The Cowboys shocked a lot of people by going 12-4 last season and they were easily my biggest whiff last off-season, as I had them 4-12 in my season preview last year. I expected them to have historically bad defense and for the offense to not be able to compensate. Instead, both units vastly exceeded my expectations, the offense doing so by being one of the best in the NFL, finishing 4th in rate of moving the chains. Things were perfect for the Cowboys offensively last season, with only one player playing more than 200 snaps and grading out below average, starting wide receiver Terrance Williams. Things were actually too perfect for the Cowboys offensively last season, as they had the 2nd fewest adjusted games lost to injury offensively last season. That’s unlikely to continue.
Speaking of being too perfect, Tony Romo overcome age and back problems to complete 69.9% of his passes for an average of 8.52 YPA, 34 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions last season, a QB rating of 113.2 that was over 10 points higher than his previous career high QB rating and over 15 points higher than his career average QB rating. Part of that was his supporting cast, which won’t be as good again this season because of likely increased injuries and the loss of DeMarco Murray (more on that later). Part of that was him, as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked quarterback, a career high. Romo’s never really been a bad quarterback, grading out 8th, 23rd, 16th, 9th, 9th, 10th, and 13th from 2007-2013 respectively, but he’s also unlikely to repeat the best season of his career in his age 35 season in 2015, supporting cast aside.
As I mentioned, the big off-season loss by the Cowboys offensively was DeMarco Murray. Murray rushed for 1845 yards and 13 touchdowns on 392 carries (4.71 YPC) in 2014, before signing a 5-year, 40 million dollar deal with the Eagles as a free agent this off-season. While much of that was an offensive line that ranked 2nd in run block grade on Pro Football Focus’ last season and while he probably wouldn’t have been able to replicate that kind of season again in 2015 and while they made the right move not overpaying him, he will be missed. He was Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked running back last season, a big part of their offensive success, and someone who took the pressure off of Romo in a big way. Romo’s 435 pass attempts were just 23rd among quarterbacks (though he did miss 1 game with injury).
The Cowboys surprisingly didn’t add a running back through the draft, so they’ll be relying on an underwhelming group of veterans this season and hoping that the offensive line will make them look good. I believe in their offensive line, but there’s only so good these running backs can be made to look and there’s no question in my mind that they won’t run the ball as well as they did last season. 2013 5th round pick Joseph Randle, a backup for the past 2 years, seems like the heavy favorite to be the lead back. Randle struggled mightily as a rookie, rushing for 164 yards and 2 touchdowns on 54 carries (3.04 YPC), but flashed in limited action in 2014, rushing for 343 yards and 3 touchdowns on 51 carries (6.73 YPC). His career 4.83 YPC looks good, but he’s very unproven and wasn’t highly drafted so it’s hard to get too excited about him as the starter.
Free agent acquisition Darren McFadden projects as the primary backup. McFadden has never been able to live up to his billing as the 4th overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft and was never able to live up to his huge 2010 season, in which he rushed for 1157 yards and 7 touchdowns on 223 carries (5.19 yards per carry) and added 47 catches for another 501 yards and 3 scores. In 4 seasons since, he’s played a total of 45 games out of 64 and he’s rushed for just 2234 yards and 13 touchdowns on 601 carries (3.72 yards per carry). On top of that, he has been under 3.4 yards per carry in each of the last 3 seasons. A change of scenery and better blocking could help him, but he’s not a good runner.
Lance Dunbar should have a decent sized role on passing downs. The 2012 undrafted free agent played a career high 140 snaps last season and was fantastic as a pass catcher, catching 18 passes for 217 yards on 82 routes run, a strong 2.65 average per route run. In his career, he’s rushed for 324 yards on 80 carries (4.05 YPC) and added 31 catches for 309 yards through the air. He’s graded out above average in each of the 3 seasons he’s been in the league, but, with 284 career snaps, he’s incredibly unproven. Also in the mix is Ryan Williams, a 2011 2nd round pick who has played just 5 career games thanks to injuries, hasn’t played a snap since 2012, and has rushed for just 164 yards on 58 career carries, a weak 2.83 YPC average. He’s no lock to make the roster, let alone make a positive impact. It’s a weak bunch of running backs.
