LAST year… the Cowboys were 5 – 1 in the division and 9 – 7 overall, after finishing the prior year with an NFC best 13 – 3 record, followed immediately by a playoff loss. Total scoring for 2017 was 354 points for, and 322 points against. Which is about what you’d expect for a team just above .500. A case can be made that they had to deal with distractions, stemming from the looming suspension of a key starter, for six weeks.
That was last year. Keeping in mind that the Draft will change some of this, the following is a report on how the team looks today, prior to the NFL Draft….
The 4 interceptions Dak Prescott threw in 2016, jumped to 13 in 2017. Throwing 13 picks in a season isn’t really cause for alarm. Especially since I warned last year that a regression was coming. I said the league was adjusting to him, faster than he was adjusting to the league, and he spent 2017 proving my point. His 2017 stats themselves are somewhat misleading (62.9%, 3300+ yards passing, 22/13, 86.6 rating). When you look at his performance game by game (or watching him play), it tells a very different story. It says that he’s basically just— You know, he’s still only going into his third year. One great year, and one not so great year. So this could be a bounce-back season for him, given the new toys he just got. Behind Prescott, sits preseason Hall Of Famer, Cooper Rush. Rush may get a chance to play in 2018 if Prescott can’t shake off 2017. Again, this may be a bounce back year for Prescott. So for now, let’s give the guy the benefit of the doubt. (+)
Having been suspended for six games, it’s only natural that Ezekiel Elliott would rush for fewer yards than in his rookie season. That’s to be expected under the circumstances. However, in the games he did play, he simply wasn’t as explosive as he was the season before. In 2016 he had (14) rushes of 20+ yards, and (3) of 40+. In 2017 he had just (5) rushes of 20+ yards, and (0) of 40+. Zero. His yards per carry went from 5.1 to 4.1. Some will say he was distracted. Others will point to his hard-charging style, and the 1,272 touches he’s logged (college and pro) since 2013. He may be young, but he’s still human, and so far it doesn’t seem as if any effort to preserve him is being made. Behind Elliott are Rod Smith and FB Jamize Olawale (Raiders). The Cowboys have fantasies of turning Smith into a threat as ball carrier, but he simply lacks the vision. Elliott makes this group passable, but if he gets hurt, this position goes off a cliff. (+)
Dez Bryant vs Janoris Jenkins
As of the moment you read these words, Dez Bryant is still a Cowboy, but that could change by the time you finish reading this section. Like an aging beauty queen, Bryant is no longer able to get by on his physical talent alone. He’s hired a coach to help him refine all the parts of his craft, that he’s ignored for 8 years. However, until that bears fruit, he’s still an overpaid #2 receiver. Terrance Williams will probably find himself watching a lot of football with the addition of free agent Allen Hurns (Jaguars). Cole Beasley may also find himself on the outside looking in, with the addition of free agent Deonte Thompson (Bills). Both new players immediately upgrade Dallas’s ability to threaten vertically. As a group every one of them is either a fading star (Bryant), a chronic disappointment (Williams, Thompson), a flash in the pan (Hurns), or no one worth worrying about (Beasley, Ryan Switzer). This position has been in the toilet for a couple years now and until they prove better, there’s no way to grade them well. (-)
Jason Witten is more of a blocker than a receiver now. He hasn’t averaged even 10 yards per catch in any of his last three seasons. He hasn’t had a reception of more than 35 yards since 2012. He’s a classy, high effort guy, but he’s no longer a threat. Spoken bluntly, he’s just in the way now. Back-ups Geoff Swaim and James Hanna are clearly unable to step up and earn the starting job. The hope is that Rico Gathers is done making the transformation from basketball player to football player. If so, he could be a match-up nightmare for years to come. (-)
Travis Frederick is doing a great job anchoring the pivot. After that, it gets a little bit… uneasy. This marks a second year in a row that the Cowboys have lost a LG. The solution being floated as a fix for that, is moving RT La’el Collins to LG, and placing free agent addition Cameron Fleming (Patriots) at RT. LT Tyron Smith played through injuries in 2016, and followed that up with struggling with his back in 2017. That doesn’t bode well for 2018, since injuries are cumulative and beyond Smith there is no depth. Yes, there are a couple of players, but they’re liabilities, as evinced by the 5 sacks Chaz Green was beaten for vs the Falcons. That’s not to say that the Cowboys are bad here, but they’ve clearly taken steps backwards. Passing: 28 sacks allowed in 2016, then 32 allowed in 2017. Rushing: 4.8 yards per rush in 2016, then 4.5 per rush in 2017. They aren’t huge steps backwards, but they are noticeable, and across the board. That being said, it’s still a pretty good line. (+)
In a nutshell:
Plenty of talent on this offense. However, it’s unevenly distributed, and there is no depth pretty much anywhere. It won’t take much to derail this unit, given the top-heavy way that it’s constructed. For the last two seasons, Dallas has avoided major injury to their skill players. If they can stay that healthy in 2018, things will be fine. (+)
