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2018 Team Report: Dallas Cowboys

Offensive Philosophy

While offensive coordinator Scott Linehan earned a reputation as a devotee of high-flying passing games, under Jason Garrett in Dallas his offenses have tended to rely much more heavily on the ground game, driven by workhorse Ezekiel Elliott and one of the best (and most expensive) offensive lines in the league. When the team does drop back, it runs a timing-passed passing offense that leaves quarterback Dak Prescott free to scramble if he doesn't like what he sees.

Quarterbacks

Starter: Dak Prescott
Backup(s): Cooper Rush, Mike White [R]

Starting QB: Dak Prescott was a revelation in 2016. The rookie was considered a long-term project by most pundits, but a confluence of circumstances led to his starting for the Cowboys and playing so well, Tony Romo opted to retire and head for the broadcast booth. The former Mississippi State Bulldog showed poise, creativity, and precision on route to a near-MVP season. Prescott's success in 2016 led to enormous expectations in 2017, and both he and the team fell well short of preseason hopes. Every facet of the young quarterback's play deteriorated, including completion rate (from 67.8% to 62.9%), touchdown rate (5.0% to 4.5%), interception rate (0.9% to 2.7%), yards per attempt (8.0 to 6.8) , yards per completion (11.8 to 10.8), yards per game (229 to 208), and sack rate (5.2% to 6.1%). In spite of Prescott's struggles, the team remains committed to him. The team hopes Ezekiel Elliott's presence for a full season combined with an injection of new blood in the receiving corps will enable Prescott to recapture his rookie glory. If not, it'll be a long season in Dallas.

Backup QB: Given Prescott's struggles last year, it would have surprised no one if the Cowboys signed a veteran free agent as a safety valve. Instead, the team drafted longshot rookie Mike White in the later rounds and appears set to let White compete with second-year signal caller Cooper Rush. Both White and Rush are developmental projects; it would be unreasonable to expect either to flourish in Prescott's stead.

Running Backs

Starter: Ezekiel Elliott
Backup(s): Rod Smith, Bo Scarbrough [R], Trey Williams
Fullback(s): Jamize Olawale

Starting RB: Ezekiel Elliott is one of the league's best running backs. Don't let the 2017 soap opera lead you to an alternative conclusion. After leading the league with 322 carries for 1,631 rushing yards as a rookie, Elliott was the talk of the NFL and part of the Cowboys' resurgence (along with fellow rookie Dak Prescott). Unfortunately, Elliott was accused of domestic violence, and the Commissioner's office opted to suspend Elliott despite no formal criminal charges. The back-and-forth legal machinations not only kept Elliott off the field for six games but disrupted the offensive identity of the Cowboys. Elliott ended the season with just 983 rushing yards and seven rushing touchdowns. Fortunately, the distractions are behind him, and Elliott should resume his place among the best at the position. The Cowboys still have one of the league's best run-blocking offensive lines, and Elliott has a rare combination of size, speed, toughness, and vision.

Backup RBs: Dallas' personnel department has inordinately strong faith in the durability of its starters. How else can you explain the depth charts beyond quarterback Dak Prescott and starting tailback Ezekiel Elliott? Rod Smith enters the season as the number two, after spending two seasons behind Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris. Smith flashed in limited duty last season, running 55 times for 232 yards (4.2 per attempt) and four touchdowns. He was stellar as a receiver, too, catching 83% of his targets and averaging more than 10 yards per reception. It's unclear whether the fourth-year pro will get regular work this season, or sit in waiting just in case Elliott gets hurt. Rookie bruiser Bo Scarbrough (6'2", 228 lbs.) is built to take a pounding, but the former Alabama Crimson Tide isn't well rounded enough to be anything more than a part-time contributor. Trey Williams rounds out the depth chart.

Fullback: Jamize Olawale joins the Cowboys after six seasons as Oakland's fullback. The veteran has just 94 career touches, and will serve as a role player in Dallas' jumbo and short-yardage packages.

Wide Receivers

Starters: Allen Hurns, Terrance Williams
Backups: Deonte Thompson, Tavon Austin, Michael Gallup [R], Cole Beasley, Cedrick Wilson [R], Noah Brown, K.D. Cannon, Lance Lenoir

Starting WRs: The Cowboys parted ways with Dez Bryant this offseason, ending an era. While Bryant was elite for a time, his play had fallen off considerably, and his marginal utility no longer justified his high salary. Bryant wasn't elite anymore, but it's unclear whether Dallas did enough to replace him. The Cowboys' receiving corps was a middle-of-the-pack group last year, ranking 14th in receptions, 23rd in receiving yards, 30th in yards per reception, and 16th in touchdowns. In Bryant's stead, the team added Allen Hurns from Jacksonville and drafted promising rookie Michael Gallup. The depth chart is far from solidified, but for now, it looks like Terrance Williams - arguably the worst starting receiver in the NFC - will start alongside Hurns, with reliable slot receiver Cole Beasley playing significant snaps, too. Williams enters his sixth season as a starter but has never caught 60 passes or 900 yards in a season. Last year he failed to find the end zone in spite of playing in all sixteen games. Hurns joins the team after four seasons in Jacksonville. The good news is Hurns has an elite season on his resume. In 2015, he caught 64 passes for 1,031 yards (16.1 per reception) and ten touchdowns. The bad news is Hurns has just 961 yards combined over the last two seasons, as injuries have robbed him of playing time and his explosiveness.

