In part one of this 10-part series, we set the ground rules by looking at the Cowboys’ team-building philosophy. In part two, we looked at where the Cowboys are strong. In this article, we are going to evaluate where the team would benefit if it could improve, but can get by in 2017 if the Cowboys are unable to.
Where Are The Cowboys’ Just Okay?
Who are the players the Cowboys can win with, but who might need to be replaced after the Cowboys address their weaknesses? As before, we looked at a couple of ratings - Pro Football Reference’s Approximate Value and Football Outsider ratings for certain positions - and made our own assessment about where to draw the line. We also took into account how long these players are under contract, and considered their ages. (Note: these are not ranked in order.)
Offensive linemen Doug Free, La’el Collins, Chaz Green, Joe Looney and Emmett Cleary
These are very different players, at very different stages of their careers. What unites them is they will likely fill out the offensive line with All Pros Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin, with Green serving as the swing tackle again.
Doug Free is on the last year of a contract with a cap hit of $7.5 million, and a dead cap of $2.5 million if Dallas chose to cut him. At 32, he will be the second-oldest starter behind Jason Witten. Free’s AV was 8 this year.
- Plan: While some fans might be ready to move on from Doug Free, it’s almost certain Dallas will keep the elder statesman of their line for another season, as they presently have no reliable backup.
La’el Collins is largely upside and promise. He had a solid rookie season, but didn’t start 2016 as well, and his injury may have been a blessing, as Ron Leary was likely stronger and more consistent. He needs to be stronger and stay focused for each play.
- Plan: Collins is signed through 2017. If the Cowboys re-sign Jonathan Cooper at guard, it’s possible Collins will face stiff competition to regain his starting job. Cooper is on his fourth team, but if the Cowboys bring him back, it means they saw something in his short stint here, and he may blossom in this tight position group. Dallas is going to lose Ron Leary, but should be okay and will gain a compensation pick next year.
Chaz Green proved he can step in for an injured starter this year, but he couldn’t stay healthy, so he’s not ready to be Free’s full-time replacement.
- Plan: He’s signed through 2018, but the Cowboys don’t have much time to decide if he’s a multi-year answer at tackle once Free retires. Expect Dallas to draft someone who might supplant him when Green’s contract is up.
Joe Looney acquitted himself well as a swing guard/center and third “tight end.” Emmett Cleary seemed solid in an emergency role after Green was hurt.
- Plan: Both are signed through this season, and are okay stop-gap reserves but nothing more.
Tight ends Jason Witten, Geoff Swaim, James Hanna, and possibly Rico Gathers
Jason Witten is a sure first ballot Hall of Famer. And he plays nearly every down of the season. But he’s no longer an elite receiving tight end. He caught 69 passes for 673 yards, scored three touchdowns, and served as a Dak Prescott security blanket with Cole Beasley. He ranked sixth in receptions, but only 11th in yards among NFL tight ends. His three TDs tied him for 20th. He tied for 13th with seven receptions of 20 or more yards, but had none over 40 yards. He gained 33 first downs, ranking 13th, but only gained them on 47.8% of passes, which was 17th out of the top 20 tight ends in receiving yards. His former teammate Martellus Bennett beat Witten in every category. His AV was 7. Football Outsiders really didn’t like his game, ranking him 29th in DVOR and DYAR.
- Plan: Signed through 2017. If Dallas does take another tight end high enough in the draft to be Witten’s replacement, they may have to move on after 2017, when Witten’s contract ends. His cap hit is $12.2 million this year, $4.8 million of which is restructured bonus from continuously converting his salary into signing bonus and stretching it out. Dallas could also decide that Witten will play as long or longer than Tony Gonzalez, who caught more than 80 passes a year until he was 37, and extend his contract two more years. They could do this without extending the structured bonus and thereby reduce his cap hit next year, and they probably don’t have to decide until after next season, as Witten won’t go anywhere if Dallas still wants him. Witten will be 35 this coming season. With Tony Romo, his injury history opened the door to his replacement. Witten is an ironman, so the Cowboys are going to have an even tougher decision to make.
Geoff Swaim, James Hanna, and Rico Gathers. As long as Witten has been on the team, Dallas has used its second and third tight ends as blockers with occasional catches. On that score, this seems like a fair group, though Hanna’s health is a question.
- Plan: Each is signed through 2018. Swaim and Hanna (when healthy) are okay blocking tight ends. Gathers is a complete wild card.
Defensive linemen Tyrone Crawford, Benson Mayowa, David Irving, DeMarcus Lawrence, Cedric Thornton, Charles Tapper, (and Randy Gregory)
This group is a bit of an enigma.
Tyrone Crawford was locked up in a second contract, and has played okay, but nothing to write home about. He needs shoulder surgery for a second offseason in a row, had only 4.5 sacks despite moving to defensive end, where he said his body felt better not having to take the pounding inside, and was quickly eclipsed at 3-technique by a rookie who missed training camp and the pre-season with an injury. He played 56% of the snaps, behind only Maliek Collins. His AV of 7 is the highest among this group.
- Plan: He is signed through 2020, and the Cowboys wouldn’t save much money by cutting him before 2019. Just have to hope he starts stringing more good games together.
Benson Mayowa led the Cowboys with six sacks, yet was benched in the middle of the year in an attempt to get him motivated. He worked his way back into the lineup and had his best stretch, but seemed invisible in the playoff game against Green Bay. He played 36% of the snaps. His AV was 4.
- Plan: Signed through 2018. Will get at least another year to prove himself.
David Irving might be the best of this group, winning player of the week honors for his devastation of Green Bay during the season, and he blew up Tampa Bay at the end of that victory, despite playing more than 60 snaps. But he remains inconsistent, and Rod Marinelli can’t seem to decide if he’s better at DE or DT. He played 46% of the snaps. His AV was 3.
