Lately, there have been some pretty grim predictions about the future of the Dallas Cowboys. ESPN has projected them with one of the worst futures in the league, and John Clayton of the same network has stated that they will be in rebuilding mode in 2018. Coming off the Great Debacle of 2015, those are not exactly the kinds of forecasts that will warm our hearts as fans.
Of course, forecasts like this are often times wildly inaccurate. Almost no one saw Dallas having the success it did in 2014, and everyone expected them to be at about the same level the next season. We all know how those "expert" predictions turned out. These articles are largely filler pieces for the dead period we are going through. We read them largely because they slightly assuage the terrible football withdrawal pains we are suffering. And national writers seem to have some very inaccurate ideas about the Cowboys at times, anyway.
Since Clayton mentioned 2018, that would seem to be a good year to look at and try to apply a little more analysis to things. Here is a look at where the roster may be then. It contains a good bit of projection as well, but hopefully these are rooted in a little more insight into the players that are likely to still be with the team, and where the team will have to be most concerned about finding new talent over the next couple of years.
This is one thing that almost never gets mentioned in these kinds of analyses. The Cowboys will still have Dan Bailey under contract, and he is simply one of the best placekickers in the league. They will have to either re-sign or replace Chris Jones, and it is very likely that L.P. Ladouceur will retire by then. But punters and long snappers are not really the hardest players to replace. Bailey, on the other hand, is basically money in the bank, and there is no reason to think he will experience any sudden decline.
Here, there is a legitimate cause for concern. Byron Jones should be a very good free safety, but outside of him, there are a lot of questions. Orlando Scandrick would still be under contract, but he will also be 31, which may mean his skills are in decline. Jeff Heath has primarily been a special teams player, but he does have some attributes that fit well at strong safety. Kevon Frazier is an unknown quantity at this time. It looks like corner and safety are going to be priorities in the next couple of drafts.
This is where it gets interesting. The big question is still how Jaylon Smith recovers from his injury. The team is fully confident that his nerve will regenerate, and if they are right, the Cowboys should have their MIKE linebacker set. He could be paired with Sean Lee as the starting WILL, but there are always injury concerns about Lee, who has yet to play a full NFL season. The Cowboys also should have Damien Wilson and Mark Nzeocha, but have to see if those two develop as they hope. If things go right, they could be in fairly good shape. They also could re-sign Anthony Hitchens. If things go well, this could be a very solid corps to build on. It is those "ifs" that are the concern.
Bold prediction time: By 2018, this could be a strength for the team, the way the offensive line is now. The team has gone for youth, athleticism, and numbers here. The following are all on contracts that last through 2018: Tyrone Crawford, Cedric Thornton, Randy Gregory, Benson Mayowa, Charles Tapper, Ryan Russell, and, once his deal is worked out (he is the only unsigned draft pick at this point), Maliek Collins. They also have players like Jack Crawford, DeMarcus Lawrence, and David Irving that they can re-sign if they choose (this assumes the team can work out cap issues as needed, which they have shown a good bit of talent at doing). While there are always concerns about injuries, players like Gregory running afoul of the substance abuse policy, and just how many of the players will work out, this still is a group of players who should have their best years ahead of them.
On paper, the only player on the line under contract for 2018 is Tyron Smith, but you know that management is going to figure out how to make sure Zack Martin, Travis Frederick, and La’el Collins are all still in the fold. The only question at this point should be right tackle. Chaz Green is still a huge question mark, but the team has time to work on this issue. This line is built to last five years or more into the future, and it should still be one of the best in the league.
As hard as it is to imagine, Jason Witten may well be gone to retirement by this point. That leaves James Hanna, Geoff Swaim, and Rico Gathers to work with (assuming all three are retained). Gathers is the big wild card. He may be a bust, or he may be a worthy heir to the Senator. This position is up in the air.
We still have to see how things work out, but right now it appears that the Cowboys will have Ezekiel Elliott and Darius Jackson as the core to build around. Elliott would have to be a major bust to not be the lead back, and no one truly expects that to happen, while Jackson is extremely athletic and could become that change of pace weapon the Cowboys have tried to have with the often-injured Lance Dunbar. And everyone claims that running back is the most "plug and play" of all positions coming out of college. This should be another very solid position for the team.
The Cowboys should still have Dez Bryant as the WR1 and Cole Beasley in the slot. They are a solid start, and this season will go a long way in determining what they will have as depth. Extending Brice Butler would take care of one spot, and the team is always looking for more receiver talent in the draft and the UDFA ranks.
And now we get to the heart of the matter. Tony Romo will still be under contract, but everyone expects him to not be able to stay healthy. True, he could have a season or his career end with one hit - just like every other quarterback in the league. It is a basic scientific tenet, as described by the Taylor/Theismann Intersection Effect.
But this is also getting very close to the likely end of Romo’s career, injury or not. In the first ESPN article cited above, Louis Riddick states that the Cowboys have no succession plan in place. This is despite the attempt to trade up for Paxton Lynch, the interest in Connor Cook, and actually drafting Dak Prescott. Still, Romo is the biggest factor in all these predictions of doom and gloom for Dallas. He speaks of having four or five years left, but in this case, that does seem to be too much to hope for.
So here is another bold prediction: Prescott is going to emerge by 2018 as the heir, and Jameill Showers will have been retained as the spare. With Elliott as the lead running back, they both offer size, athleticism, and their own running ability to allow the Cowboys to be effective even without being the same type of quarterback that Romo is. And there are two more drafts to work with, as well. The dismissive remark that there is no succession plan disregards what the team was doing during the draft, assumes that the players on hand are not going to work, and ignores two more drafts to work on things.
That is really the whole issue with these projections. NFL rosters turn over an average of 20% or so every year. Dallas would only be expected to have about 60% of the current roster around in any case. And what they should still have just does not look as bad as the forecasters make out. They seem to really be letting last year influence their thinking, and there are several reasons to think that 2015 was aberrational.
Additionally, free agency has been left out completely, despite Thornton and Mayowa both being part of the likely future of the team. While the Cowboys don’t go after big names that command big contracts, they do actively seek players that they believe can help. And if it comes down to it, quarterback could be one position where the rules go out the window.
Injuries and a lot of failed players could derail things. That is always a possibility. But it is also entirely possible that more things will go right than wrong. Outside of Romo, Witten, and Scandrick, the players mentioned here are young enough to have several years ahead of them. This is admittedly an optimistic take, but the negative forecasts seem to be far too pessimistic, and disregard several things the Cowboys are trying to accomplish.
Of course, this is just another filler article for the dead time. It mostly an attempt to add a ray of hope or two when so much darkness is being spread by the national media.