According to draft experts, the initial indications are that the Cowboys have secured a top 10 2020 draft class. So what have they added? Ross Waddell (@RossWaddell92) takes a look.
The NFL draft brings new hope and new stories to the NFL. It’s a time when the vast majority of fans begin to forget the traumas of the previous season and are filled with optimism that this year might finally be their year.
The Dallas Cowboys have come out of the draft with a highly rated rookie pool headlined by first round pick WR CeeDee Lamb and second round CB Trevon Diggs.
In a strong wide receiver class, they added a universally regarded top three wide out in Oklahoma star CeeDee Lamb to add to the new $100m man, Amari Cooper, and ascending third year wideout, Michael Gallup, who arguably still went under the radar on the national level despite a breakout sophomore season recording over 1,100 yards despite missing two games due to injury in the early portion of the season. By owner Jerry Jones’ own admission, they never expected the Oklahoma wide receiver to be available at pick #17 and the Cowboys had been, realistically, focusing their attention on LSU DE K’Lavon Chaisson, a talented but raw pass rusher, and corners AJ Terrell and, at one time, CJ Henderson.
The addition of Lamb gives fifth year QB Dak Prescott another target which should prove only beneficial to him in his quest for a new deal. He is presently scheduled to play under the franchise tag if a long term deal cannot be agreed prior to the season with discussions believed to be stuck on the issue of length of contract with Prescott preferring a four year deal and the Cowboys a five year term.
The addition of Lamb is a valuable addition to an already explosive offence that only really lost WR Randall Cobb (Texans) and Travis Frederick. Lamb can play both in the slot and as an outside receiver according the Cowboys additional flexibility when lining up in three WR personnel. Cooper struggled down the stretch last season so being able to move him into the slot at times whilst not compromising your outside options could add another wrinkle to the offence.
Furthermore, the departure of Jason Garrett and the majority of his staff appears to have resulted in a departure from some of the old systems that have flawed the Cowboys for the last 4-5 years (predictable and defensive play calling, over reliance on some players). With Garrett gone, future-HOF TE Jason Witten has departed for Las Vegas and his successor, Blake Jarwin, has replaced him fresh off a new contract. Whilst he will be in the Hall of Fame one day, Witten’s departure only adds more speed and versatility to this passing attack. Behind Jarwin, the Cowboys have Blake Bell and Dalton Schultz, neither of whom have any significant pass catching experience. The Cowboys used to love running out of a three tight end heavy set, but the early indications are that they’re going to use a more spread offence incorporating their star wide receiver corps and star RB, Ezekiel Elliott. Too often opposing defences have set out to “stack the box” and prevent the Cowboys running. With arguably the top WR trio in the league, expect to see Zeke running wild in some games this season. Tony Pollard, Elliott’s understudy, had some bright moments both as a runner and a receiver out of the backfield last season. Look for him to step up again this season in a more creative offence called by OC Kellen Moore under the direction of new HC, Mike McCarthy.
The only obvious potential areas of weakness for the Cowboys offensively are the unproven TE spot and, potentially, on the offensive line, which is remarkable to say given the reputation they had 3-4 seasons ago. It’s indisputable that LT Tyron Smith is in some form of decline, regularly impeded by injuries missing games in each of the last 4 seasons, and the retirement of Travis Frederick leaves a large hole in the centre of the line. Joe Looney, the veteran C/G who ably filled in for Frederick in the 2018 season, could well be the week one starter but keep an eye on rookie C, Tyler Biadasz, picked with the last pick of the fourth round (in a trade with the Eagles of all teams) and aiming to succeed his fellow Wisconsin alum, Frederick, as the pivot of America’s team. PFF graded Biadasz as their #87 best player overall in the draft whilst The Athletic’s Dane Brugler considered him to be “fundamentally sound” and able to compete for a starting job.
The Cowboys also have an issue at left guard with Connor Williams, the 2018 second round pick, having been fairly average at LG and now coming off an ACL tear. There is some speculation about Williams reverting to the swing tackle role to replace the departed Cam Fleming. Williams was, of course, a highly regarded LT at the University of Texas but converted to guard with the Cowboys due to being slightly short-armed for an NFL tackle. If he remains at guard, Williams will be in competition with second year man, Connor McGovern, who missed his rookie season due to a pectoral injury and who is expected to compete for roles at both LG and C. The Cowboys have, over the years, sunk a lot of resources into their offensive line with the headlines, of course, falling on perennial Pro Bowlers Zack Martin, Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick, but sneakily you could argue that their selections outside of that trio and RT La’el Collins have been mixed. Think Chaz Green… third round pick in 2015, who is probably still having nightmares about Adrian Clayborn in Atlanta.
