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2021 Team Report: Dallas Cowboys

Last updated: Sun, Sep 5

Offensive Philosophy

Year One of the Mike McCarthy era didn't go as planned, thanks in part to the early season-ending injury to Dak Prescott. The declining health and reliability of the once-vaunted offensive line also contributed to a meager 17th-ranked offense versus a 6th-place ranking in 2019. With Prescott signed to a long-term contract and healthy, 2021 should be a marked improvement. Despite the personnel issues, Dallas' pace of play was near the top of the league in 2021 (69.6 plays per game), although some normalization should be expected if the defense improves and provides more opportunity for ball-control drives.

Quarterbacks

Starter: Dak Prescott
Backup(s): Cooper Rush, Will Grier

Starting QB: Dak Prescott steps into the season in unfamiliar territory, securing long-term financial security after signing a 4-year, $160-million contract with $126 million fully guaranteed. With his contract situation solved, he and the team can solely focus on returning to form after a disappointing 2020. A season-ending ankle injury in Week 5 derailed a jaw-dropping trajectory, but when healthy, he's among the NFL's best. Prescott is a career 66% passer with a 4.6% touchdown rate and a mild 1.7% interception rate. Although he's missed much of the preseason with a shoulder injury, all signs indicate he'll be 100% healthy and under center in Week 1.

Backup QB: Viewing the position as a weakness in prior years, the Cowboys signed veteran Andy Dalton last season. It was a wise decision considering he started nine games after Prescott's injury. Unfortunately, Dalton's play was enough to earn him a free agent bonanza from the Bears, leaving Cooper Rush as the de facto backup. A late summer acquisition of Will Grier makes things interesting as Grier was seen by many scouts as a potential starter under the right tutelage.

Running Backs

Starter: Ezekiel Elliott
Backup(s): Tony Pollard, Corey Clement
Fullback(s):

Starting RB: Does the offensive line make the back or the back make the offensive line? In truth, a great running game emerges from a confluence of strong line play and talented ball carriers. Ezekiel Elliott remains one of the league's most talented tailbacks, but he's coming off a down season that casts doubts on the decision to sign him to a six-year, $90 million extension. Elliott set career lows in attempts per game (16.3), yards per attempt (4.0), yards per target (4.8), and touchdowns (8), while playing fifteen games. Optimists can blame more than degrading offensive line play. They can point to Elliott's bout of Covid in the summer, Prescott's season-ending injury, and the defense's poor play. Fortunately, the line looks healthy and spry again, and Elliott is in phenomenal shape and fit.

Backup RBs: Tony Pollard's impressive rookie season argued for an increased role in 2020, but it didn't materialize if you account for Ezekiel Elliott's missed playing time. Pollard ran for 20 fewer yards (435) last season despite 15 more carries, and his receiving numbers doubled but were still modest (28 receptions for 193 yards). He's a dynamic open-field runner and capable receiver and gives play-caller Kellen Moore an intriguing X-factor in an otherwise predictable offensive cast. Rico Dowdle had a stranglehold on the No. 3 role until a season-ending injury in late August. Veteran Corey Clement signed in last August as the new No. 3 -- it'll be the third NFC East team of his career.

Fullback:

Wide Receivers

Starters: Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, CeeDee Lamb
Backups: Cedrick Wilson, Noah Brown, Simi Fehoko [R]

Starting WRs: No position group is in better shape than the receiving corps, as Dallas has three starting receivers who could easily be the No. 1 on quite a few other rosters. Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup started 15 games last year, while rookie CeeDee Lamb started 14. Statistically, Cooper had the best season, leading in targets (130), receptions (92), yards (1,114), and catch rate (70.8%). Lamb overtook Gallup in the pecking order, running better routes with a far better success rate (66.7% catch rate versus Gallup's 56.2%). Although Gallup's future with the team is uncertain after his 5th-year option wasn't picked up, all three will feature prominently in 2021. It's not unrealistic to think all three could eclipse the 1,000-yard mark in a full season with Dak Prescott under center.

Backup WRs: Cedrick Wilson is 25 years old with 22 career receptions, but the team valued him enough to re-sign him during the offseason. He's rewarded their decision with a strong preseason; he's solidly the No. 4 and would be the next man up if any of the starting trio get hurt. Noah Brown is also 25 years old, with 23 career receptions. But like Wilson, he's shown well during the preseason and should be the No. 5 receiver. Rookie Simi Fehoko has enticing long-term upside, particularly if Dallas lets Michael Gallup leave next offseason. He endured a suboptimal situation at Stanford but has intriguing traits, particularly the flexibility to play outside and in the slot.

