2016 NFL Offseason: Dallas Cowboys

Dallas Cowboys (Last Year: 4-12)

2016 NFL Season Preview:

Veteran Additions:
RB Alfred Morris, DE Benson Mayowa, DT Cedric Thornton.
Early Draft Picks:
RB Ezekiel Elliott, LB Jaylon Smith, DT Maliek Collins, DE Charles Tapper, QB Dak Prescott. Cowboys Rookie Forecast
Offseason Losses:
QB Matt Cassel, G Mackenzy Bernadeau, DE Greg Hardy.

2016 Dallas Cowboys Offense:
Things seemed to be going well for the Cowboys when they were on their way to 2-0, leading the Eagles in the second game of the season. And then disaster struck. Tony Romo broke his collarbone and was forced to miss eight weeks. Though Jerry Jones expressed some misguided optimism for Brandon Weeden and Matt Cassel, Dallas’ once-pristine 2-0 record quickly transformed into a 2-7 mark. Romo returned for two more games. He split the pair, but aggravated his injury to finally be lost for the year.

Though there naturally has to be cause for concern regarding Romo, given that he’s now 36, there’s at least some good news, and that would be Romo’s decision to undergo surgery that would prevent another collarbone injury, which has been troublesome for him throughout his career. Of course, the 36-year-old wouldn’t be immune to other maladies, and it’s definitely possible that he’ll miss more time in 2016.

If Romo stays healthy, however, the sky is the limit for Dallas. Romo still has his two trusted weapons in Dez Bryant and Jason Witten. Bryant, who also missed a chunk of the 2015 season (foot injury), will be looking to have a bounce-back campaign of his own. Witten, meanwhile, turned 34 this offseason, but is still a useful player because of his great blocking ability and great hands.

Romo does need other aerial weapons, and it was perplexing as to why the Cowboys didn’t provide any for him this spring. They didn’t add a single significant player to the receiving corps or tight end group, so the disappointing Terrance Williams will have to continue to serve as the No. 2 wideout, though he could be overtaken by Brice Butler, who caught eight passes for 134 yards in the final two games of the year. The steady Cole Beasley will once again be stationed in the slot.

The receiving corps, outside of Bryant, is the sole weak point of the offense if everyone stays healthy. The blocking unit still should be great, as there weren’t any changes of note made this offseason. The tackles will continue to be All-Pro Tyron Smith and Doug Free, who declined a bit in 2015, but was still very effective. Meanwhile, the interior will once again be comprised of guards Zack Martin and La’el Collins and center Travis Frederick. Martin and Frederick are among the top players at their position in the entire league. Collins was the weakest link last year, but he was a mere rookie. Collins, a first-round talent who became an undrafted free agent in the wake of incompetence, has loads of potential, so he’s expected to improve in 2016.

The running game will also be much better. Darren McFadden did a good job of replacing DeMarco Murray last year despite opposing defenses being able to key on him in the wake of Romo’s absence. McFadden gained 1,089 rushing yards on an impressive 4.6 YPC clip and caught 40 balls. Despite what the media says, Murray was not missed; the Cowboys’ struggles were a byproduct of Romo and Bryant being hurt. Jerry Jones inexplicably did not recognize this and overruled the front office’s decision to draft Jalen Ramsey. He opted instead for Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott, who has drawn comparisons to Fred Taylor. Though Elliott has the potential to eventually win the NFL’s rushing title, thanks to his great blocking unit, it’s still foolish to select a non-elite running back in the top five of the draft in this day and age. That said, Elliott will help improve the offense, as he, McFadden and the newly acquired Alfred Morris will form a potent three-headed attack.

2016 Dallas Cowboys Defense:
Passing on Ramsey could end up costing the Cowboys. They desperately needed an upgrade at cornerback, and Dallas, per its own words, even thought that Ramsey would be able to erase half the field. Yet, the Cowboys believed that Elliott would be more valuable because teams could avoid throwing Ramsey’s direction. This was one of the most bizarre things an NFL front office has ever said.

