We are down to the final 20 players. While many of the players mentioned previously are fighting for a starting spot or even a position on the team, these next five players don’t have much to worry about. The veterans listed have all been starters before and the lone rookie will be one soon enough. Before we get started, here is a recap of the last 50 players:
As we move on to the next group, you’ll find a couple players who were once viewed as strong pieces to the future, but are now trying to reassert themselves as as valuable members of the team. You’ll find some underrated veterans as well as the last remaining rookie to be ranked in this series.
Here are players 16 through 20:
20 DeMarcus Lawrence
So much is made about the great mystery of Jaylon Smith and what he’ll be capable of this year, but there is another second-round pick that enters this season with a lot of mystery. Like Smith, DeMarcus Lawrence was also a 34th overall pick for which the team had big expectations. But things haven’t gone according to plan as Lawrence has had a roller coaster career in Dallas.
It all started in 2014 when his rookie season was delayed after he fractured his right foot in training camp. He only played in the second half of the regular season and never registered a single sack. He did show up in the postseason, however, recording a sack in each of the Cowboys two playoff games. That was enough to make fans excited for the future.
In 2015, Lawrence would play in all 16 games, but he was completely non-existent during the first half of the season. He would finish the year strong, including a seven game stretch where he had seven sacks. Lawrence would end the season with a total of eight sacks, which was good enough to lead the team. He did all his damage from the left side and benefited by having Greg Hardy on the right. Another strong finish again brought forth some hope that Lawrence could be a legit force on the edge.
But then 2016 happened. It was a disaster for Lawrence. It started with a back surgery in January. It continued with a four-game suspension to open the season for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. He struggled throughout the season dealing with a shoulder issue as well as that lingering back issue. He finished the season with one measly sack. Is this what the Cowboys had in mind when they traded away a third-round pick to move up and get the promising edge rusher from Boise State? Not hardly.
After three seasons in Dallas, it’s really hard to predict what’s coming next. He had another back surgery this offseason and appears to be healthy. It’s time to finally make a difference. At least that’s what he’s telling everyone.
Cowboys fans I promise you I'm coming back bigger badder and better than ever. Surgery went great! #thereisnooffseason— Demarcus Lawrence (@TankLawrence) February 2, 2017
Fans don’t want promises, they want results. It’s possible that Tank returns to the field healthy and starts becoming the impact player we were all hoping for. And it couldn’t come at a better time for him because he’s in a contract year this season. A strong season could force a tough decision for the Cowboys next offseason. But if he struggles again, the team could very easily chalk this up as a loss and move forward.
19 Terrance Williams
The Cowboy receiver has been a part of some big plays during his career in Dallas. Whether they’ve been good or bad, he’s had a knack for showing up in some game-changing plays late in the game. He’s either the hero or the goat. It started early for Williams. In his first career start filling in for an injured Miles Austin, Williams made a catch down near the goal line, but had the ball knocked out of his hands as he was trying to extend for the touchdown. The costly gaffe ended the Cowboys chances to comeback against the San Diego Chargers.
I bet some of you forgot about that play. That was a while ago. What’s fresh in our mind however, is when Williams failed to run out of bounds last year that would have given the Cowboys a chance to beat the New York Giants in the season opener. After winning the next 11 games, fans had a lot of time to talk about how the team could be undefeated had it not been for William’s miscue.
While those moments stand out, so do some of William’s big catches. The most famous one came during the Cowboys road game against the Seattle Seahawks. On 3rd and 20, Tony Romo hit Williams who toe tapped his way to a 23-yard gain. The Cowboys would score the go-ahead touchdown three plays later.
Williams also had some big plays in the 2014 playoffs, scoring two big touchdowns on catch-and-run slant routes. He also caught the game-winning touchdown pass as Romo led the Cowboys on a late-game, comeback victory.
Most people should remember that Williams was the bonus third-round draft pick that came with the trade back with the San Francisco 49ers than landed the Cowboys Travis Frederick. Williams is no stranger to criticism as he hasn’t emerged as a legit #1 WR when Dez Bryant has missed games. He’s viewed as the “body catcher” that doesn’t show up when you need him.
Criticism aside, Williams is a valuable piece to the Cowboys offense. He’s a great blocking wide receiver and works the sideline as good as anyone. His ability to adjust his route to open up a new target for a scrambling quarterback has been a trait that’s been with him since college. Both Romo and Dak Prescott have benefited immensely from that.
