Skip to main content

Offseason | 2023

Spagnola: Taking second-year jump into relevancy


That time of year when time to do one of two things annually creeping close to the start of training camp.

Either have chosen a Cowboys player as Mr. Indispensable or Mr. Relevant and both are fairly self-explanatory. Indispensable means the guy the Cowboys most can't do without this 2023 season. Relevant means the player who needs to step up to produce at a much higher level.

Well, this year just seems as if the Cowboys have a ton of indispensable players, starting on offense with Dak Prescott and Zack Martin and Tony Pollard and last year's choice, CeeDee Lamb. Then moving over to the defense, for sure Micah Parsons and DeMarcus Lawrence and Leighton Vander Esch and Trevon Diggs.

Now this year we are going to go with relevancy, and as previously explaining in the past, someone or somebodies the Cowboys absolutely need to break out if they are to have some success; a player or players with either no or modest résumés that the Cowboys desperately need to produce.

So, for context, in 2016 picked rookie Ezekiel Elliott and Benson Mayowa. Went one for two as it turned out, Zeke going for 1,631 rushing yards when the Cowboys were counting on him right off the bat to become the lead running back.

The next year, knowing the Cowboys were in dire need of a pass rush, put the onus on Lawrence, coming off an injury riddled 2016 season when he played in only nine games (three starts), registering one sack and just eight tackles. Bingo, Lawrence finished the season with a career high 14.5 sacks and 52 QB pressures.

You get the idea.

The idea now is to choose players expected to have the opportunity to produce at a position of need, and since I make the rules, going to choose one on offense and one on defense within reason. Like, not going to say the Cowboys need KaVontae Turpin to be a relevant receiver or Matt Farniok to become the starting left guard or need Kelvin Joseph to crush it as a cornerback.

Nothing coming out of the blue.

But this is reasonable and of necessity.

Going with Sam Williams to emerge on defense and Jake Ferguson to make everyone forget Dalton Schultz, or at least not having a bunch of people seven games into the season whining about the Cowboys letting the veteran tight end leave in free agency.

Let's start with Sam, who needs to become Sam The Man. Considering his lack of experience at defensive end and playing just 23.8 percent of the snaps as a rookie, well, the second-round draft choice finished with four sacks, 20 QB pressures, three forced fumbles and seven tackles for a loss. The most snaps he received in a game was 27.

The guy can rush the quarterback, but to earn more snaps Williams must improve against the run to become more than a spot pass-rushing defensive end. That is one of the reasons Williams wasn't a first-round pick coming out of Ole Miss. Needed to improve his run defense, doing a better job of turning those outside run plays inside by setting the edge.

So to become relevant, Williams knows he's got to climb the position totem pole. For sure he's behind Lawrence, Dorance Armstrong and Parsons, too, when defensive coordinator Dan Quinn decides to play him at defensive end. Those guys are the team's best defensive end run defenders, thus earning the right to rush the quarterback.

"I need 10 sacks," Williams said. "Ten sacks will open up a lot of opportunities for me. Obviously, the team goal is to win a championship, but my personal goal and what I'm working towards is getting better with my hands. And I need 10 sacks."

If Williams can accomplish his goal, the trickle-down effect would be this: Quinn will have the ability to move Parsons around even more, keeping offenses guessing on just where he will line up in the nickel instead of knowing he will be either at right defensive end or left defensive end. Also, another viable pass rusher would mean Lawrence and or Parsons could rush more inside, where they are serious mismatches for a guard or center. And if they are commanding a double-team, that means at least one of the defensive ends get singled.

"Every day is a new opportunity for me," Williams said. "Knock on wood, but if a man goes down, I'm next up. If I outplay somebody, then maybe I'm starting. Every day is an opportunity to show that I deserve to be on the field. I need and want to be on the field."

So do the Cowboys.

Then there is Ferguson, the door wide open for the second-year tight end to become the team's opening day starter. He's another guy as a rookie performing admirably when receiving just 37 percent of the snaps, just a skosh more than half of Schultz's total. Still, he caught 19 passes, including two touchdowns, and as the season progressed proved to be one of the Cowboys' best blocking tight ends.

Now he'll have to fend off the challenges of second-round draft choice Luke Schoonmaker, but with a year of experience, Ferguson should have the upper hand from the start to make an impression. This position likely will be by committee, with Peyton Hendershot the downfield threat and Sean McKeon more of the move tight end who can line up as an H-back too.

But just remember this: The tight end position is not all about catching passes. Run blocking effectively is vital, and if Ferguson can take the next step in that facet of playing the position, the Cowboys will have them an all-around starting tight end. Just what head coach Mike McCarthy is looking for.

"Maturing and realizing that I need to be perfect on my technique and everything I do," Ferguson said of trying to make the second-year leap. "And that's just kind of how I've approached this offseason and getting my body right and just kind of fitting that mold."

Into a relevant tight end.

And if Ferguson does that, and Williams does, too, at defensive end, think about it. That would almost be like the Cowboys adding two new players.

Can't beat that.

Related Content