The 2019 Cowboys ranked 2nd in offensive efficiency, 11th in defensive efficiency, and 5th in overall efficiency, but finished just 8-8 and out of the playoffs, in large part due to a 0-5 record in one score games, with their +113 point differential also being among the best in the league, ranking 6th. That suggested the Cowboys had a good chance to take a big step forward in 2020, as their record in close games would inevitably even out in the long-term (the 2018 Cowboys were 9-3 in one score games). However, the Cowboys’ 2020 season was completely derailed by injuries with their quarterback Dak Prescott (11 games missed) and their top-3 offensive linemen Tyron Smith (14 games), La’El Collins (16 games), and Zack Martin (6 games) all missing significant time, among others, leading to the Cowboys dropping to 6-10.
The 2021 Cowboys were healthier though and, perhaps not surprisingly, had a good season on both sides of the ball, ranking 8th in offensive efficiency, 15th in defensive efficiency, and 7th in overall efficiency, similar to their 2019 campaign, only this time their record in one-score games was 5-3 and their overall record improved to 12-5. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough for the Cowboys to avoid going out in the first round of the playoffs and things have only gotten worse for them since then, as they have lost arguably the most talent of any team in the league this off-season and did not have the cap flexibility to do much of anything to replace them.
Part of the reason for the Cowboys’ lack of cap flexibility is the 4-year, 160 million dollar deal they gave to franchise quarterback Dak Prescott last off-season. The Cowboys got creative with the structure of the deal and his 2022 cap hit of 19.73 million is manageable, but eventually all of that money will hit the cap, which is something the Cowboys had to be mindful of when making making moves this off-season, when they chose to trade wide receiver Amari Cooper for a late round pick (20 million dollar salary), to cut right tackle La’El Collins (10.7 million), and to not match contracts given to left guard Connor Williams (14.035 million over 2 years) and edge defender Randy Gregory (70 million over 5 years). All four of those players were above average starters last season and their absence will be noticeable on the field this season.
Prescott’s cap hit is set to jump to 49.13 million in 2023 and, while the Cowboys can push some of that forward by restructuring the contract, it’s going to get increasingly harder to keep Prescott’s cap number at a manageable number. That’s relevant because, since the start of the salary cap era in 1994, just 5 of 28 Super Bowls have been won by a quarterback with a cap hit that was more than 11% of the salary cap and all of those quarterbacks are Hall of Fame caliber players. Prescott has played well throughout his 6-year career, finishing above average on PFF in every season, and he is coming off arguably the best season of his career, finishing 8th among quarterbacks on PFF in 2021, but he hasn’t quite shown himself to be the caliber of quarterback who could win a Super Bowl with a big cap hit number.
In total, Prescott has completed 66.6% of his passes for an average of 7.64 YPA, 143 touchdowns, and 50 interceptions in 85 career starts, including 68.8% completion for 7.46 YPA, 37 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions last season. The ankle injury that wiped out most of Prescott’s 2020 season seems to have limited his athleticism, as he had just 48 carries for 3.04 YPC last season, after averaging 5.07 YPC on 259 carries prior to the injury, but he’s only missed one other game with injury and his career and it’s possible some of his athleticism returns now another year removed from the injury, even if he doesn’t return to his old form as a runner.
The injury hasn’t affected him as a passer clearly, but, with his supporting cast starting to decline, Prescott will need to elevate his play to an elite level to compensate and to keep the Cowboys consistently competitive as key players leave around him. It remains to be seen if he can do that though and the smart money is on the Cowboys declining in 2022 compared to 2021. If he misses any time this season, Prescott would be again replaced by Cooper Rush, who made his first career start in place of Prescott last season when he missed a game with a shoulder injury.
Rush performed pretty well in that game, completing 24 of 40 for 325 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 1 interception in an upset victory, but he’s still a former undrafted free agent with one start in five seasons in the league, so he’s still very unproven and would almost certainly be a big downgrade from Prescott if he had to start for an extended period of time. Even if Prescott isn’t quite an elite quarterback this year, he should still be one of the better quarterbacks, so the Cowboys’ quarterback room is in a relatively enviable position from a talent standpoint.
