Sure it hurts to say (and type) right now, but the Dallas Cowboys are officially in the off season – which is ultimately a time to better this team for 2017 and the future. While the absence of Cowboys football will leave a void in our hearts for some time, the thought of this young team that just rattled off 13 wins in 2016 getting even better will immediately fill it back up with a newfound passion for America’s Team every day of the year.
So, now’s the time to ask the question, how will the 2017 Cowboys compare to this 2016 team?
To do some initial crowd-sourcing on this topic, I took to Twitter to gather votes from Cowboys Nation on the following questions:
Help me with some potential writing material here Cowboys Nation. How many new starters do you expect on the Cowboys offense in 2017?
It appears that most fans are expecting the majority of this team’s changes to come on the defensive side of the ball, which would coincide with the recent comments from Stephen Jones that the Cowboys will indeed be focused on improving defensively for 2017.
Stephen Jones says this offseason the goal is to invest resources whether it be salary cap or draft picks to improve the defense.
It may be far too early to really break down the specifics of which new faces will appear on Rod Marinelli’s defense next season, but based on the poll results, most fans are expecting up to four new starters.
The one obvious player that is currently on the Cowboys roster is MIKE linebacker Jaylon Smith. If he is able to get himself ready for 2017 – the realistic goal for his Dallas debut when the Cowboys drafted him 34th overall in 2016 – Smith will instantly become this team’s best option at middle linebacker, and a welcome star to play next to Sean Lee.
So, where else will we see new starters on defense in 2017 for the Dallas Cowboys?
The obvious answer here is to stick with the front-seven and address a defensive line that once again allowed Aaron Rodgers to beat them in the playoffs, and while I certainly expect some new life to be pumped into the Cowboys’ pass rush, I think the position that could see the biggest overhaul defensively (if not team wide) is cornerback.
Morris Claiborne is once again set to enter free agency, as his one year “prove it” deal for 2016 will expire with Claiborne appearing in just eight games. Across from him, Brandon Carr is not only also a free agent, but a veteran 30-year old corner that is reportedly considering retirement.
This leaves Anthony Brown – another rookie sensation brought in with a sixth round pick – and Orlando Scandrick as set-to-return starters. The foundation to improve is certainly in place for a secondary that ranked 26th in passing yards allowed per game, but the depth and experience is lacking – leading me to believe (and ultimately hope) that the defensive help this team finds will be in the secondary.
Assuming again that Smith is standing in the middle of the field to lead the Cowboys defense on the first snap of 2017, a new body at corner along with two or more in the defensive line rotation would make these early poll results pretty accurate – and none of this seems too far-fetched.
The core of the Cowboys’ world-beating offense is going nowhere fast, but what adjustments could be made on this side of the ball heading into 2017?
Most of you only expect two or three new starters on this Dallas Cowboys offense in 2017, and in discussing this topic on Twitter with Cowboys Nation we did run into a bit of a technicality when it comes to the left guard position.
Ron Leary went from a highly criticized player in the summer leading up to this season to the experienced starter Dallas needed at left guard when La’el Collins went down. Stepping up to do his job once again, Leary is now a free agent – one I don’t expect to see back in the silver and blue. The Cowboys have added depth at guard with Jonathan Cooper and Joe Looney, making Leary expendable while he looks for a big payday elsewhere, sliding Collins (who the Cowboys see as strictly a guard) back into the starting job between Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick.
Since it doesn’t seem that there will be any real competition for Collins in regaining his starter status, I won’t consider him a “newcomer” to the Cowboys offense in 2017. Instead, sticking with the Space Cowboys, I could see changes further down the line at right tackle.
Doug Free‘s status is
still being speed rushed by opposing defensive ends uncertain at this position, as he would be entering his 12th year with the team in 2017. The elder-statesman when it comes to the assets the Cowboys have invested in this offensive front, Free certainly has faced the tough task of standing out amongst young first round talents the past few seasons.
While I personally defended Doug Free through most of this, his declining play – highlighted by critical penalties – is alarming, as is the overall depth Dallas currently has at offensive tackle.
If the Cowboys do indeed have a new starter at right tackle in 2017, the chances are relatively high it will be a new addition. Chaz Green is the current roster’s option to fill this role, but his frequent health issues will force Dallas to consider all methods of improvement – one of which could also involve Emmett Cleary.
Of course, there should be little to no concern over the status of the Cowboys’ offensive line as a whole, and their dominance will continue in 2017 with whoever lines up to protect Dak Prescott and pave paths for Ezekiel Elliott.
When it comes to Dak Prescott though, some of his targets could certainly be unfamiliar. Both free agents, either Terrance Williams or Brice Butler will return to this team most likely, but it is hard to envision both WRs with the Cowboys in 2017 – perhaps even easier to picture both moving on in free agency.
Lastly, at the tight end position, Jason Witten indeed looks set to return for 2017 despite some noise about his retirement, and behind him the Cowboys must keep a close eye on the health of Geoff Swaim and James Hanna. Gavin Escobar likely leaves in free agency, but a core of Witten, Swaim, Hanna, and perhaps even Rico Gathers would quickly become one the most versatile TE groups in the NFL.
Still, there are plenty of fans calling for a high draft pick to be used by this team at TE, with first round talents like O.J. Howard available to take this offense to the next level.
Concern certainly isn’t the right word when it comes to evaluating the Cowboys offense for 2017, but more so intrigue. So long as this offensive line is intact, the Dallas Cowboys’ best strength will be running the football, and there’s no denying who their bell-cow runner will be next season.
Some of the other pieces will have to fall into place offensively though, with plenty of positional competition sure to decide key roles – just how Jason Garrett will want it.
All of these topics will be addressed in much greater detail as we continue through the off season and march towards the 2017 NFL Draft, free agency, and eventually the start of football with mini camp and OTAs.
For now, it is certainly fun to – for better or worse – lay out what this team could look like next season just days removed from the end of 2016. Such is life in the NFL, and this article will either serve as fodder for another collection of cold Cowboys’ takes or as a blueprint towards Super Bowl LII.
Either way, I appreciate everyone that participated in these polls on Twitter!