Atlanta Falcons at Dallas Cowboys: 2020 Week 2 NFL Pick

Atlanta Falcons (0-1) at Dallas Cowboys (0-1)

Going into the season, I liked the Cowboys’ chances of being a contender, after tough luck in close games in 2019 (0-5 in games decided by 7 points or fewer after going 8-2 in those type of games with roughly the same team in 2018) led to the Cowboys missing the playoffs at 8-8, despite finishing 6th in the league in point differential at +113 and 4th in first down rate differential at +4.28%. However, the Cowboys are having a different kind of tough luck this season, as they’ve been arguably the most injury affected team in the league so far. 

They lost defensive tackle Gerald McCoy for the year before the season even started and right tackle La’El Collins, tight end Blake Jarwin, and linebackers Leighton Vander Esch and Sean Lee are all out for an extended period of time now as well. The Cowboys do get cornerback Jourdan Lewis back after he missed the opener and the Cowboys are counting on the promising young cornerback as a starter in 2020 to replace departed free agent Byron Jones, but they could be without a far more important player than Lewis in this game, left tackle Tyron Smith, who aggravated a previous injury in practice early this week and has not returned since. 

Smith is listed as questionable, suggesting he has a decent chance to play even though he didn’t practice at all Thursday or Friday, but he may be less than 100% and could easily have an in-game setback and have to leave the game. Without him, the Cowboys would be without their top-3 offensive tackles, with normal bookend Collins and swing tackle Cameron Erving both on injured reserve right now. The Falcons also could be without their left tackle though, as Jake Matthews barely practiced this week through injury and is likely in a similar situation as Smith where even if he plays he could be limited or have a setback. Matthews isn’t as big of a name as Smith, but he’d be as big of an absence to the Falcons as Smith would be to the Cowboys.

With Matthews and Smith both being up in the air, it’s hard to be confident in either side on this one, but there are reasons to like Atlanta, especially if Matthews can go and/or Smith can’t. This line was originally at 7 before all of the Cowboys injuries, but, particularly if Smith can’t go, this line didn’t move enough, down to 4.5. With Smith and Matthews factored in as highly questionable, I have the Cowboys just three spots ahead of the Falcons in my roster rankings and the Cowboys won’t have their normal homefield advantage either, with a limited crowd in the stands, giving us a calculated line of just -3 as of right now.

The Falcons are also in a much better spot schedule wise, as the Cowboys have to turn around and go to Seattle next week, while the Falcons get to host the Bears. Underdogs are 76-38 ATS since 2016 before being favorites when their opponent will next be underdogs and all three of those conditions are almost definitely true here. Depending on injury reports and associated line movement, I may end up placing a bet on the Falcons, but for now this is a low confidence pick because of the uncertainty around Matthews and Smith.

Update: Matthews is playing and Smith is not, but this line has dropped all the way to 3, so there’s isn’t enough line value here. I think the single most likely outcome of this game is still the Cowboys winning by 3, so I’d want at least 3.5 for this to be worth a bet. 

Dallas Cowboys 27 Atlanta Falcons 26

Pick against the spread: Atlanta +3

Confidence: Low

Dallas Cowboys at Los Angeles Rams: 2020 Week 1 NFL Pick

Dallas Cowboys (0-0) at Los Angeles Rams (0-0)

The Cowboys finished last season just 8-8, but that was primarily due to terrible luck in close games, going 0-5 in games decided by a touchdown or less. They finished 6th in point differential at +113 and 4th in first down rate differential at +4.28%, which both predict future success in 2020. The Cowboys lose free agent cornerback Byron Jones and their free agent additions HaHa Clinton-Dix and Gerald McCoy got cut and suffered a season ending injury respectively, but they did add a big upgrade on the edge in Everson Griffen. Right tackle La’El Collins and cornerback Jourdan Lewis are out with injury, but the Cowboys still rank 10th in my roster rankings even without them.

The Rams, meanwhile, lost significant players this off-season like Todd Gurley, Brandin Cooks, Dante Fowler, Clay Matthews, Cory Littleton, and Nickell Roby-Coleman and didn’t bring in players who can adequately replace them immediately. They should take a significant step back from last season’s 11th rank in first down rate differential. I have them 22nd in my roster rankings, 5.5 points behind the Cowboys, suggesting the Cowboys should be favored by about 4.5 points, in front of an empty stadium in Los Angeles. We’re getting good value with the Cowboys at -2.5, so they’re worth a bet, in a game in which they basically just need to win to cover.

Dallas Cowboys 24 Los Angeles Rams 19

Pick against the spread: Dallas -2.5

Confidence: Medium

Dallas Cowboys 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

In 2018, the Cowboys won the division at 10-6, but they had just a +15 point differential and ranked 17th in first down rate differential at -0.03%, with their record largely being the product of going 8-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less. A team’s record in close games tends to be very unpredictable on a year-to-year basis, so it was foreseeable that the Cowboys would have less success in close games in 2019, but what was not foreseeable was that the Cowboys would go totally the other way and go 0-5 in games decided by a touchdown or less. Aside from their inability to close out close games, the Cowboys were significantly better in 2019 than they were in 2018, finishing 6th in point differential at +113 and 4th in first down rate differential at +4.28%, but all of their close losses caused the Cowboys to miss the post-season entirely at 8-8.

Just like the it was foreseeable that the Cowboys would do worse in close games in 2019 than they did in 2018, it’s now foreseeable that the Cowboys will do better in those games in 2020. The Cowboys were far and away better than any other non-playoff qualifier in first down rate differential and point differential, so if they can match those totals in 2020, they shouldn’t have much problem at all making the playoffs. That being said, this isn’t quite the same Cowboys team as last season, so they might not have quite as impressive of a first down rate and point differential. Like the Cowboys won fewer games in 2019 than 2018 despite being a better team, the Cowboys could easily win more games in 2020 than 2019, even if they aren’t as talented.

