2017 NFL Offseason: Dallas Cowboys

Dallas Cowboys (Last Year: 13-3)

2017 NFL Season Preview:

Veteran Additions:
DE Damontre Moore, DT Stephen Paea, CB Nolan Carroll.
Early Draft Picks:
DE Taco Charlton, CB/S Chidobe Awuzie, CB Jourdan Lewis, WR Ryan Switzer. Cowboys Rookie Forecast
Offseason Losses:
OT Doug Free, G Ronald Leary, DT Terrell McClain, ILB Rolando McClain, CB Morris Claiborne, CB Brandon Carr, S Barry Church, S J.J. Wilcox.

2017 Dallas Cowboys Offense:
Had Tony Romo suffered an injury during the preseason in any other year, all hope would have been lost in Dallas. That wasn’t the case in 2016, however, as there was a sense of optimism that Dak Prescott could do a decent job filling in for Romo until the veteran quarterback was healthy enough to return to the field. Little did everyone know that Prescott would seize the job and never let it go.

Quite simply, Prescott was amazing in his rookie campaign. He threw 23 touchdowns compared to only four interceptions. He scored six more times on the ground, completed 67.8 percent of his passes and maintained a sterling 8.0 YPA. Granted, he had a terrific supporting cast to assist him, but it’s highly doubtful that many quarterbacks in the NFL would’ve performed on that level, let alone as mere rookies.

The most prominent member of Prescott’s supporting cast was also a rookie, and this particular one claimed the NFL’s rushing title in just his first year. Ezekiel Elliott gained 1,631 rushing yards and scored 16 times. He also caught 32 balls for 363 receiving yards. Some teams had no answer for Elliott last year, though things could be different in 2017. Running backs who have led the NFL in carries tend to regress, and it doesn’t help that Elliott has had two off-the-field incidents this spring. If his head isn’t completely in the game, he could endure a sophomore slump. He could also be suspended for a handful of games.

Another factor in Elliott’s potential regression is the state of the offensive line. The Cowboys had one of the top blocking units in the NFL last year, but the group took two hits this offseason when Ronald Leary left for Denver and Doug Free announced his retirement. Free leaving isn’t such a huge issue because he was the weakest link, but now the Cowboys will depend on former guard La’El Collins stepping into his spot. Collins is talented, but he’s also playing out of position, so it remains to be seen how he’ll fare. Meanwhile, Leary’s absence will be much more painful because the Cowboys don’t have a logical replacement for him. It’ll have to be either former first-round bust Jonathan Cooper or former 49er Joe Looney, who is pedestrian at best. Neither will be nearly as good as Leary was last year.

The rest of Dallas’ blocking is exceptional. Left tackle Tyron Smith, guard Zack Martin and center Travis Frederick are all among the best players at their position in the entire league. If all three are healthy, the Cowboys will still have a top-10 offensive line. However, the downgrade from Leary to either Cooper or Looney will make things worse overall, and that could be a reason Prescott and/or Elliott regresses a bit in 2017.

One area the Cowboys could’ve improved upon is the No. 2 receiving spot. It was assumed that they would upgrade the sub-par Terrance Williams this offseason, but they inexplicably gave him a $17 million extension instead. Williams has never been a positive player, so not having a viable second option could hurt, especially if Dez Bryant gets hurt again. Bryant has missed 10 games in the past two seasons, so his durability is a concern. Jason Witten, meanwhile, turned 35 this offseason, and he obviously isn’t the same player he once was. Cole Beasley will continue to be a reliable target in the slot, but help was expected to be acquired. All Dallas did to bolster Prescott’s downfield arsenal was spend late-round picks on Ryan Switzer and Noah Brown, and neither is expected to contribute much offensively as rookies.

2017 Dallas Cowboys Defense:
It can’t be a surprise to anyone that the Cowboys spent their first three draft choices on this side of the ball. The defense was weak in comparison to the offense this past season, ranking 14th in yards allowed compared to scoring unit’s No. 5 standing in yards gained. Things were only going to get worse in the wake of some key departures, so Dallas had to bolster its defense.

