My feelings about this coming year are quite positive. Indeed, the 2018 season may provide the Cowboys’ best shot at returning to the Super Bowl since their last appearance in the 1995 season. Here are a dozen reasons to be optimistic about 2018.
First, the Cowboys have money to retain their best talent.
Because Tony Romo’s contract is mostly off the books, and the Cowboys have the potential to retire some big contracts in 2019 (for Dez Bryant, Tyrone Crawford, Cole Beasley, and Orlando Scandrick, plus Jason Witten might retire), the Cowboys have plenty of resources to keep their best young players. These are the internal free agents I think Dallas will re-sign this offseason.
- Zack Martin. He’s not a free agent, but he may get the biggest offseason contract to lock him up for the foreseeable future.
- DeMarcus Lawrence. Given his age (25) and talent level, expect the Cowboys to reach a long-term deal with Lawrence in the offseason. He’s showing no interest in going elsewhere. If necessary, he could also be tagged, but it’s more likely that he’ll be signed long-term in what should be his prime years.
- Anthony Hitchens. Given Sean Lee’s health risks, and Jaylon Smith’s uncertain development, the Cowboys have to have Hitchens back or someone equivalent on the free agent market. Dallas prefers signing its own, so expect Hitchens to return.
- Jonathan Cooper. Dallas needs a guard, and Cooper played well enough to be offered a return contract. He also stayed healthy until the last game. Unless he demands a big deal, expect him to return to provide stability to the line.
- Joe Looney. Was the best of the backups, and he’s only 27. Expect Dallas to ask him to return to backup the center/guard slots.
- David Irving. He’s a little easier to retain because Dallas can just offer him a first-round tender. But Dallas might also want to lock him up longer term before he has a breakout year. He’s only 24.
I think Brian Price, Keith Smith, and LP Ladouceur will also return.
Second, the Cowboys could get a massive boost from two surprise players that we’ve been waiting for.
Who are those guys? Randy Gregory and Rico Gathers.
Randy Gregory’s ability to play remains at the discretion of Roger Goodell, and we know that’s not something that can be counted on to turn out well. But if and when he does return, he could be an absolute force as a speed rusher from the right side.
Here’s what Gregory did in his last game for the Cowboys.
Eight tackles, a sack, two tackles for loss, and a quarterback hit. No defensive linemen has had close to that many tackles in a game this year. Pretty impressive for his second game after a very long layoff.
If the Cowboys re-sign DeMarcus Lawrence, and lock up David Irving for next year before signing him the year after, Randy Gregory could give this group an added dimension. With these guys in the fold, plus an improving Taco Charlton, Maliek Collins, and Tyrone Crawford for another year, the Cowboys will have a formidable defensive line. Gregory provides the speed the team has been lacking. They could terrorize opposing quarterbacks.
It was so disappointing not to see what Rico Gathers could do this year after his eye-opening pre-season in just a couple of games. He’s an athletic freak who will be a mismatch for opponents. He’s too tall and big for most defensive backs, he’s too fast for most linebackers, he has great hands, and players bounce off him trying to bring him to the ground.
I know this is a huge projection, but it’s possible that Gathers could become the Cowboys biggest receiving threat if they just give him the chance. There are several tight ends who are the best receivers on their teams - Gronk, Travis Kelce, Antonio Gates (in his prime), Greg Olsen, and others. Gathers could become that guy. Scoff if you want. I think he can add a new dimension to the Cowboys’ offsense.
The only thing holding Gathers back may be the Cowboys’ coaching staff, which seems too conservative and too wedded to Jason Witten. After the debacle of 2017, I’m optimistic they will realize they need to make some changes.
Third, the Cowboys should have a peak roster in 2018.
2018 is the year the Cowboys could re-sign their best young free agents. See point one above.
It’s also the year they will still have their best aging stars — Dez, Crawford, Scandrick, Beasley, and Witten — who might be cast off in 2019 for cap reasons. See here.