One key player who remains is quarterback Dak Prescott, who the Cowboys weren’t letting go anywhere this off-season, keeping him on the exclusive franchise tag. The exclusive franchise tag is worth 31.409 million for quarterbacks this season, but that’s actually relatively cheap compared to what it will cost annually to extend Prescott long-term, as Prescott turned down an extension worth 33 million annually and wants to at least surpass Russell Wilson’s 35 million annually to become the highest paid quarterback in the league on his next contract.

Even though most expect the two sides to get a deal done at some point, it doesn’t sound like they’ve made much progress this off-season. Prescott can afford to be patient, playing a position with relatively little chance of a career altering injury, with endorsements and insurance money locked in, and roughly 68 million owed to him if he’s franchised twice for 2020 and 2021, followed by an opportunity at free agency in 2022, when the salary cap is expected to increase significantly following a new TV deal. Perhaps the Cowboys, recognizing Prescott’s leverage, will significantly up their offer at the eleventh hour, having until the middle of July to work out a long-term deal ahead of the franchise tag deadline.

Regardless of how the contract works out long-term, Prescott will almost definitely be the Cowboys’ week 1 starting quarterback in 2020. Even though he’s likely to be paid at the top of the quarterback market, Prescott hasn’t quite been a top level quarterback thus far in his career, ranking 8th, 18th, 19th, and 11th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus in 4 seasons in the league respectively. Still, he’s going into his age 27 season with 64 career starts and the reality of the NFL is that an experienced quarterback in his prime who is proven as an above average starter always ends up getting paid. 

That being said, if the Cowboys can’t come to an agreement with Prescott this off-season, they might be better off trying to tag and trade him next off-season in an attempt move up in the draft and get a long-term replacement, as his price is only going to keep going higher as other quarterbacks sign and, unless he takes a significant step forward, at some point he wouldn’t be worth it, especially if he could return valuable draft assets in a trade. 

Prescott is certainly good enough to win a Super Bowl, but you need to give him a lot of help and the Cowboys would have a difficult time doing that consistently if they are paying Prescott 40+ million annually, even if the cap is set to increase significantly. No team has won the Super Bowl since 1994 with more than 12.5% of the cap committed to the quarterback position and just 6 teams have won it over that stretch with a quarterback taking up more than 10% of the cap. While it wouldn’t surprise me if a quarterback like Patrick Mahomes were able to win a Super Bowl while making 40 million annually, Prescott is simply not that caliber of a quarterback. Once they sign Prescott long-term, the Cowboys’ Super Bowl window could close fast.

The Cowboys have never had a good backup for Prescott, but they “splurged” this off-season by signing ex-Bengals starter Andy Dalton to a 1-year, 3 million dollar deal to be their #2 and he’ll arguably be the top backup quarterback in the NFL. A 2nd round pick in 2011, Dalton made 133 starts in 9 seasons in Cincinnati, completing 62.0% of his passes for an average of 7.10 YPA, 204 touchdowns, and 118 interceptions (87.5 QB rating) and finished in the top-21 among quarterbacks on PFF in 6 of those seasons, but he’s coming off of probably the worst season of his career (78.3 QB rating, 25th among 39 qualifying quarterbacks on PFF) and he’s going into his age 33 season, so it’s unsurprising he couldn’t find a starting job this off-season. That being said, there might not be much dropoff if Dalton had to start for a few games in case of a Prescott injury, so he was a steal for the Cowboys on a cheap one-year deal.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

As I mentioned, this isn’t quite the same Cowboys team as last season. In fact, they had the 3rd most losses this off-season of any team in the league in terms of 2019 snap count, losing 33.5% of snaps played last season. The biggest loss was center Travis Frederick, as, not only is he a talented player who finished 12th among centers on Pro Football Focus in 2019 in 16 starts, but the Cowboys also didn’t do much to replace him. 

In his prime from 2014-2017, Frederick was arguably the best center in the league, finishing in the top-4 among centers on PFF in all 4 seasons, but he unfortunately had an illness that cost him all of 2018, affected him into 2019, and caused him to want to retire early this off-season, ahead of what would have been only his age 29 season. Even if he wasn’t the same player in 2019 as he was in his prime, he’s a big loss for a Cowboys team that needs a lot to continue going right if they’re going to match their 3rd ranked finish in first down rate (39.94%) from last season.

The Cowboys have a few options to replace Frederick, all of which are questionable. Veteran Joe Looney made all 16 starts in Frederick’s absence in 2018, but he finished 31st out of 39 qualifying centers and has otherwise been a backup in his career, making just 14 starts in his other 7 seasons combined. Now going into his age 30 season, Looney is unlikely to get any better, so the Cowboys are likely hoping either 2019 3rd round pick Connor McGovern or 4th round rookie Tyler Biadasz can run away with the starting job in training camp. McGovern has the better shot because he has at least an off-season under his belt, but he missed all of his rookie year with a torn pectoral, so both he and Biadasz are questionable options.

McGovern and Biadasz could also see some action at left guard. They both have experience at guard and incumbent starter Connor Williams is likely questionable for the start of the season after suffering a torn ACL late last season, while his replacement down the stretch Xavier Su’a-Filo is now in Cincinnati. Even if Williams can play week 1, he may not be 100% right away. It’s a shame because the 2018 2nd round pick had taken a step forward in his 2nd season in the league, earning a middling grade from PFF after struggling as a rookie. His injury dampens his long-term outlook a little and he might not be ready for the start of the season, though he still projects as a starter long-term, especially since he’s still only going into his age 23 season.

