The Cowboys went 12-4 in 2014, but fell all the way down to 4-12 last season. Defensively, things didn’t really change much for the Cowboys from 2014 to 2015, as they finished 26th in rate of moving the chains allowed in 2014 and 21st in that metric in 2015. However, the offense that carried them in 2014, finishing 4th in rate of moving the chains, fell all the way down to 25th in 2015. What happened? Well, the obvious culprit is the three headed monster that led the way for the Cowboys in 2014, Tony Romo/DeMarco Murray/Dez Bryant, did not do the same in 2015. Murray, the NFL’s leading rusher in 2014, left in free agency before the season even started, while Tony Romo missed 12 games with two separate broken collarbones and Dez Bryant was limited to 9 games (at clearly less than 100%) after breaking his foot week 1.
Murray isn’t coming back, but the Cowboys used their first round pick on a talented running back in Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott and were set get Bryant and Romo back from injury, so things were looking up for this Dallas offense. However, Tony Romo again got injured again this pre-season and will miss the first 6 games of the season, at the very least, as he recovers from a back injury. That’s obviously a huge loss for this team. Now it’ll be rookie 4th round pick Dak Prescott under center. The good news is he could easily be better than any backup they had last season and he looked good this pre-season, for what that’s worth.
None of the three quarterbacks who played in Romo’s absence last season (Brandon Weeden, Matt Cassel, and Kellen Moore) looked like even capable backups when called into action, completing a combined 61.8% of their passes for an average of 6.88 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions. In the 12 games Romo missed, the Cowboys moved the chains at a mere 67.42% rate, as opposed to 72.80% in the 4 games he played. Prescott has enough talent around him on this offense that they could still move the ball decently even without Romo, but it’s an obvious blow for a team with a weak defense and playoff aspirations.
In the 4 seasons prior to last season, Romo completed 66.2% of his passes for an average of 7.77 YPA, 124 touchdowns, and 48 interceptions, while missing just 2 games due to injury and grading out 9th, 10th, 13th, and 6th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus in those 4 seasons respectively (2011-2014). He’ll be a big loss and there are legitimate questions about his ability to stay healthy long-term and continue playing at a high level, as he goes into his age 36 season. He’s had a good career, but he’s getting up there in age quickly and this could be the Dak Prescott show permanently sooner rather than later if Romo can’t come back healthy and play well this season.
The Cowboys won’t have Romo for the start of the season, but they will have Dez Bryant back healthy. Bryant didn’t miss a game from 2012-2014 and caught a ridiculous 273 passes for 3935 yards and 41 touchdowns over those 3 seasons. After finishing as Pro Football Focus’ #2 ranked wide receiver in 2014, the Cowboys franchise tagged Bryant ahead of free agency. He held out throughout most of the off-season program, before finally signing a 5-year, 70 million dollar extension before the franchise tag deadline. However, Bryant was out of shape as a result of the holdout (as is often the case after a holdout), injured his hamstring in training camp, missed the whole pre-season, then broke his foot week 1, essentially ending his season before it started.
Not only did Bryant miss 7 games with injury, but he was a shell of his former self when on the field, catching just 31 passes for 401 yards and 3 touchdowns. Part of that can be blamed on the quarterback play, but Bryant was clearly never 100% before being shut down with foot and ankle problems for the final 2 weeks of the season and having another foot surgery this off-season. He graded out as about a league average receiver on Pro Football Focus on the season. Cowboys’ GM Stephen Jones called out Bryant’s conditioning this off-season and the Cowboys will hope that he can return to form in 2016. It’s worth noting that Bryant has graded out in the top-10 among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus just twice in his 6-year NFL career, and that he’s had issues with drops and route running in the past, but he’s an obvious asset for this team.
With Bryant struggling and injured, Terrance Williams had a chance to have a breakout season in his 3rd year in the league, but the 2013 3rd round pick really only proved that he’s not anything more than a marginal starting receiver. Williams did lead the team in receiving with a career high 52 catches for 840 yards and 3 touchdowns, but could have done a lot more with the opportunity. Part of that was quarterback play, but he still graded out as about a league average receiver on Pro Football Focus again. He’s fine as a complementary receiver opposite Bryant, but he isn’t anything more than that.
