It’s been 22 years since the Dallas Cowboys last one a Super Bowl. Since then, they have reached the divisional round of the playoffs five times. Each of those five times, they have failed to even qualify for the playoffs the following year. It’s been a frustrating pattern for a franchise that is trying to return to postseason prominence. The NFL regular season doesn’t start for six months, but the journey to get back to the playoffs and finally make it past the pesky divisional round begins this month when unrestricted free agency hits. Here are the top five moves the Cowboys need to make to find themselves back in playoff contention for the 2018 season.
1. Upgrade the Receiving Corps
This one isn’t really up for debate. The Cowboys went a span of three straight games in November without a single receiving touchdown. It can be debated just how much of that is Dak Prescott’s fault, but the receivers certainly didn’t do the second year quarterback any favors with numerous drops and incorrect routes. Something has to change.
That change may or may not include parting ways with polarizing receiver Dez Bryant, who leads the franchise in all time touchdown receptions. Back-to-back down seasons have led some to believe that Bryant’s best years are behind him. Regardless of whether he sticks around or not, adding a new threat in the secondary is an absolute must, especially with future Hall of Fame tight end Jason Witten nearing the end of his career.
How to go about improving those corps is a different matter entirely. The Cowboys could grow from within by giving 2017 pick Ryan Switzer more playing time, but the more likely option is that someone else will either be signed or drafted. Allen Robinson could be a viable option as the Jags elected not to franchise tag him. Jerry Jones may have to shell out some serious dollars to bring someone’s talents to Dallas at receiver. What other GMs offer the pair, or any of the other receivers in this free agency class, will largely dictate how much the Cowboys are able to do.
A more financially stable avenue to address the problem could be the NFL Draft. Alabama wide receiver Calvin Ridley is the consensus best receiver in 2018 Draft. He is considered to be a late first rounder, meaning the Cowboys could have a shot at him with the 19th pick. It’s very possible, given that the Cowboys have multiple needs to this offseason. How free agency plays out will be a major factor in what they do with their first round selection.
2. Franchise Tag Demarcus Lawrence
Note, I say franchise tag, not sign. Demarcus Lawrence has proven that he is capable of having a great season. Now, he needs to prove that he can do it consistently before the Cowboys can comfortably commit long-term money to him. Dallas has been burned far too many times by giving big contracts to players after one promising season (see Miles Austin). While Lawrence looks like he could be the “War Daddy” that Jerry Jones says he wants, the Cowboys would like to see a little more insurance given their past blunders. Therefore, the franchise tag for Lawrence is the correct move until he proves that he isn’t another one hit wonder.
3. Shore Up the Offensive Line
A couple of years ago, the Dallas Cowboys’ offensive line was considered to be their biggest strength, and that is generally still the case… when all of the starters are healthy. When TyronSmith went down this past season, the Cowboys found out the hard way that Chaz Green was not the man for the job when he gave up an embarrassing five sacks during the Atlanta game. Injuries are a part of the game, and you cannot make it through a 16-game season without having dependable depth on their roster. For this reason, don’t be surprised if the Cowboys spend a third or fourth round draft pick to try and protect Prescott. They will have many options to evaluate at that stage in the draft.
4. Obtain Another Linebacker
Some will disagree with here as linebacker is arguably the strongest position on the defense with the likes of Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith. Over the years, Lee has proven that he is one of the best linebackers in football if he is in the game. The key word there is if. The Cowboys defensive leader has developed an unfortunate reputation for being constantly injured. Smith showed flashes of the player he could eventually be, but after suffering a gruesome knee injury over two years ago there is still no guarantee that he will ever reach the same level he played at in college. Then there is Damien Wilson, who was a serviceable linebacker, but could be on his way out, as he is not an irreplaceable asset. Once again, no flashy moves need to be made here. The Cowboy just need a solid starter who can replace Wilson’s production and preferably provide some upside. Both free agency and the draft should provide plenty of options.
5. Lock In David Irving
Irving is a restricted free agent, meaning he can only walk if the Cowboys allow him to, as they can match any offer sheet another team gives him. Irving has been a sneaky good pass rusher the past two seasons for Dallas, and can continue to be a good compliment to Demarcus Lawrence. His suspension last season could turn out to be a blessing in disguise for Dallas, as his deflated numbers likely won’t draw as much attention from other league GMs as they would have had he played all 16 games. While the Cowboys could probably upgrade from Irving if Jones is willing to pull strings and shake his wallet, you have to pick your battles in the salary cap age. Lock him down and move on to bigger issues.