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Ranking the Cowboys roster 21-25: Under-the-radar playmakers who you shouldn’t forget about

The roster rankings keep moving along....

NCAA Football: Hawaii at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The Cowboys were a good team last year and they’ll be a good team this year. There are some players on this squad that people don’t think much about. Maybe they’re not fully healthy, maybe they don’t make the highlight reel, or maybe they’re not the guy you wanted the team to draft in the first round. Regardless of the reasoning, the Cowboys have some “bonus” players lurking on the roster. These are guys that some have brushed aside, but might surprise you with some very meaningful contributions in 2017.

But before we get started, let’s quickly recap what we already have:

The next five should be guys everyone likes because they have not done anything to warrant any negative flavor. Three of them have yet to play a snap for the Cowboys, but that doesn’t stop some of us from already loving what we see. Here are players 21 through 25:

25 Chris Jones

Who cares about a punter, right? Wrong. Cowboys fans care because we got ourselves a good one. If you couldn’t find a reason to love Chris Jones prior to this season, then you have plenty of things to choose from now. He decorated his 2016 highlight reel with two standout plays on prime time television. First, he showed off his wheels with a 30-yard scamper on a fake punt against the Philadelphia Eagles on a Sunday Night game. This was a huge play that changed the momentum in the game. The Cowboys were down 20-10 late in the third and struggling offensively when this perfectly executed fake allowed them to steal a possession to help make it a one score game.

Then, on Monday Night Football in week 16 against the Detroit Lions, Jones gained popularity by laying the wood on the Lions punt returner, Andre Roberts.

You can watch both of those videos here and here.

You just felt it was going to be a good year for Jones after he had a hero moment in training camp. Jason Garrett had challenged his players to throw the football and hit the Cowboys star logo on the practice field tower. If any player could do it, the team meetings would be cancelled. After all other player failed, an unlikely hero came to the rescue.

Those things aside, Jones is a very valuable punter for the Cowboys. Jones is a left-footed punter which changes the spin on the ball that returners aren’t accustomed to. Does it induce more muffs? Who knows, but it’s a philosophy that Bill Belichick uses and every little detail counts.

Jones just does so many things well. He’s uses the sidelines well, can flip the field, and is good at avoiding touchbacks. Almost 40% of his punts are downed inside the 20-yard line, which is the all time best percentage of any Cowboys punter in franchise history. Only two active punters who have been in the league at least three seasons (Kansas City’s stud punter Dustin Colquitt and Atlanta’s Matt Boshell) have done this at a higher rate in their careers. So yeah, he’s aight.

24 Ryan Switzer

Have you ever got a phone call from someone claiming to be your long, lost uncle right after you’ve done something great and started getting recognized in the public eye? Yeah, me neither, but once the North Carolina receiver started turning heads in college, former Cowboys coach Barry Switzer reached out to Ryan’s father to determine if there was some sort distant relationship. There wasn’t. Sorry, Barry.

"He actually called me my junior year of college and he said he would claim me because I was good,'' Ryan Switzer said. "Our relationship has been growing for a couple of years now.”

Cousin? Does Barry not realize there is almost a 60-year age difference between the two? How about grandson? If you’re going to make something up, at least make it somewhat believable.

Barry loves the kid and a lot of Cowboys fans do too. It’s not often that so much buzz is created for a fourth-round draft pick. But there is good reasons for it. He started his college career out with a bang, scoring five return touchdowns his freshmen year. Then, throughout his career, he slowly developed into a legit receiving threat, improving each season and finally finishing his senior year as Mitch Trubisky’s top target.

There are two big reasons to love this pick. First, he’s got good skills. He runs very sharp routes, he doesn’t drop passes, and his footwork is amazing. Look at him move...

