We all are painfully aware (see what I did there?) of how the Dallas Cowboys were impacted by injuries to key players in 2016. By the time the season drew to its dismal close, they had ten players on injured reserve. Although it is not certain how well all of them will recover, the advances in medical care and rehabilitation offers hope that many if not all of them will be back for the start of camp. Some of them are very important pieces. And others may offer some hope of help in lesser but still important roles.
The focus right now is on the NFL Draft and free agency, but it is arguable that the Cowboys look to gain more from returning vets than just about any other team. That is especially true of the top names on the list.
THE BIG THREE
A well-discussed theory around here is the idea that there are five positions of great importance on any NFL team; quarterback, wide receiver, left offensive tackle, cornerback, and edge rusher. For much of the year, the Cowboys were missing three of these. Many games saw all of those three players absent.
Orlando Scandrick was lost for the entire year and was, at the time, considered the best corner on the team. With Morris Claiborne a free agent and a candidate to be lost to a better offer elsewhere, and Brandon Carr still not living up to his lofty contract, the return of Scandrick is very important for the secondary. If healthy, he will be an immediate upgrade.
Dez Bryant went down in the first game of the year, and although he returned to the field, he was never the player he was previously. When 100 per cent he is simply one of the best receivers in the league. With his new contract, the Cowboys need him return to form.
Tony Romo was, of course, the most significant loss to the team. He elevates the entire offense. His health will continue to be a concern as Father Time continues to stalk him. While the team will be seeking a more serviceable backup this year and may be able to get a future replacement with their draft position, they still have to have a capable Romo to go anywhere this coming season. Having him and Bryant both back in shape will completely change the offense.
THE UNDERVALUED LOSSES
Terrell McClain's loss was overshadowed by Romo's injury in the same game, but his absence was felt on the defensive line. His toe injury seems like one he should be able to return from, but those can be tricky. McClain was off to a solid start on the season. His return could really shore up the interior of the line, and he appears to be a very positive influence in the locker room, as opposed to another defensive lineman that comes to mind.
Lance Dunbar was the leading receiver for the team coming out of the backfield when he was hurt. Part of that may be a reflection of the number of checkdowns being thrown after Romo went out, but Dunbar was once again showing his promise when he went down. It is a familiar story for him, unfortunately. He is the one player on IR who is also a free agent, so his return is an open question. However, if the staff decides to bring him back and Dallas is not outbid for his services (there will certainly be a hard limit on how much they would pay him), he is a very good change of pace weapon out of the backfield.
Gavin Escobar is the latest in the series of tight ends kept off the field by the legendary and age-defying Jason Witten. He has only shown flashes of what he can do as a receiver, but is not known as a good blocker, something the team demands from its tight ends. He still is under contract and will probably be back, especially with James Hanna a free agent, but it is hard to say if he will make much of a contribution.
Ryan Russell was a late-round draftee, and his potential is largely unknown. Expect him to be in camp and fighting for a job. Whether he succeeds or not is unpredictable.
Chris Whaley was another player who was lost in preseason and has now spent his second year on injured reserve. The team had hopes he would be a role player on the defensive line, but he is starting over again. What is interesting is that the team elected not to come to an injury settlement with him. Instead, he continues to rehab with the hopes he can still pay off.
THE LATE SCRATCHES
Barry Church is not a great safety, but he was a team captain going into 2015. His intangibles are clearly valued by his teammates, who voted him the position. Dallas will probably look to upgrade safety through free agency and/or the draft, but Church is almost certain to be in the mix.
David Irving was a very pleasant surprise before he was injured. If he can recover, he is likely to again be part of the rushmen rotation in 2016. Like Church, the team has a very good idea what they have in Irving, and they seem to like him.
That is ten players who could be part of the team. At a minimum, six or seven of them should make the 53, and it is possible all of them might come back. Just the top three will make a huge difference if healthy. It is part of the equation that is sometimes overlooked when we are thinking about shiny new toys.