The Update: Dallas Cowboys 2017 Preview

Justis Mosqueda

In an effort to break the two-paragraph preview trend of national writers, Setting the Edge has dedicated themselves to previewing all 32 teams in the NFL in a series called “The Update” which will focus on 1) where a team stands from a decision-maker standpoint, 2) where teams were efficient and inefficient last year by using percentile radar charts, 3) who the moving parts between the 2016 and 2017 seasons were and 4) where a team is trending heading into the 2017 regular season. Justis Mosqueda will be writing the team previews while Charles McDonald posts film breakdowns based on the writing. After posts on entire divisions are finished, they will discuss teams on division-specific Setting the Edge podcasts which you can find on SoundCloud and iTunes. Five stars only. Tell a friend.

No one will argue that the Dallas Cowboys have one of the best young offenses in the league. Seemingly overnight, the Cowboys turned the keys over to 23-year-old quarterback Dak Prescott and 21-year-old Ezekiel Elliott. In the regular season, the 2016 Cowboys recorded 982 passes and carries. 838 of those came via Prescott or Elliott.

With over 85% of the team’s overall offensive touches, the offense quite literally ran through the pair of rookies, whose first NFL contracts are locked in until the 2020 offseason. They are also playing behind a line comprised of young stars like left tackle Tyron Smith, guard Zack Martin, center Travis Frederick and guard-right tackle La’El Collins, who are between the ages of 23 and 26. This offense will run itself for the next four years, if they can keep everyone on the roster and healthy.

In the short-team, there are some questions. Prescott had an amazing season for a rookie, but there are still people who question what his upside will be in the NFL. Personally, I was impressed by his ability to run the Dallas offense, especially handling calls in empty formations, as a rookie thrusted into a starting role.

Another aspect that might make you second-guess the 2017 Cowboys is how many “mid-level” free agents left the squad. Overall, Dallas lost six free agents who signed on with new teams this offseason and had an average salary of at least $3 million per season. The only team that can beat that mark is the Green Bay Packers. That also doesn’t count the loss of right tackle Doug Free, who retired. The Cowboys also only signed one free agent that has an average salary of at least $3 million this offseason.

Lastly, they were a lucky team last season. As we mentioned in the Miami Dolphins preview, only 10 non-Indianapolis Colts teams from 2006 through 2015, out of 304 total season, recorded more than two wins over .500 in games decided by just a single score. Only 3.3% of teams qualify for that level of an outlier season, and all 10 of those teams regressed in record the next season, with the average hovering around four to five games.

Close games are a coin flip, not a sustainable trait. Only 15 teams from 2006 to 2015 were two games under .500 in single-score games. All 15 had a better record the next season, by about a four game average. Do you see the trend here? When you win a lot of close games one year, you fall back down to Earth. When you lose a lot of close games one year, you regress back up to the mean.

The Cowboys were 7-2 in close games last season, 2.5 games over .500 in one-score games. On paper, their 13-3 season likely would have landed them 10 or 11 wins last season. Is it that big of a deal? Not for their 2016 season, but the compounding of:

  1. Historical trends of teams with that background posting a worse record the follow year
  2. The amount of veteran depth that left the team
  3. The fact that they’re going to lean so much on a Day 3 second-year quarterback
  4. They play in a very deep NFC East

Makes you second-guess the playoff chances of the team, even if their long-term outlook is great. There’s just a lot of moving parts right now. Right now, Dallas’ over/under, according to Vegas Insider, is 9.5 wins in 2017. That record would have 1) missed the playoffs in the AFC in any division other than the AFC South and 2) would have had the Cowboys battling for the sixth seed in the playoffs in the NFC. Again, no one is claiming that the long-term trajectory of the team is misguided, but historical trends and Vegas align here, and Vegas doesn’t constantly build new casinos because they lose money on their sports books.

Offense:

Backs: The quarterback situation in Dallas is simple: Prescott is their franchise passer. The team had the opportunity to flip from Prescott back to Tony Romo last season and this offseason, and they chose to ride with Prescott. At this point, we should just assume that the Mississippi State alumn is going to be a two-contract starter with the Cowboys.

Dez Bryant was Prescott’s only nationally recognized pass-catcher on the team last year, and he only recorded two or more receptions in nine games last season. Still, the Cowboys finished 4th in interception percentage, 6th in completion percentage, 10th in yards per completion and 14th in sack percentage in 2016. Kellen Moore may not be an ideal backup passer, but the team is in the right hands, in terms of their starting quarterback.

