A look at the Dallas Cowboys offseason with 10 things they absolutely have to do to be even better and contend in 2017
In 2015 and 2016, the Dallas Cowboys had the same issue problem as they were forced to try and survive without starting quarterback Tony Romo while he recovered from injury. The results couldn’t have been more opposite, though, from one year to the next.
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One season ago, they went from Brandon Weeden to Matt Cassel to Kellen Moore in an attempt to find some rhythm while Romo was out. The result was a 4-12 season in which the Cowboys were 1-11 without their starter.
However, in 2016 the talk was all about finding a guy to replace Romo should he suffer another long injury, which he did. Then the Boys were in trouble again especially considering all they did to address their backup quarterback issues was draft quarterback Dak Prescott out of Mississippi State in Round 4. All Dak did from there was take Romo’s starting job and lead Dallas to a 13-3 season.
They didn’t wind up in the Super Bowl, but they have the core to lead them there eventually. To ensure they stay just as competitive in 2017—and moving forward—here are 10 things they must do this offseason.
At one point, cornerback Brandon Carr was the least liked player on the Cowboys defense. Now, he’s a player they can ill afford to lose. After their loss in the playoffs, Carr hinted at retirement being a possibility, but at 30 years old he shouldn’t be ready for that just yet.
Dallas also shouldn’t be ready for Carr to leave. He may not record many interceptions, but he is hardly ever beat and that’s no easy task as he goes head-to-head with the best receivers on every team he faces. He has done well at times against receivers like Odell Beckham, Jr., Jordy Nelson and DeSean Jackson. Sure, he’s had his bad moments too, but he’s the best cover guy Dallas had on the roster in 2016 and his departure would create a huge void.
Carr has never missed a game in his entire career, playing through any aches and pains, as well as a broken hand at one point. He won’t command the huge money he got when Dallas signed him away from the Kansas City Chiefs, which is good for Dallas as they could get a savvy veteran for an affordable price.
It would also make sense for Carr. He went through some ups-and-downs with Dallas and it may mean more to make a decent wage on a team you helped build into a contender than taking a bigger check to go to the unknown.
It doesn’t matter if they do it in the draft or through free agency, but Dallas needs to find a guy who can be a threat to catch the ball out of the tight end spot. They have Jason Witten currently, but he won’t be around forever. He also isn’t much of a threat to get downfield on routes and hardly ever gets yards after the catch.
With their running game, mobile quarterback and solid play-action game, a deep-threat tight end would open things up even more for Dallas. Options include looking at someone like Jared Cook (too soon?) should the Packers fail to retain him, or maybe they can unleash 2016 sixth-round pick Rico Gathers.
The 6-8, 280-pound Gathers is about as raw as they come, having not played football since high school before being drafted. He was a basketball standout at Baylor and Dallas has been getting him ready for a role with the team. Reports are that he was doing so well in practice that there was a possibility he could move to the active roster from the practice squad at season’s end. That obviously didn’t happen, but offers promise.
If they avoid free agency and don’t think Gathers is up to the task, they can turn to the draft. Players like Michigan’s Jake Butt (still recovering from a knee injury), Alabama’s O.J. Howard and Virginia Tech’s Bucky Hodges are all possibilities. One thing that’s for sure, they can use some youth at the position and it won’t be courtesy of Gavin Escobar.
According to OverTheCap.com the Cowboys are more than $5.5 million over the projected 2017 salary cap. That isn’t good. There is a silver lining though, as the player who counts the most against their cap is no longer a starter.
Quarterback Tony Romo has a cap number of $24.7 million, but Dallas can save $14 million by designating him as a post-June 1st cut. There still would be a huge chunk of dead money as $10 million would just be sitting there. This scenario reminds people why there was such an uproar not to readjust Romo’s contract a couple of seasons ago when Dallas was strapped against the cap.
Unfortunately, cutting Romo won’t be enough for them to make some needed moves. They may again have to restructure some deals to create wiggle room. This still isn’t ideal, but Dallas has done it in the past and they know that it would be wise to try and make some good deals while their stars, Elliott and Prescott, are still on rookie deals.
Other players who could become casualties to be cut would be Witten and a pair of defensive tackles, Cedric Thornton and Tyrone Crawford. Thornton was a disappointment after being signed away from the Eagles. Witten could be a casualty due to his age and Crawford has been productive, but is overpaid given his injury history and impact on game day.