The rest of this offensive line is still strong fortunately, as left tackle Tyron Smith, right guard Zack Martin, and right tackle La’El Collins were all among the best players in the league at their respective positions in 2019. That has been the case for Smith and Martin for years. Smith, who finished last season 14th among offensive tackles on PFF, has finished in the top-15 at his position on PFF in 7 straight seasons, while Martin, who finished last season 3rd among guards on PFF, has finished in the top-5 at his position on PFF in 6 straight seasons. Despite their extended success, both are still somewhat in their primes, going into just their age 30 season, having shown no real signs of decline yet.

Collins, meanwhile, is coming off easily the best season of his career, finishing 4th among offensive tackles on PFF, after having never finished higher than 31st in a season. Collins went undrafted in 2015 despite first round talent because of some terrible timing, as he was a suspect in a murder case before the draft and couldn’t talk to police to clear his name until after. The Cowboys immediately played him in as a starter and, while he struggled out of position early in his career at guard, he’s made 47 starts at right tackle over the past 3 seasons, earning at least an average grade from PFF in all 3 seasons, and making a significant year-to-year improvement each season before putting it all together in 2019. He might not be quite as good in 2020, but he’s a very talented offensive lineman who is still just in his age 27 season, so he should remain one of the better right tackles in the league for at least the next few seasons. Center and left guard are concerns, but the rest of this offensive line is strong.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

The Cowboys also lost starting starting slot receiver Randall Cobb and tight end Jason Witten this off-season and they were 3rd and 4th on the team with slash lines of 55/828/3 and 63/529/4 respectively. Despite their production, however, they won’t be missed, as the Cowboys should be able to replace both. Witten will be replaced internally by former backup Blake Jarwin, who actually comes with a lot more upside as a receiver. Witten is a future Hall of Famer who was one of the best receiving tight ends in the league in his prime, but he averaged just 1.19 yards per route run in 2019 and earned a negative grade from Pro Football Focus for his receiving, while Jarwin averaged 1.82 yards per route run and earned a positive grade from PFF, albeit on about half the snaps. 

Undrafted in 2017, Jarwin has flashed as a receiver throughout his career, with 1.56 yards per route run on 430 career routes, and, while it’s not a guarantee, he could easily translate that to a larger role in 2020. Depth is the concern at tight end, especially since Jarwin isn’t nearly as good as Witten as a blocker. The Cowboys didn’t make any real additions to replace Witten as a blocker and instead will be counting on 3rd year tight end Dalton Schultz to take a step forward and be the #2 tight end. He’s flashed as a run blocker thus far in his career, but the 2018 4th round pick has played just 417 career snaps and has caught just 13 career passes.


Cobb, meanwhile, will be replaced by first round rookie CeeDee Lamb, so, even though Cobb earned a slightly above average grade from PFF in 2019, there shouldn’t be much, if any drop off in the short-term and in the long-term Lamb has the potential to be the best of possibly a very strong wide receiver draft. Lamb was not expected to be available at 17 and the Cowboys had more pressing needs, but it’s hard to argue that the Cowboys shouldn’t have taken him, given that he fell into their lap and gives them arguably the top wide receiver trio in the league, with Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup both returning after being one of five wide receiver duos in the league to surpass 1000 yards receiving yards in 2019.

For Cooper, it was the 4th time he’d topped that mark in 5 seasons in the league since being drafted 4th overall in 2015 by the Raiders, though that doesn’t tell you the whole story of the ups and downs of his career. Cooper started out his career with back-to-back 1000+ yard seasons, going for 72/1070/6 in 2015 and 83/1153/5 in 2016, but then hit an unexplainable lull for a year in a half, as he averaged a 56/768/6 slash line per 16 games over a 20-game stretch in 2017 and the first half of 2018. Cooper was then traded to the Cowboys for a first round pick and his career was revitalized overnight, as he’s averaged a 84/1225/9 slash line per 16 games in 25 games since arriving in Dallas and is coming off of a career best 8th ranked finish among wide receivers on PFF.

Cooper was given a 5-year, 100 million dollar deal with 40 million guaranteed to stick around long-term as a free agent this off-season, making him the 2nd highest paid wide receiver in the league now behind Julio Jones, and it’s possible he could coast a little like he seemingly was for a stretch in Oakland now that he has significant guarantees locked down, but it’s also encouraging that Cooper reportedly took less money to stay in Dallas over signing with the last place Redskins and he’s still only going into his age 26 season, so he could even keep getting better. As long as he stays motivated and healthy, Cooper should be one of the top wide receivers in the league for years to come.

Gallup, meanwhile, had never topped 1000 yards in a season prior to last season, though it’s hard to fault him, given that last season was just the 2018 3rd round pick’s second season in the league. Gallup played significantly as a rookie too, but was more of a snap eater than anything, before breaking out with a 66/1107/6 slash line and a 34th ranked finish among wide receivers on PFF in 2019. Gallup is technically a one-year wonder, but going into his age 24 season, he still has a massive upside. With Cooper, Gallup, and Lamb all young and under contract beyond this year, it’s hard to find a team with a better wide receiver situation, especially when you add in Tavon Austin, a useful 4th receiver who sees some situational work as a speedster (303 snaps in 2019), and tight end Blake Jarwin comes with upside as well.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

The Cowboys don’t just have great skill position talent in the receiving corps, but they also have that at the running back position, led by feature back Ezekiel Elliott. Since being drafted 4th overall by the Cowboys in 2016, Elliott has arguably been the league’s best runner, rushing for 5,405 yards and 40 touchdowns on 1,169 carries (4.62 YPC) in 56 games. In addition, he’s exceeded 50% carry success rate in all 4 seasons and has ranked in the top-4 at his position in that metric in 3 of 4 seasons in the league. Last season, he finished as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked running back in rushing grade, while rushing for 1,357 yards and 12 touchdowns on 301 carries (4.51 YPC). 

