3 Cowboys primed to breakout in 2017

Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire

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The breakout season. Every year it happens in the NFL; a few players have seasons that far exceed their prior output. Media and analysts spend many hours of thought, lines of text and segments of broadcasts trying, often with little success, to predict it. But often these are the stories that set the narrative for the NFL season, from team to team and across the league as a whole.

So who are the players poised for that kind of breakout in 2017 for the Dallas Cowboys?

David Irving, DE

When the Cowboys signed Irving away from the Kansas City Chiefs practice squad at the beginning of the 2015 season, they believed his height, length and athleticism gave him a very high upside. As a spot player at the back end of the rotation, Irving put up a half a sack and eight tackles in 12 games. Then, in 2016, as a more prominent member of the rotation but still not a front-line player, Irving had two games, Week 6 at Green Bay, and Week 15 against Tampa Bay, where he basically took over and made multiple game-changing plays for the Dallas defense.

Going into his third season, the reason Irving has failed to plant himself firmly at the top of the Dallas “rush men” depth chart has been some immaturity and inconsistency in his conditioning and effort. But this offseason there has been significantly increased commitment from Irving to be ready for the season.

This commitment, something that defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli and the other defensive coaches have been desperate to see, will likely lead to an increased role for Irving.

This increased role, plus his massive physical upside and improved fundamentals, make Irving perhaps the best candidate for a potential double-digit sack season on the Cowboys roster.

Jeff Heath, S

The departure of Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox in free agency left a void at starting safety, which is most likely to be filled by Heath. Heath, the former undrafted free agent from Saginaw Valley State University, earned his spot on the Cowboys roster in 2013 with his ability on special teams. He became a key cog on special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia’s coverage and return teams. He was forced into action on defense much earlier than he was ready, starting nine games as a rookie. While he wasn’t a bad player overall, a few lowlights, including getting out-jumped by Calvin Johnson for a critical catch in a come-from-ahead loss to the Detroit Lions, and getting run over by Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson the next week, led fans to have an overall negative impression of Heath on defense.

But after a year in a more appropriate special teams role in 2014, he played a rotational role in 2015, and led the team in interceptions. In 2016 his role grew again, and he again registered an interception in the regular season before having the best game of any Cowboys defender in the team’s playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers. Heath had an interception, along with another that was called back due to a penalty on one of his teammates, as well as a late fourth-quarter sack that almost forced an Aaron Rodgers fumble that would have sealed a victory for the Cowboys.

With the Cowboys placing an emphasis on making more plays on the ball on defense in 2017, and Heath’s proficiency for doing just that over the last few years in a small role, it’s likely the team will look to him for an increased impact on defense in the coming season.

Jaylon Smith, LB

This might be odd, a player who has never actually played in an NFL game being selected as a “breakout” candidate. But Smith really is that special. If not for the knee injury and associated nerve damage which cost him his entire rookie season, Smith would have likely been a top-5 pick in the 2016 draft. With virtually the entire organization heaping praise on Smith in regards to his recovery and his performance in offseason work thus far, there is little doubt that Smith will indeed play for the Cowboys in 2017.

If he is able to be the type of dynamic player he was for three years at Notre Dame, he will be the biggest impact addition the Cowboys will make going into the season, and he could be a true difference maker.

These three players, one at each level of the Cowboys’ much-maligned defense, could hold the keys to the type of ascent that the defensive unit is seeking, and if they each breakout, Dallas will likely be the favorites to wind up in Minneapolis next February, representing the NFC in Super Bowl LII.