Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys: 2019 Week 7 NFL Pick

Philadelphia Eagles (3-3) at Dallas Cowboys (3-3)

The conventional wisdom is that the sky is falling in Dallas, with the Cowboys being on a 3-game losing streak. However, the Cowboys actually have a positive first down rate differential across those three games, at +1.98%. Their -4 turnover margin over those 3 games is the primary reason behind their losing streak, but turnover margins tend to be inconsistent on a week-to-week basis. Despite just a 3-3 record, the Cowboys rank 4th in first down rate differential at +6.48%, winning the first down rate battle in every game this season except last week’s loss to the Jets.

Their only three wins thus far have come against easy opponents, but they won all 3 games convincingly, by at least 10 points, winning the first down rate battle by +10.96% across the three games, while all three of their losses could have been wins if a couple things had gone differently. They are also still one of the most talented teams in the league on paper, so I still like their chances going forward. The Eagles also look like one of the most talented teams in the league on paper, but they haven’t played as well, coming into this game ranking just 16th in first down rate differential at 0.21%, very much in line with their 3-3 record. 

The Cowboys also seem to have the better injury situation, though both teams are pretty banged up. The difference is that it looks like most of the Cowboys’ injured players will try to play through their injuries, while the Eagles have ruled out several starters already. Left tackle Jason Peters and top linebacker Nigel Bradham will join top cornerback Ronald Darby, starting defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan, starting cornerback Avonte Maddox, and starting wide receiver DeSean Jackson on the sidelines this week for a Philadelphia team whose injuries are starting to pile up. 

The Cowboys, meanwhile, have ruled out starting cornerback Anthony Brown, but top cornerback Byron Jones, wide receivers Amari Cooper and Randall Cobb, and offensive tackles Tyron Smith and La’El Collins are reportedly likely to play through their injuries, though all could easily be at less than 100% and at risk of in game setbacks. Despite being the better team in the better injury situation, the Cowboys are favored by just 2.5 points here at home, so we are getting good line value with them. I have this line calculated at -5.5. I wouldn’t go crazy with this bet because of all of the injury uncertainty, but this line really seems off.

Dallas Cowboys 28 Philadelphia Eagles 23

Pick against the spread: Dallas -2.5

Confidence: Medium

Dallas Cowboys at New York Jets: 2019 Week 6 NFL Pick

Dallas Cowboys (3-2) at New York Jets (0-4)

The narrative with the Cowboys right now is that they play well against weak competition, but struggle in big games. Their 3 wins have come against teams that are a combined 2-13, while their 2 losses have come against teams that are a combined 8-2, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. In both of their losses, they won the first down rate battle, losing the two games in large part due to a combined -5 turnover margin, which tends to be inconsistent on a week-to-week basis. They also won the first down rate battle by a combined 10.98% in their three wins, which came by an average of 17.7 points per game, so it’s not as if they were barely squeaking out wins against their easier opponents. On the season, they rank 3rd in first down rate differential at 8.86%, only behind the Patriots and 49ers. 

They also get another easy game this week, going to New York to face the 0-4 Jets. The Jets do get quarterback Sam Darnold back this week from a 3-game absence, but I’m not convinced he can turn this team around. Not only might he not be 100% in his first game back, but quarterback is far from the only problem the Jets have. They rank 2nd worst in the NFL with a -13.55% first down rate differential and even with Darnold on the field week 1 they had a -12.41% first down rate differential, in a game they lost at home to the Bills despite winning the turnover battle by 3. 

Their defense remains without top linebacker CJ Mosley and likely remains without their only capable edge defender Jordan Jenkins. Their offensive line and receiving corps both have significant issues that have caused the Jets to pick up just 45 first downs and score just 2 offensive touchdowns in their first 4 games. Getting Darnold back should help even if he’s not at 100%, but him coming back isn’t going to save this team. I still have them ranked 28th in my roster rankings.