There’s always uncertainty at the running back position, but Elliott is going into just his age 25 season with no real injury history, so he’s about as sure of a thing as there is at the position. The one knock against him is he’s just an average player in the passing game, catching 189 passes in 56 career games with a 54/420/2 slash line in 2019, and missing blitz pick ups from time-to-time, but he’s still a pretty complete running back.

Elliott isn’t the only talented back the Cowboys have either, as backup Tony Pollard flashed in limited action, rushing for 5.29 yards per carry, with 4.51 of those yards per carry coming after contact, and earning PFF’s 3rd ranked rushing grade among running backs. He only saw 86 carries, but that’s actually a lot when you consider that Elliott made all 16 starts and topped 300 carries on the season and his low carry total makes his 23 broken tackles all the more impressive. Between those broken tackles and his yards after contact, Pollard had the highest elusive rating in the NFL, suggesting the Cowboys might not see much drop off at the running back position even if Elliott were to get hurt.

The Cowboys made a concerted effort to get Pollard involved even while giving Elliott feature back type carries last season and, given the success he had in limited action as a fourth round rookie in 2019, they’re likely to do so again this season. Pollard may also see more action in passing situations to give Elliott more rest in situations where he doesn’t thrive. This is probably the best backfield in the NFL, with a legitimate feature back backed up by one of the best backups in the league.

Grade: A

Interior Defenders

While the Cowboys have a few changes on offense this season, their defense is the unit that has seen the most significant changes, as 7 of their top-14 in snaps played from a season ago are no longer with the team. Their offense is likely to not be quite as good as last season when they ranked 3rd in first down rate, given that they’ll be without center Travis Frederick and likely will have more injuries than they had last season when they had the second fewest adjusted games lost to injury in the league, but their defense was middle of the pack last season, ranking 17th in first down rate allowed, so some changes could benefit them on this side of the ball.

No position had more changes than inside at defensive tackle, as their top-3 interior defenders in terms of snaps played last season, Maliek Collins (763 snaps), Chrisitan Covington (481 snaps), and Michael Bennett (429 snaps), are all no longer with the team. All three were capable, but unspectacular players who were snap eaters more than anything. They will be replaced by free agent acquisitions Dontari Poe and Gerald McCoy and third round rookie Neville Gallimore.

Poe and McCoy come to Dallas on deals worth 8.5 million over 2 years and 18.3 million over 3 years respectively and they figure to be the starters. Both players started last season with the Panthers and both earned above average grades from Pro Football Focus. Both players have also seen better days though and they are getting up there in age, heading into their age 30 and age 32 seasons respectively. 

Poe used to be one of the most durable interior defenders in the league, averaging 53.7 snaps per game from 2012-2017, but he’s been limited to 33.9 snaps per game in 27 games over the past two seasons and went down for the season last year with a torn quad during week 12. He’s still been useful in a rotational role, but he’s not what he was. McCoy, meanwhile, finished in the top-19 among interior defenders in 5 of 6 seasons from 2012-2017, but he’s fallen to 30th in 2018 and 34th in 2019. Both should be solid starters and largely upgrades, but they’re not what they were and they could easily continue declining.

Gallimore, meanwhile, will compete for reserve snaps with 2018 2nd round pick Trysten Hill, who will likely have a larger role after playing 121 underwhelming snaps as a rookie, and 5th year veteran Antwaun Woods. Woods played 585 snaps in 2018 and wasn’t bad, but he struggled in 310 snaps in 10 games last season and the 2016 undrafted free agent hasn’t had much success in any of his other seasons in the league, so he’s best as a backup. The Cowboys don’t have a standout player at this position, but they have good depth and their starters should be somewhat improved over last season.

Grade: B

Edge Defenders

The Cowboys also lose their #2 and #3 in terms of snaps played on the edge at defensive end, Robert Quinn (647 snaps) and Kerry Hyder (439 snaps). Quinn is the bigger loss, as he led the team with a 14.1% pressure rate, but Hyder was valuable as a rotational run stuffer as well. To replace them, the Cowboys are counting on some bounce back years. They have long-time Cowboy Tyrone Crawford (8 seasons with the team) coming back from a hip injury that limited him to 90 snaps in 4 games last season and they have a pair of players who haven’t played in at least a season due to suspension in Randy Gregory and Aldon Smith.

Smith is the most interesting story of the bunch. Drafted 7th overall in 2011, Smith burst onto the scene with 42 sacks, 37 hits, and a 15.8% pressure rate over the first 3 seasons of his career, while finishing in the top-7 among edge defenders on Pro Football Focus in all 3 seasons, but he was arrested for DUI midway through his 3rd season and things went downhill quickly from there.

Smith missed 5 games in 2013 while in rehab, then was suspended 9 games in 2014, 7 games in 2015, and hasn’t played a snap ever since, with multiple off-the-field incidents over that stretch. The NFL reinstated him this off-season and the Cowboys took a flyer, but it’s unclear how much he can contribute, given that he’s going into his age 31 season, that he hasn’t played in close to 5 seasons, and that he had his last high level season in 2013, as he was not the same player in 2014 and 2015, with a 12.0% pressure rate and middling grades on PFF.

Gregory, meanwhile, is still technically suspended, but he’s tentatively expected to be reinstated. He’s only missed one season on this most recent suspension, but suspensions also limited him to 2 games in 2016-2017 combined. All in all, he’s played just 768 snaps in 5 years since the Cowboys took him in the 2nd round in 2015. He’s flashed as a pass rusher, with 7 sacks, 16 hits, and a 11.7% pressure rate, but he’s left something to be desired against the run, not surprising given his 6-5 250 frame. Gregory is still only going into his age 28 season and, after just a year off, has a better chance of shaking off the rust and being a valuable contributor as a sub package rusher, but he’s hardly a reliable player.

