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Dallas Cowboys Writers
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Mike McCarthy should be on the hot seat after two seasons in Dallas to hear some critics. But that belies the facts. The Cowboys fielded the league's No. 1 offense last year; the team averaged 31.2 points per game, getting the better of heralded offenses in Kansas City, Green Bay, and Los Angeles. Central to the offense's return to form was a healthy Dak Prescott, who threw for nearly 4,500 yards and 37 touchdowns while completing a career-best 68.8% of passes. McCarthy and offensive coordinator Kellen Moore run an up-tempo scheme (No. 2 in plays per game) that's relatively balanced (19th in run/pass ratio) but saw more success throwing the ball than rushing last year. With several starters on the offensive line departing and veteran Amari Cooper, it's unclear whether Dallas can sustain last year's level of success.
Dak Prescott enters his seventh season with little left to prove as a regular-season quarterback. His legacy will be defined by what he and his teammates accomplish in the playoffs in the coming seasons. After an injury-marred 2020, Prescott re-established himself as one of the NFL's best last year. He threw for 4,449 yards, 37 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions while setting career-best completion and touchdown rates. His excellence as a passer has run counter to declining effectiveness as a runner. He scored just once on the ground after 24 rushing scores in five prior seasons and averaged just 3.0 yards per attempt. With Amari Cooper's departure, and a reshuffled offensive line, Prescott will be challenged to sustain MVP-level play, but his track record makes it a bet worth taking.
The Cowboys currently have no backup quarterback after cutting both Cooper Rush and Will Grier, although it's expected one or both will be added back to the roster soon. Rush finally got an opportunity to start in his fifth season and answered the call. He completed 24-of-40 passes for 325 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception against the Minnesota Vikings. But a disappointing preseason along with vastly improved play from Will Grier has created a competition for the backup job.
Fool me once; shame on you. Fool me twice; shame on me. Ezekiel Elliott fooled many last year, coming off a career-worst season. But hopes for a bounce-back proved ill-conceived as his productivity took another downtick. He averaged just 13.9 rushes per game, continuing a five-season decline from leading the league at 24.2 carries per game in 2017. Although his yards per rush (4.2) improved from 2021 (4.0), it's still indicative of a league-average producer and far below his career-best mark (5.1). Elliott's declining productivity extended to the passing game, too. He set career lows in yards per catch (6.1), receiving yards per game (16.9), and catch rate (72.3%). Fortunately, the Cowboys still gave him the lion's share of goal-line opportunities, leading to his third double-digit touchdown (12) season. But context is key, and we now know he played last season with a partially torn PCL. That keeps the door open on a bounce back season in 2022. Regardless of whether he's lost a step, team owner Jerry Jones continues to push for Elliott as the centerpiece of the offense. Coaches rarely go against the team owner's explicit desires.
Jerry Jones' infatuation (and investment) in Elliott almost assuredly means Tony Pollard's role as a high-value complementary piece remains the ceiling. Nevertheless, Pollard is an integral part of the reigning No. 1-ranked offense, and his dynamism helps offset Elliott's declining per-play effectiveness. Pollard topped 1,000 yards from scrimmage last year thanks to career-best touches (169), yards per rush (5.5), and yards per catch (8.6). We've yet to see how the coaches would use Pollard in Elliott's absence, but it's exciting to think what he could do with a larger opportunity.
Although front office executives have become masterful at manipulating the salary cap, teams aren't entirely immune from the cap's consequences. Dallas' cap situation facilitated trading Amari Cooper to the Browns. Cooper had a slightly down season in 2022, falling short of 1,000 yards (865) for only the second time in seven seasons, but he still scored eight touchdowns and played nearly 900 snaps for the league's No. 1 offense. While Cooper won't be easy to replace, CeeDee Lamb is more than ready to ascend into the No. 1 spot in his third season. Lamb led Dallas receivers in snaps (942), targets (120), receptions (79), receiving yards (1,102), and yards per reception (13.9) last year, yet most believe he has another level ahead. Lamb is a rare talent who can win both vertically and in tight, contested coverage. Ironically, Michael Gallup re-signed and will eventually pair with Lamb after he returns from last year's ACL injury. But his status for Week 1 is iffy, at best. Gallup has been productive in four seasons but has a troubling injury history and lacks the consistency (55.5% career catch rate) Cooper and Lamb bring to the offense.
The Cowboys have to replace 125 receptions, 1,616 yards, and 17 touchdowns from last year's receiving corps. Rookie Jalen Tolbert is being thrust into a pivotal role immediately, thanks to Gallup's ongoing recovery and James Washington's training camp injury. Tolbert was a two-time All-Sun Belt receiver and projects as a future NFL starter. Even though he played against lesser competition at South Alabama, he has NFL-caliber measurables and an ability to win on crossing routes before and after the catch. Free-agent veteran James Washington had a massive opportunity before a broken foot derailed his summer. The coaches are putting a positive spin on the young depth options, but they're inexperienced and didn't grade out as regular NFL contributors by NFL draft scouts.
