Between free agency, trades, and the draft the Cowboys have added quite a few new faces to the organization. As the team continues to plug away at fixing weaknesses, some key players are now inside the building hoping to make a difference. OTA’s are now underway and with each new day we’ll start to get an idea of how these new players will factor into the equation.
Last year, new players like Jonathan Cooper and Jourdan Lewis logged significant playing time for the team, while first-round pick Taco Charlton took a back seat in the defensive line rotation. Fourth-round pick Ryan Switzer was drafted to add a little spark to the offense, yet it was seventh-round pick Noah Brown who logged almost twice as many snaps as he did, as he was used a lot as a blocker in the running game. Both played close to 30% of the special teams snaps.
You never know how things are going to work out as there are many factors that play into getting playing time. Depth at position, ability to play special teams, and sometimes an injury - all could shove a player into an unexpected lead role. Which new players will have the most impact this season? Here are my top ten “new guys” that will spring into action in 2018.
Honorable Mention: RB Bo Scarbrough
Often times, a seventh-round pick is on the outside looking in when it comes to even making the team, but the Alabama running back has a good chance to make this squad. Thanks to a deep draft class, the Cowboys landed them a pretty good running back to help round out the depth of the team’s position group. With both Alfred Morris and Darren McFadden out of the picture, there are opportunities to get some touches. Rod Smith is still in the mix and will compete with Scarbrough for the RB#2 spot, but the rookie is a bruiser and could be a good complementary back to Ezekiel Elliott. There won’t be a lot of extra reps to go around as Zeke will handle the bulk of the workload, but I’m penciling Bo in for Morris’ workload from 2016 when Elliott was around for a full season.
Playing time prediction: 130 snaps (12%)
Honorable Mention: DE Dorance Armstrong
The Cowboys are real excited about Armstrong as they hope he is part of their future along the edge of the defensive line. But expectations should be tempered for this 20-year-old who still has a lot to learn. There’s typically a sizable learning curve for defensive ends so don’t expect Armstrong to spring out of the gate making splash plays. Not only does he need time to develop, but he also has a handful of other pass rushers ahead of him on the depth chart, including last year’s rookie DE Taco Charlton.
It’s okay to be excited about Armstrong, but it’s been a long long time since we’ve seen number 74 out on the field wreaking havoc. And chances are, it’s going to be a little longer.
Playing time prediction: 210 snaps (20%)
10. Kameron Kelly, DB - undrafted free agent from San Diego State
If you haven’t adopted a pet cat yet, Kelly might be the purrfect choice. His measureables have some comparing him to Richard Sherman. While that might be getting a little ahead of ourselves, he’s going to be a fun project player for new defensive backs coach/passing game coordinator, Kris Richard. Kelly had a great junior year playing safety for the Aztecs, but team need required him to shift over to corner his senior year. While this change came with an adjustment period, Kelly eventually caught on and played well. He flew under the radar during the draft and that could work in the Cowboys favor.
Kelly isn’t just a lengthy guy who fits the prototypical build Richard looks for in a defensive back. He’s athletic and has one of those “I’ll do whatever is needed” attitudes that should make Jason Garrett happy. His defensive role may be a small one his rookie season, but look for him to make some plays on special teams. The team is still looking for that safety to replace Barry Church, who was an UDFA himself, and Kelly has the traits to make a run at it.
Playing time prediction: 30 defensive snaps (3%) and 180 special teams snaps (43%)
9. Cameron Fleming, T - free agent from the New England Patriots
In a perfect world we won’t see Fleming take the field this season. The team signed him as insurance after the swing tackle debacle that consisted of Chaz Green completely forgetting how to play the position. With Fleming, the team now has a viable option should something happen to Tyron Smith or La’el Collins. After five healthy seasons, Smith has missed games in each of the last two years which now brings about concerns whether he can withstand the wear of a full 16-game season. He’s only 27, but he has a lot of mileage as Smith will be entering his eighth NFL season.