Running back is another clear projection into 2017. Only four players, Elliott (332 carries, 5.1 yards per carry), Alfred Morris (69 carries, 3.5 yards per carry), Prescott (57 carries, 4.9 yards per carry) and Darren McFadden (24 carries, 3.6 yards per carry), recorded more than 10 carries last season. All of those players return. There was no significant addition to the backfield this season.

Assume that Prescott and Elliott influence the ball in about 80% of the Cowboys’ plays this season, while Moore, Morris and McFadden play reserve roles. This is going to be the status quo for a long while in Dallas.

The team was 1st in run percentage, 3rd in yards per carry, 5th in TFL percentage and 22nd in fumble percentage last year. When they aren’t turning the ball over, their ground game is easily elite.

Pass-Catchers: Five players recorded 20 or more receptions last season for the Cowboys: receiver Cole Beasley (75 receptions, 11.1 yards per reception), tight end Jason Witten (69 receptions, 9.8 yards per reception), Bryant (50 receptions, 15.9 yards per reception), Terrance Williams (44 receptions, 13.5 yards per reception) and Elliott (32 receptions, 11.3 yards per reception). All of those players return in 2017. This is another easy projection on the offensive side of the ball.

Bryant and Williams will likely play outside receiver, with Beasley and 2017 fourth-round pick Ryan Switzer splitting time at slot receiver and Witten continuing his run at tight end. The team was 10th in yards per completion last season, and a potential 16-game stretch from a fully-healthy Bryant could push that number even higher.

There’s some question as to how you get the most out of Beasley, Switzer, Witten and Elliott on passing downs. They’ve all been invested in by the team, but only three of them should see the field at a time, unless Beasley or Switzer takes over at outside receiver. If they do, that means that Williams’ recently-signed four-year, $17 million contract will be what’s on the bench. There’s certainly enough assets being spent on the passing game to warrant success there.

Linemen: As we mentioned earlier, Smith, Collins, Frederick and Martin are some of the best young linemen in the league, and they all appear to be in the long-term plans of the Cowboys. The squad lost Free to retirement this offseason, but Collins could make the transition from guard to tackle, where he played in college, this year.

That opens up a space at guard. The Denver Broncos signed guard Ron Leary to a four-year, $36 million deal this offseason, which hurt Dallas a bit there. Other than the four clear-cut starters, the only Cowboys linemen returning with any experience are Joe Looney, Chaz Green and Emmett Cleary. According to Football Outsiders, they recorded just 382 combined snaps last year, while the Cowboys finished 5th in TFL percentage and 14th in sack percentage.

It’s anyone’s guess for who will fill that last slot in Dallas, or if they will be a functional starter. Either way, with their running game, complementing offensive linemen and Witten, they should be able to disguise an inefficient guard or right tackle pretty easily.

Defense:

Line of Scrimmage: There’s a strong correlation for density-adjusted athletes at pass-rushing positions succeeding in the NFL. There’s also the opposite correlation for poor athletes. That doesn’t bode well for 2017 first-round pick Taco Charlton of Michigan, but defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli forgets more about defensive line play than I will ever know.

Either way, something had to be done about the team’s 19th-ranked sack percentage. Combining a poor pass-rush and a poor secondary is a match made in hell, and Aaron Rodgers slicing and dicing Dallas in Green Bay’s divisional round win last season was what put the dagger in the 2016 Cowboys’ hearts.

Former second-round pick Demarcus Lawerence didn’t look like his 2015 self coming off of a suspension. Former third-round pick Tyrone Crawford hasn’t been successful in his transition from defensive tackle to defensive end. Former undrafted player David Irving was a late-blooming gem last season, but he’s now slated to miss four games in 2017 due to a PED issue. 2016 fourth-round pick Charles Tapper was unable to overcome a back issue and was shelved for his rookie season. Former second-round pick Randy Gregory is now on a year-long suspension after playing in just playing two games last year.

To say that there’s been drama in Dallas at defensive end, even after the Greg Hardy experiment, would be understating the situation. Even if Charlton just simply brings stability to the position, that’s better than what they get on a week-to-week basis from any single individual.

Losing Terrelle McClain on a four-year, $21 million deal to the in-division Washington Redskins should hurt the team at defensive tackle, but a move of Crawford back to tackle could negate that loss. Before kicking out to end, Crawford signed a five-year, $45 million contract with the team. The team thought highly of him there once, and it shouldn’t surprise a soul if he starts 16 games inside.

