The Cowboys’ season looked over in the pre-season, when quarterback Tony Romo went down with a back injury. The Cowboys had gone just 1-11 without Romo the previous season, finishing 4-12 overall, and were counting on a healthy Romo to take them back to the post-season. It looked like the best case scenario for the Cowboys was that Romo could return around week 8 or 9, but, even in that scenario, the playoffs did not seem likely. Instead, backup quarterback Dak Prescott continued his strong pre-season and ended up making all 16 starts, winning Romo’s job from him outright, even though Romo was healthy enough to return later in the season.
The Cowboys won 12 games and a first round bye, before losing in the divisional round to the Green Bay Packers. After going 2-6 in games decided by a touchdown or less in 2015, a jump in win total was expected, even without Romo healthy, but I don’t think anyone saw this coming. A mere 4th round rookie, Prescott completed 67.8% of his passes for an average of 7.99 YPA, 23 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions and rushed for another 282 yards and 6 touchdowns on 57 carries (4.95 YPA).
Prescott wasn’t the only reason why the Cowboys were so much improved from 2015 to 2016 and the Cowboys’ running game and offensive line certainly made much life easier for him, but Prescott played well in his own right, finishing 10th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus. It’s possible Prescott could have a sophomore slump and show more of the issues that dropped him in the draft, but he could easily have another strong season. With Tony Romo retiring this off-season, this is Dak Prescott’s job for the foreseeable future.
Prescott was not the Cowboys’ only impact rookie, as #4 overall pick Ezekiel Elliott had one of the best rookie seasons ever by a running back, leading the league with 1631 rushing yards and 15 rushing touchdowns on 322 carries, an average of 5.07 YPC. It was the 25th time in NFL history that a running back averaged at least 5 yards per carry on 300+ carries and the first time a rookie accomplished that feat. Elliott had a great mix of long runs and chain moving runs, leading the league with 14 carries of 20+ yards and 91 rushing first downs. He also chipped in with 32 catches for 363 yards and 3 touchdowns on 40 targets, which generated another 11 first downs.
He kept this offense on schedule, made life very easy for Prescott, and was a huge part of the reason why this offense ranked 3rd in first down rate, after finishing 18th in that metric in 2015. Prescott played well, but was helped immensely by the fact that he only had to throw the ball 459 times. Compare that with fellow rookie Carson Wentz, who threw 607 times, just the 2nd time in NFL history that a rookie quarterback threw that many passes. Elliott was helped by a strong offensive line, but deserves a ton of the credit as well, finishing 2nd among running backs on Pro Football Focus. Expected to be a game changing running back from the word go, Elliott lived up to expectations and then some as a rookie. Barring injury, I see no reason why he won’t be among the league’s best running backs again this season.
If Elliott were to get injured, the Cowboys are more than prepared, as they have two backup running backs with starting experience in Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris. When Elliott was drafted, many considered him superfluous because of the running backs the Cowboys already had on the roster. Elliott proved he was the type of talent that would not be superfluous to any team, but the concern made sense, especially given the Cowboys’ pressing needs at other positions like defensive end and cornerback.
Morris and McFadden were limited to 69 and 24 carries last season, but between the two veterans they have 2,448 career carries and 5 seasons of 1000+ rushing yards. Both are getting up there in age, going into their age 29 and age 30 seasons respectively, but both are more than capable backups, especially behind a starter with no injury history and who rarely needs a breather. The Cowboys have arguably the best group of running backs in the NFL and figure to be one of the best rushing offenses in the league once again.
The additions of Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott obviously made a huge impact for this offense, but their outstanding offensive line definitely made life much, much easier for both rookies. Unfortunately, the Cowboys did lose 2 starters upfront this off-season, with left guard Ronald Leary signing with the Broncos and right tackle Doug Free retiring after 10 seasons in the league. They were two of a number of starters who left the Cowboys this off-season. Fortunately, their big-3 upfront return, as left tackle Tyron Smith, right guard Zack Martin, and center Travis Frederick are all among the best players in the league at their respective positions, but Leary and Free played at a high level in 2016 and won’t be easy to replace, particularly Leary, who finished 24th among guards on Pro Football Focus.