The first-round pick was used on Michigan’s Taco Charlton, who was brought in to bolster the edge rush. No Cowboy accumulated more than six sacks this past season, and that obviously needs to change if Dallas wants to make a Super Bowl run. Things could change in 2017, but Charlton isn’t the only player who will be asked to improve that situation. The same will be asked of Demarcus Lawrence, who notched eight sacks in 2015. Lawrence’s sack total dropped to just one this past season, as he played in only nine games because of back surgery. The problem is that Lawrence has undergone back surgery once again this offseason, so he could continue to be ineffective. Making matters worse, Tyrone Crawford has missed OTAs because of his surgically repaired shoulder. It would help if Randy Gregory were available, but he can’t stop failing drug tests.

Speaking of failed tests, defensive tackle David Irving has been suspended for four games because of a PED violation. This is a blow, as Irving was Dallas’ top defensive lineman in 2016. He was dominant down the stretch, and now the Cowboys won’t have his services for a quarter of the season. Still, it’s not the end of the world, as he’ll be back in Week 5. The bigger problem is that Dallas doesn’t have anyone viable to play next to Irving when he returns. The newly signed Stephen Paea is just a mediocre run-stuffer, while Cedric Thornton was a huge bust in his first season with the Cowboys.

Dallas’ next two draft choices were used on a pair of cornerbacks, Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis. Nolan Carroll was also signed over from the Eagles. All of this energy spent on corners was understandable; the position was a problem this past season, and that was with Morris Claiborne on the roster. Claiborne signed with the Jets, so the only quality player the Cowboys had remaining at the position entering this offseason was Orlando Scandrick. It’s unknown how Awuzie and Lewis will perform as rookies, but no one should expect much from Carroll, who played poorly for the Eagles last year.

Claiborne wasn’t the only Cowboy defensive back to leave via the open market, as safeties Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox departed as well. However, Dallas didn’t put any effort into upgrading this position. Byron Jones will continue to be an exceptional player, but the Cowboys don’t have anyone competent to play next to him. Jeff Heath appears to be the top option, but he’s a career special-teamer.

The linebacking corps remained untouched, but Dallas should be better in this area. That’s because 2016 second-rounder Jaylon Smith is expected to return from knee surgery. Smith told the media that he feels great and is able to do everything he was able to do before his injury, so he and Sean Lee could form an incredible tandem at linebacker. Anthony Hitchens will serve as the third linebacker, which is a better role for him because he struggles in run support.

2017 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 seven years at Cowboys Stadium, the host is just 36-31, compared to 36-30 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 27-of-32 last year, going 3-of-6 from 50-plus. He hit 84.4 percent of his field goals, which is actually a career-worst mark for him.

Punter Chris Jones has been in the middle of the pack in net yardage most years. He was 13th in 2016.

Dallas was outgained on both punt and kickoff returns, but no touchdowns were scored against them.

The Cowboys had a fairly easy schedule last year, but things seem to be different this season. They have to battle the Packers, Falcons, Seahawks and Raiders, and they also have some fairly difficult road tilts versus the Broncos and Cardinals.

2017 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.

2017 Dallas Cowboys Positional Rankings (1-5 stars):
Offensive Line
Running Backs
Defensive Line
Special Teams

2017 Dallas Cowboys Analysis: Prior to Aaron Rodgers’ third-and-20 strike to Jared Cook in the playoffs, everything had been going right for the Cowboys last year. Luck may not be on their side in 2017, however. They have a fairly difficult schedule; the offensive line took some losses; Ezekiel Elliott has gotten into trouble twice this offseason; and the defense lost some key players to either free agency, injury or suspension. Dallas could lose control of the division because of many of these factors.

