by Greg DePalma, Ourlads.com contributor
2016 (13-3)…Won NFC East; lost divisional round home playoff game to Green Bay, 34-31.
Owner/President/GM Jerry Jones…Purchased the team in 1989; will be enshrined in the NFL Hall of Fame this August as a contributor; Jones helped return the Dallas franchise to glory by winning three SB titles and thanks to his modern marketing methods the Cowboys have become the most valuable franchise in all of sports; he’s also been a key figure in league financial issues ranging from labor negotiations and television.
VP/Director of Player Personnel Stephen Jones…Became VP in 1989; the second-most important person in the franchise; member of the NFLs Competition Committee; like his father, Jones was a respected football player at Arkansas.
Sr. Director of College and Pro Scouting Will McClay…Former Arena Football League Coach of the Year for Dallas franchise has been a crucial part of the Cowboys personnel department for the past several years.
HC Jason Garrett…8th-year; first-time hired as an NFL HC; OC for four seasons in Dallas before being hired as HC; played eight seasons with the Cowboys as a back-up QB and earned two Super Bowl rings; Princeton Grad.
OC Scott Linehan…3rd-year; has been with the team since 2014; former HC with St. Louis for three seasons; was the OC in Miami at the same time Garrett was their QB coach; Idaho Grad.
DC Rod Marinelli…3rd-year; joined team in 2013 as DL coach; former HC with Detroit for three seasons included an 0-16 record in 2008; won SB in 2002 with Tampa Bay as their DL coach under Tony Dungy where he was a part of one of the greatest defensive teams in SB history; was still coaching in Tampa Bay in 2004 when Garrett was a back-up QB for several games.
WR Derek Dooley…5th-year; son of legendary Georgia coach Vince Dooley; HC in college for six seasons with Louisiana Tech and Tennessee; was TE coach in Miami same year Garrett was QB coach and Linehan was OC; Virginia Grad.
WR/KR Ryan Switzer
OL Byron Bell
OG Jonathan Cooper
CB Nolan Carroll
OG Ronald Leary
OT Doug Free
DE Jack Crawford
DE Taco Charlton
DT Terrell McClain
CB Chidobe Awuzie
CB Brandon Carr
CB Morris Claiborne
CB Jourdan Lewis
CB Marquez White
FS J.J. Wilcox
SS Barry Church
SS Xavier Woods
QB…Considering his fourth-round draft status, rookie Dak Prescott became a once in a lifetime revelation as an impact starter from day-one. Barring a dramatic turnaround the Cowboys main concern moving forward at this position will be to find a reliable back-up. Former Boise State standout Kellen Moore is expected to start the season behind Prescott with only three appearances and two starts since entering the league in 2012 with the Lions as a free agent. Linehan is confident in Moore’s recent development (both have been together in Dallas and Detroit) and feels he was making huge strides last year before suffering a season-ending ankle injury in training camp. Moore had a fabulous college career winning 50 of 53 games and possesses the type of fundamental tools you want from your veteran back-up. It would be interesting to see how he’d fare playing with the type of elite talent he’s never been afforded before. Rookie free agent Cooper Rush will try and earn his way as the third-string developmental QB. Like Moore, Rush started four years in college and has similar tool sets, but he does have better size and should at least find a way onto the practice squad in year-one. 13-year vet Luke McCown was signed recently as backup insurance if anything happens to Moore. Dallas will be McCown’s sixth team including spending the past four in New Orleans behind Drew Brees.
RB…The addition of Ezekiel Elliott to the Cowboys roster last season was just as important if not more so than that of fellow rookie Prescott. Only time will tell if Prescott has what it takes to ‘carry’ a championship team, but as long as Elliott is alongside him he may never have to. When you have a three-down stud rusher on your roster like Elliott, it’s usually not necessary to bolster your depth chart with starting quality back-ups. But with all of the crazy headlines following Elliott around this off-season it’s a good thing the Cowboys at least have some veteran talent in the stable in Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris. Neither player has anything close to the dynamic skill-set of Elliott’s, but thanks to the high-caliber offensive line they get to run behind they have enough veteran savvy to get the job done in limited touches.
TE…Even though Jason Witten will lace it up for his 15th season in ‘Big D’, the Cowboys decided not to add more talent at this position during the off-season. A matter of fact, Witten was given an extension in March and could be the starter here for at least another two seasons. James Hanna is a good athlete and good end up as the top back-up, but he’s recovering from a knee injury that caused him to miss last season and isn’t expected to return until camp begins. Geoff Swaim is a one-dimensional blocker who missed the final seven games due to a torn pectoral tendon and then suffered a foot injury during a workout in March. He’s also expected to be ready for camp.
The long-shot fans will have eyes on in camp is Rico Gathers, who unlike fellow former hoops star Antonio Gates did not play football in high school and therefore still has a ways to go. Gathers has the highest upside of all the back-ups on the roster, but is only in year-two of his development.
WR…No player on the roster misses Tony Romo more than Dez Bryant. With Romo under the controls from 2012 through 2014, Bryant averaged 91 receptions, 1,311 yards and 13 TDs. But over the past two seasons Bryant has averaged just 40.5 receptions, 598.5 yards and 5.5 TDs. It hasn’t helped that Bryant has only played in 22 of his last 32 games due to injuries. With Bryant turning 29 this November you have to wonder whether we’ll ever see the former version again. For some reason Jones felt the need to re-sign underwhelming Terrence Williams even though the team was under bad cap restraints and the draft provided a deep receiver class at his disposal. Williams will tease for a game or two, but he ultimately lets the team down and should be more of a solid third-option than a legitimate second. The Cowboys did add Ryan Switzer in the fourth-round even though he could be more valuable as a return specialist than a receiver. Many were surprised with the pick considering he’s a Cole Beasley clone and Beasley is coming off the best season of his career with a team-high 75 receptions. Therefore it makes sense to deduct that the main reason Switzer was added to the roster was to provide the return game with a difference-maker. Brice Butler adds sub 4.4 speed to the core, though it’s hard to imagine unless there’s an injury to a starter he’ll be able to receive enough reps to make a difference.