With the Cowboys lacking financial flexibility to replace the key players they lost this off-season, they mostly turned to the draft to fill holes and, with a pair of offensive line starters from a year ago no longer with the team, it’s not surprising the Cowboys opted to use their first round pick on an offensive lineman, taking Tulsa’s Tyler Smith 24th overall, their 4th selection of an offensive lineman in the first round in the past 12 drafts. Smith was penalty prone in college and, despite his physical tools, could take some time to adjust to the NFL game from the small school level, but the Cowboys need him to make an impact right away, as departed left guard Connor Williams was PFF’s 10th ranked guard last season, while departed right tackle La’El Collins was PFF’s 13th ranked offensive tackle.
Smith was a left tackle at the collegiate level, but is expected to begin his career at left guard, rather than right tackle, likely locking in Terence Steele as the starter at right tackle. An undrafted free agent in 2020, Steele has been the swing tackle for the Cowboys over the past two seasons, but they’ve had so many absences at tackle in that time that Steele has still made 27 starts over the past two seasons, despite technically being a reserve, with 6 of those starts coming on the left side and 21 coming on the right. Steele struggled mightily as a rookie, finishing 89th out of 93 eligible on PFF, but he was a middling starter in year two and, while he probably doesn’t have a huge ceiling, he could easily remain a capable starter long-term.
The other option would be to play Smith at right tackle and start Connor McGovern at guard, where he has shown promise in 14 career starts since the Cowboys drafted him in the 3rd round in 2019, but it seems like the most likely option is Smith at left guard, Steele at right tackle, and McGovern beginning the season on the bench. It’s also possible McGovern could push for the starting center job, as incumbent Tyler Biadasz has been middling at best in 21 starts over the past two seasons, since the Cowboys drafted him in the 4th round in 2020. The Cowboys have seemed hesitant to move McGovern to center though, despite the fact that he played there in college, and it’s also possible that Biadasz could be better in his third season in the league, so the most likely outcome is McGovern being a reserve.
With the rest of the offensive line being unsettled, the Cowboys will need big seasons from their two best offensive linemen, long-time starters and perennial Pro Bowlers Zack Martin and Tyron Smith who, along with Tyler Smith and retired All-Pro center Travis Frederick, were the four offensive linemen the Cowboys have selected in the first round in recent drafts. Zack Martin and Tyron Smith have been great players for a long time, but they are both going into their age 32 season and both have become increasingly injury prone in recent years, so it’s no guarantee they continue playing at the same level.
Tyron Smith still finished the 2021 season as PFF’s 2nd ranked offensive tackle, his 5th season in the top-7 at his position over the past 9 years and 8th season in the top-15, but he missed 6 games, bringing his total missed games to 33 over the past 7 seasons, a stretch in which he has never played more than 13 games in a season. If he can stay on the field, he has a good chance to remain an above average starter, but I wouldn’t expect him to quite play at the level he played at last season. It’s possible the Cowboys drafted Tyler Smith to eventually replace Tyron Smith at left tackle, though the Cowboys have also taken Josh Ball in the 4th round in 2021 (zero rookie year snaps) and Matt Waletzko in the 5th round this year as developmental long-term options.
Martin, meanwhile, was PFF’s 1st ranked guard last season, his 8th straight season in the top-5 at the position, but he’s missed seven games over the past two seasons, after missing just two in the previous six seasons. He hasn’t shown as many signs of breaking down as Tyron Smith, but he will almost definitely begin to decline over the next few seasons. I wouldn’t expect either of them to drop off significantly in 2022 and both could still remain among the best players in the league at their positions, but they’re shakier options than they have been in recent years. It’s a concern for an offensive line that will struggle to replace a pair of key starters from a year ago, even with a first round pick being used on the unit.
Losing Amari Cooper will hurt for the Cowboys, but he’s not coming off of his best season, finishing 41st among wide receivers on PFF, averaging 1.65 yards per route run (down from his 1.85 career average), and posting a 68/865/8 slash line. On top of that, if there was one position where the Cowboys could afford to lose a player like Cooper it was wide receiver, with recent first round pick Ceedee Lamb looking like a long-term #1 receiver and Michael Gallup capable of being a solid #2 receiver at a cheaper price than Cooper, re-signing on a 5-year, 57.5 million dollar deal this off-season, with 23 million guaranteed over the first two seasons.
