Who Are Dallas Cowboys' Next Great Playmakers?December 21, 2017
Who Are Dallas Cowboys' Next Great Playmakers?
The Dallas Cowboys likely won't be making the playoffs in 2017, which will be quite a disappointment considering how dominant they looked last year. While they could finish 10-6, there are too many other teams ahead of them in the NFC.
However, that doesn't mean Dallas doesn't have a talented roster and that you shouldn't be excited about the future of this team.
As the season winds down, the Cowboys are starting to see some of their young players flourish and a few are starting to bud into big contributors. It's an extremely youthful team that looks to be hitting its stride just a tad too late.
That should be encouraging heading into next season, though. So many youngsters are seeing playing time and playing well above expectations. But which ones could be destined for stardom in Dallas? Which ones could take that next step in 2018?
Here are the top six players on the Cowboys' roster who will be the next great playmakers for the team.
Cornerback: Chidobe Awuzie
Cowboys rookie cornerback Chidobe Awuzie has played just 226 snaps this season, according to Pro Football Reference. But that hasn't stopped him from making a major impact on the defense.
In the three games in which Awuzie has started this season, Dallas has allowed a total of just 41 points. Teams have averaged just 207 yards passing on more than 40 attempts per game during that stretch.
In those three games, the 22-year-old has been impressive as an individual. He has six pass deflections in total and forced a fumble in the Oakland Raiders game. He has also racked up 12 total tackles, including an impressive solo tackle on Raiders' running back Marshawn Lynch in the open field.
For a rookie, that three-game stretch has been better than anyone could have expected.
Awuzie is a perfect fit for Rod Marinelli's defense for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, he can play in both man and zone schemes, a critical criteria for the defensive coordinator's cornerbacks.
His size allows him to match up against bigger receivers, too, but his footwork lets him break on passes in zone coverage. He is also not afraid to be physical in the running game, which means he is one of the more rounded cornerbacks on the roster.
It has been one impressive stretch for Awuzie and that is especially true considering how much time he has missed this season.
Awuzie has a chance to not only be a playmaker for the Cowboys' defense but also to be one of the best cornerbacks this team has had in some time. He has "star" written all over him.
Safety: Xavier Woods
There was a lot of excitement surrounding one of the Cowboys' sixth-round picks.
When the team traded a 2018 fifth-round choice to select Xavier Woods from Louisana Tech, the fans (and draft nerds like myself) were ecstatic.
Many believed the Cowboys had drafted a player who might be able to start down the road at safety, but even Woods' biggest fans couldn't have anticipated him making this big of an impact in his rookie season.
The 22-year-old has done it all for the Cowboys this season. He started the year as a deep free safety and eventually moved closer to the line of scrimmage as more of an in-the-box defender.
After a few injuries at the cornerback spot, the team slid him over to slot corner where he has remained since the Washington Redskins' game. Woods has even taken a few snaps as a linebacker and edge defender this season.
For a sixth-round rookie defensive back to be able to play that many positions is impressive.
Woods is a key component of the Cowboys' defense and with more experience and a better understanding of Marinelli's defense, he should be locked into a starting job next season, whatever position that may be.
He clearly has a knack for making big plays and has a chance to be the team's best safety since Roy Williams.
Cornerback: Jourdan Lewis
When the Cowboys drafted Jourdan Lewis in the third round with the 92nd overall pick, there were a lot of questions surrounding the pick. However, there were no questions about his talent.
At Michigan, he was one of the best cornerbacks in the nation as he was a consensus first-team All-American selection during his senior season. He was the Wolverines' best defender and one of the best playmakers in the Big Ten.
The only concern teams had about Lewis was an allegation of domestic violence, which he was cleared of after the draft. Those issues knocked him down at least one round, but Dallas took a chance on him and it ultimately panned out.
Once the 22-year-old got on to the field, he showed why he should have been selected much higher. Despite missing the first game and all of preseason with a hamstring injury, he has played the fourth-most defensive snaps on the roster (643), according to Pro Football Reference.
He has been moved all over the place in this defense but has been one of the few reliable players in the secondary, even after only starting in five games.
