The roster turnover is about to begin. Free agency opens in less than one month, and the 2017 NFL Draft isn’t far behind it. Over the next two months, the Cowboys will lose and replace a sizable portion of their roster.
For every new face, however, there are dozens of familiar ones that will return to begin a new campaign. From established veterans to second-year players, the vast majority of the Cowboys’ 2017 team is already on the roster. In the coming weeks, the staff of DallasCowboys.com will preview those players, analyzing where they’ve been and where they’re going.
The series continues with third-year wide receiver Lucky Whitehead.
What’s Been Good: Through two seasons with the team, we’ve certainly seen flashes of the talent that made Whitehead one of the most talked-about undrafted free agents of the 2015 draft class. The very first play of the Cowboys’ 2016 season, going all the way back to preseason, was a Whitehead kick return for a touchdown against the Rams.
He has also become somewhat famous for his usefulness in the run game. Whitehead is a surprisingly tenacious blocker for a guy who weighs in at 163 pounds, and his skill at running the “fly sweep” has made him deadly as a play action fake.
Consider this fact: Whitehead has motioned into the backfield on dozens of occasions throughout the past two seasons, and he has carried the ball 20 times in his career. Despite the obviousness of this wrinkle, it still manages to make defenses hesitate. In 20 career carries, he’s averaging 9.5 yards per touch. Factor in his abilities as a kick and punt returner, and it’s not a surprise the Cowboys are always looking for ways to get him involved.
What’s Been Bad: You wouldn’t classify the guy as trustworthy – and that applies both on the field and off it.
It’s hard to forget Whitehead’s costly fumble in the Dec. 1 win against Minnesota, which snuffed out a promising Cowboys possession that had already crossed midfield. In fact, he fumbled three times on the season, losing two. It’s not lost on anyone that the Cowboys often opted for Cole Beasley to return punts over Whitehead – particularly in crucial situations when ball security was key.
It’s also worth remembering that Whitehead has a penchant for winding up in the news. The young wide out missed a team meeting on the Saturday before the trip to New York, and he was subsequently left off the road trip to play the Giants. Through two years on the roster, it seems like he has far more of these types of hiccups than you’d expect from an undrafted receiver sitting fifth on the depth chart.
2016 Highlight: This is no contest. Whitehead’s best outing of 2016 came in Week 6 against Green Bay. The Cowboys’ dedication to using him in the run game paid off in a big way, as he ripped off a 26-yard gain on a fly sweep to help Dallas on a clutch touchdown drive just before halftime.
The real genius came in the fourth quarter, though. Having established Whitehead as a threat, Dak Prescott motioned him to the right and sent him out on a route. The Packers’ secondary lost track of the diminutive receiver, and Prescott found him wide open for a 35-yard gain – the longest of his career. The pickup moved the Cowboys downfield and helped them score to take a 27-9 lead, effectively icing the game.
What’s Next: Whitehead falls into an interesting category when you consider the state of the receiving corps. He’s under contract through 2017, and he’s a restricted free agent after that – so he can stay in Dallas as long as the Cowboys want him.
The question is whether Whitehead has done enough to earn true job security. He’s the team’s top return man, but he hasn’t proven quite as proficient at that as the Cowboys would prefer. He’s excellent and dangerous as a runner out of the backfield, but he has yet to take a step forward as a true receiver, with just nine receptions in two seasons.
You should also take into account that Whitehead draws off-field attention and scrutiny far more often than a No. 5 wide receiver is supposed to.
All told, it certainly looks like Whitehead has a clear role and a value within the Cowboys’ roster. But his grasp on that position doesn’t seem so firm that the front office wouldn’t consider looking for an upgrade elsewhere. Read