On March 3rd, we wrote this post to get a snapshot of the Dallas Cowboys’ roster.
It’s intended to provide an overview of the Dallas Cowboys roster as it stands now, projected over the next several years, including the salary cap hits for all players, when their contracts expire, their current age, and approximate value according to Pro Football Reference. This endeavor was made possible by Spotrac, which provides most of the data in the tables below.
If you compare this article to that earlier one, you can see how dramatically the Cowboys reshaped their roster this offseason. We are going to show you exactly how the Cowboys addressed their issues, and assess where they still have work to do.
(Table notes: AV is approximate value, cap numbers are by season, RFA, UFA and ERFA is restricted, unrestricted, and exclusive rights free agent, xx under AV denotes the player didn’t play for the Cowboys last year. Players are sorted by most to least expensive in 2017 within their groups. Suspended players are also included.)
The quarterback position is the number one reason why the outlook for the Dallas Cowboys is amazing over the next several years. Not only do the Cowboys have a new franchise quarterback coming off the best rookie season in NFL history in Dak Prescott, who led the team to a 13-2 record, and is the NFL’s most valuable player when you consider his playing ability and contract, but now they have a rookie backup who tore up pre-season in Cooper Rush. Over the next three seasons, if they don’t add anyone, this will be the cheapest position group on the roster - by far! It will be the cheapest quarterback group in the NFL - by far!
The Cowboys still owe Tony Romo $19,600,000 in dead money over the next two years, but even if you added that money back into this group, it’s well below what most of the Cowboys’ NFC rivals are spending on this position.
Most teams struggle to make the transition at quarterback - what are the Giants going to do as Eli Manning ages? What is Washington going to do when Kirk Cousins walks next year? Is Carson Wentz really the answer at Philadelphia?
Meanwhile, the Cowboys are set. In 2020, Dak Prescott is going to cost a lot of money. But for now, he’s going to allow the Cowboys to build a stronger and stronger roster.
Back in March, we identified the need as a backup quarterback who could win games. By a bit of luck, they’ve now landed another young quarterback who has looked poised, and is locked up for several years. The need has been addressed.
Position Grade: A+ The Cowboys have a young franchise quarterback who is going to get better and better, and now have a viable backup who is also likely to keep improving.
Looking at this group, you can see why the Cowboys decided to keep Noah Brown after drafting him, and drafted Ryan Switzer. Dez Bryant is 29, and Cole Beasley and Terrance Williams are both 28. They will all be over 30 when their current contracts run out. Brice Butler is a year younger, but he’s only signed for this year. Brown gives them a receiver they have four years to develop, and Switzer is insurance and the potential heir to the role that Cole Beasley plays.
Meanwhile, the ability to re-sign Terrance Williams for several years and Brice Butler for this year gives the team great continuity. Dez can be expected to have a bounce-back year, and Brice Butler has looked much better in training camp and preseason. The only setback is that Ryan Switzer missed most of camp and pre-season, though he did get time during OTAs.
Back in March, we said the need was two big wideouts and competition for Lucky Whitehead’s job. The Cowboys re-signed Terrance Williams and Brice Butler and drafted Noah Brown to more than cover the first part, and Ryan Switzer supplanted Lucky Whitehead to more than cover the second part.
Position Grade: A. This group is now set for several years. One of the team’s strengths.
The Ezekiel Elliott suspension saga has thrown a potential crimp in what had been one of the Cowboys’ major strengths. It’s possible Zeke will have his suspension reduced. It’s also possible he can tie things up in the courts and postpone any suspension.
Meanwhile, the Cowboys re-signed Darren McFadden to a cheap one-year deal and plan to use him as the lead back if Zeke is forced out for any games. Alfred Morris might have been cut, but came back looking slimmer and quicker in pre-season, and is good insurance if Zeke misses time. Rod Smith also came in slimmed down and seized the last running back position, showing surprising power as a tailback. His real value, though, is as a core special teams player.
The group is very deep for this year, but is going to have to add someone next offseason to back up Elliott.