OL…Thanks to players like Travis Frederick, Zach Martin and Tyron Smith, the Cowboys line has been a major strength for several seasons now. But there are two key questions here following the retirement of right tackle Doug Free and the loss of left guard Ronald Leary to free agency (Denver). La’el Collins is expected to move over from guard and replace Free at right tackle. Collins’ play slipped a bit last season until a Week 3 toe injury ended his season. He may be better suited inside, but it appears the Cowboys believe he can deliver outside. I guess we’ll find out. Even though free agent tackle Byron Bell missed last season with an ankle injury he was added to the roster as insurance. Meanwhile the left guard spot formerly occupied by Collins is the biggest question on offense and appears to be wide-open with a three-way battle between players who probably shouldn’t be starting for a winning team in Chaz Green, Jonathan Cooper and Emmett Cleary. Green was a major reach in 2015 (3rd-round) and has been injured several times since then including back and hip injuries that sidelined him for most of last season. Cooper’s been a major disappointment after being selected seventh overall in 2013 by Arizona while Cleary’s on his sixth team in five seasons. My best guess for the Week 1 roster is that either Cooper reinvents himself and finds a home here surrounded by elite talent, or Collins shifts back to guard with Bell getting the job at tackle.
DL…The Cowboys are still waiting for Demarcus Lawrence to become the special player they thought they were getting when they traded up in the draft four years ago to take a player they thought would cure their pass rushing needs. After a strong year-two in 2015, Lawrence started last season serving a four-game suspension and then suffered shoulder and back injuries that relegated him to three starts and one total sack all season. Lawrence underwent back surgery in the off-season which prompted the Cowboys to be prudent and select former Michigan defensive end Taco Charlton with their first-round pick in April. Add steady left defensive end Tyrone Crawford to the mix and this has the makings of a strong group that can really take-off if several factors fall into place including continued development from last year’s third-round pick, defensive tackle Maliek Collins.
LB…Sean Lee has been one of the top 3-4 linebackers in football over the past three seasons. He’s a run stuffing/coverage force. Strong-side linebacker Damien Wilson looks to parlay a solid rookie season for more playing time, though a July assault arrest could impact his playing status. Middle linebacker Anthony Hitchens is an underrated coverage player who will try and hold off the obvious wild-card here, Jaylon Smith. After missing all of last season with a serious knee injury sustained during his final game at Notre Dame, Smith is finally ready to compete for a spot and significant snaps. Expect Marinelli to take it slow with Smith, which should limit the expectations for him to make a full impact until 2018. Any contribution they receive from Smith this season should be considered a plus. The Cowboys re-signed Justin Durant in late July to add key depth to the position. Durant’s a 10-year vet who played in 13 games for Dallas last season and might be counted on to play an even more important role this season if either Wilson or Smith are unable to go at any time.
DB…After losing four key secondary contributors to free agency the Cowboys restocked the unit by signing former Eagles corner Nolan Carroll in March and drafting three corners and a safety in April. Carroll’s DUI arrest in late May combined with his subpar season in Philadelphia could open the door for one of the rookies to earn a starting job opposite last year’s surprising rookie sixth-round pick Anthony Brown. The rookie from this year’s draft with the best shot to win the job is second-round pick Chidobe Awuzie from Colorado. Awuzie was a key factor in the turnaround last season in Boulder and comes to Dallas with four years of starting experience from one of the top conferences in the country. The Cowboys would like third-round pick Jourdan Lewis to earn the top slot corner spot in 2018 eventually replacing Orlando Scandrick. When Scandrick’s on the field he’s the Cowboys most consistent corner, but he missed 2015 with a knee injury and a handful of games last year with a foot injury, so his days are clearly numbered. The sleeper in this draft class is strong safety Xavier Woods from Louisiana Tech. Incumbent Jeff Heath is just holding the fort until a better-more talented player can unseat him and Woods could end up being that guy as early as Week 1. The former Bulldog is an experienced, intelligent ball-hawk who was a major steal in the 6th-round. Look out for Brown, Awuzie, Lewis, Woods and 2015 first-round pick Byron Jones to form a top-rated secondary for seasons to come.
KR…Lucky Whitehead’s release opened the door for rookie Ryan Switzer to take over the top kick returner job. Switzer was a record-breaking punt returner at North Carolina and will likely get a chance to energize a franchise with only one kick return score since 2008.
“The only thing that can kill Barnes, is Barnes”. That quote was taken from the 1986 Academy Award-winning movie Platoon and can also best describe how the Cowboys should be thinking as they look to capitalize on a remarkable season that had them host a divisional round playoff game with 16-game rookie starters at quarterback and running back. The player who really needs to heed the advice of course is Ezekiel Elliott. If Elliott gets suspended and/or causes major disruption in the locker-room, the team will probably have to deal with the type of issues that have damaged teams before in pro sports and ultimately derailed many a championship dream. But if Elliott gets a minor slap on the wrist and the defense comes together, this has the makings of a true Super Bowl contender.