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.
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!
Could Cowboys Have Another “Ezekiel Elliott vs. Jalen Ramsey” Debate?
The debate over "Ezekiel Elliott vs. Jalen Ramsey" for from the 2016 NFL Draft has never really stopped in Dallas. From before that draft until now, Cowboys fans still argue over which player the team should have taken. For the team, could they face that question again in the next few years?
A little over three years ago, the Cowboys drafted Elliott with the fourth-overall pick. In so doing, they also snubbed Ramsey; the cornerback expected to become a Cowboy and wound up going with the fifth pick to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Where you stand on this issue likely has a lot to do with how you value running backs. Some argued in 2016, and still do, that no RB is worth that high of a pick or paying top dollar for in future years. You've seen plenty of those opinions this offseason as talk of a long-term contract extension for Elliott has heated up.
Those same folks would have loved for Dallas to take Jalen Ramsey, who instantly became one of the NFL's top corners. And in 2021, with both players scheduled to become unrestricted free agents, they would probably rather see the Cowboys let Elliott walk away and use that money to add an elite player at a position like cornerback.
We mention Ramsey here because of his very public feud with Jacksonville over his contract. The team reportedly informed him they would wait until next year to do a long-term extension, and Ramsey made it known through social media that he was going to drive the price up. Given his known issues with Jaguars' VP Tom Coughlin, it could lead to a parting of ways.
If Jalen Ramsey hit the open market, and still want to be a Cowboy, could the CB end up in Dallas after all?
Let's hypothesize that both Ezekiel Elliott and Jalen Ramsey have to play 2020 on their fifth-year options. Now the Cowboys are having to decide if they want give Zeke a long-term deal, the franchise tag, or just let him go.
How does the prospect of potentially signing Ramsey, or some other elite talent at another position, sway Dallas' thinking? Could they decide that the best bang for their buck is to spend roughly $15 million per year at RB or at CB, OT, or somewhere else?
The Cowboys already have a Pro Bowl corner in Byron Jones but there's still a lot of uncertainty at the other starting position. Neither Chidobe Awuzie or Jourdan Lewis have been consistent enough and both will have expiring contracts in 2021.
Ezekiel Elliott will turn 26 that year. He will have five seasons of workhorse mileage. And this is the same Cowboys team that decided to let DeMarco Murray walk away a few years ago.
Of course, Elliott trumps Murray in almost every way. He's been elite every season so far, not just one, and has been far more durable. Assuming personal conduct issues don't remain a problem, Zeke will be much harder to let go of than DeMarco was.
However, the salary cap forces teams to think about the entire roster when making personnel decisions. Even if you can justify paying Elliott huge money, that means less for someone else. And even if it makes sense for a year or two, what about when Zeke is creeping closer to 30 years old?
Again, I mentioned Ramsey here because of the intrigue with his contract situation in Jacksonville and connection to Dallas from the 2016 draft. It would be quite ironic if the Cowboys, five years later, were again having to decide between the same two players.
But Jalen exemplifies a greater issue that Dallas faces in the coming years. Does it make sense to tie up so much money at running back and weaken yourself at other positions?
While RBs as special as Ezekiel Elliott don't grow on trees, it's still one of the easiest positions to fill. Assuming the Cowboys still have one of the NFL's top offensive lines in a few years, they will be tempted to try and get solid rushing production with a much cheaper ball carrier.
When Dallas let DeMarco Murray go and then drafted Ezekiel Elliott a year later, some thought it could be the start of a new trend in roster management. Draft a RB high, get 4-5 years out of him, and then let somebody else pay him the big money. Rinse and repeat.
But then Zeke came along and has been the stuff of legends. If he has a long-term career in Dallas, he will be right there with Emmitt and Dorsett in the top-three of all time Cowboys running backs.
Elliott isn't just highly productive but brings personality and excitement. Guys like that are hard to let go of; they are as valuable for marketing as they are on the field.
That said, a lot can change in the next year or two. More issues with the league office, or a major injury, could have a dramatic effect on how we see Elliott's long-term value. It may make the decision much easier.
But assuming Zeke remains as valuable as ever, the Dallas Cowboys could be facing another major quandary between the running back and other elite players like Jalen Ramsey. What most helps the team win, and what has the most value over multiple seasons?
Hopefully, Ezekiel Elliott keeps playing well enough to keep the debate going.
Cowboys OT Mitch Hyatt is an Undrafted Rookie to Watch
Going undrafted is hardly a death blow to a player's hopes of making it into the NFL. We've seen many examples of players who have lengthy careers despite humble beginnings, and plenty of them happened right here in Dallas. Could offensive tackle Mitch Hyatt be the next undrafted success story for the Cowboys?
