Dallas Cowboys

Running backs, linebackers graded best during Cowboys’ 2017 campaign

Dallas Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee was forced to leave the game in Seattle on Sunday early after he aggravated his hamstring injury.
Dallas Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee was forced to leave the game in Seattle on Sunday early after he aggravated his hamstring injury. Special to the Star-Telegram

A three-game losing streak early in the year and the loss of Ezekiel Elliott due to suspension played major roles in the Dallas Cowboys’ finishing 9-7 and out of the playoffs this season.

The play of the running backs and linebackers proved to be the team’s strongest areas.

Here’s how the Cowboys’ season graded out:

QUARTERBACKS: Starter – Dak Prescott. Backup – Cooper Rush.

Grade: C

There is no other way to say it: Prescott took a huge step back in 2017. From 23 touchdowns and four interceptions as a rookie to 22 touchdowns and 13 interceptions as a sophomore. He was undone by the loss of Elliott for six games, injuries on the line had him shell-shocked in the pocket and the lack of game-breaking weapons on the outside didn’t help. Prescott also struggled with his accuracy when pressed under pressure and made some bad decisions. He must improve and be better in 2018.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters – RB Ezekiel Elliott, FB Keith Smith. Backups – RB Alfred Morris (UFA), RB Rod Smith.

Grade: B

When he was on the field, Elliott showed his worth. He rushed for 983 yards in 10 games after being suspended for six for personal conduct. He would have won the rushing title again if he had played all 16. The key for Elliott is staying out of trouble so he can play all the games in 2018. Morris did a nice job replacing Elliott in absence, rushing for 547 yards and averaging 4.8 yards per carry. He should find a job in free agency. Rod Smith, who averaged 4.2 yards per carry and scored 4 touchdowns, will be the primary backup in 2018.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter – Jason Witten. Backups – James Hanna, Geoff Swaim, Blake Jarwin, Rico Gathers.

Grade: C

Jason Witten remains a functional tight end and plans to return for a 16th season. His 63 catches were the fewest since his rookie season and his 8.9 yards per catch were the lowest of his career. He is station-to-station at this point in his career. The Cowboys need more firepower at this position and it could come in the form of Gathers, who spent the season on injured reserve. A former basketball player in college, Gathers is still learning the game. But he has the body and athleticism to be a red-zone scoring threat.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters –Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams. Backups – Cole Beasely, Brice Butler (UFA), Ryan Switzer, Noah Brown.

GRADE: C-

The entire Cowboys receiver corps underperformed in 2017. Bryant’s declining numbers are getting all of the attention because of his $13 million salary. The Cowboys needed more from Bryant and his contract might be cut in the offseason. Williams and Beasley also had subpar performances. Beasley had 36 catches after 75 in 2016. How will the Cowboys upgrade the position with all three still under contract without removing someone from the equation? That will make for some tough choices and tough decisions in the offseason.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters – LT Tyron Smith, LG Jonathan Cooper (UFA), C Travis Frederick, RG Zack Martin, RT La’el Collins. Backups – G Joe Looney, T Chaz Green, T Byron Bell, T Kadeem Edwards

Grade: C

Smith missed the better part of five games this season and showed he might be more valuable to the offense than running back Ezekiel Elliott. Without Smith, the Cowboys couldn’t run or throw. The Atlanta game was a disaster. They must find a swing tackle so the offense can function if he misses games in the future. Frederick and Martin had Pro Bowl seasons again. Collins made a successful move to right tackle and Cooper, who needs to be resigned, was solid at guard.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: LDE DeMarcus Lawrence (UFA, LDT David Irving, NT Maliek Collins, RDE Tyrone Crawford. Backups – DE Datone Jones, DT Lewis Neal, DT Richard Ash, DE Benson Mayowa, DE Taco Charlton, DT Daniel Ross, DE Charles Tapper, DT Brian Price.

Grade: C

Lawrence had a breakout season with a career-high 14.5 sacks, the most by a Cowboys player since Jason Hatcher had 11 in 2013. He made the Pro Bowl and was named second-team All-Pro in a contract year and stands to cash in big as a result. Irving was on his way to a big season until he missed the final four games with a concussion. He still had seven sacks and could be a dominant nose tackle if he can play all 16 games. Collins was solid after moving over to the nose tackle spot and Crawford remains a high effort, minimal production player. Charlton showed flashes late, but there are still questions about how high his ceiling actually is.

LINEBACKERS: Starters –WLB Sean Lee, MLB Anthony Hitchens (UFA), SLB Damien Wilson. Backups – Kyle Wilber, Jaylon Smith, Justin March-Lillard.

Grade: B

Sean Lee is the undisputed leader of this group. He had more than 100 tackles for the third consecutive season. He gets the Cowboys lined up. But he has to stay on the field. The Cowboys went 1-4 in his absence in 2017, giving up 10 more points per game. Hitchens showed his worth when he was on the field. He will be an offseason free agent priority, but look for him seek big money. The biggest story was Smith in his return from a horrific knee injury. He was exposed with too many snaps, but was good in small doses.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: LCB Chidobe Auwuzie, RCB Jourdan Lewis, SS Jeff Heath, FS Byron Jones. Backups – S Xavier Woods, S Kavon Frazier, CB Bene Benwikere, CB Anthony Brown, CB Orlando Scandrick.

Grade: C

The Cowboys appear to have their cornerbacks of the future with Awuzie and Lewis on the outside and Brown in the slot. Frazier also showed an ability to play in the slot. It likely means goodbye for the veteran Scandrick, who didn’t play in the last four games partly due to injury and partly due to an interest in playing the young guys. Safety remains a conundrum. Jones doesn’t tackle well and doesn’t make enough plays. The former first-round picks split time with Frazier in the regular defense. Heath is solid, but not a difference maker.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Dan Bailey, P Chris Jones, KOR/PR Ryan Switzer, LS L.P. Ladouceur.

Grade C

Bailey entered the season as the most accurate kicker in NFL history. He suffered a groin injury that cost him four games and then missed four kicks and two extra points. He made 15 of 20 field goals, the lowest percentage of his career. Jones had a Pro Bowl-caliber season, averaging 44.1 yards per punt and a whopping 37 downed inside the 20. Ladouceur was perfect as usual on snaps for punts and field goals. Switzer proved to be a disappointment on returns. He returned one punt for a touchdown, but was generally indecisive and made bad decisions.

Clarence Hill: 817-390-7760, @clarencehilljr

Cowboys fans' expectations were high after last year's 13-3 regular-season effort. But Dak Prescott's rising star seemed to fade and Ezekiel Elliott's six-game suspension limited his playing time, keeping the Cowboys from getting to the postseason

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