And while Collins played all 16 games last year, his first couple years in the league was injury-riddled. He suffered a high ankle sprain his rookie season as well as a torn ligament in his right big toe the following year. He missed a total of 17 games over his first two years in the league.
With Dallas calling upon help from their swing tackle position a lot more frequently as of late, having Fleming in their back pocket is important. He may not be asked to play much, but if he is - those snaps will be very crucial in helping keep the offense from stalling.
Playing time prediction: 140 snaps (13%)
8. Dalton Schultz, TE - 4th round draft pick from Stanford
It’s really tough to predict how the playing time of the tight end position will be distributed this year. If you went on experience, Geoff Swaim is the front runner to hold down the gig. His ability as a blocker should keep him on the field for a good portion of the snaps. But if you went on draft price, Schultz would be viewed as the top talent as he was selected in the fourth round, while the other guys were a sixth, seventh, and undrafted free agent.
Of course, draft price means nothing once they’re on the field and it’s anyone’s guess who emerges as the player who can be depended on the most. Schultz is a rookie and will need to learn more before he gets a lion’s share of the reps. Many have designated him as just a blocker because of his role at Stanford. With Christian McCaffrey (1,603 yards) and Bryce Love (2,118 yards) being the focal point of the offense over the last couple seasons, Schultz has embraced his role in the running game. That will come in useful with the Cowboys shelling out a heavy dose of Zeke.
Playing time prediction: 260 snaps (25%)
7. Kony Ealy, DE - free agent from the New York Jets
It seems like only yesterday when the second-round pick of 2014 was a potential draft target of the Cowboys. Since then, Dallas has done a great job of vamping up their defensive line. Ealy was a solid player for the Carolina Panthers and even had two sacks the Super Bowl. While he put up 14 sacks over three seasons with the Panthers, Ealy struggled to do much with the New York Jets last year.
He joins a Cowboys defense that has plenty of mouths to feed when it comes to finding snaps for edge rushers. DeMarcus Lawrence and Tyrone Crawford are the starters. Second-year player Taco Charlton will get his chances. And you still have Charles Tapper, Dorance Armstrong, and even the possibility of Randy Gregory who could get some reps on the edge. That doesn’t leave a lot of playing time for Ealy. Of course, injuries happen and opportunities can present themselves so look for the veteran to get some chances to pin his ears back and go after the quarterback.
Playing time prediction: 275 snaps (26%)
6. Cedrick Wilson, WR - 6th round pick from Boise State
There will come a point when Cowboys fans will tip their cap to the organization as a gesture of approval for their decision to remodel the wide receiver position. And the play of rookie Cedrick Wilson could be final piece of evidence that shows this team knew what it was doing. Despite being a sixth-round pick, Wilson has the skills to have a key role on this team. Between his size, his inside/out flexibility, and his strong route-running ability, Wilson offers a lot as a receiver. He does a great job changing up his speed to catch defenders napping and that has enabled him to be a big-play guy.
Wilson should embrace Brice Butler’s old role and don’t be surprised if he is able to do more with it. Over a quarter of Wilson’s catches went for 25 or more yards so let’s hope he can bring that explosiveness to the Cowboys offense.
Playing time prediction: 240 snaps (20%)
5. Joe Thomas, LB - free agent from the Green Bay Packers
This one might seem like a surprise to you, but it cannot be overlooked. The Cowboys lost a couple of their special teams aces in Kyle Wilber and Keith Smith so having a guy like Thomas on the squad is important. Most of what he contributes to the team will come as a core special teamer.
Thomas can also provide depth at linebacker. While he only has eight starts in his career, most of them came in 2016 when he was solid filling in for the Green Bay Packers. He has good short area burst and doesn’t get washed away by blockers. Thomas is a very good open field tackler and if he gets a clean shot at someone, he’ll strike hard. His ability in coverage could also come in handy as he has demonstrated he can drop in zone and shows good instincts toward the play.
Circle his name as a potential fan-favorite in the preseason as he has the spunk to be splashing around a lot in exhibition play.