Projection: 11-5 (1st in NFC East)

2017 Projection: 10-6. 2016 Actual Result: 13-3.

NFL Draft Team Grade: A- Grade

Goals Entering the 2017 NFL Draft: Most of Dallas’ top-30 visits were defensive linemen or defensive backs, as expected. The Cowboys are very weak in those areas, so they’ll need to address those as quickly as possible. A second receiver and right tackle will also have to be acquired.

2017 NFL Draft Accomplishments: It shouldn’t surprise anyone that most of Dallas’ selections were used on defensive players. In fact, six of the Cowboys’ initial seven picks went on the defensive side of the ball. Given the problems Dallas had on its stop unit in 2016, that’s completely understandable.

Not only did the Cowboys fill needs, but they also obtained talented prospects. Of all the defensive players they chose in the first six rounds, none scored below a “B” individually. Taco Charlton, taken 28th overall, will provide Dallas with a potential boost in the pass rush, which absolutely needed to be addressed. Three defensive backs – Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis and Xavier Woods – will help address the worst group on the Cowboys’ roster. Lewis and Woods provided great value with where they were selected (92nd and 191st, respectively).

The lone offensive player the Cowboys picked was Ryan Switzer, who operated like Cole Beasley in college football last year. However, Switzer is going to be used more on special teams in Dallas, which is fine. I thought he was chosen earlier than he should’ve gone, but it wasn’t an awful pick.

The Cowboys put together a tremendous draft class, filling needs and selecting promising players. They’ve done a great job in recent years, and that appears to be the case once again.

NFL Draft Individual Grades:

28. Taco Charlton, DE, Michigan: A- Grade
One team told us early in the draft process that they regarded Taco Charlton as a top-10 prospect. That changed a bit throughout the spring, but Charlton still provides solid value at No. 28 overall. Charlton is a long, athletic player. The concern is that he’s a 1-year wonder, but he’s very talented and could potentially solve Dallas’ pass-rushing woes. I had Charlton going at No. 21, so the Cowboys did well by being patient and taking one of the better players remaining on the board.

60. Chidobe Awuzie, CB/S, Colorado: B Grade
There are definitely mixed reviews about Chidobe Awuzie. One team thought he was good enough to be chosen in the top 20, but they had a better player fall into their laps. Two other teams had Awuzie marked as a fourth-round prospect. There are questions about Awuzie’s deep speed, but he did run a 4.44 at the combine. He has great athleticism, which the Cowboys like, and he fills a big need.

92. Jourdan Lewis, CB, Michigan: A- Grade
The Cowboys have taken lots of chances on troubled players, so it’s no surprise that they’ve decided to take a shot on Jourdan Lewis. The Michigan product was charged with domestic violence a month ago. He’s a terrific talent who would’ve gone much earlier had he been clean off the field, but he’s worth the risk toward the end of the third round.

133. Ryan Switzer, WR, North Carolina: C- Grade
Ryan Switzer was like the college football version of Cole Beasley last year, but he’s not a projection like Beasley for the NFL, as he tested very poorly athletically. However, he could become a dynamic special-teamer for the Cowboys. I had him in the seventh round, but Switzer could score some touchdowns as a returner.

191. Xavier Woods, S, Louisiana Tech: A Grade
I had the Cowboys selecting Xavier Woods in the fourth round, so I love this value. Woods is an athletic player with great play-making ability, so he could start for Dallas at some point. He’s not a great tackler, but that’s his only real blemish.

216. Marquez White, CB, Florida State: B+ Grade
I slotted Marquez White at the end of the fifth round, so the Cowboys are getting some value at this spot. It makes sense for them to select yet another cornerback, given their colossal need at the position. White isn’t very athletic, and he’ll struggle in run support, but he had some nice tape at Florida State and has nice size (6-0, 194). This is a solid pick.

228. Joey Ivie, DT, Florida: C+ Grade
I didn’t have Joey Ivie as being drafted in my mock, but he was close at least. Still, it’s unlikely that he’ll make Dallas’ roster, though I do understand why the Cowboys would go after defensive line depth.

