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Have the Cowboys improved as a football team in the 2018 offseason?

Ed Note: Our friend VAfan drops a long-form article breaking down the Cowboys moves this offseason and whether they’ve improved. We thought it was definitely worth a read — Dave.

Let’s recap some of the many moves the Cowboys have made so far this offseason. Know that these are not the only moves the team will make. They can and will continue to churn the roster. There are many UDFAs to sign and get into OTAs. They may decide to dip into free agency to shore up places where they didn’t get players they might have liked in the draft, like safety and 1 technique. But for now, let’s look at how they’ve changed and assess whether it’s likely to be better. (I’m not going to go into UDFAs here.)

Guide: 2017 snaps are in parentheses, and bolded players are either gone or new.

Offense

Offensive line – better depth, likely better performance

2017 – Tyron Smith (759), Jonathan Cooper (836), Travis Frederick (1066), Zack Martin (1019), La’el Collins (1066), Chaz Green (256), Byron Bell (219), Joe Looney (92)

2018 – Tyron Smith, Connor Williams, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, La’el Collins, Cameron Fleming, Joe Looney, Marcus Martin, Chaz Green

In 2017, the team tried replacing Ron Leary at left guard and Doug Free at right tackle. La’el Collins was moved out to right tackle, where he struggled early but then got better as the year went on. The left guard slot was much more uncertain, with the coaches trying to get Chaz Green to win the job. When he went down to injury after 3 games, they finally moved Jonathan Cooper in at left guard where he stayed until the end of the year. Tyron Smith missed several games to injury, and his backups – Chaz Green and Byron Bell – were disasters. Jerry Jones talks about “the Atlanta game” as something the Cowboys never want to see again.

In 2018, La’el Collins has another year under his belt at right tackle. Tyron Smith so far is feeling much better than he did last year. Cameron Fleming is a much better swing tackle than the Cowboys had last year. They have more depth at guard with the addition of Marcus Martin and the return of Joe Looney.

The question is how good will Connor Williams be in year one? That’s the wild card. He might not start out better than Jonathan Cooper, in part because he’s moving from left tackle to left guard, but he should get there by the end of the season. Indeed, Williams might end up being as good or better than Ron Leary in a year or two. He’ll need to bulk up from 296, but he’s played with more weight in the past. Williams had an injury at Texas last year, so we have to hope he stays healthy.

The other factor is the coach is now Paul Alexander instead of Frank Pollack. Alexander’s Cincinnati lines excelled at pass protection. This could be another plus, but we’ll have to see how it plays out.

Wide receiver – better depth, likely better performance

2017 – Dez Bryant (893), Terrance Williams (691), Cole Beasley (574), Brice Butler (263), Noah Brown (159), Ryan Switzer (91).

2018 – Allen Hurns, Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley, Michael Gallup, Deonte Thompson, Cedrick Wilson, Noah Brown (Tavon Austin in with RBs)

In 2017, this group took a big hit from 2016. Dez Bryant’s production was way off, dragging down Dak Prescott’s overall stats instead of elevating them. Cole Beasley went from being one of the highest DVOA receivers to being way down in targets and catch percentage, from a highly efficient chain mover to someone who was taken out of many games. Terrance Williams was about the same in catches, but caught no touchdowns. Noah Brown and Ryan Switzer did nothing in the passing game. The only guy who improved from 2016 to 2017 was Brice Butler, but he didn’t receive enough targets to make much of a difference.

In 2018, this group is deeper, and should be better. Don’t get caught up in the names. There’s no Dez Bryant “top of the NFL” receiver here. But Dez Bryant wasn’t close to being a top of the NFL receiver in 2017 or 2016 or 2015. To replace Dez and Brice Butler, the Cowboys have Allen Hurns, Deonte Thompson, and two rookies – Michael Gallup and Cedrick Wilson. Even if rookie WRs take time, the Cowboys don’t necessarily have to rely on them out of the gate with Hurns and Thompson here. It won’t be that hard to improve on 2017s performance. Dak will not have to force the ball to anyone. He can just find the open man.

Overall, I think Hurns will be more efficient than Dez, Deonte Thompson will play at least as well as Brice Butler, and Michael Gallup will push for snaps as he develops, with Cedrick Wilson fighting Noah Brown for the last slot. Brown is bigger and the better blocker, but Wilson seems more skilled as a receiver, and offers a deep threat. Cole Beasley will not return to his 2016 level, but will be better than last year.

