Behind Enemy Lines 2022: NFC East Offseason Review – Dallas Cowboys
To quote Florence and the Machine, “The dog days are over!”
NFL training camps have kicked off across the nation, and with that comes my yearly escapade of crossing enemy lines to gather vital intel on the NFC East.
It’s a well-known stat that no team has repeated as NFC East champions since the Eagles in 2003 and 2004. Let’s begin our espionage campaign with the team most likely not to win the division despite being favored at +135, last year’s champions, the Dallas Cowboys.
Jerry Jones and his cronies hit the jackpot with the Micah Parsons selection in the 2021 NFL Draft. According to PFF, the unanimous Defensive Rookie of the Year racked up an 88.7 defensive grade (the highest amongst all linebackers), a 93.0 pass-rush grade (best in NFL), and allowed zero touchdowns in 284 pass coverage snaps. As a Penn State alumni, it pains me that the Eagles have to face this wrecking ball for the next decade potentially.
Dallas Cowboys Re-Signings
WR Michael Gallup (26): 5 years, $67.5M
LB Leighton Vander-Esch (26): 1 year, $3.0M
DE Dorance Armstrong (25): 2 years, $13.0M
SS Jayron Kearse (28): 2 years, $10.0M
FS Malik Hooker (26): 2 years, $8.0M
P Bryan Anger (34): 3 years, $9.0M
Dallas Cowboys Departures
WR Amari Cooper (28): Cleveland Browns- traded for a fifth-round and sixth-round draft swaps in 2022
DE Randy Gregory (30): Denver Broncos- 5 years, $70.0M
WR Cedrick Wilson Jr (27): Miami Dolphins- 3 years, $22.8M
OT La’el Collins (29): Cincinnati Bengals- 3 years, $21.0M
OG Connor Williams (25): Miami Dolphins- 2 years, $14.0M
SS Keanu Neal (27): Tampa Bay Bucs- 1 year, $1.272M
FS Damontae Kazee (29): Pittsburgh Steelers- 1 year, $1.875M
K Greg Zuerlein (25): New York Jets- 1 year, $1.275M
Dallas Cowboys Free Agent Signings
WR James Washington (26): 1 year, $1.187M – Pittsburgh Steelers
DE Dante Fowler Jr (28): 1 year, $3.0M – Atlanta Falcons
Dallas Cowboys 2022 Draft Class
Rd.1 (#24) OL Tyler Smith, Tulsa
Rd.2 (#56) DE Sam Williams, Ole Miss
Rd. 3 (#88) WR Jalen Tolbert, South Alabama
Rd. 4 (#129) TE Jake Ferguson, Wisconsin
Rd. 5 (#155) OT Matt Waletzko, North Dakota St.
Dallas’ skill players are in the hands of young talent and a regressing star
The 2020 Amari Cooper five-year, $100M deal proved to be too much for the Cowboys to handle with their franchise quarterback due his own payday. Jerry Jones is still on the hook for $6M in dead cap paid for Cooper to play for the Browns, but the impact of Dak losing his security blanket overshadows the money talk. And let’s not forget the fact that Prescott completely choked against the 49ers in the playoffs last season with CeeDee Lamb catching one pass for 21 yards.
Last season, Lamb and Amari Cooper had similar catch percentages with CeeDee at 68.1% and Amari at 68.7%. But where they differ is Cooper’s magnet-like hands and his ability to make plays on the ball in tight coverage.
The second-year wideout out of Oklahoma’s drop problems continued with seven last season, upping his NFL drop total to 16, as well as six interceptions when targeted. Amari has six drops over Lamb’s entire career with only four interceptions when targeted. It’s safe to say Dak will be missing a reliable target and that a lot the pressure will be on the man who chose to wear the Dallas Cowboys’ “illustrious” #88 jersey.
After signing his new contract, 26-year-old Michael Gallup seems primed to fill that Amari Cooper sure-handed, contested catch role, but will begin training camp on the PUP list after undergoing knee surgery. Gallup will probably miss the first few weeks of the 2022 season but should become a focal point of Dallas’ passing attack once he returns.
