IRVING, Texas – The Cowboys' top offseason needs are pretty evident.
Backup/developmental quarterback's an easy one. The Cowboys went 1-11 without Tony Romo this past season (I still have to read that record twice to believe it) and Kellen Moore is Romo's only backup under contract.
Secondary help's an easy one. At cornerback, Mo Claiborne has an expiring contract, Byron Jones might move to safety full time, and for what it's worth, Brandon Carr's big contract always seems to fuel offseason speculation about his future in Dallas.
Edge pass rusher's an easy one. We just saw how impactful quarterback pressure was in the Super Bowl, and the Cowboys only have two defensive ends under contract for next season (DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory).
With free agency three weeks away and the draft to follow in late April, this roster has a few under-the-radar needs, too.
Let's identify five positions and five players under contract with an opportunity to help – not completely fortify those spots, but help – in 2016.
Jason Witten's still going strong approaching 34 years old this May. The depth behind him is a major question mark, though. Gavin Escobar tore his Achilles the week before Christmas, so it remains to be seen where he'll be in his recovery by training camp. James Hanna is set to be an unrestricted free agent. Let's throw fullback in here, too; Tyler Clutts also has an expiring contract, and the Cowboys' struggles in short yardage were well documented. Dominant lead blocking has done wonders for the running game in the past.
Cowboy To Watch:
Geoff Swaim. A seventh-round pick last April, Swaim played only 23 snaps while buried on the depth chart. But the Cowboys like his versatility. They think he can block and catch, play on the line or in the backfield.
Three-fifths of the Cowboys' Pro Bowlers came from the offensive line. Clearly it's a team strength. But the interior depth is uncertain with backup guard Ronald Leary set to be a restricted free agent and backup guard/center Mackenzy Bernadeau headed for unrestricted free agency.[embeddedad0]
Cowboy To Watch:
Well, there isn't a backup under contract with experience at both positions. I guess it's worth noting Chaz Green, the 2015 third-round pick who essentially had a redshirt rookie season following hip surgery, did play some guard at Florida – but he figures to be the top candidate for the swing tackle job behind Tyron Smith and Doug Free. The team has important decisions to make on the interior line behind Travis Frederick, La'el Collins and Zack Martin. Leary has quality starting experience at guard and Bernadeau was the team's lone true backup center. Because Leary is restricted, the Cowboys can make him a qualifying offer and match any offer sheet by another team.
There rightfully has been a lot of chatter about defensive end as a top need for the reason I mentioned above, and the fact that the sack total only improved by three last season (28 to 31), and the general philosophy that a defense can never, ever have enough edge rushers. But middle pressure can be highly disruptive, specifically when it prevents opposing quarterbacks from stepping up in the pocket to make downfield throws. Tyrone Crawford played both the three- and one-technique with a hurting shoulder in 2015; he'll be even better healthy. Nick Hayden is set to be an unrestricted free agent, and while it's certainly possible the run-stopping veteran returns, the line's interior could use another penetrating tackle.
Cowboy To Watch:
Here's two: David Irving and Terrell McClain. Signed off the Chiefs' practice squad in late September, Irving contributed at both tackle and end playing about 20 percent of the snaps. He moves well for 6-foot-7 and has the height to get his hands in passing lanes. The Cowboys need him to continue developing as a solid rotation guy. Don't forget about McClain: he was a candidate to start next to Crawford last offseason but needed season-ending toe surgery after the second game. He can play both tackle spots, too.
Granted, this spot gets a little more pre-draft buzz than the others. I look at receiver a little like quarterback. When Tony Romo's healthy, a lot of problems get solved. Same with Dez Bryant. The Cowboys have talented receivers, but they all benefit from the coverage Dez draws. He'll be back 100 percent in 2016, but the offense could use another outside receiver who can get deep while Witten, Cole Beasley and Lucky Whitehead work the middle of the field.
Cowboy To Watch:
Brice Butler. The Cowboys traded for Butler for this very reason the week after Bryant broke his foot in September and missed the next five games. Butler has 4.3-type speed, and he showed it on his 67-yard catch in the Superdome in Week 4. He also strained his hamstring on that play and wasn't healthy for several weeks. With a full offseason in the scheme, perhaps he can stretch defenses more consistently in 2016.