Predicting Dallas Cowboys' 2017 Starters After 1st Wave of Free Agency

Marcus Mosher@@Marcus_MosherFeatured Columnist IMarch 29, 2017

Predicting Dallas Cowboys' 2017 Starters After 1st Wave of Free Agency

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    Free agency hasn't been kind to the Dallas Cowboys so far. To date, the team has lost six starters, three of which came from its secondary. After the first wave of free agency, the Cowboys have signed only one free agent to a deal worth more than $2 million annually and that was 30-year old cornerback Nolan Carroll. 

    However, director of player personnel Stephen Jones doesn't believe that the team was too devastated about some of their losses, specifically on defense: "Most of these players, I'm not going to single out guys, but most of them we were ready to let move on."

    With the draft less than a month away, the Cowboys have needs on defense, but no real holes on their roster. There are positions that could use an upgrade or added depth behind a starter, but most of their roster remains intact. Here is the projected 2017 Dallas Cowboys starting lineup after the first wave of free agency.

Quarterback

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Starter: Dak Prescott 

    While Tony Romo's status remains up in the air, the Dallas Cowboys know who their starting quarterback will be in 2017 and for the foreseeable future. In winning several Rookie of the Year awards in 2016, Dak Prescott played at an elite level. He led the Cowboys to a 13-3 record as a starter and drastically improved each week. 

    Dallas eventually lost to the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round, but that game showed the greatness of Prescott. He was able to rally the team from an 18-point deficit to tie the game late in fourth quarter. Unfortunately, his opposition in Aaron Rodgers is an all-time great who was able to outscore the Cowboys.   

    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. He will no longer feel the pressure of Romo waiting in the wings. 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, the Cowboys currently have only Kellen Moore under contract. Moore is the ideal third quarterback on the roster, but the team will need to find a better backup quarterback, likely after the draft. The team will explore options, but expect them to bring in a veteran quarterback to help aid in Prescott's development.   

Running Back

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    Ron Jenkins/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 competing for a job with a draft pick or another free agent. 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. 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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    Brandon Wade/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's one of the best slot receivers in the NFL. 

    With Williams and Butler re-signing, it's unlikely the Cowboys will use a high draft pick to upgrade the receiver position. Lucky Whitehead and Andy Jones round out the talented group. When everyone is healthy, it's one of the best units in the league because of how well the group plays off one on another.

Tight End

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    Michael Ainsworth/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. On Tuesday, the Witten signed a four-year extension with the Cowboys that will make him a Cowboy for life. 

    Behind Witten is Geoff Swaim, James Hanna and Rico Gathers. None of the three project as a future starter, and in a deep tight end draft, the Cowboys could spend a premium pick selecting Witten's heir. Jake Butt or Adam Shaheen make the most sense for Dallas in the second round. 

Left Tackle

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    Roger Steinman/Associated Press

    Starter: Tyron Smith

    There's not much more that can be said about Tyron Smith than what is already out there. At just 26, Smith is one of the top tackles in the NFL. He has no flaws in his game, and the only thing that can be criticized is his recent injury history. He's had a series of back injuries that have limited him, but he's managed to play through the pain and still play at a high level. 

    Not only did he score well in the NFL1000 at left tackle, he finished as the second-best player in the NFL. He's a dominant player on one of the best contracts in the NFL. In 2017, 17 offensive linemen will be paid more than Smith, according to Spotrac. The Cowboys are set at left tackle for 2017 and for the foreseeable future. 

Left Guard

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    Roger Steinman/Associated Press

    Left Guard: La'el Collins

    Collins entered the season as the Cowboys' Week 1 starter, but after a toe injury in San Francisco that caused him to miss the rest of the year, Ronald Leary took over his spot and played well. Collins has shown incredible talent when he's played, but he hasn't been the most durable player in his first two years in the NFL.

    While Leary left for Denver, Collins actually provides more upside and athleticism to the offense. The Cowboys love to use Collins as a pull-blocker, and he can be devastating on the second level. With two years under his belt, he should have a firm grasp of the Cowboys offense. Don't expect a big drop-off from Leary to Collins. 

    Behind Collins is a former top-10 selection in Jonathan Cooper. He's another athletic guard who just hasn't found the right system for him. Cooper has experience at guard and center and will be competing with Joe Looney as the interior swing lineman. 

Center

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    Starter: Travis Frederick

    Since being drafted at the bottom of the first round in 2013, Travis Frederick has started all 64 games in his career and has been selected to the Pro Bowl in each of the past three seasons. Once considered a reach at Pick 31, Frederick graded out as the best center in the NFL, according to the NFL1000. 

    Frederick isn't the most athletic center in the league, but he is one of the most disciplined. He's not one to make mental mistakes and always seems to have his body in the right position. He doesn't give in to power and he can handle speed with ease. At 26 years old, the Cowboys should have elite center play for at least the next five years. 

    If Frederick were to go down with an injury, Jonathan Cooper has experience playing center and the team has prepped Zack Martin in the case of an emergency. Dallas could use a late round pick on a backup center in the draft if the right player falls to them. 

Right Guard

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    Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    Starter: Zack Martin

    Over the past three years, there may not have been a better first-round pick than the Cowboys' Zack Martin. He's started every game over the past three years, been selected to the Pro Bowl every year and been an All-Pro twice. 

    Like Tyron Smith, Martin has no flaws in his game. He graded out as the third-best guard in football in 2016, according to the NFL1000. He's a leader in the locker room and provided stability on the right side of the offensive line. He's due for a contract in 2018, and the Cowboys would love to lock him up as soon as possible. He's one of the 25 best players in the NFL today. 