It’s the year Randy Gregory can return, and Rico Gathers might finally see the field. See point two. (Charles Tapper will also be back.)
They will also have some of the players the Cowboys added during the year like defensive linemen Datone Jones, Lewis Neal, and Daniel Ross.
There are also some guys on the practice squad who might be ready to make a contribution in 2018, including CB Marquez White, WR KD Cannon, and safety Duke Thomas.
Then the Cowboys have 10 draft picks, including four compensatory picks. Six oregular picks plus they will have two fourth-round comp picks (Dak Prescott was one of these) and two fifth-round comp picks.
There is unlikely to be an exodus of starters like there was coming into this year. Sure, Alfred Morris, Brice Butler, and Kyle Wilber will likely be out. Benson Mayowa may be a cap casualty (especially if Gregory is cleared to play), as may James Hanna (once Rico Gathers shows his stuff). But these are role players who the Cowboys can likely replace in the draft or with other players already on the roster.
Fourth, the draft should allow the Cowboys to strengthen the roster and bring in replacements for the future.
With ten picks, eight of them in the first five rounds, there are a lot of positions Dallas can strengthen. Where do I see the needs on the Cowboys?
- Wide receiver - looking to replace Dez Bryant in 2019, and Brice Butler in 2018. Depending on who’s there, might be a first-round option.
- Defensive tackle - this might also be a first-round option if the right guy is there. The Cowboys are pretty set at end, especially if they move David Irving outside. But the inside was thin this year.
- Safety - perhaps the biggest immediate need for an upgrade. This could also be a first-round pick if the right guy is there. Heath could move back to being a role player, and Byron Jones could be in his last year with Dallas.
- Offensive line - need quality depth at tackle. Likely looking for a third- or fourth-rounder who can develop. If they don’t retain Cooper and Looney, guard/center is also needed.
- Linebacker - Sean Lee won’t play forever, and we don’t know yet whether Jaylon Smith is going to be good, plus Damien Wilson may be in his last year and Kyle Wilber is likely gone. More likely to be filled in the middle rounds, where Hitchens and Wilson were drafted.
- Cornerback - Scandrick has one more year, and depth is always needed. Probably not a first rounder. More likely Dallas looks for an Anthony Brown type in the later rounds.
- Quarterback - not a high-rounder, but if someone is better than Cooper Rush in the middle rounds, the Cowboys should consider taking him.
- Running back - a third back behind Zeke and Rod Smith should be added. Another late-round option.
- Tight end? It depends on whether Dallas keeps or cuts James Hanna. If Dallas keeps Hanna, Witten, Swaim, and brings in Gathers, it’s too early to draft one. Better to go for one in 2019 when Hanna will be out, and Witten might be. Then they won’t have to sit.
Fifth, the Cowboys might tweak their free agency strategy.
Most of the Cowboys money is likely going to go into re-signing Zack Martin, DeMarcus Lawrence, Anthony Hitchens, David Irving, and the other names discussed above, and keeping a reserve so Dak Prescott can be renewed in another year.
But the Cowboys still might look outside to improve their roster. If so, the place I would look would be safety. Jeff Heath would be better if he returned to his role as a depth safety and special teams ace. The Cowboys need a difference maker on the back end to hold the secondary together.
Backup tackle is another area the Cowboys might look for depth in free agency, in case the draft doesn’t fall in a way that lets them pick a tackle at the right value spot. And if they don’t re-sign Cooper and Looney, they should look for a free agent rather than a draft pick to fill these roles.
Sixth, Ezekiel Elliott will have a full season.
Expect Zeke to try to exceed his 2016 rookie season. He has something to prove after the way 2017 turned out.
Seventh, the offensive line should be more stable.
This assumes the Zack Martin is extended and that Jonathan Cooper and Joe Looney are re-signed. If those take place, the biggest issues will be Tyron Smith’s and La’el Collins’ health. Collins didn’t miss any time, but he was fighting back issues his last couple of games. If the starting five return, they should be able to hit the ground running.