Crawford is probably the most reliable of the bunch, but he’s far from a sure thing, given that he’s going into his age 31 season and coming off of a serious injury. Prior to last season, Crawford had earned an above average grade from PFF in back-to-back and three of the previous five seasons, showing well as both a run stuffer and a pass rusher in all 3 seasons. Even if he’s not quite the same player, he could still be useful in a rotational role if he can stay on the field.

The only one locked into a role is DeMarcus Lawrence, who has been an every down player on the edge for three straight seasons. Over that time, he has totaled 30 sacks, 38 hits, and a 14.3% pressure rate, while excelling against the run as well. His sack total fell to 5 in 2019, but his peripheral pass rush numbers kept up (12 hits, 12.6% pressure rate) and he finished as PFF’s 13th ranked edge defender overall, his 3rd straight season in the top-13 at his position (1st in 2017 and 7th in 2018). Only in his age 28 season, having not missed a game in 3 seasons, I see no reason to expect a dropoff from him other than a fluke injury. He elevates a position group with a lot of certainty.

Update: Randy Gregory is now reportedly unlikely to be reinstated, making Aldon Smith and Tyrone Crawford even more important.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

In 2018, the Cowboys had arguably the best off ball linebacker duo in the NFL, as every down linebackers Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch finished 5th and 6th respectively among off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus. In 2019, things were very different, as Smith slid to 19th at his position, while Vander Esch fell all the way to 59th and was limited to 510 snaps in 9 games by a neck injury that ruined his season. A first round pick in 2018, Vander Esch has obvious bounce back potential if he’s healthy, but his neck problems date back to his collegiate days and were flagged by some teams before the draft, so he’s not a sure thing to bounce back.

Smith’s “down” year is less concerning, as he was still one of the better off ball linebackers in the league. Also finishing 27th among off ball linebackers in his first season as a starter in 2017, Smith has consistently been an above average starter at the very least for 3 seasons and, still only going into his age 25 season, the 2016 2nd round pick could keep getting better. He looks likely to be one of the better off ball linebackers in the league for years to come.

With Vander Esch missing significant time last season, third linebacker and base package specialist Sean Lee was forced into close to an every down role down the stretch last season. Lee played all 16 games for the first time in his injury plagued 10-year career, but was a middling player at best on 637 snaps. Lee was one of the better off ball linebackers in the league in his prime when healthy, but he hasn’t been nearly the same player in recent years, as all of his injuries seem to have piled up and now he’s going into his age 34 season. He could still be useful in a part-time role in sub packages, but the Cowboys are hoping he doesn’t have to play more than that. If Lee plays well in a situational role and Vander Esch and Smith bounce back, this will be one of the top few off ball linebacking corps in the NFL, but there’s some uncertainty here.

Grade: A-

Secondary

The Cowboys’ biggest loss on defense this off-season was top cornerback Byron Jones, who signed with the Dolphins on a 5-year, 82.5 million dollar deal as a free agent this off-season. Jones finished last season as Pro Football Focus’ 15th ranked cornerback, which is more significant than you’d think, as cornerback is a very tough position to play consistently well at and Jones joins Stephon Gilmore as one of just two cornerbacks who have finished in the top-15 at the position on PFF in back-to-back years. 

However, while Jones’ absence will be big, the Cowboys are better prepared for it than most teams, as they went four deep at cornerback last season, with Chidobe Awuzie (1,020 snaps), Jourdan Lewis (590 snaps), and Anthony Brown (282 snaps) all earning average or better grades from PFF, and they used a 2nd round pick on Alabama cornerback Trevon Diggs. Those four will compete for roles in Jones’ absence.

Awuzie will likely remain a starter and become the de facto #1 cornerback. A 2nd round pick in 2017, Awuzie has progressed well thus far in his career, flashing on 309 snaps as a rookie, being a capable starter in 14 starts in his 2nd season, and having a mini-breakout year with a 27th ranked finish in 2019. Awuzie is still a one-year wonder in terms of being an above average starter, but he’s also only going into his age 25 season and could easily keep getting better. We’ll see how often if at all the Cowboys use him to shadow the opponent’s top wide receiver.

Jourdan Lewis is the incumbent on the slot and he’s likely at least locked into that role. Drafted in the 3rd round in 2017, Lewis has earned an above average grade from PFF in all 3 seasons in the league, including a 42nd ranked finish on 590 snaps last season. He has experience playing outside as well, back in his rookie year, so he could be a candidate for an every down role with Jones gone, manning the slot in sub packages and lining up outside as the 2nd cornerback in base packages. He’s never topped 746 snaps in a season, so he’s a projection to an every down role, but he’s only going into his age 25 season and has the potential to develop into an above average starter long-term.

Anthony Brown and Trevon Diggs will also be in the mix for outside snaps opposite Awuzie. Brown has made 33 starts in 56 games in 4 seasons in the league, but he’s never been more than a middling starter and was the clear 4th cornerback last season, so the Cowboys are likely hoping the rookie Diggs can overtake him and play in at least sub packages at some point this season. Diggs went 51st overall in the second round, but was considered a borderline first round pick by many and profiles as a long-term starter, even if he takes a little bit to get there.

At safety, Xavier Woods remains at one spot and at the other spot the Cowboys are hoping free agent acquisition HaHa Clinton-Dix can be an upgrade on the middling Jeff Heath. Woods was just a 5th round pick in 2017, but he’s been more than worth it, earning an above average grade from PFF in all 3 seasons in the league (33 starts), including a career best 27th ranked finish among safeties on PFF in 2019, all before he turned 25 years old. Barring injury, he has a long prime ahead of him and could keep getting even better.

