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The state of the Cowboys: Is the team better or worse after the draft?

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That is all that really matters.

NFL: NFL Draft Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

This is the week when the Dallas Cowboys gets their first look at most of the shiny new toys. The rookie minicamp takes place this Friday and Saturday. We will make our first, very tentative assessment of the draft picks, UDFAs, and other attendees. As with the same camps going on all over the league, things will tend toward the optimistic side. Confirmation bias and other factors are things you need to guard against. But optimism is OK. ‘Tis the season, after all.

But how did the draft help the Cowboys? Is this team better now than it was at the end of last season? That is the real question now.

Opinions are going to differ. One way to look at things is to break down the current roster (including all those who will not be around come September) by position group and see how it looks now. And the evaluation shouldn’t stop there, because there are important interrelationships between the groups. So here goes.

Specialists

Let’s just knock this one out, since nothing has changed. As long as Dan Bailey has no lingering effects from his injury last year, this should be just fine, and continue to be one of the best in the NFL.

On to the meat of the subject.

Quarterback

The addition of Mike White in the draft just makes this unit stronger, although it all really hinges on the year Dak Prescott has. White will be battling Cooper Rush for the QB2 job, and the team may be forced to carry all three on the 53-man roster. That is a good problem to have.

Running back

New acquisition Tavon Austin adds a big dimension to the running game, one the team has been in serach of since the injury-riddled tenure of Lance Dunbar. Bo Scarborough is an intriguing prospect. He was somewhat limited in his function in college, but he was very good at that: Serving as a battering ram to beat up defenses and control the ball. Jamize Olawale is a fullback that brings some real running and catching ability to the position.

But the biggest improvement is because of something that is not there anymore: The threat of suspension for Ezekiel Elliott. He should easily return to the league-leading force he was in 2016. And he is going to be running with a real chip on his shoulder.

The ground game is crucial for the Cowboys offense. With the current array of weapons, it may be downright lethal.

Wide receiver

The assumption by many is that the Cowboys will find it extremely difficult to replace the production and red zone ability of Dez Bryant. But a look at his performance over the past three years shows that his contributions to the team were definitely on the decline. He had 838 yards and six touchdowns last season, which was actually up from the previous two years.

The Cowboys added Allen Hurns and Deonte Thompson in free agency, and drafted Michael Gallup and Cedrick Wilson. They are not looking to replace Bryant with one of them - they are going to use all of them to make up the difference. And Gallup and Wilson both have some college credentials that show they may be more up to the task than many think.

The Cowboys wound up with the two most reliable red zone receivers of all college football in the draft. Looks like they have a profile.

We have to see how it all comes together, but with the focus on route running that has also been reported, this group may be more than capable. And maybe that chemistry will click.

Tight end

It is basically impossible to overstate the leadership that walked out the door when Jason Witten retired. And despite his reduced speed (not that he was ever what you’d call blazing), he was still a very reliable third down option. The team added Dalton Schultz, but he was taken more for his blocking skills - and there, Witten was also excellent. Now the Cowboys have to find out what Schultz, Blake Jarwin, and Geoff Swaim can bring to the table without Witten on the field for nearly every offensive play. For those pinning their hopes on Rico Gathers, you might want to scale those back a tad until, you know, he actually plays a down.

This is likely the unit that regressed the most to this point. One possible way to work around it may be to run more plays without a tight end on the field to utilize those other receivers, including out of the backfield. And of course, spreading the defense out may open up some running lanes for the ground attack. Still, Witten’s sudden departure is something that is going to be a concern.

Offensive line

Connor Williams may have been taken in the second round, but make no mistake. He was the most important pick of the draft. That is no disrespect to Leighton Vander Esch, who was also a crucial addition. But the identity of the Cowboys is tied directly to that offensive line. Last season, when Tyron Smith was injured and the great Chaz Green experiment failed miserably, we saw what happened, including the way the pummeling at the hands of the Atlanta Falcons left Prescott shell-shocked. He was just not quite the same the rest of the year.

