Projecting Dallas Cowboys’ 2017 Starting Lineup After NFL Draft – Bleacher Report

Sports 01 May 2017
Projecting Dallas Cowboys’ 2017 Starting Lineup After NFL Draft – Bleacher Report

Dallas CowboysProjecting Dallas Cowboys' 2017 Starting Lineup After NFL DraftMarcus MosherFeatured Columnist IMay 1, 2017

Projecting Dallas Cowboys' 2017 Starting Lineup After NFL Draft

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    LM Otero/Associated Press

    The Cowboys had one of the best drafts in the entire league over the past weekend. They were able to add numerous players who will compete for jobs for the 2017 season. However, none of their selections are shoe-ins to be starters in Week 1.

    That's pretty common for good teams. Draft picks have to earn playing time instead of being handed jobs. Now that the draft is over and the Cowboys are basically done with free agency, it's time to take a look at their projected starting lineup for the season.

Quarterback

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    Starter: Dak Prescott

    While Dak Prescott started every single game for the Cowboys in 2016, this will be his first full offseason as a starter in Dallas. With a full year under his belt, Prescott should be able to take the next step as a passer and as a leader in Dallas. The team is going to design an offense that might better suit him than it did in 2016.

    Aside from the extra preparation time in the offseason, Prescott will no longer feel the pressure of Tony Romo looking over his shoulder and that should allow the Cowboys to take the next step as a team. There aren't many teams that have a better quarterback situation for the future than the Dallas Cowboys.

    Behind Prescott is Kellen Moore, who is highly intelligent, but is a limited passer. The Cowboys didn't use any draft picks on quarterbacks and failed to secure a veteran in free agency.

    The plan is to go into the season with Moore as a backup, but if Prescott were to go down for the season, it's highly likely the team would call Tony Romo and try to convince him to come out of the booth to save the team. While the Cowboys will never come out and say that is the plan if Prescott were to go down, but he is their contingency plan if something were to go wrong.

Running Back

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    Starter: Ezekiel Elliott

    Before the 2016 NFL draft, there were a lot of discussions as to who the Cowboys should select with the fourth overall pick. The two clear-cut options were Florida State's Jalen Ramsey and Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott. Ramsey played a position with a higher value among the two, and the team knew that he will likely outlast Elliott in the NFL because of the nature of the running back position.

    But the Cowboys ignored the positional value and decided to select Elliott to run behind the best offensive line in football. The result? Elliott ran for the most yards in the NFL in just his rookie season (1,631) and helped lead the Cowboys to a 13-3 record.

    His ability to run in both power and zone schemes, plus his outstanding speed and physicality, make him a perfect fit in Dallas. As long as he stays out of trouble off the field, the Cowboys should have one of the top one or two rushing games in the entire NFL. As a rookie, Elliott finished as the third-best running back in the NFL, according to our NFL1000 team. What's more impressive is that he graded out as the 16th-best player in the entire NFL. Quite an accomplishment for a 21-year old rookie.

    Behind Elliott are veterans Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris. McFadden is expected to be the No. 2 while Morris may be moved if the team finds a better, younger option over the course of the next few months. The Cowboys have one of the best running back groups in the NFL, but they could still use a true receiving back to help spell Elliott on third downs. It wouldn't be a surprise if the team added one before the start of the season. But as long as Elliott is on the field, the Cowboys will be one of the top offenses in the NFL.

Wide Receiver

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    Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    Starters

    X – Dez Bryant

    Z – Terrance Williams

    Y – Cole Beasley

    With Terrance Williams and Brice Butler re-signing with the team in free agency, all five of the Cowboys' receivers will return in 2017, and that's a massive win when the team has a young quarterback they are trying to develop.

    The group is reliant on its leader: Dez Bryant. Everything the Cowboys do in the passing game goes through him. He's the alpha dog of the group who demands the attention of the best cornerback the defense has to offer and additional help from linebackers and safeties. He's the best red-zone receiver in the NFL, and the rest of the receiver unit is designed around Bryant and his skill set.

    Opposite Bryant is Terrance Williams. He's not flashy nor dynamic, but he's a nice fit as a Z-receiver in the Air Coryell offense. He has a somewhat limited route tree, but he thrives on slants, comebacks and on dig routes. He will block better than most receivers and he has a knack for making big plays in big games. His catch radius is small and will drop the occasional ball due to his body-catching tendencies, but he's a nice fit as the second outside receiver in Dallas.

    The true No. 2 receiver for the Cowboys plays out of the slot: Cole Beasley. Each year, it's becoming increasingly harder for the Dallas coaching staff to keep Beasley off the field. He's one of the quickest receivers in the entire league, and there isn't a nickel corner who can match up with him one-on-one. He's never going to be a deep threat or win in contested areas, but he is one of the best slot receivers in the NFL.

