Dallas Cowboys 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Dak Prescott’s 2018 season got off to an underwhelming start, as he completed 62.1% of his passes for an average of 6.88 YPA, 8 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions in his first 7 games, but that changed quickly when the Cowboys acquired wide receiver Amari Cooper from the Raiders for a 1st round pick during their week 8 bye. Prescott finished the regular season by completing 71.3% of his passes for an average of 7.71 YPA, 14 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions in his final 9 games. Cooper’s impact on the offense as a whole wasn’t as significant, as they improved from a 33.81% first down rate (25th in the NFL over the full season) to a 35.73% first down rate (17th), but there’s no denying he made an impact on this offense, giving Dak Prescott a much needed #1 receiver.

The Cowboys also had a much better record with Cooper, going 7-2 after a 3-4 start to make a surprise trip to the playoffs, but they weren’t as good as their record suggested. They won just one game by more than a touchdown all year (9-3 record in games decided by a touchdown or less) and had just a -2 point differential in the 9 games that Cooper played (+17 in their other 7 games). That’s largely because the defense did not play as well down the stretch (more on that later), which cancelled out the added boost the offense got from Amari Cooper.

Cooper is going into the final year of his rookie deal (more on that later as well), but so is Dak Prescott and his extension seems to be a priority at the moment. They are fully expected to come to terms with him on a deal that pays him among the top quarterbacks in the league (27 million to 35 million annually range), a steep pay increase for a former 4th round pick who has made 2.748 million in 3 seasons in the league and who is owed just 2.025 million in the final year of his rookie deal in 2019. Prescott hasn’t always played like a top level quarterback, but the Cowboys don’t have much of a choice but to pay him near the top of the market to keep him. He would get top quarterback money on the open market and it would be very tough to replace him, with only inexperienced former undrafted free agent Cooper Rush (3 career attempts) behind him on the depth chart.

Prescott’s best season is still his rookie season, when he had a 104.9 QB rating, rushed for 282 yards and 6 touchdowns, and finished 8th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus. That’s also the season in which he had the lowest usage rate of his career (541 combined attempts, sacks, and carries, 53.6%) and the most talent around him. In 2 seasons since, with a 61.0% usage rate and less talent around him, he’s had a 91.9 QB rating and has finished 18th and 19th among quarterbacks on PFF. That’s not bad and the addition of Amari Cooper helps, but he’s not necessarily someone who makes the players around him look better than they are. Still, as young (age 26 in 2019), experienced (48 of 48 career starts), and productive (96.0 career QB rating) as he is, the Cowboys will undoubtedly lock him up on a huge long-term contract.

Grade: B

Receiving Corps

Amari Cooper’s contract situation is a little bit more complicated. Because the Cowboys traded a first round pick for him last year, Cooper can demand a huge extension from the Cowboys, who he knows values him very highly. Cooper has been inconsistent in 4 seasons in the league, but he’s already set to make 13.924 million on his 5th year option this off-season and could push to be the highest paid wide receiver in the NFL (18 million annually) on a long-term extension. The Cowboys don’t seem ready to pay him that kind of money just yet and reports suggest they aren’t close, but ultimately it would be surprising to see the Cowboys let Cooper walk. Even with some other big contracts on the books, the Cowboys have the cap space to keep both Prescott and Cooper. At the very least, if the Cowboys lock up Prescott long-term, they can franchise tag Cooper next off-season.

Cooper had a 53/725/6 slash line in 9 games in Dallas last season and the 2015 4th overall pick started his career with back-to-back 1000+ yard seasons, but he dropped to 48/680/7 in 2017 and had just a 22/280/1 slash line through 6 games in 2018 before his trade to Dallas. He has also been highly inconsistent, with 10 games over 100 yards in the past 3 seasons, but also 21 games under 40 yards. Cooper is only going into his age 25 season and has a ton of talent, but he doesn’t always play up to his abilities and can be a lackadaisical route runner. He does seem to have great chemistry with Prescott though and could easily top 1000 yards as the clear #1 option in 2019.

Another reason why the Cowboys are unlikely to let Cooper leave is because they lack a clear #2 target behind him. Even in just 9 games, Cooper led this team in receiving with 725 yards, followed by free agent departure Cole Beasley (672 yards), and running back Ezekiel Elliott (567 yards). Michael Gallup was 4th on the team with 507 yards and he’ll compete with veteran Allen Hurns and free agent acquisition Randall Cobb for roles behind Cooper. Gallup was a 3rd round pick in 2018 and the Cowboys will likely give him a chance to take a step forward as the starting outside receiver opposite Cooper, but he’ll have to earn his job in training camp, with Hurns being his primary competition for snaps outside.