Lastly for wideouts, Dallas signed former Steeler James Washington to become their new slot weapon. Pittsburgh has a knack for developing great receivers, but Washington did not quite live up to his 2019 campaign. However, a fresh start for the five-year veteran could be a good thing as he has fewer drops in his four seasons (12) than CeeDee Lamb does in his first two (16).
Ezekiel Elliott has been in decline for years now. It could be attributed to the wear-and-tear a physical back like Zeke takes or the demise of a once top-tier offensive line. I lean towards the latter. Either way, the former 2018 NFL rushing leader has not seen the same form since, and the yearly sentiment that he could return to his 2018 self is staler than one-day-old farmer’s market bread.
However, Tony Pollard blossomed into a two-dimensional back and played lights out with limited touches because of Zeke’s required workload. In his three seasons since 2019, the former Memphis Tiger averages 5.1 yards per carry on 317 attempts. Zeke averages 3.6 yards per carry on 918 attempts since 2019.
QB and Weapons Grade: B–
Dallas’ offensive line continues to weaken while Micah Parsons shines for the defense
It’s a tale as old as time. A historic empire rises to power only to fall into a shell of itself. That is the story of Dallas Cowboys’ offensive line, a once dominant unit that now finds itself with more questions than answers entering 2022.
Left tackle Tyron Smith is back for his 12th campaign but has not played a full 16-game season (now 17) since 2015 due to a slew of injuries. On that same note, right guard Zack Martin enters his ninth season, and the 7-time Pro Bowler has dealt with his share of injuries. He battled a hyperextended knee in 2018, followed by back issues in 2019, and then a concussion and calf injury in 2020. Two of Dallas’ major stars on their line are total question marks regarding their health and availability throughout the season.
Furthermore, Dallas’ 1st-round draft pick, Tyler Smith out of Tulsa, played exclusively left tackle for the Golden Hurricane and is now asked to anchor the left guard position in his first year in the NFL. Second-year center, Tyler Biadasz, has not given Dallas’s front office too much confidence in his first two seasons. The former Wisconsin Badger finished 11th on the team in terms of PFF run blocking (68.7) and 12th in pass blocking (69.3), allowing the 3rd most pressures on the team with 22.
With the departure of La’el Collins, Terence Steele becomes the full-time starter at right tackle after allowing 11 sacks and 58 QB hurries in his first two seasons. He ranks just below Biadasz in terms of run blocking last season (67.8 PFF Grade) but finished 22nd with an awful 60.9 pass blocking grade. Steele gave up the most pressures on the team (31) despite only playing 528 pass-block snaps.
The Dallas Cowboys’ botched draft picks and prioritizing offensive weapons over their line has affected Ezekiel Elliott’s performance and is another reason he won’t return to form this season.
Micah Parsons holds down the Dallas Cowboys’ front seven. As a biased Penn Stater, he has all the tools to be a generational player and one of those guys teams need to key on every single play. Besides Demarcus Lawrence, the rest of the defensive line is extremely mediocre with Randy Gregory heading to Denver and the rest of the unit either inexperienced or not an imposing threat at this point in their careers.
The interior of their line is filled with young talent hoping to break out this season. The stalwarts remain Carlos Watkins, an undrafted free agent out of Clemson who signed with Dallas in 2021, Neville Gallimore, a 2020 3rd round pick, and Osa Odighizuwa, another 3rd rounder in 2021.
Gallimore plays more of a nose tackle technique but an elbow injury in the preseason limited him to just five games in 2021. This allowed for Osa Odighizuwa to start in his stead and Dallas is high on his potential as a full-time starter heading into this year. Returning later in the season, Gallimore excelled as one of Dallas’ most disruptive interior lineman. The addition of Dante Fowler Jr adds another element to their pass rush flexibility, but Micah Parsons is the only reason the Dallas Cowboys trench grade is not way lower than it is, and he’s technically a linebacker.
Trench Grade: C+
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What can Dan Quinn do with a subpar mix of linebackers and defensive backs?