Clinton-Dix, meanwhile, was a first round pick back in 2014 and has been an average or better starter in all 6 seasons in the league (90 starts), including a 17th ranked finish on PFF in 2018 and a 22nd ranked finish on PFF in 2019. Given that, it’s surprising he’s had to settle for one-year deals the past two off-seasons. Signed for just 3.75 million, Clinton-Dix figures to be a steal for the Cowboys this season like he was for the Bears last season. Even without Byron Jones, this is a talented secondary, especially if one of their young defensive backs can break out.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Cowboys’ offense is unlikely to be quite as good as they were last season, as they lost center Travis Frederick and will likely have more injuries than last season, when they had the 2nd fewest adjusted games lost to injury on offense, but they’re arguably more explosive in the receiving corps this year and they’re starting from a high starting point, finishing last season 3rd in first down rate at 39.94%. Their defense, which ranked 17th in first down rate allowed last season, loses top cornerback Byron Jones, but they get an upgrade at safety and defensive tackle and have some promising young players in the back end that could be improved in 2020 over 2019. 

The Cowboys might not be quite as good as they were overall in 2019, when they finished 4th in first down rate differential at +4.28%, but if they do a better job closing out close games after an 0-5 record in one score games, that alone should help them win more games, even if they aren’t quite as good. The Cowboys are also helped by being in one of the easier divisions to win. I would consider them the NFC East favorite at the moment, at the very least. I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Final Update: The Cowboys surprisingly cut HaHa Clinton-Dix and lost Gerald McCoy to injury, but they added Everson Griffen, which will be a big boost at defensive end, and overall they still have one of the more talented rosters in the NFL.

Projection: 12-4 (1st in NFC East)

Washington Redskins at Dallas Cowboys: 2019 Week 17 NFL Pick

Washington Redskins (3-12) at Dallas Cowboys (7-8)

The Cowboys are just 7-8 and their playoff hopes are hanging by a thread, needing a win and a Philadelphia loss to win the historically bad NFC East. Despite that, they rank 7th in the NFL with a +82 point differential. Their average margin of victory is 18.57 points per game, but they’ve had a very tough time in close games, going 1-6 in games decided by one score or less and 0-4 in games decided by 4 points or fewer. This is a year after going 9-3 in one score games with almost the same roster and coaching staff. A team’s record in close games tends to be unpredictable on a year-to-year basis and tends to even out in the long run, but the Cowboys have done a complete 180 this season.

Fortunately, the Cowboys end the season with a very easy home game against the Redskins and could easily get their 6th win by 18 points or more this season. Even if they don’t quite get to 18, this spread is only 11 and they should be able to win with ease and cover this spread. The Redskins were a pretty bad team to begin with, but they come into this game with a skeleton crew roster due to injuries. Their defense has already been without their top pass rusher Ryan Kerrigan and cornerback Quinton Dunbar for several weeks, but they will also be without talented safety Landon Collins as well as fellow defensive backs Fabian Moreau, Josh Norman, and Montae Nicholson this week. Over the past 4 weeks, the Redskins have allowed a 40.00% first down rate without Dunbar and Kerrigan and their injury situation is even worse this week.

The only reason the Redskins haven’t been getting blown out in recent weeks is rookie quarterback Dwayne Haskins developing into a capable starting quarterback, leading this offense to a 40.08% first down rate, but Haskins is also out this week, forcing the Redskins to go back to backup caliber quarterback Case Keenum. Making matters even tougher for Keenum, he’ll be without top wide receiver Terry McLaurin and top offensive lineman Brandon Scherff. Missing everyone they are missing, the Redskins rank dead last in my roster rankings this week and are very likely to be blown out by the Cowboys like many others have been this season.

I wish the Cowboys were in a better injury situation though, as quarterback Dak Prescott is playing at less than 100% through a shoulder injury, while cornerback Byron Jones, left tackle Tyron Smith, and linebacker Sean Lee are considered truly questionable after not practicing on Friday. Even with the Cowboys’ injury uncertainty, I have this line calculated at Dallas -15.5, so the Cowboys are still worth a small bet, but I was considering a much larger bet earlier in the week before the injury uncertainty. 

Dallas Cowboys 26 Washington Redskins 10

Pick against the spread: Dallas -11

Confidence: Medium

Dallas Cowboys at Philadelphia Eagles: 2019 Week 16 NFL Pick

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

The Cowboys had their most impressive performance of the season last week, convincingly beating a solid Rams team in a 44-21 game in which they won the first down rate battle by 5.88%. That’s not all that surprising, as they’ve been better than their record this season. Including the Rams’ game, their average margin of victory is 18.57 points per game, while their average margin of defeat is just 5.71 points per game. That gives them a point differential of +90, 6th in the NFL, which suggests they’ve played significantly better than their 7-7 record suggests. They also rank highly in first down rate differential at +4.57%, 5th in the NFL.

Unfortunately, we’ve lost line value with the Cowboys in the past week, with this line moving from even a week ago on the early line to Dallas -2.5 this week. The Eagles have been up and down this season, but they’ve been about an average team overall, ranking 15th in first down rate differential on the season at +0.58%. I have the Cowboys calculated as 3-point favorites, but there’s not nearly enough here for the Cowboys to be worth betting on, especially with quarterback Dak Prescott barely getting practice reps this week while dealing with a shoulder injury.