While the Dallas line didn’t get to the passer often, they were part of team that finished 1st in TFL percentage, 1st in run percentage and 11th in yards per carry last year. Crawford, Cedric ThorntonMaliek Collins and Stephen Paea isn’t a bad rotation at tackle. Thornton is on his second year of a four-year, $17 million contract as a run-stopper, Collins nearly led the Cowboys in sacks as a developmental rookie and Paea was a near Pro Bowler who is now on his fourth team in four years. There’s no promise that any of those defensive tackles are sure things, but Marinelli’s one-gap defense is heavy on penetration, and the functional bodies he has inside means that rest for his fatties is a premium in this scheme.

Backs: Nickel linebackers for the team are going to be Sean Lee and Anthony Hitchens, who finished with 223 combined tackles last year. The big question mark at linebacker is if 2016 second-round pick Jaylon Smith will recover enough from his knee injury to see the field in 2017. He could be a Pro Bowl-type of linebacker, or he could miss his first two seasons in the NFL. I’m not a doctor, nor do I pretend to be one. The team finished 1st in TFL percentage, 1st in run percentage, 8th in fumble percentage and 11th in yards per carry last year without Smith.

Defensive back is where the team lacked the most firepower last year. They were 30th in interception percentage and 31st in completion percentage, despite finishing just 3rd in yards per completion in 2016.

Still, the team also lost four defensive backs who received at least an average salary of $3 million per year on the free agent market: safety Barry Church (four-year, $26 million deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars), cornerback Brandon Carr (four-year, $23.5 million deal with the Baltimore Ravens), safety J.J. Wilcox (two-year, $6.25 million deal with the San Francisco 49ers) and Morris Claiborne (one-year, $5 million deal with the New York Jets). To put that into perspective, only three teams (Arizona, Dallas and Oakland) lost four defenders in free agency worth an average salary of $3 million or more this offseason, and Dallas lost four alone in the defensive back unit.

Say what you want about contracts, but it’s the only way we can measure what NFL franchises think of players without the coach-speak of hot mics diluting their comments. The NFL says that Dallas, despite having a pretty poor secondary last season, lost more depth in the defensive back unit than any other team in the league.

The team’s response this offseason reflects that. They made one major signing this year: bringing in cornerback Nolan Carroll on a three-year, $10 million deal. Carroll was previously a 49er and should compete for playing time alongside 2016 sixth-round pick Anthony Brown, veteran Orlando Scandrick, 2017 second-round pick Chidobe Awuzie of Colorado and 2017 third-round pick Jourdan Lewis of Michigan.

Byron Jones, a former first-round pick, should play a hybrid defensive back role, along with fifth-round pick Xavier Woods of Lousiana Tech. If Woods, Jones and possibly Awuzie stick at safety, with Scandrick, Lewis and potentially Awuzie playing best in the slot, the boundary cornerback depth on the team will look real thin. There’s a lot of moving parts in the back end of the Cowboys’ secondary, but the hope is that the veteran depth they lost this offseason can be replaced by youth and upside of the 2017 team. For what it’s worth, Awuzie’s athletic background is that of a first-round cornerback on the path to a Pro Bowl. I would bet that he’s the top cornerback on the team sooner rather than later.

2017 Prediction: There are some question marks with this Dallas team. Overall depth is the biggest one. This team has a lot going for them in certain units, but it would be a mistake to overlook how much the team lost in free agency, even if none of those players were household names.

Those names were replaced in the defensive back unit with depth, but the successful transitions of quarterbacks, tight ends, bookends and defensive backs seem to be the longest for the college to NFL jump. This is a great team, don’t get me wrong, but a couple of meaningful injuries in the NFC East could be the difference from the team recording another double-digit win season or floating around .500 and just missing the playoffs. Remember, Vegas doesn’t build casinos because their sports books lose money.

Dallas is 1A in the NFC East, with Philadelphia and New York breathing down their neck. From 2014 through 2016, the team has made nine selections in the first 101 picks of the draft. Those names include DeMarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory, Chaz Green, Jaylon Smith and Charles Tapper, who all made little to no influence on the team last season. When those names make up more than half of your team’s experienced top 101 picks on rookie contracts, it’s reasonable to see how a depth issue could pop up.

It’s weird to say that “some things need to start breaking the Cowboys’ way” after they found a possible franchise quarterback with a fourth-round pick, but some things need to start breaking the Cowboys’ way. Valuable contracts mean more than talent in today’s NFL, and top-100 rookie contracts are the lifeblood of franchises. This team is able to keep its stars, but it’s coming at a sacrifice of depth. Their rookie contracts are going to have to shoulder that load or have the blame hung over their heads next offseason. Look at the Jim Harbaugh 49ers if you need further proof that hitting on many rookie contracts is the only way to consistently win at the NFL level.

Video BreakdownQuestions about the Pass Rush by Charles McDonald