The Cowboys came into the 2020 season with high expectations, but their season got off to about as bad of a start as they could have imagined. Their 1-3 start was disappointing enough, but then in their week 5 game against the Giants, quarterback Dak Prescott, one of the bright spots from their disappointing start, suffered a broken ankle that ended his season. The Cowboys held on to win that game, but without Prescott, many expected this season would fall to one of the worst in the league.
Their first two games with Dalton, a pair of blowout losses, seemed to suggest that would be the case and then Dalton got hurt, leading to the Cowboys losing their next two games with bottom of the roster types under center in Ben DiNucci and Garrett Gilbert, dropping their record to 2-7 and 0-4 since the game in which Prescott got hurt. However, then Dalton returned and something changed and the Cowboys actually closed out the season by winning 4 of their last 7 games and finishing a 6-10, even having a chance at winning the pitiful division, had they pulled off a week 17 victory over the Giants.
What changed for the Cowboys and really an overarching theme for the Cowboys’ season last year was turnovers. Their 1-3 start was despite ranking 11th in first down rate differential over those 4 games, as their -7 turnover margin was the primary reason for their struggles. Turnover margins tend to be highly inconsistent on a week-to-week basis and, while their turnover struggles continued through week 7, when they sat at -13, they saw that turnover margin flip to +10 over their final 9 games. That didn’t lead to wins right away because Dalton was hurt, but when Dalton got healthy and the turnover situation continued to be drastically improved, that is when they were able to start winning games.
In total, the Cowboys finished last season ranked 16th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -0.05%. Their best unit was this offense, which ranked 13th in first down rate over expected at +0.86%. They did that despite, not only the injuries at the quarterback position, but elsewhere on this offense, which had the 4th most adjusted games lost to in the league. All of their key injured players should be back in 2021, including quarterback Dak Prescott.
The last time this roster was healthy in 2019, they still missed the post-season at 8-8, but that was largely due to a 0-5 record in one score games (sandwiched in between a 2018 season in which they went 9-3 in one score games and a 2020 season in which they went 4-4) and they actually finished 2019 ranked 6th in both first down rate differential and in point differential. They’re not quite as talented overall as that team was anymore, but Dak Prescott was actually playing the best football of his career before the injury, despite the team’s record. Overall, he completed 68.0% of his passes for an average of 8.36 YPA, 9 touchdowns, 4 interceptions and led an offense that ranked 4th in first down rate over the first four weeks of the season.
This comes after a 2019 season in which he completed 65.1% of his passes for an average of 8.22 YPA, 30 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions, while leading an offense that ranked 2nd in first down rate. Across his whole 5-year career, Prescott has completed 66.0% of his passes for an average of 7.69 YPA, 106 touchdowns, and 40 interceptions, while adding 5.07 YPC and 24 touchdowns on 259 carries and finishing 8th, 18th, 19th, 11th, and 8th among quarterbacks on PFF.
The Cowboys had to pay significantly to keep Prescott as a free agent this off-season, locking him up on a 4-year, 160 million dollar deal, and history would suggest that teams have a very tough time winning the Super Bowl with a quarterback taking up a significant portion of their cap unless that quarterback is a Hall of Fame caliber quarterback, but Prescott was too good and too young for the Cowboys to move on from him, even after his injury. Just entering his prime as an age 28 quarterback, having never missed another game due to injury, it’s possible that last year’s improved play becomes the norm for him and that he develops into a consistently elite quarterback.
The Cowboys would still be wise to add a better backup quarterback though. Dalton played well enough last season to earn more money and potentially a starting job with the Bears, leaving the Cowboys with Gilbert, DeNucci, and another bottom of the roster talent in Cooper Rush. Those three players have combined for just 90 very underwhelming pass attempts throughout their careers. The Cowboys should still be able to find a low end veteran backup to give them a little better, more experienced insurance, but obviously this offense will go as their quarterback does and they would be in big trouble if something happened to him again.
As I mentioned, it wasn’t just Prescott who missed significant time for this offense. The group most affected was their offensive line, which had the second most adjusted games lost to injury on the season. Not only that, but the players who missed time were disproportionately their best offensive linemen. In 2019, right tackle La’El Collins ranked 4th among offensive tackles on PFF, right guard Zack Martin ranked 3rd among guards, and left tackle Tyron Smith ranked 15th among offensive tackles. In 2020, Collins missed the entire season, Martin was limited to 618 snaps in 10 games, and Smith was limited to 154 snaps in 2 games. With all three set to return for 2021, this group could be a lot better, after being an obvious weakness last season, ranking 26th on PFF in pass blocking grade and 29th in run blocking grade.
