clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Ranking the Dallas Cowboys roster 1-5: The best of the best

The Cowboys 2017 roster rankings conclude.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Minnesota Vikings Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

The wait is finally over. I know everyone has been on pins and needles waiting for these last five players (okay, not really), but alas the end has come. Before we get started let’s take a stroll down memory lane. Here are players 26 through 70:

And then there is the top 25 players, filled with many exciting names.

But who are the best of the best? Here are the top five players on the Dallas Cowboys:

Sean Lee

For years I’ve heard people say if Sean Lee can just stay healthy, he’d be one of the best linebackers in the league. As it turned out, those people were right. Lee is coming off of two straight seasons where he’s been able to stay on the field and has played spectacular in the process. The combination of moving him to the weak-side spot + beefing up the interior defensive line has preserved his health and given the Cowboys a star defensive general on the field.

The Cowboys made the Penn State linebacker their second-round pick in 2010 when his stock dropped after suffering two injuries to both knees over the course of his final two seasons of college. It didn’t sway the Cowboys for going after him as they gave the Philadelphia Eagles a fourth-round draft pick to move up four places in order to snag Lee.

He first caught our attention when he picked off Peyton Manning twice during his rookie season, earning him Defensive Player of the Week honors. Lee would develop a knack for picking off passes as he’s had two seasons where he’s reached four interceptions. But he would also develop a knack for getting hurt. During his career he has missed time due to a fractured left wrist, right big toe, and most alarming - another major injury to his knee. Lee has simply been fantastic when he’s on the field, but he has missed time due to injury in every single season of his career...until last year.

Sure, he didn’t play in all 16 games last season, but he was a healthy scratch in the season finale against the Eagles last year. Lee had a phenomenal season. He had a career-best 174 tackles, including 12 of them for a loss. Health has always caused the Pro Bowl to miss him, but not anymore as he’s made the team in each of the last two seasons, including being voted a first-team All Pro last year.

A healthy Lee is one of the best linebackers in the league. He is a consummate professional and takes it to a whole new level when how he prepares himself. The commitment he had to his rehab after his knee injury in 2014 has allowed him to get back to where he can be a real difference maker. And let’s be clear here - Lee is a true game-changer for this defense. He’s the type of player that will show up and make a big play that will have huge implications on the dynamic of the game. He’s done it again and again and again.

Lee is the anchor of this defense. He’s a team leader and is the guy that gets all the troops lined up. Lee understands the game and is always at the ball He has a keen ability to read the play and can see it come before the ball is snapped. If you couple that with his great instincts, you got a linebacker that is a missile to the ball carrier.

Zack Martin

Before it became a regular thing for the Cowboys, Zack Martin took “breaking out onto the scene” to new heights. He stepped in right away and was an immediate star, earning All Pro honors as a rookie, which at the time was something that a Cowboys player hadn’t been done since Calvin Hill 45 years prior.

The Cowboys drafted Martin with the 16th pick overall in the 2014 draft, in a pick that many people questioned. For starters, you had some that were super excited about the opportunity to draft Johnny Manziel. I mean how else are the Cowboys going to find their eventual successor to Tony Romo? And while Jerry Jones may have stewed on that decision for a while, it didn’t take very long to bury any debate that Martin wasn’t the right choice.

With Martin, the team had the their third installment to the new great wall. The identity of this team started taking form. The star right guard was hot from the beginning and has shown no sign of slowing down. He never misses a game, flattens his defenders, and makes Pro Bowls. He’s just your average, run-of-the-mill superstar so there’s nothing to see here.

When your twitter profile pic looks like this, there’s a good chance you’re a team player.

The only thing left to debate regarding Martin is how much should the front office give him when they sign him to a contract extension. A deal is imminent which means this offensive line is here to stay for a long time. While negotiations are still going on as both sides try to get it done, it hasn’t in the slightest deterred Martin from keeping his mind right where it needs to be.

“I’ve talked to my guys and I’m focused on the season,” he said. “I’m focused on helping this team win games and being a part of this team. I’ll let those guys handle that and keep doing my business.”

It looks like it won’t be happening this year, but don’t fret - your payday is coming, Zack.

Ezekiel Elliott

Anyone can run behind the Cowboys offensive line, right? Maybe. But not everyone can run behind it as vigorously as Ezekiel Elliott. His 1,631 yard performance as a rookie is evidence of this as Zeke worked for every single one of those yards. Whether he was running around defenders, barreling through them, or flat out hurdling them - he just kept going. Last season, he was the mainstay of the Cowboys offense. Everything ran through Elliott and as a result, the chains kept moving.

Sure, Dak Prescott had a great deal to do with the team’s success last year, but nothing makes things easier on a rookie quarterback that having a running back that can help put the offense in manageable down and distances. And it certainly didn’t hurt that the defense had no choice to load the box in order to stop Zeke. The Cowboys would run, run, and then run some more. All they had to do is feed him. If only he could come up with some secret hand gesture to let the coaches know to keep doing that.

Elliott will pound and pound until defenses start wearing down. And then eventually, when defenders are tired they start becoming late to their assignment, this happens...

After being on the wrong end of so many late game heroics in recent years, I can’t tell you how satisfying that play was.

He’s just a do it all running back. You need a yard on fourth and inches? No problem. You want him to take an 83-yard screen to the house? That can be arranged. And if you need him to stay back and help out on a blitz, well let’s just say he gets head over heels excited for that opportunity.

Elliott can run inside and he can run outside. He can catch passes and he can pass protect. With Zeke on the team, it allows the Cowboys to play their type of offense where they will keep coming at you and eventually wear you down.

