The off-season is a long and grueling period for football fans. Six months of no football is hard on us. For some of us, the offseason activities help feed the craving. Things like free agency, the draft, and the training camp happenings provide some connection to Cowboys football. With the draft completed, we’ve now made it through the half way point and it won’t be much longer when our favorite team hits the field and starts doing football stuff. Last year was such a treat as there were so many new players that fascinated us. Rookies like Ezekiel Elliott, Dak Prescott, Anthony Brown, and Darius Jackson were just a few of the favorite guys entering the 2016 season. The expanded opportunities of David Irving was also another guy that many of us were excited to watch as well.
As fun to watch as all the new toys were last year, the Cowboys enter this season with even more captivating pieces to the puzzle. Nine draft picks, 14 undrafted free agents, a handful of free agents from other teams, and even a couple of red-shirt draft picks from last year are all in play this year. They may even get a player from the practice squad making a case for a starting spot. Here are my top ten “new guys” that will make the most impact in 2017.
Didn’t Make The List: CB Nolan Carroll and DE Damontre Moore
I want to be clear - Nolan Carroll is not a terrible corner. He just plays one on TV...when the TV is broadcasting a Philadelphia Eagles’ game. Carroll had a rough gig last year. He was asked to cover his opponents top WR’s week after week. That’s a lot to ask from a corner of Carroll’s skill set. Unfortunately, the Cowboys could lean on him to handle some tough assignments early in the season as the rookies get themselves acclimated. This means he’s going to be subjected to a lot of criticism every time he falters. And it doesn’t help his cause that he’s spent so much time in an Eagles uniform. It’s going to take some time to warm up to him.
I've gladly followed all our draft picks as soon as they're announced.— ✭ Nancy ✭ (@I_Love_Dak) April 29, 2017
Still haven't followed Nolan Carroll though... pic.twitter.com/cZ5GGc0czt
Carroll will go from burnt toast early in the season to middle of the depth chart later in the year. He’s not going to do enough to be much of a fan favorite this year. It would be great if that’s not the case, but it’s hard to look past the idea that while he’s a solid corner at times, he’s still a liability in coverage.
There was a little bit of enthusiasm when the Cowboys signed Damontre Moore, but it had more to do with not having any other free agent pass rusher to be excited about. That’s the best the Cowboys could do for us. And because the Seattle Seahawks were interested in him, that automatically means he’s got potential. But Moore hasn’t been able to get things going for himself to showcase that potential and now he is buried behind a deep defensive line group. Even if he makes the roster, his chances will be few and far between.
Honorable Mention: Jahad Thomas, RB - undrafted free agent from Temple
Lance Dunbar had a five year stint in Dallas where he missed a lot of time due to injury. After a great start to the 2015 season, he suffered a season-ending knee injury in the fourth game against the New Orleans Saints. Dunbar was given another shot last year, but only mustered 151 total scrimmage yards over the span of 13 games. So when the Los Angeles Rams offered him $1.5 M, his days in Dallas were over.
Dunbar went undrafted in 2012 and now the team will attempt to replace him with another undrafted running back. Jahad Thomas doesn’t have the physical strength to be a three-down bruiser back in the NFL. That’s why he went undrafted. But what he does have is excellent pass catching ability and sharp, choppy footwork to maneuver through traffic. This kid will be fun to watch in pre-season games, but even if he makes the roster - his touches will be minuscule.
Honorable Mention: Xavier Woods, SS - sixth round pick in 2017 from Louisiana Tech
Cowboys Nation went wild when the team was able to snag Woods in the sixth round so I feel somewhat obligated to explain why he didn’t make the list. He’s a great value pick and some see him taking over the strong safety starting position vacated by Barry Church. Woods has great ball skills and is very instinctive so his long-term upside is something to be excited about, but he is a day three rookie that is going to take some time working himself into the defense. He’s been known to take some chances and it’s nice when it produces big plays, but those types of gambles can send you to the sideline if you’re not careful. Woods is going to have to become more disciplined to earn more snaps going forward.