Now the left guard issue appears fixed, with a player who could prove to be fully worthy of lining up alongside All-Pros Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin. And don’t forget that La’el Collins now has a full year at the RT spot, which could benefit his play.

Not only are the starting jobs looking nailed down, but the depth had a nice boost from the signings of Cameron Fleming and Marcus Martin. Fleming in particular looks like a real asset as the swing tackle, having started 20 games over his four-year stint with the New England Patriots. Rumor has it they play pretty good football.

The Great Wall of Dallas looks like it is back. And with that talent looking to run the ball behind them, the smash-mouth style of football that worked so well in 2016 could be primed to make a return.

Defensive line

Dallas did not address the defensive tackle position until they were offered Jihad Ward in a trade for Ryan Switzer. He is a question mark as to how much he will help the team at this point, having had a rocky and injury-impacted two years with the Oakland Raiders. But the Cowboys were interested in him two years ago when he was drafted, and hope to see him perform the way they expected then.

Defensive end Dorance Armstrong Jr. is a much more positive addition. He was the best player on both sides of the ball for a pretty bad Kansas Jayhawks team. Dallas may have gotten a real steal in him due to a scheme switch before his final season. He struggled a bit in a 3-4 defense after being a real force in the 4-3 prior to that.

Now those two join what was the most pleasant surprise last year, a real pass rush. DeMarcus Lawrence and David Irving are signed for this year (at least), Taco Charlton has a chance to continue the improvement he was showing at the end of last year, Charles Tapper is a bit of a wild card with some interesting upside, and Maliek Collins and Tyrone Crawford also come back. They also added free agent Kony Ealy.

And then there is Randy Gregory.

We can’t count on Gregory contributing until he is reinstated - if Roger Goodell doesn’t find a reason to deny it. But if he does return, that group is an absolute demolition crew poised to ruin the day for opposing quarterbacks.

And even if Gregory isn’t available, it is still a solid bunch. This looks to be a real strength of the defense.

Linebackers

Just like the offense came unglued when Tyron Smith was hurt, the defense ran off the rails when Sean Lee and Anthony Hitchens were both unavailable. Now Hitchens is gone, but Vander Esch has been brought in to man the MIKE position between Lee and Jaylon Smith. And while some people knocked his selection in the first round, there are reasons the Cowboys took him.

The Cowboys also took Chris Covington, but he appears to be more of a replacement for Kyle Wilber on special teams. LVE is the big get, and with less of a load on Smith, he could well be improved this year. It certainly looks like the linebacking unit got better.

Secondary

Despite safety being seen as one of the more significant needs for Dallas going into the draft, they didn’t take one. Nor did they draft a cornerback, a real rarity for them. You have to go all the way back to 2006 to find the last year they did not take a cornerback at all.

But that is a reflection of the secondary-heavy draft of 2017, when they took Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, Xavier Woods, and Marquez White. That was part of a massive rebuild of the pass defense, and now they have moved Byron Jones back to his best position at corner. With that year of experience under their belt, the second-year players are likely to just get better. And they weren’t exactly shabby last season.

There may have been no additions to the secondary, but it may be improved nonetheless. And there is still plenty of time to add a veteran safety to the group.

Summation

Taken all together, what picture does this paint for the 2018 edition of the Cowboys?

  • They definitely improved at running back, offensive line, and linebacker.
  • They got deeper at quarterback and wide receiver.
  • The defensive line looks stronger and could get a major boost if Gregory is reinstated.
  • The secondary could be better just because of experience.
  • Special teams are not a problem at all.
  • Only tight end remains a significant worry, while wide receiver is uncertain, but offers some hope.

On balance, the Cowboys look to have improved their roster significantly. Of course, all teams think so after the draft and free agency. But there is a lot of data that indicates that this was a very helpful offseason so far for the Cowboys, despite the Bryant and Witten departures.

Now, when does football start again?