Not only is he a good receiver, but he fits in perfectly in the Cowboys offense. Switzer doesn’t have the ability to go up and steal a ball like some of the top talents in the draft do, but that’s okay - he won’t have to. He has to rely on a well-placed ball to be effective, but that’s okay - his QB throws well placed balls. And he doesn’t have the get-away speed to be a deep threat down the field, but that’s okay - the Cowboys have Dez Bryant and Terrance Williams for that.

The Cowboys already have several players on offense that are going to cause opposing defenses fits. Adding a guy who will be difficult to cover just gives Dak Prescott another weapon to play with. While it will be fun to watch the Cowboys new punt returner in action, Switzer will be a factor on offense as well.

23 Anthony Hitchens

The 2014 draft for the Cowboys was kinda wacky. First off you had that whole Zack Martin vs. Johnny Manziel ordeal. While Martin was the preferred choice, fans were a little disappointed that Aaron Donald didn’t fall to the Cowboys. Then, the team traded up in the second round to get DeMarcus Lawrence and that produced mixed reactions. On one hand, the they got a potentially good edge rusher, but on the other hand - they lost out on a third-round pick. On a team that still had several holes on defense, that’s not an easy thing to part with. And then there was the Anthony Hitchens pick which came out of nowhere. Some were upset because nobody seemed to know who he was and he was being labeled a “reach” by the draft experts. Then others were upset that the Cowboys used a draft resource on a position that would essentially serve a Sean Lee’s backup, as a middle linebacker reserve.

When Martin ran over Sean Lee in camp, causing the star linebacker to end his season before it even started - fans sang a little different tune about the Cowboys having Hitchens in their back pocket. And after he played in all 16 games and recorded 84 tackles that year, Hitchens future looked bright in Dallas.

But 2015 was a down year for Hitchens as the presence of Rolando McClain and Sean Lee on the field together limited his role. But last year, with no McClain around, Hitchens was back out there again. He started all 16 games.

Hitchens isn’t a guy that really excites people. He’s not an exceptional athlete and he’s the smallest LB on the team. He’s a disciplined player and doesn’t missile himself recklessly towards ball carriers, which is good, but it also reduces his chances of making splash plays.

But what you may not like about Hitchens is the same thing you may like. He’s locked into the game. His patience usually means he’s not going to be fooled and can at least make some type of play on the ball. Despite being a smaller guy, he doesn’t play like it. He’ll explode through the runner. While we may have heard about him getting nicked up here and there, Hitch doesn’t miss football games. He’s played in all 48 games of his three-year career. He’s an extremely hard worker and is smart enough to handle any of three linebacker positions. There is nothing flashy about how he plays, but you can always rely on him to do his job.

Here is a quasi athletic play from a guy that just knows what he’s supposed to do:

Some people have made Hitchens an afterthought with the debut of Jaylon Smith nearing, but don’t write this guy off. He’ll be in the mix and until Smith can prove he’s healthy, the Cowboys will have the safe, capable LB always ready to go. And based on the practices so far, Hitchens isn’t going to just step aside.

Bryan Broaddus chose Hitchens for the best defensive veteran when selecting his camp standouts a few weeks ago:

I am going to go with Hitchens for the simple fact that he was all over the field during the majority of the snaps he played. Last season, I don’t believe he was ready to start at the “Mike” with Rolando McClain still in the picture. This year is a different story. He looks healthy, in shape and mentally sharp. Even if Jaylon Smith shows promise during camp, I don’t see Hitchens giving up that job easily.

22 Taco Charlton

When the team has a habit of drafting All Pros in the first round sometimes the expectations are high. This creates a high bar for Taco Charlton to live up to. All that aside, the team got themselves a good edge rusher for the future. But that’s the future. As for the here and now, he’s going to be a work in progress.

Charlton is a big guy with great athletic traits for a player his size and that is very appealing when you look at what he can become. But while potential is great, there are some things he can do right now that will make him a quality rotational player.