Also, if the Cowboys can add quality depth at tackle, either in free agency or through the draft, it will help protect them from health risks during the season. I expect they will do so.
Eighth, Dak Prescott should be better.
It all starts up front. If the offensive line is stronger next year, it will help the running game, and help Dak’s passing game. Rico Gathers could add a major element to the passing game, giving Dak a huge target to move the chains the same way Cole Beasley did in 2016. Ryan Switzer might also get some time to show what he can do.
Dak doesn’t need to become a 300-yard passer. He just needs to increase his efficiency by returning to his interception-free rookie year, upping his completion percentage, and hitting some more deep shots. He will never stop trying to improve his game.
Ninth, several other players are likely to improve.
In addition to Dak’s improvement, the Cowboys can likely count on several rookies and other young players to be better.
- Chidobe Awuzie got meaningful snaps in only six games. If he becomes a full-time fixture in the secondary, that will be a huge boost.
- Jourdan Lewis did a fine job this year, but should be much better with experience.
- Jaylon Smith played in 16 games. But is his health 100%? And will the game become instinctual again for him as his health returns? He should get much stronger with another offseason, which will help him tackle and shed blocks better.
- Taco Charlton could become very good as he gets stronger.
- Xavier Woods should also improve based off his experience.
- Anthony Brown. Can he bounce back from a bad year?
- David Irving started showing his true potential, but he still has more growth in him.
- Ryan Switzer should be much better as he gains experience.
- La’el Collins got better as the season went on. His second year at right tackle is likely to be stronger.
Tenth, what if the turnover ratio finally takes a leap forward?
The Cowboys went from +5 in 2016 to -1 in 2017, mostly because the interceptions went way up. Expect Dak Prescott to get his turnovers under control. And also expect the defense to generate more turnovers. A lot of fumbles were forced this year, but the ball didn’t bounce Dallas’ way so they weren’t recovered. This might happen again, but if Dallas keeps forcing fumbles, it’s more likely they will recover more of them.
Eleventh, the Cowboys will be a more balanced team.
In 2014 and 2016, it was all about the offense carrying the team, and hogging the ball in the process to help the defense. Next year, the defense will have largely turned over, and it could feature a dominant pass rush, solid linebacking play (if Lee stays healthy), young improving corners, and some new safeties. The defense may finally start helping the offense win games.
Twelfth, the NFC East may be easier.
The Eagles appear likely to remain the biggest threat next year. But the Giants will likely be in rebuild mode, and Washington could fall apart if they can’t retain Kirk Cousins or replace him with a quality QB. Dallas went 5-1 in the division, so it can’t get too much better record-wise, but the games might be easier.
A word of caution.
A lot of this optimism relies on the Cowboys doing the right thing by retaining the prime free agents, getting Randy Gregory and Rico Gathers back, and other things falling Dallas’ way, including having another great draft. Will all of that happen? Probably not. But, even if everything doesn’t go perfectly, Dallas should emerge next year a much stronger team than they were going into 2017, and that’s cause for optimism.
It should be an exciting offseason. Because Tony Romo’s contract is no longer on the books after this year (correction from earlier when it did not qualify after this year), Dallas has the money to retain its own best players, and the likely retirement of some big contracts in 2019 will give Dallas enough flexibility going forward to keep strengthening its roster.
Dallas already has a strong roster, to which it will add:
- Randy Gregory
- Rico Gathers
- Charles Tapper
- A number of internal free agents
- 10 draft picks
- Possibly a couple of quality external free agents
Unlike 2017, there will be no corresponding exodus of talent from the roster next year.
Then, when you factor in improved play from the last couple of draft classes, more stability across the offensive and defensive lines, and having Zeke Elliott for a full season, things look pretty good.
This is my last post as a front page writer for the foreseeable future. I’m not going anywhere; I just don’t have enough time to write consistently at the moment. It’s been a lot of fun, and I really appreciate my fellow writers, the moderators, and all of you who keep this blog humming every day with your insightful and often hilarious comments.
Super Bowl or Bust in 2018!