The Cowboys had an obvious internal replacement for Leary in La’El Collins, who has made 14 starts over the past 2 seasons and opened last year as the starter before going down for the season with a toe injury. Free retiring threw a wrench into that plan though, as Collins is now expected to move to right tackle to replace Free, leaving a huge hole at left guard. Veterans Jonathan Cooper and Byron Bell will compete for the starting job this off-season, though the Cowboys could opt to keep Collins at left guard and start 3rd year offensive tackle Chaz Green at right tackle.
Whichever of those 3 ends up winning a starting job, they figure to struggle in 2017. Cooper was the 7th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, but has been a massive bust throughout his career. Injuries limited Cooper to 11 underwhelming starts in 3 seasons with the Cardinals and he was sent to the Patriots as a throw-in in the Chandler Jones trade. Cooper never played a snap for the Patriots and was cut mid-season. He then went to Cleveland, where he made 3 more underwhelming starts before eventually being cut. Then the Cowboys signed him, putting him on his 4th team in a calendar year. Going into his age 27 season, Cooper may have some untapped upside, but he’s a long shot to ever be a consistent starter in this league.
Bell, meanwhile, is experienced, with 72 starts in the first 5 seasons of his career, but has never graded out above average and missed all of last season with injury. He has experience at both guard and tackle and could be an option at right tackle if they decide they want to keep Collins at left guard. Green would be their other option at right tackle. He was a 3rd round pick in 2015, but missed his entire rookie season with a back injury, struggled in 2 starts in 2016 in place of the injured Tyron Smith, and then needed an additional back procedure this off-season, which he is still working back from. The Cowboys figure to struggle in at least one spot on the offensive line this season.
They may struggle at two if La’El Collins doesn’t turn it around. Collins was a first round talent in 2015, but went undrafted because 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 appeared to get a steal, but he was underwhelming in 11 starts as a rookie and then struggled in 3 starts in 2016 before going down for the season with injury. They will need him to take a big step forward in his 3rd year in the league in 2017.
Even if they get poor play at both left guard and right tackle, this should still be one of the best offensive lines in the league because of Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin. First round picks in 2011, 2013, and 2014 respectively, all three are among the best offensive linemen in the league. Smith, the 9th overall pick in 2011, has graded out 3rd, 41st, 7th, 6th, 2nd, and 16th respectively among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in the 6 seasons he’s been in the league (92 starts). Frederick, the 31st overall pick in 2013, has graded out 8th, 2nd, 1st, and 2nd respectively among centers in the 4 seasons he’s been in the league (64 starts). Martin, the 16th overall pick in 2014, has graded out 6th, 4th, and 3rd respectively among guards in the 3 seasons he’s been in the league (48 starts). The Cowboys might not be quite as good upfront as they were last season, but they still have a strong offensive line.
In addition to the running game and offensive line helping Prescott out immensely, he also got good play from his receiving corps. The Cowboys were led in receiving yards by a surprising player, slot receiver Cole Beasley, who played the 3rd fewest passing snaps of any Dallas receiver. He turned a team high 98 targets into 75 catches for 833 yards and 5 touchdowns. Beasley doesn’t have great athleticism for his size at 5-8 180, but has a knack for getting open underneath, reliable hands, and the quickness to gain some yardage after the catch. The 2012 undrafted free agent has improved his receiving total in all 5 seasons in the league and has graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in 3 of 5 seasons, including last season, when he finished 13th among wide receivers. He may be just a slot receiver, but the Cowboys get him on the field for most passing plays and Prescott enjoys throwing to him underneath, especially when the running game is setting him up with 2nd and 4, 3rd and 1, etc.
Dez Bryant was expected to lead this team in receiving, but had yet another injury plagued season. It wasn’t as bad as 2015, when he broke his foot week 1, missed 7 games, and was never the same upon his return, limiting him to 31/401/3. However, Bryant missed 3 games with a knee injury that limited him for a bit upon his return and once again had a disappointing slash line of 50/796/8. After topping 1200 yards in 3 straight seasons from 2012-2014, Bryant has failed to top 800 yards in either of the past 2 seasons, since re-signing for 5 years, 70 million two off-seasons ago. Bryant’s conditioning has reportedly not been where the Cowboys would have liked it to be, which could be why he hasn’t been able to stay healthy in the past 2 seasons, after playing all 48 games from 2012-2014. Given how much money they gave him, that’s a significant concern.