Cole Beasley is another guy who could have stepped by in Bryant’s absence last season and didn’t, finishing the season with just 52 catches for 536 yards and 5 touchdowns, despite playing the 2nd most pass snaps of any Dallas receiver last year. He finished the season below average on Pro Football Focus. He graded out above average in the previous two seasons, but had never played as many snaps as he did last season. The 5-8 180 pounder is nothing more than a solid slot receiver at best.
Depth receivers Brice Butler and Devin Street saw playing time last season with Bryant hurt, playing 261 and 277 snaps respectively. The Cowboys didn’t add a receiver this off-season, so that would be the case this season as well, if injuries were to strike. Butler was definitely the better of the two and should enter the 2016 season as the 4th receiver at worst. The 2013 7th round pick has an incredible height/weight/speed combination and has always flashed in limited action. He has an outside shot to push Williams for snaps opposite Bryant with a strong off-season.
One of the more surprising disappointments from the 2015 Cowboys’ offense was Jason Witten. It was a surprise because he’s been consistently one of the top tight ents in the NFL over the past decade or so. Dating back to his 2nd season in the league in 2004, Witten has caught between 64 and 110 passes and totaled between 703 and 1145 yards in every season. He also had been a top-9 tight end on Pro Football Focus in every season dating back to their origin in 2007, excelling both as a pass catcher and a run blocker.
In 2015, he caught 77 passes for 713 yards and 3 touchdowns. Those aren’t bad numbers and they do fall in those aforementioned ranges, but they are on the lower end of those ranges. Part of that could have been blamed on poor quarterback play, but it’s not like he was hurting for target opportunities with Bryant having a rough year and he finished 7th in the NFL among tight ends in pass snaps played. His run blocking was also noticeably worse than normal and he finished 29th on Pro Football Focus overall among tight ends, far worse than we’re used to seeing from him.
It wasn’t all bad for him, as he once again played all 16 games. One of the toughest, most durable players in the NFL, Witten hasn’t missed a game since his rookie year in 2003 and has played in 207 of 208 possible regular season games in his career. He’s the only player in the NFL to play in every regular season game since the start of the 2004 season. However, he’s going into his age 34 season and coming off of a down year by his standards. He’s a future Hall-of-Famer, but he appears to be on the decline. With better offensive talent around him, he could put up solid numbers again in 2016 and have another solid overall year, but the Cowboys should have an eye on the future at the position.
Backup tight ends Gavin Escobar and James Hanna played 241 and 231 snaps respectively last season. Escobar was a 2nd round pick in 2013, but has largely been a bust in 3 seasons in the league, playing just 711 snaps total and grading out below average in all 3 seasons. Making matters worse, he tore his achilles towards the end of last season and is questionable for the start of the 2016 season. He’s going into a contract year and the Cowboys will probably look at other long-term options next off-season if Escobar can’t impress them this year, something that his injury will make significantly more difficult to do.
Hanna, a 2012 6th round pick, has been a little bit better than Escobar over the past few seasons, but not much. He’s a solid run blocker, but little else and has just 33 catches in 4 years in the league. He was brought back on a 3-year, 8.25 million dollar deal this off-season, suggesting the Cowboys see him as the #2 tight end behind Witten this season, but he’s nothing more than a #2 tight end long-term. It’ll be an improved receiving corps if Bryant is healthy, but they don’t have a clear 2nd option in the passing game.
The one constant for the Cowboys offensively between 2014 and 2015 was their amazing offensive line. Left tackle Tyron Smith, right guard Zack Martin, and center Travis Frederick are all recent first round picks and are all among the best in the NFL at their respective positions. Smith, the 9th overall pick in 2011, has graded out 3rd, 41st, 7th, 6th, and 2nd respectively among offensive tackles in the 5 seasons he’s been in the league. Frederick, the 31st overall pick in 2013, has graded out 8th, 2nd, and 1st in 2013, 2014, and 2015 respectively. Martin, the 16th overall pick in 2014, has graded out 6th and 4th in 2014 and 2015 respectively.