Without Ramsey, the Cowboys will have just one viable starting corner. That would be Orlando Scandrick, who missed all of 2015 with a torn ACL and MCL. His absence was enormous, as the team had to start Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne at the position, both of whom were abominations in coverage. Scandrick will obviously help, but Carr will still be in the lineup, so opponents will surely throw in his direction very often. A sixth-round pick was used on Anthony Brown, but he may not be able to contribute for a while.

Dallas spent a recent first-round selection on Byron Jones, a cornerback coming out of Connecticut. Jones, however, has moved to safety, where he was very effective this past season. But as with the cornerback position, the Cowboys have just one effective player. Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox, who started alongside Jones at times, both struggled mightily. Another sixth-rounder was spent on safety Kavon Frazier, but he can’t be counted on to produce anytime soon.

There are issues on every level of the defense. The pass rush will be a major issue in the first month, as Demarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory will be absent for the first four games because of suspensions. The Cowboys won’t get any sort of pressure on the quarterback until the Week 5 battle against the Bengals, and even then, it’s sounding like Lawrence will be the only one returning. Lawrence has been a great player, so that’s at least a positive, but Gregory violated the league’s substance-abuse policy a second time and now faces a potential year-long ban.

The Cowboys will have one talented defensive lineman available when Lawrence and Gregory are out. That would be Tyrone Crawford, who will be trying to rebound from a dismal 2015 campaign. Crawford had been great in 2014, but struggled last year because of a torn rotator cuff that he sustained in Dallas’ fateful Week 2 contest at Philadelphia. If Crawford stays healthy, he could have a dominant 2016 season. He’ll be joined by Cedric Thornton, a skilled run-defender who doesn’t put much pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

Rounding out the defense, Rolando McClain and Sean Lee are two of the projected starters in the linebacking corps, but it remains to be seen how often the latter will be in the lineup. They’re both talented players, especially Lee, but they’ve missed a combined 25 games over the past two seasons. Dallas will be set at linebacker if Lee remains healthy, but the odds are against that happening. Of course, it would help if McClain weren’t suspended for 10 games. The team had depth issues at the position last year – it blew some big leads when either Lee or McClain went down in a game – and that figures to be the case again, given that the front office neglected to add anyone to the group. Jerry Jones really screwed up the team’s offseason plans with his own incompetence.

2016 Dallas Cowboys Schedule and Intangibles:
Jerry Jones opened up his fancy new stadium with its giant video screen in 2009. It all looked great – until the players took the field. In the six years at Cowboys Stadium, the host is just 29-29, compared to 30-28 on the road.

Undrafted rookie Dan Bailey came out of nowhere in 2011 to perform as one of the league’s top kickers. He was sharp again last season, hitting 30-of-32 tries, including a terrific 5-of-6 from 50-plus.

Punter Chris Jones was only in the middle of the pack in terms of net average in 2014, but improved to third in that category last year.

Dallas was split on special teams. The team was outgained on punts, but was better than opponents on kickoff returns.

Assuming everything goes well injury-wise, the Cowboys will be able to start the year with a good record. Their first four opponents are the Giants, Redskins, Bears and 49ers. That could easily be 3-1, and perhaps 4-0. Things get a bit more difficult after that, but overall, Dallas is favored in eight games per the early Vegas spread.

2016 Dallas Cowboys Rookies:
Go here for the Cowboys Rookie Forecast, a page with predictions like which rookie will bust and which rookie will become a solid starter.

2016 Dallas Cowboys Positional Rankings (1-5 stars):
Offensive Line
Running Backs
Defensive Line
Special Teams

2016 Dallas Cowboys Analysis: The Cowboys have the highest ceiling and the lowest floor of all the teams in their division. If disaster strikes, and Tony Romo gets hurt again, Dallas could easily finish with four or so victories for the second year in a row. However, if Romo and the other injury-prone players like Sean Lee remain on the field, there’s a good chance the Cowboys will claim the weak NFC East.