Young phenom Micah Parsons also is a part of the linebackers section of Behind Enemy Lines, so read directly above for my thoughts on him. In short, he’s elite and upgrades any unit he is on.
Dallas decided to bring back Leighton Vander Esch on a one-year rental deal. The “Wolf Hunter” has aged as poorly as that nickname. LVE’s decline reminds me of Bryan Cushing’s, minus the steroids, so it’s happening a lot faster in only his fifth year.
The rest of their linebacking core is below average, with Jabril Cox, a late-round slide in the 2021 draft, trying to rebound from a torn ACL. He’ll most likely be in on passing downs while “The Wolf Hunter” plays early down situations. Essentially, Micah Parsons will have to carry the front seven of this defense by himself with the help of 30-year old Demarcus Lawrence.
Jerry Jones hired one of the masterminds of the Legion of Boom, Dan Quinn, to help his downtrodden secondary. Quinn preaches turnovers and an attack mentality on defense as Dallas led the league in interceptions (26) with second-year corner Trevon Diggs, topping the NFL with 11 picks in 2021.
While Trevon Diggs enjoyed success as the league leader in interceptions, he also gave up a 56.4 completion percentage to opposing quarterbacks, allowed a league-high 1,068 receiving yards, and committed 11 penalties in coverage. Still, those 11 interceptions to go along with 11 forced incompletions and nine pass breakups is not something to scoff at. He is a true All-Pro corner but needs to work on his scheme discipline in order to reach that level of a true lockdown defender.
That’s the thing with Trevon Diggs and why people don’t understand why he grades so lowly. He has elite ball skills and is terrific at jumping out of his zone to make plays for interceptions or pass breakups. But that comes at the expense of not playing into the scheme and allowing big plays. Dallas gave up the third most plays over 40 yards (14) and finished as the 12th worst passing defense giving up 4,346 yards through the air.
Playing opposite Diggs will be Anthony Brown or second-year cornerback Kelvin Joseph. A second-round pick in the 2021 draft, Joseph is raw, having played in only six games his rookie season but faired well in limited snaps. Still, the gauntlet of receivers he will face as teams try to avoid Trevon Diggs may set up the Kentucky product for some trial by fire early in the season.
Meanwhile, Anthony Brown played all 17 games for Dallas with the most coverage snaps on the team, lining up primarily as a wide corner but dabbling in the slot when needed. The seventh-year pro is a crucial component of Dallas’ secondary because of his versatility to fill in for weaknesses wherever they pop up.
As for their nickel corner, Jourdan Lewis has 39 career starts, including 13 last season. He looks like the player on the outside looking in, as Dallas wants to put a primary draft asset on the field, and Anthony Brown is more consistent than Lewis. It will be an exciting battle to see how these three cornerbacks stack up against one another, and how Dan Quinn will use them in his turnover-heavy defensive scheme.
Finally, the safety position for the Dallas Cowboys is an absolute mess of a situation. They brought in the Falcons’ duo of Keanu Neal and Damontae Kazee last season only to have them leave one year later. Neal actually played more of a hybrid linebacker role for Dallas last season (Kam Chancellor role), which is where Jayron Kearse will most likely make his living. Not only did Kearse finish with the highest coverage grade amongst all Dallas’ defensive backs (75.5) but is stout against the run.
Former first-round pick, Malik Hooker, is also firmly in the mix to become a starter. He also could run that hybrid linebacker role with Kearse while Jourdan Lewis moves to safety.
Hooker had a decent season with fewer coverage snaps, only allowing 7.3 yards per reception with two interceptions, two pass breakups, and three touchdowns. But Hooker’s game is more primed for that “Kam Chancellor role” in Dan Quinn’s defnse, given his willingness to take on blocks in the run game and his overall physicality playing in the box.
The last player vying for a starting job is Donovan Wilson, who has not exactly turned heads since being drafted in 2019. He’s never graded over 70.5 in coverage and allows 12.3 yards per reception and three touchdowns to two interceptions.