Off-season report card: Dallas Cowboys
2016: 13–3, First in NFC North. Lost in Divisional Round.
Significant Additions: G Jonathan Cooper (FA), CB Nolan Carroll (FA), S Robert Blanton (FA), DE Taco Charlton (R1), Chidobe Awuzie (R2), CB Jourdan Lewis (R3), S Xavier Woods (R6), CB Marquez White (R6)
Significant Losses: T Doug Free, G Ronald Leary, CB Brandon Carr, CB Morris Claiborne, S J.J. Wilcox
The Cowboys lost a starter from what is easily the NFL’s best offensive line when right tackle Doug Free retired. But remarkably, the line might be improved. Free’s spot will be filled by La’el Collins, the talented third-year pro who missed 13 games last season with a toe injury. Collins brings tremendous athleticism as a run-blocker. He’d been at left guard with Ronald Leary, who defected to Denver. And so the Cowboys will be the latest team to try Jonathan Cooper here. The oft-injured 2013 first-round pick has had failed stints with the Cardinals, Browns and Patriots.
On the glass half full side: Cooper has never been flanked by talent like left tackle Tyron Smith and center Travis Frederick. In a zone scheme such as Dallas’s, playing in a group of quality linemen can elevate a player. (See Cooper’s predecessor, Leary, for example.) If Cooper flames out, his career will almost surely end, and the Cowboys will make due with Joe Looney or Byron Bell, two fringe players signed over from Tennessee in 2016 and ’17 respectively.
No other work was needed on the Cowboys’ offense. The defense, of course, was a different story. Entering the draft, Jerry Jones and the front office had to restock a secondary that had lost three starters in free agency: corner Brandon Carr to the Ravens, corner Morris Claiborne to the Jets and safety J.J. Wilcox to the Bucs. To fill these voids, the Cowboys, after signing improved-but-not-spectacular Eagles corner Nolan Carroll in free agency, drafted corners Chidobe Awuzie (Colorado) in the second round, Jourdan Lewis (Michigan) in the third and Marquez White (Florida State) in the sixth. They also got safety Xavier Woods in round five. He’ll compete with incumbent Jeff Heath and journeyman backup Robert Blanton (signed over from Buffalo).
The beauty of this secondary is that its three best players are versatile. Third-year pro Byron Jones might be the only defensive back in football who can truly play anywhere. He has the range to operate in centerfield, he’s a good enough tackler to venture into the box, he’s strong enough to press receivers on the outside, and he possesses the twitchy quickness to battle in the slot. Jones can answer a lot of problems.
In addition to him, top corners Orlando Scandrick and Anthony Brown (a tremendously underappreciated sixth-round pick last year) can play inside or outside. With Jones, Scandrick and Brown all capable of filling so many different roles, the Cowboys can tailor their game plans to opponents while also making that game plan more user-friendly for the rookies. With three guys who can do so many things, no rookie DB will have to do something he’s not comfortable doing.
The reason the Cowboys didn’t address their secondary in the draft’s first round is that they badly needed pass-rushing help. Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli doesn’t like to blitz. Instead he favors four-man D-line rush tactics like stunts, twists and grouped slants. Part of the reason he does this is he has a lot of mediocre front-four players who can’t consistently win on their own and need aid from the scheme. Marinelli will still have to lean on these tactics in 2017, but the hope is that with No. 28 overall pick Taco Charlton aboard, it won’t be quite as heavily. A lot is riding on Charlton. With Demarcus Lawrence battling back problems in recent years and David Irving being only a part-time player, the Cowboys really don’t have another pass rusher who can bend the edge snap after snap.