It’s that time again for another roster rankings episode. Today’s menu will include a 1,000 yard rusher, last year’s team sack leader, and one of the guys who’s tied for the most interceptions for the Cowboys over the last four years. Sounds pretty appetizing, eh? Well, try to control your excitement because only one of them started more than three games for the Cowboys last season. Three of these guys are former Oakland Raiders players, one of them has only played for Dallas, and the other one hasn’t played for anyone yet.
But before we get started, here is what we have so far:
While these next five players may seem very ordinary on the surface, they are on the team because the coaches believe in them should they get an expanded role. Here are players 26 through 30:
30 Darren McFadden
Ezekiel Elliott isn’t the only Cowboys running back they have on the roster that was selected fourth overall in the draft. Back in 2008, the Oakland Raiders picked Darren McFadden with the fourth pick in the draft. He tore it up in college, breaking essentially every Arkansas Razorbacks rushing record. He ended his college career second all-time in the SEC in rushing, only trailing another Cowboys running back, Herschel Walker from Georgia.
Big things were expected from him in Oakland, but injuries plagued him his whole career. In his seven years with the Raiders, he only played in a full 16-game season once and that was his last season with the team. In 2015, the Cowboys signed him to a two-year deal. For the second straight year, he would make it through all 16 games and had a career high of 259 carries during his first season with the Cowboys. Despite starting only 10 games, he eclipsed the 1,000 yard mark for only the second time in his career.
McFadden had a great debut season in Dallas despite playing in an inept offense that was missing Tony Romo and Dez Bryant for several games. Last year he suffered an elbow injury before the season even started and only played in three games. Of course the Cowboys have the young phenom in Zeke handling the workload now.
McFadden will enter the 2017 season as the team’s number two running back. He will make a nice insurance policy for Zeke, but with such a long history of injuries, the team should also have an insurance policy for him. Should something happen to Elliott, the lack of durability of McFadden makes many fans uneasy.
29 Brice Butler
The Cowboys front office has done a great job of using their draft picks to acquire great players, but not all of this is done on draft day. Sometimes the team will trade a late-round draft pick for a player on another team. While the team values draft picks, this has been the Cowboys go-to approach after losing a key player to injury. In 2014, the team traded for Rolando McClain after losing Sean Lee for the season. In 2015, they traded for Matt Cassel after Tony Romo broke his collar bone. That same year, they traded for Brice Butler after Dez Bryant broke his foot in the first game of the season.
Some of these moves work out, some don’t. Say what you want about McClain, the Cowboys got pretty good production considering the price. He filled in nicely for Lee in 2014. Cassel was flat out terrible. So much in fact, that it could have served as a wake-up call to invest in a quarterback during the next draft. Butler has done okay. At first people weren’t so sure because he was essentially invisible when he filled in for Dez in 2015. Of course, you could say that about any receiver that year because the play of the quarterback was atrocious. Once the team went to Kellen Moore late in the season, Butler started showing up as a viable target. In the last two games of the year, he had eight catches for 134 yards.
Butler is a fast guy, but he’s got those long strides that take him a bit to hit top speed. He was the recipient of a deep preseason pass against Miami that helped silence critics about the strength of Prescott’s arm. What gets lost in that play is that Butler had torched his defender. Last year he played in all 16 games with a small receiving role. Once again that role was expanded after Dez got hurt. This time he showed up, catching touchdown passes from Dak Prescott in games against the San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers.
Butler does a good job getting past the defender, but struggles at times catching the ball. He doesn’t always catch the ball at it’s high point and has the tendency to let the ball come to him. Last year he had two crucial drops against the Green Bay Packers. In the regular season, he had his guy beat on a deep 50+ yard pass that Prescott threw perfectly, but Butler couldn’t hold on. This would have flipped the field and put the Cowboys in Packers territory. On the very next play however, Prescott would throw his first ever career interception, ending his 177 consecutive pass streak. And then in the playoffs, Butler dropped a would-be touchdown pass in the fourth quarter. The Cowboys would still score on that drive, but fans remember things like that.
This offseason, the Cowboys re-signed Butler to a cheap, one-year deal. After the team selected two receivers in the draft, Ryan Switzer and Noah Brown, some people are pushing Butler aside. That’s a little premature as the veteran is a solid receiver for the team. He’s had a good camp so far and is not going to give up his job so easily.
Based on these rankings, Lucky Whitehead doesn’t make the roster and Butler is in great shape to keep his job. If you’re on the Noah Brown train, that’s fine - he will sneak himself on the team, but it will come at someone else’s roster spot, not Butler’s.
28 Benson Mayowa
As a thrifty free agent spender, the Cowboys targeted restricted free agent Benson Mayowa from the Oakland Raiders last offseason. The Raiders declined to match the Cowboys’ offer and because Mayowa was an UDFA, Dallas didn’t have to surrender a draft pick as compensation. The Cowboys had their pass rusher under contract for a three-year, $8.25 million deal. While this was a low-cost investment, it was a nice chunk of change to give to a defensive end that had only started three games over his three year career. The Cowboys coaching staff saw some upside in an edge rusher who didn’t have as many opportunities on talent-heavy pass rushing teams like Seattle and Oakland. In Dallas, he would have more chances to show his ability.