The Cowboys have made big investments in the offensive line through the draft and they have definitely paid off. Perhaps the most exciting part for the Cowboys is that all 3 are under contract through at least the next two seasons and all 3 are still very young, as Smith and Martin are going into their age 26 seasons and Frederick is going into his age 25. It’s possible their best football is still ahead of them, as hard as that might be to believe. No other team in the league has 3 offensive linemen even close to as good as this trio.
The rest of the offensive line isn’t bad either. Right tackle Doug Free finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 25th ranked offensive tackle, right in line with what we saw from him in 2013 and 2014, when he finished 20th and 21st respectively among offensive tackles. He’s graded out above average in 5 of the last 7 seasons and has made 99 starts for the Cowboys over that time period, playing both left and right tackle. With Smith locked in on the left side, he’s purely a right tackle, which is good for him as he gets up there in age. He’s heading into his age 32 season, but should have another solid season on the right side.
At left guard, La’El Collins and Ronald Leary both saw snaps last season and will compete for the starting job. Collins went undrafted in the 2015 draft, but could have easily been a first round pick if not for some bad luck and bad timing. He was wanted for questioning in his ex-girlfriend’s murder case and didn’t have time to talk to the police and clear his name before the draft, making him untouchable on draft day. Once he was able to talk to the police and it became clear that he had nothing to do with it, he became a very hot commodity as an undrafted free agent and the Cowboys were able to get a steal.
Leary outplayed Collins last season, but it was in very limited action, as Leary played 219 snaps and Collins played 712. Collins wasn’t great, finishing the year 51st out of 81 eligible guards, but could be better in his 2nd year in the league. It seems like Collins is the heavy favorite to keep the starting job in 2016, as Leary as reportedly has requested a trade. The Cowboys should be able to get a mid-round pick for him at the very least if they want to move him. He’s young (going into his age 27 season), experienced (35 starts in the past 3 seasons), inexpensive (owed 2.553 million in 2016 in the final year of his rookie contract), and could start on the majority of offensive lines in the NFL. He’s graded out above average in 2 of the 3 seasons in which he’s seen playing time. Even if the Cowboys move him, this is still the best offensive line and football and having Leary as a reserve would just be an added bonus.
Because of how good the Cowboys’ offensive line is, the Cowboys barely missed DeMarco Murray. In fact, in 2014 with Murray, they rushed for 2354 yards and 16 touchdowns on 508 carries, an average of 4.63 YPC, the exact same average as 2015 without Murray, when they rushed for 1890 yards and 8 touchdowns on 408 carries, an average of 4.63 YPC. And that was despite the fact that the Cowboys’ passing game was a lot worse in 2015, meaning opposing defenses could focus on the run more. Meanwhile, Murray struggled mightily in Philadelphia in 2015, rushing for 702 yards and 6 touchdowns on 193 carries, an average of just 3.64 YPC, largely proving that it was the offensive line that largely made him, not the other way around.
Darren McFadden led the way with 239 carries for the Cowboys last season, turning them into 1089 yards and 3 touchdowns, while adding 40 catches for another 328 yards. He was actually just one of 7 running backs in the NFL to top 1000 yards last season. The one-time #4 overall pick, McFadden has largely been a bust in his career and didn’t even play that well last season, finishing 42nd out of 69 eligible running backs on Pro Football Focus, but the Cowboys’ offensive line is so good that he was able to still put up impressive numbers.
The concern with McFadden is that he’s missed 29 games in 8 years in the league and that he’s already going into his age 29 season. The Cowboys added Alfred Morris in free agency to complement McFadden, signing the ex-Redskin to a 2-year, 3.5 million dollar deal. Morris is a terrible pass catcher, with just 47 catches in 4 years in the league as a starter, and he’s seen his carries and YPC decrease in every season he’s been in the league, going from 4.81 YPC on 335 carries in 2012, to 4.62 YPC on 276 carries in 2013, to 4.05 YPC on 265 carries in 2014, to 3.72 YPC on 202 carries last season. Last year was obviously the worst year of his career, but he was a solid value on a buy low deal and a good fit as an early down runner in Dallas because he’s a between the tackles runner and the Cowboys have a great offensive line.
