As the Cowboys just wrapped up their first of three OTA sessions, fans finally got a glimpse of some on-field action. With so many intriguing story lines out there, the craving for details is almost uncontrollable. There should be some sort of Cowboys junkie rehabilitation clinic to help you get your fix. Oh wait, you’re on it right now. As we debate over which players will have what type of impact, there are some guys who will enter the new season with a lot to prove. Maybe they are in a contract year? Or maybe they are returning from an injury? Whatever the reasoning, some players will feel the heat more than others.
First off, let’s look at some players that you won’t find on this list?
Rookies - While not all rookies are completely safe, most of the higher draft picks are. When you have just invested in a young player there is quite a bit of leniency when it comes to how they perform. The Cowboys are going to give their new toys plenty of opportunities to strut their stuff.
Under Water Contract Players - If you spent more years than you would have liked complaining about why Brandon Carr was kept on the team, then it’s possible you weren’t aware of the contract obligation the team was under. This same type of logic provides some strong protection for a player like Tyrone Crawford. Sometimes a players contract holds a team hostage and they have to ride out the storm - or at least get to the point where the dead money hit is feasible.
2018 Restricted Free Agents - While players like La’el Collins and David Irving are on the last year of their deals, the Cowboys are in the driver’s seat when it comes to their rights. There will be no big deal waiting for them next year and they’d have to fall considerably to have their roster spot be in jeopardy. Like Ron Leary before them, they are stuck and will have two more full seasons to get through before they can cash in.
With those players being granted immunity, here are five players who have the most to prove in 2017 season.
5. James Hanna
It doesn’t seem like it was that long ago when Hanna was seen as a valuable piece to the Cowboys offense. But a career-threatening injury and the development of Geoff Swaim has the veteran tight end’s job at risk. The team could save $1.5 M if they cut him this year so he might not even get a year to prove himself. But next year’s situation is much more challenging for him as the team would save $2.75 M if they released him. Hanna is going to have to prove that not only can he stay healthy, but return to being an integral piece of the Cowboys running game.
4. Charles Tapper
The Cowboys drafted Ryan Russell in the fifth round of the 2015 NFL Draft. The team gave him one year plus the following training camp to prove himself before he was released last September. That’s a short leash, but when you’re a day three pick, the chances aren’t as plentiful. Charles Tapper was also drafted on day three, but didn’t get a chance to play due to a back injury. Many still have high hopes for him and some even project him as a potential starting end even though he hasn’t played a single snap for the Cowboys. There’s a wide range of opinions for Tapper when it comes to what he can do, so the young edge rusher will have a lot to prove this season.
3. Jaylon Smith
It would be real easy to put him #1 on this list because so many eyes will be on the young linebacker. The biggest question to be answered is how healthy will that infamous knee be once the season starts. While Smith himself will be playing as if his career depended on it, the reality is - this is his first season returning to the field and the dependency on that brace will still be there. A less than stellar debut season will still be tolerated due to the amount of time expected when recovering from such a drastic injury.
2. DeMarcus Lawrence
There was a time that “Tank” Lawrence was supposed to be the second coming of DeMarcus Ware. With a first name like that, how could you go wrong? The Cowboys gave up some draft capital to move up and get him in the 2014 NFL Draft, but after three seasons, the young defensive end has missed 16 games due to injuries and a suspension. And in the games he has played, he’s only started in half of them. With the investment of Taco Charlton and some other emerging players, Lawrence’s role on the team has lessened. He is now on the last leg of his rookie deal and with each new day the chances of getting a second contract is become less and less likely. Tank is playing for his Cowboys’ life in 2017.
1. Dak Prescott
The Cowboys new passer is not in the hot seat. His job isn’t in jeopardy. His contract is super cheap and he is not in a contract year. So why is he number one on this list? Well, when you are the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys all the world takes notice. The team has just made one of the most difficult organizational decisions when they moved away from Tony Romo and anointed Prescott their new franchise quarterback. If Prescott starts to falter, you better believe it’s going to met with heavy criticism.
The Cowboys future is in the hands of this kid and it is imperative that he follows a great rookie season with more evidence that the Cowboys made the right choice.
Which players do you feel have the most to prove in big D?