Although the Dallas Cowboys may be giving us a slight taste of the 2018 football season with their ongoing OTAs at The Star, the NFL is still very much in offseason mode. The period to acquire talent may be long gone with both free agency and the draft in the rear view mirror, but 90-man rosters continue to churn. As the Cowboys evaluate their strengths and weaknesses as a team that's gone through major changes on offense, it's no surprise to see Bleacher Report's Kristopher Knox's to-do list for Dallas feature four talking points on this side of the ball.
Let's take a closer look at what the Cowboys should be working through prior to training camp in Oxnard.
1. "Identify Top Receiving Targets"
Yawn. This topic is not going away anytime soon, and for good reason. The Cowboys performance on offense -- relative to the talent they still fielded -- was undoubtedly poor a season ago. It was the main point of regression for a 9-7 team that fell short of the playoffs.
The Cowboys seemingly bold response to needing a retool on offense entering year three for Quarterback Dak Prescott? Release Dez Bryant while seeing Jason Witten retire, drafting Michael Gallup, Dalton Schultz, and Cedrick Wilson to add young talent.
Wide receivers Allen Hurns and Deonte Thompson also joined the team through free agency.
To outside followers of America's Team, and fantasy football players everywhere, the Cowboys confidence in these unproven pass catchers is stunning. With their starting quarterback already on record saying he doesn't know "if any team really needs a No. 1 receiver," this approach begins to make more sense.
Coming from a spread offense at Mississippi State, Prescott wants to get the ball out of his hands quickly to whoever the open man is. With Dez Bryant struggling to create separation ever since Prescott's rookie season in Dallas, the connection was never there like it was for Tony Romo and Bryant.
Enter Michael Gallup, who I expect to be the check mark on this to-do list for the Cowboys. With the ability to play as close to a WR1 as Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan is looking for, Gallup has already impressed in OTAs and should quickly become a reliable target for Prescott.
My personal "pet cat" in Wide Receivers Coach Sanjay Lal's room is sixth-round steal Cedrick Wilson, who should also get an opportunity to run out of the slot and create vertical plays.
It's easy to blame the Cowboys failures on offense from 2017 on the absences of Ezekiel Elliott and Tyron Smith. Returning both players but losing starters elsewhere, the Cowboys are still committed to the running game with a new approach through the air that's sure to surprise many.
Being versatile and deep on offense, if an effort to become less predictable, could actually be exactly what the Cowboys need for 2018.
2. "Find Starting Tight End"
The concept of "replacing" players in sports is always a troublesome one. Especially in the NFL, where roster turnover occurs at an alarming rate (go check out the Cowboys roster from 2014), new players are always going to be asked to handle starting roles.
Unfortunately for Dallas, this won't be possible at the tight end position without mention of Jason Witten's Hall of Fame career. Hanging his cleats up after 15 years with the Cowboys, the team scrambled in the fourth round of the draft to land Stanford's Dalton Schultz.
The rookie Schultz joins fourth-year Tight End Geoff Swaim, 2017 UDFA Blake Jarwin, and Rico Gathers as the group new TE Coach Doug Nussmeier will have to sort out.
Whether or not this will happen before the start of the regular season is already a topic our Staff Writer Jess Haynie covered, with all four tight ends bringing an all-around game to the Cowboys. Swaim being the most proven TE on the roster, it will be up to Schultz and Jarwin to reach the same level of trust as blockers in the running game.
Drafted more for his tenacity as a blocker than prowess as a receiver, things could get interesting for the Cowboys at TE with Schultz earning this role and the likes of Jarwin and Gathers being asked to step up as receivers behind.
Once again, no fantasy footballer will want to hear this, but the term "starting tight end" could be a very relative one for the Cowboys this season. Already dealing with a steady decline from Jason Witten over the final years of his career, the Cowboys should be excited about watching this young group fight for playing time.
