Can you feel it? The Mavericks were well out of the playoff race from the very beginning of the season, and the Stars failed to deliver anything promising as well. The Texas Rangers sit in last place and 22 games back from the AL West leading Houston Astros. Aside from the streaking Dallas Wings, sports in the Dallas-Ft.Worth area are at a lull.
That is until now. There are certain events that get a football fan engaged on the upcoming season. The NFL scouting combine. The NFL Draft. After that come the OTA’s.
Now we arrive to the start of training camp. The Cowboys will head to Oxnard next Tuesday and hold their first practice two days later.
We decided to dive in with some of our staff and talk about some of the major headlines and questions heading into the official start of the 2018 season, when training camp kicks off.
Who do you feel will shoulder a majority of workload at wide receiver this season?
Ryan Wilson: It’s no secret that the Cowboys have a young receiving core with not much in terms of production over the years, which is why they will lean on one of their veteran receivers in Cole Beasley. Allen Hurns will get his, but I just feel like Prescott is that type of quarterback who makes his killing on the short little routes that Beasley excels at. Hurns will produce enough for the defensive backs to be honest in terms of their coverage, and Beasley will reap the rewards and haul in a career high in receptions and yards.
Nicolas Greenfield: I think Hurns could possibly be the answer here, but he needs to stay healthy, something he wasn’t able to do in Jacksonville. Austin can create headaches in space but will probably limited to catches designed for him rather than being able to be a number one target on every play. Since Beasley is entering the last year of his contract he’ll have a big year, but he as well as Austin would need a plays designed just for them. My vote is Gallup since he can create more mismatches and has the most natural ability to catch. Team also haven’t a clue on how he’ll be used, which, could help him out as well. I recently wrote how he could be a ROTY candidate with the absence of Dez Bryant. He is similar to Bryant with the ability to out-muscle and out-jump DB’s for the ball. He also could take away playing time from Williams.
Juwan Lee: The easy answer is each of their projected three starters will do their fair share. However, I’m expecting a big season from Allen Hurns. With Dez and Witten no longer a part of the team, opponents will continue playing bracket coverage on Cole Beasley. Dak was unable to beat teams down field last season and defensive coordinators will continue not allowing him to take the short dump off routes. Hurns is also coming from a Blake Bortles-led offense and will be hungry to showcase his one thousand yard season is consistent with the type of wide receiver he can be.
Jay Attal: I don’t think any single receiver should be asked to “shoulder the load” . The whole point of a committee system at the receiver position is to utilize the various skill sets that these players possess. Whether it is Cole Beasley’s route running precision, Michael Gallup’s strength, or Tavon Austin’s speed, its going to take every receiver on this roster to create a serviceable passing attack.
Corey Douglass: Allen Hurns is your guy. The Dallas Cowboys signed him to a 2 year, $12 million dollar contract this offseason. Hurns has underperformed the last couple of seasons in Jacksonville, mostly due to injury. He will be expected to the one of the teams top receiving threats this upcoming season with the loss of Dez Bryant.
Which tight end will claim the starting role when the dust settles and the smoke has cleared?
Wilson: Want to know a haunting statistic. Now that Witten is no longer lining up in the tight end slot, there are a total of NINE catches between Swaim, Jarwin, Schultz and Gathers. While I would love to see the athleticism that Gathers possesses truly take shape, allowing him to be an impact player, I think Swaim will be the opening day starter. He made appearances last season, and aside from the Cowboys making any sort of pickup during training camp, I think he’s the best option. I do see potential in Schultz, but the Cowboys do take their time grooming tight ends. Now it’s time to see what was produced in Swaim.
Greenfield: Hot take here. I’m not confident in any of the TE’s currently on the rosters. I think when camp starts and the TE’s begin to struggle, the Cowboys will look to acquire someone who isn’t on the current roster. This isn’t a “nobody can be a Jason Witten for us” take either. Obviously he is a HOFer but I think any TE on our roster might not start on a lot of other teams. This might be one of the Cowboys weakest areas. Whether that be a trade for maybe a TE who couldn’t find a spot of an already stacked team in training camp, I think they find someone who can produce a bit more.