The Cowboys ranked 3rd in team pass protection grade and 2nd in team run blocking grade last season, with everyone who played more than 75 snaps on the offensive line grading out above average on the season. They return all 5 starters from last season so they definitely have the potential to be the best offensive line in football again, but they’ll need to avoid the type of major injuries upfront that they didn’t have last season. Left guard Ronald Leary missed one game with injury, while Doug Free missed 5 games, but that was it.
Free was re-signed by the Cowboys for 15 million over 3 years this off-season, a very solid deal for the Cowboys. He’s going into his age 31 season and he struggled mightily in 2011 and 2012, to the point where he was briefly benched down the stretch in 2012. He graded out 51st out of 76 eligible in 2011 and 68th out of 80 eligible in 2012. However, those two seasons were sandwiched in between 4 seasons in which he graded out above average, including 20th in 2013 and 21st in 2014. The 8-year veteran has made 83 starts for the Cowboys over the past 6 seasons and has generally played well.
In Free’s absence last season, Jermey Parnell made 5 starts, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 21st ranked offensive tackle on 388 snaps, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out better at the position. Pernell is gone, parlaying that strong stretch into a 5-year, 32 million dollar deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars this off-season, but the Cowboys did add someone on the offensive line that helps make up for that.
The Cowboys signed La’el Collins as an undrafted free agent this off-season, essentially the same as getting a free 1st round pick, as Collins was a projected 1st rounder before his name was tied to the murder of his pregnant ex-girlfriend. Collins was the victim of poor timing as the story broke right before the draft and he wasn’t able to speak to police to clear his name until after the draft. Once he did and it was clear that Collins had nothing to do with it, he became an incredibly hot commodity as a free agent and he was a big pickup by the Cowboys.
A collegiate offensive tackle, Collins will probably move to guard with the Cowboys, a position many thought pre-draft would be his best pro position. He’ll compete at left guard with incumbent Ronald Leary. Leary, a 2012 undrafted free agent, didn’t play a snap as a rookie, but has made 31 starts over the past 2 seasons. He graded out below average both as a run blocker and a pass protector in 2013, but improved mightily as a run blocker in 2014, grading out 5th at his position in that aspect and above average overall. He’s never been a very good pass protector, which is why he could still lose out to the rookie, but, either way you look at it, the Cowboys have 6 legitimate starting offensive linemen once again, so they can probably manage one significant injury, like they did last year when Free went down.
Of course, if one of Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, or Travis Frederick gets hurt, it will be very noticeable, as the talented trio all made 16 starts last season. Those are their 3 best offensive linemen. All three are recent first round picks and all three have panned out, which is how this offensive line has become so good, so quickly. Martin is the most recent first rounder, as he went 16th overall in 2014 and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked guard in 16 starts at right guard as a rookie. The center Frederick was a first rounder the year before, grading out 8th among centers as a rookie in 2013 and then 2nd last season, while making all 32 starts.
Smith is the veteran of the bunch, going 9th overall in 2011. The USC product has made 63 of 64 starts in 4 years in the league and is only going into his age 25 season. He’s graded out 3rd, 41st, 7th, and 6th in 2011-2014 respectively. One of the best offensive tackles in football, the Cowboys locked Smith up on a 8 year, 97.6 million dollar extension, with 22.118 million guaranteed, last off-season. Barring major injuries, the Cowboys’ offensive line should be arguably the best in football again this season.