Sanjay Lal being added as receivers coach is also a plus for this group.

Quarterback – bounce back performance and better depth

2017 – Dak Prescott (1051), Cooper Rush (15)

2018 – Dak Prescott, Cooper Rush, Mike White

In 2017, Dak Prescott was unable to repeat his rookie of the year campaign from 2016. Here’s a link to his 2017 numbers versus 2016 numbers. His completion percentage was down, his interceptions were up, his ANY/A was way off, as was his quarterback rating and QBR. Part of it was the offensive line was much worse, especially in certain games. Part of it was the loss of Zeke for six games. Teams took away Cole Beasley, which made it harder to move the chains. Dez Bryant got a lot more targets, but was inefficient, dragging down Dak’s totals.

In 2018, I expect Dak Prescott, with another offseason, to come back determined to prove that 2016 was not a fluke. He will be better. His turnovers may not return to ridiculously low 2016 totals, but will be well below last year’s uncharacteristic totals. In 2016, when Dez was out for three games, Dak did really well, with quarterback ratings of 114, 117, and 117. So having a receiving group without anyone demanding the ball is likely a good thing.

The team also drafted developmental rookie Mike White and his big arm, which gives the team better depth. Plus Cooper Rush is a year into the system, so he should be more prepared if he’s called on.

Running backs – Zeke for 16 games, Bo Scarbrough, Tavon Austin, and Jamize Olawale make this group much better

2017 – Ezekiel Elliott (589), Rod Smith (232), Alfred Morris (202), Keith Smith (118)

2018 – Ezekiel Elliott, Rod Smith, Tavon Austin, Bo Scarbrough, Jamize Olawale

In 2017, the running game took a huge hit with Zeke out 6 games to suspension, the offensive line shuffling, and the Cowboys unable to move the chains in the passing game to keep the offense on the field.

In 2018, expect the running game to return in a big way. Zeke is going to be driven to reclaim his rushing title and prove he’s the best running back in the game. Rod Smith will reprise his role as backup RB and special teams ace. Bo Scarbrough and Tavon Austin give this team more versatility than Alfred Morris provided. Scarbrough may not be elusive, but he’s a beast who can punish teams late in games, while Austin will return the jet sweep to the arsenal, and make other change of pace plays. Olawale may not be the blocker Keith Smith was, but he’s 100% better as a receiver, and had many breakaway plays when he was with Oakland. Dak Prescott will also continue to add his rushing/scrambling yards to these totals.

A big key will also be having a more reliable offensive line, which is not certain, but likely. Expect Dallas to lead the NFL in rushing.

Tight ends – Jason Witten will be missed; Rico Gathers is the big question mark

2017 – Jason Witten (1048), James Hanna (275), Geoff Swaim (172), Blake Jarwin (3).

2018 – Rico Gathers, Dalton Schultz, Geoff Swaim, Blake Jarwin

In 2017, Jason Witten had a lesser year than 2016, down from 673 yards to 559 yards. Between them, James Hanna and Geoff Swaim had 6 catches for 113 yards, with Hanna catching the first TD of his career.

In 2018, how does Dallas replace the 1000 snaps Jason Witten took year after year, and the 275 snaps as a blocker that James Hanna logged? On the one hand, this could create a cavernous hole in Dallas’s offense. Witten was on a slow decline, but his blocking helped the running game, and he was still someone who could get open and move the chains. On the other hand, not having Witten automatically in the game for every snap could introduce variety into Dallas’s attack. The Cowboy might run 0 tight end sets, with four wideouts and Zeke. They might have a more balanced distribution of balls to the tight ends when they go out as receivers. But the biggest difference could come if Dallas can utilize Rico Gather’s superior explosiveness in the passing game.

There’s no way to replace a Hall of Fame player like Jason Witten. Yet, we all saw last pre-season how much more dynamic Rico Gathers was as a receiver – his yards per catch are likely to be much higher than Witten, so he could get similar yards on fewer catches. The real question is can Gathers stay on the field, after he missed last year with a concussion. Expect Dalton Schultz to reprise James Hanna’s role as a blocker, and to get more receiving chances than Hanna had. And expect Geoff Swaim to help pick up the slack, along with Blake Jarwin.

