The roster turnover is about to begin. Free agency opens in less than one month, and the 2017 NFL Draft isn't far behind it. Over the next two months, the Cowboys will lose and replace a sizable portion of their roster.
For every new face, however, there are dozens of familiar ones that will return to begin a new campaign. From established veterans to second-year players, the vast majority of the Cowboys' 2017 team is already on the roster. In the coming weeks, the staff of DallasCowboys.com will preview those players, analyzing where they've been and where they're going.
The series starts off with third-year safety and former first-round draft pick Byron Jones.
What's Been Good: The Cowboys admittedly asked a lot from Jones in his rookie season, shuffling their 2015 first-round pick from cornerback to safety out of necessity. Jones settled in as the starting free safety for the majority of the 2016 season and looked comfortable playing center field. In 16 starts, he finished fourth on defense with 102 team-credited tackles, and his 10 pass breakups tied cornerback Brandon Carr for the lead. Jones also was a consistent factor on special teams, leading the Cowboys with 10 tackles. Perhaps Jones' most important contribution in his second season: he helped the defense reduce the number of big plays allowed downfield, which is critical in Rod Marinelli's style of defense. The Cowboys gave up 45 pass plays of 20 or more yards, down from 55 in 2015.
What's Been Bad:Credit Aaron Rodgers and Jared Cook for an amazing throw and catch against Jones and the Cowboys' secondary in zone coverage that led to the Green Bay Packers' deciding field goal in the divisional round at AT&T Stadium. It certainly was a disappointing final drive of the season for Jones and the entire Cowboys defense, though it doesn't define an underrated performance by the group in 2016. Jones will also enter the 2017 season looking to produce more takeaways; he got his first career interception Dec. 18 on a Hail Mary throw by Tampa Bay's Jameis Winston.[embeddedad0]
2016 Highlight:The Cowboys' Nov. 13 trip to Pittsburgh was arguably their most impressive win of the season, and Jones had his most productive game as a pro: a career-high 12 tackles (10 solo) and critical third-down coverage on Antonio Brown at the Dallas 7-yard line in the third quarter that forced a Steelers field goal in an eventual 35-30 victory.
What's Next: All along the Cowboys wanted Jones to be able to focus on one position instead of moonlighting at multiple spots. His range and instincts just seem to fit well at the free safety spot moving forward. However, with starting cornerbacks Carr and Morris Claiborne set to become unrestricted free agency, the Cowboys' defensive backfield could look different in 2017 – and Jones has proven he can play corner in a pinch if injuries strike the secondary.