He just re-signed with the Cowboys on a team friendly deal to stay with his brothers. After talking with Williams last month, he’s definitely one of those great guys a team is lucky to have. His role in Dallas will be the same as it’s always been. He’ll be one guy in a group of many that can hurt you. He’ll block for Ezekiel Elliott, he’ll move the chains with a toe-tapper, and if you’re not careful - he’ll burn you across the middle.
18 Tyrone Crawford
A couple years ago, the future of the Cowboys defensive line looked to be centered around two Boise State stars, DeMarcus Lawrence and Tyrone Crawford. Tank on the edge and Crawford on the inside - could you imagine how good they’d be? Well, imagination is all we got because injuries have derailed their chances of being the impact players us fans were expecting. For Lawrence, it’s been his back that’s given him trouble, but for Crawford it’s been his shoulders. Over the last two seasons, he’s had two shoulder surgeries. Last offseason, he underwent surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder. And in January, he had surgery on his left shoulder.
Each new season brings with it new hope that Crawford will emerge healthy and return to form when he started showing promise on the inside. He transitioned from DE to DT in 2014 and appeared to find his niche. Despite only hauling in five sacks in 2015, he was very disruptive on the line. Last season because of suspensions, Crawford was asked to play on the edge again, which he never looked comfortable doing.
There is good news and bad news for Crawford this season. The good news is that the Cowboys have a slew of edge rushers now so he is free to go back to his more natural position as a 3-tech defensive tackle. The bad news is that someone else has taken over his spot. While Crawford was manning the edge, rookie Maliek Collins took over his position in the middle and played extremely well. Collins could be a breakout star for the defense this season, so where does that leave Crawford?
Not only does the veteran hybrid defensive lineman find himself fighting to stay healthy, but he doesn’t have a definitive spot on the line. While Crawford is a good run-stopper, he’s not big enough to play the 1-tech and handle the constant punishment that position endures. And it’s not wise to move Collins either as he’s a pass rushing DT. The team doesn’t want to mess up a good thing and move him away from his strength. Playing the edge might be an option (especially while David Irving is suspended), but the Cowboys have so many candidates for that job as well. Could Crawford be reduced to a reserve role?
Two years ago, Crawford signed a five-year, $45 million extension, which infuriated a lot of fans. This price tag isn’t something you want to see on a backup player, but what’s done is done. His dead money cap hit is too much of a headache to deal with for the next couple seasons, so his performance won’t truly come into question until 2019. For now, it’s just best to figure out where the team can get the most from him.
He’s still has a quick first-step, changes direction well, and is relentless in chasing people down. A healthy Crawford is a good player. He was a raw prospect with limited experience coming out of college and the upside he once had appears to have faded, but he’s still a quality player. His position flex has been very valuable to the team so far which has been a nice crutch, but it’s also hindered his ability to find a home and excel. With the layout of the Cowboys current defensive line, it’s hard to see that changing for him.
In a Rod Marinelli defense, there is nothing wrong with a solid rotational guy. Just whenever Crawford’s price comes up, look away and you’ll be fine.
17 Chidobe Awuzie
The Cowboys have a brand new cornerback and boy are us fans excited, but the first order of business is to make sure you pronounce his name correctly. If you follow Landon McCool, he’s been trying to help you out all summer.
People are going to butcher his name all year so here is your chance to show your real fandom and get it right. You’re welcome. Of course, if you’re lazy you can always just fall back on “Cheeto” as that’s perfectly acceptable. Also, don’t forget his last name has four syllables, not three (Ah-Woo-Zee-Ay).
Now that we’ve touched on the important stuff, let’s get back to football.
The Cowboys love getting a first-round caliber player in the second round. They struck out in 2015 (Randy Gregory), the jury is still out from 2016 (Jaylon Smith), and now they have landed a steal of a player in Chidobe Awuzie. The great news for the Cowboys is that he’s healthy and an upstanding character guy so unlike the first two - he’s not in danger of missing any action.
There are a lot of things to love about the rookie from Colorado. From a general fundamental standpoint, he has fluid steps and changes direction extremely well. He knows how to get his head turned around to make a play on the ball. From a Cowboys specific perspective, he checks off a lot of their boxes. He’s got great football IQ and can recognize route combinations and exhibits great decision making. He’s flexible as he can be effective inside and out. And he’s a physical player. He’ll jam receivers and he’ll fly in off the blitz to take out the quarterback.