With the possibility of Elliott facing some type of suspension fans have wondered how the team would do without him. Last month I wrote about how the loss of Zeke would hurt the team more than some people realize, highlighting these three strengths:

  • #1 in the league gaining 938 yards after contact
  • #1 in the league with 22 breakaway runs gaining 15 yards or more
  • #3 in the league with a success rate of 84.8% in short yardage situations (3 yards or less from a first down or touchdown).

Elliott is a complete back and he is an absolute perfect fit for the Cowboys offense.

Tyron Smith

Despite only being officially named the Cowboys head coach for a few months, Jason Garrett convinced Jerry Jones to do something he’s never done before - draft an offensive lineman in the first round. The 6’5” 320-pound chiseled specimen from USC was only 20 years old and actually played second fiddle to Matt Khalil in college (Khalil won the left tackle job so Smith manned the right). The Cowboys selected Smith with the seventh overall pick in the 2011 draft.

During his rookie season with the Cowboys, Smith played right tackle while Doug Free played on the left side. But Free would struggle that year, committing too many penalties and leaving Tony Romo’s blindside unprotected too often. The following year, Smith and Free would switch places. With quick feet, Smith glides laterally with ease and would use his 36 in reach to thwart off pass rushers. Former NFL lineman-turned analyst Ross Tucker describes Smith:

"If you went into a computer lab and tried to create the perfect prototype tackle, it would be him," says Tucker. Smith does things to guys -- toys with them, humbles them -- that you honestly shouldn't be able to do to people in the NFL."

The is no doubt he is built like a brick house. 320-pound offensive linemen aren’t supposed to have a six-pack. It’s scary.

Smith can beat you in different ways. If a right defensive end tries to use his speed to get around the edge, Smith will counter with his own speed and just politely escorts him completely around the pocket of the quarterback. The scenic route will get you nowhere with Tyron. He has amazing footwork to get himself balanced and defenders are not going to win battles when he’s squared up on them. And that’s when he strikes them with his power.

The Cowboys knew they had something special in Smith and in 2014 rewarding him with an eight-year, $109 million deal making him the highest paid offensive linemen. He would continue his dominance that season and even was named Offensive Player of the Week after the Cowboys big road win against the Seattle Seahawks. To gain some perspective on how impressive that is, he was the first offensive linemen to win that award in a decade.

He’s only 26-years-old he’s already been in the league six years, the last four of which have been Pro Bowl seasons. He’s helped the offensive line pave the way for a new 1,000 yard rusher in each of the last three seasons. Smith has been a regular fixture in the Cowboys offensive line throughout his career, but last season he missed three games due to injuries. He’s gotten extra days of rest here and there bringing about a concern that his back could be bothering him. Will he be able to be his dominant self in 2017? Cowboys fans sure hope so.

Dak Prescott

It was wasn’t too long ago and many of us didn’t know who Dak Prescott was. And if you’re Barry Switzer, you still may not know (Switzer didn’t know who Prescott was at Jerry’s enshrinement).

But people know who he is now as he had a great NFL debut season, winning rookie of the year. Prescott became one of only 12 rookie quarterbacks to help lead his team to the playoffs. He had six rushing touchdowns, which is the most ever by a Cowboys quarterback. He helped lead the team to a franchise tying best, 13 wins. These are all impressive achievements for a rookie quarterback.

Rookie quarterbacks have proven before to be quick out of the gate, but then not much for stamina. We’ve seen it before so it’s not unreasonable for fans to be leery of the “sophomore slump.” Robert Griffin III dazzled fans his rookie year, but things went south for him pretty fast. Could the same happen to Dak?

The coaches certainly don’t believe so. For Prescott, it was more than just a good rookie season. It was a historic one in fact, performing at a level higher of those rookies before him. He finished with a 104.9 passer rating, 67.8 completion percentage, and a 23 to 4 TD/INT ratio. These are all best statistics by any rookie quarterback to ever play in the NFL. Ever.

But it’s not just what he did compared to other rookies that amazes people, but rather what he did compared to anyone.

He was so good in fact that he made the one of the Cowboys most accomplished passers expendable. Prescott now has firmly planted himself as the team’s new franchise quarterback which was no easy task. A healthy Tony Romo was a great asset to have, so rolling with Prescott speaks to the level of confidence the coaches have in the kid. Besides a great display of quarterbacking skills, Prescott’s maturity and approach to the game has people feeling real good about his second season.

Prescott has looked great in camp. He’s had a whole offseason to prepare as the team’s starter gotten a lot more reps in camp than he did a year ago. He played well in preseason completing 18 of 22 passes for 219 yards and a two touchdowns. He has everyone around him believe in him, including his future Hall of Fame tight end:

“He just continues to answer the bell,” Witten said. “His accuracy, decision-making, knowing when to check it down and the smart play that he makes, his communication, I think for a veteran guy to see a young player have success and to come back the next year and have this approach to want to get better, you’re seeing that pay off for him. Young guy, really good leader. He’s a great communicator and just playing the position at a really high level. I think that all gets us excited. Tremendous compliment to him for how he’s approached it. A lot of people when they have success, they don’t do that.”

Those are nice words and they mean a lot more coming from a player like Witten. And this has been the song we’ve been hearing from the get go with this kid, but can he continue to roll with the momentum he’s built up? If so, this could be a special season for the Cowboys.


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

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

Ranking the Cowboys roster 16-20: Talented players with unfulfilled potential

Ranking the Cowboys roster 11-15: Rising stars with something to prove

Rankings the Cowboys roster 6-10: Four pro bowlers and a breakout star