Like on the offensive line, the Cowboys used an early pick on a wide receiver to replace Amari Cooper, taking South Alabama’s Jalen Tolbert in the 3rd round. He’ll compete with veteran free agent acquisition James Washington for the #3 wide receiver job behind Lamb and Gallup. Washington was a 2nd round pick by the Steelers in 2018 and was given plenty of opportunity in Pittsburgh, but his best slash line was a 44/735/3 in 2019 and he averaged just 1.14 yards per route run over his four seasons in Pittsburgh, including just 0.85 yards per route run in 2021, a season in which he finished as PFF’s 109th ranked wide receiver out of 110 eligible.
Washington may be the starter in three wide receiver sets early in the year, but the Cowboys are probably hoping Tolbert takes his job sooner rather than later. It’s also possible both Tolbert and Washington could have to play in three wide receiver sets at the beginning of the season because Gallup is coming off of a torn ACL suffered in early January, which means he’ll be just 8 months removed from the injury in week 1, making him a question mark for the start of the season.
Gallup also dealt with a calf injury earlier last season, and, between the two injuries, he was limited to just a 35/445/2 slash line in just 9 games total. Cedrick Wilson played well as an injury replacement last season, averaging 1.74 yards per route run and totaling a 45/602/6 slash line, despite opening the season as the #4 receiver, but he signed with the Dolphins this off-season and both Tolbert and Washington are unlikely to be as good as Wilson was last season, so the Cowboys will have to hope Gallup doesn’t miss too much time.
Despite his recent injuries, the Cowboys obviously still believe in Gallup, as evidenced by the fact that they gave him a big long-term contract. He’s taken on more of a complementary role over the past two seasons due to the addition of Ceedee Lamb, but he still had a 59/843/5 slash line in 2020 in Lamb’s first season in Dallas, despite not having his starting quarterback for most of the season, and he finished with a 66/1107/6 slash line in 14 games when he was the #2 receiver in 2019, with he and Amari Cooper being one of just five wide receiver duos in the league to both surpass 1000 yards that season.
Gallup also only missed two games in his first three seasons due to injury, prior to last year’s injury plagued season. A torn ACL clouds his future and he’s a one-year wonder in terms of being a 1000+ yard receiver, but the 2018 3rd round pick is still only going into his age 26 season and has the upside to be an above average wide receiver for years to come if he can put his recent injuries behind him. It might take him a year to return to form and he probably won’t play all 17 games this season, but he could still make a significant impact, especially in the second half of the season.
With Cooper gone, Ceedee Lamb is officially the #1 receiver on this offense and it’s impressive what he’s been able to do despite not being a true #1 receiver thus far in his career, as he posted a 74/935/5 slash line with 1.81 yards per route run as a rookie in 2020 on 111 targets (24th most in the NFL) and then posted a 79/1102/6 slash line with 2.06 yards per route run last season on 120 targets (24th most in the NFL again), finishing as PFF’s 10th ranked wide receiver for the 2021 season in the process. Still only going into his age 23 season, Lamb could easily take another step forward and has the potential for a massive statistical performance in his third year in the league.
Trading Cooper also allowed the Cowboys to keep tight end Dalton Schultz on the franchise tag, after his breakout 2021 campaign. Schultz finished last season with a 78/808/8 slash line and was PFF’s 7th ranked tight end overall, but the 2018 4th round pick is a one-year wonder in terms of producing at that level, posting a 63/615/4 slash line in his first season as the starter in 2020 and averaging a 1.08 yards per route run average in his first three seasons in the league, before that average jumped to 1.47 in 2021. The Cowboys were smart to make him prove it another time, set to pay him 10.931 million on the franchise tag for 2022, rather than keeping him on a big long-term extension. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him do it again though, if he’s permanently turned the corner as a player.