Randall Cobb is likely a replacement for Cole Beasley on the slot and should play a similar role (44.5 snaps per game in 2017, 89.3% of which came on the slot). Cobb was at one point arguably the best slot receiver in the league, putting up a 91/1287/12 slash line in 2014, but injuries seem to have sapped his abilities. He’s missed 11 games in the past 4 seasons, has been limited in countless others, and has averaged just 46.7 yards per game over those 4 seasons, despite playing with Aaron Rodgers under center. Last season was his worst season, as he managed just a 38/383/2 slash line in 9 games.

Cobb is actually a year younger than Beasley, in his age 29 season, but he’s not nearly as durable and will likely struggle to match Beasley’s 65/672/3 slash line from 2018. Beasley’s most valuable skill was his chemistry with Prescott and his ability to get open on 3rd and 4th downs, which is when he made 39.2% of his catches over the past 3 seasons. It’s unclear if Cobb will have that same chemistry with Prescott in key spots.

Allen Hurns will likely enter the season as the 4th receiver, but his versatility as an outside receiver and a slot receiver should allow him to have a decent role as a rotational player in an unsettled receiving corps. The Cowboys could have declined his 5 million dollar option for 2019, but they didn’t, suggesting they expect him to play at least somewhat. He’s coming off a brutal leg injury suffered in the post-season and a 2018 season in which he had just a 20/295/2 slash line on 451 snaps in 16 games and he hasn’t topped 500 yards since randomly topping 1000 yards in his 2nd season in the league in 2015, but he’s a decent rotational player with the upside to be more, still in his age 28 season. He’s unlikely to be the true #2 receiver they need opposite Cooper though, so the Cowboys could really use a breakout year from Gallup.

The Cowboys don’t have a obvious 2nd pass catching option at tight end either. In fact, the Cowboys were so thin at tight end that Jason Witten, who is going into his age 37 season and spent last season in the Monday Night Football booth, instantly became their top tight end when he unretired this off-season. The Cowboys had just 68 catches total from tight ends in 2018 and 26 of those catches went out the door when Geoff Swaim, who started all 9 games he played in 2018, signed with the Jaguars in free agency. With the Cowboys not making another addition at the position, Witten is the clear #1 tight end.

In Witten’s last action in 2017, he was a useful blocker who added 63 catches, but he looked like he was running in slow motion, only averaging 8.9 yards per catch and 1.5 yards per catch after catch (worst among qualifying tight ends). Two years later, after a year out of the game, Witten is unlikely to be any faster, so he’ll remain a catch and fall down guy in the receiving game at the most. He’s also highly unlikely to average the 65.5 snaps per game he played in 2017, most in the NFL among tight ends. Witten brings veteran leadership and a reliable set of hands, but his re-addition doesn’t really move the needle at the tight end position.

Blake Jarwin led the team with 27 catches by a tight end and will likely continue seeing passing down snaps in a rotational role. The 2017 undrafted free agent didn’t catch a pass as a rookie and only had 4 catches through the first 9 games of last season, but he took on a bigger role with Geoff Swaim injured and finished the season with 23 catches for 265 yards and 3 touchdowns in the final 7 games. 2018 4th round pick Dalton Schultz will also continue having a role as a blocking tight end in on run plays. He had just 12 catches as a rookie and is unlikely to ever develop into an above average receiver, but the he is fundamentally sound as a blocker and could continue improving in that aspect in 2019. Outside of Amari Cooper, the rest of this receiving corps is a question mark.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

With only one legitimate receiving threat, the Cowboys figure to continue running the offense heavily through feature back Ezekiel Elliott, who is a threat both on the ground and through the air. Elliott had just 58 catches in his first 2 seasons in the league, but added a new element to his game in his 3rd season in the league in 2018, leading the team with 77 catches. Combined with his league leading 304 carries, Elliott is as active as any running back in the league. He has averaged 25.1 touches per game in his 3 year career.

Despite that, he has never missed a game due to injury and has averaged 4.7 yards per carry and 8.9 yards per catch. He can break big plays, but also consistently keeps this offense on schedule, topping 50% carry success rate in all 3 seasons in the league and finishing 2nd in that metric in both 2016 and 2017. Still only going into his age 24 season, Elliott has the potential to be one of the top few running backs in the league for a long time.

Like Prescott and Cooper, Elliott is eligible for an extension with a big pay raise. Elliott has two years left on his rookie year, so his contract situation isn’t as pressing, but he’ll get a big raise in 2020 either way, set to make 9.099 million in his 5th year rookie option, which would give him the 4th highest running back cap hit for the 2020 season. The Cowboys are reportedly working on an extension that would make him the highest paid running back in the league (upwards of 14.5 million annually).

One thing that could complicate all this that Elliott could potentially be suspended for pushing a security guard in Las Vegas earlier this off-season. The incident was minor and Elliott was not charged, but Elliott was suspended for 6 games in 2017 for domestic violence accusations, a controversial decision that was appealed to federal court before it was ultimately served. Elliott reportedly may have violated the terms of that suspension and could be re-suspended.

