Salute Magazine’s Exit Interview series examines the status of each NFL team heading into the offseason, along with their free agents, team needs and more. Click here for the rest of the exit interviews. Up next: the Dallas Cowboys.
Sometimes one down span of a season is enough to ruin a team’s season. The Cowboys went on a three-game losing streak during the middle of the year, leaving them at 5-6 and behind the 8-ball in the NFC. Despite winning four of their last five games, there was little hope of actually making the postseason.
It’s hard for head coach Jason Garrett to pinpoint the main catalyst for the Cowboys falling from their 13-3 record in 2016. Sure, Dak Prescott had a bit of a sophomore slump, but that could be waved off due to getting sacked 32 times and dealing with an ineffective receiving corps.
Ezekiel Elliott‘s battle with the league regarding his 6-game suspension for domestic violence hung over the team, but when he was actually on the field, he was still one of the best running backs in football. As a whole, the offense still finished in the top half of the league.
The defense actually improved from last season, going from 14th to 8th in total defense. Injuries sapped both units at times, but it seemed like that happened to every team at some point during 2017.
Perhaps the conundrum for the Cowboys is this: they’re a talented team, but not as dangerous as the upper tier of the NFL. Outside of Elliott, Demarcus Lawrence and their acclaimed offensive line trio, who else on the team would be considered “elite?” Sean Lee?
Continuity will be key for the Cowboys in 2018. They have to evaluate their roster and see where improvements have to be made while keeping the worthwhile talent around, with Lawrence being the biggest in that regard. Then again, considering how often pieces shift in the NFL, the team could find themselves back in the hunt without changing much.
Current number of draft picks: 10 (#19 in the first round)
Cap space: $18-20 million
Notable free agents
Demarcus Lawrence, DE/OLB: Talk about coming alive in a contract year. After three seasons marred by inconsistency and suspensions, Lawrence had his best season as a pro, leading the team with 14.5 sacks, the best in his career and tied for second in the league for 2017. He also had 4 forced fumbles. The Cowboys are likely to use the franchise tag on him if they can’t come to terms on a longer contract.
Anthony Hitchens, LB: Hitchens also had a quasi-breakout year at linebacker. He picked up 84 total tackles, second on the team and matching his career-high. Pro Football Focus gave him a grade of 80.8, the first time he went above 50. Considering how thin the LB class is for free agents this year, Hitchens might end up earning a relatively pricey contract.
Alfred Morris, RB: Despite opening up his career with three straight 1,000-yard seasons for the Washington Redskins, Morris was cast aside following a down year in 2015 in which he scored just one rushing touchdown. He then came to Dallas to act as a backup to Elliott last season, where he didn’t get much action.
With Elliott dealing with his suspension drama this year, Morris got more time than planned, and he was actually pretty effective. Though he still didn’t see the end-zone much, he did rush for 547 yards with an average of 4.8 yards per carry. That should be enough to get him another #2 role, either with the Cowboys or elsewhere.
Jonathan Cooper, G: Cooper was a top-ten draft pick for the Arizona Cardinals in 2013, but he broke his left fibula that preseason, missing his entire rookie year and setting him on a course of bad luck and poor play. More injuries caused him to play just three games in 2014, and his 2015 campaign ended with a knee injury. PFF gave him poor grades both years (53.1 and 50.4).
The Cardinals traded him to the New England Patriots in 2016, who dumped him after a foot injury. The Cleveland Browns gave him a shot shortly afterward, and he actually looked half-decent, earning a 73.8 from PFF. That was enough for the Cowboys to bring him to start at left guard this season. He was somewhere in the middle, playing 13 games, the most in his career, but dropping to a 67 from PFF. Given all his troubles with staying healthy, Cooper may never turn into something more.
DE: Obviously retaining Lawrence is the #1 goal for the Cowboys this offseason. The defensive end spot opposite him wasn’t tremendous either, with rookie Taco Charlton struggling in his first season.
LB: Hitchens going to free agency would leave a hole in the linebacking corps next to Lee and Jaylon Smith. Lee is getting up there in years as well, so a long-term successor for him should be considered.
T: Tyron Smith‘s absence during the middle of the season was instrumental in the Cowboys struggles during that time. Byron Bell was simply not a suitable backup. He’s a free agent anyway. La’el Collins also struggled at right tackle, so a move back to guard is an option for him, requiring a replacement.
WR: Maybe part of Prescott’s step back in 2017 was partly due to his receivers. Dez Bryant wasn’t up to his usual standards. Cole Beasley faltered after a breakout season last year. Terrance Williams didn’t even get a touchdown catch. Some new blood is needed.
RB: Once Elliott’s suspension finally took hold, the Cowboys offense as a whole diminished. While he’ll be back next season, another option in the backfield would be good for depth purposes. Elliott’s primary backup, Morris, is a free agent too.
LS: Longtime long snapper L.P. Ladouceur is a free agent who will turn 37 next month.
Best player/building block
Demarcus Lawrence, DE/OLB: Some more points in Lawrence’s favor: he played in all 16 games for the first time in his career. PFF graded him as the third-best edge defender in the league at 94.1. He had an astounding 52 hurries as a pass rusher. The Cowboys will regret not locking him to a long-term contract.
David Irving, DE/DT: Irvin is the epitome of a pass rushing specialist. Despite starting just eight games and registering only 22 total tackles, he ended up with a career-high 7 sacks as a rotational player. He’s a restricted free agent this offseason, so the Cowboys need to be careful in case another team tries to snatch him away.
NFC South: Tampa Bay Buccaneers