Backup WRs: The Cowboys have a deep receiving corps competing for backup spots. Cole Beasley, as the slot receiver, should be thought of as a starter. Entering his seventh season, Beasley needs to bounce back from a subpar year that saw his catch rate (57%), and yards per reception (8.7) fall to career lows. Rookie Michael Gallup is the most exciting receiver on the roster. The 6'1", 195-pound former Colorado State Ram is a physical receiver capable of coming down with contested catches. Dallas drafted Gallup in the 3rd round of the draft, and he could quickly work his way higher on the depth chart. Veteran free agent Deonte Thompson will compete with Noah Brown, K.D. Cannon, and rookie Cedrick Wilson for the final roster spots. Overpriced veteran Tavon Austin was acquired in a draft-day trade, but he's expected to contribute mainly as a special teamer and on gadget running plays.

Tight Ends

Starters: Rico Gathers
Backups: Dalton Schultz [R], Geoff Swaim, Blake Jarwin

For the first time in 15 years, Jason Witten won't be the Cowboys starting tight end. The future Hall of Famer retired in May to pursue a broadcasting career. Dallas owner Jerry Jones gave Witten his blessing, but that doesn't mean the Cowboys prepared well for his departure. Cowboys fans are hoping to see 3rd year Rico Gathers in the starting lineup because he's the only tight end on the roster with game-breaking athleticism. That might be too much to ask of the 6'8", 275-pounder considering he's never caught a pass in a regular season game. Gathers didn't play college football, but Dallas drafted him because of his rare athleticism and stuck him on the 2016 practice squad. Gathers learned quickly and was dominating early in the 2017 preseason before a bad concussion ended his season. With Witten gone, Gathers gets the opportunity to pick up where he left off twelve months ago. It's a wide-open competition. Rookie Dalton Schultz follows a long line of Stanford tight ends into the NFL, but he needs time to round into NFL form.

Place Kicker

Dan Bailey: Like most of the rest of the Dallas Cowboys offense, 2017 was a disaster for Dan Bailey. He missed four games with a groin injury and made only 15-20 field goal attempts. Even if he had played all 16 games, with his per game scoring rate in 2017, Bailey would have only been the 20th best kicker in the league after being a top 10 scoring kicker in three of the last four years entering 2017. The Cowboys should be better in 2017, so Bailey will be a startable kicker that will come at a discount. He's a good target if you plan on being one of the last teams to select a kicker.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Jourdan Lewis, Rod Smith, Tavon Austin

In 2017, the Dallas Cowboys hyped up rookie Ryan Switzer as the NFL's next big returner. Switzer didn't light the league on fire, but he did handle 95% of the team's returns. This offseason, however, he was traded to the Oakland Raiders, leaving a gaping void on the depth chart. Most competitors for his job on kickoff returns are either new to the role or longshots to make the final roster. Tavon Austin could also figure into this picture after the Cowboys traded for him, but he is more accomplished as a punt returner.

Punt Returners: Cole Beasley, Jourdan Lewis, Tavon Austin

With former return specialist Ryan Switzer now on the Raiders, the 2018 Dallas Cowboys are likely to turn to former punt returner Cole Beasley once again. Beasley has seen his punt return duties reduced in the past as he took on a larger role on offense, but in 2017 recorded his lowest reception and yardage totals since his rookie year in 2012, so his special teams availability shouldn't be an issue. Tavon Austin should also provide some punch here, although his performance and volume as a punt returner took a nosedive in 2017, and he hasn't scored as a punt returner since 2015 after scoring as one in each of his first three seasons.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: LT Tyron Smith, LG Connor Williams [R], C Travis Frederick, RG Zack Martin, RT Lael Collins
Key Backups: Chaz Green, Joe Looney, Marcus Martin, Kadeem Edwards

The Cowboys' offensive line added Connor Williams from Texas in the second round of the NFL draft. Williams is expected to start at left guard, solving a problem from last season. The line is stacked from wall-to-wall with high performers. Right guard Zack Martin was an All-Pro performer while Travis Fredrick made the Pro Bowl. Tyron Smith is one of the few truly elite left tackles. Right tackle Lael Collins has to improve his pass protection but all five starters are maulers in the run game. The Cowboys' offensive line again enters the season as an elite option.

