LAST year…despite posting an NFC best 13-3 record, the Cowboys only managed to go 3-3 in the division. This time last year, there was no way for anyone to know that they would be propelled from the outhouse to the penthouse, behind the play of two rookies. One of whom was a QB pressed into starting, in place of (and ultimately unseating) long-time incumbent Tony Romo. (That was the first time I ever had to underline Romo’s name. Feels weird even looking at it.)
That was last year. The following is how the team looks today, prior to the Draft….
Dak Prescott was the man last year. I mean how do you not like a 23:4 touchdown to interception ratio? How you not like a 104.9 passer rating? How do you not like a 67.8 completion percentage? From a rookie! Clearly he’s the future of the franchise, right? If he can do all that as a rookie, he’ll only get better from here, right? Right? Not so fast.
Here’s a piece of information that you won’t get anywhere but here. Eight games from last year cast a dark shadow on Prescott’s remaining career: NYG 1&2, WAS 1&2, PHI 1&2, GB regular season and Playoff game. In every case last year, Prescott was less effective in a second meeting with teams. So far every coaching staff to face Prescott once, managed to figure him out to a noticeable degree within the same year. (FYI: This was not the case with every rookie QB last year). This indicates that the league is adjusting to Prescott, faster than he is adjusting to the league. Given the simplicity of Dallas’ offensive system, that should be alarming to fans.
Look, he does have a calm nature about him, a very good arm, good mobility, (and great run game supporting him). All great traits. No one can deny his tools, and based on last year’s success, I have to say he’s a good QB today. As for what’s behind him, the safety net of Mark Sanchez and Tony Romo are gone. The Cowboys Plan B is Kellen Moore. Moore is more inexperienced than he is awful, but if pressed into duty, that won’t matter. (+)
Ezekiel Elliott ran for over 1,600 yards as a rookie, but the most important stat was that he lost only one fumble all year long. Just one. He did almost as good a job carrying the ball, as he did of carrying his QB. Behind Elliott are Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris. Morris made some noise early last year, but it soon became clear that he’d lost any trace of NFL level explosiveness. McFadden was given a one year deal for 2017. However, if Dallas drafts someone they like, expect McFadden to hit the bricks since less than 100K of his deal is guaranteed. Lance Dunbar is a nifty receiver, but he’s hardly a legit RB. Elliott is one of the best RB’s in the game right now, but everything else about this position is in ruins. That said, as long as Elliott is healthy, there is no other way to grade this position. (+)
I said last year, that without Romo, Dez Bryant seemed to evaporate. That was based on a 2015 season that saw both Cole Beasley and Terrance Williams post career numbers. True, the Cowboys had injury issues in 2015 (which included Bryant), but no similar excuse can be applied to 2016. For a second straight year, Bryant has seemed like a former Top 10 WR. The big dog in Dallas now seems to be the nugget-sized Beasley, who led the team both in catches (75) and receiving yards (833), despite only starting 6 games. Williams on the other hand, started 15 of the 16 games he played, and still had the worst year of his career. This receiver corps is experienced, but it’s a shadow of the position it used to be under Romo, and they have added no help so far. (-)
I’m a Jason Witten fan. Not even closeted about it. Right now it seems that 70 catches, 700 yards and 3 TD’s per year are still his for the asking. At least on paper. Watching him play last year it was clear that he hadn’t found the Fountain of Youth, but that he was plugging along. It would be foolish to say that he can’t still act as the stabilizer in this offense, going into year 15. That said, when the wheels fall off they fall off suddenly. I still think he can play, but he really should have walked away after 2016. Behind Witten are James Hanna, Geoff Swaim, and Rico Gathers. Hanna is the reason that guys like Swaim and Gathers (who wouldn’t make most NFL rosters) have chance at starting if Witten gets hurt. Swaim is a 7th round pick drafted to block for the run game. Gather’s declaration that he is the heir apparent to Witten, is the funniest thing he’ll ever say in his life. This position is valid as long as Witten is okay, but if he has to miss any time… the Cowboys entire offense will go into an ugly tailspin. (+)
RT Doug Free retired and G Ronald Leary left to join the Broncos. Granted, this is a massive shake-up, but it’s far from insurmountable. In fact, if I were to arrange the Cowboys offensive line myself, just from what they already have, it would be cake. (l-r) Tyron Smith, La’el Collins, Travis Frederick, Zach Martin, and whomever wins the job between Byron Bell, and Chaz Green. Even as a rival fan, I can tell you they have plenty of options. Oh, and did I mention there’s a Draft coming up? (+)
In a nutshell:
It’s hard to argue against their youth, offensive line, and last year’s stats, but there is something very unsettling about this unit. It wouldn’t take much to unravel it from a few different positions. On almost every team there is a fall-off in talent behind a Starter, but for this team, all of the fall-offs are precipitous. Everything must remain perfect for this unit to not regress in 2017. There is no Ronald Leary to replace an injured La’el Collins this year. There will be no Tony Romo or Mark Sanchez waiting in the wings if Dak Prescott stumbles. I won’t even mention the RB position. Still, the Cowboys offense can be nearly as good as they were last season. As long as no one gets hurt all year long. (+)
Randy Gregory is suspended for 2017. So at the moment, 2017’s starting DE’s look like Tyrone Crawford and Benson Mayowa. Crawford isn’t really a DE, but he had to fill in there last year, and so far the Cowboys have added no better solutions. Also, his 4.5 sacks (3rd on the team) don’t hurt his chances of starting again. Mayowa came on strong at the end of 2016, as he collected 4 of his team-leading 6 sacks in the last 5 games (4 of which were starts). The Cowboys may have found a pass rusher, but it comes at the expense of a run defender, since at 240 pounds, Mayowa hasn’t proven difficult to drive off the line.