    Fourth-round pick Ryan Switzer probably won’t see much time on offense in 2017 as he will be Cole Beasley’s primary backup. Switzer will make his money as a punt returner as a rookie. Seventh-round pick Noah Brown has all the size and talent to win in the NFL, but he's going to need a few years before he's ready for NFL action. With a strong training camp and pre-season, he should find a spot on the practice squad.

Tight End

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Starter: Jason Witten

    2017 will be Jason Witten's 15th season, and he's still one of the best tight ends in the NFL. In 2016, Witten finished as the ninth-best tight end in the NFL1000. Witten will be 35 by the time the season begins, but he's been one of the most durable players in NFL history after only missing one game in his career.

    Witten's game is in decline, but he still is a vital piece to the Cowboys offense. His ability to block inline and in the receiving game make him one of the most complete tight ends in the NFL. He's not the dominant, 100-plus catch player he was earlier in his career, but he still has value as a do-it-all, on-the-field leader.

    Behind Witten is Geoff Swaim, James Hanna, and Rico Gathers. If healthy, Hanna will see close to starter snaps as he's the best blocker of the group and can play multiple positions on offense. Swaim has the athleticism to play like a true inline tight end, but numerous injuries have limited him thus far. Gathers could become a starter in the future, but he's still learning the game after never playing a snap in college.

Offensive Line

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    Starters:

    LT: Tyron Smith

    LG: La'el Collins

    OC: Travis Frederick

    RG: Zack Martin

    RT: Chaz Green

    It could be argued that the Cowboys' offensive line is one of the greatest positional strengths in the entire NFL. Over the past three seasons, no team has possessed a better unit than the Dallas Cowboys. With excellent drafting, coaching and a little bit of luck, the Cowboys have assembled one of the best offensive lines in football.

    Despite La'el Collins missing most of the season and Tyron Smith nursing a back injury that limited him, the Cowboys still graded out as Pro Football Focus' second-best offensive line in 2016. Their ability to run both man and zone schemes and pass protect at a high level without much help from running backs and tight ends make them one of the most dangerous units in all of football.

    With Ronald Leary and Doug Free gone, it will be up to Collins and Chaz Green to keep the status quo. But with three perennial Pro Bowlers next to them, it shouldn't be too difficult. Jonathan Cooper and recently-signed Byron Bell will be the team's top backups heading into the 2017 season. Cooper can play all three interior positions, but a lengthy injury history and lack of power have limited him so far in his short career. Bell is a verstatile player, but he is average at best at tackle.

Defensive Line

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    RDE: Demarcus Lawrence

    LDE: Tyrone Crawford

    3T: Malik Collins

    1T: Cedric Thornton

    Of all the positions on the Cowboys' roster, the defensive line group is the most fluid spot on the roster. From week-to-week, the starters change depending on the matchup. The four players listed above will likely start the season for the Cowboys, but Lawrence, Crawford, and Thornton are all recovering from offseason surgeries.

    The Cowboys love to use waves of defensive lineman and their second unit may be just as good as the starters. David Irving, Stephen Paea, Benson Mayowa and first-round pick Taco Charlton will play heavy snaps for the Cowboys throughout the season.

    Charlton and Irving are very similar players as both are long, athletic defensive ends who can kick inside in nickel situations if need be. Both win with length and power, but lack the true bend to be right defensive ends in Rod Marinelli's defense. However, Irving and Charlton should be tough to handle in the run game.

    Benson Mayowa led the team in sacks in 2016 with six and he could challenge Lawrence for the starting role in training camp. Lawrence had a second back surgery this offseason and may never return to his 2015 form. The Cowboys are deep across the defensive line, but they still lack a true edge rusher and that will likely hold Dallas back from having a top-10 defense in 2017.

Linebacker

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    Starters

    WLB: Sean Lee

    MLB: Jaylon Smith

    SLB: Damien Wilson

    First and foremost, it's important to recognize that Sean Lee isn't as fragile as he once was. Over the past two seasons, he's missed only three games. Two of those games were simply due to rest in Week 17. When he's healthy, he is one of the best linebackers in the NFL. He graded out as the fourth-best linebacker in 2016, according to the NFL1000.

    He's not as athletic as he once was, but he still has the elite instincts to diagnose plays quicker than any other linebacker in the NFL. He's the captain of the defense and whenever he's on the field, the level of play rises drastically. He's the only elite defender the Cowboys have on their unit going into 2017.

    Jaylon Smith is the real wild card of the group. Stephen Jones says that the Cowboys are counting on Smith to play in 2017. Whether he can do that alone is a major question. It's likely Smith will have to do so while using an ankle foot orthosis brace, something that no linebacker has ever done before. And even if he plays, there is no guarantee that he will be able to do it at a high enough level that the coaches will feel comfortable in letting him start at middle linebacker.