McFadden and Morris would have been a decent enough duo for a Cowboys team that doesn’t need a lot of running back talent to run the ball effectively because of their offensive line, but the Cowboys inexplicably decided to use the 4th overall pick on Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott. Elliott is a very talented running back and could be very dominant in Dallas, but it seems unnecessary to use that high of a pick on a running back (especially in today’s NFL) when you already have a pair of decent backs, when you don’t need good running backs to run the ball well, and when you have other major needs on the defensive side of the ball.
A cornerback like Jalen Ramsey or a defensive end like DeForest Buckner would have made a lot more sense. Elliot is a great player, but the only way that pick ends up being worth it is if he becomes the next Emmitt Smith. It seems like poor resource allocation to me. It’s unclear how the carries will be divided up, but you have to figure that Elliot gets the bulk of the work, especially as the season goes on, while McFadden and Morris slot in behind him as overqualified backups. It’s possible one gets traded for a late round pick later in the off-season if a team gets desperate for a running back.
As I mentioned, defensive end was a huge position of need for the Cowboys going into the draft. That’s because projected starters Randy Gregory and DeMarcus Lawrence are both suspended, for the first 10 and first 4 games of the season respectively, after failing drug tests. On top of that, they have no depth at the position. Fourth round rookie Charles Tapper could have to start for the first few weeks of the season, as could free agent acquisition Benson Mayowa. Mayowa played a career high 381 snaps last season in Oakland and struggled mightily, grading out 91st out of 110 eligible edge defenders. That’s pretty similar to how he played in 2014, when he struggled mightily on 370 snaps. The 2013 undrafted free agent would be overstretched as a starter.
Things will be a little better when Lawrence and Gregory return, but Gregory graded out below average on 250 snaps as a 2nd round rookie in 2015 and isn’t expected to be eligible until at least the Cowboys’ 11th game after the season after failing 2 drug tests this off-season. It’s also worth noting that he’s another failed drug test away from a season long suspension and has already failed thee drug tests in the past year, including the combine drug test that sunk his draft stock from possibly the top-10 to the end of the 2nd round. Time will tell if he’s worth the pick, but he hasn’t shown it yet, nor has he shown any desire to avoid suspension and stay on the field.
Lawrence, meanwhile, is a lot better and will be eligible to return after 4 games. The 2014 2nd round pick had a breakout year in 2015, after playing just 221 snaps in an injury plagued rookie season. He finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 18th ranked edge defender, so he’ll really be missed when he’s suspended. He’s a one-year wonder, but he’s only going into his age 24 season and could easily pick up right where he left off when he returns from suspension. He’s probably their best defensive lineman.
Things are little bit better at defensive tackle. Tyrone Crawford was one of the best defensive tackles in the league in 2014, finishing 13th at the position, earning him a 5-year, 45 million dollar extension ahead of his contract year. However, Crawford disappointed in 2015, finishing the year as Pro Football Focus’ 81st ranked interior defender out of 123 eligible. The Cowboys will obviously hope he has a bounce back year in 2016, given how much money they gave him, but he remains a one-year wonder. Prior to his 2014 breakout year, the 2012 3rd round pick had played just 303 career snaps. Crawford could also see time at defensive end early in the season. The 6-4 290 pounder fits better at defensive tackle than defensive end now that he’s filled out his frame more, but he came into the league as a defensive end and played there in college, so it’s an option for the Cowboys.
Nick Hayden struggled mightily as the other starter opposite Lawrence last season, but the Cowboys upgraded him this off-season. They brought Cedric Thornton in from Philadelphia on a 4-year, 18 million dollar deal, an underrated signing that could really help the Cowboys. Thornton has never been a good pass rusher, grading out below average as a pass rusher in every season of his career, since going undrafted in 2012, but he’s been one of the league’s better run stopping defensive linemen over the past 3 seasons, since becoming a starter. He was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked 3-4 defensive end against the run in 2013 and their 8th ranked 3-4 defensive end against the run in 2014.