The good news is Bryant flashed his old form down the stretch once he got over the knee injury, catching 43 passes for 646 yards and 8 touchdowns on 66 targets in the final 7 real regular season games and Dallas’ playoff loss to Green Bay. Overall on the season, he finished 11th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus, actually the 3rd highest ranked season of his 7-year career (he finished 10th and 2nd respectively in 2013 and 2014). If he can stay in shape and stay healthy all season, he could easily have another big statistical year, even on a team that doesn’t pass all that often. That would probably mean fewer balls for Cole Beasley, but it would be a big boost for this passing game overall. Bryant staying healthy is far from a guaranteed, but, going into his age 29 season, he has definite bounce back potential.
With Beasley only playing the slot and Dez Bryant missing time with injury, Terrance Williams actually led the team in passing snaps played, though his 61 targets were significantly fewer than Beasley (98), Bryant (97), and the tight end Jason Witten (95). Williams wasn’t bad, turning those targets into 44 catches for 594 yards and 4 touchdowns and the Cowboys opted to bring him back this off-season on a 4-year, 17 million dollar deal. He will remain as the de facto #2 receiver and the primary outside option opposite Dez Bryant. The 2013 3rd round pick has improved on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons in the league, but still only finished 49th out of 115 eligible last season. He’s a marginal starting receiver and nothing more, but the Cowboys were able to keep him at a fair price.
Williams will continue to only have a small role in the passing game, with Bryant, Williams, and Witten ahead of him for targets on a run heavy offense. Witten is going into his age 35 season though, so it’s fair to wonder how much longer he can keep doing this. A top-9 tight end in every season from 2007-2014, Witten has slipped to 29th and 22nd respectively over the past 2 seasons, but that is still above average. He’s still a good run blocker and turned those 95 targets into 69 catches for 673 yards and 3 touchdowns last season. He’s also as dependable as they come, missing just 1 game in 14 seasons in the league, way back in his rookie year in 2003. He’s the only player in the NFL to play every game in the last 13 seasons. He also finished 2nd among tight ends in snaps played last season with 1018, only behind Carolina’s Greg Olsen. His age is a concern, but he could have another solid season left in the tank.
Because Witten plays so much and because the Cowboys love to use 3-wide receiver sets, especially in passing situations, there wasn’t much available playing time for other tight ends last season, as backups Geoff Swaim and Gavin Escobar played 203 and 170 snaps respectively. With Witten aging, they may give him more breathers this season, freeing up more playing time for reserves. Escobar is no longer with the team, but Swaim will compete with James Hanna, a blocking tight end who missed all of last season with injury, and 2016 6th round pick Rico Gathers for the #2 tight end job behind Witten.
Hanna is probably the favorite for the job because of his experience, but Swaim and Gathers have more long-term upside. Gathers didn’t play a snap as a rookie though and Swaim has played just 227 offensive snaps in 2 seasons in the league, since going in the 7th round in 2015. For what it’s worth, Gathers has drawn strong reviews this off-season and the ex-basketball player is a great athlete for his size, but it’s unclear if he can translate that to an NFL field. As of right now, Witten’s long-term successor doesn’t appear to be on the roster. The Cowboys will need Witten to have at least one more good season for them, which is far from a guarantee at his age. It’s still a solid receiving corps though, especially if Bryant can continue his strong play from down the stretch last season.
While the Cowboys’ offense played at a high level last season, their defense did not and ultimately proved to be their downfall in their 34-31 playoff loss at home to the Packers. Their defensive line was a big part of the problem. Third round rookie defensive tackle Maliek Collins led the line in snaps played last season with 656 and looked overwhelmed, finishing 123rd among 127 eligible interior defenders on Pro Football Focus. He could take a step forward in his 2nd year in the league in 2017, but the Cowboys probably want to avoid giving him that many snaps again.
One obvious thing they could do is give Cedric Thornton more playing time, particularly in base packages where he is best. Signed to a 4-year, 18 million dollar deal last off-season, Thornton played just 278 snaps in his first season in Dallas. He wasn’t bad when he did play, grading out just below average on Pro Football Focus, so it’s unclear why he was in the doghouse all season. Prior to 2016, Thornton was a top-20 3-4 defensive end in 3 straight seasons with the Eagles, excelling against the run. Only going into his age 29 season, he could be better and play more in his second year with the Cowboys. He doesn’t get any pass rush, but, at his best, is a useful base package player.