Defense

Defensive line – should become a force and the strength of the defense in 2018

2017 – DeMarcus Lawrence (701), Maliek Collins (686), Tyrone Crawford (595), Taco Charlton (398), Benson Mayowa (381), David Irving (337), Richard Ash (233), Brian Price (149), Stephen Paea (145), Lewis Neal (140), Datone Jones (117), Damontre Moore (58), Daniel Ross (56), Charles Tapper (36)

2018 – DeMarcus Lawrence, Maliek Collins, David Irving, Tyrone Crawford, Taco Charlton, Kony Ealy, Randy Gregory, Brian Price, Richard Ash, Lewis Neal, Datone Jones, Daniel Ross, Charles Tapper, Dorance Armstrong, Jr., Jihad Ward

In 2017, DeMarcus Lawrence and David Irving had break out seasons. The difference was that Irving missed the first four games on a suspension, and the last four on a concussion. Maliek Collins had a foot injury that hampered him, and he had to play more 1 Tech than 3 Tech. Tyrone Crawford had a normal year. Taco Charlton was worked into the rotation, Benson Mayowa took a step back, and the Cowboys used lots of other bodies in the middle.

In 2018, the Cowboys are poised for a great leap forward on the defensive line. Lawrence is back, but this time will have a much stronger supporting cast. The first key is getting 16 games out of David Irving. Last year, on a per game basis, Lawrence and Irving were about equal in terms of sacks and splash plays. See Bob Sturm’s excellent chart here. Lawrence had 39 splash plays, and Irving had 18.5 in half the games. Sean Lee was next with 17.5.

The second key would be if Randy Gregory is reinstated by the NFL and can play a full season. Obviously Roger Goodell is the wild card here, even more than Gregory. If he can get on the field, he gives the Cowboys the speed rusher from the right defensive end (or weakside) position they have lacked since DeMarcus Ware was released. A combo of Lawrence, Irving, and Gregory would terrorize opposing QBs.

The Cowboys are not betting on Gregory’s return, which is why they signed Kony Ealy and drafted Dorance Armstrong. This covers for the release of Benson Mayowa and gives them the potential for an upgrade on the right side regardless.

We can also expect Taco Charlton to take a leap forward after a year in the program during which he should have gotten stronger.

Everyone seems worried about defensive tackle, but I think the Cowboys properly chose to address other areas of the team first. We just explained why Armstrong was the choice over a DT, and Dalton Schultz was critical to shore up the TE position. Mike White may not play at QB, but having quality depth at that position has real value. By now you are in the 6th round, where Dallas may have felt a rookie would have little chance of making the team. Dallas has drafted D linemen at this stage of the draft recently and they didn’t even make the practice squad.

The Cowboys like Brian Price, added a former second round pick in Jihad Ward to go with Richard Ash, Daniel Ross, and a host of others in the middle. With Maliek Collins and David Irving likely to each take on 650-700 snaps inside, there isn’t a lot Dallas will need to cover for here.

Linebackers – better depth, and the possibility of improvement

2017 – Sean Lee (621), Jaylon Smith (576), Anthony Hitchens (545), Damien Wilson (322), Justin Durant (159), Kyle Wilber (39).

2018 – Sean Lee, Leighton Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith, Damien Wilson, Joe Thomas, Chris Covington.

In 2017, the Cowboys lost Sean Lee for 5 games and Anthony Hitchens for four. Jaylon Smith gave a valiant effort, but just wasn’t ready for prime time with as many snaps as he was forced into. Damien Wilson did not pick up the slack, and Justin Durant showed that he was done.

In 2018, the Cowboys have a shiny new first round draft pick to plug into the middle in LVE. He’s probably not going to be as good as Anthony Hitchens as a rookie, but he’s likely to show game to game improvement over the year. The key is he’s going to keep the Cowboys from relying on a Jaylon Smith who hasn’t returned to his college skill set. In that sense, the Cowboys should be better. If Sean Lee can play more than 11 games, that will be an even bigger bonus. And Jaylon Smith is likely to take another leap forward as he can play without the brace that likely sapped his movement skills. On the depth side, Joe Thomas is also a big step up from Justin Durant and will take Kyle Wilber’s role on special teams. Rookie Chris Covington likely won’t be called on to do more than play special teams, but he may have been drafted with an eye on replacing Damien Wilson’s role next year when Wilson will be a free agent.