Projection: 10-6 (1st in NFC East)

NFL Draft Team Grade: C Grade

Goals Entering the 2016 NFL Draft: Neither Tony Romo nor Jerry Jones has very many years remaining with the Cowboys, so they have to prepare for one last hurrah. They can do so by improving the defense and finding some weapons to complement Romo. In terms of the latter, a new running back and a No. 2 receiver are required. The defense, meanwhile, needs a pass-rusher badly in the wake of the Randy Gregory and Demarcus Lawrence suspensions.

2016 NFL Draft Accomplishments: The Cowboys had done a great job of drafting prior to this April. Jerry Jones used to select all of the splash players who wouldn’t amount to anything, so other members of that organization have taken control. Had this not happened, Dallas would be the laughing stock of the NFL right now, as Johnny Manziel would probably be the quarterback.

I have a theory, and it’s that Jones has wrestled control away from the other members of his front office in the wake of the 4-12 finish. No sane general manager would’ve spent the No. 4 overall pick on a running back in this day and age, especially over a cornerback who could, in Dallas’ own words, erase half the field. If this were 1995, that strategy would be acceptable. And it would probably be the correct one. But to do that now is completely asinine, and it reeks of someone who once wanted Johnny Football to quarterback his football team.

Making matters worse, Jaylon Smith probably won’t be able to play next year. He could emerge as a perennial Pro Bowler, or it’s entirely possible that he won’t ever be able to play, much like Marcus Lattimore. To spend such a premium pick on a big risk like that is also nuts, especially when considering that Romo needs all of the help he can get at this very moment.

Meanwhile, the Cowboys failed to address their pass rush and secondary until much later. I liked some of Dallas’ choices toward the end of the draft, but the front office, as a whole, did not do a very good job.

NFL Draft Individual Grades:

4. Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State D Grade
For the past several years, the Cowboys have drafted very well. They had gotten away from the Jerry Jones-style of selecting players. Leading up to the 2016 NFL Draft, it’s been rumored that Jones wanted Elliott, while everyone else was in favor of Jalen Ramsey. I don’t know why, but the Cowboys are stupid again.

If you draft a running back No. 4 in this day and age, you better make sure that he’s the next Emmitt Smith or Barry Sanders. Elliott is not that. He’s not even as good as Todd Gurley. You can find very good running backs anywhere. Hell, the Cowboys found DeMarco Murray after the first round. This would be a Millen grade if I didn’t like Elliott as a prospect, but selecting him in the top five is borderline insane.

Follow @walterfootball for updates.

34. Jaylon Smith, LB, Notre Dame B Grade
Wow. WOW. I can’t believe this. Some teams had Jaylon Smith as a sixth- or seventh-round prospect because they believed there was a good chance that he would never be able to play in the NFL. There were some rumblings that he’d go at the end of the third round, but this is unreal. Maybe the Dallas doctors know something the rest of the league doesn’t, but this pick could obviously really pan out. Smith could be a perennial Pro Bowler if he ever gets back to 100 percent. I’m giving the Cowboys a solid grade, but I can’t go into the A range because of the enormous risk. I’d like this a lot better if Dallas took him in the third round.

67. Maliek Collins, DT, Nebraska B- Grade
The Cowboys probably could’ve obtained Maliek Collins a bit later, but he’s not a bad pick here at all. Collins will probably be a decent fit into the rotation, which needed help entering this weekend. He’s also coming off a down year, so perhaps Dallas is doing a good thing here by buying low. I just think they could’ve bought lower.

101. Charles Tapper, DE, Oklahoma B Grade
The Cowboys were apparently getting a ton of flak for not addressing the pass rush in the first two days of the draft. It’s no surprise that they picked Charles Tapper; he was projected to be chosen atop Round 4, and he has the athleticism that Dallas covets.

135. Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State A Grade
I mocked Dak Prescott to the Cowboys in the third round, so while I’m not surprised that they drafted him, I thought they’d take him a bit earlier. Then again, perhaps it shouldn’t be shocking that Prescott dropped in the wake of his DUI. Prescott, originally tabbed as a second-round prospect, certainly paid the price, but he definitely has enough promise to eventually take over as the starter once Tony Romo moves on.

189. Anthony Brown, CB, Purdue C- Grade
I’m not sure why the Cowboys spent a draft pick on Anthony Brown. The Purdue prospect was downright awful at school, constantly getting torched. He was just an average athlete, so it’s not like he has a ton of upside. Dallas could’ve taken someone better.

212. Kavon Frazier, S, Central Michigan A- Grade
The Cowboys have made some sketchy picks in this draft, but this is a very good one. Kavon Frazier tested as one of the top safeties at the Combine. He also played well at Central Michigan. Frazier, who could’ve been chosen a round or two earlier than this, figures to stick on the roster as a viable backup at the very least.

216. Darius Jackson, RB, Eastern Michigan B+ Grade
Darius Jackson tested as the most athletic running back in this year’s draft class. The Cowboys love their SPARQ players, so it’s hardly a surprise that they picked him. Jackson doesn’t have an extensive track record of production at Eastern Michigan, but he has at least proven that he can be a third-down back. He’s blocked by Ezekiel Elliott in that regard, but he should fill in well if Elliott gets hurt.

217. Rico Geathers, TE, Baylor A- Grade
And another athlete for the Cowboys. Rico Geathers played basketball at Baylor, but like Antonio Gates and Jimmy Graham, he wants to be a tight end in the NFL. It’s definitely worth taking a shot on Geathers, as he has the potential to develop into a potent weapon.

Season Summary:
Despite finishing 4-12, the Cowboys were in position to perhaps win their division as late as Week 15. They obviously didn’t, which is probably for the best, as they’ll be able to obtain a blue-chip player with the No. 4 pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. He’ll be able to help the team with Tony Romo set to return from his broken collarbone.

Offseason Moves:
  • Cowboys re-sign DT Jack Crawford
  • Cowboys sign C/G Joe Looney
  • Cowboys sign RB Alfred Morris
  • Cowboys sign DE Benson Mayowa
  • Cowboys re-sign RB Lance Dunbar
  • Cowboys re-sign TE James Hanna
  • Cowboys re-sign CB Morris Claiborne
  • Cowboys re-sign OLB Kyle Wilber
  • Cowboys sign DT Cedric Thornton
  • Cowboys re-sign ILB Rolando McClain

    Team Needs:
    1. Cornerback: With Tony Romo and Dez Bryant missing time, people forget that the Cowboys also lost Orlando Scandrick for the year. Scandrick will return in 2016, but a new starter has to be obtained across from him. An early draft choice can be used to address this. Re-signed Morris Claiborne

    2. Wide Receiver: The Cowboys couldn’t get anything going on offense when Dez Bryant got hurt. Of course, the quarterbacking situation hurt, but Dallas had no downfield weapons beyond Bryant. Laquon Treadwell is in play at No. 4 overall in the 2016 NFL Draft.

    3. Two Linebackers: Make it one with Rolando McClain is re-signed. The Cowboys’ defense fell apart whenever McClain or Sean Lee were knocked out with injuries. Myles Jack is an option at No. 4 overall. Re-signed Rolando McClain and Kyle Wilber

    4. Running Back: Darren McFadden happened to run well last year, but he can’t be relied upon to stay healthy. A mid-round choice should be used on a running back. Signed Alfred Morris; re-signed Lance Dunbar

    5. Backup Quarterback: It goes without saying that the Cowboys need someone reliable behind Tony Romo after what transpired in 2015. Someone young to groom to eventually replace Romo should be acquired.