As dominant as all three players have been, Zack Martin has had the most impressive career of the bunch, as he’s been probably the top interior offensive lineman in the league throughout his career. The 16th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Martin has finished in the top-5 among guards in all 7 seasons in the league, including five straight seasons in the top-3. Age and injury are becoming more of a concern for him, as he’s now going into his age 31 season and, after playing all 64 games in first 4 seasons in the league, he’s missed 8 over the past three seasons combined. Even in last season’s injury plagued year, he finished 2nd among guards though and, even if he does start to decline a little, he should remain one of the top few players in the league at his position as long as he’s on the field.
Martin also kicked out to right tackle for a stretch last season, where he was almost as dominant as he’s been on the interior in his career, and his versatility just adds to his value for this team, but with La’el Collins set to return, there shouldn’t be any reason for Martin to see action there unless Collins gets hurt again. Collins had some injury issues earlier in his career before he became a full-time starter, but he had made 47 of 48 starts in the three seasons prior to last as a full-time starter and he’s still only going into his age 28 season, so he should have a good chance of avoiding another serious injury.
Collins might not be as good as he was in 2019, as he’s unlikely to repeat the best year of his career after a significant injury and he ranked a more modest 53rd and 31st among offensive tackles on PFF in 2017 and 2018 respectively before shooting up to 4th in his dominant 2019 season, but he should remain at least an above average starter as long as he remains on the field. That will obviously be a big boost for this team after getting nothing out of him in 2020.
Smith is probably the one with the most concern going forward, as he’s the same age as Martin, going into his age 31 season, but has a much more extensive injury history, being limited to 13 games exactly in four straight seasons prior to last year, when his season ended in week two. It’s hard to tell if Smith had started to decline prior to last year’s injury because of the limited sample size, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if his best days were behind him. For a player with four top-7 finishes and eight top-16 finishes offensive tackles on PFF in the nine relatively healthy seasons of his career, even being less than his prime form would make him still an above average left tackle likely, but he’s the most concerning one in a very talented trio that are all coming off of serious injuries.
It’s not just those three players that the Cowboys have to be excited about upfront though, as they had a couple young players who had promising 2020 seasons in the midst of all their issues upfront. One of those players was left guard Connor Williams, a 2018 2nd round pick who finished 14th among guards on PFF last season as a 16-game after middling grades in his first two seasons in the league (21 starts), which at least a little bit compensated for all the Cowboys’ other absences upfront last season.
With those injured players returning, this offensive line has a very high ceiling if Williams can keep up that level of play. Williams is a one-year wonder in terms of playing at the level he played at last season, but he easily could have permanently turned a corner as a player and could even keep getting better, still only going into his age 24 season, another year removed from a torn ACL suffered late in 2018 that complicated his early career development.
Connor McGovern, a 2019 3rd round pick, also took a step forward last season, missing his whole rookie year with injury, but earning middling grades from PFF across 8 starts in 2020. Those starts came at right guard, where Zack Martin obviously occupies, but McGovern could be an option to kick inside to center, where his only competition would be 2020 4th round pick Tyler Biadisz, who was underwhelming across 427 rookie year snaps as a reserve behind now departed veteran Joe Looney.
McGovern would seem to be the better option, but Biadisz could also take a step forward in his second season as well. The loser of that competition would provide depth on the interior, with veteran swing tackle Ty Nsekhe being signed to fill that role at the tackle position. Depth is a bit of a concern, but this should be not only a much improved group from last year, but possibly one of the better units in the league if everyone stays healthy and can avoid dropping off significantly.
While Cowboys quarterbacks didn’t get much help from their offensive line, they did at least have a talented group of skill position players, including one of the top wide receiver trios in the league. The Cowboys already had one of the top wide receiver duos in the league in 2019, as Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup were one of three wide receiver pairs to both surpass 1,100 yards receiving that season, but then CeeDee Lamb fell into their laps with the 17th overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, which just made this group that much better. In 2020, despite quarterback problems, all three had impressive receiving totals, with slash lines of 92/1114/5, 59/843/5, and 74/935/5 respectively, and they all earned above average grades from PFF as well. With Prescott returning in 2021, all three players have a good chance to see their numbers increase even more.