Last year was a roller coaster season for Mayowa. On one hand, you had a player that went through a stretch of 11 games and only had one sack. Granted, he was deactivated for four of those games, but still he was essentially invisible. Then, upon returning, he finished with a strong December having four sacks over the last four games. When it was all said and done, he finished the season with six sacks - good enough to lead the team.
Being the 2016 sack leader may seem like it would punch your ticket to a starting spot on the team, but that isn’t the necessarily the case. The Cowboys have an assembly line of pass rushers and it’s unclear what the pecking order is. Mayowa is a lanky guy with an explosive first step. For a guy who lacks bulk, he does a good job bullying his blocker. He’s got great bend and shows great quickness to chase down players in the backfield. Here he is with a momentum changing sack/fumble against the New York Giants.
Mayowa has a year of Rod Marinelli’s system under his belt. Will he make a nice jump this season? While some might already be penciling in a new acquisition to take his spot, Mayowa isn’t going anywhere just yet.
27 Jourdan Lewis
The Cowboys were fortunate to be able to dabble in a draft that was very deep in cornerbacks after losing both their starting CBs in free agency. Of course, the front office was well aware of the layout of talent in the draft and this was all part of their plan. Of course saying that and then seeing it come to fruition are two different things and the Cowboys have to be excited to see things play out the way they did. Landing Jourdan Lewis late in the third round worked out perfectly for the team.
Lewis was still available for a few reasons. His 5’10” 188 pound frame doesn’t appeal to many teams who know he’ll have to go toe-to-toe with big NFL receivers. He also doesn’t have good make up speed which makes him vulnerable to the deep pass. To make up for his lack of size and speed, he uses his hands a lot and can be grabby in coverage. He had 14 penalties in his college career, with eight of them being pass interference. And finally, there is the looming court case of domestic violence. All these things played a role in Lewis being drafted as late as he was.
But Lewis still has several qualities that can make him a successful corner in the league. He’s very quick and can stick with his man and close in quickly. This makes him an appealing slot corner option. Lewis’ college production is remarkable. He only allowed seven catches last year for a completion rate of 23.3 percent. You can argue that he didn’t woo anyone at the combine, but football games aren’t won in your underwear. Lewis gets it done on the football field. The incident with is his girlfriend is still hazy, but when it comes to Lewis the football player, there is not much doubt about his ability.
Lewis said after the Cowboys chose him in the third round that he felt the public relations backlash from his March arrest hurt his draft stock. Lewis -- a two-time All-American who set a Michigan record with 45 career pass breakups -- said he should have been a first-round pick.
And one of his more alluring qualities to the Cowboys’ coaches is his competitiveness. He fights, competes, attacks, is relentless, and just keeps pushing himself; basically all the type of mantras you’d see on the wall at The Star in Frisco.
Where will Lewis fit in with the Cowboys corners? That’s tough to say. Orlando Scandrick is their premiere slot corner. Anthony Brown has good speed and will lock down one of the spots on the outside. Then you have both Nolan Carroll and fellow rookie Chidobe Awuzie who both make better options to play the other outside spot than Lewis. The third-round rookie will have to prove his versatility to get a real shot at playing time this season. He’s too talented not to be utilized in some format though so he’ll be in the mix somewhere.
And you can’t discuss Lewis without showing this amazing catch. It’s just a rule I have.
Mind is still blown that Jourdan Lewis actually made this catch.https://t.co/D4Il8CksAw— Scott Turken (@Turk0219) October 2, 2016
26 Jeff Heath
Fans either love Jeff Heath or hate him. There’s really no middle ground. For years, he’s been on the wrong end of some terrible defensive plays on historically bad defenses. I can’t tell you how many times I made jokes about B.W. Webb, Cameron Lawrence, and yes...Jeff Heath.
But that’s in the past. You can’t live in the past. What matters now is how well Heath has been playing recently. Make no mistake about it, the kid has gotten better. It’s really not his fault that this undrafted free agent was thrown to the wolves as a rookie and had to chase around Calvin Johnson. Here is Megatron outrunning the entire Cowboys defense, except look which player emerges from the back to run him down. Make no mistake about it, the kids got hustle.
Last year the Cowboys signed Heath to a four-year, $7.67 million deal which left fans scratching their head. Was it just a cap-strapped type of move? That seemed like a lot to give a JAG like Heath, but it doesn’t seem so bad now. He’s gotten a lot better. As Jon Machota points out, he’s channeling other Pro Bowlers to hone in on his craft.
To continue improving his game, Heath has been studying some of the league's best at his position. He's had the video staff put together clips of players like Earl Thomas, Harrison Smith, Eric Berry and Kam Chancellor.
If there's a player making plays on the back end, Heath wants to see how they're getting it done.
"They're making plays and it's not like the ball is just being thrown [to them]," Heath said. "They're seeing something and they're making great plays, so I try to kind of see what they see and put myself in that situation so when I'm in that situation in a practice or a game I can try to do the same thing."
There is no doubt that he’s the team’s special teams ace. But he’s looking to have a bigger role on this team now. He will start camp as the front runner to hold down the starting strong safety job. After the practices so far in mini camp, he’s letting everyone know that he has every intention of keeping it. He’s picking off passes and just feels a lot more comfortable in the secondary. Since joining the team in 2013, he’s tied for the lead in interceptions and that’s not likely to change if he keeps trending up. Every pick he’s had has come against a Pro Bowl quarterback.
Do you agree with these rankings? Which players should be higher and which ones am I overvaluing? Make sure to check out the previous installments of this series if you haven’t already.