The receiving corps is another area where the Cowboys should expect to have more games lost to injury, as their top-5 wide receivers and their top-3 tight ends all played all 16 games last season. There’s already a chance that the Cowboys could lose a game from their most important receiver, Dez Bryant, without any injury, as he’s reportedly threatening to sit out the first game of the season in protest of his lack of a new contract, after being franchise tagged this off-season. It’s unclear how real of a threat that is and Bryant has shown up at the Cowboys’ facility a few times this off-season in a show of good faith, but it’s clear he’s serious about getting a long-term deal done that would pay him as the top wide receiver in the NFL and doesn’t want to play out 2015 on his 12.82 million dollar franchise tender with no long-term security.
Dez Bryant has always been productive, with 381 career catches for 5424 yards and 56 touchdowns in 75 career games in 5 seasons, since being drafted in the first round in 2010. He’s been especially good over the past 3 seasons, as he’s had 3 straight seasons of at least 80 catches for 1200 yards and 12 touchdowns. He hasn’t missed a game in those 3 seasons and has caught 273 passes for 3935 yards and 41 touchdowns in that time period, which are video game numbers. However, 2014 was easily his best season. After grading out 39th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in 2010, 10th in 2011, 52nd in 2012, and 27th in 2013, Bryant graded out 2nd in 2014. Drops have been a serious issue for him in the past and he’s always been a target monster so he hasn’t always been the most efficient player, but, in the unlikely case that he holds out into the season, he’d definitely be missed. The other concern the Cowboys have to worry about is that Bryant holds out deep into training camp and that hurts him during the season, as has been the case with players before.
If Bryant misses time, Terrance Williams would be the #1 guy, which is a problem because, while he’s a serviceable starter, he’s an unspectacular player. The 2013 3rd round pick graded out below average on 700 snaps as a rookie and then on 830 snaps last season. Meanwhile, Cole Beasley remains locked in as the #3 receiver and a pure slot specialist pretty much no matter what. He’s an ascending slot receiver who has seen his snaps go up in every season since he went undrafted in 2012, playing 128 snaps in 2012, 247 snaps in 2013, and 443 snaps in 2014, grading out above average in each of the last 2 seasons. Devin Street is the #4 receiver and would see significant playing time if anyone missed time, a problem because the 2014 5th round pick played poorly on 150 snaps as a rookie.
At tight end, Jason Witten is Mr. Consistency. The 12-year veteran hasn’t missed a game since his rookie year in 2003. He’s caught between 64 and 110 passes, between 1 and 9 touchdowns, and totaled between 703 and 1145 yards in each of the last 11 seasons. He’s graded out above average in all 8 seasons of Pro Football Focus’ history, finishing 3rd, 4th, 1st, 1st, 9th, 3rd, 3rd, and 2nd from 2007-2014 respectively. The only issue is he’s going into his age 33 season so he’s going to start to decline at some point, but he hasn’t showed it yet, especially not with his 2nd place rank among tight ends last season. The likely future Hall of Famer is both a fantastic pass catcher and a tough run blocker.
James Hanna was the #2 tight end last season, grading out above average on 335 snaps, after the 2012 7th round pick graded out below average on 109 snaps as a rookie in 2012 and then on 315 snaps in 2013. He’s a serviceable #2 tight end in a smaller role, but the Cowboys would probably like 2013 2nd round pick Gavin Escobar to surpass him at some point. Escobar has been decent on 207 and 263 snaps in 2013 and 2014 respectively thus far in his career and could be deserving of a bigger role in 2015, as he goes into his 3rd year in the league and only his age 24 season. It’s still a strong offense, but the loss of DeMarco Murray hurts, they’ll have more injuries, and Tony Romo is unlikely to repeat the best season of his career again in his age 35 season.
If the Cowboys are going to go to the playoffs again, they’ll probably need their defense to be better. Like their offense, their defense exceeded expectations last season, but, unlike their offense, they only did so by managing to not be one of the worst defenses in league history, as it looked like they could be on paper before the season. They still finished just 26th in opponent’s rate of moving the chains, leading to an 8th place finish in rate of moving the chains differential.
