The 2017 season was not necessarily a disaster for the Cowboys, but it was not a step in the right direction. In fact, it was really a step backwards. The 2016 season may have been a case of the Cowboys arriving a year too early, but there were so many bright spots and positive takeaways from that year.
However, the NFL is a “what have you done for me lately” league and despite everything that went right in 2016, their performance in 2017 was a case of inconsistent play, unfortunate injuries, ineffective depth, and occasional poor coaching.
Comparing the past two seasons, the obvious difference is that the offense in 2017 fell far short of the expectations the 2016 season had set. While the six-game suspension to star running back Ezekiel Elliott didn’t help their cause, the Cowboys could not recover from the departure of Ronald Leary, the retirement of Doug Free and injury to Tyron Smith. On top of that, receivers failed to get open and make plays down field. Finally, Dak Prescott was not as sharp in the second half of the season.
Things really turned for the worse in the Week 10 game on the road against the Atlanta Falcons. Not only was this game the first without Elliott, but Tyron Smith was sidelined, leaving the likes of Chaz Green and Byron Bell to protect Prescott’s blindside.
That game was the catalyst for Prescott’s end-of-season inconsistency. It appeared he was not reading his progressions as well, he was shaky with his accuracy, and, most importantly, his mental play-clock sped up, leading to erratic decision-making and hurried throws.
At the beginning of the offseason, the Cowboys made it clear that they wanted to become more “Dak-friendly”? What exactly does this mean though? Was Scott Linehan going to adapt the NFL offense has run for more than 20 years? We have seen in the past how teams like the Carolina Panthers and the Washington Redskins have tailored their offenses to, respectively, fit to the strengths of Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III. Perhaps that was what the Cowboys were going for.
With their question marks at the skill positions, the Cowboys decided to sign the talented Allen Hurns to a two-year deal worth $12 million. The idea of giving Prescott a legitimate target across from Dez Bryant sounded awesome. But then, things got difficult fast. Very fast.
On April 13, the Cowboys announced the difficult decision to part ways with Bryant. By cutting ties with their most-targeted receiver, how were the Cowboys really making their offense more “Dak-friendly”?
A few days prior to the draft, Jason Witten announced his retirement from football, leaving the Cowboys Geoff Swaim, who really has been used only as a blocker, and the inexperienced Rico Gathers and Blake Jarwin. The three have combined for nine NFL catches, all of which have come from Swaim. When people have thought of players on the Cowboys in the past decade, there have been three main faces: Tony Romo, Bryant, and Witten. Flashback to the 2014 playoff picture after their wild card round win against the Detroit Lions, all of those faces are now gone.
It became clear that the Cowboys were going to look vastly different in 2018
The draft came and went and the Cowboys added six offensive players. Dallas drafted nine players, so their preference towards drafting offense over defense goes to show you where their head is at in terms of their roster development. They also acquired another offensive player through trade during the draft in Tavon Austin.
A quarterback is simply at his best when they have a capable offensive line in front of them. With three All-Pro offensive lineman and another becoming quality player in La’el Collins, Dallas should battle for the top line in football. But that was not the case in 2017. Injuries, overall inconsistencies, and a lack of depth led to questionable offensive line play. Rather than bypassing the problem and hoping everything would come back around, Dallas used their second-round pick on Texas’ Connor Williams.
With a bundle of needs across their roster, left guard may not have been that pressing considering the free agency signings of Marcus Martin and Cameron Fleming. But Dallas went for it, adding the talented and versatile Williams and inserting him right between Smith and Travis Frederick upfront. The unit now features three first-round picks, a second-round pick, and a guy that would have been a first-round pick if not for his unique pre-draft situation.
The group looks stacked. Williams’ growing pains will likely be held to a minimum thanks to the guys who are surrounding and protecting him. And not only does the starting group look stacked, Dallas also has capable depth behind them. Guys like Williams, Joe Looney, and Fleming could play a variety of positions if needed.
The departures of Bryant and Witten, and the uptick in talent in the offensive line, leads one to believe that the Cowboys are going to run the ball a lot in 2018. After a shortened season in 2017, Elliott will be fresh and ready to go for another bell-cow-like workload. But Dallas does not need to exhaust the former first-round pick. Rod Smith proved his worth as a situational, change-of-pace back in 2017. And the Cowboys invested a draft pick in Bo Scarbrough, giving them yet another tenacious, tone-setting running back. Dallas also traded for a familiar face in Jamize Olawale, who could make noise as a lead-blocker and a pass-catching back in 2018.
