It’s hard for a Cowboys fan to have pleasant things to say about the Philadelphia Eagles, but you can’t be an objective fan if you don’t tip your cap to the great job their organization did in putting together their Super Bowl winning team. Not only did they take home the league’s biggest prize, but they overcame adversity when several of their players got hurt, including quarterback Carson Wentz, who was putting together an MVP-campaign season. The Eagles were able to have success because their football team had great depth. When a key player got hurt, they had another guy who could step in and help them not miss a beat. Backup quarterback Nick Foles was the perfect example of that.
The Cowboys, however, did not handle adversity well. They were without three All-Pro’s last season and their absence was noticeably felt. Sean Lee missed six games, Ezekiel Elliott missed six games, and Tyron Smith missed four games. The Cowboys nose-dived in the middle of the season when Zeke was suspended. The team lost three straight and were outscored 92-22. Both Elliott and Lee were out in those games as well as Tyron Smith missing the first two.
@rjochoa— Dan Rogers (@DannyPhantom24) February 19, 2018
YELLOW - Just Lee out, -9 points differential
RED - Lee, Zeke, and Tyron all out, -48 points differential
GREEN - Just Lee and Zeke out, +2 points differential
BLUE - Just Zeke out, +23 points differential
ORANGE - Just Tyron out, -3 points differential pic.twitter.com/Acn4dYTbDb
Once players started returning, the Cowboys would regroup and begin winning games again. They would finish the year winning four of their last five games. Unfortunately, it was not enough.
The Cowboys have taken action to help protect against losses like this. They addressed their swing tackle concern by signing Cameron Fleming in free agency and helped strengthen the linebacker corps by investing their first-round pick in Leighton Vander Esch. The Cowboys also added two running backs via free agency and the draft in Tavon Austin and Bo Scarbrough respectively. Have they done enough to shore up these backup positions? Let’s roll through the top player at each position and see which area could be at most risk this season.
Not too worried about...
Xavier Woods (FS)
The coaching staff has a lot of confidence in second-year player Xavier Woods as he should be replacing Byron Jones (who moved to corner) as the teams new starting free safety. While it’s okay to be optimistic, Woods is still very much unproven and remains an average player at best until otherwise demonstrated. Should he get hurt, the team would likely slide Jeff Heath over to play free safety and then insert Kavon Frazier into the starting strong safety spot. There is not much difference in talent from this collective group so losing one of these players isn’t going to sting very much.
Maliek Collins (DT)
The absence of a true 1-tech defensive tackle caused the Cowboys to go to plan B in how they orientate their defensive line. When healthy and not being suspended, it appears Collins and David Irving will start on the interior defensive line. While they were unable to get Terrell McClain to return via free agency, the team did trade for 2016 second-round draft pick Jihad Ward. Early indications are that Ward is playing well in training camp and should step in for Irving while he is serving his suspension. I’m also big on former first-round pick Datone Jones as a possible bench contributor so the team has raised the floor on the level of talent off the bench.
Allen Hurns (WR)
One thing about not having a true #1 WR is that the team won’t be losing a lot if their top guy goes down. We’re not even sure who the top guy is going to be in Dallas. The team has so much depth at wide receiver that somebody’s pet cat is likely to be cut when they trim the roster down to 53 players. The trickle down effect of losing the top guy will not be so noticeable for the Cowboys. If Hurns goes down, Michael Gallup steps up, as does Terrance Williams, and then also Cedrick Wilson, and so on. Regardless of how you got the depth chart configured, this is still one of the deepest position groups where losing a top player would hurt the least.
Geoff Swaim (TE)
The Cowboys tight end situation is very much up in the air. We suspect Swaim will be the team’s starting tight end, but one person’s #1 guy could be another person’s #4 guy. That speaks to the large amount of mediocrity the team has collected to fill their reserve behind Jason Witten. Unless someone really steps up, there isn’t a single player that has us fans excited. While the tight end position may be an area of concern as a whole, losing the top guy isn’t anything that people are going to lose sleep over.
We should be a little bit concerned if they lose...
Chidobe Awuzie (CB)
The Cowboys have a good group of young cornerbacks led by Chidobe Awuzie and Byron Jones. Last year’s starting outside cornerbacks, Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis, are now fighting for reps as the team’s slot corner. Should Awuzie or Jones get hurt, their replacement off the bench isn’t going to be horrible. With new defensive backs coach Kris Richard in charge now, fans are hopeful that improvements can be made across the board for all players. Whomever loses the battle for the #3 CB will still be a nice consolation prize for the Cowboys bench.