I wouldn’t be surprised if he wasn’t suspended because the incident was so minor, but, given the NFL’s history of dealing with situations like this, I also wouldn’t be surprised if Elliott ended up getting suspended for even longer than last time, if this technically constitutes a violation of previous suspension terms. This is a situation to monitor, especially since the Cowboys would almost definitely pursue legal action against the league if Elliott were to get suspended for a significant period of time again.

Needless to say, Elliott’s absence would be a huge loss for this team. Given that Elliott rarely comes off the field, the Cowboys haven’t invested at the backup running back position. Last year’s top backup Rod Smith played just 6.9 snaps per game in that role and is no longer with the team. He’ll likely be replaced by 4th round rookie Tony Pollard. 7th round rookie Mike Weber and 2016 6th round pick Darius Jackson (6 career carries) would likely also be in the mix if Elliott were to miss time. For now, I am grading this as if Elliott is not being suspended, but that’s subject to change.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

If Elliott is able to play, he should benefit from improved offensive line play, with former All-Pro center Travis Frederick expected to return after missing all of last season. Frederick was arguably the best center in the league prior to last season, finishing in the top-6 among centers on Pro Football Focus in all 5 seasons in the league, but a rare autoimmune disorder wiped out his entire 2018 season. Frederick has returned to off-season workouts in full and his issues seem to be behind him, so he has obvious bounce back potential, still in the prime of his career in his age 28 season. He might not be quite 100%, but even Frederick at less than his best is still one of the best centers in the league. His replacement Joe Looney made all 16 starts, but finished 32nd out of 39 qualifying centers on PFF and is best as a reserve.

The Cowboys could also get better play at left guard, where both Connor Williams and Xavier Su’a-Filo struggled in 2018. Su’a-Filo is a reserve caliber player, but Williams was a 2nd round selection in 2018 and still has obvious upside, only in his age 22 season, especially after adding a much needed 15 pounds in the off-season. The Cowboys also added Penn State’s Connor McGovern in the 3rd round this year as insurance. He’s a versatile player who could also provide depth at center.

The rest of this offensive line will look the same in 2019, which is a good thing because their other 3 starters all earned above average grades from PFF in 2018. Zack Martin was the best of the bunch, finishing 2nd among guards on PFF, his 5th straight season in the top-5. Still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season, with just 2 games missed to injury in 5 seasons in the league, Martin should continue dominating in 2019. He actually played through a knee injury for most of 2018, making his performance even more impressive.

The Cowboys could also get a healthier season from left tackle Tyron Smith, who missed 3 games with injury and was limited in several others, but still finished 10th among offensive tackles on PFF. It’s unlikely the Cowboys are completely healthy across the line for all 16 games though and Smith’s injury history is becoming concerning. He’s missed 3 games in each of the past 3 seasons with a variety of issues. A top-15 offensive tackle on PFF in 6 straight seasons and still relatively young in his age 29 season, Smith can be a top level left tackle when he’s at 100%, but that’s becoming less common. The Cowboys are fortunate to have swing tackle Cameron Fleming, who has filled in nicely throughout his career, first in New England and now in Dallas (23 starts in 5 seasons in the league).

Fleming is also the backup at right tackle, where La’El Collins is coming off of a solid season as a 16-game starter. Collins was a first round talent coming out of LSU in 2015, but went undrafted because he was called in to be questioned about a murder the week of the draft and didn’t have time clear his name before draft day. Collins eventually did and signed with the Cowboys, who seemed to be getting a steal, but Collins was inconsistent for the first 3 seasons of his career before a mini-breakout season in 2018. Still only in his age 26 season with obvious talent, this could easily be a sign of things to come. At full strength, this is a very impressive offensive line.

Grade: A

Edge Defenders

As I mentioned earlier, the Cowboys’ defense got off to a great start in 2018, but they tailed off towards the end, coinciding with their offense improving with the addition of Amari Cooper. Going into their week 8 bye, the Cowboys ranked 4th in first down rate allowed at 31.47%, but in their final 9 games they allowed a 37.44% first down rate, which would have ranked 19th in the NFL over the full season. Their points per game allowed also shot up from 17.6 points per game before the bye to 22.3 points per game after. Everyone remembers their dominant nationally televised defensive performance against the Saints on Thursday Night Football, which came late in the season in week 13, but that was kind of a fluky performance on a short week and they allowed 23.9 points per game in their other 8 games after the bye.

There’s no one reason in particular for this drop off, but this was a young group that largely overachieved early in the season before falling back to earth down the stretch. That’s not to say they are a bad defense, as they have a solid unit overall, but this group is probably overrated due to last year’s strong start and that nationally televised game against the Saints. That being said, they do have a few high level defenders in their lineup.