I’m concerned the Cowboys will likely be without their two starting offensive tackles Tyron Smith and La’El Collins, who were as good as any duo in the NFL before injuries, but fill-in left tackle Cameron Fleming has experience and the Jets don’t have the edge rushers to exploit the Cowboys’ injuries. Even with Smith and Collins out, I have this line calculated at Dallas -10. There’s not enough here to bet the Cowboys confidently, especially because they could be looking ahead to a matchup with the Eagles next week, but the Jets are in a look ahead spot as well, with the Patriots coming to town next week, and the Cowboys should be the right side.

Dallas Cowboys 26 New York Jets 16

Pick against the spread: Dallas -7

Confidence: Low

Green Bay Packers at Dallas Cowboys: 2019 Week 5 NFL Pick

Green Bay Packers (3-1) at Dallas Cowboys (3-1)

On paper this looks like an exciting matchup between a pair of NFC contenders, but neither team is coming in at 100%. While the Packers will be without #1 wide receiver Davante Adams with injury, the Cowboys will be without left tackle Tyron Smith and could be without right tackle La’El Collins as well. Collins not playing would be a big blow because he’s been one of the best right tackles in the league so far this season, but if the Cowboys are only without Smith I like their injury situation a lot more than the Packers. 

Smith is a great left tackle, but the Cowboys have an experienced and capable backup behind him in Cameron Fleming and a great offensive line beside him, while the Packers completely lack proven wide receivers behind Adams. Much was made this off-season about how Aaron Rodgers doesn’t trust any of his young receivers behind Adams, who has received 29.4% of Rodgers’ non-throwaway targets over the past 2 seasons. 

Rodgers, who has overall not quite been his dominant self so far this season, could struggle on the road against a good Dallas defense, while Dak Prescott should still be sufficiently protected if Collins can suit up. Even with Collins questionable with a back injury, after only getting in one limited practice this week, I have this line calculated at Dallas -6, so assuming Collins can go I will be betting on the Cowboys tomorrow morning.

Sunday Update: Collins is expected to play, so Prescott should be sufficiently protected. He’ll also get wide receiver Michael Gallup back from a 2 game absence and the Packers will be without starting cornerback Kevin King. The Cowboys should be favored by more than a field goal and are worth a bet.

Dallas Cowboys 24 Green Bay Packers 17

Pick against the spread: Dallas -3

Confidence: Medium

Dallas Cowboys at New Orleans Saints: 2019 Week 4 NFL Pick

Dallas Cowboys (3-0) at New Orleans Saints (2-1)

The Cowboys are one of six teams currently 3-0. That’s where they should be, given that their schedule has had them face three of the worst teams in the league (Giants, Redskins, Dolphins) in the first three weeks of the season, but it’s good to see the Cowboys win all 3 games convincingly, by an average of 17.7 points per game, after having just one win by more than eight points all last season. Along with the Patriots, they are one of two teams that have won all three games by double digits so far this season and their first down rate differential of +10.96% is 3rd in the NFL behind the Patriots and 49ers. We’ll see how they look against tougher competition, but I thought they had one of the better rosters in the league going into the season, in large part due to the return of center Travis Frederick, who missed all of last season.

This is when the Cowboys’ schedule is supposed to get tougher, with a trip on New Orleans on the schedule for week 4, but the Cowboys’ good schedule luck continues as they get to face the Saints without starting quarterback Drew Brees, who is out for about 6 weeks with a thumb injury. Backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater led the Saints to a victory in Seattle in his first start last week, but the Saints lost the first down rate battle in that game by 3.47% and ended up winning by just 6 points despite getting two return touchdowns.

In 18 drives since taking over for Brees, Bridgewater has led the Saints to just 28 first downs and 3 touchdowns on 98 plays, a 31.63% first down rate. By comparison, the Saints had a 43.17% first down rate in 2018. Bridgewater has starting experience and could still turn it around, but he does not look like the same player as he was in his last stint as a starter 2015, when he was one of the more promising young quarterbacks in the league. Given all that’s happened since then, that’s not exactly a surprise.