- Plan: He’s an exclusive rights free agent this year, and a restricted rights free agent in 2018. That gives Dallas at least one more year to decide if they want to keep him longer term.
DeMarcus Lawrence, whom the Cowboys invested two draft picks in to get him at the top of the second round, was plagued this year by a four-game suspension and a bad back. His sacks dropped from eight in 2015 to one in 2016. His AV dropped from 7 to 2.
- Plan: The Cowboys need the 2015 Lawrence back, at least. Better yet would be to see him reach his potential with double digit sacks and force the Cowboys into the dilemma whether to re-sign him. His contract ends after 2017.
Cedric Thornton was the weakest of this group, and one of the biggest disappointments, playing only 26% of the snaps. His AV was 2, after being an 8 in 2013 and 2014, and a 5 in 2015 for Philadelphia.
- Plan: He’s signed through 2019. Dallas would save nothing by cutting him this year, so he’ll get at least one more year to rebound. If he’s no better, the Cowboys should likely eat the $2.5 million dead cap hit in 2018 and save about $3 million.
Charles Tapper is a complete wild card. Let’s hope he’s a Maliek Collins for the outside.
- Plan: He’s signed through 2019. Play him and see what he’s got. Hope his back issue is behind him.
Randy Gregory is listed for completeness, though he’s suspended for 2017.
- Plan: Signed through 2018; costs nothing while he’s out. In a two-game window this year, he showed why the Cowboys took a chance on him, and it’s just wrong that the NFL cracks down so hard on marijuana. If he had been able to play, the Cowboys could have beaten the Packers, and might have beaten Atlanta. Exactly the kind of speed edge rusher the Cowboys need.
Linebackers Anthony Hitchens and Damien Wilson
These two linebackers acquitted themselves well after it became apparent that Rolando McClain was not returning in 2016. Kyle Wilber and Mark Nzeocha also fit here, but both are mostly special teams players for now.
Anthony Hitchens’ 39 tackles and 39 assists would together have ranked him fourth on the team in only 55% of the defensive snaps. Pairing him with Justin Durant was a good move by the Cowboys. His AV was 7.
- Plan: He’s only signed through 2017. It’s unlikely Jaylon Smith will get all the snaps this year, so Hitchens will still have a role in 2017, albeit a reduced one. Unlikely to be kept longer unless he’ll re-sign on the cheap.
Damien Wilson made strides his second season, showing some speed and hitting ability. He played in 27% of snaps. His AV was 3.
- Plan: He’s signed through 2018. Unclear if he’ll get a second contract.
Secondary players Byron Jones, Orlando Scandrick, Anthony Brown, Jeff Heath, Kavon Frazier and Leon McFadden
This area of the team stands to take a major hit in free agency, with Brandon Carr, Mo Claiborne, Barry Church, and JJ Wilcox all free agents. That’s more than 2,600 snaps, or more than 2.5 full time positions. The holdovers are an eclectic mix.
Byron Jones had a somewhat disappointing second season. He finished third in tackles to Sean Lee and Barry Church, led with 10 passes defensed, and played in 93% of team snaps, but he only had one interception (on a Hail Mary), and received an AV of 6. Plus, Football Outsiders ranked the Cowboys 30th in coverage of tight ends, which is often Jones’ job. Perhaps his season can be summed up in two of the last plays of the Green Bay playoff game. On the third to last play, he defensed a pass to Jared Cook with great coverage, but the next play he stopped on his coverage, allowing Cook to get open on the sidelines for the game-deciding catch. That may have been his teammates’ responsibility, but there was no one in front for Jones to cover so he should have stayed with Cook.
- Plan: Signed through 2019, with a Cowboys’ option for 2020. For the Cowboys’ secondary and real quarterback rating differential to improve, Byron Jones needs to make the kind of leap Landon Collins made for the Giants this year.
Orlando Scandrick was once Dallas’s best cornerback, but injuries seem to have weakened his game. His AV was only 4 on 61% of the Cowboys snaps.
- Plan: He is signed through 2019, but he’ll be 30 in 2017. Unless he restores his game, he likely won’t return for that last season.
Anthony Brown ended up playing 68% of the snaps, second only to Brandon Carr among corners, because of injuries to Scandrick and Mo Claiborne. For a sixth-round rookie, he was a revelation. He also had an AV of 4.
- Plan: How much better can he be? He’s signed through 2019.
Jeff Heath played in only 23% of the snaps, but had an interception in the regular season and one in the playoffs, and would have had another but for a Dallas penalty. He also sacked Aaron Rodgers on a blitz. His AV was 1.
- Plan: He might be ready to bump up his snaps a bit if J.J. Wilcox leaves, and seems to be less of a liability than he was when he first came into the NFL. He’s signed through 2019.
Kavon Frazier also fits here, and is signed through 2019, but is an unknown, while Leon McFadden is just an extra, though he’s signed for this year.
Fullback Keith Smith
Keith Smith played in 13% of the snaps, rushing twice for five yards, and catching three passes for 20 yards. He was there for his blocking.
- Plan: He’s signed through 2017. Unless Dallas finds someone better for cheap, expect him to return.
These 27 players are a combination of fading players like Doug Free and Jason Witten, young players with potential like Anthony Brown and David Irving, inconsistent players with upside like La’el Collins and Benson Mayowa, guys hindered by injuries, like DeMarcus Lawrence and Chaz Green and James Hanna, role players, like Keith Smith, and special teamers like Jeff Heath, Kyle Wilber and others. To improve in 2017, enough of these guys need to play near the top of their games.
Part 1: What Is Dallas’s Team Building Philosophy?
Part 2: Where is Dallas Strong?
Next - Part 4: Where Is Dallas Weakest?