Depth is a bit of a concern at the tight end position though. Blake Jarwin was solid as the backup last season when he played, but he was limited to just eight games in 2021 and is expected to miss the entire 2022 season with injury. That leaves Sean McKeon, a 2020 undrafted free agent who has played 183 mediocre snaps in his career, Jeremy Sprinkle, a blocking specialist with 37 catches in 76 career games, and 4th round rookie Jake Ferguson to compete for the #2 tight end role. Whoever wins the job is unlikely to have much of an impact. This is still a talented receiving corps, though they’re not as good as a year ago and could have significant depth problems if Gallup misses an extended period of time to begin the season.
One player the Cowboys brought back this off-season was running back Ezekiel Elliott, but the Cowboys wouldn’t have gotten any cap relief from letting him go this off-season, because of past restructures of his contract, so they really didn’t have a choice but to bring him back at a 14.12 million dollar price tag. They didn’t restructure his contract this off-season though, so they’ll be able to get some cap relief by moving on from him next off-season, ahead of 12.62 million owed in 2023. I would expect that to happen.
Elliott has been the Cowboys feature back since they drafted him 4th overall in 2016, with his career lows being just 237 carries and 979 yards in a season, but his efficiency has dropped off significantly over the past two seasons (4.12 YPC vs. 4.62 in his first four seasons in the league), as his salary has increased, while backup Tony Pollard has averaged a significantly higher YPC (5.08 YPC over the past three seasons on 317 total carries). Pollard runs in more favorable YPC average situations than Elliott, but he had a significantly better carry success rate (55% vs. 53%) and YPC over expected (+0.9 vs. -0.1) than Elliott last season, so he was the more effective runner any way you look at it. Pollard, a 4th round pick in 2019, is set to hit free agency next off-season and, barring an unexpected bounce back year from Elliott, the plan is likely to let go of Elliott to free up money to bring back Pollard as the long-term feature back.
Pollard has also been by far the more effective option as a receiver over the past three seasons, with Elliott averaging 0.82 yards per route run and 5.05 yards per target and Pollard averaging 1.42 yards per route run and 6.00 yards per target, though the Cowboys do still prefer Elliott’s pass protection to Pollard’s. Elliott still had 284 touches to Pollard’s 169 last season, but those numbers could be more even in 2022. Pollard looks like the clearly better option, but he’s a projection to a larger role, so it’s good to have Elliott around as well, at least for another season. This is a talented backfield overall.
The Cowboys also lost edge defender Randy Gregory in free agency, after he finished as PFF’s 18th ranked edge defender overall in 2021, especially playing well as a pass rusher, with 6 sacks, 12 hits, and a 14.0% pressure rate. Like at wide receiver and on the offensive line, the Cowboys turned to the draft for a replacement, using their 2nd round pick on Mississippi’s Sam Williams. They also took a flyer on veteran Dante Fowler, signing him to a 1-year, 3 million dollar deal.
Williams and Fowler will compete for roles with holdovers Dorance Armstrong (507 snaps), Tarell Basham (627 snaps), and Chauncey Golston (414 snaps). The Cowboys should also get a healthier season from expected starting defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, after he played just 271 snaps in seven games last season, and All-Pro caliber linebacker Micah Parsons lines up as an edge defender with regularity in sub packages.
I’ll get into Parsons more in the linebacker section, but his biggest impact last season was as an edge defender, with 13 sacks, 15 hits, and a ridiculous 21.8% pressure rate, while leading the league with a 38.7% pass rush win rate. He probably won’t be quite as good this season, just because no one is ever that good two years in a row, but it’s clear the 2021 12th overall pick is here to stay as an elite edge rusher for years to come.
Lawrence was also still a very effective player when on the field last season, totaling 3 sacks, 4 hits, and a 14.0% pressure rate, while defending the run at a high level and earning PFF’s 3rd highest overall grade among edge defenders during the weeks he was active. That’s nothing new for Lawrence, who now has five straight seasons in the top-13 among edge defenders, dating back to 2017, a stretch in which he has 39.5 sacks, 48 hits, and a 13.8% pressure rate in 71 games, while also excelling against the run.
Lawrence also didn’t miss a game from 2017-2020, before last year’s foot injury, so he’s not an overly injury prone player. The Cowboys still made him take a pay cut to stay on the roster, originally set to make 19 million non-guaranteed for his age 30 season in 2022, but his contract is for 40 million over 3 years with 30 million guaranteed, so they clearly still value him and he could easily have at least another couple above average seasons left in the tank, even if he does begin to decline. If they can get a healthier season out of him, the Cowboys should still have a strong edge rush with him and Parsons, even with Gregory gone.
