As usual, it was an eventful offseason for the Dallas Cowboys. Once again they passed on signing some of the bigger names in free agency as they focused on improving their roster through the draft.
Rather than adding expensive players in free agency, the Cowboys have opted to pay their own and add cheaper free agents. Dallas was able to add a few names in the later days of free agency that helped improve depth across multiple positions.
While some positions lost numerous starters, such as safety and offensive line, the team improved in multiple spots this offseason, specifically on defense.
Here are the top five most improved positional units for the Dallas Cowboys heading into 2017.
No. 1: Defensive Line
The Cowboys lost a few veterans on their defensive line this offseason (Terrell McClain and Jack Crawford), but Dallas was able to add a lot of talent to the group via free agency and the draft. First, let’s take a look at the veterans the Cowboys added.
Stephen Paea was signed to compete with Cedric Thornton for the starting one-technique job. Paea finished 2016 with an average grade (75.7), according to Pro Football Focus. With Dallas not having a big, powerful middle linebacker to take on blocks, it makes sense that Dallas would go with Paea inside, as he provides more girth and run-stopping ability than Thornton. I predict that he will start over Thornton in Week 1.
Dallas also added former Giants’ defensive end Damontre Moore to the roster. Moore played just 104 snaps last season, but Dallas is hoping that pairing him with Rod Marinelli will be the right move to resurrect his career. Moore is just 24 and has 10 career sacks to his name, and he will be competing for a roster spot in camp.
In the draft, Dallas added three defensive linemen to compete for roles in 2017. The most notable addition is first-round pick Taco Charlton from Michigan.
Charlton will start his career at right defensive end and will likely start from Week 1 at that spot. While he doesn’t fit the traditional mold of a Marinelli right end, Charlton’s length and quickness will allow him to be productive as a rookie. He will see plenty of snaps in his first year at multiple positions, and he should be able to help against the run right away.
Dallas also selected defensive linemen Joey Ivie and Jordan Carrell in the seventh round of the draft. Each will provide quality depth as they fight for roster spots. Both are high-motor players who will make plays with athleticism and effort, and they will be competing against one another for a spot on the 53-man roster.
Ultimately, Dallas added talent and depth to its defensive line. While it won’t be the strength of the team going forward, it’s clear that Dallas wanted to address this position, and the Cowboys added lots of youth to the group. I expect the Cowboys to have an improved pass rush heading into 2017.
No. 2: Cornerback
At the end of the season, Pro Football Focus ranked the Dallas Cowboys’ secondary as the best unit in the league.
Despite their success in 2016, Dallas allowed its top two cornerbacks (as well as Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox) to walk out the door in free agency. So how can Dallas improve at a position that ranked No. 1 in the league last year? The answer is simple; turnovers.
Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne played a combined 1,509 snaps on defense last year, and together they combined for just two interceptions. While both cornerbacks played well last year, neither takes the ball away at a high rate, and that’s been true for each throughout their careers. Quarterbacks were not afraid to throw at either of them. While they were solid players, they just weren’t dynamic enough for Marinelli.
The Cowboys added four cornerbacks to the roster this season; three via the draft and one through free agency (Nolan Carroll). The goal for the Cowboys was to find cornerbacks who excel at taking the ball away and can fit better as zone corners in the Tampa-2 defense.
While Dallas added youth and playmakers to its cornerback room, that also means that the team may surrender more yardage. However, the hope is that the team found players who can create turnovers more frequently and give Dallas more flexibility in the secondary.
It may take a few weeks or months for this roster turnover to prove itself as a smart move, but by the end of the season, the cornerback unit should be much improved.
No. 3: Wide Receiver
Heading into free agency, it seemed as if the Cowboys were going to have a much different receiver corps entering 2017. Terrance Williams and Brice Butler both hit the market, and it was assumed both would find more money elsewhere.
However, Dallas was able to retain both Williams and Butler (at discounted deals), and that didn’t force its hand in the draft. Instead of reaching for a receiver due to need, the Cowboys were able to sit back and let the draft come to them.
This resulted in the team selecting not one, but two receivers in April’s draft. Dallas added a dynamic slot receiver in Ryan Switzer, as well as a big-bodied player in Noah Brown.
On top of retaining the team’s top-six receivers, the Cowboys were also able to add to the group. That alone should provide an upgrade, as Switzer and Brown will push the receivers at the bottom of the roster.
No. 4: Special Teams
To say the Cowboys’ special teams unit has been lackluster in the past five years is quite an understatement.
In the last six seasons, the Cowboys have failed to return a kickoff for a touchdown and only have one punt return touchdown. They’ve blocked just one punt and one field goal in the past six seasons. Outside of Dan Bailey, the Cowboys have had an average-at-best special teams unit.
To help improve the return game in 2017, the Cowboys added two returners this offseason, the first being Switzer in the draft. Not only will Switzer help as a receiver, but he actually may contribute even more as a returner his first few years in Dallas.
In his career at North Carolina, Switzer returned seven punts for touchdowns and averaged nearly 11 yards per return. He will likely be the team’s starting punt returner in Week 1 against the Giants.
The Cowboys also signed another returner in free agency; CFL star Quincy McDuffie. In 2016, McDuffie scored twice on kickoff returns, while averaging a career 12.6 yards per return on punt returns. He’s no lock to make the roster, but he will push Lucky Whitehead and Switzer in the return game.
Between Whitehead, Switzer and McDuffie, the Cowboys should have improved competition at both return spots, and that should produce much better play from the unit in 2017.
No. 5: Linebacker
While Dallas didn’t draft or sign one in free agency, the expectation is that its linebacker corps should be greatly improved in 2016. How can this be an improved unit without Dallas adding one player? The answer is simple; Jaylon Smith.
In 2016, the Cowboys selected Smith knowing full-well that he would likely miss the entire 2016 season and that there was a significant chance he wouldn’t play a down for the team. And while there’s still a chance that he may not, it seems like the odds of him being on the field in Week 1 against the Giants are growing daily.
Smith has been participating in the team’s OTAs, albeit one day on then another off. The goal is to keep him fresh and ready to go for the season, but by all accounts, it seems like he hasn’t been limited in practice.
Smith is still using an AFO brace to help lift his foot, but he can walk without the brace. He can lift his toes towards his shin, and his foot no longer drags.
Even if Smith returns to only 80 to 85 percent of his 2015 self, that will be an upgrade over the linebackers that were next to Sean Lee in 2016. It’s assumed that if Smith is cleared to get on the field physically, it won’t take him long to grasp the defensive playbook, as he’s one of the smarter linebackers to ever come out of the draft.
There is still a lot of unknown about Smith, but every day he progresses, it seems more likely that he will be able to contribute to the team in some capacity.