The Saints have a strong roster around the quarterback, but have not looked impressive since losing Brees, outside of their two return touchdowns last week. Even including their week 1 win over the Texans with Brees healthy, the Saints rank 27th in the NFL with a -4.84% first down rate differential this season, as their defense has struggled without injured defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, who is unlikely to make his season debut this week and would almost definitely be limited if active. I have this line calculated at Dallas -4, so I like their chances of covering in a game in which they basically just need to win to cover, as 2.5-point favorites. With this line dropping below 3 in most places, the Cowboys are worth a small bet.

Dallas Cowboys 24 New Orleans Saints 20

Pick against the spread: Dallas -2.5

Confidence: Medium

Miami Dolphins at Dallas Cowboys: 2019 Week 3 NFL Pick

Miami Dolphins (0-2) at Dallas Cowboys (2-0)

The Cowboys are favored by a whopping 23 points in this game. Prior to this week, there have only been 5 instances of a team being favored by 21+ points in the past 30 years. None of the previous five teams covered (they all won, but with an average margin of points of “just” 12.6 points) and the Cowboys don’t seem to fit in with the other teams that have been favored by this many points in the past three decades. Three of those teams were the 2007 regular season undefeated Patriots and the other two teams were the 2013 Broncos (who were undefeated at the time and went on to make the Super Bowl) and the 1993 49ers (who had won 28 of their last 33 regular season games). 

All of that being said, I’m not taking Miami this week and I would need a really good reason to take them at any point this year. This line is more about the Dolphins than who they are facing and this is highly unlikely to be the final time the Dolphins are underdogs of 21+ this season. I have this line calculated at Dallas -21.5, but beyond 21 it’s hard to consider a couple points in either direction line value and it’s possible my roster rankings don’t capture how awful the Dolphins are right now. 

The few good players that the Dolphins do have don’t seem to be trying hard because the coaching staff and front office transparently don’t care about winning this season. Neither the winless 2008 Lions or the winless 2017 Browns ever lost by more than 40 points and the Dolphins have already done so twice in two weeks. Switching quarterbacks to Josh Rosen is unlikely to provide the spark they need and he could easily end up being a downgrade over a proven veteran like Ryan Fitzpatrick. The Cowboys are the pick for pick ‘em purposes, but I would never bet on a team favored by this many points because they could easily take their foot off the gas in the second half and allow a backdoor cover. 

Dallas Cowboys 34 Miami Dolphins 10

Pick against the spread: Dallas -23

Confidence: None

Dallas Cowboys at Washington Redskins: 2019 Week 2 NFL Pick

Dallas Cowboys (1-0) at Washington Redskins (0-1)

The Redskins made some big plays early last week against the Eagles and shockingly jumped out to a 17-0 lead, but they couldn’t do much from there, as the Eagles went up 32-20 before the Redskins led a garbage time touchdown drive at the end of the game. Even with the garbage time touchdown included, the Redskins finished the week with the 7th worst first down rate differential at 6.11% and still look likely to finish as one of the worst teams in the league. Not helping matters is the Redskins’ injury situation, with cornerback Quinton Dunbar and defensive end Jonathan Allen likely joining cornerback Fabian Moreau, who missed week 1, on the sidelines. 

The Cowboys faced another one of the likely worst teams in the league last season, blowing out the Giants 35-17. They also have another really easy game on deck, as they host the Dolphins next week, so they should be fully focused. Favorites of 6 or more are 99-63 ATS since 2014 before being favored by 6 or more again. We’re not getting great line value with the Cowboys at -6.5, but I have this line calculated at -9.5, so the Cowboys should be able to take care of business here, without any upcoming distractions on deck. This game is unlikely to be close barring another garbage time touchdown. 

Dallas Cowboys 30 Washington Redskins 20

Pick against the spread: Dallas -6.5

Confidence: Medium

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. 

Prediction: 10-6, 2nd in NFC East