Back in March, we said the need was at least one backup, and preferably a complete back. Re-signing Darren McFadden checked off that box. A rejuvenated Alfred Morris and surprising Rod Smith provide better depth than last year, which is needed due to Zeke’s looming suspension.
Position Grade: A-. We have to downgrade this because of the Zeke suspension uncertainty, and the fact that the Cowboys only have Zeke and Rod Smith signed beyond this season.
Jason Witten continues to roll along. He has looked better this pre-season than he has in many years, with Dak hitting him on some down-the-field looks that had almost been lost from his game. He signed a multi-year extension that will reduce his cap hit going forward, and let him play until he decides to retire.
James Hanna and Geoff Swaim are both back from injuries, and that should help the Cowboys running game. Meanwhile, Rico Gathers wowed us all in the first two pre-season games with long touchdown receptions, but then was hit in the head by Kavon Frazier in practice and is still in the concussion protocol. Rumor is he may be placed on IR which would force him to miss at least eight games.
Back in March, we said the team might consider drafting Witten’s eventual replacement. They didn’t, but Witten was extended and the team learned that Rico Gathers could be a stud. Hanna and Swaim also returned. Everything but the concussion for Gathers has been positive.
Position Grade: B+. Witten is steady if unspectacular, and Hanna and Swaim are solid blockers and special teams players, even if they won’t catch many passes. The key to improvement in this group rests with Rico Gathers, whose concussion is concerning. Let’s hope it clears before too long, as he’s a mismatch for any defender.
The core strength of the Cowboys is going through a transition. The team still needs to lock up Zack Martin on a longer term deal, but one expects it will happen. Doug Free retired and has been replaced by La’el Collins, who moved out from left guard. This seems very smart, as Collins has youth and strength on his side. Other than some unfortunate penalties, he went against Khalil Mack recently and more than held his own. The Cowboys also extended Collins through 2019 on a very reasonable deal.
The biggest question has been who will start at left guard. It looks like Jonathan Cooper will get the nod, mostly because his chief rival, Chaz Green, hasn’t been able to stay healthy. The Cowboys signed Cooper to a one year deal. They also added veteran Byron Bell, who has played every position except center.
Back in March, we said the team needed to add a future right tackle and have competition at left guard. La’el Collins answered the first issue, and there was lots of competition at left guard, with Jonathan Cooper appearing to emerge as the winner. Once Martin is extended, the Cowboys will only need to address the left guard position and depth next year.
Position Grade: A. Still the best offensive line in the NFL. As Collins grows into his right tackle role, it may actually get better.
The Cowboys did quite a bit to address this group this offseason. Taco Charlton was drafted in the first round, Damontre Moore and Stephen Paea were added as free agents, and Charles Tapper returned from injury. DeMarcus Lawrence is healthy again, and Maliek Collins is making great strides in year two. Overall, it appears to be a stronger group, even though David Irving (4 games) and Damontre Moore (2 games) are suspended to start the year.
Yesterday, the Cowboys continued to churn their roster to better this group. They claimed big defensive tackle Brian Price from Green Bay and cut Cedric Thornton, who had been a huge disappointment. They also traded for outside linebacker Jayrone Elliott from the Packers. He’s discussed in the linebacker group, but the Cowboys may use him as a situational pass rusher with speed as he recorded a sack every 77.5 snaps in Green Bay.
Back in March, we said the Cowboys needed an impact edge rusher, and two-three players overall. Several guys will compete to fill the former need: Taco Charlton, Damontre Moore, DaMarcus Lawrence, and perhaps Jayrone Elliott. The Cowboys also added Stephen Paea and Brian Price, and Charles Tapper returned from injury. No War Daddy, unless Maliek Collins turns into one, but a more solid group overall.
Position Grade: B. There is every hope this group is better, but they are going to have to show it on the field. They also suffered two suspensions, for a loss of six games.
The big news here is that Jaylon Smith is playing, and Anthony Hitchens starts the season recovering from a knee fracture. Smith looks amazing compared to where he’s come from, but still has a ways to go to return to dominance. Justin Durant was re-signed as insurance, and it’s a good thing with the Hitchens injury. On the day after rosters were trimmed, the Cowboys traded for Jayrone Elliott from Green Bay and cut Mark Nzeocha.