Under the radar is Charles Tapper, a 4th round pick from 2016 who didn’t play a snap last year, due to a congenital birth defect in his spine. Apparently he was treated(?) for it and is looking to make his debut this year. They also (for some reason) signed Damontre Moore. If Dallas doesn’t get a stud DE in the Draft this position will haunt them for 17 agonizing weeks. (-)
Maliek Collins as a rookie in 2016, was second on the team with 5 sacks. Losing Terrell McClain wouldn’t mean much to most teams, but it’s a huge loss for this one. Candidates to fill the void he left include, Stephen Paea, David Irving, and former Eagle Cedric Thornton. Thornton was signed last year to unseat McClain, but ended up not starting a single game. This year since McClain isn’t there, you have to figure that Thornton may have a chance at the spot again. (-)
It would be nice to just say “Hey, this position is all good”, but this team just won’t let you have that. Sean Lee for years was a heck of a playmaker when he was healthy. The problem was keeping him healthy. Well last year he was healthy all season long with 15 starts and 1 game of rest, prior to the playoffs. He racked up 145 tackles, which was almost 60 more than the next closest Cowboy. The downside is that since moving from ILB, he is far less effective in pass coverage and offers no value as a pass rusher on the edge.
On the other side, the hope is that 2016 rookie Jaylon Smith can perform at a high level, despite suffering from a damaged nerve in his knee, that causes him to have Foot Drop. Dallas is trying to offset the Foot Drop with a lower leg brace to keep the toes of Smiths foot from dragging the ground. Depth behind him is almost non-existent. Kyle Wilbur is a glorified Special Teamer with 16 starts in 73 games over a 5 year career, and Damien Wilson is just some guy. (-)
Anthony Hitchens is no great shakes, but given his situation as a 235 pound MLB, who’s defensive line doesn’t keep offensive linemen off of him, you have to be impressed with what he manages to get done. Behind Hitchens the most experienced man is John Lotulelei. Completely out of football in both 2014 and 2016, started just 2 of his 18 career games, and racked up all of 12 tackles in the process. (I’m wondering how many Cowboys fans didn’t realize that it was quite this bad.) (-)
FS Byron Jones was the Cowboys second leading tackler last year, but he’ll have to step up and become the mentor for two youngsters in Jeff Heath and Kavon Frazier. Between these three Safeties there are 28 career starts, 27 of which belong to Jones alone. This group is wet behind the ears and not very talented to start with. The Cowboys are going to need some strong Cornerback play to offset this weakness. (-)
Once again the Cowboys raided the Eagles garbage can for a player in CB Nolan Carroll. Apparently they didn’t learn the lesson last year with Cedric Thornton. To be fair, there are some positive aspects of Carroll’s game. He’s a good man press corner for short routes. He’s a decent tackler for his position. If he picks off the ball, he looks to score with it. The only problems are that he can be handsy and has trouble covering receivers. Those are his only drawbacks. Anthony Brown figures to build on a solid though not spectacular rookie year. Orlando Scandrick is a solid veteran who plays well in the Nickle and can even hop outside as long as you don’t lean on him there. (-)
In a nutshell:
Bad drafting and Free Agent defections have decimated this unit. Even Stephen Jones has said that the defense is now worse off. They are weak at practically every tier, with weaknesses in one position that threaten to expose or exacerbate weaknesses in other positions. This defense is what happens when you spend good money on things, without really looking into them first. (-)
What can you say about Chris Jones in 2016? He sported a 45.9 yard average on his punts, with 40.5 of that being net yards. Fewer than 200 return yards allowed on his punts all season long, and a 30 yard run on a trick play, too boot. This is how you help your team win the field position/hidden yardage battle. (+)
Dan Bailey saw his accuracy drop 9.4% from 93.8 to 84.4, as he missed five FG’s last year. He hadn’t missed that many in one season since his rookie year. It’s nothing to be alarmed over, but it is something to keep an eye on. 2016 was just an off year. Until he proves otherwise, he’s still one of the best in the game. (+)
The Cowboys seemed be phoning it in on returns last year. There wasn’t a single return (punt or kickoff) for longer than 39 yards. WR Lucky Whitehead‘s KR average of 23.2 yards, makes me wonder why they’d risk anything other than a fair catch. Speaking of which, a PR average of 7.8 yards doesn’t go with a 25:6 return to fair catch ratio. If you’re going to be aggressive and risk the ball, do it in a good cause. The Cowboys looked for a number of solutions last year, but no one proved explosive enough. In two years Whitehead has shown initiative, but he apparently doesn’t have the eyes for the job. (-)
In a nutshell:
Dallas has been better on Special Teams, but they are carried by an extremely reliable Kicker and Punter who helps them win the field position battle. If they could threaten in the return game, this unit would be the envy of many teams. (+)
This is a team in transition that caught fire in 2016. Now in 2017, with almost none of of the internal pieces needed to sustain that sort of success, they will be expected to not only deliver it again, but improve on it. Offensively they may be as productive as last season. Provided everyone stays healthy. Defensively they are going to catch all manner of hell, as 2/3 of their division rivals have made a point of making their offenses more dangerous.