All of this sets up favourably for Dak Prescott and serious questions will be asked by the deliberately provocative national media about his pedigree if he continues to have spells of the season where he struggles connect with his receivers. seventh round pick out of James Madison University, Ben DiNucci, will duke it out with fourth year QB, Cooper Rush, to be Dallas’ backup.
Ezekiel Elliott is also due for a bounce back season having underwhelmed in the early part of 2019 before coming on later in the season. To the writer, he certainly looks a little heavier than he did in his awe-inspiring rookie season and his performances off a full training camp will be noteworthy when the time comes. The tale of Todd Gurley’s divorce from that Rams should serve as a warning to Zeke if his level drops in the next season or two, albeit Gurley’s decline is presumably due to his degenerative knee condition.
On defence, there have been wholesale changes with the defence now headed up by the experienced DC, Mike Nolan. By all accounts, the defence in 2019 was riddled with tensions between coaches and players and which led to a marked decline from their previous season’s performances. There are, in short, questions at every level of this defence. Key starters from last season in shutdown CB Byron Jones and edge Robert Quinn have departed for big money deals with the Dolphins and Bears respectively. In addition, they’ve lost starting DT Maliek Collins and S Jeff Heath to the Raiders.
The Cowboys have taken a dual-pronged attack to rectifying their defence adding big body DTs Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe, both from the Panthers, and S HaHa Clinton-Dix (Bears). These moves already represent a significant departure from the old regime which did not favour big bodies up front or any expenditure on players to patrol the defensive backfield.
In the draft, the Cowboys added the talented, yet raw, CB Trevon Diggs, brother of new Bills’ WR Stefon Diggs – he of the “Minneapolis Miracle” a few years ago. Diggs projects to eventually replace Jones as the Cowboys’ new lockdown CB but he has a steep learning curve being relatively new to the position having initially started off life at Alabama as a WR. In addition, the Cowboys added fourth round CB Reggie Robinson, an ascending talent out of Tulsa, replicating the double-dip at CB that they initially tried in 2017 when they took Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis in the second and third rounds, both of whom will likely be starters entering contract years. It seems unlikely that either will be back next season. In addition, the Cowboys wisely brought back CB Anthony Brown, a member of the excellent 2016 draft class that brought Elliott and Prescott to Dallas, for additional corner back depth whilst CJ Goodwin will look to continue his role as a Special Teams ace. Takeaways are a key focus of this defence. Diggs and Robinson combined for seven interceptions last season – the Cowboys as a whole only just matched that.
Interestingly and perhaps inevitably, the Cowboys passed on drafting a safety meaning that their depth consists of fourth year S, Xavier Woods, Clinton-Dix, second year Donovan Wilson and former thuird round pick by the Giants, Darian Thompson. In truth, once Lamb was available in the first round, the Cowboys had little to no chance of landing a top-class safety in the second or third rounds at their spots. Utah S Terrell Burgess was available at pick 82 but with the Cowboys having a highly graded defensive lineman available (whom they considered at #51), it always felt likely that they would go in that direction. Having previously been strongly linked with Jets’ S, Jamal Adams, it will be interesting to watch whether the Cowboys look at picking up another safety before or during the season. That may be the biggest question mark facing the Cowboys’ D this offseason.
At linebacker, on the face of it, the Cowboys have some good depth with Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith the projected starters, ably supported by Sean Lee and Joe Thomas. The Cowboys thought highly of undrafted rookie LB, Luke Gifford last year. The Cowboys seem well-set but it’ll be interesting to see how Gifford’s progress continues this offseason. The concern that you have with the Cowboys’ linebackers is their ability in coverage, particularly if Vander Esch’s recovery from a neck stinger is protracted or he suffers a recurrence. Despite his Pro Bowl-nod, Jaylon Smith struggled at times last season, mainly out in coverage. To get the most out of Smith, the writer expects to see him used more north-south and eliminating some of the coverage requirements imposed on him previously. The defence is expected to incorporate more hybrid schemes so expect to see 4-3 and 3-4 fronts, both utilising blitzers.
Turning to the defensive line, the selection of DT Trysten Hill in the second round of the 2019 draft was, frankly, terrible relative to the production you would expect from a top-60 pick. The additions of McCoy and 2020 third round pick, Neville Gallimore, combined with the return of long-time DT/DE Tyrone Crawford makes Hill’s position as a 3-technique precarious, particularly considering that the advocate for his selection, Rod Marinelli, is now out in Las Vegas. Much like they tried last year with Taco Charlton, the wasted 2017 first round pick, the Cowboys may look to flip Hill for a late round pick near the end of training camp if he doesn’t impress. The Cowboys look loaded at defensive tackle. At times last season, you could see the edge rushers absolutely explode around the corner only for the QB to step up into the pocket due to the lack of penetration created through the middle. The Cowboys are looking for new ways to create pressure so expect to see pass rush from the defensive tackle spots and the introduction of a DPR – designated pass rusher – which could be Jayson Smith on occasion.