Right Tackle

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    Starter: Chaz Green

    For the first time in a decade, there's some uncertainty as to who will start at right tackle going into the season. Since 2011, Tyron Smith or Doug Free have held the position going into the season. The favorite for the job is Chaz Green, a third-year player from Florida. 

    When Green has played, he's actually played well. He's got the size, feet and power to play right tackle at a high level. But since being drafted in 2015, he's only played in four games. As talented as he is, there's no guarantee that Green will be the starter at right tackle because he hasn't proved to be a reliable enough option. 

    If Green can't stay healthy, the Cowboys do have other options. They could slide La'el Collins over from left guard or play recently signed Byron Bell. There's also a chance they could talk Free into returning at a higher salary if injuries occur. 

    The Cowboys could also add a tackle early in the draft, but with such pressing needs on defense, that doesn't seem likely. The team will rely on Green and hope they have enough options in house to replace Free. 

Defensive End

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    Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    Starters: Demarcus Lawrence and Tyrone Crawford 

    The Cowboys defensive line going into 2017 won't look much different than it did in 2016. Demarcus Lawrence and Tyrone Crawford will return as the team's starters at defensive end, but they will rotate heavily with David Irving and Benson Mayowa. 

    Of the four defensive ends, Lawrence is the most consistent of the group. When healthy, he's got the quickness, bend and explosion to be a true right defensive end. But after multiple back injuries and surgeries, it's not safe to assume he will return to his normal self in 2017.   

    Crawford is limited as a pass-rusher, but he's a good player against the run and can slide inside on nickel situations. He doesn't provide the speed off the edge, but he's reliable and strong. He knows how to win with his hands, and that's how he can generate pressure from the left defensive end spot. 

    Mayowa joined the roster in 2016 after leaving Oakland. He led the team in sacks with six in his first year with the Cowboys. Irving has the highest ceiling of the four, but he's a work in progress who may be best suited as an inside rusher.  

    Charles Tapper is expected to fight for playing time after missing all of 2016 with a back injury. It's also fair to assume that the Cowboys will spend a draft pick in the first three rounds on another pass-rusher who will figure into the rotation. The defensive line isn't in bad shape, but it lacks the dominant, No. 1 edge-rusher who can take over games. The Cowboys aren't likely to find that rusher again in 2017. 

Defensive Tackle

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Starters: Maliek Collins and Cedric Thornton

    Tyrone Crawford and Terrell McClain were the Cowboys' Week 1 starters at defensive tackle in 2016, but neither will play there in 2017. Rookie Maliek Collins quickly replaced Crawford inside as the team's 3-technique, allowing Crawford to kick outside. After breaking his foot in the offseason, Collins missed all of training camp and was severely behind the learning curve in Dallas. 

    But Collins finished the year with five sacks and graded out as the 38th-best defensive tackle in the NFL, according to the NFL1000. However, he was much better in the second half of the season and that gives the Cowboys a lot of hope going forward. Collins could be one of the better defensive linemen on the Cowboys this season. 

    McClain left via free agency to join a division rival in the Washington Redskins. Cedric Thornton, who was signed from the Eagles in 2016, is now expected to handle the 1-technique duties. Thornton was beaten out for the job in training camp after McClain proved to be a more disruptive player. 

    Backing up Thornton is a favorite of defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli in Stephen Paea. He was signed in free agency to compete with Thornton as a 1-technique. He's got the strength and effort to be a nice rotational piece for Dallas. With so many of the Cowboys' defensive linemen having position flexibility, the team probably won't add any defensive tackle talent high in the draft. Instead, expect them to find a player late in the draft or sign an undrafted free agent to come in and compete for snaps. 

Linebacker

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    Roger Steinman/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's 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 weakside linebacker. The Cowboys could also move third-year player Damien Wilson to the middle to compete with Hitchens.

    The Cowboys could use a draft pick to bring in competition, just in case Smith doesn't work out. In fact, I expect them to. They've drafted at least one linebacker in each of the past 12 drafts. The Cowboys have depth at this position, but they could use one more reliable linebacker in the unit. 

Cornerback

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    Andy Clayton-King/Associated Press

    Starters: Nolan Carroll, Anthony Brown and Orlando Scandrick

    Since 2012, Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr have been staples of the Cowboys defense. Both were brought in during the same offseason and now both are gone in 2017. Claiborne and Carr are both at their best when they are in press man coverage, and with the team not bringing back either, it looks like the team will transition to a more traditional Tampa 2 defense with zone corners. 

    That leaves Nolan Carroll, Anthony Brown and Orlando Scandrick left to man the corner position in 2017. All three are best in zone coverage and aren't afraid to tackle. Brown and Carroll will likely be the team's starting outside corner while Scandrick will cover the slot. 

    The cornerback depth isn't ideal and it's the main reason why the Cowboys will likely bring in a player via the draft. Dallas is searching for longer cornerbacks who hit the 32-inch arm length threshold. The Cowboys want to find players who are long and athletic who can take the ball away. It's a group that has some talent, but they desperately need to add to it. 

Safety

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    Starters

    FS: Jeff Heath

    SS: Byron Jones

    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.   

    Another option for Dallas is that it could move Byron Jones to cornerback if it fell in love with a safety in the first round. If it believes it can upgrade two positions with one draft pick, that may be the best route to go in order to improve its defense. Players such as Budda Baker, Jabrill Peppers and Obi Melifonwu could make sense at strong safety for Dallas. 

    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. In a talented draft class, expect the Cowboys to add a safety in the first few rounds.