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2017 Team Report: Dallas Cowboys

Offensive Philosophy

With surprise rookie sensation Dak Prescott under center, the 2016 Cowboys stole a page out of the playbooks of the 2004 Steelers and 2012 Seahawks; the best way to develop a young wunderkind QB is with a dominant running game and a sparse-but-hyper-efficient passing game. The Cowboys ranked 1st in rush attempts, and while they were 29th in pass attempts, they ranked 4th in yards per pass. If the 2005 Steelers and 2013 Seahawks are any indication, look for Dallas to largely stick with the same formula in 2017, with a heavy dose of their workhorse running back giving Prescott as much room to continue his rapid development as possible.

Quarterbacks

Starter: Dak Prescott
Backup(s): Kellen Moore, Cooper Rush [R]

Starting QB: In a league full of surprises, no one was more surprising -- in an impressive way -- than Dak Prescott in 2016. When the Cowboys used a 4th round selection on Prescott, he was viewed as a developmental project for the future by most analysts. Another injury to star-crossed Tony Romo thrust the rookie into the limelight, and Prescott not only managed the team in Romo's absence, he played at an astoundingly high level thus facilitating a 13-3 season and a top 5 offense (421 points scored). Prescott completed 67.8% of his passes for 3,667 yards, 23 touchdowns and a mere 4 interceptions, while also running for 282 yards and six scores. Expectations have understandably skyrocketed for Prescott in Year Two, but he benefits from entering the preseason as the unquestioned starter and leader.

Backup QB: Kellen Moore returns to the backup role, after missing 2016 with injury. To think Dallas might never have given Prescott a chance at the starting job had Moore not gotten hurt last preseason; it would have been a disaster. Moore is smart and has a reputation as a good teammate. That doesn't compensate for his subpar arm strength. A career 58.7% passer, Moore has thrown more interceptions than touchdowns and is ill suited to handle the offense beyond an emergency start or two. Rookie Cooper Rush will try to impress enough to stick on the 53-man roster.

Running Backs

Starter: Ezekiel Elliott
Backup(s): Darren McFadden, Alfred Morris, Rod Smith, Jahad Thomas [R]
Fullback(s): Keith Smith

Starting RB: The decision to buck recent NFL draft trends and prioritize the running back position last year looks brilliant, in retrospect. Ezekiel Elliott more than lived up to his billing as a top 5 draft pick. He was a 1st team All Pro, rushing for a league-leading 1,631 yards. He finished 2nd with 1,994 yards from scrimmage and 3rd with 16 touchdowns. Elliott found no difficulty running behind the league's best offensive line, and provides the Cowboys with incredible balance, while not being a liability in the passing game. There's no reason to expect Elliott to be anything other than one of the league's top backs this year, and for many seasons to come.

Backup RBs: Alfred Morris is stuck in a statistical quagmire, as he backs up a runner that led the league in carries as a rookie. Making matters worse is quarterback Dak Prescott's own effectiveness as a goal-line runner (6 rushing touchdowns in 2016). Barring injury, Morris' role will be relegated to a few touches per game, and perhaps heavier workloads in the 2nd half of blowouts. Yet, given Morris' pedigree and the stellar offensive line, Morris could be a difference maker in fantasy circles if Elliott gets hurt. Darren McFadden appears set to return as the RB3, but his play fell back to Earth in 2016 (24 carries for 87 yards) and he could be a camp casualty depending on what Dallas does in the draft to address the position.

Fullback: Keith Smith is set as the lead blocking back.

Wide Receivers

Starters: Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams
Backups: Cole Beasley, Lucky Whitehead, Noah Brown [R], Ryan Switzer [R]

Starting WRs: Dez Bryant is not the player he used to be, but he remains a mismatch for most defensive backs. The last two seasons have been marred by injuries and his catch rate has suffered, falling below 50% over the 2-year span after averaging in the mid 60s for his first five seasons. In spite of losing a step or two, Bryant remains capable of double digit touchdowns and can beat defenders at the point of attack or over the top. His chemistry with Dak Prescott is set to improve thanks to an offseason working hand in hand. Terrance Williams returns as the other starter, albeit with a smaller role than slot receiver Cole Beasley. Williams tested free agency and found no takers, opting to return to Dallas on a team-friendly contract. Williams can stretch the field (15.8 yards per reception) and is coming off a career-best 72% catch rate, yet he has inconsistent hands and isn't dynamic in the open field. Williams serves a purpose, but he's the most replaceable piece in the starting unit.