Arguably their best defensive player is defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, who was kept on a 5-year, 105 million dollar deal this off-season, making him the 3rd highest paid defender in the league on an annual basis, behind Khalil Mack and Aaron Donald. The Cowboys could have probably had him cheaper last off-season, but the Cowboys decision to make him play the 2018 season on the franchise tag made sense. Lawrence had a breakout 2017 season, finishing as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked edge defender and totaling 14.5 sacks, 12 hits, and 52 hurries on 454 pass rush snaps (17.4% pressure rate), but he had an inconsistent and injury plagued first 3 seasons in the league. In those 3 seasons, he had just 9 sacks in 32 games (out of 48 possible) and a pressure rate of 9.6%. It’s understandable the Cowboys wanted to see him prove it again.

Lawrence did prove it again in 2018. He wasn’t quite as good as 2017, but he still finished as PFF’s #7 ranked edge defender and totaled 10.5 sacks, 13 hits, and 39 hurries on 484 pass rush snaps (13.0% pressure rate), leaving the Cowboys no choice but to franchise tag him again and eventually give him a top level deal. Considering he’s been one of the best pass rushers in the league over the past 2 seasons, I don’t think the Cowboys are too upset that they’re paying a few million more annually than they probably could have if they re-signed him after just one dominant year. He’s rehabbing from off-season shoulder surgery, but hasn’t missed a game since his injury plagued 2016 season and is still very much in the prime of his career in his age 27 season. Assuming he doesn’t miss any regular season time after having the surgery, Lawrence should remain one of the top 4-3 defensive ends in the league in 2019.

A combination of Tyrone Crawford and Randy Gregory started at the other defensive end spot, Crawford in base packages and Gregory in sub packages, but Gregory is suspended for the season after failing another drug test and Crawford could be facing a suspension as well, after being involved in a physical confrontation with police. Gregory, who had a 11.5% pressure rate on 321 pass rush snaps in 2018, will be replaced by Robert Quinn, acquired from Miami this off-season. Originally owed 11.8 million non-guaranteed, Quinn agreed to a 1-year, 9.1 million dollar deal to facilitate his trade to Dallas, with the Dolphins paying 1.1 million of that salary as a signing bonus and acquiring a 2020 6th round pick from the Cowboys as compensation.

Quinn was let go by the Dolphins because his salary didn’t fit on a team that was rebuilding, but he’s still a solid starter. His days of being a double digit sack player like he was from 2012-2014 are probably done, but he’s still only in his age 29 season and he’s been healthier in recent years, missing just 1 game in the past 2 seasons, after missing 15 from 2015-2016. He had 6.5 sacks, 9 hits, and 23 hurries on 367 pass rush snaps in 2018 (10.6%) and finished as PFF’s 22nd ranked edge defender in pass rush grade.

Crawford should still be available for at least most of the season, so he’ll continue having a role as a hybrid defensive lineman. He lined up primarily on the interior in pass rush situations in 2018 (259 of 472 pass rush snaps) and at 6-4 290 he certainly has the size to play inside, but he’s played more at defensive end in his career and could see more edge rush snaps in 2019. The 7-year veteran has always gotten to the quarterback regardless of where he’s lined up, with 22 sacks and a 9.5% pressure rate since 2014, but he has had issues against the run and is getting up there in age, going into his age 30 season.

Taco Charlton will also be in the mix for a role, though the 2017 1st round pick hasn’t shown much in two seasons in the league and is pretty far down on the depth chart. Charlton has played just 801 snaps in 2 seasons in the league. That’s in part due to him missing 5 games with injury last season, but he hasn’t been all that effective either, with just 4 sacks, 8 hits, and 26 hurries on 457 pass rush snaps (8.3% pressure rate). He may have to compete for a roster spot with 5th round rookie Joe Jackson and 2018 4th round pick Dorance Armstrong, who struggled on 273 rookie year snaps. Even with Gregory suspended and Crawford possibly facing suspension, this is a talented group, led by one of the top edge defenders in the league.

Grade: A-

Interior Defenders

Along with Tyrone Crawford, 4th year defensive tackle Maliek Collins also figures to have a significant role inside in sub packages. The 2016 3rd round pick struggled in his first two seasons in the league, managing just a 6.6% pressure rate and struggling mightily against the run, but in 2018 he took a big step forward, totalling 3 sacks, 5 hits, and 21 hurries on 340 pass rush snaps (8.5% pressure rate) and earning an average overall grade from Pro Football Focus. Still only going into his age 24 season, Collins could continue improving in 2019, though he is just a one-year wonder at this point.

In base packages, Antwaun Woods remains as a starter. A 2016 undrafted free agent, Woods played just 17 snaps in his first 2 seasons in the league, but broke out as a run stuffer in 2018, playing 585 snaps overall and earning an above average run stopping grade from PFF. He’s not a pass rusher, with just 1.5 sacks and a 4.7% pressure rate in 2018, but he could continue his solid play against the run in 2019.

