2016 NFL Season Preview: Dallas Cowboys
What began as a season full of hope and a chance at redemption for the Cowboys turned sour with one Cliff Avril tackle, but there’s a glimmer of hope in the form of a 4th-round rookie.
Players re-signed: Jeff Heath, James Hanna, Kyle Wilber, Morris Claiborne, Rolando McClain, Jack Crawford, Lance Dunbar, Ronald Leary
Free agents signed: Cedric Thornton, Benson Mayowa, Alfred Morris, Joe Looney,
Players lost: Greg Hardy, Matt Cassel, Tyler Clutts, Nick Hayden, Cameron Lawrence, Danny McCray, Jeremy Mincey, Robert Turbin
Players drafted: Ezekiel Elliott, Jaylon Smith, Maliek Collins, Charles Tapper, Dak Prescott, Anthony Brown, Kavon Frazier, Darius Jackson, Rico Gathers
Under the stewardship of Jerry Jones, the Dallas Cowboys have come to be categorized as a spendthrift organization prone to overpays; be it in free agency -hello, Brandon Carr- or on the trade market -greetings, Morris Clairborne- but a notable shift has taken place within the Valley Ranch front office over the last few years, namely: the increase of influence from Stephen Jones and Will McClay. It’s this influence that has impacted the manner in which the team handles free agency over the last four years. 2012 was the last true vestige of Jerry Jones’s ironfisted rule over personnel; it was then that Carr was rewarded with star-level payment (5 years, $50 million) for pedestrian-level play. Since then, the forays into free agency have been substantially more tame with Greg Hardy being the highest profile player signed – and even he played on what was essentially a game-to-game deal.
2016 would be no different as the team’s focus would mainly be on re-signing their own free agents to shore up their depth, rather than jumping too deep into the murky waters of free agency. The closest the team would get to a marquee name would be Cedric Thornton, late of the Philadelphia Eagles, to be their starting block-chewing one-technique defensive tackle opposite Tyrone Crawford, their pass-rushing under tackle. Beyond that, Alfred Morris, Benson Mayowa & Joe Looney were signed to serve as roster depth. None of these names jump off the page, nor are they expected to come in and become world-beaters. Simply put, they’re there to round out the final 53.
The roster building would happen in earnest at the NFL Draft; armed with nine picks -four in the top-100- the Cowboys were in position to add elite talent after a lost season. By now, we all know that they selected running back Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth overall pick to run behind their all-world offensive line, but there were other players in whom the team’s brass place a lot of confidence. Before suffering a catastrophic knee injury in Notre Dame’s Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State, Jaylon Smith was considered one of the top linebackers to enter the draft, if not the best. The injury would knock him out of the first round altogether, leading to Dallas’s selection of him with their second round pick. Whereas most teams were scared off altogether by Smith’s diagnosis of a nerve-related foot drop, the Cowboys were more hopeful in his recovery, primarily because it was their head physician, Dr. Daniel Cooper, who performed Smith’s reconstructive surgery. After Smith they would select two hyper athletic defensive linemen in Maliek Collins (3rd round) and Charles Tapper (4th round); talents who they are confident will be able to produce under the guidance of defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli. With their second 4th round pick, they would take a lightly regarded quarterback out of Mississippi State by the name of Dak Prescott (more on him later) to serve as insurance for Tony Romo. Their final four picks would be swings for the fences based on athletic profiles with players like Anthony Brown, Darius Jackson and Kavon Frazier all having impressive measureables. At this juncture, tight end Rico Gathers profiles as a total dart throw, the former basketball player never played a snap of football in college but the hope is to catch lightning in a bottle a la Jimmy Graham/Antonio Gates.
2016 Season Outlook
Heading into the season, Dallas had grand visions of Super Bowl contention predicated on a punishing run game and the efficient work of Tony Romo; visions that would take a dire hit on the third play of their third pre-season game when Romo would go down with what has now been diagnosed as a compression fracture in his spine. You need not look far to see what happens to the Cowboys when Romo is not under center, as their 10-23 record without him can attest. That said, the back-up quarterback situation in Arlington is not the bottomless pit of despair that it was last year when the likes of Brandon Weeden, Matt Cassel and Kellen Moore were tasked with keeping the ship afloat. The reason for this optimism goes by the name of Dak Prescott, the precocious neophyte has performed admirably during the pre-season, posting numbers that nobody could have expected. Granted, he’s done this against vanilla coverages while playing in a very watered down offense that has rarely asked him to make more than one read; nevertheless, the early returns are encouraging. He will not continue to be the most efficient quarterback to set foot on a field, but he’s shown enough to warrant belief that he can be a credible game-manager who lets the run game do the heavy lifting while he capitalizes on play-action plays and the like. There’s also the small matter of the possibility that the Cowboys capitalize on Prescott’s running skills -he averaged 801 rushing yards each of his last three years in Mississippi State- by featuring more read-option plays with him and Elliott/Morris.
The defense remains pockmarked with questions in the front seven after Randy Gregory and Demarcus Lawrence were both suspended for violation of the league’s substance abuse policy, leaving both starting defensive ends on the bench to start the season. For the Cowboys to even approach the lofty goals they have set for themselves, Rod Marinelli will need to work magic and cobble together a pass-rush from a collection of unknowns in the form of Ryan Russell, Benson Mayowa et al. However, once all hands are on deck, there’s reason to believe the defensive line can be passable, possibly even, dare we say it…good. Demarcus Lawrence -he of the eight sacks in 2015- has looked like a man possessed in training camp; while Tyrone Crawford will look to rebound after playing last year with a compromised shoulder that required surgery. Thornton was brought in specifically to free up Crawford for quarterback pressure up the middle, if he was able to net five sacks with Nick Hayden as his one-technique, what might he do with Thornton and a healthy shoulder?
Having lost Rolando McClain for 10 games due to his own substance abuse suspension, the linebacking corps took a hit but there are enough young players in Kyle Wilber and Mark Nzeocha to weather the storm and maybe even usurp McClain’s starting spot considering that he seems to be on the outs (the team didn’t bother to designate a locker for him).
In what can best be described as a pleasant surprise, it’s the Dallas secondary that stands out as the strength of the defense. 2015 didn’t have many bright spots for the team, but their first round selection, Byron Jones, was a revelation once he was slotted in at free safety, rating as Pro Football Focus’s 28th ranked safety despite not settling into the position until mid-season. They will also welcome back the underrated Orlando Scandrick who missed all of 2015 with a knee injury after grading out in the top-10 in 2014. Additionally -if training camp and pre-season are to be believed- it seems as if the light has finally turned on for former Top-5 pick Morris Claiborne who has had an impressive summer. Add to this an encouraging offseason from the rookie Anthony Brown who’s pushing to make it to the final 53. Clearly, the intent is for the offense to do what it’s designed to do and control the time of possession, that way the middling defense’s impact can be mitigated, much like it was in 2014.
Playing in an improved NFC East without their starting quarterback takes much of the wind out of the Cowboys’ sails. The Giants spared no expense to shore up their porous defense; while the Washington Football Players will look to build on what’s been a remarkably good start to the Scot McCloughan era; even the Eagles will boast a ferocious defense that will be under the leadership of Jim Schwartz. If reports are correct, Dallas will be under the care of Prescott for at minimum six games, possibly more. While a deep playoff run was what the team envisioned for itself, it’s difficult to peg them for much more than nine wins; unless of course Prescott shows that he truly is in fact ready for primetime.
Record: 9-7. Second place behind the New York Giants.