At the edge rusher position, the Cowboys were disappointed to lose Robert Quinn having hoped to retain him before his big money move to Chicago. In his stead, they have signed Aldon Smith – the very definition of a low risk, high reward signing. At his best, Smith was on track for a Hall of Fame career but he hasn’t taken a snap in almost five years having been troubled with alcohol addiction issues. Per Jay Glazer of Fox, Smith has turned his life around and the Cowboys hope to see him and Randy Gregory, another previously troubled pass rusher, wreaking havoc opposite star rusher, DeMarcus Lawrence. If Smith comes good, this pass rush could be lethal. If it doesn’t work out, the Cowboys only have minimal exposure. To supplement those names, look for fifth round pick, Bradlee Anae, from Utah who racked up 30 sacks in three seasons, yet fell to the end of the fifth round due to a poor Combine performance but was broadly graded a top-100 talent in the draft. Daniel Jeremiah of NFL Network has him rated as the best value pick of the fifth round. During the Draft weekend, the writer thought that, if the Cowboys did not address their edge position, they might take a flyer on a one year, prove it deal for former Vikings’ DE, Everson Griffen or another veteran at that spot, but with Anae joining fellow backup DEs, Dorance Armstrong, Joe Jackson, and Joe Jelks, in proving some low cost pass rush help, a deal for Griffen does not seem likely.
As far as the specialists go, LP Ladouceur will be back as the long snapper although the Cowboys will likely add a camp arm to split the load. The Cowboys have a genuine kicker battle between Greg Zuerlein and Kai Forbath. “Greg the Leg” is the early favourite with his extensive past experience with new ST co-ordinator, John Fassel at the Rams, but don’t discount Forbath who kicked very well after joining late in the season to replace the big-legged, but wildly inconsistent, Brett Maher. The Cowboys had a frankly abysmal season on special teams last year. Expect an improvement this season under Fassel’s guidance. The Cowboys are likely to bring in an extra punter to compete with long-time P Chris Jones who had a down year last season.
The Cowboys’ roster looks even more potent on offense, notwithstanding the retirement of Frederick, and they will almost certainly be better on special teams. The defence will be an interesting watch with fresh talent added through the draft and an undrafted rookie class containing some intriguing names like edge rushers, Azul Kamara and Ron’Dell Carter.
There’s the possibility of a protracted or delayed training camp due to the global pandemic. It will be interesting to see how quickly Nolan’s defence can get up to speed and whether, if reps are limited, any undrafted free agents can crack the roster. That old phrase of “iron sharpens iron” will hopefully come true of this defence regularly competing in practice against what should be a top five offence. The indications from the Cowboys’ new staff is that they are targeting turnovers, which is something that they have simply not been able to generate regularly for the past few seasons. The previous regime had that horribly outdated philosophy of “bend don’t break”. If they can create turnovers and give the offence some short-field situations, the Cowboys have the potential to be a force to be reckoned with.
Dak Prescott is a good NFL quarterback – the writer would suggest he’s a top eight QB coming off a career year. But the fact remains that he has only won one playoff game. His contemporaries, Carson Wentz and Jared Goff of the Eagles and Rams respectively, have both been to (or been instrumental in runs to) Super Bowls. Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson of subsequent drafts are both league MVPs and, in Mahomes’ case, a Super Bowl Champion. Wentz and Goff have already been paid. Mahomes, Jackson and Deshaun Watson of the Texans will soon be looking to reset the market and be paid top money. If Dak wants to justify his position as a top 5 paid QB in the league (he should reset the market before Patrick Mahomes next year), he will need another excellent year and, hopefully, an appearance in the Super Bowl in a competitive NFC this year.
The Cowboys fans are excited with momentum growing so far behind a team after an off-season of positive change. By the end of his tenure, Jason Garrett had become a punching bag for fans, blamed for any and every little mistake. His level-headed demeanour probably did him no favours with a fan base that delights in riding a rollercoaster of emotion. Mike McCarthy brings new ideas and a Super Bowl winning pedigree. With those new ideas and new staff, the Cowboys have already shown an ability to change from the ingrained habits and mistakes of the previous regime. Whether that newfound positivity rolls over into the new season remains to be seen, but the Cowboys should be targeting a division title and a playoff run providing they can stay healthy and eliminate some of the errors of recent years.