Dallas Cowboys at New York Giants: 2022 Week 3 NFL Pick

Dallas Cowboys (1-1) at New York Giants (2-0)

The Giants are 2-0, but they haven’t been that impressive. Both of their wins have been close against below average opponents, with a combined margin of victory of 4 points against the Titans and Panthers, and their win over the Panthers was in large part due to the Giants having a +2 turnover margin, which is not predictive week-to-week. In terms of efficiency, which is much more predictive week-to-week, the Giants rank just 25th on offense, 17th on defense, and 20th overall, despite a relatively easy schedule. Even though the Giants are 2-0, they have still played more like the sub .500 team most were expecting them to be this season.

Unfortunately, the public doesn’t seem to be buying the Giants either, so we’re not really getting line value with their opponents, the Dallas Cowboys. If anything, we’re actually getting some line value with the Giants, as this line has shifted all the way from NY Giants -4.5 on the early line last week to NY Giants -1 this week, a huge shift, considering about 1 in 4 games are decided by 2-4 points. That line movement happened, despite the fact that the Giants won and moved to 2-0 last week, because the Cowboys pulled a shocking upset over the Bengals as 7.5-point home underdogs, with former undrafted free agent backup quarterback Cooper Rush making just his second career start. 

However, the Bengals were likely overlooking Rush and caught off guard by a backup quarterback who they didn’t have much tape on, similar to the Minnesota Vikings last season, who lost to Rush in his first career start. The Giants should be better focused than the Bengals were a week ago and better prepared for a quarterback who they now have an extra week of tape on. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Rush led touchdown drives on his first two drives against the Bengals before being limited to two field goals and no touchdowns on his subsequent eight drives.

In addition to causing a significant line movement, the Cowboys’ upset win last week puts them in a bad spot this week, as teams cover at just a 41.3% rate historically after a home upset win as underdogs of 5 or more. Part of that is probably because big home upset wins tend to cause a significant line movement that usually tends to be an overreaction of a single week of play, but a big upset win could also make a bad team overconfident, which is not a good situation, even for a team facing a 2-0 division opponent.

Unfortunately, we’re not getting enough line value with the Giants to take them confidently, even with the significant line movement. If the Giants were mostly healthy, they would be the obvious pick, but they figure to be without key defensive lineman Leonard Williams, arguably their best defensive player, in this game for the first time this season, which will be a big loss. My calculated line is still NY Giants -2, so we’re getting some line value with the team in a better spot, but this pick is for pick ‘em purposes only.

New York Giants 20 Dallas Cowboys 17

Pick against the spread: NY Giants -1

Confidence: Low

Cincinnati Bengals at Dallas Cowboys: 2022 Week 2 NFL Pick

Cincinnati Bengals (0-1) at Dallas Cowboys (0-1)

The Bengals lost the turnover battle by five at home against the Steelers last week and still could have won the game on numerous occasions if not for losing their long snapper, leading to several missed kicks that would have won the game. That’s because they won the first down rate battle and the yards per play battle by 11.36% and 0.22 respectively, which are much more predictive week-to-week than turnover margin. They should be more than fine going forward, especially with Joe Burrow likely to be better than he was last week, in his first game back after off-season surgery.

Unfortunately, we’re not getting a good opportunity to get good line value with the Bengals after that loss, as this line has shifted from favoring the home team Cowboys by 2.5 points last week to now favoring the visiting Bengals by 7 points, as a result of the Cowboys’ blowout loss to the Buccaneers and the loss of quarterback Dak Prescott with injury. That being said, we are still getting at least a little line value with the Bengals, as the Cowboys offense is just that bad right now and not just because Prescott is out.

Already down two starting offensive linemen in free agency, they are also without left tackle Tyron Smith and now are without replacement left guard Connor McGovern, with both players injured, while their receiving corps, which already lost Amari Cooper and Cedrick Wilson this off-season, is also without wide receiver Michael Gallup due to injury right now. I’m not confident enough in the Bengals to bet on them as touchdown road favorites, as Cooper Rush could be better than expected against a Bengals team that doesn’t have a lot of tape on him and that could get caught off guard by him, like the Vikings were last season in Rush’s first career start, but the Bengals are still the right side for pick ‘em purposes.

Cincinnati Bengals 24 Dallas Cowboys 16

Pick against the spread: Cincinnati -7

Confidence: Low

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Dallas Cowboys: 2022 Week 1 NFL Pick

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-0) at Dallas Cowboys (0-0)

We’re not getting significant line value with the Buccaneers as 2.5-point road favorites in Dallas this week and, in fact, my calculated line is Tampa Bay -1, meaning we’re actually getting a little line value with the Dallas, but that’s pretty insignificant line movement and Tom Brady led teams have been close to automatic covering the spread in his career when he basically just needs to win to cover, going 57-28 ATS as underdogs of favorites of fewer than three points. I would need Chris Godwin to play for the Buccaneers to be worth betting, but there’s a good chance he does. 

As much as the Buccaneers have gotten attention for their injury situation, with a pair of offensive line starters going down for the season, the Cowboys are going to start the season without left tackle Tyron Smith and Michael Gallup, after already suffering significant losses this off-season, with Amari Cooper, Randy Gregory, Connor Williams, and La’El Collins no longer with the team. The Buccaneers should win this game by at least a field goal or more. I’ll update this pick before gametime if Godwin ends up playing.

Update: Godwin is expected to play, so I think the Buccaneers are a safe bet this week, as the healthier team over a banged up Cowboys squad.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 30 Dallas Cowboys 24

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay -2.5

Confidence: Medium

Dallas Cowboys 2022 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The 2019 Cowboys ranked 2nd in offensive efficiency, 11th in defensive efficiency, and 5th in overall efficiency, but finished just 8-8 and out of the playoffs, in large part due to a 0-5 record in one score games, with their +113 point differential also being among the best in the league, ranking 6th. That suggested the Cowboys had a good chance to take a big step forward in 2020, as their record in close games would inevitably even out in the long-term (the 2018 Cowboys were 9-3 in one score games). However, the Cowboys’ 2020 season was completely derailed by injuries with their quarterback Dak Prescott (11 games missed) and their top-3 offensive linemen Tyron Smith (14 games), La’El Collins (16 games), and Zack Martin (6 games) all missing significant time, among others, leading to the Cowboys dropping to 6-10.

