Earlier this week we looked at the biggest losers from the 2016 Dallas Cowboys draft. Today we look at the biggest winners, starting with what Ezekiel Elliot can bring to the table.
The team's identity
Sometime early in 2009, Jerry Jones coined the phrase "Romo Friendly Offense." The idea at the time was that the Cowboys would employ a high-percentage passing game with multiple targets, and while the name didn't stick that long, the Cowboys remained a pass-heavy team.
But that changed in 2014. En route to their 12-4 record, the Cowboys forged an identity as a hard-nosed, physical offense, a marked departure from the pass-happy offenses of the previous years. Switching their offensive identity to a ball-control, ground-oriented attack, the Cowboys ran the ball 50.1 percent of the time, Murray set an NFL record with eight straight games of at least 100 yards to open the season, led the league in rushing yards by a wide margin, and earned OPY honors.
The new identity proved to be the cornerstone of the team’s success. Romo had the best and most efficient season of his career, leading the league in passer rating, completion percentage and yards per attempt, Dez Bryant led the league in touchdowns, and the defense benefited from playing with a lot of leads by recording an unheard-of amount of takeaways.
But when Murray left, and Romo and Bryant were injured, the Cowboys lost their identity.
With Ezekiel Elliott and a healthy duo of Romo and Bryant, the Cowboys have their identity back.
Sometimes, when the evenings get chilly and IQs drop to room-temperature levels, you'll still hear voices railing against Jerry Jones "because he sucks as a GM," even if those voices are sounding more and more like ghosts stuck in a meme-generator from the last millennium. Will McClay is the defacto GM in Dallas in everything but the title; everybody around the league knows it and recognizes it.
In January, the Lions inquired about interviewing McClay for a GM position, but McClay declined, citing "unfinished business" in Dallas. The interview requests will keep on coming, and Jerry Jones will continue throwing money at McClay to keep him in Dallas. But at some point some team will pry him loose; his track record in re-building the Cowboys is just too good, even if some fans don't recognize it.
I love it. Cowboys' front office is killing it. Will McClay will get a GM job off this draft. https://t.co/jxcs8iXiax— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) April 30, 2016
But also because his offensive line and his star running back will be in their prime for the next four to five years. And that may be just the type of career-extending support Romo needs to finally make his mark in the NFL history books.
He's not going to win many foot races and won't be able to rely on his athleticism to get him out of trouble anymore. Three fractured clavicles, a punctured lung, a broken pinkie, a severe hand contusion and repeated back problems that ultimately culminated in a herniated disk and back surgery have taken care of that. But behind that line and with that ground game to support him, there's no reason why Romo can't be the most efficient and most accurate quarterback in the league (again), and there's no reason why this can't be, finally, a Romo Friendly Offense that deserves the name.
The Cowboys haven't drafted any wide receivers in the last two drafts. Since 1990, that's only happened two times before:
2000-2001: Signed Rocket Ismail in 1999 and traded two first-round picks for Joey Galloway in 2000.
2007-2008: Signed Terrell Owens in 2006 and threw away another first-round pick for Roy Williams in 2008.
This time around, they didn't make any big free agency splashes, only acquiring Brice Butler last season from Oakland for a fifth-round pick, so not drafting a wide receiver in two consecutive years is pretty remarkable.
Sure, the Cowboys brought in three UDFA wide receivers this year, and there's a chance one of those three guys will make the practice squad. But they have basically told their six incumbents, "You're it." Bryant, Williams, Beasley, Butler, Street, and Whitehead play on the position group with the least competition.
Linebacker depth guys
Since 2009, the Cowboys have drafted at least one linebacker in every draft, and the 2016 draft was no different. Except that Jaylon Smith won't be playing in 2016.
That puts young guys like Anthony Hitchens, Damien Wilson, and Mark Nzeocha in a great position to show that they are viable alternatives for the Cowboys, not just at the SAM position.
Jaylon Smith may or may not return in 2017, Rolando McClain's contract is up after this year, and Sean Lee will be 30 next year. That gives the young linebackers a one-year window of opportunity to show that they can be future starters for the Cowboys. And one of those guys may surprise a lot of people this season. Asked who he thought would break out on defense this year, Bryan Broaddus had a one-word answer.
Nzeocha https://t.co/wCSxILpJhm— Bryan Broaddus (@BryanBroaddus) May 11, 2016
Nzeocha's SPARQ of 140.7 (95.3%) was 2nd highest of all linebackers in the 2015 class, and better than anybody in 2016 class. His profile - athletic, rangy, run-and-hit three-down linebacker - is a superb scheme fit, and he offers just the type of versatility the Cowboys are fond of: a jack of all trades for the Wyoming Cowboys in college, he played the strongside linebacker position in base sets and shifted over to the middle linebacker spot in nickel packages. And when the Wyoming defense left the field, he stayed on covering kickoffs and punts.
The linebacker depth chart, which also features guys like Kyle Wilber, Andrew Gachkar, Dereck Akunne, Jerrell Harris, and Deon King will be very interesting to watch during training camp this year.
The contract year defenders
Let's assume that the Cowboys offense, with a healthy Romo and Bryant, plus a dynamic Elliott and even better offensive line, returns to its 2014 levels in which it averaged 29.2 points per game.
With that kind of offense, the defense will likely also see a resurgence. Consider that in 2014, the Cowboys defense recorded just five takeaways when they were behind and two when they were tied. But they notched 24 takeaways when playing with a lead.
Bruce Carter, who has not had a single NFL interception before or after that season, intercepted five passes in 2014 and translated that into a 4-year, $17 million contract with the Buccaneers. He was released after one year in Tampa, but in that one year he made $4.25 million guaranteed, almost as much in one year as he got in four years in Dallas under his 4-year $4.85 million rookie contract.
Barry Church, J.J. Wilcox, Morris Claiborne, Rolando McClain, Andrew Gachkar, Terrell McClain, and Jack Crawford will all be free agents after the season, and if 2016 turns out anything like 2014 for the defense, some of these guys could be looking at very nice pay days.
Who would you add as the biggest winners of draft weekend?