With the draft behind us, we are getting real close to seeing some action as the Cowboys will start their rookie mini-camp on Friday. It should be fun to see what all the new guys have to offer and as our own Dave Halprin stated - there will be over 40 players likely to participate. Before any of that begins, what is your gut feeling about this new Dallas Cowboys team? Here are four thoughts on my mind as we enter a new season of Cowboys football.
What will the Cowboys do if Tyron Smith or Sean Lee go down?
Remember when we were always on pins and needles whenever it came to the health of Tony Romo? Nothing can crash your season faster than losing a star player. And while the Romo worries are now gone, the team felt a damaging effect from the losses of Tyron Smith and Sean Lee last season when they missed games due to injury.
The Cowboys have addressed these concerns with some offseason investments. First, they got themselves an insurance swing tackle by signing Cameron Fleming in free agency. Then, their top two draft picks were linebacker Leighton Vander Esch and offensive linemen Conner Williams. Just like that, the Cowboys have solidified a starting spot and stacked some real strong depth at two of the most important spots on the roster.
Who is going to fill Dez Bryant’s shoes?
Answer: No one person.
The Cowboys faced a reality this offseason that was not easy to do - they no longer had the All-Pro receiver Dez Bryant. And that reality set in prior to Bryant actually being released. While Bryant has been a talented piece of this offense for many years and was loved by his teammates, the organization decided that he just wasn’t getting it done on the field. And to add more fuel to the fire, his propensity to complain while facing adversity just made it that much easier to part ways with him.
The team is now going with a committee approach of young, disciplined route-runners in hope to sift out receivers who can produce on the field. With free agents Allen Hurns and Deonte Thompson, draft picks Michael Gallup and Cedrick Wilson, and even receiver/web-back Tavon Austin - the team has quite an extensive committee. Combine that with current players Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley, and Noah Brown and the team has some real interesting camp battles ahead of them this summer.
The Cowboys have shaken up the receiver position quite a bit this offseason and it’s unclear who will emerge as Dak Prescott’s new go-to targets, but somebody will. And when that happens, we’ll love him.
Who is going to fill Jason Witten’s shoes?
Not only did the Cowboys lose Bryant this offseason, but they lost Witten as well. Last season, Bryant and Witten were the team’s top two reception leaders and combined for 219 targets. They alone made up more than half of the targets on the team that went to wide receivers and tight ends. While it’s easy to feel good about the new receiving weapons, the same optimism is not there when it comes to replacing Witten. There are several options, but do any of them have the ability to be the Cowboys new TE #1?
The first big question we must ask ourselves is what can we get from Rico Gathers? The former basketball star was drafted by the Cowboys in hopes of being developed into a big pass-catching target. He flashed ability last preseason, catching two touchdowns before suffering a concussion/head injury that kept him out the entire year. Is he completely healthy now? Can he pick up where he left off? Will his blocking have improved enough to keep him on the football field? These are the questions that will need to be answered in training camp, but if they start turning up “yes” then watch out for a breakout campaign for Rico.
Another tight end that has many of us intrigued is Blake Jarwin. Initially, he wasn’t good enough to make the team at final cuts last year, but was stashed on the practice squad. When the Philadelphia Eagles wanted to sign him, the Cowboys promoted him to the active roster so they clearly saw some value in keeping him around. With a chance for more opportunities, can Jarwin prove himself to be a regular fixture in the Cowboys offense?
The Cowboys had Geoff Swaim and drafted Dalton Schultz to add depth to the tight end position. They are both strong inline blockers, but haven’t demonstrated much as receivers. Unless something changes, they could be seen as low-cost role players for 12 personnel packages. Swaim has the advantage because of his experience, but he’s also entering the last year of his contract. Schultz is more of an unknown, but with that comes the possibility of upside. Could he catch on quick enough to jump Swaim on the depth chart?
Don’t rule out the possibility of Noah Brown being utilized in a tight end role. He’s a really strong blocker and valuable on special teams. The Cowboys are stacked at receiver, but if Brown continues to do what he’s asked and performs well, the team may try to find a spot on the roster for him. And that could mean using him as a tight end. What better way to find a nice pass-catching space tight end than converting a receiver.
Long-term deals coming for Zack Martin and DeMarcus Lawrence?
As it stands now, DeMarcus Lawrence is playing under his franchise tag price of $17.1 million and Zack Martin is playing under his fifth-year option price of $9.3 million. They just so happen to be two of the top three highest base salaries on the roster for the 2018 season (Tyron Smith is the other one).
Before the offseason started, both these 2017 All-Pros were prime candidates to get a long-term deal completed as doing so would free up some cap space for the Cowboys front office to operate. But now, I’m not so sure that’s necessary as the team has freed up a lot of cap space with the departure of several players. Some players have retired (Jason Witten and James Hanna), whereas others have straight-up been released (Dez Bryant and Orlando Scandrick). Some of these decisions come with a heavy dead money hit that adds additional waste to the 2018 cap resources, but at the same time it opens up so much room for the future (check out this piece by my colleague Tom Ryle about the cap heaven of 2019).
The Cowboys aren’t pressured to re-sign Lawrence or Martin to extensions, but that doesn’t mean it still won’t happen. The extra cap room from all the departures may offer the front office some leverage as they can stand pat and allow them to play under their current salaries, whereas the players themselves may want to get something worked out to protect themselves from injury. So how will this play out?
Martin seems like a sure-fire extension just waiting to happen as he has proved his weight in gold. The team is just trying to get the best price they can to secure him long term. For Tank, it might be different. The back issue could be a concern and the team may be perfectly content with seeing how things play out in 2018 before making a long-term investment. The team also has several young wild card pass rushers who have upside. First-round pick Taco Charlton is looking to take a step forward after an unimpressive rookie season. New rookie Dorance Armstrong has the team excited and could make things real interesting if he gets off to a good start. Even Randy Gregory might return and could still offer the team something. Despite being drafted in 2015 and entering what would normally be the last year of his four-year deal, Gregory is actually under contract for 2018 and 2019 and the team will be able to offer him an RFA tender heading into 2020. That means they still might be able to get three good years out of him. All these things have an impact on how the Cowboys defensive end position group shapes out so the front office might be wise in being patient and waiting.