We’ve been in a little bit of a dark place concerning the Cowboys with the disappointing 2017 season still lingering in the air. Coaching turnover, are the Cowboys trending downward, why did Dak Prescott regress in 2017, is head coach Jason Garrett the guy? These questions and more have been bandied about as we search for answers.
For a moment, let’s forget all that and get happy. I wanted to know who on the Cowboys roster is going to take a huge leap forward in their play in 2018. Who will have the proverbial ‘breakout’ year? So I asked the BTB front-page writers for their candidates. Here’s what I got.
Michael Strawn - Rico Gathers. Outside of Dak Prescott returning to 2016 form nothing could help this offense more than a downfield tight end receiving threat. Gathers looked like the dynamic, physical matchup nightmare fans dreamed of in the 2017 preseason. And with Jason Witten’s inevitable decline to Father Time there’s a real opportunity for someone, anyone to step in and make plays at the tight end position. I could easily see Gathers catching 35+ balls with a big yards per catch number and a half dozen touchdowns. Two years from now he might be one of the top tight ends in the league. One can dream, can’t they?
Double-dipping...but so what. I also like Chidobie Awuzie. The only thing that held him back in 2017 was injuries. When he had the chance to play he quickly established himself as the best cover corner the Cowboys have had since... Terrance Newman? He combines sticky coverage skills with a physical style that we simply haven’t seen in ages at the cornerback position. A second training camp and good health should catapult him into one of the Cowboys top 8 players in 2018.
DannyPhantom - Jaylon Smith. Let’s not forget that Luke Skywalker didn’t become a bad-ass until Return of the Jedi. Consider this the season that Jaylon was stuck inside a dead tauntaun. It was tough to stomach sometimes, but he gained some valuable experience that he can build on as his health improves. And with Han solo tackle-mongrel Sean Lee beside him, he’s got a great partner to help restore order in the
galaxy Cowboys run defense.
With another offseason to get his body right and more understanding of the defense, year three could be a huge season for Jaylon. By that point, we should have a very clear understanding of what type of player he is going to be. He’s a physical specimen and works tremendously hard at getting better. If it is humanly possible for Smith to return at a high level, you got to believe this kid will get there... and 2018 is likely to be the time it would happen.
Cole Patterson - Ryan Switzer. This season, we saw opposing defensive coordinators take away Cole Beasley in the Cowboys offense, resulting in Dak struggling at times throughout the season. Dak was at his best when he and Bease were on their game in 2016, connecting 75 times for 833 yards and five touchdowns, while averaging over 11 yards per reception.
While Switz was rarely used in the Cowboys’ offense this past season, we saw a little bit of what the electric rookie can do, as he and Dak connected four times in the final game. The Cowboys would love to find Bease’s replacement as he enters his contract season, so maybe that can be Ryan Switzer in 2018.
Michael Sisemore - Jaylon Smith. The Cowboys need it to be Jaylon Smith, we saw glimpses of brilliance but also felt that he may have been exposed a little early on. For what it’s worth, the coaches and front office personnel believe that Jaylon is right on target where they believed he would be. It takes time to come back from that type of injury and Smith finished on one heck of a rookie season for himself. His 81 tackles was fifth on the team and he also recorded a sack and two forced fumbles while coming close to getting his first interception. Jaylon Smith needs to be the Cowboys breakout player because he’s from a whole different caliber of playmaking ability and they need help at linebacker in a big way.
Tom Ryle - Kavon Frazier. He is my sleeper pick. He was largely overlooked due to the big name rookies in the secondary, but he was better than expected in limited work in 2017. And there are not exactly high expectations for him. The defense needs all the playmaking DBs it can get, and Frazier certainly knows how to lower the boom. Look for him to get more work lining up alongside Xavier Woods and making receivers wary of entering their area.
Joseph.Hatz - Taco Charlton. He was a late bloomer at Michigan and showed dramatic improvement as the year went on. He was never going to be an explosive presence off the edge who wins with speed, he won with length and power at Michigan and you rarely see rookies come in and win in that manner in the NFL right away. His hand usage improved significantly as the season progressed and he started working his counter moves much quicker, and the results were noticeable. I don’t think he’ll begin the season as the starter but I think he will continue to improve and likely establish himself as the starter at DE sometime around mid-season.
Who you got, BTB?