It hasn’t always been the case that Prescott has had a dominant wide receiver group and, in fact, early in his career, he arguably had among the worst in the league, as this group is fairly newly constructed. Michael Gallup was technically the first of the three added, selected in the 3rd round in the 2018 NFL Draft, but he didn’t break out until his second season and it was Cooper’s addition a few months later, midway through the 2018 season, that began the transformation for this group.
Even though the Cowboys were in desperate need for wide receiver help at the time, acquiring Cooper wasn’t a slam dunk move at the time, as they had to give up a first round pick to acquire a player who had caught just 70 passes for 960 yards and 8 touchdowns in 23 games over the past season and a half and he had just a year and a half left on his rookie deal, including a steeply increased salary on his 5th year option for 2019.
However, Cooper was still just 24 at the time and had posted 72/1070/6 and 83/1153/5 slash lines in 2015 and 2016 respectively after being selected 4th overall by the Raiders, so the upside was obviously there and he’s made good on it since being acquired, averaging a 87/1182/7 slash line per 16 games. The Cowboys also were able to keep him on a 5-year, 100 million dollar extension, which, while expensive, was actually a discount compared to offers Cooper had on the open market.
With Gallup developing alongside him and Lamb being added to the mix as well, this group has gotten really good, really fast and all three players are still very much in their prime, with Cooper being the oldest of the bunch in his age 27 season. They don’t need much depth in this group, but they have 2018 6th round pick Cedrick Wilson, who has shown promise across 306 career snaps, and also added Simi Fehoko in the 5th round of this year’s draft.
Tight end Dalton Schultz also had a decent slash line at 63/615/4 and, though his 1.11 yards per route run average left something to be desired, he was also a capable blocker and earned a middling grade from PFF in the first significant action of the 2018 4th round pick’s career. It was originally another young tight end that was supposed to break out last season though, as 2017 undrafted free agent Blake Jarwin was getting his first career starting chance after averaging 1.56 yards per route run as a reserve throughout his career, including 1.82 yards per route run in 2019 (9th among tight ends). However, Jarwin unfortunately tore his ACL week one, yet another key injury on this offense, opening the door for Schultz to start.
Now with Jarwin set to return, it’s unclear how the Cowboys plan on splitting up the work, but I would expect both to see action, a problem for Schultz, whose numbers last season were more the result of his opportunity rather than his talent level. Jarwin also possesses a higher upside than Schultz as a receiver and his re-addition to this lineup could prove to be yet another boost for this receiving corps, which looks like one of the best in the league.
The Cowboys also have good talent at the running back position, although you wouldn’t be able to tell based off of their 23rd ranked 4.16 YPC average last season. That was primarily the fault of the offensive line though as they have a talented lead back in Ezekiel Elliott and one of the better backup running backs in the league in Tony Pollard, who both earned above average grades from PFF last season, despite relatively underwhelming production. It was yet another reminder that even good running backs have a hard time producing if they don’t have the blocking and that the key to building a consistently good running game is building a good offensive line rather than investing in running backs.
The Cowboys have done both and last year’s offensive line performance was the result of injury rather than lack of investment, but last season’s performance by Elliott at least needs to call into question the 6-year, 90 million dollar extension Elliott was given two off-seasons ago, which he is just entering the first season of in 2021. Again, Elliott himself played relatively well, but he proved he’s more dependent on his blocking and the talent around him than most realized previously, rushing for 979 yards, 4.01 YPC, and 6 touchdowns, all career lows. He also earned the worst rushing grade of his career from PFF, but he still earned an above average rushing grade and picked up 70.3% of his rushing yardage after contact.
One big concern for Elliott last season was fumbling, leading running backs with 5 lost on the season, part of the problem for the Cowboys with the turnover situation early in the season. That should prove to be a fluke though and, in fact, 4 of those lost fumbles were in a 5-game stretch early in the season and Elliott has lost just 6 fumbles in 66 other career games aside from that stretch. The bigger concern was his issue in the passing game, as he averaged just 4.76 yards per target and 0.87 yards per route run and he has been underwhelming on passing downs throughout his career, averaging 6.21 yards per target and 1.09 yards per route run.
