With the first practice of training camp just hours away let’s take a look at which Cowboys are most irreplaceable as we head into 2017. There’s a good amount of subjectivity in something like this and it’s a very difficult call, but after considering a scenario where a particular player is lost for the year I attempted to weigh several factors while compiling this list:
- Who the viable backups and alternatives are
- The impact of the player on their position group, entire unit and the overall team
- How well the team could scheme around losing the player
- Pure talent
Without any further adieu, here are the top 10 most irreplaceable Cowboys:
- Dak Prescott: The NFL is a quarterback league and when your backups are Kellen Moore, Zac Dysert, and Cooper Rush you better believe the rookie quarterback who made the Pro Bowl in his first season and set all kinds of records in the process will be first on a list like this.
- Tyron Smith: Everything about the Cowboys organizational philosophy over the last few years flows from the dominance of the offensive line, Smith is the best player on that line and probably the best at his position in the league. He also may be the top pure talent on the roster regardless of position. The only viable alternatives if Smith were to go down would be inserting the oft-injured and inexperienced Chaz Green, or attempting to shift Zack Martin or La’el Collins to a position they haven’t played since college, and creating another hole to fill with a new-face in the process elsewhere on the line. The team made do without him for a few games against weak competition last season but his combination of pure physical ability and the fact that he is the best player on the most important position group on the team slots him in at number two.
- Sean Lee: Rod Marinelli has done a great job of getting more out of less over the last few years, including in 2014 when Lee missed the entire season after tearing an ACL in OTA’s, but there is no denying that this defense revolves around Lee. He is not only the most talented defender on the team, he’s also the heart, soul, and brains of the unit. He literally never comes off the field, unless the coaching staff forces him to rest, and has a substantial impact against both the run and in coverage. Despite turning 30 last season Lee has showed no signs of slowing down as he earned First Team All-Pro honors, and even started to flash some ability to blitz. With the rest of the depth chart rounded out by Jaylon Smith, who will be eased back into action, Anthony Hitchens, road rage extraordinaire Damien Wilson, and Mark Nzeocha, it’s clear that the plan is to rely heavily on Lee once again. There is a case to be made that he should be number two on this list and the only thing that stopped me from putting him there is how heavily the team relies on the offensive line.
- Travis Frederick: After two seasons making Second Team All-Pro Frederick finally earned First Team honors last season, and many would say it was overdue. He is arguably the best center in the league and the leader of the offensive line as a whole, evidenced by Doug Free saying that the offensive line meeting room was “his room now”. Martin may be the better pure talent but the fact that the team has no true backup at center (they’re cross-training Jonathan Cooper but he has no starting experience at the position) elevates Frederick on this list. Another major reason that I put Frederick over Martin is his ability to call out defensive alignments and set formations, which was critical in helping out his young quarterback last season.
- Zack Martin: With three Pro Bowls and two First Team All-Pro nods in his first three years Martin is almost certainly the best guard in the league, and perhaps one of the top 5-10 offensive linemen regardless of position. I really struggled with placing him or Ezekiel Elliott in this spot but the real tiebreaker is the fact that Martin will play a big role in helping La’el Collins transition to right tackle after playing left tackle in college and left guard early in his NFL career. So in that respect Martin’s presence, or lack thereof, not only has a significant impact on the position that he plays but also the one next to him.
- Ezekiel Elliott: Placing Elliott was easily the most difficult decision on this list. It’s inarguable that he was the offense’s bell cow last season and looks like a transcendent talent at his position. If the team has any hopes of reaching the Super Bowl it will be because he improves on a rookie season that many would argue places him as the best running back in the league. With that said, Darren McFadden averaged 4.6 YPC in 2015 and finished fourth in the league in rushing yards despite not taking over until several games into the season and playing most games with Brandon Weeden or Matt Cassel at quarterback and a less than 100% Dez Bryant to scare defenses from dropping an eighth into the box. Alfred Morris can also grind out some touches as well if need be. I wouldn’t argue with someone who put Elliott fourth or even thirrd on a list like this, but the options behind him aren’t quite as dire as they are behind those above him.