Lee: Geoff Swaim will be the Cowboys Day 1 starter. He’s the most seasoned tight end on the roster. His versatility in both the passing and running game is what jolted him into the second tight end spot behind Witten. No other tight end currently on the roster has had a full off-season and regular season in this scheme. I would love to see Rico Gathers get a chance at a role in this offense, but Swaim’s four years gives him a huge advantage over his teammates.
Attal: Hmm. Geoff Swaim. I am not saying that he will be the unquestionable starter, but when week 1 rolls around the Cowboys are going to go with the man with the most experience at the position. The tight end situation is odd to me. However, I don’t believe the season will live/die based off the tight end Dallas starts day one.
Douglass: There isn’t much experience at the tight end position for the Cowboys, so it is tough to make a determination on who will step up. Training camp will be very important for all candidates. Blake Jarwin is a guy who has had a lot of buzz since Jason Witten retired, but I think Geoff Swaim will start the season as the starting tight end with Dalton Schultz not far behind.
What are your expectations for Randy Gregory?
Wilson: I’m not sure about expectations, but boy am I excited for this dude. If you read his story, he sounds like a truly remarkable and intelligent kid. He’s made his mistakes, as all people have, but it’s not often you get this many chances. It seems he’s ready to put all that in the past, and allow his incredible talent to shine on the field. He’s a freak athlete. To have him, DeMarcus Lawrence, and eventually Irving (once back from 4-game suspension), followed up by the linebackers of Lee, Smith and LVE is something Cowboys fans should be drooling over. If he can get up to live in-game shape, he can definitely make an immediate impact.
Greenfield: Not crazy high. With all of his off the field problems, he’s missed so much football. One career sack to show for it. Physically, I think he can be an 6-8 sack per year guy, but mentally, I’m not sure he wants it bad enough. Maybe I’m way off but I just don’t have a ton of confidence in him just yet. Hope Tank will be the tutor he needs. I’d be surprised if he starts all 16 games and has 5+ sacks.
Lee: The reinstatement of Randy Gregory is something every Cowboys fan should be excited for. I wouldn’t expect for him to be a double-digit sack guy quite yet, but coming out of college his ceiling as a dynamic pass rusher was higher than Demarcus Lawrence. He’s been out of football for quite some time. He needs to build himself back into football shape. But it is not out of the realm of possibility to predict Gregory could be the team’s second or third leader in sacks this season.
Attal: I expect eight sacks. Ten is too many, and anything less than eight will seem like a disappointment to me considering how patient the Cowboys have been with his situation. I know the word on Gregory right now is to not expect too much and to have reasonable expectations about his immediate impact, but I’m not going to do that. I expect a measurable contribution from Gregory this season. After all, the emergence of Demarcus Lawrence as a one man wrecking crew should take some of the pressure off of him. My advice is bet big on Gregory this season, even if others tell you not to.
Douglass: The Cowboys aren’t in a position to turn down any talent on the defensive side of the ball. With David Irving suspended for the first four games of the season, just having the body of Randy Gregory will help. It would be unfair to expect too much from Gregory as he has been out of football since December 2016. I expect Gregory will be rotational piece that will get to the quarterback some, but 2018 will be a year where he can just focus on playing the game of football again.
Offensive and Defensive MVP predictions
Wilson: No brainer. Ezekiel Elliott. Let the dude eat for a full 16 games and let me talk to those predicting a 7-9 season from the ‘Boys this season. He opens up the game for everyone. Defenses have to try and stack against him and that outstanding offensive line, allowing Dak Prescott time and the ability to find his collective group of wide receivers. I believe he will once again stake his claim as the NFL’s top rusher this season. Defensively, I think people will say Lawrence, but I’m going to go with Jaylon Smith. Look, I know that may be a reach, and some might say, why not take Sean Lee if you are going to select a linebacker? For one, I grew up a DIE HARD Notre Dame fan, and was able to watch Jaylon Smith over his college career. If he’s finally healthy and not required to use that brace moving forward, watch what this dude will be able to do. He will be all over the field and cause havoc for offenses.