When Parsons plays linebacker in base packages, Dorance Armstrong is probably the favorite to start opposite DeMarcus Lawrence, after being re-signed on a 2-year, 12 million dollar deal this off-season. A 4th round pick in 2018, Armstrong struggled throughout his first three seasons in his career, earning below average grades from PFF on an average of 301 snaps per season, but he earned an above average grade on 507 snaps in 2021.
Armstrong has always been a better run stopper than a pass rusher and his career pressure rate is just 8.3%, but he was better both against the run and as a pass rusher in 2021, with that pressure rate jumping to 11.0%, and the role the Cowboys are likely to play him in is primarily a base package run stopper role, so his pass rush ability isn’t as important as it would be if he was going to play in more sub packages. Armstrong could regress a little after the best season of his career, but he’s not a bad option for the role the Cowboys are going to play him in and, still only going into his age 25 season, it’s possible he has some untapped potential.
Fellow holdovers Chauncey Golston and Tarell Basham are coming off mediocre seasons and will not be guaranteed to have roles because, while they will miss Gregory’s high end pass rush ability, they are a deeper group overall this season. Golston is a 2021 3rd round pick with the upside to be better going forward though, while Basham is a veteran in his age 28 season who has had better years in the past, so both could have better seasons this year than they did a year ago.
Newcomers Sam Williams and Dante Fowler could also see rotational roles. Williams enters the league pretty raw, but he has a lot of potential as a pass rusher and could contribute in that role immediately. Fowler, meanwhile, has at least some bounce back potential, though he’s coming off of two straight down years with the Falcons, finishing 117th among 124 eligible edge defenders on PFF in 2020 and 103rd among 129 eligible edge defenders in 2021.
Fowler was never as good as the 11.5 sacks he had in 2019 suggested, as he had the benefit of playing on a great Rams defense and his peripheral pass rush stats were not as good as his sack total, but he still has a decent 10.4% pressure rate for his career, even with the past two seasons included, and he’s also still only in his age 28 season. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him carve out a rotational role and to see him be effective in that role. The Cowboys will miss Randy Gregory, but they have a very talented edge rush duo in DeMarcus Lawrence and Micah Parsons and some intriguing depth options, so this is still a good position group overall.
The interior defender position was the Cowboys’ biggest weakness last season. They had six different players see at least 150 snaps, but none were better than middling on PFF, with several struggling mightily. The Cowboys didn’t make any additions to this group this off-season, aside from using a 5th round pick on Arkansas’ John Ridgeway, so they’re clearly expecting to get more this season out of a very young position group. The Cowboys should also get healthier seasons out of Neville Gallimore and Trysten Hill, who missed 12 games and 11 games respectively last season.
Hill was a 2nd round pick by the Cowboys in 2019 and has shown some upside, but he spent most of his rookie year as an inactive, playing just 121 snaps in 7 games, and then he tore his ACL midway through the 2020 season, limiting him to just 212 snaps in 5 games in 2020 and then just 171 snaps in 6 games in 2021, meaning he’s played just a total of 18 out of a possible 49 games, while playing just 504 total snaps in three seasons in the league.
Hill could be an effective rotational player for the Cowboys if healthy, but he’s a complete wild card at this point. Gallimore, meanwhile, is a 2020 3rd round pick who struggled on 416 snaps as a rookie, finishing 109th out of 139 eligible interior defenders on PFF, before struggling through 164 snaps in five games last season, only returning late in the season after missing most of the season with an elbow injury suffered in the pre-season.
With Hill and Gallimore missing significant time last season, a pair of rookies saw significant action, with 2021 3rd round pick Osa Odighizuwa leading the group with 614 snaps played. He struggled mightily though, finishing 113rd out of 146 eligible interior defenders on PFF, and 6th round rookie Quinton Bohanna was even worse, finishing dead last out of 146 eligible interior defenders across 222 snaps. Both could be better in year two and Odighizuwa in particular has a lot of upside and could benefit from playing a smaller role this season, but Bohanna has a long way to go to even be a useful rotational player and neither look like good starting options.