The 2021 Cowboys were healthier though and, perhaps not surprisingly, had a good season on both sides of the ball, ranking 8th in offensive efficiency, 15th in defensive efficiency, and 7th in overall efficiency, similar to their 2019 campaign, only this time their record in one-score games was 5-3 and their overall record improved to 12-5. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough for the Cowboys to avoid going out in the first round of the playoffs and things have only gotten worse for them since then, as they have lost arguably the most talent of any team in the league this off-season and did not have the cap flexibility to do much of anything to replace them.

Part of the reason for the Cowboys’ lack of cap flexibility is the 4-year, 160 million dollar deal they gave to franchise quarterback Dak Prescott last off-season. The Cowboys got creative with the structure of the deal and his 2022 cap hit of 19.73 million is manageable, but eventually all of that money will hit the cap, which is something the Cowboys had to be mindful of when making making moves this off-season, when they chose to trade wide receiver Amari Cooper for a late round pick (20 million dollar salary), to cut right tackle La’El Collins (10.7 million), and to not match contracts given to left guard Connor Williams (14.035 million over 2 years) and edge defender Randy Gregory (70 million over 5 years). All four of those players were above average starters last season and their absence will be noticeable on the field this season.

Prescott’s cap hit is set to jump to 49.13 million in 2023 and, while the Cowboys can push some of that forward by restructuring the contract, it’s going to get increasingly harder to keep Prescott’s cap number at a manageable number. That’s relevant because, since the start of the salary cap era in 1994, just 5 of 28 Super Bowls have been won by a quarterback with a cap hit that was more than 11% of the salary cap and all of those quarterbacks are Hall of Fame caliber players. Prescott has played well throughout his 6-year career, finishing above average on PFF in every season, and he is coming off arguably the best season of his career, finishing 8th among quarterbacks on PFF in 2021, but he hasn’t quite shown himself to be the caliber of quarterback who could win a Super Bowl with a big cap hit number. 

In total, Prescott has completed 66.6% of his passes for an average of 7.64 YPA, 143 touchdowns, and 50 interceptions in 85 career starts, including 68.8% completion for 7.46 YPA, 37 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions last season. The ankle injury that wiped out most of Prescott’s 2020 season seems to have limited his athleticism, as he had just 48 carries for 3.04 YPC last season, after averaging 5.07 YPC on 259 carries prior to the injury, but he’s only missed one other game with injury and his career and it’s possible some of his athleticism returns now another year removed from the injury, even if he doesn’t return to his old form as a runner.

The injury hasn’t affected him as a passer clearly, but, with his supporting cast starting to decline, Prescott will need to elevate his play to an elite level to compensate and to keep the Cowboys consistently competitive as key players leave around him. It remains to be seen if he can do that though and the smart money is on the Cowboys declining in 2022 compared to 2021. If he misses any time this season, Prescott would be again replaced by Cooper Rush, who made his first career start in place of Prescott last season when he missed a game with a shoulder injury. 

Rush performed pretty well in that game, completing 24 of 40 for 325 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 1 interception in an upset victory, but he’s still a former undrafted free agent with one start in five seasons in the league, so he’s still very unproven and would almost certainly be a big downgrade from Prescott if he had to start for an extended period of time. Even if Prescott isn’t quite an elite quarterback this year, he should still be one of the better quarterbacks, so the Cowboys’ quarterback room is in a relatively enviable position from a talent standpoint.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

With the Cowboys lacking financial flexibility to replace the key players they lost this off-season, they mostly turned to the draft to fill holes and, with a pair of offensive line starters from a year ago no longer with the team, it’s not surprising the Cowboys opted to use their first round pick on an offensive lineman, taking Tulsa’s Tyler Smith 24th overall, their 4th selection of an offensive lineman in the first round in the past 12 drafts. Smith was penalty prone in college and, despite his physical tools, could take some time to adjust to the NFL game from the small school level, but the Cowboys need him to make an impact right away, as departed left guard Connor Williams was PFF’s 10th ranked guard last season, while departed right tackle La’El Collins was PFF’s 13th ranked offensive tackle. 

Smith was a left tackle at the collegiate level, but is expected to begin his career at left guard, rather than right tackle, likely locking in Terence Steele as the starter at right tackle. An undrafted free agent in 2020, Steele has been the swing tackle for the Cowboys over the past two seasons, but they’ve had so many absences at tackle in that time that Steele has still made 27 starts over the past two seasons, despite technically being a reserve, with 6 of those starts coming on the left side and 21 coming on the right. Steele struggled mightily as a rookie, finishing 89th out of 93 eligible on PFF, but he was a middling starter in year two and, while he probably doesn’t have a huge ceiling, he could easily remain a capable starter long-term.

The other option would be to play Smith at right tackle and start Connor McGovern at guard, where he has shown promise in 14 career starts since the Cowboys drafted him in the 3rd round in 2019, but it seems like the most likely option is Smith at left guard, Steele at right tackle, and McGovern beginning the season on the bench. It’s also possible McGovern could push for the starting center job, as incumbent Tyler Biadasz has been middling at best in 21 starts over the past two seasons, since the Cowboys drafted him in the 4th round in 2020. The Cowboys have seemed hesitant to move McGovern to center though, despite the fact that he played there in college, and it’s also possible that Biadasz could be better in his third season in the league, so the most likely outcome is McGovern being a reserve.

With the rest of the offensive line being unsettled, the Cowboys will need big seasons from their two best offensive linemen, long-time starters and perennial Pro Bowlers Zack Martin and Tyron Smith who, along with Tyler Smith and retired All-Pro center Travis Frederick, were the four offensive linemen the Cowboys have selected in the first round in recent drafts. Zack Martin and Tyron Smith have been great players for a long time, but they are both going into their age 32 season and both have become increasingly injury prone in recent years, so it’s no guarantee they continue playing at the same level.

Tyron Smith still finished the 2021 season as PFF’s 2nd ranked offensive tackle, his 5th season in the top-7 at his position over the past 9 years and 8th season in the top-15, but he missed 6 games, bringing his total missed games to 33 over the past 7 seasons, a stretch in which he has never played more than 13 games in a season. If he can stay on the field, he has a good chance to remain an above average starter, but I wouldn’t expect him to quite play at the level he played at last season. It’s possible the Cowboys drafted Tyler Smith to eventually replace Tyron Smith at left tackle, though the Cowboys have also taken Josh Ball in the 4th round in 2021 (zero rookie year snaps) and Matt Waletzko in the 5th round this year as developmental long-term options.

Martin, meanwhile, was PFF’s 1st ranked guard last season, his 8th straight season in the top-5 at the position, but he’s missed seven games over the past two seasons, after missing just two in the previous six seasons. He hasn’t shown as many signs of breaking down as Tyron Smith, but he will almost definitely begin to decline over the next few seasons. I wouldn’t expect either of them to drop off significantly in 2022 and both could still remain among the best players in the league at their positions, but they’re shakier options than they have been in recent years. It’s a concern for an offensive line that will struggle to replace a pair of key starters from a year ago, even with a first round pick being used on the unit.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

Losing Amari Cooper will hurt for the Cowboys, but he’s not coming off of his best season, finishing 41st among wide receivers on PFF, averaging 1.65 yards per route run (down from his 1.85 career average), and posting a 68/865/8 slash line. On top of that, if there was one position where the Cowboys could afford to lose a player like Cooper it was wide receiver, with recent first round pick Ceedee Lamb looking like a long-term #1 receiver and Michael Gallup capable of being a solid #2 receiver at a cheaper price than Cooper, re-signing on a 5-year, 57.5 million dollar deal this off-season, with 23 million guaranteed over the first two seasons.

Like on the offensive line, the Cowboys used an early pick on a wide receiver to replace Amari Cooper, taking South Alabama’s Jalen Tolbert in the 3rd round. He’ll compete with veteran free agent acquisition James Washington for the #3 wide receiver job behind Lamb and Gallup. Washington was a 2nd round pick by the Steelers in 2018 and was given plenty of opportunity in Pittsburgh, but his best slash line was a 44/735/3 in 2019 and he averaged just 1.14 yards per route run over his four seasons in Pittsburgh, including just 0.85 yards per route run in 2021, a season in which he finished as PFF’s 109th ranked wide receiver out of 110 eligible. 

Washington may be the starter in three wide receiver sets early in the year, but the Cowboys are probably hoping Tolbert takes his job sooner rather than later. It’s also possible both Tolbert and Washington could have to play in three wide receiver sets at the beginning of the season because Gallup is coming off of a torn ACL suffered in early January, which means he’ll be just 8 months removed from the injury in week 1, making him a question mark for the start of the season. 

Gallup also dealt with a calf injury earlier last season, and, between the two injuries, he was limited to just a 35/445/2 slash line in just 9 games total. Cedrick Wilson played well as an injury replacement last season, averaging 1.74 yards per route run and totaling a 45/602/6 slash line, despite opening the season as the #4 receiver, but he signed with the Dolphins this off-season and both Tolbert and Washington are unlikely to be as good as Wilson was last season, so the Cowboys will have to hope Gallup doesn’t miss too much time.

Despite his recent injuries, the Cowboys obviously still believe in Gallup, as evidenced by the fact that they gave him a big long-term contract. He’s taken on more of a complementary role over the past two seasons due to the addition of Ceedee Lamb, but he still had a 59/843/5 slash line in 2020 in Lamb’s first season in Dallas, despite not having his starting quarterback for most of the season, and he finished with a 66/1107/6 slash line in 14 games when he was the #2 receiver in 2019, with he and Amari Cooper being one of just five wide receiver duos in the league to both surpass 1000 yards that season. 

Gallup also only missed two games in his first three seasons due to injury, prior to last year’s injury plagued season. A torn ACL clouds his future and he’s a one-year wonder in terms of being a 1000+ yard receiver, but the 2018 3rd round pick is still only going into his age 26 season and has the upside to be an above average wide receiver for years to come if he can put his recent injuries behind him. It might take him a year to return to form and he probably won’t play all 17 games this season, but he could still make a significant impact, especially in the second half of the season.

With Cooper gone, Ceedee Lamb is officially the #1 receiver on this offense and it’s impressive what he’s been able to do despite not being a true #1 receiver thus far in his career, as he posted a 74/935/5 slash line with 1.81 yards per route run as a rookie in 2020 on 111 targets (24th most in the NFL) and then posted a 79/1102/6 slash line with 2.06 yards per route run last season on 120 targets (24th most in the NFL again), finishing as PFF’s 10th ranked wide receiver for the 2021 season in the process. Still only going into his age 23 season, Lamb could easily take another step forward and has the potential for a massive statistical performance in his third year in the league.

Trading Cooper also allowed the Cowboys to keep tight end Dalton Schultz on the franchise tag, after his breakout 2021 campaign. Schultz finished last season with a 78/808/8 slash line and was PFF’s 7th ranked tight end overall, but the 2018 4th round pick is a one-year wonder in terms of producing at that level, posting a 63/615/4 slash line in his first season as the starter in 2020 and averaging a 1.08 yards per route run average in his first three seasons in the league, before that average jumped to 1.47 in 2021. The Cowboys were smart to make him prove it another time, set to pay him 10.931 million on the franchise tag for 2022, rather than keeping him on a big long-term extension. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him do it again though, if he’s permanently turned the corner as a player. 