    6. Defensive Tackle: The Cowboys don’t value the one-technique position very much, but they still need to make an upgrade there next to Tyrone Crawford. Signed Cedric Thornton

    7. Defensive End Depth: With Greg Hardy hitting free agency (in addition to women), the Cowboys should find help behind DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory. Hardy can’t be brought back under any circumstances. Signing him was a disaster. Signed Benson Mayowa

    8. Safety: Dallas plans on using 2015 first-rounder Byron Jones at safety, so this need isn’t as prominent as it appeared to be at first glance. However, an upgrade over J.J. Wilcox and Barry Church wouldn’t hurt.

      Follow me @walterfootball for updates.

    2016 NFL Free Agent Signings:
    1. Alfred Morris, RB, Redskins. Age: 27.
      Signed with Cowboys (2 years, $3.5 million)

      Alfred Morris is an overrated player, thanks to fantasy football and Mike Shanahan’s zone-blocking scheme. Morris averaged just 3.7 YPC in 2015. That figure would’ve been better had the Redskins not dealt with injuries up front, but Morris is not the great running back most think he is.

    2. Cedric Thornton, DE/DT, Eagles. Age: 28.
      Signed with Cowboys (4 years, $18 million)

      Cedric Thornton missed three games with a broken hand, but he’s a major reason why the Eagles were so effective at stopping the run at times. Thornton doesn’t offer anything in terms of a pass rush, however.

    3. Joe Looney, C, Titans. Age: 26. — Signed with Cowboys

    Dallas Cowboys Free Agents:

    Salary Cap: TBA.
    1. Rolando McClain, ILB, Cowboys. Age: 27.
      Re-signed with Cowboys

      Rolando McClain isn’t coming off his best year, but he was outstanding in coverage. He has been a huge surprise for the Cowboys, who took a chance on him after he was out of the league for a while. McClain appears to have turned his life around.

    2. Greg Hardy, DE, Cowboys. Age: 28.
      This was a difficult one to rate. Greg Hardy is one of the most talented pass-rushers in the NFL. Based on skill alone, he’d be a 4.5-star player. However, he’s an absolute scumbag and a horrible teammate. He’s bad for any locker room, so any team that signs him needs to be sure that the other 52 players can handle his crap.

    3. Jeremy Mincey, DE, Cowboys. Age: 32.
      Jeremy Mincey has been a solid defensive end for the Cowboys, especially in terms of run support, but he just turned 32, so his best years are behind him.

    4. Morris Claiborne, CB, Cowboys. Age: 26.
      Re-signed with Cowboys (1 year, $3 million)

      Morris Claiborne was the sixth pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, but he has never lived up to his talent. Claiborne has struggle throughout his brief career thus far, and he dealt with numerous leg injuries throughout 2015.

    5. Ronald Leary (RFA), G, Cowboys. Age: 27. — Tendered by Cowboys (2nd)
    6. Lance Dunbar, RB, Cowboys. Age: 26. — Signed with Cowboys (1 year)
    7. Nick Hayden, DT, Cowboys. Age: 30.
    8. Matt Cassel, QB, Cowboys. Age: 34. — Signed with Titans
    9. James Hanna, TE, Cowboys. Age: 27. — Re-signed with Cowboys (3 years, $8.25 million)
    10. Mackenzy Bernadeau, G, Cowboys. Age: 30. — Signed with Jaguars (2 years)
    11. Kyle Wilber, OLB, Cowboys. Age: 27. — Re-signed with Cowboys (2 years)
    12. Tyler Clutts, FB, Cowboys. Age: 31.
    13. Jack Crawford, DE/DT, Cowboys. Age: 27. — Re-signed with Cowboys
    14. Jeff Heath (RFA), S, Cowboys. Age: 25. — Tendered by Cowboys
    15. Danny McCray, S, Cowboys. Age: 28.

    NFL Free Agent Tracker:
    Top 90 | QB | RB | FB | WR | TE | OT | G | C | DE | DT | OLB | ILB | CB | S | K/P | FA Grades | FA Rumors

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