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Three Defensive Players The Cowboys Believe Can Take A Step Forward In 2017

FRISCO, Texas – The NFL Draft is exactly four weeks away, and the Cowboys' evaluations and preparations will continue ramping up in the month of April.

With the 28th overall pick and seven total selections, the franchise believes this year's prospect class can yield contributors to a roster that won 13 games a year ago.

But with several losses in free agency, particularly on defense, the Cowboys also must rely on improvement from returning players.

"We have assessed even more so, just because you can do it this time of year, the play of players on our roster," Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones said. "I feel better about some of the guys we have on our roster now than I did when the season was over. It's not because of what we've lost; it's just that we've had a chance to assess overall how they've played, where they are with their health going forward."

Speaking at the NFL Annual Meeting in Phoenix earlier this week, Jones discussed three players in particular who received high marks for their 2016 performance at positions with free-agent departures.

Jeff Heath

The fourth-year safety has been a consistent producer on special teams, but he also has made more and more plays on defense the last two seasons. He led the defense with two interceptions in 2015, and unofficially he had two picks against Aaron Rodgers in January's playoff loss: one that led to a touchdown and another called back to due to penalty.

"His year jumped out at us when we really had the opportunity to step back from it and take a look," Jones said. "Heath's year really influenced us on some of our decisions here so far in free agency.

Safeties Barry Church (Jacksonville) and J.J. Wilcox (Tampa Bay) signed free-agent deals elsewhere, leaving Heath as a top candidate to start next to Byron Jones next season.

Maliek Collins

The 2016 third-round pick broke his foot in OTA's and missed most of training camp following surgery. Not only did Collins return in time for the season opener, he played all 16 games and finished second on the team (fourth among NFL rookies) with five sacks.

The Cowboys moved Collins into the starting lineup at defensive tackle after two games, allowing Tyrone Crawford to move outside and help address the defense's depth issues at defensive end.

"Collins really gets your attention, the more you really evaluate the kind of year he had," Jones said. "He came in with the early setback with injury, and then the fact that he's a rookie, all of that really elevated him."

David Irving

The Cowboys issued an exclusive-rights free agent tender to Irving – a no-brainer given the progress he's made since joining the team from the Kansas City's practice squad in September.

Irving posted career highs with 26 quarterback pressures and four sacks. Three and a half sacks were in a two-game December stretch against Tampa Bay and Detroit.

Irving was basically unblockable rushing from the edge in the fourth quarter against the Bucs: two sacks, five hurries and a pass breakup that lead to an interception.

Proof of his versatility, he forced three fumbles in only 19 snaps against the Packers in October playing primarily inside at defensive tackle.

"Irving was pretty impressive, just with the type of evaluations you do watching a game and then the ensuing rating that game, and then how he gained on it during the week with practice," Jones said. "But then when you go back and give it that year-end review and look at it, look at the progress and really dwell on it like you do in the offseason, he actually exceeded what most of us wanted it to be. I think he really had a good accounting when it was really all summed up like you do on a season-ending evaluation."

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