Depth is a bit of a concern at the tight end position though. Blake Jarwin was solid as the backup last season when he played, but he was limited to just eight games in 2021 and is expected to miss the entire 2022 season with injury. That leaves Sean McKeon, a 2020 undrafted free agent who has played 183 mediocre snaps in his career, Jeremy Sprinkle, a blocking specialist with 37 catches in 76 career games, and 4th round rookie Jake Ferguson to compete for the #2 tight end role. Whoever wins the job is unlikely to have much of an impact. This is still a talented receiving corps, though they’re not as good as a year ago and could have significant depth problems if Gallup misses an extended period of time to begin the season.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

One player the Cowboys brought back this off-season was running back Ezekiel Elliott, but the Cowboys wouldn’t have gotten any cap relief from letting him go this off-season, because of past restructures of his contract, so they really didn’t have a choice but to bring him back at a 14.12 million dollar price tag. They didn’t restructure his contract this off-season though, so they’ll be able to get some cap relief by moving on from him next off-season, ahead of 12.62 million owed in 2023. I would expect that to happen. 

Elliott has been the Cowboys feature back since they drafted him 4th overall in 2016, with his career lows being just 237 carries and 979 yards in a season, but his efficiency has dropped off significantly over the past two seasons (4.12 YPC vs. 4.62 in his first four seasons in the league), as his salary has increased, while backup Tony Pollard has averaged a significantly higher YPC (5.08 YPC over the past three seasons on 317 total carries). Pollard runs in more favorable YPC average situations than Elliott, but he had a significantly better carry success rate (55% vs. 53%) and YPC over expected (+0.9 vs. -0.1) than Elliott last season, so he was the more effective runner any way you look at it. Pollard, a 4th round pick in 2019, is set to hit free agency next off-season and, barring an unexpected bounce back year from Elliott, the plan is likely to let go of Elliott to free up money to bring back Pollard as the long-term feature back. 

Pollard has also been by far the more effective option as a receiver over the past three seasons, with Elliott averaging 0.82 yards per route run and 5.05 yards per target and Pollard averaging 1.42 yards per route run and 6.00 yards per target, though the Cowboys do still prefer Elliott’s pass protection to Pollard’s. Elliott still had 284 touches to Pollard’s 169 last season, but those numbers could be more even in 2022. Pollard looks like the clearly better option, but he’s a projection to a larger role, so it’s good to have Elliott around as well, at least for another season. This is a talented backfield overall.

Grade: A

Edge Defenders

The Cowboys also lost edge defender Randy Gregory in free agency, after he finished as PFF’s 18th ranked edge defender overall in 2021, especially playing well as a pass rusher, with 6 sacks, 12 hits, and a 14.0% pressure rate. Like at wide receiver and on the offensive line, the Cowboys turned to the draft for a replacement, using their 2nd round pick on Mississippi’s Sam Williams. They also took a flyer on veteran Dante Fowler, signing him to a 1-year, 3 million dollar deal. 

Williams and Fowler will compete for roles with holdovers Dorance Armstrong (507 snaps), Tarell Basham (627 snaps), and Chauncey Golston (414 snaps). The Cowboys should also get a healthier season from expected starting defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, after he played just 271 snaps in seven games last season, and All-Pro caliber linebacker Micah Parsons lines up as an edge defender with regularity in sub packages. 

I’ll get into Parsons more in the linebacker section, but his biggest impact last season was as an edge defender, with 13 sacks, 15 hits, and a ridiculous 21.8% pressure rate, while leading the league with a 38.7% pass rush win rate. He probably won’t be quite as good this season, just because no one is ever that good two years in a row, but it’s clear the 2021 12th overall pick is here to stay as an elite edge rusher for years to come.

Lawrence was also still a very effective player when on the field last season, totaling 3 sacks, 4 hits, and a 14.0% pressure rate, while defending the run at a high level and earning PFF’s 3rd highest overall grade among edge defenders during the weeks he was active. That’s nothing new for Lawrence, who now has five straight seasons in the top-13 among edge defenders, dating back to 2017, a stretch in which he has 39.5 sacks, 48 hits, and a 13.8% pressure rate in 71 games, while also excelling against the run. 

Lawrence also didn’t miss a game from 2017-2020, before last year’s foot injury, so he’s not an overly injury prone player. The Cowboys still made him take a pay cut to stay on the roster, originally set to make 19 million non-guaranteed for his age 30 season in 2022, but his contract is for 40 million over 3 years with 30 million guaranteed, so they clearly still value him and he could easily have at least another couple above average seasons left in the tank, even if he does begin to decline. If they can get a healthier season out of him, the Cowboys should still have a strong edge rush with him and Parsons, even with Gregory gone.

When Parsons plays linebacker in base packages, Dorance Armstrong is probably the favorite to start opposite DeMarcus Lawrence, after being re-signed on a 2-year, 12 million dollar deal this off-season. A 4th round pick in 2018, Armstrong struggled throughout his first three seasons in his career, earning below average grades from PFF on an average of 301 snaps per season, but he earned an above average grade on 507 snaps in 2021. 

Armstrong has always been a better run stopper than a pass rusher and his career pressure rate is just 8.3%, but he was better both against the run and as a pass rusher in 2021, with that pressure rate jumping to 11.0%, and the role the Cowboys are likely to play him in is primarily a base package run stopper role, so his pass rush ability isn’t as important as it would be if he was going to play in more sub packages. Armstrong could regress a little after the best season of his career, but he’s not a bad option for the role the Cowboys are going to play him in and, still only going into his age 25 season, it’s possible he has some untapped potential.

Fellow holdovers Chauncey Golston and Tarell Basham are coming off mediocre seasons and will not be guaranteed to have roles because, while they will miss Gregory’s high end pass rush ability, they are a deeper group overall this season. Golston is a 2021 3rd round pick with the upside to be better going forward though, while Basham is a veteran in his age 28 season who has had better years in the past, so both could have better seasons this year than they did a year ago.

Newcomers Sam Williams and Dante Fowler could also see rotational roles. Williams enters the league pretty raw, but he has a lot of potential as a pass rusher and could contribute in that role immediately. Fowler, meanwhile, has at least some bounce back potential, though he’s coming off of two straight down years with the Falcons, finishing 117th among 124 eligible edge defenders on PFF in 2020 and 103rd among 129 eligible edge defenders in 2021.