Backup WRs: Cole Beasley isn't a 'starter' per se, but he's as important to the passing game as anyone outside of Bryant. Beasley led the Cowboys in targets (98), receptions (75) and yards (833) last season. He's built an immediate rapport with Prescott, thanks to sure hands and precise route-running. Dallas attempted to improve the unit's depth with a pair of rookies -- Noah Brown and Ryan Switzer. Brown hails from Ohio State but was a marginal contributor (52 career targets). He looks the part (6'2", 222 lbs.) and is possibly a diamond in the rough. Switzer is the opposite -- at 5'8", 181 lbs Switzer is physically disadvantaged, yet his collegiate resume is impeccable. He caught 243 passes for 2,903 yards and 19 touchdowns at UNC, and could be the heir apparent for Beasley in time. In the meantime, Switzer will earn his keep on special teams as a return man.

Tight Ends

Starters: Jason Witten
Backups: Geoff Swaim, Rico Gathers, Blake Jarwin [R]

The Cowboys have drafted Jason Witten's 'replacement' multiple times yet they're all long gone while Witten remains a key cog. Martellus Bennett is now catching passes in Green Bay after stops in New York, Chicago and New England. Gavin Escobar now calls Kansas City home. Rookie free agent Blake Jarwin is the latest potential successor, but he isn't the two-way threat Witten has been during his Hall of Fame career. Witten enters his 15th season having clearly lost a step. He's averaged less than 10 yards per catch in each of the last two seasons and has just six touchdowns over his last 32 games. While no longer a downfield threat, Witten remains sure-handed, tough as nails, and a plus as a pass protector and run blocker.

Place Kicker

Dan Bailey: The Cowboys have one of the better kickers in the league in Dan Bailey, and he is often drafted in the top five options in fantasy leagues. Bailey had a bit of a down year in 2016, missing five of his 32 field goal attempts and only making 3 of 6 from 50+. He hasn't had more than 32 field goal attempts in the last five years, and Bailey has one of the lower ceilings of the earliest drafted kickers.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Lucky Whitehead

Dallas is one of the few teams that has a dedicated, full-time, two-way return specialist in Lucky Whitehead. While he's not as aggressive as some kickoff returners in taking kicks out of the end zone, he should receive plenty of opportunities again in 2017.

Punt Returners: Lucky Whitehead, Cole Beasley

Whitehead is the team's dedicated returner, though Dallas has in the past been willing to give Cole Beasley a few reps in high-leverage situations.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: LT Tyron Smith, LG La'el Collins, C Travis Frederick, RG Zack Martin, RT Chaz Green
Key Backups: Joe Looney, Bryon Bell, Jonathan Cooper

The Cowboys boast three current All-Pro's (Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin), a feat unmatched by any other team this season. They did it for the second year in a row, which is unheard of in the modern era. Even the two players that aren't All-Pro's, left guard La'el Collins and right tackle Chaz Green, are at least average. Collins has serious physical upside and will look to bounce back from last year's injury. Doug Free retired in the offseason but Chaz Green looked decent in several spot starts last season, there shouldn't be much of a drop off at that spot. The Cowboys' depth isn't amazing but there are guys with experience like Joe Looney and Bryon Bell, and Jonathan Cooper was once a big draft pick. It won't matter though, if those All-Pro three players stay healthy, the Cowboys will remain far and away the best line in football.

