Dallas Cowboys' Most Underappreciated Players This Season

Marcus Mosher@@Marcus_MosherFeatured Columnist INovember 1, 2017

Dallas Cowboys' Most Underappreciated Players This Season

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    For the most part, the Dallas Cowboys are led by their stars. From Dak Prescott to Ezekiel Elliott to their star-studded offensive line, the Cowboys are one of the most top-heavy teams in the NFL. That's not a knock on them, as they have been successful with this roster over the past few seasons.

    In order to prove how top-heavy this team is, look no further than the contracts they have given out. According to Spotrac, over 50 percent of Dallas' 2017 cap space is tied up into 10 players. That figure doesn't even include former quarterback Tony Romo's contract, which is accounting for $10.7 million against the cap for the 2017 season. Dallas pays its elite talent and pays them well. There is nothing wrong at all with that general philosophy from the front office.

    However, when you have so much money tied into your top 10 players, it doesn't leave much cap space for the other 43 players on the roster. That usually means there is a small middle class of players on the roster absorbing cap space. Instead, Dallas has opted to use more of a "studs and duds" philosophy when it comes to team building.

    But that doesn't mean the Cowboys don't have talent outside of their 10 best-paid players. We are going to look at a handful of the team's most underappreciated players on the roster. And with Elliott suspended for the next six games, Dallas will need some of its role players to step up in a major way. Here are six Cowboys players who don't get enough credit.

Defensive End Tyrone Crawford

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    One of the more underappreciated players on Dallas' roster is none other than defensive end Tyrone Crawford. Unlike the rest of the players who will appear on this list, he's one of the higher-paid players on the team. Per Spotrac, only two other players on the roster have a higher cap hit in 2017 than Crawford: Dez Bryant and Jason Witten.

    Since signing his big contract extension in 2015, Crawford has been an afterthought for many Cowboys fans. He has always been controversial, but defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli has stuck by his side through two down years. But in 2017, Crawford is playing at a high level, and it's going unnoticed.

    What makes Crawford so valuable to this roster? His versatility. He's willing to play numerous positions on this defense and is willing to sacrifice his own numbers if it means helping out the Cowboys. Despite being the highest-paid defender on the team, Crawford doesn't allow his pride to get in the way and will move around the defensive line for the benefit of the team.

    According to Pro Football Focus, Crawford has played 119 snaps as a right defensive end, 32 snaps as the right defensive tackle and 49 snaps as the left defensive tackle in 2017. He's also taken a few snaps as a left defensive end, as well as four snaps as a nose tackle.

    Crawford has played extremely well for the Cowboys this year despite playing numerous different roles. Through seven games, the veteran has accumulated four sacks and 18 pressures while playing the run well for the most part, per Pro Football Focus' signature stats.

    He will likely never be a double-digit sack player, but Crawford can be a solid and useful player in the right scheme. As the team's third- or fourth-best defensive linemen, he's been a highly productive player.

Long Snapper L.P. Ladouceur

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    There's probably not a more thankless job in the NFL than being a team's long snapper. The only time you are recognized is if something bad happens. However, that's not something Cowboys fans are used to seeing, as their team boasts one of the best the league has ever seen.

    L.P. Ladouceur has started 196 games for the Dallas Cowboys over the past 13 seasons. That's an impressive number when you consider he is the second-longest-tenured Cowboy, just Witten. But do you know what's even more impressive? That Ladouceur hasn't had a single bad snap throughout his entire NFL career.

    With all of the bad-weather games the Cowboys have played in, and with all the different kickers and holders the team has used over the years, Ladouceur has been the one constant on the special teams unit. He's a big reason why the Cowboys have had so much success in the kicking game recently because everyone knows the ball is going to be in the right spot after the snap.

    Long snappers don't get a lot of coverage, but they can decide games if a team doesn't have a reliable option. For the 13th year in a row, Ladouceur might be the most underrated player on the Cowboys' entire roster. You will never see anyone wearing his jersey, but he has been one of the best players at his position for quite some time.

Fullback Keith Smith

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Over the past two seasons, fullback Keith Smith has easily been the most overlooked player on the Cowboys offense. In a league in which fullbacks are being replaced for more tight ends and receivers, it's a breath of fresh air to have a player like Smith on the roster for a variety of reasons.