Fowler was never as good as the 11.5 sacks he had in 2019 suggested, as he had the benefit of playing on a great Rams defense and his peripheral pass rush stats were not as good as his sack total, but he still has a decent 10.4% pressure rate for his career, even with the past two seasons included, and he’s also still only in his age 28 season. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him carve out a rotational role and to see him be effective in that role. The Cowboys will miss Randy Gregory, but they have a very talented edge rush duo in DeMarcus Lawrence and Micah Parsons and some intriguing depth options, so this is still a good position group overall.

Grade: B+

Interior Defenders

The interior defender position was the Cowboys’ biggest weakness last season. They had six different players see at least 150 snaps, but none were better than middling on PFF, with several struggling mightily. The Cowboys didn’t make any additions to this group this off-season, aside from using a 5th round pick on Arkansas’ John Ridgeway, so they’re clearly expecting to get more this season out of a very young position group. The Cowboys should also get healthier seasons out of Neville Gallimore and Trysten Hill, who missed 12 games and 11 games respectively last season.

Hill was a 2nd round pick by the Cowboys in 2019 and has shown some upside, but he spent most of his rookie year as an inactive, playing just 121 snaps in 7 games, and then he tore his ACL midway through the 2020 season, limiting him to just 212 snaps in 5 games in 2020 and then just 171 snaps in 6 games in 2021, meaning he’s played just a total of 18 out of a possible 49 games, while playing just 504 total snaps in three seasons in the league. 

Hill could be an effective rotational player for the Cowboys if healthy, but he’s a complete wild card at this point. Gallimore, meanwhile, is a 2020 3rd round pick who struggled on 416 snaps as a rookie, finishing 109th out of 139 eligible interior defenders on PFF, before struggling through 164 snaps in five games last season, only returning late in the season after missing most of the season with an elbow injury suffered in the pre-season.

With Hill and Gallimore missing significant time last season, a pair of rookies saw significant action, with 2021 3rd round pick Osa Odighizuwa leading the group with 614 snaps played. He struggled mightily though, finishing 113rd out of 146 eligible interior defenders on PFF, and 6th round rookie Quinton Bohanna was even worse, finishing dead last out of 146 eligible interior defenders across 222 snaps. Both could be better in year two and Odighizuwa in particular has a lot of upside and could benefit from playing a smaller role this season, but Bohanna has a long way to go to even be a useful rotational player and neither look like good starting options.

Carlos Watkins is the relative veteran of the bunch and played 437 snaps last season, but the Houston Texans 2017 4th round pick has never earned more than a middling grade from PFF for a season. He might have to play a significant role again out of necessity, but he’s an underwhelming option. Given the state of this position group, it’s possible the rookie Ridgeway sees action in year one, but he probably would be overmatched in a significant role. The Cowboys don’t have any true starting caliber interior defenders and will hope to get by with a heavy rotation of several different players, so this once again figures to be a position of weakness, even if they do have some upside as a result of their relative youth.

Grade: C

Linebackers

I mentioned Micah Parsons’ rookie year dominance as a pass rusher. He was much more ordinary in coverage and struggled against the run at times, but he still finished as by far PFF’s top ranked off ball linebacker in overall grade, including his pass rush grade, which was the best in the NFL regardless of position. As I said, he might not be quite as good again as a pass rusher in 2022, but he should still be one of the best edge rushers in the league for years to come and the other aspects of his game could develop further, making him a more complete player.

Parsons isn’t the only linebacker the Cowboys have used a first round pick on recently, taking Leighton Vander Esch 19th overall in the 2018 NFL Draft. Vander Esch also had a great rookie season, almost as great as Parsons’ rookie year, finishing as PFF’s 5th ranked off ball linebacker on 785 snaps, while playing all 16 games, but injuries limited Vander Esch to just 19 total games between 2019 and 2020 and he was middling at best even when on the field. 

Vander Esch did play every game in 2021 though and, while he wasn’t quite as good as his rookie year, he still finished as PFF’s 30th ranked off ball linebacker on 661 snaps. Given that, it’s surprising that he had to settle for a 1-year, 2 million dollar deal as a free agent this off-season, but teams are very cautious of his injury history, with his neck problems dating back to his collegiate days. He could easily miss more time in 2022, but he could just as easily have another above average season, possibly even better than last season, as a first round talent who is still only in his age 25 season.

The Cowboys didn’t retain Keanu Neal this off-season and he was PFF’s 86th ranked off ball linebacker out of 94 eligible last season, so he could be addition by subtraction, but he played 579 snaps even with Vander Esch healthy last season and the Cowboys don’t have any proven depth options to replace him. Instead, they will likely rely on 2021 4th round pick Jabril Cox as their third linebacker. He has the upside to be a useful player, but he also only played 9 snaps as a rookie, so he is a mystery as an NFL player. The Cowboys also added more young linebacker depth in this year’s draft, taking Damone Clark in the 5th round and Devin Harper in the 6th round, but it’s likely they’d struggle if forced into a significant role in year one. Depth is a concern for the Cowboys at the linebacker position, but they’re in good shape with their top two.

Grade: A-

Secondary

Trevon Diggs is the other young Cowboys player who captured the attention of NFL fans, leading the league with 11 interceptions, the most interceptions in the NFL since Everson Walls in 1981. Diggs was the ultimate boom or bust player though, leading the league with 1,016 receiving yards allowed, the most yards allowed by a cornerback since the 2016 season. PFF gave Diggs a middling grade for 2021 and, while I think that underestimates the value of his interceptions, it’s clear that his interception total doesn’t tell the whole story, when you take into account how many yards and big plays he allows.

Diggs also gave up a lot of yards as a rookie in 2020, as the 2nd round pick allowed the 21st most yards in the league (650), despite playing just 68.4% of his teams snaps. Only one player played fewer snaps than him and allowed more yards and, on top of that, Diggs only managed to pick off three passes, earning another middling grade in the process. He’s only going into his age 25 season and should remain a ball hawk, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if his interception total got cut in half, given the volatility of interception stats and his yardage allowed will likely remain among the most in the league either way.