Secondary – potential for a leap forward, even with a hole at safety

2017 – Byron Jones (908), Jeff Heath (878), Anthony Brown (843), Jourdan Lewis (746), Orlando Scandrick (614), Xavier Woods (549), Chidobe Awuzie (308), Kavon Frazier (220), Nolan Carroll (81), Ben Benwikere (10).

2018 – Byron Jones, Jeff Heath, Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, Xavier Woods, Kavon Frazier, Anthony Brown.

In 2017, the rookies Lewis, Woods, and Awuzie showed great promise, but Awuzie especially kept having hamstring issues and couldn’t get on the field. Kavon Frazier showed he could be the enforcer in a slightly expanded role. Byron Jones was about the same, and Jeff Heath took on a full time role.

In 2018, Byron Jones is being moved to cornerback to pair with Awuzie outside, with Lewis moving from the edge into the slot. If all of these players stay healthy, they should have no trouble taking up Orlando Scandrick’s missing snaps. And the Cowboys also will likely rely on Anthony Brown a lot less. The Cowboys might bring Marquez White or Duke Thomas off the practice squad for depth, and/or add some UDFAs here. The real issue is safety, where the Cowboys only have three guys after moving Jones to CB. I would expect Kavon Frazier to get an expanded role – the Cowboys’ version of Kam Chancellor – but Heath and Woods will likely get the most snaps. The Cowboys may think about signing a free agent, even if that goes against their tendencies. Tre Boston is still a free agent, for example. Or maybe the Earl Thomas idea could somehow be revived.

A big key here is the addition of Kris Richard as coach. The other is the expected leap forward for Awuzie, Lewis, and Woods in their second seasons. Jones at CB should also be a plus, though he leaves a hole at safety.

Special Teams

Dan Bailey is back and healthy, so that should be an improvement. Chris Jones is back at punter. And LP LaDouceur returns as long snapper. Rich Bisaccia left to coach in Oakland, replaced by Kieth O’Quinn.

Tavon Austin will take Ryan Switzer’s role as return man, but only if he finds a way to keep from fumbling. If he puts the ball on the ground, the Cowboys will find someone else.

Overall, Bailey’s accuracy will be the biggest key. The rest of special teams ought to be about the same.

Recap

Offensive line – better depth, likely better performance

Wide receivers – better depth, likely better performance

Quarterback – bounce back performance and better depth

Running back – Zeke for 16 games, Bo Scarbrough, Tavon Austin, and Jamize Olawale make this group much better

Tight ends – Jason Witten will be missed; Rico Gathers is a big question mark

Defensive line – should become a force and the strength of the defense in 2018

Linebackers – better depth, and the possibility of improvement

Secondary, – potential for a leap forward, even with a hole at safety

Special teams – Bailey should recover his accuracy

Conclusion

This overview convinces me the Cowboys should be better in 2018, with the potential to be much better and contenders for the Super Bowl. They have to stay healthy at key slots – e.g., Sean Lee, Tyron Smith – the rookies from last year need to take a leap forward, and the top three rookies from this year need to be ready to play. They could also get a big boost if Rico Gathers can play and demonstrate the promise we all got excited about last pre-season, and if Randy Gregory gets cleared by Roger Goodell.

For those who fret about our receiving group without Dez and Witten, remember this is a running team first. So if Connor Williams can be better than Jonathan Cooper, and if Tron stays healthy, expect the run game to drive the bus. The passing game will feed off that, and will be better if the line protects Dak better.

As much as the offense might be better, it’s the defense that could be a difference maker, with a much stronger defensive line, a deeper linebacker group, and a young secondary ready to assert itself.

And don’t forget the new coaches – Kris Richard on defense, and Paul Alexander and Sanjay Lal on offense. These guys can make a difference.

I know this is a rosy outlook. But hey, why not look on the bright side?

As Leighton Vander Esch said at the draft – “We got Super Bowls to win, baby!”

GO COWBOYS!

Another user-created commentary provided by a BTB reader.


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