Tight Ends

Starters: Blake Jarwin, Dalton Schultz
Backups: Sean McKeon, Jeremy Sprinkle

Last season was supposed to be Blake Jarwin's coming-out party. The fourth-year tight end signed a 4-year, $22-million contract and was universally earmarked as Jason Witten's heir apparent. But the football gods had other ideas, ending Jarwin's season midway through the first game. In stepped Dalton Schultz, who acquitted himself well; he started 14 games and caught 63 receptions for 615 yards and four touchdowns. Schultz isn't an exceptional athlete, but he emerged as an effective safety valve across the middle and was a competent blocker. He and Jarwin likely form a committee this year, with Jarwin skewing toward obvious passing downs while Schultz can be on the field in any situation.

Place Kicker

Greg Zuerlein: Zuerlein bounced back from his down 2019 last year during his first year with the Cowboys. He led the league in field goal attempts, although his rate of field goal attempts went up and his extra point opportunity went down when Dak Prescott got hurt. Six of Zuerlein's seven misses came from 50+, which is reassuring from an accuracy standpoint, but troubling when noting that it was his first year under 50% from 50+ since 2015 and only the second of his career.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Tony Pollard, Cedrick Wilson

The Cowboys reportedly love backup running back Tony Pollard, but it's hard to get him on the field on offense when he's behind one of the highest-paid backs in the NFL. Special teams is another matter; Pollard finished 2nd in kickoff return attempts and 4th in kickoff return yards last year.

Punt Returners: CeeDee Lamb, Cedrick Wilson

In addition to finishing his rookie season with nearly 1,000 receiving yards, CeeDee Lamb also led the Cowboys in punt return attempts. It's quite common for a team to give rookies special teams responsibilities to get them more involved on game day and then phase those responsibilities out in Year 2 (as rookies, Alvin Kamara and Christian McCaffrey led their teams in kickoff and punt return yards, respectively), so don't be surprised if Lamb's special team workload drops substantially in 2021.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: LT Tyron Smith, LG Connor Williams, C Tyler Biadasz, RG Zack Martin, RT La'el Collins
Key Backups: OT Ty Nsekhe, OT Brandon Knight, OL Connor McGovern, C Matt Farniok [R]

The starters missed most of last year. But with left tackle Tyron Smith, right guard Zack Martin and right tackle La'el Collins all returning to full strength, this group is set for a comeback. Left guard Connor Williams does a decent but unspectacular job. Center Tyler Biadasz is still growing into his role, but handily outperformed the alternatives in camp.

Team Defense

The Mike Nolan experiment ended badly, but at least it also ended quickly. The veteran defensive coordinator failed to live up to his resume under new head coach Mike McCarthy and was scrapped in favor of Dan Quinn. Nolan's main issue was attempting to install an entirely new defense during a global pandemic. The complexities of his system required teaching, practice, repetition, and experience. All of those assets were in short supply. While Quinn's tenure as a head coach was up and down, his defensive bonafides are without question. He has the team back in a 4-3 base front, and his system is predicated on more straightforward concepts that allow players to read and react. In the secondary, the Cowboys will run a Cover-3 base look, but like most teams, will vary coverage to suit the game plan. Quinn has a reputation as an intelligent in-game coach and should get the best out of a defensive roster that's been infused with a ton of draft capital.

Defensive Line

Starters: DE DeMarcus Lawrence, DT Brent Urban, DE Randy Gregory, DT Carlos Watkins
Backups: DE Bradley Anae, DE Dorance Armstrong, DT Osa Odighizuwa [R], DE Tarell Basham, DT Quinton Bohanna [R], DE Chauncey Golston [R]

Starting DL: No one is looking forward to Dan Quinn's defense more than DeMarcus Lawrence. After posting 25 sacks in 2017 and 2018, Lawrence notched just 11.5 combined over the last two seasons. It's not that he's lost a step; it's that he was asked to play differently and focus less on putting his hand on the ground and getting after the passer. Under Quinn, Lawrence will return to a five-technique whose main job is to create havoc in the backfield. What's less clear is who lines up on the opposite side. Still, the two leading candidates are Randy Gregory -- who is trying to rehabilitate his career after substance abuse issues -- or Bradley Anae. There are questions in the interior as 2nd-year Neville Gallimore suffered a serious injury in training camp, and 3rd-year Trysten Hill spent most of the summer on the PUP list. Bradley Anae was the Pac-12 defensive lineman of the year in 2019 but fell to the fifth round because of uninspiring measurables. Unfortunately, he failed to make his mark as a rookie but will have a fresh chance to earn playing time under Quinn.