Pollard hasn’t been better, averaging 4.98 yards per target and 1.07 yards per route run, but he’s been very impressive as a runner in limited action since the Cowboys selected him in the 4th round in 2019. In total, he’s averaged 4.76 YPC on 187 carries with 4.02 YPC of that coming after contact and 46 broken tackles on 187 rushes, giving him the highest and second highest elusive rating in the league over the past two seasons respectively.
Pollard probably wouldn’t maintain that rate over a larger role if forced into the starting role by an injury to Elliott, but he would probably be more than capable of filling in if needed and, in the meantime, he’s also one of the most talented backup running backs in the league. This is an impressive backfield that should be a lot more productive with the rest of this offense much healthier and more talented this season.
While the Cowboys’ offense didn’t fall off completely without Dak Prescott and their injured offensive linemen, finishing the season ranked 13th in first down rate over expected, their defense struggled throughout the season, even after their turnover margin improved down the stretch. However, they weren’t as bad as their 25th ranked points per drive allowed would suggest, as they were actually an above average offense on 1st and 2nd second down, allowing a 30.31% conversion rate across those two downs (11th in the NFL), but ranking 26th in 3rd and 4th down conversion rate at 46.96%. Fortunately for the Cowboys, 1st and 2nd down defensive performance is significantly more predictive on a year-to-year basis and, even if their defense were to just average out to their overall rank in first down rate allowed over expected, they would still be around a middling defense, ranking 21st in that metric overall in 2020.
The Cowboys are also hoping for better coaching, as former defensive coordinator Mike Nolan and his outdated schemes seemed to result in a down year for most players on this defense and have now been replaced by ex-Falcons head coach Dan Quinn, who previously was one of the better defensive signal callers in the league as the Seahawks’ defensive coordinator. Quinn is a few years removed from being a coordinator, doesn’t have the same talent he had in Seattle, and largely had underwhelming defenses with the Falcons, but it would be hard for him to be worse than Nolan and he has a good chance to continue being an above average defensive play caller.
The Cowboys also clearly recognized their defensive needs on draft day, as they had six picks in the top-115 and used all six on defensive players, but they didn’t have the financial flexibility to do much in the way of adding or keeping veteran talent this off-season and, in fact, have just two of their top-nine in terms of snaps played on this 2019 defense still on this roster. This could be an improved group in 2021, but it’s an overhauled group that won’t resemble their recent defenses in terms of personnel, so there are a lot of questions.
One constant for this defense has been defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, who has been the longest tenured member of this unit, being selected in the 2nd round in 2014, franchise tagged for the 2018 season, and then extended on a 5-year, 105 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago. It would seem Lawrence’s production has fallen off since signing that extension, as he’s totaled just 11.5 sacks over the past two seasons, compared to 25 sacks in the two seasons prior to being extended, but his peripheral pass rush numbers haven’t fallen off significantly, going from 15.1% pressure rate in 2017-2018 to 12.3% in 2019-2020, despite significantly more double teams over the past two seasons, and he’s remained a dominant run defender as well.
Easily the most impressive player on this defense last season, Lawrence finished the season 5th among edge defenders despite a modest sack total, his 4th straight season ranked in the top-13 among edge defenders on PFF. Lawrence has also shaken off some early career injury issues to play in all 64 possible games over those past four seasons and, still probably in his prime in his age 29 season, I wouldn’t expect to see him begin to decline in 2021. He’s an obvious bright spot for this defense.
The rest of this edge defender group is in much worse shape though. Aldon Smith was the starter opposite Lawrence last season and he surprisingly turned back the clock to have a solid season across 809 snaps, despite being out of the league for about 5 seasons for off-the-field reasons, but Smith had another incident off-the-field this off-season and was not retained. Instead, the Cowboys will be relying on another player who was impressive in his return from off-the-field issues in 2020, Randy Gregory, as well as 2018 fourth round pick Dorance Armstrong, who should see an uptick from the 368 snaps he played last season, and third round rookie Chauncey Golston, who figures to see significant action in this thin position group as a rookie.