The other starting role in base packages is up for grabs. 2017 undrafted free agent Daniel Ross showed promise in the first real action of his career in 2018 (250 snaps), but the Cowboys also added Trysten Hill in the 2nd round of the draft and signed ex-Texan rotational lineman Christian Covington on a 1-year, 2.5 million dollar deal. Both players could be capable run stuffers as well. This isn’t as strong of a group as outside, but they have some promising young players.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

The Cowboys’ linebackers are their strongest group on defense. Sean Lee used to be the leader of this linebacking corps and was once one of the best off ball linebackers in the league, but he’s missed 51 games in 9 seasons in the league and has taken on a smaller role as he goes into his age 33 season. He played just 222 snaps in 7 games last season, including just 84 snaps in 4 games after week 3. His best days are definitely behind him, but he’s a valuable veteran leader and could hang around for a few more seasons as a useful player in a part-time role. He took a pay cut from 7 million down to 3.5 million this off-season, which is an appropriate salary. As the 3rd linebacker in this linebacking corps, he’ll come off the field in sub packages for a 5th defensive back, so he figures to play less than half the snaps.

The reason why they’ve been able to move Lee into a smaller role is that they have one of the best linebacker duos in the NFL in Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith, who finished 5th and 6th respectively among off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus in 2018. Vander Esch was the 17th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft and was a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate in a strong defensive class with Darius Leonard, Derwin James, Bradley Chubb, and Denzel Ward.

Smith, meanwhile, likely would have been a top-15 pick, possibly top-10 pick in the 2016 NFL draft if not for a brutal knee he suffered a few months before the draft that dropped him to the Cowboys in the 2nd round at #34 overall. Smith missed his entire rookie year in 2016 and was a middling player on 575 snaps in his debut season in 2017, before breaking out in an every down role in 2018. Now over 3 years removed from the injury, Smith is still only going into his age 25 season and appears to be on track to have the kind of career many felt he would before getting hurt. He and Vander Esch are both technically one-year wonders, but they also look like they’re going to be the one of the best linebacker duos in the NFL for years to come.

Grade: A

Secondary

The Cowboys also had a standout performer in the secondary in 2018, with cornerback Byron Jones finishing 7th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. A first round pick in 2015, Jones played all over the secondary in his first 3 years in the league, seeing action as an outside cornerback, slot cornerback, deep safety, and box safety. He was pretty solid overall, but had his worst graded season in 2018 when he was primarily a box safety, which is not a good use of his abilities.

Fortunately for Jones, former Legion of Boom secondary coach Kris Richard joined the Cowboys’ coaching staff last off-season and he was able to get the most of him as an every down outside cornerback, where he played 88.5% of his snaps in 2018. At 6-1 205, Jones has the size and length that Richard likes in a cornerback and is clearly comfortable in this coverage scheme as the Cowboys’ Richard Sherman equivalent. He’s another player going into the final year of his rookie deal and while he deserves an extension, the Cowboys might not have enough financial flexibility long-term to keep all of their young talent.

For now, Jones will remain as the #1 cornerback, with a few other young cornerbacks competing for roles behind him. 2017 2nd round pick Chidobe Awuzie and 2016 6th round pick Anthony Brown were the #2 and #3 cornerbacks last season and both earned average grades from PFF on 886 and 690 snaps respectively, but #4 cornerback Jourdan Lewis has also shown himself to be a solid coverage cornerback when counted on and he’ll likely compete for a role as well, despite playing just 187 snaps in 2018.

A 3rd round pick in 2017, Lewis played a much bigger role as a rookie, earning an above average grade from PFF on 746 snaps. Brown has been a capable starting caliber player for 3 seasons (30 starts in 3 seasons) and Awuzie is coming off of a decent season and has a lot of upside, but Lewis’ 2017 season was better than any season either Awuzie or Brown have ever had and he didn’t show any drop off in a limited role in 2018.

Safety Xavier Woods is another talented young defensive back the Cowboys have. Woods flashed on 547 snaps as a 5th round rookie in 2017 and then continued playing well as a 14-game starter in 2018, after missing the first 2 games of the season with injury. Still only going into his age 24 season, Woods could easily take another step forward in his 3rd season in the league in 2019. At the very least, he should be an above average safety once again this season.

The other safety spot was the one weakness in this secondary in 2018, as Jeff Heath made 16 starts and finished 86th out of 100 qualifying safeties on PFF. Primarily a special teamer in his first 4 seasons in the league, Heath has made 31 starts over the past 2 seasons, but the results have been underwhelming. The Cowboys were expected to sign a top flight safety in free agency like Dallas native Earl Thomas, but they ended up settling for George Iloka on a 1-year, 1.02 million dollar deal.

