Training camp is back in full swing around the league, and aside from the unfortunate season-ending injury to starting defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, it’s been a joy to see football back. However, this is still a business. It’s a meritocracy. You have to earn your spot on the team, and your dollars on the market. In that vein, who are the top three Cowboys players that have the most to prove in 2020?
Well, as anyone should do, I asked the melting pot of Twitter for their top three. All were fine suggestions, but there’s a good reason why some of the suggestions won’t be included in this top three.
- Dak Prescott has nothing to prove. He simply needs to show up and not lay a complete egg to secure either a long-term contract or another franchise tag.
- Blake Jarwin will be, at best, the fourth receiving weapon on the Cowboys offense. Production from him is merely icing on the cake.
- Amari Cooper already secured a big paycheck and had nearly 1,200 yards despite being banged up and inconsistent in 2019. He’s going to get his yards in the Cowboys offense.
Cowboys players that must step up
Honorable mention: The linebackers
Even before his injury last season, Leighton Vander Esch didn’t look like his rookie self. Hopefully, the new-look defense in 2020 and going with more two-gap principles, he will be able to flow more freely to the ball. As an elite athlete for his size, being able to roam free fits better for the third-year player. Even though he’s nearly 260 pounds, banging around on the interior isn’t necessarily his strong suit. It’ll be interesting to see how the switch to MIKE will affect his performance.
Jaylon Smith very well could have made the list, but he’s already got his money and isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. In a Mike Nolan defense, we should see Smith used as a blitzer more often, which is a role he’s looked good in with limited reps in the past. The possible issue that could arise is if Smith is asked to be in coverage. We’ve heard good things to start camp, but we know Smith’s issues come in situations where he needs to change direction. He can carry vertically and race to the flat, but we must hope he can stay clear of the elite receiving backs.
Cowboys player with the most to prove
Hill was, at best, a project pick coming out of Central Florida in the 2019 NFL Draft. His time spent on his 21st birthday with then Cowboys Defensive Coordinator Rod Marinelli is the stuff of nightmares for Cowboys fans knowing the talent the Cowboys passed on. Just a few days ago, some were asking if the young second-year player was even going to make the roster. Now, we’re asking whether Hill can actually play meaningful snaps at defensive tackle.
While that may sound scary, it’s not all bad. Hill ended up in round two for a reason. Hill flashed some outstanding reps in college, particularly in how he was able to burst off the ball and wreak havoc in the backfield quickly. As a pass rusher, he has a little bit of tilt for an interior rusher that can allow him to run under the table when attacking the shoulder of an interior blocker.
It all comes down to consistency with Hill. Although he has some built-in leverage at 6-foot-1, he will sometimes pop out of his stance and be stymied immediately on his rush. And although he keeps his hands active and is a high-motor player, he still can struggle to disengage because of his poor hand placement.
So far in camp, we have heard some very good things about Hill’s performance, and there is hope that the ball of clay has been molded into a productive player, rather than a liability. With McCoy’s injury, he’ll have every opportunity to fight for the second undertackle spot behind Tyrone Crawford (presumably).
Secondary rounds out the list of Cowboys players with most to prove
We need to address this once and for all. Awuzie has been completely disrespected by most fans far and wide (including me), and I’m here to say that we should not be so hard on the kid. He simply had to play across from one of the best pure cover cornerbacks in the entire league, to the point where they didn’t even test that side of the field. There is only one place for the ball to go in that instance.
That being said, “Chido” was beaten by some silky smooth ball placement last season. It was clear that playing through the ball was not something he excels at doing. Part of his appeal coming out of college was his aggressiveness and ball skills. He only had three interceptions while playing for Colorado, but he had 25 passes broken up in his four-year career.
His actual coverage ability shouldn’t be questioned. The mistakes Awuzie has made at the NFL level have almost exclusively been on difficult catch and throw plays. It’ll be fascinating to watch what the defense on the back end looks from a coverage and technical perspective.
It’s a contract year for Awuzie. He is the Cowboys number one cornerback right now on the outside, and with a more productive season in 2020, might continue to be with a long-term contract going into 2021.
Woods is a fine player who largely does his job in coverage. But like with Awuzie, it’s a contract year for him. If Woods wants any type of significant paycheck in the offseason, he’s going to have to play out of his mind. The biggest thing we’d all like to see with Woods is a more consistent tackle rate.
With the loss of Byron Jones, safety play is going to become critical. And with Clinton-Dix being his running mate, he’ll most likely be the one to pair up against tight ends and play closer to the line when they aren’t in a two-high shell. Neither are particularly physically imposing players as tacklers, so an uptick in performance from Woods in that regard would be big for the Cowboys.