Team Defense

The Cowboys were a smashing success as a football team in the win-loss column last year, but the offense dragged the defense to victories at times. A few surprising contributors such as rookie Maliek Collins and UDFA David Irving helped the team to notch a respectable 36 sacks, but the Cowboys secondary only recorded nine interceptions, and they lost their two starting corners and two of their top three safeties in free agency. 2015 second-rounder Randy Gregory is suspended again, and they lost a core defensive tackle, Terrell McClain, to rival Washington in free agency. While they did throw four picks at the secondary in the draft and used their first-rounder on Taco Charlton, a defensive lineman, the defense is likely to take a step back this year. They are rightfully being drafted outside of the top 20 after finishing there in formats that don't score points against heavily, although the quality of their offense makes the Cowboys D/ST a solid streaming matchup play when the opponent is weak.

Defensive Line

Starters: DE DeMarcus Lawrence, DE Taco Charlton [R], DT Tyrone Crawford, DT Maliek Collins
Backups: DE Benson Mayowa, DE/DT David Irving, DT Cedric Thornton, DE Charles Tapper, DT Stephen Paea, DE Damontre Moore, DT Joey Ivie [R], DT Jordan Carrell [R], DT Richard Ash, DE Randy Gregory (suspended), DE Zach Wood, DE Lenny Jones

Starting DL: With both DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory suspended to start the 2016 season, Dallas was once again dreadfully void of star power within their front four. The team managed to finish middle of the road in terms of sacks but generated pressure on just 23% of opponent drop backs (third worst in the NFL) and hasn't had a pass rusher reach double-digit sacks since Jason Hatcher back in 2013. This said, adding a viable pass rusher was a top priority for Dallas this off-season and the Cowboys did just that when they used their first round draft pick to select Taco Charlton out of Michigan. Although some saw that selection as a reach given Charlton's relatively short resume, Dallas liked his size and versatility, two attributes that will likely lead to him being an immediate starter for the team. Coach Jason Garrett has stated that Charlton will slot in at RDE, which will allow DeMarcus Lawrence to slide over to his more natural position on the strong side. Maliek Collins and Tyrone Crawford round out the starting core but that's largely a semantical issue given how much the Cowboys rotate among their line. Collins did lead all Cowboys' defensive linemen in snaps played and finished second on the team in sacks with 5.5. However, he doesn't play the run well, so the team will likely relegate him to a situational three-technique role moving forward. The Cowboys are relying on the addition of Charlton, the healthy return of DeMarcus Lawrence, and continued development of Maliek Collins to bolster their starting pass-rush, which has been a serious weak spot for them the last couple of years, especially in the playoffs.

Backup DL: Former Raider Benson Mayoya was one of the Cowboys most effective pass-rushers on a per snap basis registering 5.5 sacks in just under 400 snaps. He will compete with rookie Taco Charlton for the starting position on the right side of the line. David Irving was another RFA signing that had a significant impact for the Cowboys in 2016. He flashed significant upside against the Packers in Week 6 where he had a sack, three forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, and a pass deflection. The Cowboys love his size (6'7") and will look for more ways to get him involved in 2017, likely playing him both inside and outside in obvious pass-rushing situations to maximize his playing time. Dallas brought in former Eagle Cedric Thornton last year to be a force against the run but was a serious disappointment in that regard as he put up career-low tackle numbers and graded out towards the bottom of the league in run defense. He will serve as a rotational body along the interior of the line along with newly acquired veteran Stephen Paea. Charles Tapper, the Cowboys fourth round pick in the 2016 draft, spent his entire rookie season on injured reserve with a broken back. He was originally seen as a great value pick for Dallas and has a good amount of upside if healthy.

Linebackers

Starters: MLB Anthony Hitchens, WLB Sean Lee, SLB Damien Wilson
Backups: MLB Jaylon Smith, LB Kyle Wilber, MLB Mark Nzeocha, LB Jeremiah George

Starting LBs: The Cowboys did little to improve their linebacker core this off-season, instead focusing on bolstering their defensive front and secondary which were clearer areas of defensive need. Sean Lee finally managed to stay healthy, playing in his most regular season games (15) since 2011 and earning first team All-Pro honors. As long as he stays on the field, he will continue to be the leader and centerpiece of the defense and is the heavy favorite to lead the team in tackles once again in 2017. Anthony Hitchens is slotted in as the starting middle linebacker, but he could be quickly bumped to the strong side if Jaylon Smith proves to be healthy. Damien Wilson saw a bump in playing time towards the end of the last season as he gained the trust of the coaching staff on the strong side. He will enter training camp as a starter but could head to a reserve role if Jaylon Smith looks to be ready for game action.

