talent. Irving has been able to show off his talent haunting opposing QBs and stopping the run. Maliek Collins has been a starter in 30 of his 32 games in the NFL, but still has to take that next step to make a bigger impact. Datone Jones showed plenty of flashes and could earn a more important role in 2018.
Not to mention unproven Brian Price and new Cowboy Jihad Ward.
Although not having a clear-cut starter, Rod Marinelli should have some fun rotating his talented DTs to own the trenches next season.
For the 2018 Dallas Cowboys, it'll be anything but an easy ride. However, the roster is actually pretty talented, they have what it takes to be an actual contender next season. The NFL offseason is underestimated by many fans, but it shouldn't be.
This year, the front office made America's Team one of the offseason winners and it'll show on the field next September. Hopefully, it's enough to get back in the playoffs.
Randy Gregory can Make the Perimeter Pass Rush Extremely Formidable
Randy Gregory showed flashes last season of the potential he has as a pass rusher. Even though he only managed one start he did see action in 14 games. Had registered 6 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, 7 tackles for loss and 15 hits on the quarterback. That's very good production with limited opportunities. Now, this sets up the Dallas Cowboys on the edge getting to the quarterback, and here's how.
The Cowboys acquired Defensive End Robert Quinn via trade from the Dolphins back in March. He is set to start at right defensive end opposite All-Pro DeMarcus Lawrence. Gregory, who lines up on the right side as well, can potentially make said side a huge problem for offenses on 2019.
Let's just take a typical season from Quinn which is between 8-9 sacks. If Gregory can give at minimum what he did last season, that's around 15 sacks just between the two of them alone. Now, as we all know, Lawrence can be penciled in for double-digit sacks routinely at this point. So given this information that's a potential 25-30 sacks just from these three players. This is without including guys such as Taco Charlton, Dorance Armstrong, Kerry Hyder, and rookies Joe Jackson and Jalen Jelks (assuming they make the final roster).
Why is Gregory's potential impact so important? For me, it's simply where he lines up at defensive end, on the right side. Most quarterbacks are right-handed, which means when they drop back to pass they face left side defensive ends, with their backs to defensive ends coming off the right side. If you can consistently pressure a quarterback from his blindside the opportunities for sacks and fumbles increase. Regardless of how skilled a quarterback is you can't avoid what you can't see.
Of course, this all depends on what the NFL does regarding the reinstatement of Gregory. He was suspended indefinitely in February for violating the league's substance-abuse policy, a situation he is all too familiar with. My guess is Gregory and the Cowboys will ask for a conditional reinstatement like he was given by the NFL in 2018. What this would do is allow Gregory to participate in meetings and condition work until he's a full participant. He is set to apply for that reinstatement within the next few days.
The only thing Randy Gregory can do now is play the waiting game. The league is currently considering the possibility of softening their stance on marijuana use. If they are serious about it I can see Gregory getting reinstated even if it's on a conditional basis. If this is granted the Cowboys will be getting big-time pressure off the edge with Lawrence, Quinn, and Gregory in 2019.
CB Jourdan Lewis Getting Ready For Bounce-Back 2019 Season
For a third round pick, cornerback Jourdan Lewis sure did come to Dallas with his fair share of hype.
In fact, much of Cowboys Nation was more excited about Lewis joining the Cowboys than they were about either of the team's first two selections in that same draft, Taco Charlton and Chidobe Awuzie. But while Awuzie has soared to starting cornerback levels with Dallas during his first two seasons, Jourdan Lewis has been forced to take a back seat.
After a promising rookie season, Jourdan Lewis didn't get much playing time at cornerback in 2018. Anthony Brown took over as the starting slot corner, while Byron Jones and Awuzie manned the outside. This left Lewis as the odd man out, despite what many consider to be impressive cover skills.
Lewis is not allowing this down season to eat away at him too much, though. While speaking with the media last week at SportsCon in Dallas, Lewis gave his thoughts on how his year spent behind the other young Cowboys corners is only fueling him for the future.
"As a competitor it's always tough, especially as a rookie and you're playing all of the time. It's definitely when you take a step back it humbles you. Sometimes you gotta understand that you have to wait your turn and work on your craft. Understand that you always have to stay a professional no matter your situation. And that's what I learned last year."
Considered undersized by the standards typically used by Cowboys secondary coach Kris Richard, some have argued that Lewis was never given a fair shot to earn playing time once Richard took over in 2018. Whether or not this is true can't ever be said for sure, and the level of play Anthony Brown exhibited from the slot in 2018 didn't leave much room for substitutions either.
Still, Jourdan Lewis says he appreciates that time he spent on the bench, and he hopes that it will only drive him towards bigger and better things down the road.
"I appreciate the time that I sat last year honestly...Because it made me a better player, maybe a better person honestly."
The Cowboys cornerback situation didn't get any less crowded this offseason. Not only is Dallas bringing back all three of the aforementioned starters from a year ago, but they also drafted Miami's Michael Jackson in the fifth round of the 2019 draft.
That cornerback room is full of talent. Not only does this create a luxury for the Cowboys at one of the league's most important positions, but it also breeds immense competition between the corners come training camp.
Which, if you didn't know, begins on July 26th.
Jason Witten Is A Future Hall Of Famer, But Is He Now Underrated? Some NFL Execs Say So
It's hard to imagine how a 37 year old tight end who was more recently in the broadcast booth than on the football field could possibly be "underrated," but that's what some NFL Execs seem to believe.
Bleacher Report's Mike Freeman conducted a survey of executives around the league, asking them who they believed the most underrated player in the NFL was entering the 2019 season. While Steelers running back James Conner was the most common player named, Cowboys tight end Jason Witten was also reportedly brought up.
I have to admit, this is shocking.
As mentioned, Witten is well past his prime and saw decline in his play over the last few seasons he played with the Cowboys. His retirement made sense, and his un-retirement was a surprise to most. But I suppose now that seemingly no one nationally expects Witten to do much of anything in 2019, he can be thought of as underrated.
This sentiment echoes statements which former Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo made earlier last week. Romo claimed that his favorite target would pick right back up where he left off in Dallas, and would be back to the Witten of old in no-time.
"The reality of it is as long as, if you know the game the way he does, there are certain positions—he plays one of them at tight end—he's always going to have the nuance to get open." - Tony Romo
I'm still very much in "wait and see" mode with this entire Jason Witten situation. It's hard to wrap your head around a player we all thought was old and slow when he was 35 coming back after a year in retirement to be a productive NFL pass catcher.
While Witten's numbers have declined across the board, his touchdown production actually improved in 2017. If, at the very least, Jason Witten can become a secondary red zone option for the Cowboys offense, then his addition would have been well worth it offensively.
Jason Witten will wear a gold jacket in Canton Ohio one day, but will his 2019 contributions give the voters any extra reason to support his candidacy?
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