Fellow starting cornerbacks Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis also received middling grades from PFF last season. Lewis was PFF’s 116th ranked cornerback out of 136 eligible cornerbacks on PFF in 2020, but that was mostly because he was a poor fit for their defensive scheme that season and, prior to 2020, he started his career with three straight seasons of above average grades on PFF, including a career best 41st ranked finish in 2019. Brown, on the other hand, has never been more than a middling starter, but he’s experienced, with 57 starts in 82 games in six seasons in the league, and he is still relatively young, in his age 29 season. 

All three of the Cowboys’ top-3 cornerbacks played 16 of 17 games last season, so there wasn’t much need for depth behind them, but the Cowboys have good alternatives if injuries strike, as they have 2021 2nd round pick Kelvin Joseph and 2021 3rd round pick Nahshon Wright waiting in the wings. Joseph showed a lot of promise on 165 rookie year snaps and could push to start at some point in year two and, while Wright struggled on his 92 snaps, he still has the upside to develop into a contributor long-term. It’s a deep position group.

At safety, the Cowboys brought back Jayron Kearse and Malik Hooker on deals worth 10 million over 2 years and 7 million over 2 years respectively and they will compete with fellow holdover Donovan Wilson for the two starting safety jobs. Kearse was a starter for most of 2021, starting every game from week 1 to week 17, and he finished as PFF’s 14th ranked safety on the season. He had just 12 career starts in five seasons in the league prior to last season and had never surpassed 503 snaps played in a season, so he’s a one-year wonder in terms of being an above average season long starter, but he always flashed potential as a reserve, so it wasn’t too surprising that he broke out in a larger role and he has a good chance to remain at least a solid starter, even if he isn’t as good as he was a year ago. Kearse should be considered a heavy favorite to keep his job. 

Hooker, on the other hand, only played 445 snaps in a rotational role last season, but he’s been an above average starter before and, only going into his age 26 season, he has the potential to bounce back and be an above average starter once again, now another year removed from the torn achilles that ended his 2020 season after just two games. Durability has always been a concern for Hooker, who has missed 30 games in five seasons in the league since being drafted in the first round in 2017 by the Colts, but early in his career he showed some of why he was drafted highly, earning average or better grades from PFF in all three seasons, including a career best 18th ranked finish in 2018. He’s never played more than 15 games in a season and he’ll almost definitely miss some time at some point this season, but it also wouldn’t be a surprise if he won the starting job and bounced back to being at least a solid starter.

That likely leaves Wilson as the third safety, but he’ll have a fair shot at a starting job, with neither Hooker nor Kearse signed to a big contract, and, given Hooker’s durability concerns, there is a good chance Wilson ends up making some starts this season one way or another. Selected in the 6th round in 2019, Wilson finished above average on PFF in the first significant action of his career in 2020, playing 673 snaps total, but he saw that role scaled back to 338 snaps in 2021 and, when on the field, his play was also more middling than it was the prior year. He’s not a bad third safety though and should be able to provide a reliable option as a short-term replacement if needed. Trevon Diggs isn’t as effective of a cover cornerback as his interception total suggests, but this is not a bad unit and they have good depth overall.

Grade: B

Special Teams

The Cowboys also had a good special teams unit last season, ranking 6th in the league in special teams DVOA. They lost one of their best core special teamers Corey Clement this off-season, but talented punter Bryan Anger remains, Tony Pollard and Ceedee Lamb remain locked in as the primary kickoff and punt returner respectively, after averaging 28.8 yards per kickoff return and 9.9 yards per punt return respectively last season, and their one weak spot last season, kicker Greg Zuerlein, is no longer with the team, replaced with undrafted rookie Jonathan Garibay, who has a good chance to be an upgrade even as a rookie, making 85.2% of his collegiate kicks, including 15 of 16 with a long of 62 yards in 2021. They might not be quite as good on special teams in 2022, but they should at least remain an above average unit.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Cowboys were one of the better teams in the league last season, finishing 12-5 with the 7th highest efficiency rating in the league, but they suffered significant losses on both sides of the ball this off-season and figure to be a noticeably worse team as a result. They should still compete for a playoff spot in the weaker NFC, but their division rival Eagles got significantly better this off-season and now look like the favorites for the division, which would leave the Cowboys fighting for a wild card spot. I will have a final prediction at the end of the off-season when all previews are completed.

Final Prediction: The Cowboys suffered a big loss when left tackle Tyron Smith suffered an injury that will cost him most of the season, but they face one of the easiest schedules among NFC contenders and could still qualify for a wild card spot even without Smith.

Prediction: 11-6, 2nd in NFC East

San Francisco 49ers at Dallas Cowboys: 2021 NFC Wild Card Round Pick

San Francisco 49ers (10-7) at Dallas Cowboys (12-5)

The Cowboys enter the post-season in great shape, ranking 2nd in point differential on the season at +188, while ranking 4th, 12th, 6th, and 4th in schedule adjusted offensive, defensive, special teams, and mixed efficiency, despite having several key players miss time on both sides of the ball. Left tackle Tyron Smith, right guard Zack Martin, right tackle La’El Collins, edge defenders DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory, linebacker Micah Parsons, wide receivers Amari Cooper, Ceedee Lamb, and Michael Gallup, and quarterback Dak Prescott all missed at least some time with injury this season and never made it through a full game together and won’t, with Gallup now on injured reserve with a torn ACL, but, aside from Gallup, the Cowboys will have ten of those aforementioned eleven players available for this game, which is better shape than they’ve been in for most of the season.

The Cowboys do draw a tough matchup though, as the 49ers also enter the post-season in good shape. They’re just 10-7 and have to go on the road as a wild card, but they were much better than their record suggested this season, as they faced a tough schedule and finished with a -5 turnover metric, which is not a predictive metric, while ranking 8th, 6th, 26th, and 7th in schedule adjusted offensive, defensive, special teams, and mixed efficiency which are much more predictive metrics based on yards per play and first down rate. The 49ers have also been a lot better in the second half of the season than the first, propelling them into the post-season with a 7-2 stretch after a 3-5 start, with their only two losses during that stretch coming by just one score in games in which they won the first down rate and yards per play battle.