Gregory has the most upside of the bunch and, though he played just 270 snaps last season, he excelled as a situational pass rusher, with 3.5 sacks, 8 hits, and a 13.7% pressure rate. However, he comes with a lot of downside because he’s been frequently suspended throughout his career, he’s played just 26 career games due to injuries and suspensions, and he’s running out of time to make good on his promise as a former second round pick who could have gone in the top-10 if not for off-the-field concerns, as Gregory is already heading into his age 29 season. Gregory’s career 12.2% pressure rate shows he’s been a consistent pass rusher throughout his career, not just in 2020, but the 6-5 255 pounder has never held up well against the run and would likely to mostly limited to situational edge rush work even if he manages to stay on the field for the entire season.
Armstrong, meanwhile, was more of a run stopping specialist across his limited action last season, but he didn’t really hold up that well in that role. On top of that, he’s never surpassed 368 snaps in a season and his career 6.4% pressure rate really leaves something to be desired. Armstrong may still have some untapped potential in his 4th year in the league, but he’ll be expected to play a significantly bigger role this season than he has in the past and I would expect him to struggle. Golston also has upside, but also figures to struggle as a mere third round rookie. Aside from Lawrence and some situational pass rush potential from Gregory, this is a concerning position group. Lawrence seems destined to see frequent double teams yet again.
As bad as things were on the edge last season for the Cowboys, they were even worse on the interior. Throughout the season, the Cowboys cycled through seven different interior defenders who all played more than 150 snaps and somehow none of them managed to earn even an average grade from PFF, even though this group did contain some proven veterans. The Cowboys have overhauled this position this off-season, jettisoning most of their veterans and only still having three of those seven returning from last season, 2019 2nd round pick Trysten Hill (212 snaps), 2020 3rd round pick Neville Gallimore (416 snaps), and 2015 undrafted free agent and journeyman Justin Hamilton (236 snaps).
Hamilton was horrific across his limited action last season and had only played 143 defensive snaps in his career previously, so he would be a very underwhelming option if he had to see action in 2021. In a wide open position group, it’s possible that could happen, but the Cowboys did add a pair of defensive tackles through the draft in third rounder Osa Odighizuwa and sixth rounder Quinton Bohanna and they also added veteran journeyman Brent Urban and another veteran Carlos Watkins to the mix in free agency as well, so they at least have other options besides Hamilton.
Hill and Gaillimore will likely be the nominal starters, but even as only nominal starters, they are likely to see significantly more action than they have in the past, with neither having topped 416 snaps in a season in their careers. For Hill, his limited snap count last season was largely the result of an injury that limited him to 5 games, but he also struggled mightily when on the field, finishing 136th among 139 interior defenders on PFF in 2020, following a rookie year in 2019 when he played just 121 nondescript snaps. A former second round pick who is still only in his age 23 season, the upside is still there, but he’s far from a guarantee to reach his upside and could struggle mightily in a larger role. Gallimore, meanwhile, was also underwhelming in his limited action last season and would need to take a big step forward in his second year to not be a liability as a starter.
With Hill and Gallimore being inexperienced, a pair of rookies possibly in the mix, and Justin Hamilton also having played very little in his career, veterans Brent Urban and Carlos Watkins are the most proven of this bunch by default, even though neither has an impressive track record. Watkins was selected by the Texans in the 5th round in 2017 and spent his first four seasons there, but he was mostly a backup in his first three seasons (212 snaps per seasons), he didn’t show much as a backup, and then he was horrible in 2020 in his first extended action, ranking 122nd among 139 eligible interior defenders across 542 snaps.
Urban, meanwhile, actually was dominant against the run in limited action for the Bears last season, playing just 370 snaps overall and finishing 3rd interior defenders on run defender grade, and he’s been a consistently solid run defender throughout his career, but he’s also averaged just 379 snaps per season over the past three seasons, he’s on his 4th team in as many seasons, he has an extensive injury history, he has just a 6.5% pressure rate for his career, and now he’s heading into his age 30 season. That he is the most proven of this group tells you something about the rest of the bunch, though they do at least have theoretical upside in a very young position group.
A few years ago, the Cowboys seemed to have one of the best linebacker duos in the league and one that would stay together a long-time. Leighton Vander Esch, a 2018 1st round pick, and Jaylon Smith, a 2016 2nd round pick, finished the 2018 season ranked 5th and 6th respectively among off ball linebackers on PFF, despite being just in their age 22 and age 23 seasons respectively. Vander Esch was under team control long-term on a rookie deal, while Smith signed a 6-year, 68.421 million dollar extension to keep him around for the long haul as well.