Iloka could prove to be a real bargain though. A solid starter in Cincinnati from 2013-2017 (76 starts), Iloka was released late last off-season ahead of a non-guaranteed 4.5 million dollar salary and only played 117 snaps in Minnesota, where he signed on a minimum deal as a backup behind a pair of proven starters. Iloka didn’t have much of a market this off-season, but he’s still relatively young, going into his age 29 season, and could easily find his old form in 2019 in a starting role. He and Heath will compete for the job. It’s the one questionable spot in an overall talented young secondary.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Cowboys are a team led by their stars. They have 10 of the top-200 or so players in the NFL in quarterback Dak Prescott, running back Ezekiel Elliott, wide receiver Amari Cooper, left tackle Tyron Smith, center Travis Frederick, right guard Zack Martin, defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, linebackers Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith, and cornerback Byron Jones. If those players can all stay on the field and perform at a high level, this team should be a Super Bowl contender. If they don’t, their depth will be tested, and it may be tough for them to qualify for the post-season, especially sharing a division with an Eagles team that also has a dominant roster.

With Travis Frederick returning from injury and Amari Cooper heading into his first full season in Dallas, the Cowboys’ offense should be significantly improved in 2019 and their defense, while inconsistent in 2018, still finished 10th in first down rate allowed on the season and has a lot of young talent. They weren’t as good as their 10-6 record suggested in 2018, but they could easily win another 10+ games with a more talented team in 2019 if all their key players can stay on the field. The Ezekiel Elliott discipline situation is obviously one to monitor, as losing him for an extended period of time would be a huge blow to this team’s chances. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in NFC East

Team Score: 76.45*

Offensive Score: 76.93

Defensive Score: 75.97

*team score is based on a weighted average of individual player grades (certain positions valued higher than others, score out of 100)

Dallas Cowboys at Los Angeles Rams: 2018 NFC Divisional Round Pick

Dallas Cowboys (11-6) at Los Angeles Rams (13-3)

The Cowboys are the weakest of the remaining 8 playoff teams. Their offense has been better since acquiring Amari Cooper during the bye, picking up first downs at a 35.98% rate in 10 games with him, as opposed to 33.81% in 7 games without him, but their defense has gone in the other direction. Before the bye, the Cowboys ranked 4th in first down rate allowed at 31.47%, but they’ve allowed opponents to pick up first downs at a 36.59% rate in 10 games since.

After overachieving on defense early in the season, they’ve largely fallen back down to earth in recent weeks, but they’re still considered an elite defense by many because they played their best game on primetime against the Saints. Even with that week 13 upset win over the Saints included, the Cowboys are allowing 22.3 points per game since the bye. They’ve been winning, going 8-2 in their last 10, but all of their wins have been by 8 points or fewer and they are somehow even in point differential over those 10 games. I don’t give them much of a shot to win this game in Los Angeles against the Rams, especially if slot receiver Cole Beasley and tight end Blake Jarwin are both unable to go after not practicing all week.

That being said, it’s hard to be confident in the Rams as 7-point favorites. They have 7 wins by more than a touchdown this year, but 6 of them came against the Raiders, Lions, Cardinals, and 49ers, among the worst teams in the league. The Chargers are the only non-cellar dweller they’ve beaten by more than a touchdown, with teams like the Broncos, Packers and Seahawks (twice), comparable caliber teams to the Cowboys, all keeping their games against the Rams close. I only have this line calculated at Rams -7.5, so I can’t be confident in the Rams at -7 and I may switch this pick to the Cowboys if both Beasley and Jarwin are able to go. A push also seems like a strong possibility.

Los Angeles Rams 26 Dallas Cowboys 17

Pick against the spread: LA Rams -7

Confidence: None

Seattle Seahawks at Dallas Cowboys: 2018 NFC Wild Card Pick

Dallas Cowboys (10-6) at Seattle Seahawks (10-6)

The Seahawks got off to a slow start this year, starting 0-2 and sitting just 4-4 at the season’s midpoint, but they once again finished the season strong, something they’ve done pretty much every year in the Russell Wilson era, going 37-18-1 ATS in the second half of the regular season since 2012. The Seahawks went 6-2 straight up and ATS over the final 8 games of the 2018 season to finish at 10-6 and they rank 9th in first down rate differential since week 10 at +3.24%, after ranking 25th at -3.39% prior to week 10. This Seahawks team is not as talented as they were earlier in the Russell Wilson era, but they’re well coached and quarterbacked and there’s no reason to believe they will suddenly revert to their early season form in the playoffs, where they are 8-4 straight up since 2012.

