A Sophomore Slump Isn’t Inevitable
With everyone’s eyes on Ezekiel Elliott, the Cowboys are the talk of the NFL right now. But for the wrong reason. Now that he’s likely to play the full season, they’ll be talking about the Cowboys at the end of the season- but for the right reason. As the Cowboys head into this season, they turn their focus toward repeating as NFC East champions, and as the one seed in the NFC. But the goal isn’t the same. It’s to make it a step further. To avoid a miraculous Aaron Rodgers throw. And most importantly, to avoid another early playoff loss. Dallas may not be able to repeat last season’s regular season record, but they’re in the same position, and they have the talent to compete with the NFL’s best. So forget about a sophomore slump. But don’t forget you’re watching the beginning of a new era in Dallas.
Key Off-season Losses
CBs Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne: Two of the Cowboys main contributors on the outside left for the AFC this offseason, as Carr went to the Ravens and Claiborne went to the Jets. Neither cornerback was a standout for Dallas, but their departures left Dallas without depth in the secondary, and created a need for cornerbacks in the draft and free agency. Luckily, Dallas wasn’t dependent on their playmaking skills, as each had only one interception last season. Losing two starters at cornerback is never easy, but the two are replaceable, considering Dallas was 26th last season in passing yards allowed per game.
SS J.J. Wilcox and Barry Church: In free agency, JJ Wilcox went to Tampa Bay this offseason and Barry Church went to Jacksonville. This rounded out the key losses in the secondary for Dallas, as they were left with few cornerbacks and safeties. Church led the team with two interceptions last season, but neither is as valuable as Byron Jones, arguably the most versatile defender on the Cowboys; because of how they stack up against other Dallas defenders, the two are replaceable. Church spent part of his offseason badmouthing Dallas, claiming the Jaguars have more talent than the Cowboys. I’ll believe it when Jacksonville wins more than 5 games, something they haven’t done since 2010.
OLs Doug Free and Ronald Leary: Dallas suffered a few hits this offseason, losing multiple players at the same position. Luckily, Dallas can easily re-group from the offensive line changes. Free retired this offseason after starting all 16 games last season at tackle, wrapping up season number ten in the NFL. Leary, on the other hand, went to Denver this offseason after starting 12 games at guard. This group still has Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, Travis Frederick , and now a healthy La’el Collins. The offensive line is the last of the Cowboys worries.
Key Offseason Additions
CB Nolan Carroll: The Cowboys didn’t go out of the NFC East to make this addition, as they needed cornerback depth. Coming through free agency, Carroll helps add depth to a secondary that needed to replace four contributors. Carroll wasn’t great in Philadelphia, but the Cowboys saw his improvement last season and needed some consistency on the outside. Carroll defended ten passes last season and added one interception. He won’t stand out in the Cowboys defensive unit, but he’ll give defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli some help.
G Jonathan Cooper: Dallas lost two starters from the offensive line last season, but found enough bodies to re-shape arguably the best line in football. La’el Collins came back healthy and is taking the RT spot, leaving only the LG up for grabs. Cooper was the favorite to win the job in the preseason, and has seemed to do enough to get the start Week 1. Cooper is a great find for Dallas as he fills the remaining hole on the line, but his inconsistency may lead to Chaz Green or someone else getting snaps at that position over the course of the season. No matter who gets the start Week 1, Green’s injury past and Cooper’s experience might give him some favor down the line, even if Green plays the majority of Week 1.
DE Taco Charlton: Dallas’ number one weakness last year- and possibly this year too- was the pass rush. Dallas addressed that need in the first round of the draft, taking Charlton to help get speed off the edge. They’re being patient with him, but expect him to blossom into an every down rusher. Dallas is expecting Tyrone Crawford back from injury before Week 1, so they should have everybody ready to go on the defensive line this season once David Irving (4 games) and Damontra Moore (2 games) come back from suspension. Charlton isn’t likely to dominate opposing offensive lines, but he’s a great addition in the rotation of defensive lineman in Dallas. And he’s a hopeful project for the future.
Other Additions: S Robert Blanton (FA), CBs Chidobe Awuzie (Round 2) Jordan Lewis (Round 3), S Xavier Woods (Round 6), WR Ryan Switzer (Round 4), QB Cooper Rush (undrafted)
Offensive Line: Dallas has the same strength they’ve had the past few years: the offensive line. Losing two starters is never easy, but La’el Collins returns from injury- and would’ve likely been a starter last year- and Chaz Green and Jonathan Cooper have both been good enough to fill in the final guard spot. With Ezekiel Elliot likely to play the season, and two 1000 yard rushers behind him on the depth chart, this line will be able to produce another great rushing season. And while the run blocking is spectacular, the pass blocking its job too, allowing minimal pressures on Prescott. The Dallas backfield will yet again stay clean.
Linebackers: This might be more of a prediction, but Dallas has a shot at having a great linebacker rotation. With Pro Bowler Sean Lee anchoring the defense, Dallas has consistency and production. Justin Durant is familiar with the system, and Jaylon Smith is back and ready to play. He might face a snap count early in the season, but Dallas may have found a second round gem in Smith if he returns to his prime form from Notre Dame. Once Anthony Hitchens comes back from injury, Dallas could have a defense that yet again over-performs, and it’ll be led by its linebackers.
Running Back: They have three backs who have ran for a thousand yards. Enough said.
Pass Rush: Dallas has never been atrocious at stopping the run, but they always rank toward the bottom of the league in passing defense. The cornerbacks might be a problem, but so is the pass rush. Dallas has a number of defensive lineman, all who will be rotational players, at least at the beginning of the season. Dallas addressed that need in the draft, but more importantly, they’ll need to prove it on the field. If the Cowboys can get to the quarterback more often, the season will look much better, as other teams won’t be able to throw for 300+ yards each week. But the pass rush is still a glaring weakness on a defense that hasn’t been spectacular.
Cornerbacks: Notice the trend of weaknesses on defense. Dallas has plenty of cover corners, yet none stand out. Scandrick may be the most consistent, but is more of a slot corner, so the outside coverage is still shaky. Bringing in Norman Carroll and drafting more bodies at the position won’t necessarily help, but it won’t hurt. It’ll be tough to sit through another season of bad pass defense, but it’s more likely than not. With more bodies, but less experience, the Dallas secondary will have an interesting look in the beginning of the season.
The Cowboys play a first place schedule (Seahawks, Packers, and Falcons), the AFC West (Broncos, Raiders, Chargers, Chiefs), and then have to tackle their own division, one looking like it could have two, or maybe three playoff teams. This is not an easy schedule, but Dallas will likely hold up well. They won’t repeat last season’s record, but they won’t come up too short either. Dallas will likely finish around the 9-7 range, and potentially could miss the playoffs. They have few easy games this season, but don’t count out a strong record and another division title.