- Dez Bryant: Despite the fact that Dak and the offense got along perfectly fine without Bryant for three games last season the fact remains that he is the only receiver that opposing defense’s feel that they have to devote double coverage to. Cole Beasley is an amazing slot/possession receiver but he has space to operate thanks to the presence of Dez. The same goes for Terrance Williams, who does well against single coverage but fails to make plays against double coverage, and Jason Witten, who is primarily only a threat within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage at this point. The offense can make do just fine without Bryant for a few games but at the end of the day he is the only player who brings an explosive downfield element in the passing game, and he is the only guy who Dak can throw to and expect him to make a play regardless of the coverage.
- Maliek Collins: The best player on the position group that is perhaps the biggest question mark on the roster. He is the team’s best interior pass-rusher, and perhaps even the best pass-rusher in general. As a rookie who missed almost the entire offseason he led the defensive line in snaps played and finished second on the team in sacks with five. He is the prototypical 3-technique in Marinelli’s defense, the first one he’s had since he’s been in Dallas, and if he can build off an excellent rookie season he could be the bedrock that stabilizes the entire defensive line.
- Byron Jones: There isn’t really anything special about Jones, but he is solid and versatile, and that is very valuable when you have a secondary that is full of youth and inexperience, particularly at his position. Jeff Heath barely has any starting experience and the only other options at safety are JAG’s like Robert Blanton or rookies/second-year players in Xavier Woods, Kavon Frazier, or even a possible cornerback-to-safety convert in Chidobe Awuzie. Either way, there isn’t much that you can hang your hat on at this position and while Jones certainly isn’t the playmaker that some of us crave at safety, his presence will help stabilize an otherwise uncertain group. His ability to play slot cornerback and matchup with tight ends 1-on-1 in man coverage also contribute to this ranking.
- Jason Witten: At 35 years of age it’s clear that Witten is slowing down as he averaged under 10 YPC last season and posted his lowest receiving yard total since his rookie season. Despite that Witten is still a target that defenses must respect in the short to intermediate, especially on third down, and he is still one of Prescott’s most trusted targets when the play starts to break down. Some may argue that taking him off the field in certain situations in lieu of a Ryan Switzer could be a good thing, and I wouldn’t argue, but Witten’s quiet dependability in both the run and pass game is something that will go unnoticed until he’s gone. Even if he isn’t what he once was the lack of his presence would be obvious, especially considering that he barely missed a single snap last season and the rest of the tight end depth chart is rounded out by an injured Geoff Swaim, an injured James Hanna, and Rico Gathers who has all of about 18 months of experience playing football. Then of course there is also the fact that Witten is the unquestioned leader of the team and probably the most respected man in the locker room.
Cole Beasley: The team leader in receptions and receiving yards in 2016, although a lot of that had to do with Bryant missing a handful of games. With that said, Beasley is one of Prescott’s most trusted targets and in many ways has slowly taken over Witten’s role as the primary short to intermediate target in the passing game. You could argue that Beasley is the second option in the passing game behind Bryant, despite the fact that he is slot-only and can’t lineup outside like Terrance Williams. If the team hadn’t drafted a reasonable facsimile in Ryan Switzer he probably would be in the top 10.
Dan Bailey: It’s hard to quantify just what the value is of having one of the best kickers in the league, but luckily the Cowboys find themselves in that position with Bailey. 52-yarder with less than a minute left to tie a divisional round playoff game? No problem. 49-yarder down 10 in the 4th quarter to cut the deficit to one score? Got it. 53-yarder in Pittsburgh? Don’t worry about it. Bailey is clearly one of the best and most consistent kickers in the league and the difference between him and a replacement-level kicker would be significant.
La’el Collins: The forgotten man in much of the media’s recent outcry that the Cowboys offensive line is some sort of severely decimated unit due to the losses of Ron Leary and Doug Free. What many who don’t watch the Cowboys on a weekly basis fail to realize is that Free was a liability in pass protection last year and Collins could actually represent a sizable upgrade in that regard. I couldn’t place him in the top 10 for the simple fact that he missed almost all of last season and is shifting to a new position.