The Cowboys have also had a strong second half of the season record wise, going 7-1 after a 3-5 start, but they actually rank just 21st in first down rate differential at -1.54%. Somewhat remarkably, all 7 of the Cowboys wins over that time period came by 8 points or fewer, while their one loss came by 23, giving them a point differential of just +12 over that time period (as opposed to +49 for the Seahawks).

Their offense has been better since acquiring Amari Cooper, picking up first downs at a 35.73% rate since week 10, as opposed to 34.03% prior to week 10, but their defense has gone in the opposite direction, allowing a first down rate of 37.27% since week 10, after allowing a first down rate of 32.73% before week 10. Their defense overperformed early in the season, but, aside from their nationally televised game against the Saints, they’ve largely fallen back to earth in recent weeks, allowing 23.3 points per game in their other 7 games. I think they’re a little overrated right now because casual bettors think they have an elite defense as a result of that Saints game.

The Seahawks also have the talent and experience edge. Not only is Russell Wilson going into his 13th playoff game with Pete Carroll already, but Carroll has also been a head coach in 5 other playoff games without Wilson (10-7 overall). On the other side, Jason Garrett is in just his 4th playoff game (1-2) and just his 2nd with Dak Prescott, who lost his first career playoff start in 2016. At +2, we’re not getting quite enough line value to take the Seahawks against the spread (especially since I will have bets on the other 3 games this week), but I like their chances of winning this game. Games rarely are decided by 1 point exactly, so the money line is a smarter play if you want to bet this game.

Seattle Seahawks 19 Dallas Cowboys 17 Upset Pick +110

Pick against the spread: Seattle +2

Confidence: Low

Dallas Cowboys at New York Giants: 2018 Week 17 NFL Pick

Dallas Cowboys (9-6) at New York Giants (5-10)

This is another game with motivational uncertainty. The Cowboys are locked into the #4 seed in the NFC and have rested starts with nothing to play for in the past, but Jason Garrett at least publicly says he’s treating this as a real game because the Cowboys still have issues they need to work through. That makes some sense, as the last time the Cowboys rested starters it was with a first round bye locked up, but the Cowboys have also been giving more reps to backups at practice this week, including practice squad running back Darius Jackson, who could split carries with backup Rod Smith this week if Ezekiel Elliott sits on the sidelines, with his rushing title all but wrapped up.

If Elliott sits, you have to figure banged up offensive linemen Tyron Smith and Zack Martin also won’t play and, without those two and Elliott, it doesn’t make much sense to have Dak Prescott or any other stars play for more than a quarter or so. This line also seems to expect the Cowboys to mail it in, favoring the Giants by 6. The Giants are also missing a pair of stars though, without stud safety Landon Collins and #1 wide receiver Odell Beckham due to injury, so I’m taking the Cowboys for pick ‘em purposes and hoping they don’t completely mail it in.

New York Giants 24 Dallas Cowboys 20

Pick against the spread: Dallas +6

Confidence: None

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Dallas Cowboys: 2018 Week 16 NFL Pick

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-9) at Dallas Cowboys (8-6)

The Cowboys were shut out in Indianapolis last week, ending their 5-game winning streak. That was a tough spot for them though, on the road against a strong Indianapolis team, without their top offensive lineman Zack Martin, after back-to-back tough wins over the Saints and Eagles. This week, they are at home with an easier matchup against the Buccaneers, they probably are getting Martin back, and they should be more focused after last week’s loss humbled them.

That being said, I’m still leaning towards the Buccaneers as 7-point underdogs. The Cowboys have had offensive issues all season and that has kept them from blowing out their opponents, with 7 of their 8 wins coming by 8 points or fewer. Even if Martin is back, he likely won’t be at 100%, which could be a major problem for this offense. The Buccaneers, meanwhile, have also played a lot of close games in recent years, with 12 of their 20 losses over the past 2 seasons coming by 8 points or fewer.

The Buccaneers have defensive issues (6th in first down rate allowed at 41.02%) and they start one of the more turnover prone quarterbacks in the league in Jameis Winston, but their offense moves the ball well (30th in first down rate at 41.28%) and is more than capable of getting a backdoor cover if needed. There’s not enough here to take the Buccaneers with any confidence and we’re not really getting any line value with the Buccaneers, but this could easily be another close game for these teams, so I like the Buccaneers for pick ‘em purposes.

Dallas Cowboys 26 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 20

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay +7

Confidence: None

Dallas Cowboys at Indianapolis Colts: 2018 Week 15 NFL Pick

Dallas Cowboys (8-5) at Indianapolis Colts (7-6)

The Cowboys are obviously better offensively since acquiring wide receiver Amari Cooper, who has revitalized his career in Dallas, helping the Cowboys win 5 straight games and take control of the NFC East. I expect that streak to end this week though. Coming off of a huge upset win over the Saints and an overtime win over the Eagles that essentially clinched the division, the Cowboys probably won’t bring the same effort this week, especially since they’re basically locked into the #4 seed in the NFC, needing the Bears to lose twice in three games to have a chance to jump them.