In 2015, he wasn’t quite as good, but he still finished 31st among interior defenders against the run and 44th overall. He’ll be very valuable for the Cowboys as an early down run defender. The Cowboys also added Maliek Collins to the mix at defensive tackle, taking the Nebraska defensive tackle in the 3rd round, but he broke a bone in his foot this off-season and could miss the entire off-season program and possibly the start of the season. Even if he is able to make it back for week 1, missing the entire off-season program is a big problem for a rookie. Defensive line is a position of weakness for the Cowboys and one they should have addressed earlier in the draft.
Many thought the Cowboys would draft a defensive end atop the 2nd round, #34 overall, but they used that pick on linebacker Jaylon Smith from Notre Dame. That move could pan out long-term, but Smith is highly unlikely to play at all this season after suffering a brutal knee injury in Notre Dame’s bowl game on New Years day. Smith was a projected top-10 pick before the injury, but his chances of ever realizing that potential are very much in doubt now. I thought 34 was too early to take a chance on Smith. Combine the Smith pick with the fact that they used the 4th pick on a running back they didn’t need and the Cowboys used their first 2 picks on luxury selections, luxuries they couldn’t really afford. I think they mismanaged the early part of the draft and it’ll be noticeable on a defense that desperately needed upgrades at defensive end and cornerback.
Smith is not the only Cowboys’ linebacker expected to miss the entire season, as incumbent starting middle linebacker Rolando McClain has also been suspended for the first 10 games of the season and is unlikely to return to the team following the suspension. McClain is dealing with addiction problems off-the-field and is reportedly far too out of shape to play football. If healthy, Smith would likely take over for him in 2017 and beyond, but, for now, the Cowboys will have to shift Anthony Hitchens from a two-down role outside to an every down role inside at middle linebacker.
Hitchens is an obvious downgrade from McClain. McClain was Pro Football Focus 28th ranked linebacker last season, while Hitchens finished 69th out of 97 eligible on just 538 snaps as a part-time player. The 2014 4th round pick also struggled as a rookie, finishing 34th out of 40 eligible 4-3 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus. With him moving inside, veteran free agent signing Justin Durant is expected to step into the two-down role. He’s been a solid run stopper when healthy in his career, but he is heading into his age 31 season, has missed 36 games with injury in 9 seasons in the league, including 19 over the past 3 seasons, and is coming off of a season in which he finished 66th out of 97 eligible linebackers on 657 snaps.
Fortunately, Sean Lee will be on the field for the Cowboys, though that hasn’t always been the case, as the 2010 2nd round pick has missed 36 games in 6 years in the league, including a torn ACL that cost him his entire 2014 season. Lee clearly had no problem bouncing back from that injury, having an All-Pro caliber season in his return and finishing 3rd among linebackers on Pro Football Focus, despite playing outside linebacker for the first time in his career. He’ll play every down as an outside linebacker in the Cowboys’ 4-3 once again in 2015.
Lee has always had the potential to play like he did last season, but has never been able to stay healthy. He was Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked middle linebacker in 2011, their 2nd ranked middle linebacker before injury in 2012 (6 games), and their 1st ranked before injury in 2013 (9 games). Even last season, in arguably the most impressive season of his career, Lee only played 14 games, which tied his career high. He could have an equally dominant season in 2016, but, going into his age 30 season, with a serious history of injuries, that’s not a guarantee. The Cowboys desperately need him to stay on the field though, on a defense that doesn’t have much healthy/eligible talent around him.
As I mentioned, cornerback was a huge need for the Cowboys going into the draft. They had a golden opportunity to take Jalen Ramsey, who I thought was the top overall player in the draft class, at 4 after the Chargers passed on him for Joey Bosa, but instead decided to add a running back when the running game was not a problem at all. As a result, the Cowboys didn’t get around to addressing the position until the 6th round, when they took Purdue cornerback Anthony Brown. Brown is unlikely to see significant snaps as a rookie and, if he does, it probably won’t be a good sign.
