Going into the 2016 season, things looked bleak for the Cowboys. They went 4-12 the previous season, including 1-11 in games not started by Tony Romo, who missed most of the season with injury. The Cowboys improved their supporting cast in the off-season, but when Romo went down with another injury before the season started, forcing 4th round rookie Dak Prescott into action, it looked like it would be another lost season for the Cowboys.
Instead, the Cowboys went 13-3 in 2016, led by an offense that ranked 3rd in first down rate. Prescott finished the season as Pro Football Focus’s 10th ranked quarterback and completed 67.8% of his passes for an average of 7.99 YPA, 23 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions, while adding 282 yards and 6 touchdowns on 57 carries (4.95 YPC). He held off Romo as the starter all season, despite Romo returning to health down the stretch, and, with Romo retiring last off-season, he became the Cowboys’ long-term franchise quarterback.
His 2017 season got off to a similar start. Through 8 games, the Cowboys ranked 2nd in the NFL in first down rate at 38.10%. Prescott ranked 10th among quarterbacks on PFF during those 8 games and completed 62.9% of his passes for an average of 7.02 YPA, 16 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions. However, he completed 62.8% of his passes for an average of just 6.52 YPA, 6 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions in the final 8 games of the season and the Cowboys moved the chains at a mere 32.17% rate in those games. Prescott finished as PFF’s 17th quarterback and the Cowboys finished the season 11th in first down rate and out of the playoffs at 9-7.
What happened in the second half of the season? Well, Pro-Bowl running back Ezekiel Elliott was suspended for 6 games for domestic violence and Pro-Bowl left tackle Tyron Smith missed 4 of the team’s final 8 games with injury. Prescott’s strong rookie season and beginning to his 2nd season were largely as a result of a strong supporting cast and, when that supporting cast started to show cracks, Prescott got exposed and began to struggle.
It’s a concerning development for a quarterback who the Cowboys are going to have to pay a lot of money to keep in the next year or two. The Cowboys aren’t always going to be able to surround him with top level talent on offense and, for him to be worth top quarterback money, he needs to be able to take over even when his supporting cast is struggling or when game situations are not favorable. Prescott is a talented quarterback who obviously exceeded his draft stock, but he still has flaws in his game and opposing defenses exploited those more in his 2nd season in the league, especially without Elliott and Smith.
To Prescott’s credit, he’s had a pretty underwhelming receiving corps in his career. That made life really hard for him when injuries struck at other positions. The Cowboys changed up their receiving corps this off-season, but not necessarily because they wanted to and they might not be better. The Cowboys released #1 receiver Dez Bryant, a still capable receiver, because had declined in recent years and was no longer worth his 12.5 million dollar salary, and then replaced him with free agent acquisition Allen Hurns, who is cheaper (12 million over 2 years), but not necessarily better.
Meanwhile, tight end Jason Witten decided to hang them up and join the Monday Night Football booth and, making matters worse, the timing of his retirement was terrible, coming after the both draft and free agency, leaving the Cowboys with no good alternatives. Witten looked like he was running in slow motion in 2017, averaging just 8.89 yards per catch and just 1.52 yards per catch after the catch, but he played a whopping 1,048 snaps (most among tight ends), caught 63 passes on just 87 targets, and was an above average run blocker, so he won’t be easy to replace.
Last year’s #2 tight end James Hanna played just 276 snaps last season and he’s not even with the team anymore. Witten was going into his age 36 season, so the Cowboys probably should have been better prepared for even a surprise retirement by Witten, but they have just one tight end on the roster who has caught a pass in his career: Geoff Swaim, who played 171 snaps as the 3rd tight end last year and has just 9 catches in 3 seasons in the league since the Cowboys drafted him in the 7th round in 2015. He’s a solid blocker at 6-4 260, but little else.
The other three tight ends that will compete for playing time have just 3 career snaps between them, all of them by 2017 undrafted free agent Blake Jarwin. He’s drawn good reviews for his pass catching this off-season, but he’s obviously very unproven. Besides Swaim, Jarwin’s competition for snaps will be 2016 6th round pick Rico Gathers, a converted basketball player who spent his rookie season on the practice squad and his 2nd season on injured reserve, and 4th round rookie Dalton Schultz. I wouldn’t expect any Dallas tight end to have more than 25 catches.