How did the Cowboys exceed expectations in 2015? Well it was a combination of great coaching by defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli (underratedly one of the best in the business) and guys having breakout years. The latter was largely a product of the former. The biggest breakout year was by Tyrone Crawford, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked defensive tackle after starting the first 3 games of the season at defensive end.
The 6-4 285 pounder “tweener” is a great fit as a one gap penetrator inside in Rod Marinelli’s defense. He’s a one year wonder, after struggling on 303 snaps as a 3rd round rookie in 2012 and then missing all of 2013 with injury, but he could easily have another strong year inside for the Cowboys, which would set him up for a big payday as a free agent next off-season. He’s not very good against the run, but he’s a nightmare for opponents’ interior offensive linemen as a pass rusher.
The problem at defensive tackle is everyone except Crawford. Henry Melton, Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked defensive tackle last season, is gone as a free agent. Nick Hayden remains, but he’s proven time and time again that he’s completely overmatched as a starter, grading out worst among defensive tackles in 2014 and 2nd worst in 2013. This should be no surprise, considering he was out of the league entirely in 2012, played just 33 snaps in 2011, and graded out 68th out of 76 eligible defensive tackles in 2010. I have no idea what the Cowboys see in him, but he seems to be locked into a starting role for the 3rd straight season.
With Melton gone, either Terrell McClain or Ken Bishop will be the 3rd defensive tackle. The latter is a 2014 7th round pick who played 66 snaps as a rookie, grading out below average. The former is a 2011 3rd round pick who played so badly as a rookie (83rd out of 88 eligible in 2011) that he saw just 203 snaps in 2012 and 2013 combined, grading out below average both times. The Cowboys actually got decent play out of him on 329 snaps last season, but he’s really hard to trust in a larger role. Also, neither he nor Bishop nor anyone else on the roster who could win the #3 job is anywhere near the pass rusher Melton was.
The Cowboys will probably use defensive end Jeremy Mincey inside in sub packages in obvious passing situations next to Crawford. He doesn’t have much experience inside and he’ll be undersized at 6-3 263, even in sub packages and even in a Rod Marinelli scheme that highlights the strengths of smaller defensive linemen, but he could get solid pass rush inside in certain situations next to Crawford. Mincey graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked 4-3 defensive end in a bounce back season, but he’s going into his age 32 season and has a history of inconsistency.
From 2007-2009, Mincey played just 166 snaps, but he became a starter in 2010 and 2011, grading out above average in both seasons, including 13th in 2011. He turned that into a 4-year, 27.2 million dollar deal, but fell flat on his face in the first year of the deal in 2012, grading out 47th among 62 eligible 4-3 defensive ends. Mincey continued not to live up to expectations in 2013 and also had injury problems and got himself cut mid-season, finishing out the year in Denver, before signing in Dallas as a free agent last off-season. He can be a solid player, but he’s tough to rely on and he’s aging. He’ll start outside in base packages this season, moving inside in sub packages.
In an effort to improve their defense, the Cowboys signed Greg Hardy from the Panthers as a free agent. If all things are right, he’ll start opposite Mincey, but the Cowboys signed Hardy knowing about his history of legal troubles. He was found guilty of domestic violence last off-season by a judge, though he remained in legal limbo because he was appealing the decision to a jury. After starting the opener last season, Hardy served a 15 game suspension imposed by the Panthers last off-season, in response to public outcry. Hardy got the charges dropped on a technicality this off-season, but was still subject to league discipline. The Cowboys were expecting 4-6 games, but the league instead handed down 10, which Hardy is appealing. There’s talk it could be shortened to 4-6 upon appeal.
Not to defend someone who did what he did, but I think 10 games is excessive given that he already missed 15 games last season. I realize that was team imposed and that he still got paid, but something like an additional 4 game league suspension and a 10 game league fine would be more appropriate, giving him some sort of credit for time already missed. A total 25 game suspension would be unprecedented for this kind of thing, especially a first offense.