3. "Get Dak Prescott Back on Track"
The first two points on this to-do list cover what needs to happen for Dak Prescott to get back on track pretty well. Playing with a healthy Tyron Smith at left tackle and Ezekiel Elliott in the backfield for 16 games can only help Prescott return to the dynamic form he was at in 2016.
Taking the league by storm as a rookie only to see his sophomore campaign derailed by those injuries around him, the pressure has been building around Prescott since the day he earned his star.
Never wavering in their commitment to Prescott as their starting quarterback, the Cowboys feel they are in good position to return to the playoffs with him in 2018. This goes without saying, but they really need to be right.
Another lost season for Prescott, Elliott, and the Cowboys offensive line could also spell the end for the only play caller Dak has known in Scott Linehan. Entering the final year of his rookie contract with one playoff appearance and even more uncertainty on the roster and coaching staff is a worst case scenario for the Dallas Cowboys, and one they must make a collective effort to avoid.
4. "Keep Ezekiel Elliott Healthy"
Could the answer to most of the Cowboys problems really be as easy as Running Back Ezekiel Elliott? Only losing six of the career 25 games that Elliott has been on the field with Prescott for, there is no more dynamic weapon returning to a team than Zeke for the Cowboys.
Keeping Elliott healthy feels like the easiest task that Bleacher Report asks of the Cowboys this offseason. Never missing a game due to injury, Elliott is every-bit the workhorse back the Cowboys needed when drafting him fourth overall in 2016.
That draft, and thankfully the 4-12 season that led into it, feels like forever ago. It's time for the Cowboys to win games with Elliott leading the way. The Cowboys approach of controlling games on offense while deploying their well-rested defense to protect the lead is a proven one, and a healthy Elliott will keep it that way this season.
The Cowboys have been creative in adding depth behind Elliott this offseason, trading for Tavon Austin and recently re-signing Darius Jackson. Rod Smith remains the favorite to be Elliott's primary backup, as the Cowboys also drafted Bo Scarbrough with their last pick in the seventh round.
Committing fully to their ground game is nothing new for Dallas, and this versatility is part of what their more 'open' offense will look like in support of Ezekiel Elliott for the upcoming season.
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The degree of difficulty for this to-do list is a subjective thing, as Cowboys Nation appears to still be split on not only Prescott's growth as a quarterback but the help he'll have around him. With fans' only current task being waiting impatiently for more meaningful football, the Cowboys offense is going to be built through training camp this summer.
With a strong balance of starting positions already filled with blue chip players and others up for grabs (on both sides of the ball), the Cowboys are well equipped to put 2017 behind them and turn heads around the league starting very soon.
Dallas Cowboys 2019 Offseason Preview: Wide Receiver
The Dallas Cowboys' year in 2018 was marked by big moves at wide receiver. Dez Bryant was released in April and then a first-round pick was traded in October to add Amari Cooper. Could this 2019 offseason offer anything close to that level of activity?
Unlike last season, Dallas should enjoy some stability in its starting lineup at receiver. Cooper returns at a much higher price, with the $13.9 million cap hit from his fifth-year option coming into player. Amari cost just $412k against the Cowboys' salary cap last year.
That huge jump in cap cost may hurt but Cooper backed it up with his Pro Bowl play in 2018. The top WR contracts average $15-$17 million per year, so even now Dallas is arguably getting Amari at a bargain.
The Cowboys didn't give up a first-round pick for a year-and-a-half rental, so we can expect them to seek a long-term extension with Cooper in the near future. With the contracts of DeMarcus Lawrence and Dak Prescott more immediate concerns, any new deal for Amari probably won't come until the middle of the season or in 2020.
Not only is WR1 set for next year but Michael Gallup appears locked in as the other starter. Of his 68 targets last year, 40 came in the second half of the year. It was a great season for a third-round rookie, and there are high hopes for Gallup's development in his first full offseason.