However, things have gone south quickly. Vander Esch has missed 13 out of 32 possible games over the past two seasons and has also seen his play drop off significantly, falling to 60th and 67th among off ball linebackers on PFF in those two seasons respectively. Smith, meanwhile, has been healthy, not missing a game, but fell to 19th among off ball linebackers in 2019 and then 53rd in 2020. With a decision on Vander Esch’s 5th year option needed this off-season, the Cowboys decided to use another first round pick, 12th overall, on a linebacker, taking Penn State’s Micah Parsons, and subsequently declined Vander Esch’s option, making this very likely his last season in Dallas.
Smith hasn’t missed a game in four seasons and has a lot more bounce back potential than Vander Esch, having finished in the top-25 among off ball linebackers in his three seasons prior to last, still only being in his age 26 season, now being in a defensive scheme that should fit him better. However, if he doesn’t bounce back, it’s possible he could see himself on the way out in the next couple off-seasons as well, owed non-guaranteed salaries of 9.2 million and 11 million in 2022 and 2023 respectively. Unless Vander Esch can show something resembling his rookie year form, Parsons should play over him as a rookie and it’s possible he could play over Smith as well. Overall, all three players have a high upside, but they could with significant uncertainty, even the rookie Parsons, who could struggle to adapt to the NFL as many even highly drafted rookies do.
The Cowboys also added further depth by selecting LSU’s Jabril Cox in the 5th round of the draft and signing veteran safety Keanu Neal, who is expected to play at least part-time as a linebacker. Neal was a first round pick by Dan Quinn’s Falcons in 2016 and he looked on his way towards developing into one of the better safeties in the league with back-to-back above average grades from PFF for his first two seasons in the league, especially excelling against the run at 6-1 215. However, injuries completely derailed his career after that.
A torn ACL and achilles in back-to-back years limited him to just 4 games total over 2018 and 2019 combined and he was not the same player upon his return in 2020, earning a middling grade from PFF and showing noticeably decreased athleticism, leading to him having to settle for a one-year deal with Dallas as a free agent to be a hybrid linebacker/safety. Though he’s currently listed as a linebacker first, it’s unclear what his path to playing time is in a deep linebacking corps, barring injury. This is a high variance group, but it’s not hard to imagine that they could get above average play from this group.
Neal could have an easier path to playing time at safety, which remains a position of weakness, as it has seemingly been forever. Xavier Woods, who led this group with 990 snaps in 15 starts and earned a middling grade for it, went out the door as a free agent this off-season, with Neal being added to the mix along with fellow former Falcon Damontae Kazee, journeyman Jayron Kearse, and 6th round rookie Israel Mukuamu to try to replace Woods. They’ll compete for roles along with a pair of holdovers in Donovan Wilson, who showed promise across his 673 snaps last season, and Darian Thompson, who struggled mightily across his 479 snaps last season.
Wilson seems like the best bet of the bunch to secure a starting role, given the way he closed out last season, ranking as PFF’s 5th ranked safety from week 7 on. However, that comes after he struggled so much earlier in the season that he finished just 19th among safeties overall on the season, solid, but not the level of dominance he showed down the stretch. On top of that, the 2019 6th round pick had only played 16 career snaps prior to week 4 of last season, so he’s still very inexperienced. It’s possible he’s permanently turned a corner and will remain an above average safety going forward, but he comes with downside as well as an inexperienced and somewhat inconsistent former late round pick.
With Neal technically listed with the linebackers, Kazee is the most experienced of the bunch, actually leading the league with 7 interceptions as a converted cornerback in place of the injured Keanu Neal in 2018 with the Falcons, a season in which Kazee finished 22nd among safeties overall. However, Kazee was more of a hybrid cornerback/safety in 2019 and didn’t come close to matching his level of play from the previous year, before a 2020 season that ended with a torn achilles after 241 snaps. The injury is obviously concerning, but he’s proven to be better at safety than cornerback in his career and if he’s healthy it’s possible he bounces back somewhat and is an above average starter as a full-time safety.