The team is set for this year, but will need to keep adding players going forward, with only Sean Lee and Smith signed through 2019.
Back in March, we said the team had no needs, but we found out Smith can play, signed Justin Durant as a free agent, and traded for Jayrone Elliott.
Position Grade: B+. A solid group that will be better when Hitchens returns, and as Smith continues to heal and get better. Potential Wilson suspension is concerning.
This group saw the biggest turnover of any this offseason. Brandon Carr, Barry Church, JJ Wilcox, and Mo Claiborne all left as free agents. To replace them, the Cowboys signed Nolan Carroll, promoted Jeff Heath to starting safety, drafted Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, and Xavier Woods, and recently traded for Bene Benwikere.
It’s too early to tell how well these moves will turn out, as Awuizie, Lewis, and Woods didn’t stay healthy enough in training camp and preseason to prove their reliability. That’s largely why Dallas gave up a conditional pick for the veteran Benwikere.
The good news is that Orlando Scandrick appears healthy and back in form.
Back in March, we said the Cowboys needed four players, and at least two starters. Nolan Carroll and Jeff Heath are the new starters, and the Cowboys added Carroll, Awuizie, Lewis, Woods, and Benwikere.
Position Grade: C+. With so much uncertainty, it’s hard to give a higher grade for now. This group could, however, show steady improvement over the year as the rookies get acclimated.
The Cowboys extended Chris Jones through 2021. Only the long snapper isn’t signed for multiple years.
Back in March, we identified the only need as extending Chris Jones, which was done.
Position Grade: A. Bailey remains super accurate, and Jones is a very good punter and great athlete.
For completeness, we included this chart on dead money. Because of Romo’s deal, it’s pretty significant, but not that damaging to the team because of how ridiculously cheap Dak Prescott and Cooper Rush are. On the plus side, the Cowboys saved $54 million with Romo’s retirement.
- Quarterbacks: A+ The Cowboys have a young franchise quarterback who is going to get better and better, and now have a viable backup who is also likely to keep improving.
- Wide receivers: A. This group is now set for several years. One of the team’s strengths.
- Running backs: A-. A great group for this year, but we have to downgrade it because of the Zeke suspension uncertainty, and the fact that the Cowboys only have Zeke and Rod Smith signed beyond this season.
- Tight ends: B+. Witten is steady if unspectacular, and Hanna and Swaim are solid blockers and special teams players, even if they won’t catch many passes. The key to improvement in this group rests with Rico Gathers, whose concussion is concerning. Let’s hope it clears before too long, as he’s a mismatch for any defender.
- Offensive line: A. Still the best offensive line in the NFL. As Collins grows into his right tackle role, it may actually get better.
- Defensive line: B. There is every hope this group is better, but they are going to have to show it on the field. They also suffered two suspensions, for a loss of six games.
- Linebackers: B+. A solid group that will be better when Hitchens returns, and as Smith continues to heal and get better. Potential Wilson suspension is concerning.
- Secondary: C+. With so much uncertainty, it’s hard to give a higher grade for now. This group could, however, show steady improvement over the year as the rookies get acclimated.
- Specialists. A. All three players excel at what they do.
The Dallas Cowboys are in very good shape with this roster. They are now 14th in the NFL in average age of their players at 25.91 years, and 14th in cap space at $11,851.000. They are still spending a lot more on offense than defense, with about 50% of their cap dollars going to offense, and 33.5% to defense. The rest is going to the dead money hits for Tony Romo, Cedric Thornton, Doug Free, and Brandon Carr, but this is offset by Dak Prescott’s super cheap contract.
The offense is stronger than it was in March, with a viable backup quarterback, a stable and solid set of wide receivers, depth at running back, and the offensive line coming together in its transition.
The defense also looks stronger on paper, but we haven’t seen enough of it yet, so it remains a bit of a mystery.
Is this team good enough to compete for the Super Bowl this year? Yes, if things fall well and the team gels on defense. But that will have to be the subject of another post.