Backup LBs: Perhaps the biggest question mark for the Cowboys defense heading into the 2017 regular season is the health of 2016 second round selection Jaylon Smith. Smith was a consensus top five pick prior to a catastrophic knee injury in the Fiesta Bowl that left him with nerve damage and a condition known as drop foot that leaves a player unable to left up their foot. Cowboys EVP Stephen Jones recently stated that Smith is starting to regain feeling in his toes and could have full nerve regeneration by Week 1. If this is truly the case, the Cowboys could eventually have one of the most dynamic linebacker duos in the league in Smith and Sean Lee. This will be one of the more interesting situations to watch during training camp and the preseason. Outside of Smith, the Cowboys don't have much depth as Kyle Wilber and Mark Nzeocha combined for 65 total snaps last year and Jeremiah George was signed on to be a special teams contributor.

Defensive Backs

Starters: CB Anthony Brown, CB Nolan Carroll, NCB Orlando Scandrick, FS Byron Jones, SS Jeff Heath
Backups: CB Chidobe Awuzie [R], SCB Jourdan Lewis [R], S Xavier Woods [R], S Robert Blanton, CB Marquez White, CB Leon McFadden, CB Jeremiah McKinnon, CB Duke Thomas, CB Sammy Seamster, SS Kavon Frazier

Starting DBs: The Cowboys lost four key contributors in their secondary to free agency this year in Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Barry Church, and J.J. Wilcox. This said the Cowboys focused their draft in this area, using four of their nine draft choices on secondary players. Anthony Brown played better than expect in his rookie season after being forced into starting action due to a Morris Claiborne injury. Dallas will rely on him to take another step forward as a cornerback in 2017 and hold his own some of the league's top wide receivers. Nolan Carroll was brought in from the Eagles this past off-season and has the leg up on the starting cornerback position opposite Anthony Brown. Carroll has been inconsistent throughout his career, but the Cowboys are hoping he can at least be as good as Brandon Carr. It wasn't that long ago when Orlando Scandrick was Dallas' best secondary player. However, injuries have slowed him down and he was the subject of trade rumors during this year's draft. Given the myriad of young options the Cowboys have at the position, look for Scandrick's role to be reduced in 2017. Bryon Jones has quickly developed into the team's best secondary player and will be the de facto leader of that unit after the departure of Barry Church. Despite only having one interception in his two-year career, he's already proven himself as one of the more versatile secondary players in the league and the Cowboys love his ability to cover tight ends in space. Incumbent Jeff Heath will compete with newly acquired veteran Robert Blanton and rookie Xavier Woods for the starting strong safety position. Heath figures to have the edge given his familiarity with the system and strong production during the playoffs. However, his upside is limited, and doesn't project as a long-term starter at the position.

Backup DBs: Chidobe Awuzie, the 60th overall pick in this year's draft, is a physical secondary player who has the versatility to play at multiple positions - a trait the Cowboys found especially appealing given their lack of depth on the backside of their defense. Two-time Big 10 defensive back of the year Jourdan Lewis was considered a second round talent by many, but fell to the third round of this year's draft due to off-the-field issues. His skill set and mentality make him a great fit for the slot and give him perhaps the best chance of all Cowboys secondary rookies to see starter snaps early in the season. Dallas moved up 20 spots (giving up a 2018 fifth rounder the process) to grab Xavier Woods. Woods managed 14 interceptions and 9 interceptions during his time at Louisiana Tech and brings major playmaking ability to a team that failed to have a single player register more than two interceptions last year. He's a bit under-sized for a safety, but has a good chance at severely outperforming his draft slot. It wouldn't be a complete shock if he were the Cowboys Week 1 starter come 2018. Robert Blanton, a five-year veteran, is a player who gives the Cowboys a dependable player in the secondary and someone that can push Jeff Heath for the starting role this year.

Last modified: 2017-05-25 20:01:41