In addition to Thornton, free agent acquisition Stephen Paea could also eat into Collins snaps. Paea was Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked defensive tackle in 2014, but injuries have limited him to 534 snaps in 24 games over the 2 seasons since then. He has still graded out above average in both seasons, showing his abilities in limited action, and could be valuable for the Cowboys in a 400-500 snap role if he can stay healthy. Collins is a better pass rusher than run stopper, so Paea and Thornton could start for the Cowboys in base packages.
Along with Collins, defensive ends Tyrone Crawford and David Irving figure to play significant snaps on the interior in sub packages. Both are bigger ends at 6-4 295 and 6-7 285 respectively who have experience lining up inside in sub packages. Irving was their best defensive lineman last season, finishing 17th among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus, a surprise breakout year. A 2015 undrafted free agent who the Cowboys signed off of the Chiefs’ practice squad during his rookie year, Irving played 199 uninspiring snaps as a rookie before breaking out on 489 snaps last season. He is still a one-year wonder, so we will have to see if he can replicate that season. Complicating matters is the fact that he might be suspended for the first 4 games of the season for performance enhancing drugs, though he is appealing.
Crawford is also a one-year wonder, but his one year came back in 2014, when he finished 13th among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. The 2012 3rd round pick has graded out above average just once in his career and finished last season 60th out of 109 eligible edge defenders on 627 snaps. Now dealing with off-season shoulder surgery, Crawford could continue to be a subpar player in 2017. The 5-year, 45 dollar extension they signed him to following his breakout 2014 season is looking like a big mistake. Given that they have already paid him 17.425 million guaranteed, his contract doesn’t have an easy out until after the 2018 season. The Cowboys need at least one of Crawford or Irving to have a big season rushing the passer from the interior.
Irving and Crawford may also both see time at defensive end, but Demarcus Lawrence and Taco Charlton figure to see the majority of the time at the position, especially in passing situations. Charlton is the Cowboys’ first round pick, 28th overall, and has a chance to play significant snaps early in his career. He will be counted on for an even larger role if Lawrence is not healthy in 2017. Injuries have plagued Lawrence throughout his career. The 2014 2nd round pick played all 16 games in 2015 and finished 18th among edge defenders on Pro Football Focus, but was limited to 7 games in 2014 and 9 games last season and is now recovering from off-season back surgery. Still only going into his age 25 season, Lawrence could be a big boost to this team if healthy, but that’s a big if. Overall, it’s a deeper defensive line than last season, but they still have major question marks.
The Cowboys’ best defensive player is probably outside linebacker Sean Lee, who is one of the best in the league at his position. Injuries limited him to 17 games total during a 3 year stretch from 2012-2014, but he has missed just 3 games over the past 2 seasons and does not appear to be limited by any lingering injuries, finishing 2nd and 1st among 4-3 outside linebackers in 2015 and 2016 respectively. Going into his age 31 season, it’s possible Lee shows some signs of age in 2017 and he’s still always an injury risk, having never played all 16 games in 7 seasons in the league, but he’s still one of the best linebackers in the league.
Anthony Hitchens started all 16 games at middle linebacker last season, but only played 581 snaps because safety Barry Church frequently played linebacker in sub packages last season. Lee, for comparison, played 977 snaps in 1 fewer game as an every down linebacker. Church signed with the Jaguars this off-season, but Hitchens might not need to become a true every down player in 2017 because the Cowboys have a pair of promising young linebackers who will compete for roles. That’s a good thing, because Hitchens has graded out below average in all 3 seasons in the league, since going in the 4th round in 2014, including 47th out of 87 eligible linebackers in 2016.
Damien Wilson, a 2015 4th round pick, is one of those promising young linebackers. Also a core special teamer, Wilson flashed on 284 snaps as the third linebacker in 2016 in the first significant action of his career. He could have a bigger role in 2017. The Cowboys also might have 2016 2nd round pick Jaylon Smith coming back from injury, after he missed his entire rookie year. Smith’s rehab has reportedly gone well, but he’s far from a sure thing, considering how brutal of a knee injury he sustained in Notre Dame’s bowl game back in January 2016. Smith will be 20 months removed from the injury by week 1 and could have been a top-10 pick before the injury, so there’s definitely upside here, but it’s possible he’ll never be the same player again. Ideally, he’d takeover every down at middle linebacker and Hitchens would compete with Wilson for the base package outside linebacker job, but most likely all 3 linebackers will see action. Lee elevates this whole group, but there are question marks around him.
