So let’s go. The 2016 season is now in the books for the entire league, and we can all focus on 2017. For the Dallas Cowboys, a tremendous amount has changed since last year. It is a good idea to make sure we have properly reset our view of what the team has to do to try and improve on a campaign that turned out much better than almost any could have expected, although it still came up short in the end. Here are the biggest differences between now and then, along with what may not have really changed that much.
Shifting the focus to defense. Stephen Jones has stated pretty clearly that defense is the biggest issue for this offseason to address.
Stephen Jones says this offseason the goal is to invest resources whether it be salary cap or draft picks to improve the defense.— Jeff Cavanaugh (@JC1053) January 16, 2017
There has been some skepticism about just how the team will go about this. The defense was also a major priority last offseason, but the Cowboys elected to use the fourth-overall pick on Ezekiel Elliott, and of course they also used a mid-range pick to select a developmental quarterback. Fortunately, Dak Prescott had a phenomenal amount of progress.
Having the starters in the backfield set for the foreseeable future is a huge change. Of course, the Cowboys also have a much less valuable position in the draft with the twenty-eighth pick as opposed to the fourth, so finding a real difference maker will take a lot more work by the scouting staff. But the needs on offense are much less pressing overall. The team has mainly depth concerns on offense. WR2, right tackle, and backups for Prescott and Elliott are the biggest needs, and at least some of those may already be in the building. One possible piece that may play a big role is Quincy McDuffie, the kick/punt returner signed from the CFL. He looks like a better, far more dangerous version of Lucky Whitehead.
Defensively, the Cowboys have huge questions in the secondary and still have no proven, dependable pass rushers. Four of their current defensive backs are free agents. Up front, they have some young players that have shown promise, but none are yet players that you can hang your hat on. The good news is that this year’s draft class is seen as deep at both EDGE rusher and cornerback.
This may be the year that the team really does go heavy on defense, and that may include free agency. Don’t forget that the Cowboys put a lot of emphasis on re-signing some of their own free agents, which could certainly come into play in the secondary.
It is definitely more a reloading situation this year. Coming off a 13-3 regular season is far different than coming out of a 4-12 campaign. The Cowboys didn’t panic last year, and it paid off. Now they have every reason to feel they can build on last year, even though it is very likely they will not win quite as many games. Prescott in particular is now a known quantity, and opponents are going to be looking for ways to affect him. But being paired with Elliott is still going to create some problems for other teams.
Again, the defense is going to be the hard part. It was middle of the pack in most areas, with the notable exception of points allowed. The bend-but-don’t-break approach put the Cowboys in fifth place overall there, but there is still a lot of room for improvement, particularly in getting off the field and setting the offense up with better starting positions. Since Dallas has elected to once again keep the coaching staff largely intact, getting better is largely going to be a function of better talent.
Free agency will be interesting this year. The rumors about a possible reunion with DeMarcus Ware are particularly intriguing, especially when you look at how the Atlanta Falcons benefited from the presence of Dwight Freeney on their roster. A proven veteran who can mentor and teach the younger players might be just what the Cowboys need. It will have to come at a favorable price for the Cowboys, who show no signs of backing away from their current thrift-minded approach there. But Ware or another older pass rusher should definitely be a real consideration.
The resources are more limited this year. Dallas will once again have to do some contract manipulation to free up cap space, and they are almost certainly going to incur some serious dead money from Tony Romo. And they have only seven draft picks to work with, as opposed to the nine they had last season. Remember that one of the real finds was Anthony Brown, taken in the sixth round. That was at least partly because they had those four selections in the sixth round last year. Without as many picks to work with, the team will have a harder time finding another late-round gem like him. And, of course, all the picks are at the back of the rounds this time around, instead of being near the top of each.
So the foundation looks much more solid now, especially on offense, but there is less to work with, particularly in the draft. The questions are different, except that perennial quest for a real pass rush. And the Cowboys aren’t going to sneak up on anyone the way they did last year with the two most exciting rookies in the league. They are now one of the early favorites to make it to the Super Bowl. That is a far different place than they were last season. The challenges have shifted dramatically.