The stability up front is a blessing for the Cowboys, but it doesn't relieve them of big decisions at the WR position this offseason. They face a particularly critical choice when it comes to the free agency of Cole Beasley.
It's hard to believe Beasley's already been in Dallas for seven seasons. An undrafted gem, Cole has been one of the team's most reliable offensive players for some time. He led them in receiving in 2016 and has been one of the most efficient, QB-friendly options for the last several years.
Beasley's contract expiring this year is only one issue. He has become very vocal lately about wanting to be a bigger part of the offense. His targets dropped tremendously over the course of 2018, which was especially evident when Cole got just five total passes thrown his way in the two playoffs games.
If Beasley wants a larger role, does that also mean he wants more money? He was making a little over $3 million/season on his last deal.
With Gallup on a cheap rookie contract, Dallas could afford to pay raise Beasley's compensation a bit. But if they don't plan to use him more than they did last year, then perhaps the two parties just aren't a good fit at this point.
If Cole walks in free agency then the Cowboys will now have to find a new number-three receiver. The next best option would be Tavon Austin, but he is also a free agent. However, he could likely be re-signed for a fraction of what Beasley would want.
Austin has the physical skills to be an offensive weapon but he doesn't have the reliable hands that Beasley does. Even if Dallas wants Tavon back solely for his skills on punt returns, they may not be ready to make him a bigger part of the offense.
One option might be promoting Noah Brown, whose at times has reminded us of a young Dez Bryant with his physical playing style. His blocking ability would lend itself to the single-back formations Dallas likes to run out of, and he's flashed some good hands in limited opportunities.
In that scenario Amari Cooper would likely play out of the slot, which he's certainly capable of with his quickness. The same would be done if Dallas went with another internal solution, such as Allen Hurns or Terrance Williams.
That said, the Cowboys are unlikely to pick up the second-year option on Hurns' contract, not wanting to pay him over $6 million in 2019 after last year's low production. It also doesn't seem likely that they want to keep Williams after last year's issues.
Taking all of that into consideration, Dallas may very well be doing some WR shopping in free agency. Fortunately for them, it's a favorable market if you're looking for a slot receiver.
On top of Beasley and Austin already in the free agent pool, Golden Tate could at least match Cole's play if not potentially offer an upgrade. Baltimore's John Brown, Tampa's Adam Humphries, and Washington's Jamison Crowder are all other proven options. Emmanuel Sanders, while not currently a free agent, is a very possible cap casualty for the Broncos.
Guys like Humphries and Crowder are younger than Beasley and could provide better long-term value on their contract. That may be a more attractive option at this point for the Cowboys.
Dallas won't need to add a lot of bodies at WR thanks to a few young prospects. They still have Lance Lenoir and Cedrick Wilson under contract, plus signed 2015 second-round pick Devin Smith as a potential rehabilitation project.
But again, these guys are all just bodies right now. Lenoir has had his opportunities and not done much with them, though he does offer some value as a potential return man. Wilson spent his rookie season on injured reserve.
The Cowboys could still look at a receiver with one of their mid-round draft picks, but it's hard to get much production early there. Last year's play from Michael Gallup was a surprise for a third-rounder.
It's far more likely that Dallas will either work things out with Cole Beasley or pursue a veteran replacement in free agency.
So no, thankfully, we don't have to worry about any monumental changes at the top of the WR depth chart in 2019. But Beasley was more than just a third receiver, and keeping or replacing him will have a significant impact on the offense going forward.
If Dallas is truly ready to commit to Dak Prescott as the quarterback of the future then they can't take anything about his receiving options lightly. Therefore, wide receiver remains an important offseason focus for the Cowboys in 2019.
Defense, Not Offense, Should Be Dallas Cowboys Offseason Focus
Last week our own Brian Martin asked whether offense or defense should be the priority for the Dallas Cowboys this offseason. We know that the team will look to make some additions on both sides of the football to help their team take the next step toward hopefully contending for a Lombardi Trophy in 2019.