At wide receiver, Allen Hurns is locked in as a starter and could easily lead this team in receiving, although largely for lack of a better option. Hurns topped 1000 yards in 2015 with the Jaguars and was given a 4-year, 40.65 million dollar extension, but he combined for just 961 yards in 2016 and 2017 and was released this off-season, owed 7 million non-guaranteed in 2018. Injuries were part of the problem, as he’s missed 11 games over the past 2 seasons and was limited in several others, and, only his age 27 season, he has some bounce back potential, but he also struggled as a rookie in 2014 and was originally an undrafted free agent, so he’s a one-year wonder and his 2015 season could easily prove to be a fluke. He’ll have plenty of opportunity to produce in Dallas though, as Bryant leaves behind 133 targets, 12th most in the NFL last season.
Opposite Hurns, incumbent starter Terrance Williams will compete with 3rd round rookie Michael Gallup for the starting job. A 3rd round pick himself back in 2013, Williams has made 66 starts in 5 seasons in the league, while playing 80 of 80 games, but he’s averaged just 671.8 yards per season and is coming off of a 53/568/0 slash line on 688 snaps in 2017. It seems like the Cowboys have been trying to upgrade him for years. Gallup might not be that upgrade, but the early reviews have been good and it would be hard for him to outproduce Williams.
Slot receiver Cole Beasley will remain involved in 3 wide receiver sets. The 5-8 180 pounder doesn’t play much outside and only plays about half the snaps. He had a 75/833/5 slash line in 2016, but he hasn’t topped 536 yards in any of his other 5 seasons in the league. He could see an uptick in targets with the Cowboys lacking an over the middle target, but he’s a limited player. This is a very thin receiving corps.
While the Cowboys definitely were not the same offense without Ezekiel Elliott, backup running back Alfred Morris actually had a higher YPC, averaging 4.76 yards per carry on 115 carries. He did not do quite as well as Elliott in carry success rate, as Elliott ranked 2nd at 57th, but Morris still ranked 7th at 51%, so he did a good job keeping this offense on schedule. The difference was that defenses didn’t fear him like they feared Elliott, so they didn’t stack the box as much or bite on play action as often and Prescott had trouble adapting.
Elliott returns in 2018 and, in only his age 23 season with no injury history, he should have another strong season as the feature back. They probably won’t give him 24.2 carries per game like they did last season, as that would be 387 carries over 16 games, but he could easily have the 21.5 carries per game he had as a rookie, which is 343 carries over 16 games. His YPC average dropped from 5.07 to 4.06 from 2016 to 2017, but he still had a strong carry success rate and his relatively low YPC came from the fact that he had just 5 carries of 20+ yards, after having 14 such carries as a rookie.
Running backs are notoriously unreliable though, even really good ones. Elliott is one of just 16 running backs all-time to have at least 1500+ rushing yards in either of their first 2 seasons in the league. Of the previous 15, six of them never topped 1500 rushing yards again in their career. Elliott may prove to be a Hall of Fame running back when all is said and done, which is what the list of running backs with multiple 1500+ yard seasons largely consists of, but it’s always a risk building an offense around a feature back.
Elliott also doesn’t do much in passing situations, with just 58 catches in 25 career games. Backup Alfred Morris is no longer with the team, leaving Rod Smith, who flashed down the stretch last season, as the primary backup. An undrafted free agent in 2015, Smith managed just 1 carry in his first 2 seasons in the league, but he averaged 4.22 yards per carry on 55 carries last season and added 19 catches for 202 yards and a touchdown on 23 targets. He should play a passing down role and see a handful of carries as the primary backup.
The Cowboys also traded for Tavon Austin from the Rams and are planning on converting him from a wide receiver to a running back. He’s undersized at 5-8 179, but he’s not a bad fit as a scatback because his game as a receiver was mostly catching short passes and making guys miss. He had an average depth of target of just 3.09 yards on 194 catches, but averaged 5.62 yards per catch after catch and added 1,238 yards on 184 carries (6.73 YPC).
After acquiring him, Cowboys VP Stephen Jones said they envision him getting 12-24 touches per game. Austin is set to make 7 million this season, 5 million of which is fully guaranteed, so the Cowboys wouldn’t have traded for him if they didn’t have a role in mind, but 12-24 touches seems like obvious hyperbole. Not only is he undersized, but he’s also likely not a good pass protector, which he would have to be to earn a major passing down role in the backfield.
The Cowboys may ultimately end up using him similarly to the Rams did, lining him up around the formation. He may exceed the 5.0 touches per game he’s averaged in his career, but probably not by much, even with the Cowboys lacking weapons in the passing game. He’ll probably finish 3rd on the team in carries behind Elliott and Smith in what should be a strong backfield as long as Elliott remains on the field. With Prescott being a mobile quarterback, the Cowboys have been close to 50/50 in terms of pass plays vs. run plays the past two seasons and I would expect that to be the case again in 2018, as they try to hide an underwhelming passing game.