Team Defense

The Cowboys finished 2017 in the middle of the pack in fantasy defense rankings, but they were a low D/ST1 in many scoring systems before Ezekiel Elliott's suspension, thanks in part to the emergence of Demarcus Lawrence on the edge. David Irving provided pass rush help inside, although he has some legal trouble to clear up heading into the season. 2017 first-round pick Taco Charlton and tackle Maliek Collins need to grow in 2018 to help the pass rush. The team should be in great hands at linebacker with the trio of Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith, and 2018 first-round pick Leighton Vander Esch, who will replace Anthony Hitchens after he left for Kansas City in free agency. The secondary should benefit from the addition of former Seahawks defensive coordinator Kris Richard, who will coach the secondary for Dallas. If the Cowboys can keep Elliott on the field, build around Lawrence up front and converted cornerback Byron Jones in the secondary, and harness the athleticism and talent of their linebacker trio, they should get some spot starts in fantasy leagues and maybe even stick on rosters.

Defensive Line

Starters: DE DeMarcus Lawrence, DE Tyrone Crawford, DT Maliek Collins [Inj], DT David Irving
Backups: DE Kony Ealy, DE Charles Tapper, DT Brian Price, DT Lewis Neal, DT Daniel Ross, DT Jihad Ward, DT Richard Ash, DE Taco Charlton, DE Datone Jones, DE Dorance Armstrong [R]

Starting DL: DeMarcus Lawrence, the team's franchise player, has evolved into a disruptive force; he's coming off a 14.5-sack, 4-fumble season. The cupboard is relatively bare beyond Lawrence, as Tyrone Crawford only managed four sacks. No other defensive end played more than 40% of the snaps. David Irving is an effective interior pass rusher, but missed half the 2017 season. Maliek Collins was ineffective as a 16-game starter last year, and has since undergone two foot surgeries that will likely sideline him into the start of the regular season.

Backup DL: Kony Ealy remains effective as a rotational contributor, but is a liability against the run. Taco Charlton hasn't lived up to expectations, and could be pushed by Charles Tapper. The defensive interior depth is problematic. Brian Price, Richard Ash, and Datone Jones all graded out as well below league average.

Linebackers

Starters: SLB Leighton Vander Esch, MLB Jaylon Smith, WLB Sean Lee
Backups: OLB Justin March-Lillard, OLB Damien Wilson, OLB Chris Covington [R], ILB Tre'Von Johnson, ILB Joe Thomas

Starting LBs: Sean Lee remains an impact player on the field, but the 32-year old can't stay healthy. He missed five games a year ago and has never played a full 16-game schedule. Jaylon Smith is an unusual middle linebacker in that he possesses near elite coverage skills, but is ineffective as a run defender. Dallas needs Smith to play better against opposing running backs or the defense won't take a step forward. Rookie Leighton Vander Esch will be given an opportunity to start on the strong side immediately, and scouts compare him to Brian Urlacher.

Backup LBs: The backup linebackers are collectively inexperienced. Tre'Von Johnson was an undrafted free agent last year relegated to the practice squad until a December promotion. Chris Covington is a sixth round rookie. Justin March-Lillard was waived three times in 2017 (by the Chiefs, Seahawks, and Dolphins) before landing in Dallas. Expect Dallas to keep their eye out for veteran linebacker help as the preseason unfolds.

Defensive Backs

Starters: CB Jourdan Lewis, CB Byron Jones, CB Chidobe Awuzie, FS Xavier Woods SS Jeff Heath/Kavon Frazier
Backups: CB Duke Thomas, CB Marquez White, S Jason Thompson, S Jameill Showers, S Marqueston Huff

Starting DBs: With Orlando Scandrick gone, second-year cornerbacks Jourdan Lewis and Chidobe Awuzie are going slated to start, along with Byron Jones moving to the outside. Jones was a safety, but with former Seattle defensive coordinator Kris Richard overseeing the pass defense, Jones is just as good of Lewis played more than 70% of snaps last year and was inconsistent. Awuzie was more effective in coverage, but injuries limited him to 309 snaps. Veteran Anthony Brown will man the slot, but he was exposed badly last year. Brown has a tendency to overpursue, and needs to get smarter about handling double moves. Rumors about Earl Thomas coming over via trade persisted for months, but Seattle and Dallas couldn't finalize a deal. That leaves 2nd year Xavier Woods at free safety and a competition/combination of Jeff Heath and Kavon Frazier at strong safety. Neither are difference makers, but Frazier came on at the end of 2017 and could seize the job.

Backup DBs: Jeff Heath is coming off a strong year in a part-time starting role, and may see significant minutes if Xavier Woods struggles again. He has versatility to play both safety positions. The other backups are less enticing; Dallas can ill afford injuries in the secondary.

Last modified: 2018-06-17 10:56:16