The running back room looks talented, ready, and well-put together. But the same cannot be said about either the wide receiver or tight end room. Who even is the Cowboys’ primary target in 2018? While fans may not value him, the Dallas coaching staff likes what they have in Terrance Williams. There are question marks of route-running, top speed, and body-catching, but Dallas loves his feel for the offense and his run-blocking ability.
Hurns is a unique player for Dallas. He is taller than any receiver they have had in here in awhile at 6-foot-3.. He has decent speed to go along with his height, and he could line up inside or outside.
After watching the football relationship between Prescott and Bryant, it was clear that the two were never on the same page. Whereas Bryant wanted Prescott to take chances and put up 50-50 passes, Prescott wanted to stay more conservative, whether that was looking elsewhere in his progressions for someone open or checking down. Will Hurns be another casualty of a faulty relationship or is he the guy Prescott needs? Regardless, he is a dangerous player with the ball in his hands and he will be a big player for the Cowboys in the red-zone.
Cole Beasley’s productivity took a step back in 2017, but it was clear that it was more about opposing defense’s level of respect and planning for him rather than his play. Dallas will need to figure out how to deploy him better and get him the football. On third downs, there is no player on the Cowboys that defenses are keying in on more than Beasley. Dallas needs to understand and use that to their advantage.
There is then third-round pick Michael Gallup out of Colorado State. With Williams’ current injury, Gallup will receive a lot of first-team reps throughout the offseason. He has a unique opportunity to immediately develop a rapport with Prescott. Gallup has the look of a vicious athlete who can beat opponents across the field with his speed and size at 6-foot-1, 205 pounds. He is a route runner who can do things with the ball after the catch, that’s a dangerous combo.
Noah Brown saw some action last year. He was not spectacular, but he did display some potential. He is also still extremely young at the age of 21. Dallas double-dipped at the receiver position by adding Boise State’s Cedrick Wilson in the sixth round. The son of a former NFL player, Wilson is also a bigger target at 6-foot-3, 190 pounds. He is new to the position of receiver, but he has shown on a game-to-game basis that he is becoming more comfortable with the nuances of the position. On top of these two draft picks, the Cowboys also guaranteed Deonte Thompson $1 million in free agency. With all of these moves, there is a chance that $1 million goes to waste.
Lastly, Dallas traded for Austin. This makes up a receiving group with a lot of question marks. Austin will be designated as a receiver, but he will be more utilized in a pass-catching role out of the backfield. Dallas had interest in adding a pass-catching back through the draft. Nyheim Hines, Ito Smith, and Jaylen Samuels were players that came to mind, but Dallas took advantage of the Los Angeles Rams’ crowded receiving group by trading for Austin.
The former West Virginia Mountaineer has shown glimpses and flashes of brilliance, but his fumbling problems and lack of consistency has not led to the worth of his draft status. Nonetheless, Dallas has not had a player of Austin’s speed in their offense in what feels like an eternity, so the addition will definitely bring a much-needed element.
Dallas’ biggest question mark on the roster is at the tight end position. Stanford is known for producing talented tight ends and Dalton Schultz is an interesting prospect. He left a year early from Stanford, but he was a solid pass-catcher and a reliable run-blocker for them. Because of what he brings to the table athletically, Dallas could really benefit from Rico Gathers’ skillset. Balke Jarwin is an interesting prospect the Cowboys really like but we haven’t seen that translate tot he field yet. Because of how much they will want to run the ball, Dallas will need to get production from this position. By process of elimination, it seems that Swaim would be the most ideal option to start the year.
Again, Dallas looks vastly different. They have brought in a lot of players at the skill positions to compete and fight for a roster spot. Dallas will obviously try to stash a couple players on their practice squad, but the Cowboys will have difficult decisions to make across the board in regards to their offense.
Due to what is new and what he is familiar with, Prescott still has Elliott behind him and a talented group of players blocking in front of him. The receivers situation will materialize and the best players will ultimately win out, but there will need to be a lot of improvements and contributions from this bunch to warrant their claim of becoming more “Dak-friendly”.
A lot of pieces are moving and a lot is uncertain. The reality is that the Cowboys may have improved upfront, but there are just too many things up in the air to give a clear and fair evaluation yet. This is a year where the Cowboys’ coaching staff is likely coaching for their jobs. They’ve made plenty of moves, but only time will tell if they are the right ones.