Dak Prescott (QB)
There was once a day when the Cowboys backup quarterback position was in terrible shape. Just revisit the 2015 season if you need any help remembering. Every quarterback who played that year for Dallas is no longer on the roster. Instead, the team has three young quarterbacks, all of which give us hope. Clearly, Dak Prescott’s basket is the player us fans are putting our eggs in, but how bad will things get if he’s not available? Cooper Rush looked outstanding last preseason and the team even doubled-down and drafted the promising Mike White. I can’t wait until preseason so we can see all these quarterbacks play, but between Rush and White, the Cowboys might not be in bad shape if Prescott goes down.
Sean Lee (LB)
For years, the wheels came off the defense whenever the team lost their All Pro linebacker so why should it be any different now? Well, there are a couple reasons. First, the improving mobility of Jaylon Smith opens the door to the possibility that Sean Lee isn’t the only linebacker flying around making tackles. Second, the team invested a first-round pick in the athletic playmaker from Boise State, Leighton Vander Esch. That is not to say that if we see Lee gingerly coming off the field that it won’t make our stomach drop, but the Cowboys could be in much better shape this year to handle such an ordeal. Playing less than half their snaps in base package means that only two linebackers are used most of the time and that leaves a talented player ready to step in anytime he is needed.
Tyron Smith (T)
There wasn’t a single more important factor in determining the success of the Cowboys last year than the play of their left tackle. If Tyron Smith was playing, the offense was humming. If he wasn’t, they struggled. Smith is an All-Pro talent so losing him is going to be felt, but it was the complete ineptness of the swing tackle position that really hurt the team. Both Chaz Green and Byron Bell were just dreadful. Prescott was running for his life at times and the offense completely spun it’s wheels when the swing tackles were called into action. The Cowboys vowed to not let this happen again and signed a reliable reserve tackle in free agent Cameron Fleming.
Best offensive tackles against— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) July 4, 2018
Inside Pressure: Cameron Fleming
Bullrush Pressure: Joe Staley
Outside Pressure: David Bakhtiari pic.twitter.com/nXAydXvbgc
Nobody wants to see Tyron hurt again, but unlike last year - it’s not the end of the world if it happens.
They could be in trouble if they lose...
Zack Martin/Travis Frederick (G/C)
Zack Martin and Travis Frederick are included together because both are outstanding and both would likely have the same backup as Joe Looney and Marcus Martin have position flex to play center. It’s unclear who all makes the team on the interior offensive line, but it should include at least Joe Looney or Marcus Martin, if not both. While either are not terrible backups, the drop-off in talent from the All-Pros starters to the reserves is considerable.
The good news is the Cowboys have likely answered their left guard situation by drafting Connor Williams in the second round so that means they won’t have to rely on a backup to fill a starting spot. But the backup guard/center spots are still mediocre at best. It’s always possible that Fleming may be asked to play inside if needed, so there’s a chance they could be in better shape, but this area still remains one of the biggest talent drop-offs on the Cowboys roster.
DeMarcus Lawrence (DE)
The Cowboys have done a good job strengthening the depth on the edge recently. Draft investments like Taco Charlton and Dorance Armstrong as well as veteran free agent signing Kony Ealy give them solid depth at the position. In previous seasons, we’d all be happy about that type of depth filling in for a key starter, however, in previous years the team didn’t have a perennial pass rusher sitting out there on the edge. Thanks to a breakout season from DeMarcus Lawrence, the team now has someone they can’t afford to lose. We love the arsenal the team has within its rotation, but should something happen to Tank, the pass rushing battle just got a whole lot harder.
Of course, there are still a couple wild card pieces to this puzzle that could lessen the blow. If Taco takes a big step forward or Randy Gregory is reinstated and plays well, this could make the defensive end depth even stronger.
Ezekiel Elliott (RB)
A lot of people attribute last year’s failures to the loss of Ezekiel Elliott as his suspension marked a turning point for the Cowboys season. The team was just coming off a three-game winning streak, only to turn around and lose three straight once Elliott’s suspension took effect. In that span, the offense averaged seven points a game. But then, the Zeke-less Cowboys would turn around and win three straight again as the team would average 33 points a game. It appeared the team found a way to still win games without their star running back. As discussed already, the offensive woes had more to do with the absence of one of their top blockers than it did without their top ball carrier.
Without Elliott in the backfield, defenses change how they defend the Cowboys. He’s an electric playmaker who isn’t easily replaced. Last year, the team had Alfred Morris and Darren McFadden on their bench, but both those guys are gone now. Rod Smith and rookie Bo Scarbrough are now the team’s backup running backs. We may like what we see from those guys, but they’re a far cry from the special talent that is Ezekiel Elliott. Even a championship caliber team like the ‘90s Cowboys had a tough time winning games without their star running back.
Who do you think is the most irreplaceable player on the Cowboys?