Carlos Watkins is the relative veteran of the bunch and played 437 snaps last season, but the Houston Texans 2017 4th round pick has never earned more than a middling grade from PFF for a season. He might have to play a significant role again out of necessity, but he’s an underwhelming option. Given the state of this position group, it’s possible the rookie Ridgeway sees action in year one, but he probably would be overmatched in a significant role. The Cowboys don’t have any true starting caliber interior defenders and will hope to get by with a heavy rotation of several different players, so this once again figures to be a position of weakness, even if they do have some upside as a result of their relative youth.
I mentioned Micah Parsons’ rookie year dominance as a pass rusher. He was much more ordinary in coverage and struggled against the run at times, but he still finished as by far PFF’s top ranked off ball linebacker in overall grade, including his pass rush grade, which was the best in the NFL regardless of position. As I said, he might not be quite as good again as a pass rusher in 2022, but he should still be one of the best edge rushers in the league for years to come and the other aspects of his game could develop further, making him a more complete player.
Parsons isn’t the only linebacker the Cowboys have used a first round pick on recently, taking Leighton Vander Esch 19th overall in the 2018 NFL Draft. Vander Esch also had a great rookie season, almost as great as Parsons’ rookie year, finishing as PFF’s 5th ranked off ball linebacker on 785 snaps, while playing all 16 games, but injuries limited Vander Esch to just 19 total games between 2019 and 2020 and he was middling at best even when on the field.
Vander Esch did play every game in 2021 though and, while he wasn’t quite as good as his rookie year, he still finished as PFF’s 30th ranked off ball linebacker on 661 snaps. Given that, it’s surprising that he had to settle for a 1-year, 2 million dollar deal as a free agent this off-season, but teams are very cautious of his injury history, with his neck problems dating back to his collegiate days. He could easily miss more time in 2022, but he could just as easily have another above average season, possibly even better than last season, as a first round talent who is still only in his age 25 season.
The Cowboys didn’t retain Keanu Neal this off-season and he was PFF’s 86th ranked off ball linebacker out of 94 eligible last season, so he could be addition by subtraction, but he played 579 snaps even with Vander Esch healthy last season and the Cowboys don’t have any proven depth options to replace him. Instead, they will likely rely on 2021 4th round pick Jabril Cox as their third linebacker. He has the upside to be a useful player, but he also only played 9 snaps as a rookie, so he is a mystery as an NFL player. The Cowboys also added more young linebacker depth in this year’s draft, taking Damone Clark in the 5th round and Devin Harper in the 6th round, but it’s likely they’d struggle if forced into a significant role in year one. Depth is a concern for the Cowboys at the linebacker position, but they’re in good shape with their top two.
Trevon Diggs is the other young Cowboys player who captured the attention of NFL fans, leading the league with 11 interceptions, the most interceptions in the NFL since Everson Walls in 1981. Diggs was the ultimate boom or bust player though, leading the league with 1,016 receiving yards allowed, the most yards allowed by a cornerback since the 2016 season. PFF gave Diggs a middling grade for 2021 and, while I think that underestimates the value of his interceptions, it’s clear that his interception total doesn’t tell the whole story, when you take into account how many yards and big plays he allows.
Diggs also gave up a lot of yards as a rookie in 2020, as the 2nd round pick allowed the 21st most yards in the league (650), despite playing just 68.4% of his teams snaps. Only one player played fewer snaps than him and allowed more yards and, on top of that, Diggs only managed to pick off three passes, earning another middling grade in the process. He’s only going into his age 25 season and should remain a ball hawk, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if his interception total got cut in half, given the volatility of interception stats and his yardage allowed will likely remain among the most in the league either way.
Fellow starting cornerbacks Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis also received middling grades from PFF last season. Lewis was PFF’s 116th ranked cornerback out of 136 eligible cornerbacks on PFF in 2020, but that was mostly because he was a poor fit for their defensive scheme that season and, prior to 2020, he started his career with three straight seasons of above average grades on PFF, including a career best 41st ranked finish in 2019. Brown, on the other hand, has never been more than a middling starter, but he’s experienced, with 57 starts in 82 games in six seasons in the league, and he is still relatively young, in his age 29 season.