Brian took the stance that the Cowboys front office brain trust of Jerry Jones, Stephen Jones, and Will McClay along with Head Coach Jason Garrett should prioritize the offensive side of the football.
Here’s what he had to say:
Surprisingly enough, the Dallas Cowboys really don't have any glaring needs on the defensive side of the ball either. After finishing as one of the top defensive units in 2018, they will have nearly all of their starters returning for the 2019 season. But much like on the offensive side of the ball, there could be two starting spots up for grabs...
...If Cole Beasley does indeed leave via free agency, that's a big blow to the passing game. But, it's not just him. Other than their rushing attack, the Cowboys offense was ranked in the bottom half of the league in nearly every other category. With Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan now gone we can hope that improves, but that doesn't mean improving the offense shouldn't be the Cowboys main offseason focus though.
Brian Martin - Inside The Star
I get his reasoning, though I disagree with the first point being made. Yes, the defense has a lot of really good players that are developing, but I think there a couple obvious areas where upgrades can be made. First, at safety, where Jeff Heath continues to be a frustrating player, as evidenced by the final play against the Rams. Secondly, the defensive tackle spot could definitely use an infusion of talent.
I believe the priority needs to continue to build on a defense that was surprisingly good, and downright dominant in their win over the New Orleans Saints, in 2018. However, despite finishing sixth in the NFL in points allowed, seventh in yards allowed, and fifth in rushing yards allowed, they were middle of the pack against the pass and had the sixth worst third down conversion percentage allowed.
They were a defense that got away with being excellent against the run and excellent in the red zone, allowing a touchdown only 51% of the time their opponent reached the red zone. They allowed the sixth fewest touchdowns in the NFL, and yet when they got into the playoffs, they weren’t nearly as good.
Sure, they held the Seattle Seahawks top ranked rushing attack in check for the game, holding them to only 73 rushing yards. The Seahawks threw for only 226 yards, but there offensive staff was insistent on running the football even though Russell Wilson was playing pretty well in the second half. The Seahawks were hitting the Cowboys for big plays that allowed them to make the game closer than it should have been. Had they tilted the run-pass ratio a bit more to put the ball in Russell Wilson's hands earlier in the game, it's possible that the game has a different outcome.
Against the Rams, we saw the Dallas Cowboys interior get bullied while both CJ Anderson and Todd Gurley rushed for more than 100 yards. Maliek Collins and Antwaun Woods were good for a lot of the year as the primary defensive tackles for the Dallas Cowboys, but with them ailing because of injury and illness, the Cowboys didn't have many answers for the Rams offensive interior. Their ineffectiveness in the divisional round led to Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch, and Sean Lee being generally ineffective as well.
While the Dallas Cowboys can feel pretty good about what the defense did last season, there's no way they can go into the 2019 season satisfied with what they'll be working with. In addition to playing the their NFC East opponents twice, with the Eagles and Giants able to score points and the Redskins typically a tough matchup, they'll play the New England Patriots, the Los Angeles Rams, the Green Bay Packers, the Minnesota Vikings, the New Orleans Saints, and the Detroit Lions. All of those teams are capable of scoring a lot of points if the defense isn't having its best day. Throw in teams like the New York Jets, Buffalo Bills, and Chicago Bears, and you have three young offenses that are growing and fully capable of scoring points as well.
The Dallas Cowboys front office has to go into the offseason ready to make upgrades to their defensive personnel. With the safeties that are available this offseason -- Earl Thomas, Landon Collins, Tre Boston, Tyrann Mathieu, and several other intriguing names -- the Cowboys will have an opportunity to upgrade the safety position. Between the draft and free agency, defensive tackle will be a high priority position for the Cowboys.
