Behind Enemy Lines: NFC East Offseason Review- Dallas Cowboys
After their franchise quarterback suffered a gruesome compound fracture to his right ankle last season, it became the Andy Dalton Show for the Dallas Cowboys. But, as is tradition with Dalton, the season ended in mediocrity and finally forced Jerry Jones to pull out his checkbook and ink Dak Prescott to a long-term deal.
Cap Hits in 2021-2026 Seasons:
Team needs to negotiate new deal by no later than 2025
With their signal-caller signed, the Cowboys next logical step was to bolster that vulnerable defense. Dallas finished as the 10th worst overall defense in the NFL with the 2nd worst run defense in 2020. After last year’s disappointing results, Jerry Jones fired defensive coordinator Mike Nolan and hired former Falcons’ head coach Dan Quinn. Quinn still runs his long-standing 4-3, Cover 3 system from his days in Seattle and will look to mold some younger defensive pieces to fit that scheme.
After that, their aging offensive line needed a youth injection to see any resemblance of that ground-and-pound Ezekiel Elliott focused offense that seemed to benefit Prescott greatly. Well, the good news for Eagles‘ fans is that Dallas essentially failed to address both of those significant needs. And with Dak’s lingering injury concerns, the Cowboys trot out a cast of misfits trying to make it as the backup quarterback. So let’s take a more in-depth breakdown of the Dallas Cowboys’ moves during the 2021 offseason.
QB Dak Prescott (28): 4-year, $160M
CB Jourdan Lewis (26): 3-year, $16.5M
CB CJ Goodwin (31): 2-year, $3.5M
Cowboys Key Departures
CB Chidobe Awuzie (26)- CIN: 3-year, $21.75M
FS Xavier Woods (26)- MIN: 1-year, $1.75M
QB Andy Dalton (33)- CHI: 1-year, $10M
DT Antwuan Woods (28)- IND: 1-year, $920k
DE Tyrone Crawford (32)- Retired
LB Sean Lee (35)- Retired
Cowboys Key Free Agent Signings
SS Keanu Neal (26, ATL): 1-year, $5M
FS Damontae Kazee (28, ATL): 1-year, $1.12M
DT Carlos Watkins (28, HOU): 1-year, $1.75M
Cowboys Notable 2021 Draft Picks
Rd.1 (#12) LB Micah Parsons, Penn State
Rd.2 (#44) CB Kelvin Joseph, Kentucky
Rd.3 (#75) DT Osa Odighizuwa, UCLA
Rd.3 (#84) DE Chauncey Golston, Iowa
Rd.3 (#99) CB Nahshon Wright, Oregon State
Rd.4 (#115) LB Jabril Cox, LSU
The Offensive and Defensive lines are still in limbo
Besides the Dak Prescott injury, the Cowboys’ offensive line suffered a standard Eagles season of the revolving door of ever-changing lineups:
30-year old All-Pro tackle LT Tyron Smith only played in two games before having season-ending neck surgery.
Last year’s fourth-round pick, center Tyler Biadasz, dealt with a lingering hamstring issue and missed nearly half of the season.
One of their more significant free-agent signings over the last couple of years, RT La’el Collins, required hip surgery that forced him to miss the entire 2020 season.
With those three back, Dallas still has their “evergreen guard” in Zack Martin and the two Connors, Williams and McGovern, who will battle for the opposite guard position. Call me biased, but that mix of an aging and inexperienced group of linemen does not inspire much confidence for the future of this once-dominant unit.
On the other side of the trenches, Dallas didn’t do much to bolster one of the most vulnerable run defenses in the NFL. They finished in a league of their own with the 2nd worst run defense in the league, trailing only the Texans, and allowed a staggering 158.8 rushing yards per game in 2020. To address this, Dallas is looking for some recent draft picks to step up.
