This will be a very interesting season for the Dallas Cowboys as they work to prove 2016 was no fluke.
With a historic 13-3 season followed by another one-and-done playoff stint, the question is can the Cowboys finally turn the corner in 2017 and land their sixth franchise Super Bowl win? CBS Sports believes they have what it takes, and says you should be thrilled about what’s coming.
It was just this time last year when all eyes were on quarterback Tony Romo in his return from injury, while the team’s faithful basked in the excitement of seeing the healthy four-time pro bowler combined with a healthy Dez Bryant and fourth overall pick, running back Ezekiel Elliott.
Fast forward to the present and Romo now works for CBS, Dak Prescott is the 2016 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year and most of the defensive secondary is barely old enough to legally drink.
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A lot of questions remain and many surround the secondary and first-round pick Taco Charlton, who the team hopes can come in and make an immediate impact on the defensive front. If they can take their pass rush to the next level, the rest will most certainly fall into place.
Is it football season yet?
How well did the Cowboys do this past offseason? The team has effectively opted out of the major free agent market for the last several years. While fans laud big-name acquisitions for the most part, it’s become obvious a more prudent approach is taken by the better teams of the NFL. This isn’t to say there isn’t gold to be found, like what the 2016 New York Giants did with their defense, but this is normally the response to bad draft practices. The Cowboys have excelled at acquiring retail goods for wholesale prices.
But how did they do in 2017? ESPN’s Todd Archer took a look at the offseason changes the Cowboys roster has gone through, giving them a B-.
As the front office has morphed into a more democratic process in recent years, their success in the draft has been markedly better. The precise combination of Jerry and Stephen Jones along with Jason Garrett and Will McClay has left the Cowboys with a young, talented roster:
“The Cowboys have altered their construction process in recent years, moving away from high-priced free agents and older players and focusing on developing players through the draft. With two division titles in three years, the plan seems to be working.”
For years, the front office operated as if they were only a player away, opting to sign impact free agents to big-money contracts. All the while personnel people lauded the build-through-the-draft mentality of teams like Green Bay and New England.
It wasn’t that Dallas didn’t intend to build through the draft, they simply didn’t have the success that they were looking for and some times got too “cute” with their selections (see 2009). Dallas’ success here seems two-fold in that they’ve stayed away from high-priced free agents and that they’ve been largely successful in their draft evaluations. This can be seen in a simple salary cap health evaluation. The club is currently over $16 million under the salary cap while still carrying $16 million in dead money.
That money would likely have been spent on the secondary if the Cowboys saw fit to do so during free agency. We’ve heard from Stephen Jones that they were taking a fairly calculated risk with this group. However, the loss of Barry Church in particular is one that Archer will likely watch closely:
“While Jeff Heath has shown flashes of ability in limited playing time, replacing Church will be difficult. He had four straight seasons with at least 100 tackles. He was a defensive captain, played special teams and was around the ball. The Cowboys could have gone to him before last season with a new deal, or made a stronger pitch to keep him off the market as free agency approached — but didn’t. Church, who signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars, wasn’t a high-end safety but he meant more to the Cowboys’ success than the coaches want to believe. He was not a progress-stopper.”
Whether it’s Heath, Anthony Brown or Chidobe Awuzie, these young players in the secondary will be a major story line during training camp.
As for what Archer liked about the offseason, it centered around a player he predicted as a good fit prior to the draft, first-round pick Taco Charlton.
Drafting Taco Charlton was a positive step in rebuilding the defensive line. They used first-round picks to rebuild the offensive line in Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin. They made second-round moves to address their pass rush in recent years through the likes of DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory, but they have relied more on low-cost and late-round pickups to fill in gaps. Charlton’s sack totals increased every year while at Michigan. He play with more leverage and strength than speed and quickness, but still figures to be a big part of the pass-rush rotation. He might never be a DeMarcus Ware, but if he is another Greg Ellis, the Cowboys certainly would take that.
As a matter of fact, there is no shortage of young players drafted on the defensive side of the ball that will be under heavy scrutiny by these coaches as they work to retool this football team. Will the changes and influx of new players lead to a more formidable defense when December and January roll around? The team will certainly need above average returns from several spots if they look to improve on the results of 2016.