Five Questions Heading into Cowboys Training Camp
This is the time of year when football fans get a bit antsy. Now that players are actually allowed to celebrate touchdowns, the only downfall of the NFL is the painfully long offseason. The. Wait. Is. Over. The Dallas Cowboys come into 2017 looking to prove that they have staying power. This team has to go back to the 2007 and 2008 seasons to find the last time they finished the regular season with a winning record in consecutive seasons. Free agency took a toll on the 13-3 team so there are several holes to fill. The competition will be fierce for the next few weeks. Let us take a look at five big questions heading into Cowboys training camp.
1. How Much of an Impact Can Dallas Expect From LB Jaylon Smith?
When the Cowboys selected linebacker Jaylon Smith with the 34th pick in the 2016 draft, there was a general consensus about the pick. Smith was the number one player on draft guru Todd McShay’s board. Some proclaimed him to be the steal of the draft if he could return healthy. Therein lies the question: can his injured left knee ever be 100%?
Jaylon Smith absolutely fits Jerry Jones’ newly coined “war daddy” role. He was viewed as the best sideline to sideline linebacker in college football. He won the Dick Butkus Award given to the best LB in college football as a junior. Unfortunately, Jaylon suffered an injury in the Fiesta Bowl, tearing his ACL and LCL. In doing so, he damaged the peroneal nerve in the knee, which allows him to lift his foot. Dallas drafted him because team doctor Dan Cooper performed the surgery to repair the knee and indicated to the team that a full recovery was possible, and even likely.
As of today, Jane Slater reports that tests show Jaylon Smith is expected to make a full recovery in the next six to nine months based on his progress. Sources fully expect a lighter workload for Smith despite this news as he returns to football for the first time in 18 months. It is worth watching how much work Smith receives with the first team defense. Throughout OTAs, he was predominantly with the twos. Jaylon Smith is not ranked in the top 67 linebackers according to FantasyPros IDP rankings. If the nerve regenerates fully, he could be in all- time steal.
The combination of Smith and Sean Lee could rival the nastiest of linebacker groups in the NFL if the knee holds. How will it respond when the pads come on? I can’t wait to find out.
2. Will Highly-Touted Rookie WR Ryan Switzer Carve Out a Role?
It is not often that a fourth-round rookie steals the spotlight during OTAs, but that was the case with Ryan Switzer. According to Bryan Broaddus of DallasCowboys.com, Switzer “showed up the most,” of any rookie this spring. This rookie brings an impressive resume. In 2016, Switzer posted 96 receptions for 1,112 yards and six TDs. Switzer worked mainly out of the slot and runs a very similar route tree as Cole Beasley.
Switzer not only provides great hands but also the ability to return punts to the house. As a freshman, he led the NCAA in punt return average with a mark of 20.9 a clip. Ball security is always a big-ticket issue on special teams, and it was a problem for the now former PR Lucky Whitehead. Lucky lost three fumbles last season alone. Whitehead was released by the team after allegations of shoplifting. Those allegations proved to be false as the suspect else gave police Whitehead’s identification and social security number. At any rate, Switzer was viewed as the favorite to win the job anyway. Switzer was a three-year starter for the Tar Heels and only lost five fumbles in that time. He also has seven punt return touchdowns in his career to go along with the impressive average. He received equal return reps with Whitehead during OTAs and with Whitehead out the door, the job should belong to Switzer. Switzer would also serve as the backup to Cole Beasley. Switzer is believed to have a similar skill set, but more explosive. Beasley had 75 receptions on 96 targets in 2016. Overall, Cole Beasley finished as WR33 last year. As a side note, seeing Switzer on the field probably means Jason Witten is not.
3. Who is the No. 2 RB?
News is still flowing regarding the case against reigning rushing champ Ezekiel Elliott, but it trended negative recently. The possibility of discipline for Elliott does exist with Roger Goodell in charge, and for Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris, an opportunity could be knocking.
Last year it was clear that the Cowboys coaches favored McFadden, who ran for 1,000 yards in 2015, over the free agent pickup from Washington. Reports out of OTAs show no regression on the part of McFadden, but Alfred Morris has turned some heads. He appears lighter and quicker per dallascowboys.com and that bodes well for the sixth-year veteran. Morris has had success in a zone-blocking scheme similar to that of the Cowboys with three 1,000+ yard seasons of his own. He showed promise in limited work early in the season as Elliott struggled and McFadden was injured. The knock on Morris is pass protection. I expect to see Dak under center more in year two but the Cowboys like to spread the field. McFadden’s ability to pass block allows him to stay out there more often.
Ezekiel Elliott is not coming off the field unless he never plays due to suspension. If he misses time, the winner of this battle is in line to post RB1 numbers in his absence.
4. Will the Offensive Line Still Dominate?
The Cowboys have invested heavily into the offensive line with three first round selections since 2011. All three of them have been named All-Pros. The other two spots in the group are changing. Undrafted free agent La’el Collins has started 13 games on the vaunted line as the left guard. He now seems likely to replace the retired Doug Free at right tackle. He was considered to be the top tackle in the 2015 draft before off the field issues lowered his draft stock. He will be asked to move from guard where he is protected on each side by All- Pros to tackle where he will be dealing with quality pass rushers.
The Cowboys signed Jonathan Cooper, a former top-10 pick, late last season and retained him this spring. He has not lived up to his draft expectations having played in only 24 games since 2013 for three different teams. Despite these results, Cooper obviously has talent and could play well in the right system. He will compete with Chaz Green, a former Cowboys third-round pick, who has played right tackle but also struggled with injuries.
If either of these new additions fail to live up, the second year backfield of Prescott and Elliott could experience a sophomore slump.
5. How Do the Cowboys Build a Pass Rush?
The Cowboys have had their struggles up front defensively. They have used some premium picks, but none have not panned out. In 2014, they traded up to get DE Demarcus Lawrence in the top of the second round. He has 11 career sacks and has missed 16 games. He had two sacks in the 2014 postseason and eight sacks in 2015, but has had bad luck with injury and shown poor judgment in getting a four-game suspension last year. In a contract year, he is firmly in the mix to start at RE.
One returning veteran is Benson Mayowa. He was signed off the restricted free agent market last summer and led the team with six sacks in 2016. Mayowa struggles to be an every down DE because of poor play vs. the run but did show improvement after being benched last season. Dallas is hoping their most recent first-round pick, Taco Charlton, can step in and help right away. At Michigan, Taco raised his sack total each year and reached 10 sacks while earning All Big-Ten First Team Defense honors.
Lastly, Dallas will look to second-year player Charles Tapper and free agent pickup Damontre Moore. Tapper was a fourth-round pick last year but sat out the season with a back injury. Moore has bounced around after being a third round pick of the Giants in 2013. He showed some promise in Seattle last year but was placed on IR in December.
Dallas has seen their season ended by Aaron Rodgers and the Packers their last two postseason trips. Too many times, Rodgers had all day to throw — including the pass that sealed the deal to Jared Cook. If the team is going take the next step, the pass rush will have to be a big reason for it. From a fantasy perspective, a stronger defense will aid the offense to stay on the field and allow their multitude of weapons to thrive.
For more updated news, notes and analysis on the Cowboys training camp, check out Dallas Cowboys.com and follow the team writers as they break down the above issues and many others.