- Jake Ferguson [R], Peyton Hendershot [R]
The Blake Jarwin era came and went with a whimper, but his injury travails allowed Dalton Schultz to emerge as one of the NFC's unlikely offensive cornerstones. Schultz built off his third-year breakout to become a Pro Bowl-caliber receiving threat. He set career marks for targets (104), receptions (78), yards (808), yards per catch (10.4), and touchdowns (8), and that prompted the front office to assign the franchise-tag designation, which means he'll earn $10.9 million this season. Schultz isn't an exceptional athlete, but he makes up for it with crisp routes and sure hands. A pair of rookies displaced long-time veteran Jeremy Sprinkle and Sean McKeon. Jake Ferguson projects in many ways like Schultz. He's an average athlete without an extra gear, but does everything well enough and comes from a major program. Undrafted rookie Peyton Hendershot was so consistent throughout camp and the preseason, the front office couldn't deny him a 53-man roster spot.
- LT Josh Ball
- LG Connor McGovern
- C Tyler Biadasz
- RG Zack Martin
- RT Terence Steele
- T Tyler Smith, C Matt Farniok, T Matt Waletzko, T Tyron Smith [INJ]
With left tackle Tyron Smith only starting thirteen games in the last two seasons, the team reloaded in the draft with Tyler Smith (First round, Tulsa). Smith had been competing for the left guard spot all summer, but Tyron suffered a severe hamstring injury in late August and will miss significant time. That likely pushes the rookie outside to left tackle quickly, although Josh Ball is also in the mix for Week 1. McGovern was losing his job to Tyler Smith all summer, but is now back into the mix. Right tackle Terence Steele is effective on either side. Right guard Zack Martin remains an All-Pro and center Tyler Biadasz is above average at the pivot.
- Brett Maher
The Cowboys let Greg Zuerlein go in the offseason and only replaced him with fringe prospect Chris Naggar, who spent time on a couple of rosters last year, and Jonathan Garibay, an undrafted free agent from Texas Tech. They released Naggar after the draft, leaving only the rookie, who was outstanding last year, making 15-of-16 field goals, including a 62-yard kick to beat Iowa State, and 49-of-50 extra points. Veteran Brett Maher signed in early August and looks to be the odd-on favorite to make the final roster.
- Tony Pollard, KaVontae Turpin
While his opportunity on offense is limited by the presence of Ezekiel Elliott, the Cowboys love using special teams as another path to get the ball in the hands of talented running back Tony Pollard. Unless Elliott is injured during the year, Pollard should handle the lion's share of Dallas' kickoff return attempts. Late summer addition KaVontae Turpin is the dark horse for both punt and kickoff return duties. The small speedster was the MVP of the USFL this season, helping the New Jersey Generals to a 9-1 record. Special teams coordinator John Fassel has been effusive in his praise of Turpin early in camp.
- CeeDee Lamb, KaVontae Turpin
With the departure of receiver Cedrick Wilson in free agency, the Cowboys don't have many experienced punt return options at their disposal besides top WR CeeDee Lamb, who has returned 27 punts through two years. With all their losses at receiver, though, Dallas might feel Lamb is too essential on offense to risk on special teams, which would lead to a fairly wide-open competition for the job. Late summer addition KaVontae Turpin is the dark horse for both punt and kickoff return duties. The small speedster was the MVP of the USFL this season, helping the New Jersey Generals to a 9-1 record. Special teams coordinator John Fassel has been effusive in his praise of Turpin early in camp.
Dan Quinn more than earned his reputation as a sound defensive tactician last season. In his first year coordinating the Cowboys defense, Quinn took a unit that ranked 28th in points allowed under Mike Nolan and re-shaped it into the seventh-ranked defense. Quinn's system isn't overly complicated (like Nolan's was) and allows players more freedom to read and react. The move back to a 4-man front and a Cover-3 base look yielded exceptional results, including 41 sacks and a league-leading 26 interceptions. While the defense should be poised for continued success, expect some regression from last year's top-10 ranking. Outside of the eye-popping interception numbers (volatile and not significantly predictive), the defense was more league-average in 2021 than elite. The team ranked 12th in yards per play, 14th in yards per pass attempt, 9th in yards per rush, and 14th in sacks. The team lost Randy Gregory in free agency to the Broncos, signing Dante Fowler with hopes that he finally lives up to his top-five draft pick status, but this unit is due to regress with a big reliance on interceptions and pick-sixes last year. They are likely to be overdrafted and open with Tampa Bay and Cincinnati. Consider them as a streaming defense when they face the Commanders, Giants, and AFC South opponents.
