Position Check: Assessing Dallas Cowboys' Strengths and Weaknesses

Marcus Mosher@@Marcus_MosherFeatured Columnist IApril 5, 2017

Position Check: Assessing Dallas Cowboys' Strengths and Weaknesses

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    Brandon Wade/Associated Press

    The Dallas Cowboys 13-3 record in 2016 was a surprise to nearly all football fans, but the manner in which they did was even more amazing. Led by rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, the Cowboys stunned teams with their young roster. 

    However, every year is different, and the Cowboys will have a massive bullseye on their back heading into the season.

    With some key losses in fee agency, the team enters the draft with some positions of weakness, especially on defense.

    Here is a review of each position on the roster and whether said position is a strength or weakness after the first wave of free agency. 

Quarterback

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    Verdict: Strength

    Since Tony Romo took over the starting job in 2006, the quarterback position has been a strength for the Dallas Cowboys. Despite playing on some poorly constructed teams, Romo was able to pull the Cowboys up into contention almost every year. 

    For years, Cowboys fans stressed about finding his eventual replacement. Romo's unknown value to the team made it seem inevitable that there would be a massive drop-off when his time was up in Dallas. But in one of more remarkable seasons we've ever seen, the Cowboys transitioned from Romo to Prescott and didn't skip a beat. 

    Both the NFL1000 and Pro Football Focus ranked Prescott just outside of their top 10 quarterbacks in 2016. With the shadow of Romo gone and a full offseason to improve, it's only a matter of time before Prescott slides into the top 10.

    The Cowboys have Kellen Moore as a backup, but they will need to add depth to the position via the draft or in free agency. But nevertheless, there aren't many teams set up better for the next few seasons at the quarterback position than the Dallas Cowboys. 

Running Back

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    Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

    Verdict: Strength

    One of the best positions on the Cowboys' roster is at the running back position. With Elliott, Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris, the team has three runners who are capable starters in the NFL. That depth, combined with the Dallas' offensive line, allows them to pound teams into submission. 

    To be honest, Elliott alone is what makes this run game a strength. His ability to run in both power and zone schemes, plus his outstanding speed and physicality, make him a perfect fit in Dallas. His fiery running style combined with his sheer athleticism is a joy to watch as he runs behind the Cowboys' talented offensive line.

    What makes him spectacular is that he's so dynamic and he has few flaws in his game. He can carry the ball 30 times if need be or he can contribute as a pass receiver. He can simply do it all. As a rookie, Elliott finished as the third-best running back in the NFL, according to our NFL1000 team. What's even 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 McFadden and 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. As long as Elliott is on the field, the Cowboys will be one of the top offenses in the NFL, and the unit should thrive. 

Wide Receivers

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    Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    Verdict: Strength

    The signings of Terrance Williams and Brice Butler early in the free agent process assures the Cowboys that they will return one of the better receiving units in the league. While they lack star power outside of Dez Bryant, the unit plays well together, and when all are healthy, they can be a dominant force. 

    The group is reliant on its leader: 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 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 a 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 another.

Tight Ends

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    Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    Verdict: Strength

    Of all the positions on offense, the tight end position may be the weakest. The Cowboys have Jason Witten, but behind him, there are a lot of question marks. If Witten were to go down or if his play was to decline drastically, the tight end position in Dallas would be a major weakness. 

    2017 will be 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. 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. The tight end position is a strength, but its certainly not one of the strongest on the team.  

Offensive Line

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    Brandon Wade/Associated Press

    Verdict: Strength

    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.

    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. 

Defensive Line

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    Verdict: Weakness

    Since DeMarcus Ware left in 2014, the Cowboys have been searching to find a reliable pass rush. They've assembled a roster that has a lot of OK players across their defensive line, but they lack a true No. 1 rusher that pushes this position from a weakness to a strength. 

    The Cowboys best pass rusher is Demarcus Lawrence, but he's recovering from his second back surgery in many years. 2016 free agent signing Benson Mayowa is his backup, and he's a nice fit there as he led the team with six sacks in his first year for the team. 

    Dallas will be relying on three young players taking the next step in their development; Maliek Collins, David Irving and Charles Tapper. Collins and Irving were nice players in 2016, but both will need to take massive steps to help take the defense to the next level. Tapper missed all of his rookie season due to a back injury, but he has the athletic profile to fit in somewhere in the Cowboys' rotation. 

    If a few players can continue to develop and if Dallas were to add a high draft pick into the unit, it's not inconceivable that this unit could drastically improve in 2017. But with the way the group is currently constructed, it's a weakness that needs a talent infusion. 

Linebacker

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    Verdict: Weakness

    While the linebacker position could be a position of strength for the Cowboys quickly, as it stands right now, it's a weakness. Sean Lee is the only above average linebacker on the roster, and he turns 31 years old in July. Behind Lee, there aren't many proven options on the roster, and it's not safe to assume any player will stand out during training camp and seize a spot next to him. 

    Lee is 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 has stated 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 wearing 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.

    Linebacker isn't a major weakness, but the unit needs another player to step up in order to call this position a strength in 2017. 

Cornerback

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    Verdict: Weakness

    For the first time in many years, the Cowboys' secondary was a position of strength for the team. In 2016, the Cowboys had the No. 1 rated secondary in the entire NFL, according to Pro Football Focus. But with Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr leaving in free agency, combined with Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox's departure at safety, the team has some work cut out for them in order to reach that status again in 2017.

    As the Cowboys enter the draft, their depth at cornerback is lacking. Nolan Carroll, Anthony Brown and Orlando Scandrick are 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.

    While this position has a few players who can play and have NFL experience, it certainly doesn't look like it has the same talent on paper as it did in 2016. While the draft may drastically upgrade this position, as it looks now, it's one of the biggest weaknesses on the entire team. 

Safeties

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    Don Wright/Associated Press

    Verdict: Weakness

    While weakness may be a little excessive here, the Cowboys will likely try to upgrade their safety position through the draft. According to Monday Morning Quarterback's Albert Breer, the Cowboys will have met with at least 11 defensive backs before the draft. Four of which would be safeties in Dallas. With Church and Wilcox gone via free agency, this is should be expected. 

    As of now, Byron Jones is the only true starter at safety. While he's not going to create many turnovers, 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 defenseJones graded out as the fourth-best free safety in the NFL, according to the NFL1000. Quite an accomplishment for a player in only his second year. 

    At the other safety position, 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 who 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.

Specialists

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    Verdict: Strength

    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's started 189 consecutive games and has yet to have had a bad snap. 

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