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!
Noah Brown Takes to Twitter to Call Out ESPN
ESPN has long been considered "The Worldwide Leader in Sports," and for a long time that title was justified. If you wanted your national sports news, where did you turn to but the cable sports channel to watch that day's episode of SportsCenter. But over the last few years, it's become more and more clear that it's "The Worldwide Leader" in name only.
The ratings are dropping and the network has had to make a lot of business decisions as it relates to much of their on-air talent over the last several years. With their latest under 25 starting 22 -- ahem, troll job -- they seem to have finally come to terms that they are basically First Take.
Noah Brown put it best in his reaction to the ESPN "Insider" voting that led to Saquon Barkley being named to the starting 22 ahead of Ezekiel Elliott. Brown, Elliott's teammate when both were at Ohio State University, came to his defense upon seeing the list.
And here is the ESPN list:
43 of our NFL Insiders voted. Here's their best starting roster under the age of 25.
I'm sure there could be debates about different positions on the squad. Personally, quarterback is one where an argument could be made for Carson Wentz or Dak Prescott over DeShaun Watson, but that's for another time.
But to have a rookie, who has never played a down in the NFL ahead of the NFL's league leader in rushing for 2016, Ezekiel Elliott, is laughable.
The fact that they had 43, again I use the quotations, "Insiders" vote on this and Ezekiel Elliott wasn't listed as one of the two running backs just shows you how far they've come as a network.
Let's remember that Ezekiel Elliott has averaged a touchdown a game -- receiving and rushing -- in his 25-game career. No running back has more rushing yards than Elliott does over the last two years, including 2017 league rushing leader, Todd Gurley. No running back has more rushing touchdowns than Elliott's 22 rushing TDs.
Ezekiel Elliott's yards per carry is a healthy 4.63. Todd Gurley sits at 3.93. No player with more than 1,800 rushing yards over the last two years has a better yards per attempt than Ezekiel Elliott.
I get that you'd vote Todd Gurley in there, but to not have Ezekiel Elliott, arguably the game's best running back on your Under 25 starting 22 just makes you look like Skip Bayless or Stephen A. Smith. Not a sports journalism entity worthy of people throwing money at for "Insider" access.
I won't say that I never or will never watch ESPN, because where else am I gonna go for Monday Night Football, Todd Archer, or the NCAA Men's Lacrosse Championships? When I'm at my father-in-law's, I'll watch SportsCenter first thing in the morning, because it will be on and you don't change another man's television.
"The Worldwide Leader," however, loses credibility when they promote a list like this that has such a glaring omission.
Perhaps, maybe the goal wasn't to put out an accurate list. Maybe the goal was to get us talking about their list, just like when NFL Network releases their Top 100 players list. Like they say, there's no such thing as bad publicity.
This troll job from ESPN has certainly gotten them some publicity, or should I say, notoriety.
Cowboys DE Randy Gregory Reinstated, Will Join Team for Training Camp
The Dallas Cowboys patience with Defensive End Randy Gregory has paid off. Suspended for the better part of 2016 and all of 2017, Gregory has officially been reinstated to join the team for their 2018 training camp. The projected starter at RDE, Gregory will report to Oxnard with the rest of the team on July 25th.
From here, it will be all hard work for Gregory to reconnect with Defensive Coordinator Rod Marinelli and get his promising career back on track. The last time Gregory suited up for the Cowboys, he managed to sack Philadelphia Eagles Quarterback Carson Wentz in a week 17 win. The Cowboys will be expecting much more of this from a player they've supported through multiple violations of the league's heavily criticized substance abuse policy.
Cowboys pass-rusher Randy Gregory's petition for reinstatement was not opposed, according to lawyer Daniel Moskowitz. He's back. "I've never been more proud of any individual in my life. I'm very excited for Randy and his daughter and the rest of the his family.
Among this support staff for Gregory were a number of teammates that wrote formal letters to the NFL as part of his bid for reinstatement. These last few days of preparation before the Cowboys are together again as a team will surely be uplifted by Gregory's presence.
They say no news is typically good news at this point in the offseason, something the Cowboys have come to realize far too often. Today's news shouldn't be confused with a pleasant surprise however, rather something the Cowboys were committed to in getting another premier pass rusher on the field.
Here is the NFL's official press release on their reinstatement of Randy Gregory:
Cowboys, Elliott Should Keep Close Tabs on Le’Veon Bell’s Situation
The deadline for reaching an agreement with franchise tagged players came to an end last Monday, in what turned out to be a pretty uneventful day all around the league. No agreement was reached by any of the teams with their respective players, including the Dallas Cowboys and their promising "War Daddy," DeMarcus Lawrence.
But the Cowboys' front office have something to learn in this process that doesn't involve a player of their own. Something that both the front office and Ezekiel Elliott should be keeping a close eye on.
The Pittsburgh Steelers also failed to secure their franchise tagged player: Running Back Le'Veon Bell. Really, no one expected a deal to be reached among the two parties. The 26-year old football super star is asking for too much money, which has led to the Steelers tagging him twice in consecutive years.
Bell, conscious of his abilities on the field, is asking for a lot of money from his football team. In 2018, he's set to earn over $14.5M under the tag. That's more than twice the money that Devonta Freeman averages per year - 8.25 million - who's next on the list of highest paid running backs in the league and the highest paid on a long-term contract.
Just to clarify: Steelers' offer to Le'Veon Bell last year averaged $13.3 million per year. Steelers' offer to him this year averaged $15 million per year. But Bell does not believe he should be paid as a RB; he believes he should be paid as an elite offensive weapon.
Le'Veon, whose agent has said 2018 will likely be his last season playing as a Steeler, was reportedly offered $15M per year but that wasn't enough for him. Bell wants to get paid as an elite offensive weapon, which he is. But it turns out he's also... a running back.
It's a complicated situation and one that, if it turns out well for him in free agency next year, could revolutionize the entire running back market in the NFL. If it doesn't, he might end up regretting passing on the Steelers' offer for he won't easily find that kind of money with a team that seems to be a Super Bowl contender on a yearly basis.
The Dallas Cowboys' priorities will rely on other players during the next couple of years, but that shouldn't keep them from keeping close tabs on these events since they could be dealing with a similar scenario when Ezekiel Elliott's turn for a new deal comes around.
Fairly assuming that the fifth year option on Zeke's contract will be picked up after the 2018 season, locking him up through 2020, it's a problem that will be down the road for the Cowboys. But it will have to be dealt with at some point.
When his time is up, Elliott should undoubtedly be looking to become the highest-paid in the game, but the amount of money he gets will depend on the outcome of this whole Le'Veon-Steelers thing. David Johnson and Todd Gurley will also play an important role in determining the future of the running back market.
While Elliott hasn't been used as a receiving threat during his first two seasons in the league, he's still an elite offensive weapon for the Cowboys. The team's offense is based around Zeke and the running game, so it will make sense if his demands are somewhat similar from those by Bell.
Elliott might even be franchise tagged once or twice by the Cowboys if things get complicated in the future. Unlike DeMarco Murray in 2014, surely they won't be willing to let him walk in free agency once his contract comes to an end.
For now, it won't be just the Cowboys who will be keeping close tabs on this situation, but also Ezekiel Elliott and his agent. Hopefully, both parties will manage to handle things better than what we're seeing right now in Pittsburgh.
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