Cowboys offense coordinator Scott Linehan has been given a lot of toys to play with over the years. It’s about time Marinelli gets some. This kid is going to be fun to watch.
Some people might pause about a rookie player being so high on these rankings, but they shouldn’t. Rookies can play well too. If you’re keeping score at home, there are four rookies from the 2016 draft that haven’t shown up yet on the countdown. I have no idea where each of them would have been ranked last year, but I can assure you - it wasn’t high enough.
16 La’el Collins
Every year there are incidents that happen right before the draft that causes a players stock to fall drastically. Whether it’s drug use, domestic violence, or being questioned for a double homicide - players have missed out on hearing their name called on day one. For the Cowboys, all three are applicable. They’ve selected a player that has fallen because of testing positive for marijuana at the combine (Randy Gregory). They’ve selected a player that fell because of a looming domestic violence trial (Jourdan Lewis). And then there is the La’el Collins incident.
A day before the 2015 NFL Draft, Collins had to leave his comfy hotel room in Chicago and fly back to Baton Rouge to answer questions regarding the murder of his pregnant ex-girlfriend. His agent, Rick Smith recounts what was going through Collins’ mind during this time.
“He was extremely upset,” Smith says. “He knew the severity of the situation in Baton Rouge, but he didn’t understand how it would affect the football side. He said, ‘Am I even going to be drafted? I want to be here, this is my dream, to walk across that stage. I had nothing to do with this. Why do I have to go home?’ ”
On draft day Collins would take a lie detector test and his supporters would partake in a conference call a few hours prior to answer any questions and comfort NFL executives who were considering taking a chance on him. But to no avail. As the draft commences, Collins watched helplessly as hundreds of thousands of dollars were flushed away with each new draft selection. The business aspect of this unfortunate situation quickly shifted his agent’s attention towards keeping teams from taking a flyer on him once he passed the premium rounds. While his situation wasn’t something teams wanted to risk a good draft pick on, it’s a different story later in the draft. His agents attempted to bluff that if Collins wasn’t taken by day two, that he would re-enter next year’s draft.
Before making its seventh-round selection, one team sends Smith one last text message.
“There was a team that had drafted four offensive linemen,” Smith says, “and they said, ‘We’re taking him.’ And I texted back, ‘You’re going to embarrass yourself. You’re going to waste this pick.’
It worked. Collins would go undrafted. He would now be able to choose the team he would play for.
Sadness quickly turned to happiness as the unwanted tackle from Louisiana State was sitting at a table at Jerry Jones’ mansion and eating a steak dinner with Tony Romo, the Cowboys offensive line, and their coaches. He suddenly found himself very much wanted.
Jones talks about persevering through hard times, and how fighting through them molds you as a man. One-by-one, the players assure La’el and his mother, Loyetta, that Jerry will have his back.
Lael Collins and the Cowboys at that difference making dinner at Jerry Jones' mansion. Romo, Witten, the oline, Jason pic.twitter.com/k4gmWY5y3y— Clarence Hill Jr (@clarencehilljr) May 7, 2015
The Cowboys were able to sell their pitch well as we all know how it played out. A top collegiate tackle would fall into the Cowboys lap. It worked out great for Dallas, but it was a tough break for Collins. Ultimately he would lose nearly $15 million just because his name was tied to a murder case, despite not ever being a suspect.
Collins joined the team as a backup guard, but saw action early as Ron Leary got hurt. He would take over the starting job and never give it up. Last season, he suffered a torn ligament in his toe and was placed on injured reserve. Leary regained his starting role and played his way to a nice free agency paycheck this offseason.
With Leary leaving and Doug Free retiring, the Cowboys have two spots to fill on the offensive line. For the third straight season, Collins will find himself in a new role, graduating to the starting right tackle position. Will this be a tough transition for him? It shouldn’t be. He’s done this before and has all the tools to be effective. He’s strong and has a mean streak to punish defenders. He should be dominant in the running game. Pass protection won’t be without it’s challenges though. His balance and lateral movement needs improvement, but he’ll be fine on the right side. Will he be flawless? Absolutely not, but neither was Doug E. Fresh. You can’t discuss La’el without showing the Bobby Wagner pancake. It’s another rule I have.
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.