In addition to a strong running game, a strong offensive line was also a big key to the Cowboys’ success in 2016, opening up big holes on the ground and protecting Prescott well. In 2017, they took a step back on the offensive line. Not only did Smith miss time with injuries, but the Cowboys also lost a pair of above average starters in left guard Ron Leary and right tackle Doug Free last off-season and didn’t do much to replace either. In their absence, the Cowboys started Jonathan Cooper, a former first round bust they took a flier on last off-season, and La’El Collins, a 2015 undrafted free agent. Collins struggled, finishing 62nd out of 83 eligible offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus and, while Cooper was about a league average starter, he signed with the 49ers this off-season, so offensive line was a position of need this off-season.
They did more to upgrade the offensive line this off-season than they did last off-season, but left guard and right tackle could still be positions of weakness, as they did not add a reliable starter. Ex-Patriot Cameron Fleming was signed to a 1-year, 2.5 million dollar deal. A 2014 4th round pick who flashed in 20 starts in 4 seasons in New England as the swing tackle, Fleming will compete with Collins for the starting right tackle job and he also gives them better insurance at left tackle behind Tyron Smith, whose backups Chaz Green and Byron Bell were horrendous in his absence last season. He’s a projection to a larger role, but was a smart signing on a one-year deal. It won’t be hard for him to be an upgrade over Collins, who has struggled in 30 starts in 3 seasons in the league.
Collins could move to left guard if he doesn’t win the right tackle job and he’s been better at guard than tackle in his career, but he’d face competition for the starting role at left guard too, as the Cowboys used a 2nd round pick on Texas offensive lineman Connor Williams. Williams is a great athlete, but injury and strength concerns dropped him to the 2nd round and, even though he played tackle in college, his short arms (33 inches) likely make him a better fit inside at the next level. He has upside, but could struggle as a rookie. The Cowboys may end up regretting not re-signing Cooper.
Fortunately, the rest of this offensive line is Pro-Bowl caliber when they’re healthy. Smith returning should give them a boost in 2018, though it’s not a guarantee that all three will be able to stay healthy all season and losing any one of those three would be a big blow to this offense. Smith finished last season as PFF’s 16th ranked offensive tackle, which sounds good, but that was his lowest rank since his second season in the league in 2012 and he’s finished in the top-4 at his position in 4 of 7 seasons in the league. He’s also played in all 16 games in 4 of 7 seasons in the league and has missed just 7 games total. Still only in his age 28 season, he has obvious bounce back potential.
Frederick and Martin, meanwhile, have never missed a game, although that’s not a guarantee to continue. First round choices in 2013 and 2014 respectively Frederick and Martin have been among the best in the league at their positions since day 1 in the NFL. Frederick has finished in the top-6 among centers on PFF in all 5 seasons in the league, while Martin has been a top-5 guard in all 4 seasons in the league.
The Cowboys wisely locked Frederick up after just 3 seasons, giving him a 6-year, 56.4 million dollar extension that is now only 4th among centers in average annual salary and keeps him under team control through 2023. With Martin, the Cowboys had to reset the guard market to keep him, giving him a 6-year, 84 million dollar extension ahead of the final year of his rookie deal this off-season, but they couldn’t exactly let him leave and now have him under team control through 2024. With Prescott and Elliott due big extensions in the next year or two, it’ll be interesting to see how the Cowboys keep everyone long-term and still have enough money to fill out their roster. For now, the Cowboys have one of the better offensive lines in the league, even if they’re not as good as they were in 2016.
While the Cowboys’ offense has been strong at full strength in recent years, the defense has been pretty mediocre, even during their strong 2016 season. They finished that season 21st in first down rate allowed and then finished last season 19th in that metric. One player not responsible for their mediocre play last season was defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, who finished as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked 4-3 defensive end. He had 14.5 sacks, 12 hits, and 52 hurries on 454 pass rush snaps and also played well against the run.
Unfortunately, the Cowboys might not be able to keep him long-term, given the other big contracts they have to hand out over the next couple off-seasons. The Cowboys franchise tagged him this off-season and will pay him 17.143 million in 2018, but if he has another season like he did last season they’ll have to pay upwards of that annually on a long-term deal to keep him, which they might not be able to afford long-term. This could easily be his final season in Dallas.