All you Jeff Heath doubters (raises hand) need to come to the realization that this kid has gradually developed into a viable safety option. Whether he can continue to improve and become the long-term answer remains to be seen, but he’s still good enough to limit Xavier’s snaps his rookie season.
10. Rico Gathers, TE - seventh round pick in 2016 from Baylor
The Cowboys invested a draft pick in Gathers last year as a development project. He spent the entire year on the team’s practice squad. Gathers averaged 11.2 points and 9.0 rebounds per game his senior year. That doesn’t really help much in the game of football, but the team bet on his athleticism to where he could transition into an NFL tight end.
Because of the Cowboys unique quarterback situation last year, Gathers had the privilege of practicing with one of the most knowledgeable QB’s in the history of the game - Tony Romo. He’s been polishing up his game and is ready to make the leap onto the roster. With Gavin Escobar no longer in the picture, Gathers will get his chance. At 6’8” 280 lbs, he’ll make a big target in the red zone. Look for Rico to only have about a dozen catches, but a couple of them will be for touchdowns.
9. Noah Brown, WR - seventh round pick in 2017 from Ohio State
You might not have a lot of faith that a seventh-round draft pick can come in and be a solid contributor for the Cowboys receiving group, but that’s exactly what Brice Butler did last year. A former seventh-round pick himself, Butler did a good job in his role. Many fans were so impressed that they had him penciled in as Terrance Williams’ replacement. Those same fans won’t be too pleased to hear that it will be him that will be replaced this year.
Butler didn’t have many catches (16) or yards (219), but he did score three touchdowns last year. That’s more than he had in his previous three seasons combined. While Butler is fine, Noah Brown offers the team more. While both players are good at tracking the ball, Brown is a physical player who can be effective as a run blocker. He can also be an asset on special teams.
With so many other weapons in this offense, he won’t get a lot of targets, but once Brown earns that roster spot, look for him to produce similar numbers to Butler.
8. Charles Tapper, DE - fourth round draft pick in 2016 from Oklahoma
Many fans are excited about seeing Charles Tapper in action. There are two real appealing elements that have people intrigued about his potential. First, he’s very athletic as he had the highest SPARQ scores of any edge rusher in last year’s draft. Second, the team selected him before they picked Dak Prescott. That’s not to say he’ll turn out to play at that level, but it shows the level of interest the team had.
But as optimistic as fans are, there are some reasons to tap the brakes. Tapper’s rookie season came to an abrupt halt when he was diagnosed with pars defect which is a stress fracture in his back. While he’s fully healthy now, what does this mean regarding his ability to push his body at a high level over the course of a 16-game season? Tapper has conditioned his core which alleviates the stress on his back, but he’s going to require ongoing rehabilitation to prevent occurrence of his back injury.
The good news is that Cowboys have an assortment of edge rushers to where Tapper can be eased into manageable reps so he’s not overloaded. And for this reason his 2017 production is discounted.
7. Stephen Paea, DT - free agent from the Cleveland Browns
A once 16-game starter, the 306 lb defensive tackle has been reduced to a role player. With Terrell McClain leaving in free agency, the team will rely on a new free agent to handle some snaps at the 1-tech spot. Paea is not the sexiest free agent acquisition and he’s certainly not the most expensive at a reduced price of just $2M in 2017. But what the Cowboys have in Paea is a run stopping DT that fits nicely into Rod Marinelli’s scheme. As Paea describes...
"I'm more like an aggressive, get-off-the-line-and-dictate (tackle) - don't let the O-Line dictate what you do. You just go you play fast, and that's what Rod is a lot about.
Just like Ricky Bobby, he likes to go fast.
6. Jourdan Lewis, CB - third round draft pick in 2017 from Michigan
Jourdan Lewis loves to compete, which is good news considering it’s going to be a tough battle to earn regular snaps. A third-round rookie corner who is undersized and lacks great speed is going to create a concern for the Cowboys defense that faces a division full of big, fast receivers. Alshon Jeffrey (6’4”), Brandon Marshall (6’4”) and Terrelle Pryor (6’6”) all reside in the NFC East now. But the Cowboys have other resources at corner who will be relied on as well. With Orlando Scandrick, Anthony Brown, and Chidobe Awuzie the team’s top three corner prospects, Lewis is going to have impress early to get a real chance to be on the field. He’ll get there eventually, but until he can deal with these bigger NFL receivers without being too handsy, he’s going to have to pay his dues on the bench.