  • He has an explosive get-off. I know it sounds like a broken record for Cowboys fans, but this is an all-important trait for a pass rusher in Rod Marinelli’s system. Taco shows great anticipation as he times the snap well and explodes out of his stance. He’s not the fastest runner, but this great short area burst is vital to the craft of a pass rusher and Taco’s got it.
  • It’s all about the bend, baby. Going against blockers who have a 50 pound advantage requires rushers to use their quickness, but they can’t just race around them. Ultimately, they must get into a battle of leverage. Charlton has great flexibility and knows how to dip his shoulders and turn his hips, without losing his balance. He keeps his feet going while curving toward the quarterback.
  • Moves like Jagger. Charlton is still raw to where his hand usage and repertoire of pass rushing moves are only going to improve, but he’s got a few good ones already. Of course, it helps to have long arms. He can use his length to stab at the linemen, making it difficult for the blocker to reach his body in order to get his hands on him. He can rip and set the edge. And then there’s his menacing spin move that he’s mastered. This is my favorite play because the guy intercepting the ball is also A Cowboy. The left tackle doesn’t even know what just happened.

The Cowboys are hoping he can be the answer at right defensive end. It’s going to take some time to get there and the team has some solid options at defensive end this year, but Charlton should be able to give the team some good reps this season. Fans need to be patient. At least with Taco, he’s a great character guy and should be able to max out his potential as a player.

21 Jaylon Smith

The Cowboys love getting something for a bargain price. If’you’re a veteran BTB follower, then you know that Jaylon Smith was the fifth player on the team’s board in 2016. And you know why you know that (leaked draft board).

So getting the fifth-best player on your board would seem like a Christmas gift when he’s still sitting there at pick 34. But the reason Smith was available was because of a serious knee injury he suffered in the Fiesta Bowl in January of last year. The mystery of “will he ever be the same” is something that nobody knows the answer to. The Cowboys had inside information that there was a good chance Smith recovers and the team decided to exercise some patience for a chance to get a star player in the future. The only question is - will that patience pay off?

That is what we are all about to learn over the next few months. Early reports are positive as Smith has looked good on the football field. But as to be expected, the goal posts keep getting moved as people try to keep their expectations in check. The same kinda thing happened last year with Dak as they tried to rationalized why he looked so good too. “That’s just preseason” or “wait until teams have some tape on him” were just cliches that people threw out to justify their denial of how well he was doing. For Jaylon, it’s a bit different though. The “wait until they’re in pads” is a legitimate request. However, the fact that he’s moving around so well isn’t something that should be tossed aside. Fans have every right to be excited. The upside is terrific. Here is what Bob Sturm had this to say about him before the Cowboys even drafted him:

He is so good that it is believed that despite the gruesome injury and the delay in his comeback, he will still go before pick No. 20 to some team that can't pass up his ability. If, somehow, he were to be available when the Cowboys come to the podium at the start of Round 2, this would be the type of player that would have them sprinting to turn in their card. He seems like a "can't miss" talent who will likely slide right to a team that is already pretty good and he will push them over the top. It may not be in 2016, but Jaylon Smith will be a star very soon.

The team will continue to be cautious with Smith. They are going to do everything the right way to ensure he has the best chances to get to that elite level. He’s extremely likely to wear a brace this season that will help him carry out the full movement of his foot. But he’s still the one driving the movement and he’s still the one diagnosing where his body is going to go. There are so many positives about how this kid plays football that many people feel great about what type of player they’ll have in Smith. And it’s brought a calmness within the organization. Serenity now, super-stardom later.

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.

Ranking The Cowboys Roster 61-70: Which Players Are On The Outside?

Ranking The Cowboys Roster 51-60: Which Players Are On The Bubble?

Ranking the Cowboys roster 41-50: Which players will surprise and earn roster spots?

Ranking the Cowboys roster 31-40: Savvy vets, key backups, and special team aces

Ranking the Cowboys roster 26-30: Players who need to be ready to take on a bigger role

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