Jayron Kearse has been in the league for five seasons, but has mostly been a backup, and finished 73rd among 99 eligible safeties last season across a career high 503 snaps. Mukuamu is likely going to be too raw to contribute in a big way as a rookie. Darian Thompson has 28 career starts in five seasons in the league, but has never been more than a middling starter and was one of the worst safeties in the league last season, ranking 92nd among 99 eligible safeties on PFF. Unless Neal moves back to safety, Wilson and Kazee seem like the favorites for the starting jobs, although it’s possible the Cowboys cycle through a couple different options throughout the season.
While the Cowboys have had issues at cornerback for years, they actually had good cornerback play as recently as 2019, when Byron Jones, Chidobe Awuzie, and Jourdan Lewis ranked 17th, 27th, and 41st among cornerbacks on PFF on 917 snaps, 1020 snaps, and 590 snaps respectively. However, Jones left as a free agent last off-season and Awuzie and Lewis both struggled in Mike Nolan’s scheme, finishing 102nd and 116th respectively among 136 eligible cornerbacks.
Lewis has some bounce back potential with Nolan gone, but Awuzie signed with the Bengals this off-season, leaving Lewis to compete for a role in a group that includes 2020 2nd round pick Trevon Diggs, veteran depth cornerback Anthony Brown, and a trio of players who have never played a defensive snap in the NFL in 2nd round rookie Kelvin Joseph, 3rd round rookie Nahshon Wright, and 2020 4th round pick Reggie Robinson, who was limited to special teams as a rookie.
Diggs was selected last year to replace Byron Jones and held his own across 758 rookie year snaps, which made him probably the Cowboys’ best cornerback last season, so I would expect him to be locked in a starting role in his second season in the league, in which it’s possible, although hardly guaranteed that he could be significantly improved. Anthony Brown has made 41 starts in 5 seasons in the league, but has never earned more than a middling grade from PFF and is coming off the worst year of his career, finishing 92nd among 136 eligible cornerbacks across 534 snaps, so it shouldn’t be too hard for Kelvin Joseph to beat him out for playing time as a rookie.
Jourdan Lewis will have to compete for his role as well, after struggling across 817 snaps last season, but the 2017 3rd round pick was an above average slot cornerback across an average of 508 snaps per season over the first three seasons of his career prior to last season and he was retained by the Cowboys as a free agent on a somewhat significant 3-year, 13.5 million dollar deal, so I like his chances of beating out unproven options at least for the slot cornerback role. There is another depth and young talent here that the Cowboys have good upside in the secondary, but that comes with significant downside.
The Cowboys somewhat surprisingly were one of the better special teams units in the league in 2020, ranking 7th in DVOA and being one of just four teams to finish above average in DVOA in all aspects of special teams. Part of that was kicker Greg Zuerlein, whose 34/41 on field goals is made even more impressive by the fact that all but one of his misses came from at least 50 yards out. He also performed well on kickoffs and finished as PFF’s 6th ranked kicker overall on the season. Zuerlein hasn’t always been the most consistent kicker in his career, but he’s generally been a solid option, making 82.2% of his career field goals, and, now in his age 34 season, could continue at this level for another few seasons.
The situation was not as good at punter, where veteran Chris Jones and rookie Hunter Niswander both earned only middling grades from PFF, but they still finished with an above average punting DVOA regardless. Niswander was the more productive of the two, averaging 47.2 yards per punt, 42.0 net yards per punt, and 4.54 seconds of hang time per punt and Jones was released this off-season, but he is not necessarily be the favorite for the job because the Cowboys might have found a free agent upgrade in veteran Bryan Anger.
Anger was PFF’s 9th ranked punter in 2020 and averaged 46.4 yards per punt, 41.8 net yards per punt, and 4.40 seconds of hang time per punt, all in line with career averages for the 9-year veteran. He’s been a consistently solid punter in his career and, still in his prime in his age 33 season, has a good chance to be better than either of Dallas’ punters were a year ago, which would mean this punting unit would be even better if the rest of the bunch can keep up their high levels of play. Anger and Zuerlein are likely to be a solid veteran duo in 2021, assuming Anger can beat out the younger Niswander.
The Cowboys also got above average production from both their punt return and kickoff return teams, with their kickoff return unit being the better of the two units and ranking 3rd in the NFL with 26.1 yards per return. Top kickoff returner Tony Pollard averaged just 23.9 yards per return and his career average of 22.0 yards per return is even more underwhelming, but he’s not a bad option and could be pushed for the job by fellow backup running back Rico Dowdle, who averaged 38.0 yards per return across 4 returns as a rookie in 2020 and could breakout in a larger role in his second season in 2021.