He’s too talented to be bottled up for very long. His aggressiveness and twitchy footwork will still be an asset for the Cowboys secondary squad. With each new game, he’ll continue to improve just like he has throughout his entire college career. The coaches will love him and he’ll eventually get his chances, but there are some other CB’s on the team that have seniority so he’ll have to remain patient.
5. Jonathan Cooper, G - free agent, re-signed
The Cowboys signed Cooper at the end of last season to give them some depth along the offensive line. They must have been happy with what they saw because they re-signed him in March. The former first-round pick in 2013 hasn’t lived up to his draft price and has made stops at Arizona, New England, and Cleveland. Now, he could get a chance to play along three other first-round draft picks that currently make up the Cowboys offensive line.
The coaches are looking at moving La’el Collins from left guard to right tackle. This opens up a spot at LG for someone. Joe Looney might have something to say about that starting spot, but if Cooper ends up winning the job, he’ll log the most snaps of anyone on this list. He won’t be the best player on this list, but his contribution will be plentiful.
4. Ryan Switzer, WR/PR - fourth round draft pick in 2017 from North Carolina
Cole Beasley led the Cowboys in receptions (75) and receiving yards (833) last year. I think it’s safe to say that Dak Prescott loves his slot receiver. So it’s not surprising to see the Cowboys double the fun by selecting another slot star in Ryan Switzer. While many are quick to label him Beasley 2.0, don’t be shocked if the rookie jumps his fellow slot buddy in production. Imagine the same shiftiness of Beasley, only after he gets the ball in his hands, he’s a little harder to catch.
3. Taco Charlton, DE - first round draft pick in 2017 from Michigan
With Taco Charlton being the team’s first-round pick this year it might seem like he should be ranked #1 on this list. But he’s not. And it’s not a slight on Charlton as it won’t be long before he’s the best pass rusher on the Cowboys defensive line. But there’s a rookie curve with defensive ends and Charlton has some developing still to do. He’s also a part of a position group that rotates snaps, so while he have plenty of chances to make plays - he won’t be on the field as much as these next two guys.
2. Chidobe Awuzie, CB - second round draft pick in 2017 from Colorado
In a rookie class full of delicious treats, it’s just a matter of time before he’s everyone’s favorite. The Cowboys are going to ask a lot of their second-round corner and it might sting a little early, but as the season progresses he’s going to show everyone why the team was so excited to turn in his card.
Awuzie’s quickness and great instincts will present itself all over the field. He’ll be one of the top splash-play making players for the Cowboys defense this season. He can pick the ball, strip the ball, and he’ll even come after on a blitz if you’re not careful.
Cornerback Chidobe Awuzie, the Cowboys' second round pick, had 8 sacks over the last two seasons at Colorado pic.twitter.com/skwTZiGziE— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) April 30, 2017
1. Jaylon Smith, LB - second round draft pick in 2016 from Notre Dame
Jaylon Smith is not going to be a good player for the Cowboys. He’s either going to be an outstanding player or he won’t be on the field due to injury. There’s no middle ground. And after the five pre-season games the Cowboys have this year, fans might start scratching their head as to just how effective Smith is going to be. But that’s okay. Dallas will treat Smith very gingerly. It will be similar to Sean Lee who had his tape cut in the final week of the regular season despite Jason Garrett being a firm believer in sustaining the fight. What will also be similar to Lee is the impact Smith makes on the field once he’s thrown into action.
He’s nowhere close to being back to full health, but when he gets there - look out. A fully repaired Smith will be the best football player the Cowboys send out on defense. And that’s a bold statement because that includes when #50 is out there as well. While getting to that point this season is a lot to ask, Smith’s progress should still allow him to be an exceptional play maker for the team in 2017.
Man, this defense is going to be interesting to watch this year.