I know that many are looking at the offense and the steps that they need to make moving forward to be legit contenders, and they do have some improvements to make, but they look to be a unit that is trending in the right direction. Some better coaching for Dak Prescott and the offense should help them moving forward. A full offseason for Dak to work with Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, Blake Jarwin, and Dalton Schultz should improve the chemistry between Prescott and his top receiving threats.
Yes, there are areas that need to be upgraded on offense and they may have to deal with filling the gap left by Cole Beasley if he does leave. The front office, however, can't go into the offseason satisfied with where they sit on the defensive side of the football. They are building something and are a couple of pieces away from having a truly elite defense. Finding those couple of pieces -- a safety and a pass rushing defensive tackle -- are of the utmost priority this offseason if the Dallas Cowboys want to head back to the postseason in 2019.
Should Cowboys Address TE Need Via Free Agency?
A season after Jason Witten's retirement, the Dallas Cowboys still have a need at tight end. Replacing a future Hall of Famer is no easy feat so it's only logical that it would take longer than a season to feel good about who's in at tight end.
The Cowboys currently have two tight ends who could be pretty serviceable going forward. Fourth round pick Dalton Schultz did a very solid job as the team's TE2, specially toward the second half of the season. He turned into a pretty good run blocker and despite only racking up 116 yards in 12 catches, he's a guy the Cowboys' offense could use even more in the future.
Also on the team is Blake Jarwin, who functioned as the Cowboys' main tight end for most of 2018. His performance against the New York Giants in week 17 made us wonder whether or not he could be an important target on the Cowboys' offense.
These two could very well have more in them than what we've seen. With a new offensive coordinator in town, tight end is a position the Cowboys could start using way more. As Bobby Belt pointed out on Twitter a few weeks ago, Scott Linehan's offense doesn't benefit tight ends very much. Before we give a verdict on what Schultz and Jarwin can do, I'd like to see them work with Kellen Moore's offense.
One thing you consistently see when Scott Linehan takes over an offense is a drop in the starting tight end's production. Randy McMichael, Byron Chamberlain, and Jason Witten all saw drops in yards per catch, receptions per game, and yards per game once Linehan took over.
Here's the thing. If the Cowboys are not taking a tight end in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft, are they really upgrading what they already have? I'm not sure we'll be convinced about that if they draft a player for the position until the third or fourth round. Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not advocating for the Cowboys drafting a TE in the second round, because I believe there are more pressing needs on the team. However, signing a veteran free agent might be the better option for upgrading the position.
Should a veteran TE be an option?
This year, there are quite a few interesting names in the tight end market. Veterans such as Jared Cook, Tyler Eifert and even Antonio Gates will be looking for a new team pretty soon. I know, that would be "getting older." But it could also mean getting better. Building a solid TE committee with a veteran leading Blake Jarwin and Dalton Schultz could be the way to go for this football team.
Eifert is a great tight end... when he's on the field. Durability is his biggest weakness, as he hasn't played more than 10 games since 2016. The Cowboys could take a risk on him and constantly rotate him with Jarwin and Schultz. It may be a huge risk, but it could pay off big time. If the price is right, Eifert should be targeted by the front office.
The 2018 Oakland Raiders had a season to forget, winning only four games. Even still, Jared Cook's season was impressive. He finished the year with 896 yards and multiple 100-yard games. The biggest issue with Cook is his age. He turns 32 in April. But hey, he's literally coming off from a career year.
Jesse James is a younger guy who could also be worth it. He's not an a potent receiver, but he gets it done in the passing game and is one hell of a blocker. James could be a legit, cheaper option for the Cowboys in free agency.
There are a lot of names out there the front office could look at. Charles Clay was just released by the Buffalo Bills and Nick Boyle will be looking for new job after new arrivals pushed him out of the Baltimore Ravens' roster just to mention a few names.
We'll see what the front office's plans are soon enough, but right now, I'd say tight end is a need the Dallas Cowboys should at least try to address in free agency instead of the NFL Draft.
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