CeeDee Lamb has a big role on offense, but he also averaged 7.2 yards per return as the primary punt returner in 2020 and is likely to remain in that role in 2021, with his best competition being reserve wide receiver Cedrick Wilson, who has just 7 punt returns for 4.7 yards in three seasons in the league. The Cowboys have a solid, if unspectacular group of returners and, if they continue getting good play from the rest of their special teams, they will likely continue producing at a high level.
As mentioned, the Cowboys got great play from most of their special teamers. Part of that was much improved coaching in the first season on the job for John Fassel, who is widely regarded as one of the better special teams coordinators in the league, regularly coaxing above average years out of his units in 12 seasons with the Raiders and Rams prior to joining the Cowboys last season. The Cowboys were also led by four players who all played more than 150 snaps and finished in the top-40 among special teamers on PFF. Dorance Armstrong (276 snaps) led the way as PFF’s #2 ranked special teamer, while Noah Brown (213 snaps), Justin March-Lillard (202 snaps), and Luke Gifford (155 snaps) all played at a high level as well.
March-Lillard is no longer with the team though, while the other three all had by far the best season of their careers in 2021, so the Cowboys could definitely see a significantly worse performance from their top special teamers this season, which would have a big effect on this special teams unit as a whole. Terrell Basham and Jeremy Sprinkle are free agents with special teams experience that the Cowboys added this off-season, but both have mostly struggled as special teamers in their careers. The Cowboys also lost Blake Bell (162 snaps) and Joe Thomas (164 snaps) who were capable last season, while Donovan Wilson (179 snaps), will likely see his special teams snaps decrease if he earned a bigger role on defense.
Francis Bernard (214 snaps), Rico Dowdle (198 snaps), and Sean McKeon (137 snaps) all are coming off above average seasons on PFF and could have bigger roles in 2021, but their top-two returning snap leaders from a year ago, CJ Goodwin (313 snaps) and Darian Thompson (249 snaps), have both been middling at best in their careers on special teams. This isn’t a bad group, but it’s unlikely to be as good as a year ago and, as a result, their special teams as a whole are likely to take a step back in 2021, even though their kicker, punter, and returners could all be above average.
The Cowboys have had some bad luck over the past two seasons, failing to win any of their close games in 2019, in the middle of a stretch where the Cowboys are otherwise 13-7 in one score games, and then in 2020 their season was completely derailed, first by the turnover margin swinging against them significantly early in the season and then, by the time it swung all the way back, the Cowboys were without their starting quarterback and top-3 offensive linemen.
Expected to get those players back in 2021, the Cowboys’ offense should be much improved and, in fact, an offense that ranked 2nd in first down rate in 2019 and 4th in first down rate over the first four games of 2020 before Prescott’s injury could easily be one of the best in the league if their key players stay relatively healthy. Their defense is less promising, but, compared to 2020, they should be better on more important downs (3rd and 4th) and be better coached, so things are looking up on that side of the ball.
The NFC East is still very winnable and the Cowboys won’t need more than passable play on that side of the ball to win the division if their offense can live up to expectations, but their young defense will need to exceed expectations for this team to be a legitimate Super Bowl contender. That’s within the realm of possibilities, but I would expect this to be another good, but not good enough year for the Cowboys, although that is an upgrade compared to their disappointing finishes the past two seasons. I will have a final prediction for the Cowboys at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.
8/8/21 Update: The Cowboys were one of the worst teams in the league last season in terms of yards per play allowed on defense, which is more predictive than first down rate allowed, but their special teams should be above average again, which matters more than I realized, and the Cowboys should be able to mask their defensive issues somewhat with good special teams and strong play from a much healthier offense in 2021. They seem like the favorite to come out of the NFC East, even if both Washington and the Giants are decent teams this season.
9/4/21 Update: I have Dallas winning an improved, but still mediocre NFC East. Their offense should be one of the best in the league this season if they can stay remotely healthy and, for as much as they have issues on defense, offense is more predictive and they have solid special teams as well, so they should be a slightly above average team. An easy schedule should get them to double digit wins.
Prediction: 10-7 1st in NFC East