Greenfield: I think this is going to be easy. Ezekiel Elliott is going to carry this offense. Since he has the rare ability to run AND catch. I think he’ll easily have over 2,000 all-purpose yards and average 2 TD’s per game. Defensively, I think you go DeMarcus Lawrence here. Playing under the tag, he’s going to probably want to have the best year of his career. I’m calling a career year for him. 15 sacks this year and a sack against the Giants week 16 to help the team win the division. Why not?
Lee: The offensive MVP for this season will be Tyron Smith. We seen how this offense operated without him on the field. Not only does he help the Cowboys establish a dominate run game, but he gives Dak a tremendous boost of confidence knowing he won’t be lying on the ground for the majority of the game. If Tyron Smith get can stay relatively healthy this season this offense can get back to it’s 2016 form. I didn’t want to be simple here but the MVP for the defense will be Sean Lee. If he’s on the field they win, if he is not they lose. It’s as simple as that. I can see Chidobe having a massive impact in this secondary with his first full off-season. But until the defense can prove they are not lost without Lee he will remain as the most valuable piece on this defensive unit.
Attal: Offensive MVP: Zeke, let’s not over-complicate this one guys. Few teams will rely on a singular player as heavily as the Cowboys will on Ezekiel Elliott this season. Defensive MVP: (Not counting Sean Lee) Chidobe Awuzie. I just have a very good feeling about his growth and development moving forward. I was very impressed with what I saw from him in limited snaps last season, and if he can stay healthy and stay on the field he is going to surprise some people.
Douglass: Ezekiel Elliott is this team’s offensive MVP. I think it is fair to say that this season will go as Elliott goes. We saw this offense struggle without Elliott for six games in 2017 and with unknowns at the receiver and tight end position, a lot will ride on Elliott to keep the chains moving on offense.
For defensive MVP, you could go a few different directions. There are the obvious choices like Demarcus Lawrence and Sean Lee, but I am going with a young guy from the secondary. That young guy is Chidobe Awuzie. Awuzies versatility could be huge factor with his ability to play both corner and safety.
Which player do you feel takes a step forward that most won’t see coming?
Wilson: X, as in Xavier Woods. That is in no way saying that I’m against making a move for Seattle Seahawks pro bowler, Earl Thomas. I just think the Cowboys will be just fine with Heath and Woods in the safety slots. That’s assuming that the other defensive pieces fall into place in terms of production and health. Woods was a STEAL in the NFL Draft last year. He’s a big time hitter and can force turnovers. He’s a fan favorite and I think he’s determined to quiet those Earl Thomas supporters.
Greenfield: My pick this week is going to be Chidobe Awuzie. He had a good year last year. No corner was better when he was on the field. The only reason he got held back was because of his injury. He also was shadowed because of Saints CB, Marshon Lattimore was so great last year and won DROTY. However, Awuzie stats were as good, he just needs to avoid the injury bug.
Lee: With all this talk about acquiring Earl Thomas people seem to forget about Xavier Woods. As a rookie he showed his ability to play FS and slot corner. He displayed tremendous instincts during several games last season. A lot of fans are clamoring to get that pro bowl safety in Seattle back home to Texas, but it is a reason why the Cowboys have not felt pressure to get him or sign any other veteran. This coaching staff wants to see if Woods can improve on an underrated rookie campaign. And by the midpoint of the season we may all be breathing a sigh of relief we gave this former Louisiana Tech star a chance.
Attal: I’m staying on the defensive side of the ball on this one. Maliek Collins. If he can stay healthy and on the field. Again, the Cowboys have been very patient with him in regards to his injury, and if he can just stay on the field I expect him to emerge as long term fix to the defensive tackle position (regardless of what happens to David Irving). He has 7.5 sacks in the last two years from the DT position, not bad for a player who doesn’t start and has battled foot injuries.
Douglass: What gets lost in all the Earl Thomas trade talk is the guys the Cowboys already have at safety. One of those guys is their 6th round draft pick from 2017, Xavier Woods. Woods showed flashes of being a playmaker last season and with Byron Jones being moved back to corner there is an opportunity for him to solidify himself as the team’s starting safety.
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