Off-season report card: Dallas Cowboys
The Dallas Cowboys may be—depending on your relationship with the team—enviable, brilliant, obnoxious or overexposed, but they are never dull. Whenever an NFL news cycle threatens to skate by Cowboys-free, Jerry Jones seems to appear, like a human pop-up ad.
The past few months have been hectic even for a Jones-led team, though. Dallas's early headline moves involved WR Dez Bryant and RB DeMarco Murray—Jones chose to slap the franchise tag on the former, thus allowing the latter to sign with the divison rival Eagles as a free agent. Bryant's contract standoff remains unsettled; he has yet to sign the franchise tag and has threatened to skip the season opener if the Cowboys do not pony up with a long-term deal.
"I’m not worried about that at all," Jones said, via the Star-Telegram, "and it’s because of how much he loves the game, how much he knows that preparation, practice, all of that improves him."
The two sides have until July 15 to hammer out an extension, otherwise Bryant must sign the tag tender or sit out the 2015 season. One way or another, expect him to be on the field come Sept. 13.
The same cannot be said for DE Greg Hardy, Dallas's most significant free-agent addition. After spending 15 games on the commissioner's exempt list last season, Hardy drew a 10-game suspension for 2015, but has appealed. The MMQB's Peter King guessed that "Hardy gets either two or four games reduced" off that penalty, thought either scenario keeps him out of the Cowboys' lineup until at least November.
The Dallas defense generated just 28 sacks last season, including a combined 8.0 by now ex-Cowboys Henry Melton and George Selvie. Adding Hardy, from a football standpoint, would be a substantial upgrade.
In the meantime, part of the pass-rushing demands will fall on Randy Gregory. A failed drug test at the combine and questions about his NFL size pushed Gregory—once considered a top-five prospect—all the way down to No. 60. The talent is undeniable, if Dallas can keep Gregory on the straight and narrow.
Another red-flagged rookie, offensive lineman La'el Collins, signed with Dallas as an undrafted free agent following a dramatic turn of events. During draft weekend, Collins was questioned by Louisiana police over the murder of his ex-girlfriend, Brittney Miles. Amid the uncertainty of that situation and the rumors circulating that he could sit out the upcoming season altogether, all 32 teams passed on Collins in Chicago. Dallas pounced shortly thereafter, adding a potential All-Pro talent up front.
The Gregory-Collins duo actually overshadowed Dallas' first-round pick: CB Byron Jones, a combine superstar. He and former Saints CB Corey White were the two notable additions in the secondary. The Cowboys decided not to tender restricted free agent Sterling Moore.
All this ground covered and we only now arrive at Murray's replacements, who could make or break the Dallas season. Joseph Randle, Lance Dunbar and Ryan Williams are the in-house options, joined by free-agent add Darren McFadden.
Is there another running back still to come? Perhaps. When it comes to the Cowboys, it's impossible to rule out anything.
Best acquisition: Randy Gregory, DE
Gregory recorded 17.5 sacks and 25.5 tackles for loss in just 24 games at Nebraska. He was a first-team All-Big Ten and third-team All-America player last season despite being hampered by injuries from September on. We here at SI ranked him No. 3 on our prospect Big Board headed into the draft.
By the time Dallas ended his slide, drafting him with pick No. 60, the upside far outweighed the risks. There may not have been a more talented defender in the entire class.
"We feel like Randy Gregory has demonstrated enough at the college level to be able to project him to be a guy to play right end for us and really impact the quarterback," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said, via the team's website. "The transition for any college player in the NFL is a significant one, and there will be growing pains there, but there are certainly the attributes there that he’s demonstrated at the college level."
Nebraska shifted Gregory all over its front seven, from an edge spot to the inside and occasionally even back as a blitzing linebacker. Dallas may get creative with him, too—defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli certainly did yeoman's work last season milking the max out of a so-so collection of players. But as Garrett said, the initial plan is to use Gregory straight-up as a DE. Hence the Cowboys efforts to bulk up Gregory thus far—he's reportedly at 243 pounds now, up from the lanky 235 he hit at the combine. The Dallas Morning News mentioned that the coaching staff would like Gregory closer to 250-255 for Week 1.
Can he stay as explosive with an extra 20 pounds on his frame? The Cowboys believe so, but that question runs secondary to whether or not Gregory can keep his act together off the field.
Biggest loss: DeMarco Murray, RB
Providing one of the most talked-about quotes of the off-season, Joseph Randle claimed that "there was a lot of meat left on the bone" by Murray in 2014. In other words Murray failed to take full advantage of the remarkable blocking in front of him and Tony Romo's prolific passing attack, something Randle believes he can fix.
That's a bold statement considering Murray totaled an NFL-best 2,261 yards from scrimmage (including league highs of 392 carries, 1,845 yards rushing and 14 rushing touchdowns). Now the presumed go-to back in Chip Kelly's offensive attack in Philadelphia, Murray arguably was the single biggest catalyst for Dallas' postseason push.
Randle himself is yet another Cowboy whose behavior away from the game bears watching. He was arrested last October for shoplifting and then again in February for marijuana possession. Barring any more slip-ups, Randle will head to camp penciled in as the No. 1 back, with McFadden, Dunbar and Williams behind him.
The Cowboys might be able to replace some of Murray's production. Expecting that group to challenge Murray's overall numbers is another story.
Underrated draft pick: Damien Wilson, LB, Minnesota
An overlooked factor in Dallas's defensive survival last season was the play of then-rookie Anthony Hitchens, who was forced into the lineup by injuries to Sean Lee and Justin Durant. A fourth-round pick out of Iowa, Hitchens proved capable of playing anywhere across the linebacking corps.
Wilson could be this year's Round 4 find. With Durant leaving via free agency, Hitchens is expected to join Lee and McClain in the starting lineup, which means Dallas has an opening for a multi-positional backup. Already in OTAs, Wilson has seen reps at several spots, an indication that he is being ticketed for that role.
Both Hitchens and Wilson showed a knack as college players for hunting down the football. That skill paid off in a big way for Hitchens last season. It might do the same for Wilson in 2015.
Looming question for training camp: Will La'el Collins claim a starting job?
Eventually, Collins figures to inherit Dallas's starting right tackle position. Doug Free will hold that job again this coming season after signing a three-year, $15 million contract in the offseason, but the 31-year-old is a bit of a longshot to stick around for the entirety of his deal. Collins plugged into that spot during OTAs, with Free recovering from off-season ankle surgery.
But in the immediate future, Collins' shortest path to playing time appears to be at left guard. While Ronald Leary started 15 games there in 2014 and all 16 the year before, Collins' obvious ability could put Leary (a restricted free agent after this season) on notice.
Dallas will find some way to get Collins on the field if he thrives in camp, be it as a starter or swing backup. Another tantalizing option would be to use Collins as an extra tackle in run-heavy sets, giving defenses another athletic 300-pounder to deal with on top of Free and stalwart left tackle Tyron Smith.
Jones does not shy away from rolling the dice on potential risks. Collins falls into that category, as did Hardy and Gregory. If everything goes according to plan, the payoff could be enormous.