    If Smith isn't ready to start or if he's just not able to play with the brace, the Cowboys do have options. Fourth-year player Anthony Hitchens has played in every game since being drafted in 2014, starting 36. He's got experience inside and as the weak-side linebacker. The Cowboys could also move third-year player Damien Wilson to the middle to compete with Hitchens.

Cornerback

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Starters: Nolan Carroll and Orlando Scandrick

    The Cowboys will likely go with the two veterans in Nolan Carroll and Orlando Scandrick as the team’s starters on opening day, but they could soon be passed by the two rookies they selected on the second day of the draft. Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis are two talented cornerbacks who fit well in Rod Marinelli’s Tampa-2 defense. Neither is afraid to tackle and both excel at blitzing from the slot.

    Anthony Brown will likely compete with Scandrick for a starting position with the loser heading for the slot on third downs. The Cowboys have completely revamped their secondary and have infused young, talented playmakers that could push Scandrick or Carroll off the 53-man roster as soon as 2018.

    If Awuzie and Lewis prove that they can play early in training camp and into the season, we could see the Cowboys rotating their defensive backs depending on the match-ups from week to week. If a team has more speed and quickness outside, you could see Dallas use Lewis and Brown to match up with speed or they could use Carroll against receivers with size.

    Like the defensive line position, you will likely see the Cowboys rotating their corners frequently in the beginning of the season to try to find a combination that they love. But all five of their cornerbacks can play and provides something different from another.

Safety

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    Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    Starters:

    SS: Byron Jones

    FS: Jeff Heath

    The Cowboys secondary is going to look much different in 2017, as Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox will no longer be roaming the middle of the field. That will be a big change for Dallas as the two combined to play 5,745 snaps over the past three seasons.

    As of now, that leaves Byron Jones manning the strong safety position. Jones' best skill set is his ability to follow tight ends and shut them down. He's not going to create many turnovers, but he's a sticky defender who has the athleticism to match up against any type of receiver. Over the past two seasons, he's been the Swiss army knife of the Cowboys defense.

    At free safety, one of the more underrated Cowboy defenders will be given the chance to win the job. For the first time in his career, Jeff Heath will be given the opportunity to be a full-time player on defense. He's an elite athlete who has made numerous plays in the little time he's actually played. He was one of the team's best defenders in the playoff game against the Packers as he made multiple plays that allowed Dallas to mount a comeback.

    He's inexperienced, but he has the tools and instincts to easily replace the two players that were lost in free agency. Behind Heath and Jones is 2016 sixth-round pick Kavon Frazier. His best spot is at strong safety, where he can be a force in the run game. He may be ready for more snaps in 2017, but he's likely to be the team's third safety heading into the season.

    The Cowboys added Xavier Woods in the sixth round from Louisiana Tech and he's expected to challenge Frazier for snaps as the team's third safety. Woods has more range and coverage ability than Frazier, but he's a year behind him and will need to make plays in preseason to beat him out for the spot.

    If neither Heath nor Frazier proves to be good enough as the team's other safety opposite of Jones, the Cowboys could move Chidobe Awuzie from cornerback to safety as he has the size and physicality to play the position. There are a lot of unknowns at this position right now, but the Cowboys have given themselves numerous options in the secondary. I'm willing to bet that Jeff Heath proves to be more than capable as a starting safety in the NFL.

Special Teams

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Starters:

    PK: Dan Bailey

    P: Chris Jones

    LS: L.P. Ladouceur

    The Cowboys have one of the better specialist units in the entire NFL, and that shouldn't change anytime soon. According to the NFL1000, Dan Bailey graded out as the third-best kicker in 2016, while Chris Jones finished fifth for punters. Both are consistent, and that provides comfort for Cowboys' fans and coaches.

    Since entering the league, Bailey has made 89.5 percent of his kicks, including 24 makes over 50 yards. Bailey is about as consistent as it gets, making all 250 of career extra points. He's one of the most reliable players in the league and a true weapon to have on the team.

    Jones has made steady improvements every season, improving his yards per punt average to 45.9 in 2016, a career high. Jones also graded out as the league's best tackler at the position, according to NFL1000 scout Chuck Zodda. Long snapper L.P. Ladouceur is entering his 13th season in the league, all with the Cowboys. He has started 189 consecutive games and has yet to have a bad snap.

    The Cowboys added Ryan Switzer in the fourth round and he's expected to compete with Lucky Whitehead for the starting punt return job. If the combination of Swizter and Cole Beasley proves to be good enough, Whitehead could be without a job in 2017. Darren McFadden is likely to handle the kick return duties for the team.

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