Demarcus Lawrence had big year in 2017, amassing 14.5 sacks after only having one in 2016. None of his prior three seasons resemble 2017’s performance, so it raises the question of whether this was a “contract year” thing. Tyrone Crawford is mostly a big body to eat space and occupy blockers, so other players can make stops. Vidauntae “Taco” Charleton was a first round pick last year, and yet another Draft Day gamble by owner Jerry Jones. Charleton has some athletic traits that the team hopes to harness. The only issue is, he may be more of an athlete than a football player. Randy Gregory (as of this moment) is still seeking to be reinstated, because he has more failed drug tests in his career, than career starts and sacks combined. (Just one sack in 2016.) Former Jet, Kony Ealy was added to the roster. Perhaps for depth? Aside from Lawrence’s 2017 season, this position is shrug inducing. However, since no one can prove that his 2017 season was a fluke, this position has to get the benefit of the doubt. (+)
Maliek Collins is just a guy. If the Cowboys select at this position at any time in the Draft’s first three rounds, you’ll know who they want to replace. On the other hand, if David Irving could start 16 games, who knows what impact he would have on the Cowboys entire defense. The knock on him is his inability to stay on the field, (for a variety of reasons) over these last three seasons. Richard Ash is a big body, but he’s a career back-up. There’s enough talent here to make a few big splash plays during the year, but no one at this position is capable of doing it week in and week out. (-)
Sean Lee offers no pass rush threat, and is an absolute liability in coverage on the outside. However, if he’s not on the field, the Cowboys defense loses the ability to function. Which is a shame, because he misses a lot of time. Damien Wilson started a career-high 9 games in 2017. (You go, boy!) He produced all of 35 tackles. Which sadly was also a career-high. The Cowboys have a few bodies here, but they’re all kick coverage types. (-)
Jaylon Smith started 6 games and grabbed 81 tackles. Not bad for a guy learning how to play with Drop Foot at the NFL level. Commendable effort. Great spirit. And an absolute liability in coverage. Not just that, but after a few weeks, teams learned what he does and doesn’t do well. After the Bye week he clearly hit a wall and never regained his early season form. The idea is to have him backed-up by former Packer, Joe Thomas. Given Smith’s visible ceiling, Thomas could surprise people and challenge for the starting spot. If that’s the case, then competition should sharpen the winner of this position. For that reason alone this position gets the benefit of the doubt. (+)
Due to the play of Jeff Heath and Byron Jones, the Cowboys secondary wasn’t the easy target that everyone has become accustomed to in recent years. With a year of playing together under their belt, they can only be better in 2018. Xavier Woods adds depth and experience. It’s not flashy, and it can be easy to overlook, but this position is a sneaky strength for this unit. Totally legit. No benefit of the doubt needed. (+)
Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis ended last year as starters, after beginning the year as reserves. They’re young, which can be both a blessing and a curse. Neither man is exactly a ball-hawk. Anthony Brown played so well last year, that he was demoted after 10 starts. This position is very much still a work in progress. (-)
In a nutshell:
This defense is extremely vulnerable on the edges, because the CB’s are green, and the OLB’s can’t cover. They could gamble on the Draft coming to their rescue, but that has no bearing on this report, which about how they look as today. If Lawrence’s 2017 was no fluke, the Cowboys a least have a building block heading into the Draft. If it was just him trying to cash in, this unit is screwed. (-)
Chris Jones is out there killing it. 66 punts and just 75 punt return yards. All. Year. Long. Oh yeah, and for the second year in a row, he ran another punt fake for 20+ yards.
His punt average dipped from 45.9 to 44.1, but his net went from 40.5 to 41.4, so the team ended up better off. Just killing it! (+)
After a career year in 2015, Dan Bailey has declined in each of the the last two seasons. After missing four games with a groin injury, he struggled with his Field Goal accuracy, going 8 of 13 over the final five games of the season. Dallas brought in Brett Maher, but NFL teams have been making use of him as a camp leg since 2013. So he has virtually no shot at the job. Last year’s review gave Bailey the benefit of the doubt. This year, especially given his steep decline, that cannot be the case. (-)
In 2017, WR Ryan Switzer averaged 8.8 yards per punt return, and brought one back for an 83 yard TD. He also averaged 25 yards per kickoff return, while amassing 600 yards. He’s no Brian Mitchell, but he gets the job done. (+)
In a nutshell:
Newly promoted Special Teams coach Keith O’Quinn, has to figure out his kicking situation. Aside from that it’s a quietly effective unit, that should continue to be one. (+)
Same story as always. Bunch of talent, haphazardly organized. Dallas spends too much time looking at the big picture, and ignoring small details. (An example would be Dez Bryant waiting this long to concern himself with route precision.) This team isn’t interested in “Why”, so they never learn, and keep getting in their own way. No team does it more. Their ability to score will give the feel of them being in every game, and having a chance to win the division. Their inability to stop other teams from scoring, will be why they won’t win enough games to win the division.