The Cowboys head to training camp in less than a week, but that doesn’t mean everything is quiet in Dallas. Here’s a quick rundown of some of the news stories from just this week:
There was an incident involving Ezekiel Elliott in a bar.
A wannabe rapper stole and returned Lucky Whitehead’s dog after posting several videos on Instagram.
Terrance Williams was racing outside of a strip club after a dispute.
Jaylon Smith is not wearing an AFO brace, despite it being widely reported that he has been. Instead, he’s wearing a more flexible brace that will allow him to get on the field at some point in 2017.
With the season less than two months away, it’s time to shift the focus away from the everyday news of the Cowboys, to the on-the-field stories. It’s one of my favorite times of the year as every team and fan’s hopes are high. Sometimes the hype and hope are warranted, other times it’s not. Without further ado, here are eight over/under predictions regarding the Dallas Cowboys in 2017.
Over 9.5 Touchdowns for Dez Bryant
Dez Bryant is a touchdown-machine. Anytime he is on the field, he is a threat to score from anywhere on the field. However, he hasn’t scored double digit touchdowns in a season since 2014. So what makes me optimistic that he can do it again at age 28? There are two big reasons as to why you should expect a big season from Bryant in 2017.
The first reason being that Bryant is finally healthy. For the past two seasons, he has suffered injuries that have dramatically limited his explosiveness. In 2015, it was a fracture of his fifth metatarsal that forced him to miss six straight games (seven total). When he returned from the injury, Bryant just didn’t look like the same player. It was clear he returned too quickly from the injury and it significantly hampered him for the entire season.
In 2016, Bryant fractured his knee, causing him to miss three games in the middle of the season. However, when he returned, he looked like the same dominant receiver that we saw in 2014. In the team’s final 11 games (including Week 17 where he played only a handful of snaps and the playoff game), Bryant scored 10 total touchdowns as he caught fire in the second half of the season.
What allowed Bryant to become a dominant receiver again was his connection with rookie quarterback Dak Prescott. The two struggled to get on the same page early in the season as Bryant caught just 15 passes on 37 targets in his four games with the rookie. But as they played more together, the two developed much better chemistry.
I expect Prescott and Bryant to pick up where they left off in the playoffs last year. As long as Bryant is healthy, the two should be able to connect for at least 10 touchdowns in 2017. We’ve seen that Bryant has the potential to do that and more as he has three seasons of 12 touchdowns or more in his career. I expect a big bounce-back year for Bryant this season.
Over 7.5 Rookies Make the Cowboys Roster
The Cowboys had a large draft in 2017, selecting nine players in April. But what are the odds that eight or more of those rookies actually make the 53-man roster? The answer might be surprising. Dallas used their nine picks primarily on defense (only two offensive players selected) and at positions that needed a lot of depth. For that reason, it’s hard to imagine that at the very least, seven rookies will make the roster.
Taco Charlton, Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, and Ryan Switzer are all essential locks to make the roster as they were all chosen within the first four rounds. Not too often do you see high picks cut before their rookie season begins. That leaves Xavier Woods, Marquez White, Joey Ivie, Noah Brown and Jordan Carrell all competing for spots in training camp.
Of those five, Woods probably has the best chance to make the roster as Dallas lacks safety depth behind starters Byron Jones and Jeff Heath. It also doesn’t hurt that Dallas traded a future pick to go up and grab Woods. He’ll likely compete with Kavon Frazier to be the team’s third safety on game days.
White will compete for the fifth cornerback on the roster while Ivie and Carrell may each be able to grab a spot on the roster as well. Brown probably has the steepest hill to climb as he’s the team’s seventh receiver on the depth chart. All four should be able to land on the practice squad if they don’t make the 53-man roster.
I also expect one or two undrafted rookie free agents to grab a job as it always seems like Dallas will find a few that deserve a chance to play on Sundays in training camp. In previous seasons, Lucky Whitehead, Keith Smith and Ronald Leary have earned starting jobs as undrafted rookie free agents.
Overall, this is a deep rookie class that could potentially have as many as 10 players make the opening day roster for the Dallas Cowboys.
Under 400 Snaps Played for Jaylon Smith
A few days ago, I wrote about why Anthony Hitchens and Jaylon Smith will be competing in one of the biggest camp battles of training camp. One of the reasons why it’s so important for these two players is that the loser of the battle likely won’t play much in 2017 as Dallas rarely uses a third linebacker in the defensive packages.
In 2016, only two linebackers played more than 300 snaps on defense for the Cowboys; Sean Lee and Hitchens. Both players return this season and with Hitchens’ improved coverage ability, there are even fewer snaps to go around for the other Cowboys’ linebackers.
We will know how healthy Smith is in the next few weeks, but if he doesn’t practice in pads or participate in live tackling drills, the writing could be on the wall for this season. Smith will probably get on the field at some point this season but expect it to be in a part-time role as Hitchens’ backup. Expect Dallas to be cautious with Smith and limit his snaps in practice and during the games all season long.
