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!
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!
Breaking: Scott Linehan and Dallas Cowboys Part Ways
Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network is reporting that the Dallas Cowboys and Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan have mutually agreed to part ways following a tumultuous season that saw the Dallas Cowboys offense finish outside the top 12 three out of his four seasons in Dallas.
Sources: The #Cowboys are firing OC Scott Linehan. Taking their offense in a new direction. An announcement is coming.
Scott Linehan was brought in prior to the 2015 season and saw his offenses finish 31st, fifth, 14th, and 22nd in his four years as the Cowboys play caller. The 2015 season can be excused as the Cowboys rolled out Kellen Moore, Matt Cassell, and Brandon Weeden for 13 starts after Tony Romo was injured twice during the season, but the team 2-11 in those 13 starts and the Cowboys failed to make the playoffs despite a strong performance on the defensive side of the football.
The Cowboys saw an offense that finished fifth in the NFL in points in 2016 decline each of the last two offseasons and Linehan has been continually criticized by analysts, fans, and players as well.
Many believe that the reason that Dez Bryant and Brice Butler weren't brought back in the offseason was because of the public criticism of the offense and the play caller instilling the offense and that criticism has carried over to this season when Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper acknowledged that the Philadelphia Eagles were sitting on the slant routes that they had run all game. Dak mentioned that he changed Amari's route to a go route, which led to a 75 yard touchdown that helped open up the offense.
Cole Beasley has been frustrated with his role for much of the season and deservedly so. He was often non-existent in the offensive game plan until the final five minutes of football games.
In the running game, the offense had become too predictable and reliant upon jumbo formations that led to Ezekiel Elliott having to run against eight in the box anywhere from 25-30% of the time. For perspective, Todd Gurley only ran against eight-man fronts around eight percent of the time. Scott Linehan never looked to attempt to take players out of the box, instead insisting on motioning more players into the box for the offensive line and Ezekiel Elliott to run against. It's amazing when you think about it, that Ezekiel Elliott was able to win the rushing title when facing loaded fronts as often as he did.
This was a move that needed to happen and the Dallas Cowboys didn't need to waste anymore time to make it happen. The offense had become stale and frustrating for the players as well as the fans. While Jason Garrett started the offseason saying he "didn't expect any changes," this was a move that absolutely had to happen for the offense to take a step forward. Below, you can read Jason Garrett's announcement on the move.
Cowboys have fired Scott Linehan
Even after the move for Amari Cooper, the offense looked better, but it still struggled at times to move the football.
The Cowboys have a young team with especially young players on the offensive side of the football. They have a quarterback who can throw from the pocket, but has excellent movement skills and capabilities of throwing the ball on the run. He's an excellent runner on designed runs. Despite us knowing all that, Scott Linehan looked reluctant to use him on designed quarterback runs that weren't read options or speed options. What you saw on designed runs in the Seattle game is what this team should be doing five times a game.
Now the question becomes, who should the Cowboys next offensive coordinator be? Our own, Staff Writer Brian Martin, laid out 5 Options to be the Next Offensive Coordinator earlier this week. I suggest you give it a read.
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.
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