- DE Dante Fowler, DE Sam Williams [R], DE Tarell Basham, DT Quinton Bohanna, DT John Ridgeway [R], DT Trysten Hill
DeMarcus Lawrence was supposed to re-establish his dominance within Dan Quinn's aggressive 4-man front, but a broken foot cost the veteran ten games. Although his three sacks in seven games hint at disappointment, particularly after the team signed Lawrence to a massive extension, Lawrence was still one of the most effective two-way ends when healthy. The defense needs Lawrence to stay healthy in 2022 and get back to double-digit sacks after Randy Gregory opted to sign with Denver this offseason, despite having an identical contract awaiting his signature in Dallas. Replacing Gregory's presence will be a committee effort, with free agent Dante Fowler offering a boom-or-bust presence with incumbent Dorance Armstrong logging heavy snaps, too. Quinn was instrumental in recruiting Fowler to the University of Florida and then signing him to a $45-million deal in Atlanta, so there's no doubt Quinn thinks Fowler can play at his best after several disappointing, injury-marred seasons. The interior line is without difference-makers and will rely on a rotation of big bodies. Neville Gallimore was limited to six games and didn't show enough to instill confidence in a full-time role.
Replacing Randy Gregory will be a three-man effort, with Fowler competing against Dorance Armstrong and rookie Sam Williams. Williams notched 22.5 sacks in three years at Ole Miss and has the speed and aggression needed to be an NFL edge specialist. He lacks discipline, particularly as a run defender, and will most likely see the field only on obvious passing downs initially. Armstrong logged more than 500 snaps last year and graded well. He lacks the pass-rushing instincts of his competitors but is a better two-way player. The interior defense is completely up for grabs, with second-year tackle Osa Odighizuwa the most likely to break out from the pack. Rookie John Ridgeway and second-year Quinton Bohanna also have an open invitation to impress the coaches and earn significant reps.
While Dan Quinn's scheme and tutelage deserve credit for the defense's improvement last year, one cannot understate Micah Parsons' impact. The rookie linebacker immediately stepped into a starting role and dominated in a way we haven't seen in years. Parsons ran away with Defensive Rookie of the Year honors and was a first-team All-Pro selection. He was the first rookie in 25 years with 80-plus tackles (84) and 10-plus sacks (13). He led all rookies in sacks, quarterback hits (30), tackles for loss (20), and forced fumbles (3). He was excellent in coverage while also wreaking havoc as a pass rusher. If healthy, he'll vie for Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2022. A few years ago, Leighton Vander Esch looked like the Cowboys' defensive cornerstone after an impressive rookie season, but injuries derailed his ascendance and left him without a fifth-year option entering free agency. Ultimately, he signed a one-year deal to return, believing it's his best chance for a long-term contract next year. Vander Esch stayed healthy in 2021 and was functional, particularly against the run.
Jabril Cox emerged as a fixture on special teams as a rookie but only played a handful of snaps on defense buried behind Parsons, Vander Esch, and Keanu Neal. But the 6-foot-3, 233-pounder from LSU impressed the coaches and is in line for a significant role this year if he shows well in the preseason. Given Vander Esch's one-year deal, the team would love for Cox to earn his way into a starting role opposite Parsons. Veteran Anthony Barr chose to sign with Dallas in early August, as the long-time NFL starter sought a chance to play with a title contender. Luke Gifford earned a new multi-year deal but has only notched 33 defensive snaps in three season; his value is on special teams.
- CB Kelvin Joseph, CB DaRon Bland [R], CB Nahshon Wright, S Donovan Wilson, S Markquese Bell [R], S Israel Mukuamu
Last year's No. 7 ranking on defense overstates the team's effectiveness against opposing quarterbacks because it's entirely predicated on a league-leading 26 interceptions, and turnovers are historically volatile and not predictive. Assuming the team's ability to force turnovers normalizes, the perception of its defensive backs is likely to come back to earth. Last year, Trevon Diggs led the league with a stunning 11 interceptions, earning mainstream media attention as an elite cornerback. But Diggs got burned a lot, giving up more than 1,000 yards receiving and nearly 500 yards after the catch. He allowed opposing receivers 18.7 yards per reception, which is unacceptable for a full-time starter much less a perceived shutdown defensive back. He'll be joined in the starting lineup once again by Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis. According to Pro Football Focus, Brown had the best year of the three but is probably the least heralded. Jayron Kearse spent four forgettable seasons in Minnesota before landing a rotational role in Detroit in 2020. He showed enough to earn a contract with Dallas last offseason and flourished under Coach Quinn. He was a force against the run and in coverage, amassing 101 tackles, 9 tackles for loss, 10 passes defensed, and three turnovers. Veteran Malik Hooker looks to build off a strong complementary showing last year as he steps into Damontae Kazee's starting role.
Kelvin Joseph was a second-round pick a year ago and has the pedigree to become an NFL starter, but he only played 24% of snaps a season ago and dealt with precarious off-the-field legal issues this year. Safety Donovan Wilson has starting experience. DaRon Bland only played one season at Fresno State but was arguably the best defensive back in training camp.