239. Noah Brown, WR, Ohio State: B- Grade
Noah Brown made a huge mistake by declaring early, falling all the way to the middle of the seventh round. He had very little production at Ohio State, and he doesn’t have intriguing athleticism at all, so it’s not a surprise that he fell this far. He’s going to regret his decision for a very long time, as I’ll be surprised if he makes Dallas’ 53-man roster. I don’t mind taking a chance on him, but it’s disappointing to see this happen.

246. Jordan Carrell, DT, Colorado: B- Grade
Jordan Carrell tested well at his pro day, which is why Dallas drafted him. His production was just OK, not great, at Colorado. It might be difficult for Carrell to make the roster, but perhaps he’ll emerge in a couple of years after being on the practice squad.

Season Summary:
The Cowboys had a dream regular season, going 13-3 despite starting two rookies in the backfield. The inexperience showed in the playoffs, however, as Dallas made numerous mental errors in the early part of the loss to Green Bay, forcing them into a big deficit. The loss hurt, but Dallas has a bright future moving forward with Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott.

Offseason Moves:
  • Cowboys re-sign OLB Justin Durant
  • Cowboys cut QB Tony Romo
  • Cowboys sign OT Byron Bell
  • Cowboys re-sign QB Kellen Moore
  • Cowboys re-sign RB Darren McFadden
  • Cowboys re-sign G Jonathan Cooper
  • Cowboys announce retirement of OT Doug Free
  • Cowboys re-sign WR Terrance Williams
  • Cowboys sign DT Stephen Paea
  • Cowboys sign CB Nolan Carroll
  • Cowboys sign DE Damontre Moore
  • Cowboys re-sign WR Brice Butler
  • Cowboys cut QB Tony Romo

    Team Needs:
    1. Defensive End: Dallas’ top priority this offseason is upgrading the pass rush. Randy Gregory was expected to be a great bookend across from DeMarcus Lawrence, but Gregory has been suspended and can’t be counted on to do anything. Fortunately, there are tons of talented edge rushers available in the 2017 NFL Draft. Signed Damontre Moore

    2. Defensive Tackle: The interior of the defensive line needs to be addressed as well. David Irving was incredible down the stretch, but Dallas needs to add another talented player to help in the trenches. Signed Stephen Paea

    3. Wide Receiver: The Cowboys have needed a No. 2 receiver for quite some time. Terrance Williams is a free agent, but he wasn’t cutting it anyway. Re-signed Terrance Williams

    4. Right Tackle: Doug Free is the weak link on Dallas’ offensive line. The Cowboys could stick with him for one more year, but they should watch out for opportunities to upgrade him.

    5. Cornerback: Morris Claiborne’s contract is set to expire. The Cowboys should tread carefully, however, as Claiborne mysteriously finally played up to his potential in a contract year. Signed Nolan Carroll

    6. Tight End: Jason Witten will be going into the Hall of Fame five years after he retires, and that date may be coming soon. Dallas will need to find a successor sometime in the near future. This draft class is packed at tight end.

    7. Safety: J.J. Wilcox and Barry Church are set to become free agents. One will need to be retained.

    8. Guard: Ronald Leary is also an impending free agent. He’s coming off a solid year, so he’ll need to be re-signed or replaced.

    9. Backup Quarterback: If the Cowboys trade Tony Romo, they’ll need a new backup quarterback.

      Follow me @walterfootball for updates.

    2017 NFL Free Agent Signings:
    1. Nolan Carroll, CB, Eagles. Age: 30.
      Signed with Cowboys (3 years, $10 million)

      Nolan Carroll was Philadelphia’s best cornerback in 2015, but he regressed markedly this past season. Carroll’s true ability is probably somewhere in between those two outputs, so with a bounce-back season, perhaps he can be an average No. 2 corner.