With a full offseason of work, Lewis should be able to gain a full-time role as one of the team's starting cornerbacks. He's more than capable of performing at a high level on the outside, but his best spot in the NFL might be as a slot cornerback.
Nevertheless, Lewis' career is off to a fast start. Expect him to join fellow rookie Awuzie as one of the team's starters in 2018.
Linebacker: Jaylon Smith
When the Cowboys selected Jaylon Smith with the 34th overall selection in the 2016 draft, the reactions were mixed.
He was possibly the best linebacker prospect to come out of the draft in recent memory as his game had few flaws. Coming out of Notre Dame, Smith was a highly athletic linebacker who could play multiple positions and do anything that was asked—he could cover, rush and play in any defense.
However, a knee injury in his final collegiate game cast doubt over whether he would be able to return to that level again.
Selecting Smith meant the Cowboys wouldn't get production out of their second-round pick for at least one full season. But even in the first half of the 2017 season, he was hardly a usable player.
The Cowboys forced him on to the field and played him over players who were clearly better. But the goal was always to get him snaps and experience this season and hope his knee and foot will eventually heal to 100 percent.
In July of 2017, Jane Slater of NFL Network reported the nerve in Smith's foot was showing growth and if it continued, he could reach 100 percent in six to nine months. That was six months ago and it's not a coincidence he is playing at a much higher level than he did earlier in the season.
He is starting to use his athletic ability and has become a much more confident player. He is the team's third-best linebacker and has earned snaps, rather than being given them.
Assuming the growth in the nerve has continued and still is regenerating, Smith should be at least close to 100 percent by training camp in 2018.
With a full year of experience under his belt and hopefully a fully restored foot that won't need a brace, the 22-year-old could take off next season. He has flashed at times this season, but that could become the norm next season.
If everything continues as planned, Smith could be a huge difference-maker for the team next year.
Wide Receiver: Noah Brown
Heading into the season, the expectation was that fourth-round rookie Ryan Switzer was going to be a big weapon in the offense and seventh-round pick Noah Brown would be stashed on the practice squad or at the end of the roster. But that hasn't been the case.
In fact, Brown has doubled Switzer's snap total this season at 125 to 62, according to Pro Football Reference. He has also doubled his catch total this season and been a much big factor on offense.
Brown is still an incredibly raw player, but his ability to block at a high level has allowed him to get on the field as a rookie. The 21-year-old is still learning the receiver position after catching just 33 total passes in college. However, he has flashed this season in multiple different facets and his role seems to be growing in the offense.
With Brice Butler scheduled to hit free agency, there may be even more snaps available for Brown next season.
He is a player who should take a massive step in his second season; given the amount of trust the Cowboys already have in him, they will expect him to take advantage of those extra snaps. Brown has an incredibly high ceiling and could develop into one of Dak Prescott's favorite targets sooner rather than later.
The one area in which Brown could separate himself from the rest of the receivers on the team (other than Dez Bryant) is his ability to win in the red zone. He has a massive frame (6'2", 225 pounds) and can catch outside the framework of his body.
Don't be surprised if the Cowboys find ways to get him more involved in the offense next season.
Tight End: Rico Gathers
Despite not playing a single down in 2017, tight end Rico Gathers might have the highest ceiling of any player on this list.
At 6'8", 285 pounds, he is a massive target who showed in the preseason he can be a mismatch nightmare. Despite facing lesser competition, Gathers looked like he was impossible to guard at times. He's a natural receiver who can't be covered when the ball is thrown at or above his head.
However, Gathers wasn't able to showcase that athleticism after sustaining a concussion during training camp on a hit from Kavon Frazier. He made the initial 53-man roster and was immediately placed on injured reserve.
While the 23-year-old didn't play this season, it was another year spent around the Cowboys' facility, learning about the game. It may seem like a lost campaign because he wasn't able to get on the field, but just the fact he was around the game for a further year likely helped his development.
Next season, Gathers figures to be a part of the offense in some fashion. He is just too talented not to be on the field. In what will be his third year in the NFL, expect him to make his first appearance next season.
He has the potential to be the next great basketball convert at tight end. He's not going to replace Jason Witten anytime soon, but he might be the missing piece to the Dallas offense.
Gathers has Jimmy Graham-type potential and that should excite Cowboys fans.