All three of the Cowboys’ top-3 cornerbacks played 16 of 17 games last season, so there wasn’t much need for depth behind them, but the Cowboys have good alternatives if injuries strike, as they have 2021 2nd round pick Kelvin Joseph and 2021 3rd round pick Nahshon Wright waiting in the wings. Joseph showed a lot of promise on 165 rookie year snaps and could push to start at some point in year two and, while Wright struggled on his 92 snaps, he still has the upside to develop into a contributor long-term. It’s a deep position group.
At safety, the Cowboys brought back Jayron Kearse and Malik Hooker on deals worth 10 million over 2 years and 7 million over 2 years respectively and they will compete with fellow holdover Donovan Wilson for the two starting safety jobs. Kearse was a starter for most of 2021, starting every game from week 1 to week 17, and he finished as PFF’s 14th ranked safety on the season. He had just 12 career starts in five seasons in the league prior to last season and had never surpassed 503 snaps played in a season, so he’s a one-year wonder in terms of being an above average season long starter, but he always flashed potential as a reserve, so it wasn’t too surprising that he broke out in a larger role and he has a good chance to remain at least a solid starter, even if he isn’t as good as he was a year ago. Kearse should be considered a heavy favorite to keep his job.
Hooker, on the other hand, only played 445 snaps in a rotational role last season, but he’s been an above average starter before and, only going into his age 26 season, he has the potential to bounce back and be an above average starter once again, now another year removed from the torn achilles that ended his 2020 season after just two games. Durability has always been a concern for Hooker, who has missed 30 games in five seasons in the league since being drafted in the first round in 2017 by the Colts, but early in his career he showed some of why he was drafted highly, earning average or better grades from PFF in all three seasons, including a career best 18th ranked finish in 2018. He’s never played more than 15 games in a season and he’ll almost definitely miss some time at some point this season, but it also wouldn’t be a surprise if he won the starting job and bounced back to being at least a solid starter.
That likely leaves Wilson as the third safety, but he’ll have a fair shot at a starting job, with neither Hooker nor Kearse signed to a big contract, and, given Hooker’s durability concerns, there is a good chance Wilson ends up making some starts this season one way or another. Selected in the 6th round in 2019, Wilson finished above average on PFF in the first significant action of his career in 2020, playing 673 snaps total, but he saw that role scaled back to 338 snaps in 2021 and, when on the field, his play was also more middling than it was the prior year. He’s not a bad third safety though and should be able to provide a reliable option as a short-term replacement if needed. Trevon Diggs isn’t as effective of a cover cornerback as his interception total suggests, but this is not a bad unit and they have good depth overall.
The Cowboys also had a good special teams unit last season, ranking 6th in the league in special teams DVOA. They lost one of their best core special teamers Corey Clement this off-season, but talented punter Bryan Anger remains, Tony Pollard and Ceedee Lamb remain locked in as the primary kickoff and punt returner respectively, after averaging 28.8 yards per kickoff return and 9.9 yards per punt return respectively last season, and their one weak spot last season, kicker Greg Zuerlein, is no longer with the team, replaced with undrafted rookie Jonathan Garibay, who has a good chance to be an upgrade even as a rookie, making 85.2% of his collegiate kicks, including 15 of 16 with a long of 62 yards in 2021. They might not be quite as good on special teams in 2022, but they should at least remain an above average unit.
The Cowboys were one of the better teams in the league last season, finishing 12-5 with the 7th highest efficiency rating in the league, but they suffered significant losses on both sides of the ball this off-season and figure to be a noticeably worse team as a result. They should still compete for a playoff spot in the weaker NFC, but their division rival Eagles got significantly better this off-season and now look like the favorites for the division, which would leave the Cowboys fighting for a wild card spot. I will have a final prediction at the end of the off-season when all previews are completed.
Final Prediction: The Cowboys suffered a big loss when left tackle Tyron Smith suffered an injury that will cost him most of the season, but they face one of the easiest schedules among NFC contenders and could still qualify for a wild card spot even without Smith.
Prediction: 11-6, 2nd in NFC East