Dallas had an amazing draft in 2016, and it could get even better. Saying this class will get better isn’t even solely referring to the players becoming more adept at the pro style game, although that’s true as well. Instead this class could get even better because of yet another gamble on a second-round pick.
The Cowboys took Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith with the 34th pick knowing full well he would most likely miss his entire rookie season thanks to a knee injury which resulted in nerve damage. Now Smith is nearing full health and vice president Stephen Jones is saying he may end up being the best of the bunch, per Albert Breer of the MMQB:
“I mean, this is a guy who may end up being—and you’re gonna shake your head when I say this—but he could end up being the best of all of [the rookies]. He is special both on and off the field.”
The key will be getting Smith fully healthy. Dallas has been there every step of the way as it was their team doctor who performed the original surgery on Smith’s knee before the draft. They had great knowledge of his progress then and they have been patient up to now.
Dallas has hit on some second-round gambles on injured linebackers, like Sean Lee and Bruce Carter. They’ve also whiffed on some like defensive end Randy Gregory and the jury is still out on fellow defensive end Demarcus Lawrence. Should they get Smith back to 100 percent, this would most likely be another home run as Smith was a sure-fire top-10 pick heading into the draft before his injury.
The 2013 NFL Draft wasn’t very good by most standards. The Cowboys, however, found some real gems in starting center Travis Frederick, starting receiver Terrance Williams and safety J.J. Wilcox, who also has started several games for Dallas. They even looked to have unearthed a gem in South Carolina linebacker Devonta Holloman, until a neck injury prematurely ended his career.
As 2017 now approaches, it’s free agency time for all except Frederick. Thanks to the starting experience and postseason production, some team out there will probably throw big money at Williams. That means Dallas will need to replace him and there aren’t many options on the roster.
In 2015, they traded for Brice Butler from the Oakland Raiders, but he too is a free agent and has failed to impress on a consistent basis. Unless Dallas decides to continue to trust Butler (who is known more for penalties than big plays) or they can get Williams to return on a team-friendly deal, they need to make a move.
Signing a veteran receiver would keep them from having to feel a strong need to use a draft pick on one. If a good receiver falls to an acceptable round, great. If not, having a veteran means it wouldn’t be an issue.
Some players to consider could be Cordarrelle Patterson, who would also help tremendously on special teams, Brandon LaFell, Kamar Aiken and Kendall Wright. There’s also 36-year-old Anquan Boldin, who is still as effective now as he ever was.
Okay, so it seems apparent that Mark Sanchez just isn’t a very good quarterback. While he was praised for his mentorship of rookie Dak Prescott, he was less than impressive in his Week 17 performance against the Philadelphia Eagles.
To be fair, there were offensive linemen protecting him that were signed that week and he didn’t have Ezekiel Elliott, Dez Bryant or Jason Witten. Still, the passes he threw were awful and reminded everyone why he’s struggled to stay with one team so far in his career.
The Cowboys have the luxury of knowing that their 23-year old-quarterback can take a hit, and isn’t as prone to injuries at this point in his career as Tony Romo had become. That doesn’t mean a freak injury can’t happen, and turning the keys over to Sanchez in that event seems rather scary.
Again to be fair, any backup who has to steer the ship for too long will get exposed, but Sanchez looked like he would struggle to manage a one-week absence of their starter. That means before the season begins they need a better option.
They could re-sign Kellen Moore, who was originally supposed to be ahead of Prescott in 2016, but he hasn’t been exceptional in his career so far. There will also be some guys with more experience available like Case Keenum, Ryan Fitzpatrick, E.J. Manuel and Brian Hoyer. Or they could find a young guy with upside like Mike Glennon. Options are out there, but they need to explore them and not count on Sanchez.
After falling behind 21-3 against Green Bay, the Cowboys got back into the game thanks to their aerial attack. The biggest weapon in that attack was receiver Dez Bryant, who simply became un-coverable. While he and Prescott have had their moments together, though, they also struggled at times to connect. With that said, their playoff game was the absolute best example of those two being on the same page.
We all now know how scary they are when they’re in unison. Bryant was targeted 12 times, and caught nine passes for 132 yards and two touchdowns. They were the first two postseason touchdown receptions in Bryant’s career. He can’t be covered one-on-one and his explosion would only make it harder for teams to stop the running game as they cannot leave a safety in the box and stop Bryant.
