As we noted earlier, the Cowboys have a lot of free agents - 20 overall. Especially hard hit among the position groups will be the secondary, the defensive line, and wide receivers.
Yet the Cowboys also have some high-quality players who were sidelined for some or all of 2016 who might play very big roles next season.
Smith was projected by many to be one of the top-five players taken in the 2016 draft until he blew out his knee in Notre Dame’s bowl game. The injury played a role in several players, likely to enter the NFL draft, skipping bowl games this year so they wouldn’t suffer something similar.
The word this month is that the nerve is regenerating and Smith will be ready for offseason activities. That is tremendous news, as the Cowboys are in need of more playmakers on defense, with Sean Lee being the team’s lone defensive Pro-Bowl and All-Pro player.
Smith doesn’t play in any of the position groups that will be most impacted by free agency, but if the Cowboys are set at linebacker, they can turn their draft attention elsewhere.
Collins started the season at left guard, but he didn’t start well. Pro Football Focus rated him as having the worst performance for an offensive lineman in the NFL in the week-one loss to the Giants. So in odd sort of way, his toe-injury opened the door for Ron Leary to return and upgrade the Cowboys’ offensive line.
This offseason, Leary is almost certain to accept an offer to move on, with the Cowboys unable to match because of the need to re-sign Zack Martin. The good news for Dallas is that it has Collins to step back in at left guard, with another offseason to gain strength and improve his consistency.
One thing Collins excelled at was getting out in space, so if he can improve his fundamentals, there’s no reason Collins can’t exceed what Leary brought to the Cowboys. And it’s possible Collins could still be used at tackle, where he played in college, and take over for Doug Free, if not in 2017, then in 2018 when Free’s contract is up. With the addition of Jonathan Cooper, Dallas might have found another guard it could plug in next to Tyron Smith.
In any event, that’s a second first-round talent Dallas has waiting in the wings.
Tapper might best be remembered as the fourth-round pick Dallas took ahead of Dak Prescott, but let’s hope not. At Oklahoma, he played out of position, as a defensive end in a 3-4 front. This negated the value of his speed. Here was our breakdown post-draft. He was forced to sit out all of 2016 because of an undiagnosed stress fracture bone in his back.
Tapper does not have Randy Gregory’s speed, but he’s much bigger, and could become a valuable player in Rod Marinelli’s rotation at defensive end. The Cowboys could lose players among the group of Jack Crawford, Terrell McClain, and Ryan Davis this offseason. Tapper may make it easier for the Cowboys to move on from some of these players.
James Hanna, Geoff Swaim, and Rico Gathers
Only the first two players are returning from injury, but it makes sense to put Gathers here as well, because he might make the biggest impact of all of them, given his mammoth size. None of these tight ends will ever displace Jason Witten, but that’s not really their role. Their job is to block and catch the occasional pass, and on that score, all are likely an upgrade over Gavin Escobar, who is a free agent.
Why is he on this list? Because he missed four games to suspension, and three more games because of a back injury that he needed offseason surgery to try to correct. As a result, he dropped from eight sacks in 2015 to one in 2016. He may get more surgery this offseason, but if he can come back like he played in 2015 or better, he would re-emerge as the Cowboys’ best pass rusher. Since he’ll be in a contract year as well, he should be highly motivated to put forth his best year as a pro.
The Cowboys have lots of free agents, but between these returning players, compensatory picks they are likely to pick up for several of their players if they sign elsewhere, what they might get in a trade of Tony Romo, and their own draft, the Cowboys could end up with a much stronger roster in 2017.