The biggest reason for the 49ers’ second half improvement is that they have been healthier in the second half of the season than the first. The 49ers are still not 100% and have several key players who won’t return, but quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, running back Elijah Mitchell, wide receiver Deebo Samuel, tight end George Kittle, left tackle Trent Williams, linebacker Fred Warner, safety Jimmie Ward, cornerback Emmanuel Mosley, linebacker Dre Greenlaw, defensive tackle Maurice Hurst, cornerback K’Waun Williams, and safety Jaquiski Tartt all missed at least some action this season and have since returned, like the Cowboys, so the 49ers are also in better shape than they have been in for most of the season right now.

The public seems to understand the 49ers are healthier and better than their record though, while the Cowboys could actually be a little underrated, only favored by a field goal at home, suggesting they are better than the 49ers, but not my much, even though the Cowboys are arguably one of the best teams in the league, given their balance in all three phases. My calculated line has the gap between these two teams a little bigger and favors the Cowboys by 5 points. There isn’t enough here for the Cowboys to be worth betting, but they should be the right side for pick ‘em purposes.

Dallas Cowboys 31 San Francisco 49ers 26

Pick against the spread: Dallas -3

Confidence: Low

Dallas Cowboys at Philadelphia Eagles: 2021 Week 18 NFL Pick

Dallas Cowboys (11-5) at Philadelphia Eagles (9-7)

This game is a very tough call because the Eagles have a significant number of players whose status is uncertain for this game. Starting guard Landon Dickerson and talented right tackle Lane Johnson are both highly questionable after not practicing all week, while their two best running backs Jordan Howard and Boston Scott, talented tight end Dallas Goedert, starting guard Nate Herbig, stud center Jason Kelce, top interior defender Fletcher Cox, starting linebackers Alex Singleton and Genard Avery, starting cornerback Avonte Maddox, and starting safety Rodney McLeod are all in COVID protocols, but could still clear them before gametime.

The Eagles are better than their 9-7 record, ranking 11th in point differential (+84) and 8th in schedule adjusted mixed efficiency (about 3.5 points above average), but they’ve also benefited significantly from being relatively healthy compared to most teams and they would be at a significant disadvantage if they were to be without all of most of the aforementioned players this week. That would justify the Cowboys being favored by 4.5 points in Philadelphia, even though the Cowboys will be down a pair of important players as well, with left tackle Tyron Smith and linebacker Micah Parsons both in COVID protocols and not expected to clear before gametime.

However, if a significant amount of those aforementioned players do play, we could be getting significant line value with the Eagles as long as the line doesn’t shift significantly to compensate. In fact, if the Eagles were to get all of the aforementioned players back this week, my calculated line would favor them by 1.5 points. All of those players playing may be an unlikely scenario, but I could definitely see a scenario where a significant amount of those players play and the line doesn’t take that into account enough. For now I am going to be on the Eagles for a no confidence pick, but I could definitely update this before gametime depending on what happens with the Eagles’ questionable players and where the line ends up.

Update: Aside from Jason Kelce, it doesn’t sound like the Eagles will be getting any of their questionable players back for this game and, beyond it, it doesn’t sound like the Eagles plan to take this game that seriously, with quarterback Jalen Hurts expected to play minimally to rest an ankle injury ahead of the playoffs and other starters also possibly being rested as well. The Eagles are locked into either the 6th or 7th seed, so the result of this game doesn’t really matter for them. The Cowboys, meanwhile, are mostly locked into the #4 seed, but have the opportunity to move up to 3 or 2 in certain improbable scenarios and they seem more likely to take this game seriously, even without Tyron Smith, Micah Parsons, and top cornerback Trevon Diggs, who was ruled out with COVID yesterday after this write up. Likely because of Diggs’ absence, this line has dropped to 3.5, but, for all the interceptions Diggs has, he also leads the league in yards allowed, so his absence isn’t as big of a deal as it seems, while the fact that the Eagles are unlikely to take this game seriously with many key players in COVID protocols and nothing substantial to play for is much more impactful than Diggs’ absence. I am switching my pick to the Cowboys, though this will remain a no confidence pick in a game with uncertain level of motivation for both teams.

Dallas Cowboys 24 Philadelphia Eagles 20

Pick against the spread: Dallas -3.5

Confidence: None

Arizona Cardinals at Dallas Cowboys: 2021 Week 17 NFL Pick

Arizona Cardinals (10-5) at Dallas Cowboys (11-4)

The Cardinals started the season 7-0, but have since fallen back to earth, going just 3-5 in their past 8 games. The +8 turnover margin they had in their first seven games was always going to be unsustainable (+2 in eight games since), but the Cardinals have also suffered a significant amount of injuries that have caused this team to not play as well on either side of the ball. Quarterback Kyler Murray has returned from a three game absence, but he remains without top wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and has consistently been missing at least one talented offensive lineman. 

Left guard Justin Pugh and center Rodney Hudson have returned, but this week he will be without arguably his most important offensive lineman, left tackle DJ Humphries. Meanwhile, the Cardinals’ defense has been without top interior defender JJ Watt and top cornerback Robert Alford, who will be joined on the sideline by slot cornerback Marco Wilson and Watt’s replacement Jordan Phillips, while talented edge defenders Devon Kennard and Markus Golden could join them if they can’t return from the COVID protocols in time.

Dallas, meanwhile, is arguably as healthy as they have been all season. Left tackle Tyron Smith, right guard Zack Martin, right tackle La’El Collins, edge defenders DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory, wide receivers Amari Cooper, Ceedee Lamb, and Michael Gallup, and quarterback Dak Prescott have all missed at least some time with injury and have not made it through a full game together yet, but all nine of those players are available this week, which is very significant as they are among their most important players.

