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Spagnola: Lots To Be Determined About 2018 Team

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FRISCO, Texas – Maybe it’s the OTAs.

       Maybe just June already.

       Maybe because camp is only 46 days away.

       But for some reason, general curiosity and high Cowboys visibility aside, seems as if been asked this question once, been asked this question at least 50 times over the past couple of weeks:

       How you think the Cowboys will do this season?

       Great question.

       Maybe more relevant this year than most.

       See, like in the past 10 years, we kind of sensed what was about to unfold, right? Probably missed badly in 2008 and 2010 with those surprise results. In 2008 the Cowboys were coming off three consecutive winning seasons, four in the previous five and back-to-back playoff appearances. Why would anything change in ’08? They should just continue to improve? Well, they didn’t, sorta, the Cowboys going 1-2 during Tony Romo’s injury-induced three-game absence, finishing just 9-7 and missing the playoffs by one game.

       So then optimism abounds in 2009, basically still that same team from the 13-3 season of 2007, and with Romo, why couldn’t the Cowboys win the NFC East again? They did, and captured their first playoff victory since 1996.

       Then, no reason to think 2010 would be any different. Boy, 6-10 and Wade Phillips losing his job blindsided us all. As for 2011, who knew? Team improved to 8-8 and over the next two years the roster gradually improved greatly. Going 12-4 in 2014 and winning a playoff game should not have come as a major surprise. Those watching closely, objectively, could see this rebuilding process taking place.

       Once again optimism abounds for 2015. Then Romo gets hurt. No creditable backups, and a big oops, going 6-10, causing rising pessimism for 2016. But come on, Romo would be back. Why not 12-4? Then he wasn’t, uh, back. Why not 4-12? Then Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott happen. The Cowboys go 13-3, now rolling into 2017. Then injuries, losing at times Sean Lee and Tyron Smith, two of the best players at their position in the NFL. Then Zeke’s six-game suspension. Cowboys limp in at 9-7.

       Now what? Do the struggles of 2017 bleed into 2018 or can the Cowboys resume their success of 2016?

       Valid inquisition.

       And here has been my standard response of late, and likely to stand for the foreseeable future, i.e. the end of training camp:

       TBD!

As in, To Be Determined.

       Come on, at this point, who really knows.

       They’ve only really practiced nine times so far. We’ve only seen three of those. Helmets, jerseys, shorts. Highly limited contact.

       I mean, no pads.

       And basically, more of the same this coming minicamp week. Three practices, same as the past nine. Only difference being meetings after the workouts. The players will put in a full day here. But still … no pads.

       To me, pads are everything (I think I stole that from Rod Marinelli), and those pads won’t make their way onto the field until like the last weekend in July.

       So who really knows.

       Not even the head coach.

       Thus, the genesis of my vagueness.

       And while some might characterize Jason Garrett as vague all the time, the eighth-year Cowboys head coach really was being unspectacularly candid on Thursday at the conclusion of the seventh annual Cowboys U day with local high school players when he said this:

       “We are starting to build the 2018 team.”

       Heavy emphasis on starting to.

       There is just so much about this Cowboys team on June 8 we just don’t know. Way too much conjecture either way, good or bad.

       Take the tight end position. No Jason Witten. OK, so the assumption is, with Geoff Swaim the most experienced TE of the group, what with his nine starts to go with his nine career catches in three seasons, that the Cowboys definitely will fall off at that position. But how much? And might the Cowboys compensate for whatever the drop off might be in other ways.

       Same at wide receiver. No Dez Bryant. But then, that was the Cowboys’ choice. Right or wrong choice? We have no idea yet. And no matter what you’ve been hearing about guys out here in OTAs, nobody is getting hit. Guys can be brave going over the middle when they know they aren’t getting laid out. But there is indeed some added speed out there. Watch out for Deonte Thompson. Watch out for the rookie Michael Gallup as a route runner. Watch out for Allen Hurns’ versatility. And I’d expect a Cole Beasley renaissance performance this year for sure with Zeke’s return consuming defensive game plans.

       But having said all that, let me ask you this: Right now, who are the top three receivers? Truthfully, we really don’t know. Going into camp, let the best men win.

       As Garrett said, “We have a long way to go with those guys, but also with everybody on our team.”

       Right on.

       Offensive line? OK, better if for no other reason than projected depth purposes, and it was pretty darn good last year, save the massive collapse with Tyron Smith out of the lineup.

       Pretty sure Dak and Zeke will be Dak and Zeke, a good thing.

       Defense?

       Much improved last season. Much optimism bubbling about for this season.

       But still, so much unknown. And again, no pads, just projections.

Start with the defensive tackle position. Maliek Collins has to overcome a third fifth metatarsal surgery, at least one on each foot. David Irving is in no-man’s land. The Cowboys are giving him some time this offseason to take care of mounting personal issues, hoping he can get those resolved before the start of training camp.

       “He’s been handling some different things in his life right now,” Garrett says of Irving’s absence from the OTA workouts, though he has been at The Star concentrating mainly on strength and conditioning.

       So you are hoping there, but you just don’t know.

Same with recently acquired Jahid Ward. He sure looks the part playing that 3-technique defensive tackle. Again, though, no pads. Same with what appears to be an improved Taco Charlton at defensive end. Same hope with the rehabbing Kony Ealy, who the Cowboys think can become sort of a designated pass rusher inside and out.

       But no one knows for sure. Haven’t seen the real deal yet.

       Same at linebacker. Jaylon Smith is moving vastly better. Again, no pads. We’ll see if there is a significant improvement in his play from last season when he utilized a foot brace to combat the debilitative drop foot malady.

And Leighton Vander Esch? All the tools in the world, but the rookie first-round draft choice has yet to play a down in the NFL.

       Now, when we get to the secondary, more optimistic maybes. But we have to look at it this way: One projected starting cornerback, Chidobe Awuzie, has started all of six NFL games. The other corner working with the first team, Byron Jones, has predominately played safety in the NFL, starting just four games at corner, and all of those in his rookie season.

       At safety, Jeff Heath has one spot for sure, the guy who led the team this past season with three interceptions. Xavier Woods is at the other safety at this point, but only has three NFL starts, all as a nickel slot corner. And speaking of the slot corner, Anthony Brown is there, with Jourdan Lewis behind him, a position that will be contested in camp for sure.

       See what I mean?

       A lot of this lineup stuff is merely penciled in. In other words, To Be Determined.

       So if you think my answer is vague, sort of like a “well, we’ll see” copout, there is ample reason for vagueness. There is just so much we don’t know. If there is optimism, then I’d say it’s “hopeful” optimism. If there is pessimism, then I’d say it’s latent pessimism, a carryover from a 9-7, asterisk-filled 2017 season.

       Like anything, the unknown creates skepticism.

       But on the other hand, removed asterisks does create optimism.

       Maybe Dak said it best about where this team is right now.

       “We’ve got a good feel for one another,” he said following the nine OTA workouts. “We’ve got a good feel for this offense, we’ve got a good feel for this defense. Great feel for where this team is heading.”

       Good sign.

       But nothing conclusive … at this time.

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