That means that the team needs to be all about getting these two playing like that more often throughout the offseason. Dak and Dez need to spend a ton of time building their chemistry and perfecting their timing. They have the ability to go down as one of the best pass-catch duos for the Cowboys in their illustrious history if they can carry over that incredible performance.
The team simply doesn’t want to do it, but they need to reconsider in the offseason moving La’El Collins from guard to tackle. Collins entered the 2015 NFL Draft as one of the best tackle prospects out of LSU. Then a homicide investigation derailed those hopes and he went undrafted.
Collins was then cleared of any suspicion and was ultimately signed by Dallas. He moved to guard and has been playing there ever since. This season, he suffered a foot injury and was placed in IR. His replacement was former starter Ronald Leary, who may have outplayed Collins while in the lineup.
Now Leary is set to hit free agency, and Dallas will be down a number. To try and avoid this they should look at the possibility of kicking Collins back out to tackle, a position he played in college and re-signing Leary. Doing so would allow them to put the five best players on the field. Collins is strong enough to play the spot, and is much more athletic than current right tackle, Doug Free
Of course, compensation for Leary will be huge, but that may be something they can do by moving on from the veteran Free. Free has been decent, but he is the weak link of the offensive line and is 33 years of age. Having Collins at tackle and keeping Leary at guard would give them a potentially better team with all of them being younger than 30.
Maybe in the end Collins just isn’t cut out to be a tackle in this league, but it feels weird that they simply refused to ever try it.
In 2015 the Boys grabbed a cornerback/safety hybrid in Byron Jones and he has entrenched himself as the starting free safety for them and is good in coverage and helps prevent the deep ball often. They also have Barry Church, who is an emotional leader and decent in run support. Where the both fall short is in the turnover category.
Church led the whole team in interceptions with two and Jones added one more. They also had one from both J.J. Wilcox and Jeff Heath, who serve as backup safeties. While none of them are a weakness, they need someone who can change the tide of games every once in a while.
Against the Packers, Heath nearly did just that. He had one interception deep in Cowboys territory as Green Bay tried to pull away with the game. He later had a second one which could have won the game in the fourth called back thanks to a pass interference call against corner Anthony Brown.
Heath is an exceptional role player, but that brief explosion by him was a reminder of what Dallas can accomplish if they can find one guy who can get the ball back for their high-octane offense. That’s easier said than done as great safeties don’t grow on trees, but with Wilcox and Church about to enter free agency they need to make a decision. Go with one of these guys, or find someone who can be a potential game changer.
The biggest name currently slated to be on the market is Eric Berry of the Chiefs, but Dallas most likely won’t be players there. Kansas City would be wise to retain him and even if they let him walk, the bidding war would be too much. Another option could be Quintin Demps, who recorded six interceptions for the Houston Texans in 2016. At 31 years old, he may not have a ton left in the tank, but he’s been an underrated starter for years and could actually come in cheaper than Church.
Of course there’s always the option to draft a player as well, but there’s no guarantees of who will fall to the Cowboys. One thing that’s for sure, this defense needs to figure out how to intercept some passes.
And this is No. 1 for a reason. The Dallas Cowboys have been awful at rushing the passer ever since defensive end DeMarcus Ware left. They have spent a couple second round picks on players and even controversially signed the hard-to-deal-with Greg Hardy in 2015 in hopes to remedy the problem.
None of that has helped, and they continue to struggle to get after opposing quarterbacks. While their total team sacks didn’t look awful, they really racked those up in games against bad teams and then struggled mightily against good ones. The Divisional Round game was a great example as they mainly generated pressure with secondary blitzes and struggled to make Aaron Rodgers get rid of the ball quickly all game.
If they want to take the next step and become a dynasty, they need some help in this area. It doesn’t matter if they sign a free agent like Jabaal Sheard—who could be a rotational passer—or take a gamble on Dion Jordan, who has been a bust for the Miami Dolphins after being selected third overall in 2013. It also doesn’t matter if they stand pat in free agency and select the best pass rusher available, or trade some assets and move up for an impact guy like Tennessee’s Derek Barnett.
The only thing that matters is Dallas must get a pass rusher who can affect games. Having that one guy who can disrupt offensive lines makes everyones job easier. The corners cover better, the linebackers in are better position, and the defense overall is improved when the ball comes out quicker. The best way Dallas improves their team heading into 2017 is by finally getting a pass rusher.