Franchise tagging Lawrence makes sense on a number of levels, as it probably wouldn’t have been wise to give him a massive long-term deal this off-season, even if the Cowboys didn’t have other major financial obligations. Lawrence played at a high level in 2017, but he also missed 16 games with injury in 2014 and 2016 combined, totalling just 1 sack between the 2 seasons, and in his other healthy season in 2015 he had just 8 sacks and was about an average starter. A second round pick in 2014 and only going into his age 26 season, it’s possible he could continue being one of the best defensive linemen in the league, but he’s also a one-year wonder with an injury history. He’s not a guarantee to be as good again in 2018.
Given that, the Cowboys will need someone to step up opposite him. Fellow starter Tyrone Crawford had 4 sacks, 7 hits, and 26 hurries on 394 pass rush snaps last season and has earned a positive pass rush grade from PFF in 4 straight seasons, but the 6-4 290 pounder is a better pass rusher from the interior, where he sees about a third of his pass rush snaps, and he’s not much of a run stuffer, although he did have a solid season against the run in 2017. He’s played about 60% of the snaps over the past 4 seasons and will probably be around there again in 2018, but he’s more of a tweener than a pure edge rusher.
Last year’s first round pick Taco Charlton is the best bet to step up as the other edge rusher, but he struggled on just 399 snaps as a rookie and the Cowboys added competition for him this off-season, signing ex-Jet Kony Ealy in free agency and using a 4th round pick on Kansas edge rusher Dorance Armstrong, who is a much more polished pass rusher than you normally can find in the 4th round, even if he’s undersized at 6-4 257 and struggles against the run.
Ealy is bigger at 6-4 275 and went in the 2nd round in 2014, but he struggled mightily in his first 3 seasons in the league, before earning the first positive grade for a season of his career from PFF in 2017. He struggled against the run, despite his size, and only had 1 sack and 2 quarterback hits, but he added 25 hurries and 9 pass deflections on 306 pass rush snaps. He’ll have a role and could keep playing well as a part-time player, only in his age 27 season, but that’s not a guarantee, given his history of struggles.
Crawford could see more time than usual at defensive tackle early in the season. Maliek Collins and David Irving will be the starters when both are available, but Irving is suspended for the first 4 games of the season for substance abuse and Collins broke his foot in May and is up going to be up against it to make it back healthy before week 1. Collins is struggles mightily when on the field anyway, finishing dead last among 73 defensive tackles on PFF on 662 snaps as a 3rd round rookie in 2016 and then finishing 78th among 79 eligible at his position in 2017 on 684 snaps. He especially struggles against the run. He’ll probably continue to start for lack of a better option, but he should play fewer snaps in 2018.
David Irving also is not good against the run, but he’s more than good enough of a pass rusher to make up for it. Despite going undrafted in 2015, he’s earned a positive pass rush grade in all 3 seasons in the league and he has 11.5 sacks, 13 hits, and 52 hurries on 701 pass rush snaps in his career. The problem, in addition to his struggles against the run, is he hasn’t been reliable. He was suspended 4 games for performance enhancing drugs last season and also missed 4 games with injury, so he was limited to 338 snaps in 8 games. He should play more in 2018, but he’s missing from training camp dealing with personal issues and may not report to the team until after his suspension, so his season isn’t off to a good start.
With Irving, Lawrence, and Collins all struggling against the run, the Cowboys lack obvious base package defensive tackles. Behind those three, the Cowboys next two defensive tackles in terms of snaps in 2017 were Richard Ash and Brian Price, who struggled mightily on 233 snaps and 150 snaps respectively. Both are former undrafted free agents, in 2015 and 2016 respectively, so they’re no guarantee to get any better, but the only competition the Cowboys brought in for them is former Raiders bust Jihad Ward.
A reach in the 2nd round in 2016, Ward struggled mightily on 637 snaps as a rookie, finishing dead last among 51 eligible 3-4 defensive ends on PFF, and then was limited to 125 mediocre snaps in an injury plagued second season in 2017, before being traded to the Cowboys this off-season for reserve receiver Ryan Switzer. Outside of DeMarcus Lawrence, this defensive line has issues, especially with Irving dealing with off-the-field issues, and even Lawrence is no guarantee to have as strong of a season as he did in 2017, given that he’s an injury prone one-year wonder.
Like on the defensive line, the Cowboys have a very important linebacker who might not be with the team much longer, even their financial situation. Sean Lee has been one of the best linebackers in the league when healthy, but he’s frequently hurt and will be owed 7 million non-guaranteed in his age 33 season in 2019, so this could be his final season in Dallas. That might change if he has another strong season. He was limited to just 622 snaps in 11 games last season, but still finished as Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked linebacker and was clearly missed when not out there. He’s finished in the top-10 among linebackers on PFF in each of his past 5 healthy seasons, but he has missed 42 games in 8 seasons in the league and is unlikely to become more durable at his age.