Playing time prediction: 160 defensive snaps (16%) and 210 special teams snaps (50%)
4. Leighton Vander Esch, LB - 1st round pick from Boise State
You might expect the Cowboys top draft pick to be higher on this list, but there are a couple things working against him. First, he plays a position where knowing your assignments is crucial. One misstep could lead to an 80-yard gain by Jay Ajayi. While LVE is a smart player, he still has so much to learn.
Another reason his playing time won’t be excessive is that the defense has Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith as their starting linebackers. As long as Lee is healthy, he’s not coming off the field. Smith, on the other hand, will keep his reps manageable so he can play at his highest level. As Smith gets healthier, we could see him making more plays and with the Cowboys playing nickel defense a lot, the need for three linebackers on the field at the same time will be less frequent. LVE is a good coverage linebacker though and the coaching staff will find ways to get him on the field.
It took Lee a little bit to become the Lee we have grown accustomed to loving, so let LVE get his feet wet some before we start expecting him to make a big splash.
Playing time prediction: 660 snaps (63%)
3. Michael Gallup, WR - 3rd round pick from Colorado State
How long is it going to take before we all fall in love with the Cowboys new wide receiver Michael Gallup? That’s a legitimate question and it’s one we hope gets answered sooner versus later. The Cowboys waited until the third round before they grabbed a receiver, but luckily for them - a good one was still available.
It’s tough to say how well a rookie WR will perform in his first year in the league as some recent first-rounders have really struggled. But then there’s Day 2 guys like Ju Ju Schuster-Smith that hit the ground running. One thing that worked in Ju Ju’s favor is that his offense featured a talented running back that demanded the defenses attention. He also started the season as the team’s third receiving option behind Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant.
Gallup will inherit a similar situation in Dallas. Zeke will be the focus of the defense and Allen Hurns and Cole Beasley will most likely draw their top two cornerbacks. That leaves Gallup free to do his thing. And fortunately for the Cowboys, that thing could be a lot of different things. Gallup brings many different aspects to his game and fans shouldn’t have to wait too long to see him making big plays for this offense.
Playing time prediction: 590 snaps (56%)
2. Allen Hurns, WR - free agent from the Jacksonville Jaguars
With the release of Dez Bryant, Hurns will become the Cowboys #1 WR. Normally, that takes on a big meaning, but with how Dallas will spread the ball around, it’s not as glamorous as it sounds. Even still, Hurns is expected to see the field a lot and with his ability to create separation, he’s going to see a good share of targets.
Expectations are high for the guy who fans will compare to Dez all season and when the numbers aren’t jumping out at you at times - Hurns will get a fair share of criticism. But in the end, it’s all noise because Hurns will establish himself as a key part of this offense. Consistency might not be there in terms of stats, but that could be a thing with all of the Cowboys receivers as you never know what kind of mood Prescott will be in on any given day. Some days, he’ll be a little Cole-heavy, other days, he could be connecting more with the rookies. But rest assure, Hurns will have his fun in the sun too. Barring an injury, look for him to give the team a very respectable 800 yards of receiving.
Playing time prediction: 750 snaps (71%)
1. Connor Williams, G - 2nd round draft pick from Texas
It’s a great feeling to not even have to worry about the left guard position this year. It’s an even better feeling to think about good this offensive line is going to be with Connor Williams a part of it. The Cowboys got such a nice gift to land a talented offensive linemen like Williams in the second round. Not only does he come into a position group that is just filled with outstanding mentors, but Williams himself has the right type of attitude to maximize his skills. He’s ready to go.
New offensive line coach, Paul Alexander, is going to look like a genius because he’s really going to get a lot from this new group. Jonathan Cooper was solid and was able to provide meaningful snaps in 2017, but Williams is a clear upgrade.
La’el Collins will be even more polished in his second year at right tackle as he resides next to soon-to-be filthy-rich, Zack Martin. And now that a player like Williams will be sandwiched in between two other All Pro’s in Travis Frederick and Tyron Smith, the circuit is finally completed.
Zeke is going to have a lot of fun running behind this group.
Playing time prediction: 1,050 snaps (100%)
Which new player do you think makes the biggest impact this season?