Over 3.5 Interceptions for Byron Jones
After playing in all 32 games in his first two seasons in the NFL, safety Byron Jones has recorded just one interception; the one you see above on a Hail Mary pass against Tampa Bay. So why should we expect a big jump in his interception total in his third season? There are a lot of reasons to be optimistic about Jones this season.
The biggest being that he’s now entering his third season in the NFL and his second full season at the safety position. As a rookie, Dallas tried him at both corner and safety. In 2016, they decided to make him a full-time safety and he was just inches away from creating a number turnovers last year. With added experience and insane athleticism, I expect him to convert on those missed opportunities this year.
Another reason to expect more interceptions for Jones is that the team plans on using more zone coverage this year. After ditching Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr in free agency, Dallas now has the personnel to play more zone coverage and that likely means more turnovers in the secondary. When defenders are watching the quarterback rather than a receiver, the chance of picking off a pass should increase.
I expect Jones to not only reach four interceptions this season, but I also expect him to make his first Pro Bowl. Look for Jones to take a massive step in his third season in the NFL and become Dallas’ best defensive back.
Under 5 Sacks for Taco Charlton
Over the past decade, we have seen more pass rushers who were selected outside of the top-10 in the draft find success in their rookie seasons. While it’s certainly possible that Taco Charlton could put up an eight-sack season like rookie Yannick Ngakoue’s season last year, don’t expect him to be that effective.
Charlton will have the advantage of likely starting for the Cowboys in 2017, but Dallas loves to rotate their defensive linemen, meaning that he won’t see the necessary snaps to be that effective. Charlton is also a very raw player who may contribute more in the run game than as a pass rusher right away.
For those reasons, look for Charlton to hover around the four sack mark, rather than approaching double digit sacks. Charlton will get every opportunity to have a big year in Dallas, but it’s asking a lot of a rookie to be the team’s top edge rusher.
Under 1.5 Punt Return Touchdowns for Ryan Switzer
In college, Ryan Switzer returned seven punts for touchdowns in his career while averaging 10.9 yards per return. He was drafted in the fourth round by the Cowboys to compete with Lucky Whitehead for the punt returner job. However, that doesn’t mean you should expect fireworks in his first season in the NFL as a returner.
Since 2006, only four rookies have returned two or more punts for touchdowns in their first season. That list includes Patrick Peterson, Devin Hester, Tyreek Hill and Dez Bryant. While Switzer is a dynamic returner, he’s not the elite athlete that those four are. Switzer is a shifty player who relies on his quickness more than elite speed (4.51 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine).
Instead, look for Switzer to be a reliable returner who boosts the Cowboys’ punt return average rather than their touchdown totals. In time, Switzer could become one of the more dangerous returners in the league, but expecting him to score two or more touchdowns in his rookie year is somewhat far-fetched.
Under 1200 Rushing Yards for Ezekiel Elliott
It was quite a weekend for Ezekiel Elliott. On Friday, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that the Cowboys and Elliott were bracing for a short suspension stemming from an alleged domestic dispute in 2016 before he was drafted. Later that day, Elliott was appealing a conviction for speeding in Dallas after going 100 mph on a Dallas’ highway.
Late on Sunday night, Elliott was involved in a bar incident in which a DJ was punched in the nose. The police issued a statement that they were dispatched to the bar and that a victim was physically assaulted. Elliott has not been charged with any crime, but there does seem to be a general sense that Elliott was involved in some way.
All in all, it’s been a rough offseason for Elliott. He’s been in the news multiple times and for that reason alone, don’t expect him to match his 1,631 rushing yards from 2016. It seems very likely that Elliott will miss some time this season, but the amount of games is unclear. Expect the Cowboys to be without Elliott for a number of games in 2017.
Under 9.5 Wins for the Dallas Cowboys
Winning double digit games in back to back seasons is always tough. It’s especially tough to do so when you play in the NFC East, one of the toughest divisions in football. There are no perennial bottom dwellers in this division, so every game inside the division is a battle.
For the Cowboys to win the division and get back into the playoffs, Dallas will probably need to win at least 10 games in 2017. According to SportsBook.com, the Cowboys’ season wins total over/under sits at 9.5. While Vegas thinks Dallas will likely win 10 games, I’m not as optimistic.
Instead of playing a fourth place schedule like they did in 2016, Dallas will now play a first-place schedule. To make matters worse, Dallas plays the tough AFC West and the NFC West this season. Not only will they have to make do with a first place schedule, they also have the league’s toughest schedule, according to Football Outsiders and ESPN.
On top of a tougher schedule, Dallas could be without Ezekiel Elliott for an extended period of time as I’ve mentioned before. Without Elliott, more of the offensive load would be put on Dak Prescott’s shoulders. While it’s not impossible that they could survive with Zeke, it will be a difficult task to stay afloat without him.
Dallas will also have the task of replacing numerous veterans who were lost this season in free agency, such as Ronald Leary, Terrell McClain, Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox. That’s a lot of veterans to lose in one offseason.
Dallas will be forced to rely on a lot of rookies and young players, especially on defense. And with a tougher schedule, Dallas seems like a pretty good bet to not reach double-digit wins in 2017. Vegas still believes the Cowboys will make the playoffs (-200), but it’s likely going to be a struggle for them to do so.