FRISCO, Texas – Many decisions await the Cowboys this offseason.
How many of their 20 upcoming free agents will return? What will their draft class look like at the end of April?
Teams seem to turn over roughly one-third of their roster every offseason, and player development is an important focus for the Cowboys' coaching staff. It's the 'next man up' philosophy head coach Jason Garrett preaches when players get injured.
As Garrett said when the 2016 season ended, this version of the Dallas Cowboys will never be together again. Faces will inevitably change, which often means incumbent players must step into larger roles.
As the Cowboys move closer toward free agency and the draft, the DallasCowboys.com staff discusses players within the current roster with the ability to take a jump forward in production if the opportunity presents itself.
Rob Phillips: Anytime someone forces three fumbles in 19 defensive snaps, you take notice. The Cowboys certainly did in that first Green Bay game back in October. Now the key for Irving is developing into a consistent force. It was encouraging to see him continue produce with more snaps in December: in 105 combined snaps against the Bucs and Lions he had 3.5 sacks, two pass breakups (including one that led to an interception) and a forced fumble. He has outstanding talent, the versatility to play multiple spots and a tall, rangy frame that reminds you a little of Leon Lett. Irving's an exclusive rights free agent, which means the Cowboys don't have to worry about losing him to another team next season. It's no secret improving the pass rush is a top priority this offseason, but if Irving can tap into his all of his potential, the defense could have a major contributor in addition to whatever they might try to do in free agency and the draft.
Bryan Broaddus:I wouldn't be one bit surprised if Rico Gathers was the player on this roster that makes the biggest jump contribution wise from last season to next season. One of the best things to happen to Gathers was that he had the opportunity to work with Tony Romo. Folks that I had the chance to visit with after the season told me Gathers wore the defense out during these practices. This was in large part due to Romo's insistence of throwing him the ball no matter how covered he was. Each week Gathers improved even to the point where in the final couple of weeks of the season he was getting snaps with the first offense. Not bad for a guy that hadn't played football in years. There could be opportunities for more snaps with Gavin Escobar set to be a free agent and James Hanna and Geoff Swaim coming off season-ending injuries in 2016.
David Helman: This isn't so much about expectation as it is about necessity. The Cowboys spent a high draft pick on Charles Tapper last spring, and injuries sidelined him before he even finished up training camp. Team officials expect him to be fully healthy in 2017, and it would be a big boost if the Oklahoma standout could add to a mediocre pass rush. Now, I think it would be a mistake to heap a bunch of expectations on Tapper, who has still yet to play a down of NFL football. Nor do I think it would be wise to avoid drafting new pass rushers because of Tapper's presence on the roster. All of that said, he's young and talented – and I'm taking the Cowboys at their word that he's ready to go. I'd like to believe that, with all these things in mind, Tapper can earn a role in the rotation and chip in some production for a defense that badly needs to get to the quarterback.
Nick Eatman: The guy I think will take a bigger role this year is safety Jeff Heath. We saw the playoff game with the Packers what he could do when given the opportunity to play. Just imagine what we think about him if Aaron Rodgers had dropped the ball on his fourth-quarter sack. Or what if they don't call a questionable penalty and Heath gets two picks off of Rodgers? If you think about it, Heath has really made plays his entire career when given the chance. He's killed for his play against Calvin Johnson and the Lions but if you think about that game, he forced a fumble on Reggie Bush and hauled down Johnson on another play earlier in the game. Sure, he might not look the part and doesn't wow anyone with his athletic ability, but he's pretty reliable as a safety and very good as a special teamer. If the Cowboys lose either Church or Wilcox, I could see Heath stepping into a starting role.