    Smith has played just 53 snaps this season, according to Pro Football Focus, but his impact on the running game cannot be denied. He's got the athleticism to get to the second level but also the power to move linebackers out of the holes, freeing Elliott to the second level.

    With Elliott out for the next six games, Dallas will need to rely on Smith to pave open holes for Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris. Luckily for the Cowboys, they have got an offensive line and a fullback they believe in and should be able to still run the ball effectively during Elliott's absence.

    Not only is Smith a key part of their offense, but he's also one of the team's most important players on special teams. He's played on over 50 percent of the special teams snaps this season, per Pro Football Reference, and he is a core player on kickoff coverage. Against the Washington Redskins on Sunday, Smith forced a key fumble on a kickoff that led to a Cowboys field goal that put them up 20-13. It's those type of plays by underappreciated players that win games.

    Last but not least is Smith's versatility. When the Cowboys signed Smith out of San Jose State, the team used him as a linebacker (his position in college). But after being bounced on and off the roster numerous times, Dallas decided to move him to fullback.

    His ability to play linebacker at the NFL level has allowed the Cowboys to carry one less player at that position. Even this season, the team prepared Smith to play linebacker in a game because of a sudden rash of injuries at the position, per Mike Fisher of 105.3 The Fan.

    Smith will likely never get the attention he deserves as a blocker because fullbacks rarely do, but he's an important cog in the Dallas offense and critical piece of the team's run game. Smith is exactly the type of blue-collar player the team needs at that position.

Safety Byron Jones

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    Defensive back Byron Jones has always been an underrated player on the Cowboys defense. He doesn't create a lot of turnovers (he recorded just the second interception of his career on Sunday), but he's one of the top safeties in the league in terms of shutting down tight ends.

    But he makes this list for a different reason. According to Team Rankings, Jones is tied for the most solo tackles on special teams (four) along with the aforementioned Smith and safety Kavon Frazier.

    Jones does a lot for Dallas' special teams unit, including covering punts as a gunner, playing in the kicking game and doing whatever the coaches ask of him. According to Pro Football Reference, Jones has played on nearly 50 percent of the team's special teams snaps—a high number for a starting safety.

    The 25-year-old is the most versatile defender on the defense, and the Cowboys aren't afraid to use him on special teams. His ability to play well in the kicking game makes him one of the more important pieces on this roster.

Linebacker Damien Wilson

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    One player who doesn't get a lot of credit on the Cowboys defense is linebacker Damien Wilson. He has started four times this season, but he's played in all seven games as the team's starting strong-side linebacker. Wilson also contributes on special teams, as he leads the team in the number of special teams snaps, per Pro Football Reference.

    Wilson isn't a spectacular athlete or dominant in any one area, but he's an important player to have on the roster. He can play multiple linebacker positions, and he's one of the core players on every special teams unit except for on field goals.

    The Minnesota product will probably never become a star linebacker for the Cowboys. Nor will he ever become a player the team wants on the field for a high number of snaps every week. But his versatility and reliability make him the perfect reserve linebacker given all the areas of the game he can contribute to. Wilson is a perfect fit as the team's third or fourth linebacker.

Punter Chris Jones

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Last but not least is Cowboys punter Chris Jones. No one likes to see the punter walk on to the field, but this season, Jones has been a weapon.

    Of Jones' 26 punts in 2017, Jones has pinned opponents inside their own 20-yard line on 14 occasions. He also has three punts of over 55 yards this season, including a 62-yard punt in the second game of the season against the Denver Broncos.

    What has also been impressive about Jones this season is he's only recorded one touchback. His punting has been fantastic, and he was a big reason the Cowboys were able to beat the New York Giants so soundly in Week 1. He pinned the Giants inside their own 20-yard line on all four of his punts, and on three of those drives, New York started inside its own 10-yard line.

    The Cowboys don't punt the ball often, but it's nice to know that when they do, they have one of the best punters in the NFL. Punters don't get enough appreciation—and that's especially true in Dallas—but Jones has been fantastic once again this season.