The Cowboys would obviously be much happier with 4-6 games than 10 because they signed him with the intention of having him be the starting defensive end for most of the season. When on the field in recent years, he’s been fantastic, grading out 2nd among 4-3 defensive ends in 2013 and 6th in 2012. The Cowboys took a risk by signing him, beyond the obvious PR risk, because Hardy hasn’t played in basically a year and will miss even more time, but he’s only going into his age 27 season so he could easily still dominate when on the field. Whether he misses 4-6 games or 10 is going to matter a lot to this defense.
In his absence, the Cowboys will be counting on a pair of recent 2nd round picks, DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory. The former was a 2014 2nd round pick and was limited to 223 snaps as a rookie, in part because of injuries, while the latter is a 2nd round rookie. Lawrence did flash as a rookie though and Gregory was seen as a top-10 pick before he failed a combine drug test, weighed in under 240, and before concerns about his personal life and his mental health came up. Despite being seen as the best natural pass rusher in the draft class by many in the league before the draft, Gregory fell to the 60th pick, which makes him the definition of a boom or bust pick. With Hardy suspended and Mincey expected to play inside in sub packages, both youngsters should see significant action in 2015, particularly in pass rush situations. It’s tough to grade this unit without clarity on Hardy’s situation, but it’s a unit that has some talent, but a lot of problems.
The other breakout star the Cowboys had last season was Rolando McClain. Like Crawford, he’s part of the reason why this defense was at least passable at times. Out of the league entirely in 2013 because of off-the-field problems, McClain graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked middle linebacker last season. That’s no fluke, as the 2010 8th overall pick has been impressive whenever he’s been on the field in his career, grading out above average in all 3 seasons from 2010-2012, including 14th in 2010 and 11th in 2012.
The fact that he’s been arrested 3 times is concerning, as is the fact that he got kicked off the Raiders in the middle of a productive season in 2012. He suffered multiple concussions down the stretch in 2014 and was given a 4 game fine for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. He received a very cold free agent market this off-season, settling for 3 million over 1 year with the Cowboys, but he’s so good whenever he’s on the field that he should be a bargain for the Cowboys, provided he can stay on the field.
Speaking of staying on the field, Sean Lee will return from a torn ACL that cost him all of 2014 and caused the Cowboys to bring in McClain out of retirement in the first place. With McClain locked in at middle linebacker, Lee will play outside for the Cowboys this season, provided he can stay healthy. Lee has injury issues that date back to his collegiate days at Penn State, has never played all 16 games in a season in 5 years in the league, has missed 31 games with injuries over the past 3 seasons, and missed all of last season with a torn ACL. However, he’s never graded out below average in his career and was Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked middle linebacker in 2011, 2nd ranked before injury in 2012 (6 games), and 1st ranked before injury in 2013 (9 games). Only going into his age 29 season, Lee should still be able to play at a high level in 2015, provided he can stay on the field. He’s never played outside linebacker in his career, but the 6-2 236 pounder has a good skill set to play every down out there. He should be an upgrade over Bruce Carter, who graded out 35th among 40 eligible 4-3 outside linebackers last season.
The Cowboys better hope he can stay healthy because, with Carter and Justin Durant gone as free agents, that would leave Anthony Hitchens, expected to only see two-down work opposite Lee, to play an every down role outside in Lee’s absence. Hitchens is a much better fit in a two-down role, primarily focusing on stopping the run. The 2014 4th round pick graded out 34th out of 40 eligible 4-3 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus last year, but also graded out above average as a run stopper. Kyle Wilbur will back up all 3 spots and see action if anyone can’t stay on the field, but the 2012 4th round pick and one-time defensive end has never graded out above average in his career. It’s a strong group if everyone can stay on the field, but also an unreliable group.