Despite their injuries, Dallas has still been one of the best teams in the league this year, ranking 6th, 13th, 4th, and 4th in schedule adjusted offensive, defensive, special teams, and mixed efficiency and they have been better in recent weeks as they have gotten healthier. The Cardinals, meanwhile, rank 13th, 18th, 17th, and 9th respectively and have struggled in recent weeks because of key players missing time. We have lost a lot of line value in the past week with this line moving up to 6, but my calculated line is 10, which would become 13 if Golden and Kennard both miss. I want to lock this in now and may increase this bet up to a possible Pick of the Week depending on what changes before gametime.

Update: Both Golden and Kennard are out and the line has stayed put at six, so I want to make this my Pick of the Week.

Dallas Cowboys 30 Arizona Cardinals 17

Pick against the spread: Dallas -6

Confidence: Pick of the Week

Washington Football Team at Dallas Cowboys: 2021 Week 16 NFL Pick

Washington Football Team (6-8) at Dallas Cowboys (10-4)

This is one of the toughest calls of the week for me, as my calculated line is exactly where this line is, favoring the Cowboys by 10 at home over Washington. I can’t find an angle to favor either side in this game, although it’s possible that could change before gametime, given the ever-changing nature of teams’ COVID lists, but for now, it’s very hard to pick a side. I’m taking Washington purely to fade the public and because this is a slightly more meaningful game for them, as their season would be over with a loss, but this is my lowest confidence pick and a push is a strong possibility.

Dallas Cowboys 27 Washington Football Team 17

Pick against the spread: Washington +10

Confidence: None

Dallas Cowboys at New York Giants: 2021 Week 15 NFL Pick

Dallas Cowboys (9-4) at New York Giants (4-9)

The Cowboys are 9-4 and rank 5th in the NFL in point differential and they have done so despite some key absences. Starting quarterback Dak Prescott (1 game), each of their top-3 wide receivers Amari Cooper (2 games), CeeDee Lamb (1 game), and Michael Gallup (7 games), each of their top-3 offensive linemen Tyron Smith (3 games), Zack Martin (1 game), and La’El Collins (5 games), and their two best pure edge defenders DeMarcus Lawrence (10 games) and Randy Gregory (5 games) have all missed time and, in fact, last week was the Cowboys’ first game of the season where each of the aforementioned each players were all active.

Unfortunately, that did not last, as Tyron Smith left mid-game, but the Cowboys still held on to win by a touchdown over a competitive Washington team and, though Smith is out this week, it’s not bad timing for the Cowboys, as their opponents this week and dealing with a much worse situation. Already a much worse team than the Cowboys, the Giants will be very short-handed this week. The most notable absence is starting quarterback Daniel Jones, who will be replaced by Mike Glennon, who struggled mightily in relief of an injured Jones against the Cowboys earlier this year, and possibly by Jake Fromm, a signing from the Colts’ practice squad who has been with the team for two and a half weeks and has thrown zero career passes, yet reportedly might get into this game for the Giants.

However, the bigger side of concern for the Giants from an absence standpoint is their defense, which has been the more passable unit this season. Already without top linebacker Blake Martinez, top cornerback Adoree Jackson, and starting safety Jabrill Peppers, the Giants are now without their other starting safety Xavier McKinney, promising fill-in cornerback Aaron Robinson, valuable rotational edge defender Oshane Ximines, and possibly stud defensive lineman Leonard Williams, probably their best defensive player overall. In their current state, the Giants are legitimately one of the worst few teams in the league, while the Cowboys could still be considered one of the better teams, even without Smith.

This line is high at Dallas -10.5, but my calculated line currently has the Cowboys favored by 14.5 even if Leonard Williams plays and I don’t see this line getting any lower, especially since the Giants have had five COVID positives this week to just one for Dallas, meaning they are much more likely to have a bigger outbreak within the next couple days before gametime. This isn’t a big bet, but it’s one of the few I’m comfortable locking in right now, given all of the uncertainty, and it’s possible I end up increasing this play if the Giants lose Williams or others and/or we get favorable line movement.

Dallas Cowboys 30 New York Giants 13

Pick against the spread: Dallas -10.5

Confidence: Medium

Dallas Cowboys at Washington Football Team: 2021 Week 14 NFL Pick

Dallas Cowboys (8-4) at Washington Football Team (6-6)

The Cowboys have slowed down since their 6-1 start, falling to 8-4 after losing three of their last five games, but their big problem has really just been that they haven’t been healthy, most notably missing their top two edge defenders DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory and their top two wide receivers Amari Cooper and Ceedee Lamb, and all four of those players will play this week. Given that, the Cowboys are well positioned to continue their winning ways going forward.

In addition to those four players, the Cowboys also have other key players who missed time and have since returned, like right guard Zack Martin, right tackle La’El Collins, left tackle Tyron Smith, wide receiver Michael Gallup, and, of course, quarterback Dak Prescott. In fact, this game will be the first time all season that the Cowboys will have all nine of the aforementioned players available. As healthy as they’ve been all year, the Cowboys have one of the best rosters in the NFL and should be one of the top contenders going forward if they can avoid further injuries.

Washington, meanwhile, has won four straight games since a 2-6 start, but many of their wins have been close, as they have gone 5-2 in one score games and have a -51 point differential that ranks just 25th in the NFL, as opposed to a 6th rank +86 point differential for the Cowboys, despite all of their key players who have missed time. Washington has faced one of the toughest schedules in the NFL, but Dallas isn’t far behind them, having also faced a tough schedule.

My calculated line says the Cowboys should be favored by more than a touchdown in this game, so we’re getting a lot of value with them as just 4-point favorites, enough for them to be my Pick of the Week. In hindsight, I liked Minnesota on Thursday more than I like Dallas, but I didn’t want to make a Pick of the Week on Thursday before I got to review every game and, of the Sunday/Monday picks, Dallas is my favorite play.

Dallas Cowboys 31 Washington Football Team 23

Pick against the spread: Dallas -4

Confidence: Pick of the Week