Dallas Cowboys 27 Philadelphia Eagles 24

Pick against the spread: Dallas -2.5

Confidence: None

Los Angeles Rams at Dallas Cowboys: 2019 Week 15 NFL Pick

Los Angeles Rams (8-5) at Dallas Cowboys (6-7)

I normally like to fade significant week-to-week line movements, as they tend to be an overreaction to a single week of play. On the early line last week, the Cowboys were 3.5 point home favorites in this matchup against the Rams, but now a week later they are 1.5 point home underdogs. That’s a huge swing, but I actually think it can be justified somewhat. The Cowboys had an awful performance last week in Chicago, losing the first down rate battle by 7.54% to a middling at best Bears team, while the Rams were dominant in a home victory against a tough Seahawks team, winning the first down rate battle by a whopping 18.97%, with the game being a blowout aside from a long Seattle interception return. 

Even with last week’s poor performance included, the Cowboys still rank 6th in the NFL in first down rate differential at +4.48% and in point differential at +67, as their 6 wins have come by a combined 107 points and their 7 losses have come by a combined 40 points. However, they’ve faced a much easier schedule than the Rams (47% opponents winning percentage vs. 57%) and their play has slipped in recent weeks, as they’ve ranked just 9th in first down rate differential since week 7 at +2.83%. The Cowboys are a poorly coached team and Jason Garrett’s lameduck status as head coach seems to be hanging over them in recent weeks.

The Rams, meanwhile, are very well coached, on both sides of the ball with Sean McVay and Wade Phillips. They were blown out a few weeks ago at home on Monday Night Football against the Ravens, but have bounced back very well with dominant performances against the Cardinals and Seahawks to keep themselves alive in the playoff race in the NFC. Their offense hasn’t been the same this season because of their offensive line, but their defense has quietly been one of the best in the league. Even including that blowout loss against a Ravens team that no one has really stopped this season, the Rams rank 4th in first down rate allowed on the season at 32.72% and first at 29.94% since acquiring Jalen Ramsey during week 7. 

I have this line calculated at Dallas -1, so, while I don’t think the line movement all the way to Rams -1.5 is quite justified, we’re not getting nearly enough line value to bet the Cowboys confidently. The Cowboys probably have a slightly better than 50/50 shot to win this game at home, so the money line at +105 could be worth a small bet, but we’re not getting enough line value to bet the Cowboys against the spread unless this line somehow moves all the way up to Rams -3. 

Dallas Cowboys 24 Los Angeles Rams 23 Upset Pick +105

Pick against the spread: Dallas +1.5

Confidence: Low

Dallas Cowboys at Chicago Bears: 2019 Week 14 NFL Pick

Dallas Cowboys (6-6) at Chicago Bears (6-6)

Much has been made of the Cowboys’ 0-5 record against teams that currently have a winning record, but I don’t think that is that big of a deal. The Cowboys actually won the first down rate battle in 3 of those 5 losses, including last week’s loss to the Bills in which they picked up 32 first downs and got into Buffalo territory on 8 of 10 drives, only to score just 15 points due to two missed field goals, two failed fourth down conversions, and a pair of giveaways. Overall, the Cowboys won the first down rate battle by 7.54% in that game. On the season, they rank 4th in first down rate differential at +5.57%, 7th in DVOA, and 6th in point differential at +74.

The common narrative is that the Cowboys have played an easy schedule, but their opponent’s winning percentage of 48% isn’t bad and is actually tougher than the Bears’ schedule thus far, as the Bears’ opponents have combined for just a 45% winning percentage. Despite that, the Bears rank significantly behind the Cowboys across the board. They’re just 19th in DVOA, 19th in first down rate differential at -1.33%, have just a +4 point differential, and are 19 spots behind the Cowboys in my roster rankings, in part due to new key absences like right tackle Bobby Massie and cornerback Prince Amukamara. 

Despite that, the Cowboys are just 3-point road favorites in this matchup, likely as a result of the fact that these two teams have the same record. My calculated line is Dallas -7, so I like the Cowboys a good amount this week. I haven’t done well picking Thursday games this year, but both of these teams played last Thanksgiving, so both teams are on normal rest, which should lead to a more predictable result. Given that, I’m not worried about betting heavily on a Cowboys team that should at least be able to manage a push in this matchup against a significantly inferior opponent. 

Dallas Cowboys 27 Chicago Bears 20

Pick against the spread: Dallas -3

Confidence: High

Buffalo Bills at Dallas Cowboys: 2019 Week 13 NFL Pick

Buffalo Bills (8-3) at Dallas Cowboys (6-5)

People seem to be souring on the Cowboys as a result of their loss in New England last week, but I don’t really understand why. The Patriots are one of the top few teams in the league once again this season and have been borderline impossible to beat at home over the past two decades. They have just 26 home losses since 2001 and prior to last week they were 51-20 ATS at home in games in which they were not favored by a touchdown or more. The fact that the Cowboys were able to play the game close and cover the 6-point spread is impressive, losing 13-9 in a game they played about even in first down rate (-0.15%) and lost primarily as a result of a blocked punt. 

The common narrative is the Cowboys can’t beat good teams and in fact they are 0-4 against teams that currently have winning records right now, but all of those losses have been close, decided by 20 points combined, and the Cowboys actually won the first down rate battle in two of those losses. All in all, their 5 losses have come by a combined 22 points, while their 6 wins have come by a combined 107 points, giving them a +85 point differential that ranks 4th in the NFL. They also rank 4th in first down rate differential at 5.34% and 4th in my roster rankings.

The Cowboys haven’t faced a tough schedule overall (46% opponents winning percentage), but that’s significantly tougher than the Bills’ schedule, as the Bills’ opponents have a combined 35% winning percentage, 8% less than any other team in the league. Their 8-3 record is a complete farce as the 8 teams that have defeated are a combined 21-67, with their one win against a team that currently has more than 4 wins coming against a Titans team that was starting Marcus Mariota at the time and that missed 4 makeable field goals in a 7-point loss. The Bills’ strength of defeat isn’t all that impressive either, as their 3 losses have come against teams that are a combined 20-13.