Backup DL: Three rookies bring a much-needed infusion of depth and upside into the rotation. Edge rusher Chauncey Golston is a better run defender than a natural pass rusher, but he worked hard at improving his technique and notched 5.5 sacks as a senior at Iowa. Fellow third-rounder Osa Odighizuwa will play inside but is a bit undersized (280 lbs) in obvious run downs. He gets excellent leverage inside as a pass rusher and will fit well in Quinn's attacking system, particularly on stunts. Sixth-round tackle Quinton Bohanna projects as a more traditional run stuffer, although he lacks mobility and will have to prove he can command double teams at the pro level. Brent Urban could easily displace one of the youngsters as an interior starter after grading out as a top-5 run defender last year in Chicago.

Linebackers

Starters: SLB Micah Parsons [R], WLB Leighton Vander Esch, MLB Jaylon Smith
Backups: LLB Keanu Neal, LB Luke Gifford, LB Jabril Cox [R], LB Azur Kamara

Starting LBs: Micah Parsons opted out of the 2020 season, but that didn't dissuade teams from viewing him as the top linebacker in the class after a dominant 2019 campaign. Parsons has the size, speed, and athleticism that unquestionably translates to the NFL level. He's a violent, instinctive tackler and can rush the passer or cover downfield as needed. He's not only earned a starting role, but he should be the on-field quarterback of the defense immediately. Smith has been an iron man, playing more than 90% of snaps in three consecutive seasons. While his tackle tally is gaudy, he's a liability in coverage and hasn't made enough impact plays to justify his hefty salary. Leighton Vander Esch looked like a future Hall of Famer as a rookie, and then injuries derailed his progression, leading Dallas not to pick up his fifth-year option. But the fates have been kind, and Vander Esch is healthy again and has dominated training camp.

Backup LBs: The Cowboys aren't going to keep many linebackers on the roster, preferring instead to load up on the defensive line. Keanu Neal played safety in Atlanta for Dan Quinn and has made a seamless transition to linebacker in Dallas. Parsons is the high-profile rookie, but Jabril Cox projects as a future starter, too. The fourth-round pick has outplayed the veteran backups in camp and has the versatility to play all three spots. He was fantastic as a coverage linebacker in college - at North Dakota State and LSU - but has shown a willingness to race in and stop the run during the preseason.

Defensive Backs

Starters: CB Anthony Brown, CB Trevon Diggs, S Donovan Wilson, S Damontae Kazee, CB Jourdan Lewis
Backups: S Darian Thompson, S Jayron Kearse, CB Nahshon Wright [R], CB Maurice Canady, S Malik Hooker

Starting DBs: The secondary was arguably the weakest part of a lousy defense, so Dallas used a second-round pick on Kelvin Joseph and two later picks on Israel Mukuamu and Nahshon Wright. Unfortunately, the rookies don't seem ready to help quite yet. Joseph has been burned frequently by Dallas' talented receivers, and is best served learning from the sidelines in 2021. Mukuamu is bound for the practice squad, and Wright probably makes the cut but only as a special-teams contributor. The Cowboys also gave Dan Quinn two familiar faces by signing safeties Damontae Kazee and Keanu Neal, who played in Atlanta. Neal moved to linebacker, but Kazee has returned from a torn Achilles to earn a starting spot at free safety. He had ten interceptions in 2018-2019, which nearly matches Dallas' total over that span. Trevon Diggs endured a baptism by fire as a rookie and came out unscathed. He's one of the few proven, young building blocks on the defensive roster.

Backup DBs: Dallas entered training camp with sixteen defensive backs, but the picture is clearing up. Rookies Kelvin Joseph and Nahshon Wright will serve as backups at cornerback, and veterans Darian Thompson and Jayron Kearse will back up at safety.