Their seeding might be part of the reason why the Cowboys are resting right guard Zach Martin this week, as the All-Pro has dealt with injuries to both knees this season. That’s a huge loss, especially for an offensive line that could also sit left tackle Tyron Smith, who is also dealing with multiple injuries and did not practice in full this week. On defense, the Cowboys could hold out linebacker Sean Lee again, after he was limited all week in practice as well, and even if he does he play he’d likely have a limited role. They’ll also be without edge rush specialist Randy Gregory for personal reasons, also a big loss the way he’s been playing.

The Colts have injury issues as well, with left tackle Mark Glowinski and possibly safety Clayton Geathers and wide receiver TY Hilton out this week with injuries. They’ve had injury issues all season though and, if Hilton can play as a gametime decision, they’ll actually be much healthier this week than they have been for much of the season. Center Ryan Kelly is the most recent player to return to the lineup and he’ll be a big re-addition after a 3-game absence.

Despite injuries, the Colts have been better than their 7-6 record this season, as they rank 11th in point differential at +49 and 7th in first down rate differential at 3.39%. Injuries were part of the reason why they started 1-5, but they’ve since won 6 of 7 games. They are +12 in offensive touchdowns, as opposed to +2 for Dallas, and have 4 wins by more than a touchdown, as opposed to just 1 for Dallas.

The Colts haven’t faced the toughest schedule, but they’re still the 2nd toughest team the Cowboys have faced on their winning streak, outside of the Saints, who it took an incredible effort to beat in Dallas. In a much less meaningful game, out of conference, at much less than 100%, I don’t expect that same effort this week from the Cowboys. This is a medium confidence pick for now, but if Hilton plays and the line stays at -3, I’ll bump this up to high confidence.

Sunday Update: As promised, I’m bumping this up to high confidence with TY Hilton active and the line remaining at 3. The Cowboys got good news Sunday morning as well, with Tyron Smith, Sean Lee, and Randy Gregory active, but the Colts also have Clayton Geathers active and are as healthy as they’ve been all season with Hilton, Geathers, and Ryan Kelly active. The Cowboys, meanwhile, will be without stud right guard Zack Martin in a game that doesn’t mean as much for them as it does for the Colts.

Indianapolis Colts 24 Dallas Cowboys 17

Pick against the spread: Indianapolis -3

Confidence: High

Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys: 2018 Week 14 NFL Pick

Philadelphia Eagles (6-6) at Dallas Cowboys (7-5)

The Cowboys got a huge win last week, pulling the upset as 7.5-point favorites against the Saints, a win that helps them as they try to win the NFC East. However, they have another huge game this week against the Eagles, who are their biggest competition for the division title. If the Cowboys win this game, they’ll have a two game lead and the tiebreaker over the Eagles with 3 games to play, but if the Eagles win they’ll pull into a tie and have control of the tiebreaker, due to their superior divisional record.

The Cowboys’ win last week was impressive, but it doesn’t necessarily bode well for their chances of covering this week, as teams are 38-51 ATS since 2002 after winning as 6+ point home underdogs. The Cowboys played last week like it was their Super Bowl and might find it hard to play like that for two weeks in a row. The Cowboys also have already beaten the Eagles this season, pulling the 27-20 upset back in week 10, but that doesn’t necessarily bode well for their chances of covering this week either. Divisional home favorites are just 41-68 ATS since 2002 against teams they’ve previously beaten that season as divisional road underdogs. In rematches like this, the loser of the previous game wins about 45% of the time over that same time period, despite being underdogs.

The Eagles could have easily won that week 10 game anyway, as they won the first down rate battle by 2.09%, but failed on two 4th downs and threw an interception, while the Cowboys’ picked up a 4th down and played turnover free football. That’s one of two games the Eagles have lost this season despite winning the first down rate battle, with the other coming in a 2-point loss to the Vikings in which they allowed a long defensive touchdown. The Eagles obviously haven’t been as good as they were last season, but they still rank 9th in first down rate differential at +3.19%.

On the season, they are -8 in point differential, but that’s despite a 41-point loss in New Orleans and a -8 turnover margin. Turnover margins tend to be inconsistent on a week-to-week basis and, if the Eagles can play turnover neutral football the rest of the way, that should be noticeable on the scoreboard. Despite that, the Eagles are underdogs of more than a field goal here in Dallas, suggesting the Cowboys are the better of these two teams right now. I have this line calculated at closer to even and I like the Eagles’ chances of pulling the straight up upset in a revenge spot against a team that might be a little overconfident after a huge win. At +3.5, this is my Pick of the Week.

Philadelphia Eagles 24 Dallas Cowboys 23 Upset Pick +155

Pick against the spread: Philadelphia +3.5

Confidence: Pick of the Week