Church wasn’t the only safety the Cowboys lost this off-season, as JJ Wilcox signed with the Buccaneers. Church and Wilcox played 675 and 557 snaps respectively last season and finished 11th and 27th respectively among safeties on Pro Football Focus, so they’re big losses. Not only will the Cowboys not be able to use 3-safety looks as often (with one safety in the box as a 2nd linebacker), but they were left with a big hole in the starting lineup at safety next to free safety Byron Jones. Fortunately, Jones is a talented player who finished 19th among safeties in 2016 and 23rd among cornerbacks as a rookie in 2015. The 27th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, Jones is only going into his age 25 season and has a very bright future.
Career special teamer Jeff Heath will be given the first crack at the other safety job. The 2013 undrafted free agent flashed on 243 snaps as a reserve last season, but graded out below average in the first 3 seasons of his career and only has 10 starts in 4 seasons in the league. Youngsters Kavon Frazier, a 2016 6th round pick who played just 37 snaps as a rookie, and Xavier Woods, a 5th round rookie, are also in the mix. Free agent Robert Blanton has the most experience of any candidate for the job, with 19 career starts. Thirteen of those starts came in 2014 when he finished 17th among safeties on Pro Football Focus, but he has finished below average in both seasons since. Only going into his age 28 season, the 2012 5th round pick has bounce back potential and is probably their best option, but only by default. It’s definitely a position of weakness for the Cowboys.
The Cowboys also lost a pair of cornerbacks in free agency too, with Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne signing with the Ravens and Jets respectively. They played 1015 and 406 snaps respectively last season, so they leave behind big roles. They also played at a high level too, finishing 50th and 12th respectively among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus, though Claiborne was limited to 7 games by injury. Free agent acquisition Nolan Carroll will probably get the first crack at replacing Carr. Carroll has made 50 starts in the past 5 seasons and was a solid starter from 2013-2015, but fell to 91st out of 111 eligible cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus last season and now is going into his age 30 season. He’s a low end starter at best.
Carroll will be pushed by second round rookie Chidobe Awuzie for a starting role. The Cowboys also used a 3rd round pick and a 6th round pick on cornerbacks, taking Jourdan Lewis and Marquez White. White is a long-term project, but Lewis is an NFL ready nickel cornerback and could be one of the steals of the draft, despite his underwhelming size at 5-10 188. Pro Football Focus ranked him as their 24th ranked draft prospect. Holdovers Anthony Brown and Orlando Scandrick will also be in the mix for roles.
Scandrick was probably their best cornerback last season, but the Cowboys are reportedly trying to trade him so they can keep all their rookie cornerbacks on the roster. Scandrick is owed just 3 million dollars this season and finished last season 27th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. Scandrick missed all of 2015 with a torn ACL, but graded out above average in 4 of the previous 5 seasons before the injury, including a 10th place finish in 2014. He did miss another 4 games last season and he is going into his age 30 season, but he still seems worth keeping around at his salary.
Brown, meanwhile, was a surprise as a 6th round rookie in 2016, making 10 starts in 16 games in the absence of Morris Claiborne and Orlando Scandrick and finishing above average on Pro Football Focus on 717 snaps. He has a good chance to play a big role again this season, though I’m still skeptical that he can continue playing as well as he did last season. Given that and that they lost four key players in free agency, I expect the Cowboys’ secondary to take a step back this season, but they did bring in some replacements with potential and may be able to patchwork together a decent unit.
The Cowboys lost starters on the offensive line and in the secondary, but did a good job of patchworking some holes this off-season with cheap signings and more good drafting. They should be better in the front 7 and they still have obvious talent on offense. There is some potential for sophomore slumps from Prescott or Ezekiel Elliott, especially if the offensive line doesn’t play as well, but they could also get a vintage year from Dez Bryant, giving this offense the downfield threat it didn’t have last season until the final few games. Their schedule will be tougher this season, but they should still compete for the NFC East title and a playoff spot.
Final update: The Cowboys could be without Ezekiel Elliot for the first 6 games of the season, though it’s looking likely that he’ll see his suspension reduced or thrown out. It’s another reason why this team is unlikely to be quite as good as last year (as is a 4 game suspension by David Irving), but this should be a playoff team again in 2017, even in the tough NFC.
Prediction: 10-6, 2nd in NFC East