Hyatt just finished his college career at Clemson as a four-year starter, two-time national champion, and two-time All-American. While not an elite draft prospect, many had Mitch rated as at least a 5th-7th round pick. His going undrafted was a surprise.
While he measures with good size at 6'5" and a little over 300 lbs., Hyatt lacks upper body strength. But he's overcome that deficiency through the years with work ethic, motor, and smarts.
For the Cowboys, it's a lot easier to help a guy gain strength than it is to try and improve motivation or intelligence.
Dallas was not the only team interested in Mitch Hyatt once he hit free agency. But from the rookie's own lips, he didn't have a hard decision to make.
“'I received a fair amount of calls. It was a pretty chaotic five to 10 minutes for me,'” Hyatt said. “'I had a whole bunch of people in my ear. But I knew what kind of team the Cowboys were, I knew what they were about.'”
Whether it was the reputation of the Cowboys organization, its vaunted offensive line, or the chance to work with Coach Marc Colombo, Hyatt was clearly drawn to Dallas. Another reason for that may have been the perceived opportunity to make the roster.
The Cowboys seem to already be preparing for life without La'el Collins in 2020, when Collins is set to hit free agency. They gave Cam Fleming a two-year deal which keeps him through next year, plus drafted Connor McGovern in the third round of the 2019 draft. It suggests Dallas isn't planning to pay La'l the significant money he should demand.
If Fleming gets promoted to the starting job at right tackle, that would leave a vacancy for swing tackle in 2020. Mitch Hyatt could be one of Dallas' options for that role.
Even if the Cowboys don't keep Hyatt on the 53-man roster in 2019, they will likely try to put him on the practice squad. Ideally, a year of physical development there will make him a much stronger candidate for the 2020 season.
Of course, the reason we know those undrafted success stories so well is because they aren't typical. The odds are against Mitch Hyatt having any NFL career, but his collegiate success and intangibles speak to a guy who's worth taking a chance on.
If it works out, credit the Cowboys for continuing the tradition of Tony Romo, Miles Austin, Jeff Heath, and other undrafted players who became significant contributors.
Could CB Michael Jackson Prove To Be Cowboys Best Value Pick?
Looking back to the third day of the 2019 NFL Draft for the Dallas Cowboys, running backs Tony Pollard and Mike Weber are the most discussed players among fans and analysts. The front office made some pretty promising selections in the late rounds that could have important roles on the team in the near future. While many thought the Cowboys would be quick to add a rookie safety, it wasn't until the fifth round that the team drafted a defensive back, and it wasn't even a safety. Kris Richard got his guy Michael Jackson, from the Miami Hurricanes.
A few weeks apart from training camp, the 6-1 cornerback has been overlooked by many fans. Although the team got plenty of quality players in the late rounds, Jackson might end up being the best value pick when we look back to this rookie class a year from now.
In college, Jackson started 23 games between 2017 and 2018 as he racked up four interceptions and 10 pass deflections. He seems just like the kind of guy we know DB Coach Kris Richard loves. A tall, long, press cornerback with pretty solid range. Jackson is far from a player ready to start in the NFL, but Richard will have a lot of raw potential to work with.
When the former Seahawks defensive coordinator joined the Cowboys, he let it be known that he saw a lot of potential on Byron Jones. The 2015 first round pick's career was turned around after last season, when the team finally stopped moving Jones around the defensive backfield. As a full-time corner, Jones went on to become a second-team All-Pro last year.
While it would be unfair to compare Jones and Jackson, both of them arrived to the NFL with very different expectations, I can't help but wonder how far can Richard take the Miami product. Although it wasn't discussed as much, cornerback was an important need for the team because of a lack of depth and the uncertainty surrounding Jones' future on the team.
After an impressive 2018 season, extending Jones will be a huge challenge for the Cowboys front office. After all, there's a lot of homegrown talent due for big paydays. Who knows if when the day comes, the team will have what it takes to keep Jones in Dallas. Not to mention, Anthony Brown is entering his contract year. A solid nickel corner for the Cowboys could be gone, leaving Kris Richard's unit with very little depth.
Fortunately for the Cowboys, Michael Jackson has the size and potential to play in any spot in the secondary, giving Richard the chance to develop him at the position he wishes. After all, Richard will be in no hurry to get Jackson on the field. It's tough to imagine Jackson getting an important role for the upcoming season, but he could certainly get a few snaps throughout the year. Having said that, it's in the long run that the All-ACC second-team CB can truly prove his worth.
In an ideal world, the Cowboys would keep their current CB but the cold, hard truth is NFL teams can't keep all of their players all the time. Jackson might have to eventually step up to an important spot on the defense. If Kris Richard develops him properly, Dallas won't be that concerned about a couple of their CBs potentially leaving. We'll see if Michael Jackson is ready when his name is called.
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