In the 2021 Draft, Jerry Jones and company targeted DT Osa Odighizuwa and DE Chauncey Golston to add more competition along the defensive line. Those rookies will be battling other young guys like 2019 second-round pick DT Trysten Hill and 2020 third-round selection DE Neville Gallimore. Ultimately, there are too many question marks regarding those younger players plus the efficiency of some older vets to proclaim that Dallas executed the necessary moves to make their offensive and defensive lines better this offseason.
Trench Grade: C
Dak is back with his elite weapons, but how will he fair coming off that injury?
After dislocating and suffering a compound fracture in his right ankle in a highlight that has since been censored on most major sports outlets, the newly minted Dak Prescott seems to be on track to lead the Cowboys in Week One. However, despite what Dak says about how he feels in recovery, you never really know until you’re playing in full-game speed and take that first shot back.
Lingering issues or a tweak of that ankle could cause Dallas to be very cautious with their franchise quarterback’s return. With the added week to the 2021 NFL season, even a minor issue could cause Dak to miss a week or two, at least out of extreme hesitancy not to rush his return. The other guys in that quarterback room who would step in for Prescott if he has to miss time are Cooper Rush, Garrett Gilbert, and Ben DiNucci.
Trash Andy Dalton all you want (and I do it regularly), but those three guys are not winning any games in which they start. Backup quarterback might seem like a nit-picky criticism, but we have seen their importance for years now. And with that extra week to the 2021 schedule, the QB2’s value could continue to rise. The reason that Dallas’ offense remains arguable the most potent in the division is the return of that elite receiving core and the threat of Zeke to regain his old form on any given week.
QB and Weapons Grade: B+
Dan Quinn hopes to revitalize a young secondary and struggling defense
Despite finishing as a Top-Ten passing defense (260.1 yards/game), the Cowboys lost two of their highest-graded coverage players since 2017 in CB Chidobe Awuzie and FS Xavier Woods. With their departures, Jerry Jones brought in two very effective defensive backs with ties to Dan Quinn in Atlanta. Keanu Neal recorded Atlanta’s 7th highest defensive grade (68.2) and 8th highest coverage grade (66.2) last season. He will transition to linebacker this offseason after spending most of his career at safety.
The other former Falcon, Damontae Kazee, provides versatility to play multiple positions as well as mentor the younger players learning Dan Quinn’s system. He will most likely fight for the starting safety spot opposite Donovan Wilson, who can also play in the box at safety. Wilson, a 2016 sixth-round pick, quietly had an impressive campaign in 2020 and will look to build upon that momentum.
With Chidobe Awuzie getting his bag from Cincinnati, Dallas runs with that same theme of allowing their recent draft picks to step in. Jourdan Lewis signed a three-year deal to man his regular slot position while the outside corners received big promotions. Trevon Diggs impressed at times as a rookie but now steps into the number one cornerback spot in only his second season. Opposite of him is a complete question mark. Dallas drafted CB Kelvin Joseph out of Kentucky in the second round of this year’s draft, who will compete with fifth-year cornerback Anthony Brown for the other starting spot.
Dan Quinn brings some much-needed new energy to a struggling defense, and some of these younger guys will thrive in a new scheme. However, too many question marks remain with untested players to rely on them becoming anything more than an average unit.
The biggest win for the Cowboys this offseason was getting Micah Parsons with the Eagles’ traded pick at 12th overall. Parsons has the physical traits and high football IQ to be a modern-day monster linebacker. With Sean Lee’s third (?) official retirement, and Jaylon Smith plus LVE not living up to expectations, this was a heady move to try and get a steadfast defensive player for years to come.
LB and Secondary Grade: B-
It seemed as if Dallas wanted to go back to their old ways of building through the trenches, establishing Zeke, and having Dak play within the system off that. Instead, Jerry Jones is putting the ball into his $160 million quarterback’s arm and letting him go full throttle with a stacked receiving core. Defensively, the Cowboys are going to rely on Dan Quinn’s experience building and developing young players in order to make significant strides during the 2021 season.
Overall Offseason Grade: B–
Mandatory Credit: USA TODAY SPORTS