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3 storylines to watch for Cowboys at NFL Combine

John Owning

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Jul 29, 2016, Oxnard, CA, USA; Dallas Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones (left) and owner Jerry Jones at press conference at the River Ridge Fields. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Even though the new league year doesn’t start until March 14, the NFL Scouting Combine is truly when the league fully turns its back on 2017 and toward 2018. The Dallas Cowboys will be one of the busier teams in Indianapolis this weekend.

On top of analyzing the 300-plus prospects who have descended on Lucas Oil Stadium, the Cowboys will be focused on contract negotiations with their own free agents while discussing outside free agents as well.

It will be a packed ledger for a Cowboy team that has already seen a lot of turnover since the 2017 season ended. While Jason Garrett, Rod Marinelli and Scott Linehan kept their jobs, the coaching staff below them was gutted and replaced, with Kris Richard (defensive backs), Sanjay Lal (wide receivers) and Paul Alexander (offensive line) headlining the new blood in the Cowboys’ coaching staff.

Without further ado, let’s take a look at a few storylines Cowboys Nation need to keep a close eye on through the weekend.

Contract negotiations with Zack Martin and DeMarcus Lawrence

Outside of their NFL Draft responsibilities, the Cowboys will be keenly focused on retaining their own during the 2018 NFL Scouting Combine.

While the media focuses on what Dallas will do with Dez Bryant, the Cowboys appear more focused on the contract negotiations with DeMarcus Lawrence and Zack Martin since Stephen Jones mentioned that Dallas has meetings set up with both players’ representations in Indianapolis.

Lawrence is coming off a career year in which he was a top-three edge defender in the NFL. With 14.5 sacks (third in the NFL) under his belt, Lawrence became one of the most feared pass rushers in the league. While a lot of upper-echelon pass rushers rely on otherworldly athleticism to set themselves from the pack, Lawrence uses consistent, repeatable and sound technique to ascend to the status of an elite pass rusher. That technical prowess carries over against the run. The Boise State product is one of the better run defending defensive ends in the NFL.

Still, despite his dominant year, Lawrence is coming off two back surgeries on top of already serving a four-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy in 2016, muddying the waters on a potential contract extension. Luckily for Dallas, it has the option of using the franchise tag to retain its star defensive end if talks don’t get off the ground at the combine. Still, Dallas would love to get a deal with Lawrence’s representation done as soon as possible.

Negotiations with Zack Martin’s agents should be a more straightforward process for the Cowboy front office. Since entering the NFL in 2014, Martin has been one of the premier offensive linemen in football, using phenomenal technique, mental processing and toughness to reach the pinnacle of offensive line play in the NFL. Both sides know that Martin will likely be the highest-paid guard in the NFL whenever Martin eventually signs a contract extension. (He won’t leave Dallas.) The only question is how much the Cowboys will need to pay to make that happen.

Dallas would undoubtedly like to get a deal done before free agency, when players are often overpaid by vast amounts. If a free-agent guard, such as Andrew Norwell, is able to reset the market on guard with a monster contract, it may throw a wrench into Dallas’s negotiations with Martin since the team likely has a number it would like to pay Martin — and you can bet that number will be below where a potential free-agent guard such as Norwell gets on the open market.

In both cases, the Cowboys need to get a deal done before free agency begins.

Free agent/trade targets

While it’s technically against the rules, the NFL Scouting Combine sets the table for free agents. NFL teams aren’t allowed to discuss players who aren’t part of their rosters, but they still do anyway.

The Cowboys (like every other NFL team) will send out feelers to any free agents they may be interested in to try to gauge the market.

Kenny Vaccaro is one player the Cowboys may show interest in. During the 2017 NFL Draft, the Cowboys reportedly came close to trading Orlando Scandrick for Vaccaro, meaning they already had interest in the player. However, Vaccaro ended the year on injured reserve with the Saints after struggling for much of the season. Vaccaro, who played most of his snaps at slot CB, would likely play a more traditional safety role with the Cowboys.

On top of gauging the free-agent market, making headway (Earl Thomas anyone?) on potential trades is another important aspect of the combine.

Prospects to watch at NFL Combine

The main of event of the combine is obviously the collection of prospect tests. The Cowboys (obviously) will be paying attention to each player with a watchful eye, but let’s discuss a couple in particular.

Arden Key, EDGE, LSU

Arden Key may be the most talented edge defender in this class. A former 4-star recruit from Georgia, Key was able to make an impact from the moment his stepped on the field, registering five sacks in his freshman season. Key followed that with an 11-sack season in which he looked like a top-15 pick during his sophomore campaign.

Unfortunately, Key wasn’t able to replicate that success during his junior season, which was precipitated by Key’s extended absence from LSU’s football activities for “personal reasons” between in his sophomore and junior campaigns. The LSU product has largely been silent since returning to football activities with LSU, but he will undoubtedly have a lot of questions to answer during team interviews.

If the Cowboys are able to accept Key’s character, he immediately becomes a potential target for Dallas at No. 19 since Dallas could use a dynamic pass rusher opposite Lawrence.

Connor Williams, OT/OG, Texas

Another potential top-50 target who has a lot riding on the combine is Connor Williams. The former 3-star recruit became a star for Texas despite playing on the offensive line. Williams was seen as a potential top-10 pick prior to the 2017 season, but injuries and a down year have caused his stock to fall.

The medical checks will likely be the most important part of the combine experience for Williams since his character and athletic ability have never been called into question. The left knee injury that caused Williams to miss time in 2017 will be the focal point of any medical examination in Indianapolis, and it is paramount that doctors aren’t able to locate any long-term concerns.

If Williams is able to be cleared medically, he could potentially be a Cowboy target in the first two rounds since Williams — much like Isaiah Wynn — has the traits necessary to make the transition from tackle inside to guard.

FOLLOW JOHN ON TWITTER FOR MORE NFL OPINIONS AND ANALYSIS

John Owning is the NFL content editor here at FanRag Sports. He is Arizona State University graduate and current Galt, California resident. When he is not teaching Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, he is usually knee-deep in some NFL or college football tape. He has written for Bleacher Report and Football Insiders. Follow him on Twitter @johnowning.

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