The secondary was a serious problem going into the draft so they drafted cornerback Byron Jones in the first round. Jones won’t fix all their issues overnight though, as rookies, even talented ones, can be very tough to rely on. Sterling Moore (Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked cornerback in 2014) is gone, but Brandon Carr remains, which is a problem. The Cowboys signed him to a 5-year, 50.1 million dollar deal three off-seasons ago, after he had graded out above average in 3 straight seasons from 2009-2011. However, he’s never graded out better than 52nd among cornerbacks in 3 seasons in Dallas and finished last season 90th out of 108 eligible. Only going into his age 29 season, there’s some bounce back potential here, but I’m pretty surprised that he’s still on the team at his currently scheduled non-guaranteed 8 million dollar salary, especially after the addition of Jones.
Orlando Scandrick will work as the other starter opposite Carr, with Jones playing the #3 cornerback role. Scandrick has graded out above average in 4 of the last 5 seasons, including 3 straight and 10th overall among cornerbacks in 2015. Scandrick turned that strong 2014 season into a 1-year, 9.5 million dollar extension this off-season, but is still signed for just 20 million over the next 5 seasons. He might not repeat the best season of his career again in 2015, but he’s only going into his age 28 season and should once again be an asset for the Cowboys in the secondary and their top defensive back.
Things were not good at safety last year. There’s some talk that Jones could start his career at safety, but that would require a healthy Morris Claiborne at cornerback. The Cowboys are hoping that Claiborne, who missed 12 games with a torn patellar tendon last season, can contribute this season, but the Cowboys are used to being disappointed by Claiborne. After the Cowboys traded a 1st and 2nd round pick to move up to get Claiborne 6th overall in 2012, he’s played in just 29 games in 3 seasons, missing 19 games with injury.
Claiborne has also never graded out above average in his career. His future certainly didn’t get brighter when he tore his patellar tendon, arguably the most significant lower body injury a player can suffer. The list of guys who have returned to form after such an injury is basically non-existent and Claiborne’s recovery reportedly isn’t going well, as he’s lost 15-20 pounds and is now down to 172 pounds. The Cowboys declined his 5th year option for 2016 this off-season, even though it was guaranteed for injury only, and Claiborne will now head into his contract year with major questions around his future
That means Jones will likely stick at cornerback as a rookie, leaving JJ Wilcox and Barry Church to once again start at safety. Church wasn’t bad last season, but Wilcox graded out 76th out of 87 eligible safeties last season in the first extended starting experience of his career (he made 5 starts during a 2013 season in which he played 530 snaps). The 2012 3rd round pick has never graded out above average in his career and doesn’t profile as a starter long-term.
Church was better than Wilcox last year, but still graded out below average, something the 2010 undrafted free agent has done in 4 of 5 seasons in the NFL, including each of the last 3. However, he’s made all 32 starts over the past 2 seasons and has never really been that bad, grading out only slightly below average both times. He’s not a great player or anything, but he’s a serviceable starter and, unlike Wilcox, doesn’t need to be upgraded. It’s a weak secondary outside of Scandrick and possibly the rookie Jones though.
This is still a talented team, but I have a hard time seeing them winning 12 games again this season. For one, winning 12+ games in 2 straight seasons is very tough to do and rarely happens. Two, the Cowboys were slightly worse than their record suggested last season, finishing just 8th in rate of moving the chains differential. Three, their offense probably won’t be quite as good as it was last season due to the loss of DeMarco Murray, likely regression in Tony Romo’s play, and likely more injuries. The defense gets Sean Lee back, but who knows for how long and the Cowboys didn’t have enough injuries defensively last season where they can point to that as a reason why they’ll be better this season.
Greg Hardy’s addition is important, but it’s unclear how much he’ll actually get to play this season, while the losses of guys like Henry Melton and Sterling Moore will hurt more than people realize. Outside of Crawford, Scandrick, McClain and maybe Lee, Hardy, and Mincey, it’s a pretty thin defense. They’ll be in the mix for a playoff spot, but they certainly won’t be guaranteed one. Obviously, much depends on Hardy’s availability. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Cowboys after I’ve done all team’s previews.
Prediction: 9-7 2nd in NFC East