    2. Stephen Paea, DT, Browns. Age: 29. — Signed with Cowboys
    3. Damontre Moore, DE, Seahawks. Age: 24. — Signed with Cowboys
    4. Byron Bell, OT, Titans. Age: 28. — Signed with Cowboys

    Dallas Cowboys Free Agents:

    Salary Cap Space: $5.3M
    1. Morris Claiborne, CB, Cowboys. Age: 27.
      Signed with Jets

      It’s almost crazy to recall that Morris Claiborne was considered a colossal bust prior to this past season. Claiborne had done nothing but suck since being chosen sixth overall in the 2012 NFL Draft, but he performed like a shutdown corner this past season before getting hurt. Was that because he was in his contract year, though? Will he stink again if he signs a big deal? Teams thinking about giving Claiborne a ton of money need to be concerned about this.

    2. Barry Church, S, Cowboys. Age: 29.
      Signed with Jaguars

      Barry Church had always been an above-average starting safety, but not in 2016. He was outstanding this past season in all regards. He did miss four games with an arm injury, but was excellent when on the field. This could’ve been a fluky year, so I’m hesitant to give him four stars, but he certainly performed like a four-star free agent.

    3. Tony Romo, QB, Cowboys. Age: 37.
      Tony Romo has announced his retirement – check out the Disaster Grades page for more – but I’m still listing him here in case he changes his mind. Romo would be a higher-rated player if he could stay healthy, but he hasn’t been able to do that. He has played just two full games the past two years, and he has proven to be very brittle. That said, Romo looked great in his lone appearance last year, and if he can remain on the field, he can be a top-10 NFL quarterback. Signing him comes with great risk, but with great reward as well.

    4. Ronald Leary, G, Cowboys. Age: 28.
      Signed with Broncos (4 years, $35 million)

      Ronald Leary was once the weakest link on Dallas’ offensive line, but that’s no longer the case. Leary has developed into a quality starting guard with no weaknesses.

    5. J.J. Wilcox, S, Cowboys. Age: 26.
      Signed with Buccaneers (2 years)

      J.J. Wilcox played well after struggling for several seasons, though he missed four games with a thigh injury. He missed some tackles, but did well in coverage. Wilcox is just 26 in February and could continue to play well.

    6. Rolando McClain, ILB, Cowboys. Age: 28.
      How to rate Rolando McClain? He’s an extremely talented linebacker, but he missed all of 2016 because of a suspension for violating the substance abuse policy. It’s unclear if he’ll ever be able to play again.

    7. Brandon Carr, CB, Cowboys. Age: 31.
      Signed with Ravens

      Brandon Carr was once a very skilled cornerback, but his play has declined the past couple of seasons. He had a bit of a bounce-back year in 2016, but he turns 31 in May, so his best days are obviously behind him.

    8. Darren McFadden, RB, Cowboys. Age: 30.
      Re-signed with Cowboys

      Darren McFadden rushed for 1,000-plus yards in 2015, but barely did anything last year because of an injury. He turns 30 in August and hasn’t been able to stay healthy during most of his career.

    9. Terrance Williams, WR, Cowboys. Age: 27. — Re-signed with Cowboys (4 years, $17 million)
    10. Terrell McClain, DT, Cowboys. Age: 29. — Signed with Redskins (4 years, $21 million)
    11. Brice Butler, WR, Cowboys. Age: 27. — Re-signed with Cowboys
    12. Lance Dunbar, RB, Cowboys. Age: 28. — Signed with Rams
    13. Gavin Escobar, TE, Cowboys. Age: 26. — Signed with Chiefs
    14. Justin Durant, OLB, Cowboys. Age: 31. — Re-signed with Cowboys
    15. Andrew Gachkar, OLB, Cowboys. Age: 28.
    16. Jonathan Cooper, G, Cowboys. Age: 27. — Re-signed with Cowboys
    17. Jack Crawford, DE/DT, Cowboys. Age: 28. — Signed with Falcons (3 years, $10.3 million)
    18. Leon McFadden, CB, Cowboys. Age: 26.
    19. Kellen Moore, QB, Cowboys. Age: 28. — Re-signed with Cowboys
    20. Mark Sanchez, QB, Cowboys. Age: 30. — Signed with Bears


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