The Cowboys reportedly had interest in either moving 2015 1st round pick Byron Jones to safety or cutting overpaid veteran cornerback Brandon Carr, but it’s going to be tough for them to do either of those things after failing to address the position in the draft. Carr did take a paycut, going from 9.1 million to 5.5 million (with another 500K available through incentives), but his salary is now guaranteed, which secures his roster spot for 2016. It’s still too much money for him.
Carr has been a massive bust as a free agent signing, after signing a 5-year, 50.1 million dollar deal with the Cowboys four off-seasons ago. He’s never graded out higher than 52nd among cornerbacks in 4 years in Dallas and finished last season 73th out of 111 eligible. The Cowboys have never been able to get rid of him and his massive salary though because they’ve never really had any better options, which remains the case now. He’s unlikely to turn it around, now going into his age 30 season.
Jones might move to safety anyway, as safety is also a position of need and the Cowboys like the 6-0 205 pounder better there. That leaves them very thin at cornerback though, as Jones was their best cornerback as a rookie, finishing 23rd among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. If Jones moves to safety full-time, that leaves Brandon Carr, Orlando Scandrick, and Morris Claiborne as their top-3 cornerbacks, with 6th round rookie Brown possibly being the next guy up if an injury hits.
Scandrick is a solid player that the Cowboys really missed last season, as he missed the whole year with a torn ACL he suffered in the pre-season. He’ll be a welcome re-addition and will slot right back into his old starting cornerback job. Prior to his injury, Scandrick had graded out above average in 4 of the last 5 seasons, including 3 straight and a #10 ranking in 2014, the best season of his career. I’m skeptical of his ability to match the best season of his career in 2016, especially given that he’s coming off a serious knee injury, but he’s still young, only going into his age 29 season, and he should have another solid year as a starter. He’s easily their best cornerback.
The bigger problem is #3 cornerback Morris Claiborne. Claiborne was the 6th overall pick in 2012, but has been a massive bust in 4 years in the league. Claiborne has missed 24 games with injury over that time period (including a brutal torn patellar tendon suffered in 2014), has never graded out above average, and is coming off of probably the worst year of his entire career in 2015. He was Pro Football Focus’ 104th ranked cornerback out of 111 eligible last season. The Cowboys bringing him back on a 1-year, 3 million dollar deal was a move made out of pure desperation, as he’s one of the worst cornerbacks in the entire NFL. Brown could end up pushing him for snaps at some point this year and playing Jones on the slot in sub packages is another option, though they’d probably rather have him concentrate on safety.
The Cowboys depth at safety isn’t much better. Barry Church and JJ Wilcox were the starters last season, but they graded out 67th and 79th respectively out of 89 eligible safeties. Church should keep his starting job, but Wilcox reportedly might not even make the team, with Jones moving over to safety and the Cowboys adding Kavon Frazier in the 6th round of the draft. Church has graded out below average in 5 of 6 seasons in the league, but he’s never really been terrible and he’s made 47 starts over the past 3 seasons. He’s a marginal starter, but he’ll get the job done. If Jones has to move back to cornerback, even only in sub packages, either Wilcox or Frazier would be the other safety, which is not a good situation. Jones and Scandrick are solid players, but the Cowboys are going to have to get creative in order to field a passable secondary.
The season hasn’t even started yet and the Cowboys have already lost a lot of players. Along with Romo getting hurt, the Cowboys have also had 3 defensive starters suspended this off-season, including Randy Gregory and Rolando McClain, who are suspended for the first 10 games of the season and face uncertain futures when they return. McClain is unlikely to play this season, while Gregory could join him on the sidelines all year. Already one of the worst defenses in the league over the past 2 seasons, the Cowboys are going to have a tough time stopping anyone in 2016. That’s a problem, considering they just lost their quarterback for an extended period of time with injury. Prescott is better than any backup they had last year and he’ll have Ezekiel Elliott and a healthy Dez Bryant helping him out, which they didn’t have last season, but the best they can hope for is this offense can tread water without Romo and keep this season alive for when he returns.
Prediction: 8-8 3rd in NFC East