The Bills enter this game 6th in first down rate differential at +4.70%, but that’s still behind the Cowboys, despite facing such an easy schedule. My roster rankings have the Bills as a middle of the pack team, ranked 18th overall. The Bills are also in a horrible spot, having to play on the road on a short week against a superior opponent who they aren’t familiar with. Short weeks are tough enough as they are, but they’re easier when you’re at home, when you’re facing an inferior opponent, and when you’re facing a divisional opponent you’re familiar with. Non-divisional road underdogs are 17-36 ATS over the past 30 years on Thursdays, including 9-20 ATS as road underdogs of 4 or more. 

Given the Bills’ disadvantage on a short week and the talent gap between these two teams, I have this line calculated at Dallas -10, so we’re getting good line value with the hosts, especially with the line shifting off of the full touchdown it was at on the early line last week to -6.5 this week, as a result of the public souring on the Cowboys a little bit. About 1 in 10 games are decided by exactly a touchdown, so that’s a big half point. The Cowboys have 6 wins by more than a touchdown this season and should be able to make it seven this week against a Bills team that has barely been tested this season. I like them a lot as favorites of less than a touchdown. I’m also locking in Cincinnati +3.5 early in case in moves and I will have a full write up for that game this weekend with the others as usual.

Dallas Cowboys 27 Buffalo Bills 16

Pick against the spread: Dallas -6.5

Confidence: High

Dallas Cowboys at New England Patriots: 2019 Week 12 NFL Pick

Dallas Cowboys (6-4) at New England Patriots (9-1)

The Cowboys lead the NFC East at 6-4 and they’ve been even better than their record suggests. While their four losses have come by a combined 18 points, their 6 wins have come by a combined 107 points, giving them a point differential of +89 that actually ranks 4th in the NFL. They rank similarly in first down rate differential, with the 4th best in the NFL at 5.69%. They haven’t faced a tough schedule, with the 4th easiest schedule in the NFL so far in terms of DVOA, but, while their schedule gets a lot tougher this week, going on the road to the 9-1 Patriots, the Patriots are actually one of the three teams that have faced an easier schedule than the Cowboys thus far.

That’s not to say this game won’t be hard for the Cowboys, but the Patriots don’t rank that much higher than the Cowboys in first down rate differential (2nd at 7.44%), despite facing a slightly tougher schedule, so it should be a competitive game. My roster rankings have these teams ranked similar as well, as the Patriots rank 2nd, while the Cowboys rank 3rd. Given that, this line seems too high, favoring New England -6.5. My calculated line only has the Patriots favored by 3.5 at home. 

That being said, it’s never a smart idea to bet against Tom Brady at home unless he’s favored by more than a touchdown, as he is 47-17 ATS all-time as at home when he’s not favored by 7 points or more. This line was a touchdown a week ago on the early line, but all the +7s are long gone at this point. If we were getting +7, the Cowboys would be worth a bet, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the Patriots were able to pull out a win by a touchdown even if this game is close throughout. 

The Patriots’ offense also gets what could potentially be a big boost this week with left tackle Isaiah Wynn set to return from injury. Their defense is dominant, leading the league with a 27.27% first down rate allowed that is impressive who they’ve played, so if their offense, which ranks just 20th in first down rate despite an easy schedule, can even start to resemble what it has looked like in past years, the Patriots are still a very tough team to play, especially at home. I think the most likely outcome of this game is a New England win by 3 or 4, but I’m not confident enough to bet Dallas at +6.5.

New England Patriots 24 Dallas Cowboys 20

Pick against the spread: Dallas +6.5

Confidence: Low

Dallas Cowboys at Detroit Lions: 2019 Week 11 NFL Pick

Dallas Cowboys (5-4) at Detroit Lions (3-5-1)

The Lions will be without quarterback Matt Stafford for the second straight week, but he’s not their only significant injury situation. The Lions will also be without defensive lineman Da’Shawn Hand, right tackle Ricky Wagner, and could be without safety Tracy Walker, who has missed two games and barely practiced this week, and defensive end Romeo Okwara, who didn’t play last week and was limited in practice this week.

Stafford’s absence is obviously the biggest though, as the drop off from him to backup quarterback Jeff Driskel is immense. Stafford was having a strong season before getting hurt, while Driskel was signed in mid-September and was playing wide receiver for the Bengals this pre-season. Even with Stafford in the lineup, the Lions ranked just 23rd in first down rate differential at -3.00% and now without Stafford I have the Lions 28th in my roster rankings, only ahead of the Redskins, Jets, Bengals, and Dolphins.

Stafford’s absence comes at a bad time this week, with a tough Cowboys team coming to town. The Cowboys’ 5-4 record isn’t overly impressive, but they’ve played better than that suggests. While their 4 losses have come by a combined 18 points, their 5 wins have come by a combined 99 points, giving them a +81 point differential that ranks 4th in the NFL. They also rank 3rd in first down rate differential at +6.07% and 3rd in my roster rankings as well. They’ve faced a relatively easy schedule, 30th in opponent’s DVOA, but their schedule isn’t getting any tougher this week. They should be favored by at least 10, so we’re getting good line value with the Cowboys at -7.

Unfortunately, the Cowboys are in a terrible spot, as they have to go to New England next week, a game in which they are currently 7-point underdogs on the early line. Favorites of 6 or more are 34-62 ATS since 2008 before being underdogs of 6 or more. If this line were to dip below a touchdown, that would probably be enough line value they I’d talk myself into betting the Cowboys even in a bad spot, but at -7 I don’t think they’re worth the risk.

Dallas Cowboys 23 Detroit Lions 13

Pick against the spread: Dallas -7

Confidence: Low