Perhaps preparing for life without Sean Lee, the Cowboys used a first round pick on a linebacker this year, taking Boise State linebacker Leighton Vander Esch 19th overall, two years after using a high second round pick (34th overall) on Jaylon Smith. Vander Esch was just a one year starter in college and he comes into the league with some durability concerns, but he’s a freak athlete (4.65 40 at 6-4 256) and he’s coming off of a dominant season. He has a sky high upside and could ultimately be their new Sean Lee long-term. As a rookie though, there could be some growing pains and he may struggle to be an adequate replacement for departed free agent linebacker Anthony Hitchens, who was above average on 544 snaps last season.
Smith also has a high upside if he can ever return to form, now over 30 months removed from a brutal knee injury in the final game of his college career that sunk his stock from a possible top-10 pick and cost him his entire rookie season. Smith played 575 snaps in 2017 and wasn’t bad, but he didn’t seem to be have quite the same athleticism as he did before the injury. Now going into his 3rd season in the league, still only his age 24 season, he could take a step forward. Lee figures to be an every down player, leaving Smith and Vander Esch competing for the other sub package role. Given Lee’s injury history though, it’s likely all three linebackers will see significant playing time. It’s a high upside group, but there’s a low floor here too if Lee gets hurt and their young linebackers are overwhelmed in his absence.
The Cowboys also have a young group in the secondary, as 5 of their top-6 defensive backs are still on their rookie deals and the one who isn’t, safety Jeff Heath, is signed to a deal only worth 7.671 million over 4 years. Cornerback Orlando Scandrick was owed 3 million non-guaranteed in his age 31 season, but he struggled in 2017 and the Cowboys let him go. With expensive players at other positions, the secondary is where the Cowboys have decided to save money, but they might be able to get away with it if some of their young players play up to their potential.
Byron Jones probably has the highest upside. A first round pick in 2015, Jones was Pro Football Focus’ 15th ranked safety in 2016 and is only going into his age 26 season, but he had a down year last year, with the Cowboys moving him from free safety to strong safety. He still earned a positive coverage grade from PFF, as he’s done in all 3 seasons in the league, but he struggled mightily against the run. Now the Cowboys are probably moving him back to cornerback, where he spent most of his rookie season. He’s always covered the slot in sub packages regardless of where he’s played in base packages and the slot is where he’s at his best, allowing 0.60 yards per route run last season and 1.00 yards per route run in his career. He may have some issues outside, but he has the upside to develop into an above average starting cornerback.
2016 6th round pick Anthony Brown and 2017 3rd round pick Jourdan Lewis led this team in cornerback snaps last season and, with Scandrick gone, they will compete for roles at cornerback with 2017 2nd round pick Chidobe Awuzie. Awuzie played just 309 snaps as a rookie, but that was largely because of injury and he played well enough in limited action to warrant starting consideration in 2018. He played 78.3% of the snaps in the final 5 games of the season as was PFF’s 18th ranked cornerback in those 5 weeks. Lewis also had an impressive rookie year, finishing 43rd among cornerbacks on PFF on 746 snaps as a rookie. Brown, on the other hand, has been underwhelming in 20 career starts in 2 seasons in the league. They lack a clear #1 cornerback, but it’s a deep group.
With Jones moving to cornerback, 2017 5th round Xavier Woods is expected to play every down at safety. Like fellow rookies Lewis and Awuzie, Woods flashed as a rookie, earning a positive grade on 547 snaps as the 3rd safety. He’s a projection to a larger role and wasn’t a high pick, but could easily develop into a capable every down player. He’ll play opposite Jeff Heath, a 2013 undrafted free agent who earned a positive grade in 15 starts in the first extended starting experience of his 5-year career. He may prove to be a one-year wonder, but this is a high upside secondary overall.
The Cowboys’ offense has been really good over the past couple seasons when all of their stars have been on the field around Dak Prescott, but Prescott struggled to adjust when Ezekiel Elliott and Tyron Smith were out of the lineup and, while Smith and Elliott return this season, there’s no guarantee all their offensive stars all stay healthy for the entire season. In fact, the odds are usually against that kind of thing happening, even if it did happen in 2016 for the Cowboys.
The Cowboys also don’t have the same receiving corps or offensive line as they did in 2016, so I would not expect them to return to that level even if all their stars stay healthy. On defense, they have a young group with upside, but could be an underwhelming group as a whole once again. The Cowboys are a borderline playoff team, but they have a low floor and a lot of good teams to jump over to get back into the post-season. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.
Prediction: XX-XX XX in NFC East