We’re just two days from Dallas Cowboys football being played, and the Cowboys have Super Bowl aspirations as they head into the season.
If the Cowboys want to bring a Lombardi Trophy back to The Star, they’ll need to improve on the successes from 2016. That means a few players will need to step up their games.
As we prepare for the Hall of Fame game on Thursday, here are the five players I think are poised to have career years for the Cowboys.
La’el Collins, Right Tackle
A lot has been said about the right tackle spot since Doug Free surprised fans with his offseason retirement. The Cowboys dug their heels in for two years on Collins remaining at guard, but Free’s retirement changed everything. I have confidence in Collins’ transition for two reasons.
1) He loves playing the position
Collins intimated to teams when he was coming out of LSU that he preferred tackle over guard. When he spoke to reporters at the NFFC in July, Collins said he “really [enjoys] being out there on that island, and just being out in space.”
2) Dallas displayed their confidence in the form of a raise
Dallas recently gave Collins a raise, making him the third-highest paid right tackle in the NFL annually. The Cowboys wouldn’t make that sort of investment if they didn’t feel good about his ability to perform.
I think Collins stays healthy and lives up to his potential in 2017, providing much-needed stability.
Brice Butler, Wide Receiver
Butler was disappointed in his market value this offseason, but privately I think he would tell you he didn’t make enough of his opportunities in 2016 to deserve a chance to start.
Butler has been motivated all offseason, training regularly with wide receiver guru David Robinson, and limiting interviews with the media to maintain his focus. His renewed focus seems to be paying off in training camp, as DallasCowboys.com writer and former NFL scout Bryan Broaddus has taken notice:
“I’ve never thought of Brice Butler as a smooth route runner but he has shown that ability here the first week of camp. There were several routes where he was able to gain separation from Orlando Scandrick and Anthony Brown not by physically pushing off but with his footwork. He has shown the ability to use one more slight adjustment at the top of his route that has caused these cornerbacks to read him incorrectly. While getting open, Butler has also shown the ability to finish his routes by securing the ball.”
Dallas re-signed Terrance Williams at a bargain, so it’s doubtful Butler is here past this season, but he’ll be a motivated man looking to earn a 2018 starting job with his play this season.
David Irving, Defensive Lineman
The Cowboys were disappointed with Irving’s suspension earlier this offseason, because it was so avoidable and he had shown so much growth in 2016. Irving became just the second player in NFL history (Cliff Avril, 2013) with four sacks, four forced fumbles, and five passes defended with fewer than 10 starts.
When Irving returns to the field in week five vs. the Packers, he will likely be the starting left defensive end, kicking inside to 3-technique on 3rd down passing situations. Irving is one of the most physically impressive players on Dallas’ roster, and I think you’ll see him channel some anger over the missed time, and build on his strong 2016 finish
DeMarcus Lawrence, Defensive End
It’s a contract year for Lawrence, and he needs to show his value for potential suitors next spring. Much like Butler, it likely won’t be with the Cowboys, but he has an opportunity to cash-in.
Lawrence’s much-discussed physique doesn’t appear to be a question this year. Lawrence arrived to camp looking trim in the waist, with added upper body bulk. He’ll be given the opportunity in 2017 to be that speed rushing right end the Cowboys have been desperate for, which means plenty of opportunities to boost his sack numbers. I expect him to be motivated for a healthy payday and put up 8-10 sacks this season.
Byron Jones, Safety
While Jones has been a success since arriving in Dallas, there is some genuine disappointment in his lack of turnovers. Jones had eight interceptions during his time at Connecticut, but his production has dried up since being drafted. Jones has just one professional interception, and that came on an end-of-the-half Hail Mary from Jameis Winston.
Jones has committed this offseason to generating more turnovers, going as far as to work out with a Minor League Baseball team in order to better track the ball. With improvements made at corner, Jones should have more flexibility to play a traditional safety role, rather than getting pulled into the slot to play the role of a functional corner.
I expect a dramatic increase in turnovers from his first two seasons, and the Cowboys should benefit greatly from it.
You can listen to today’s CowboysCast below, which discusses this very topic: