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2020 Team Report: Dallas Cowboys

Last updated: Tue, May 12

Offensive Philosophy

Jason Garrett helmed the Cowboys offense from 2007 to 2019, a remarkable feat in a league used to a "win or else" attitude. While Cowboys fans are happy to see a new face in head coach Mike McCarthy, it'll be hard to match Garrett's success. The Cowboys fielded top-10 offenses six of Garrett's thirteen seasons, and only fell short of the top-15 three times. That said, Mike McCarthy is one of the few veteran coaches who has an equally compelling resume. In fact, McCarthy's Packers offenses ranked in the Top 10 nine times in thirteen seasons including an astounding 7 top-5 finishes. McCarthy is a West Coast offense disciple by pedigree, but his decision to retain Kellen Moore -- last year's play-caller -- as offensive coordinator indicates he's willing to integrate other offensive principles in his new city.

Quarterbacks

Starter: Dak Prescott
Backup(s): Andy Dalton, Clayton Thorson, Ben DiNucci [R]

Starting QB: Dak Prescott enters his fifth year awaiting a well-deserved payday. He's the only member of the team's offensive core still waiting for a new contract, although he can opt to play for $31 million this year under the franchise tag designation. Either way, much like the song and dance last year with Ezekiel Elliott, the Cowboys will keep their star in tow. Prescott has won 40 regular season games in four seasons, and is coming off a career-best year. Under new offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, Prescott set new marks in completions (388), attempts (596), yards (4,902), and touchdown passes (30). With new head coach Mike McCarthy -- who led Aaron Rodgers to his best years -- added to returning coordinator Moore, the sky is the limit for Prescott and the Cowboys passing attack.

Backup QB: The backup quarterback spot was a weakness the last few seasons, but has been solved emphatically with Andy Dalton's signing. The long-time Bengals starter was released shortly after the NFL draft, and he opted for a one-year deal with Dallas so that he can try to find a new starting job in 2021 once the league calendar normalizes. Dalton played for TCU in college and already lives in the area. His signing makes it harder for either Clayton Thorson or rookie Ben DiNucci to make the Week One roster.

Running Backs

Starter: Ezekiel Elliott
Backup(s): Tony Pollard, Jordan Chunn
Fullback(s): Jamize Olawale, Sewu Olonilua [R]

Starting RB: Ezekiel Elliott was the story of the league last offseason, as a protracted contract dispute led to a potential in-season hold out. But cooler heads prevailed and Elliott reported and played all sixteen games. Although he failed to lead the league in rushing yards per game for the first time in his career, that's a nitpick as he delivered another dominant season. Elliott ran for 1,357 yards on 301 carries, and scored 12 touchdowns. Importantly, Elliott remained involved in the receiving game under new play-caller Kellen Moore. He caught 54 receptions for 420 yards, and scored twice. While there's an argument to be made over Elliott's status as the best running back in the NFL, there's no arguing he is on a short list of legitimate contenders for the moniker. With a stacked and experienced offensive line, Elliott should once again be at or near the top of the league's rushing standings.

Backup RBs: The front office prioritized finding a complementary running back who could both spell Ezekiel Elliott at times, but also provide opposing defenses with a different challenge. Tony Pollard more than answered the call as a rookie, and has earned a larger role going forward. Given the team's investment in Elliott, Pollard should touch the ball more to keep Elliott healthy. Pollard is a dynamic open-field runner, and can make plays outside the hash marks. With the Cowboys tight end room depleted, Pollard could be on the field with Elliott more in 2020. The cupboard isn't fully stocked beyond Elliott and Pollard. Jordan Chunn is a practice-squad player who lacks credibility as a full-time contributor. A handful of rookie free agents will try to make the team, and work their way up the depth chart.

Fullback: Jamize Olawale returns as the fullback. The veteran has just 96 career touches and will serve as a role player in Dallas' jumbo and short-yardage packages. Athletic UDFA Sewo Olonilua out of TCU stayed in the metroplex and will be converted to fullback in his attempt to make the team.

Wide Receivers

Starters: Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup
Backups: CeeDee Lamb [R], Cedrick Wilson, Devin Smith, Ventell Bryant, Noah Brown, Jon'Vea Johnson, Kendrick Rogers [R], Aaron Parker [R]

Starting WRs: Amari Cooper delivered a career-best season in his first full year in Dallas. He set career marks for yards (1,189), yards-per-catch (15.1), and touchdowns (8) and provided Dak Prescott with a reliable big-play receiver. Cooper times his career-year perfectly, and was rewarded with a 5-year, $100-million contract including $60 million in guarantees. His role as Dallas' top receiver, at least financially speaking, is secure for years to come. Cooper's performance shouldn't detract Michael Gallup's emergence. Gallup had a 66-catch, 1,107-yard breakout in Year Two; made all the more impressive because he did it in 14 games.

Backup WRs: Receiver wasn't a need position for the team entering the NFL draft, but when CeeDee Lamb was available at their pick in the first round, the front office pounced on the opportunity. Lamb, considered by many scouts the top receiver in the class, provides the Cowboys with a potentially devastating trio of complete, dominant outside receivers who have no limitations. Even though Lamb won't see the target share he would've on a more needy team, he'll be involved immediately. Randall Cobb (83) and Jason Witten (83) combined for 166 targets last year and have moved on. The remaining roster spots are up for grabs, although veterans Cedrick Wilson and Devin Smith are the favorites for the spots.

Tight Ends

Starters: Blake Jarwin
Backups: Dalton Schultz, Blake Bell, Sean McKeon [R]

Blake Jarwin has huge shoes to fill. The fourth-year tight end will be counted on to replace future Hall of Famer Jason Witten, and was rewarded with a new 4-year, $22-million contract as a show of confidence. Jarwin's role -- statistically -- didn't change last year with Witten back on the roster -- but the team needs him to roughly double his production in 2020. Jarwin is massive (6-foot-5, 260 pounds) and a willing blocker, but not at the expense of athleticism. He's averaged 11.6 yards per reception through three seasons, and should have plenty of opportunities in the middle of the field as opposing defenses have to deal with the receiving trio of Cooper, Gallup, and Lamb. Dalton Schultz will see more action in 2-TE sets, while veteran journeyman Blake Bell will compete with rookie Sean McKeon for a spot on the game day roster.

Place Kicker

Greg Zuerlein, Kai Forbath: The Cowboys had signed Kai Forbath to a cheap one-year deal as a potential answer for their kicker position after he made all 10 extra point and all 10 field goal attempts last year. Forbath replaced Brett Maher admirably, but when Greg Zuerlein became available in free agency, the team pivoted to him with a three-year, $7.5 million dollar deal. Zuerlein was once highly regarded, but made only 5 of 11 attempts from 40-49 yards last year, which was enough for the Rams to decide to move on from him. The Cowboys would obviously favor Zuerlein and his 2.25 million guaranteed in a kicker battle, but Forbath is also experienced and could beat him in a competition. Either way, the team should be able to drum up trade interest for the eventual loser. They had 40 field goal attempts as a team last year and should be one of the best offenses in the league, so once we have clarity on their 2020 kicker, that player is worth targeting in the last round of your draft. Zuerlein's ADP is still very high from his reputation with the Rams, but he isn't a lock to win the kicking job.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Tony Pollard, Jourdan Lewis

Backup running back Tony Pollard returns as an experienced option on kickoff returns.

Punt Returners: Jourdan Lewis

The Cowboys enter 2020 without an experienced punt returner on their roster after parting ways with Tavon Austin and Randall Cobb. They'll likely bring in a handful of undrafted free agents during camp to compete with Jourdan Lewis for the role.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: LT Tyron Smith, LG Connor Williams, C Joe Looney, RG Zack Martin, RT La'el Collins
Key Backups: OG Connor McGovern, OG Cody Wichmann, OT Brandon Knight, C Tyler Biadasz [R]

Right guard Zack Martin made All-Pro first team and remains the leader of this unit, Left tackle Tyron Smith is a former Pro Bowler who still performs at a high level, despite increased penalties. There is one new starter at center where Joe Looney will replace Travis Frederick (All Pro 1T - retired). The team also invested a fourth-round pick in center Tyler Biadasz from Wisconsin to help replace Frederick.

Team Defense

New coordinator Mike Nolan will try to keep a lot of what Rod Marinelli had in place, but history says he'll attack more. The Cowboys notched 39 sacks last year, but only 17 takeaways and a paltry seven interceptions with one defensive score. They were still able to finish ninth in both yards and points allowed, helping buoy their results in scoring systems that reward/punish those numbers. The defense will have to replace Robert Quinn with hopes that Aldon Smith and/or Randy Gregory get reinstated and show up in top form. Byron Jones is also gone and might be replaced by second round pick Trevon Diggs. The interior defensive line added Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe to bulk up and Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix has the inside track to be a new starter at safety, so there are some new faces to integrate on a shorter schedule. Leighton Vander Esch's neck condition is maybe the biggest offseason question to answer, but at least Sean Lee returned in free agency. They are going off of the board in the 15-20 range, which is about right in best ball leagues. Dallas will be a good matchup play in typical leagues if the offense hits their ceiling.

Defensive Line

Starters: DE DeMarcus Lawrence, DT Gerald McCoy, NT Dontari Poe, DE Tyrone Crawford
Backups: DT Neville Gallimore [R], DE Bradlee Anae [R], DE Joe Jackson, DT Trysten Hill, NT Antwaun Woods, DE Dorance Armstrong, DE Jalen Jelks, DE Aldon Smith, DE Randy Gregory

Starting DL: The defensive line will have at least two new faces as veteran tackles Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe step into the lineup for Maliek Collins and Antwaun Woods. McCoy spent nine seasons in Tampa Bay as one of the few stalwarts on an inconsistent team, and was one-and-done in Carolina after Ron Rivera left for Washington. McCoy's main motivation at this point in his career is a Super Bowl run, and he believes the Cowboys are ready for the push. Statistically, McCoy's 2019 campaign didn't look much different than his prime years. He's still disruptive and creates a pass rush from a position usually limited to defending the run. Dontari Poe struggled in his first year in Carolina in 2018, but was resurgent last year before a torn quad required season-ending surgery. When healthy, Poe is an ideal complement to McCoy. He, too, can create a pass rush up the middle but is more naturally suited to staying put and eating up multiple blockers. On the edge, the Cowboys are top heavy. DeMarcus Lawrence landed a massive contract extension last offseason, and on the surface failed to live up to his new contract. He only had five sacks last year after averaging 12.5 in 2017-2018, but sacks don't tell the whole story. Lawrence still managed 29 pressures, 16 quarterback hits, and 10 tackles for loss, and he played elite run defense. His sack totals will bounce back, but the real question is who else can bring pressure. Tyrone Crawford will be the nominal starter entering the preseason, but he could be pushed quickly by rookie Bradlee Anae, or veterans Aldon Smith and Randy Gregory -- who are both trying to make comebacks after substance-abuse related suspensions.

Backup DL: Anae was a three-year starter at Utah and was first team all Pac-12, and the Pac-12's defensive lineman of the year after a 41-tackle, 13-sack season. Despite the bonafides, Anae fell to the 5th round because he's an effort player and doesn't have dynamic measurables. But Anae played with ferocity for the best defense in his conference, and should fit well with Mike Nolan, who demands intelligence from his players. Aldon Smith was once considered among the very best pass rushers in the NFL before a series of personal failings forced him out of the league. Smith hasn't played in the league since 2015. Joe Jackson and Jalen Jelks still have promise and could make the leap in their second seasons. On the inside, Woods -- a starter a year ago -- provides a quality rotational option, and the team has high hopes for rookie Neville Gallimore.

Linebackers

Starters: SLB Leighton Vander Esch, MLB Jaylon Smith, WLB Sean Lee
Backups: OLB Joe Thomas, ILB Luke Gifford, OLB Justin March, OLB Chris Covington

Starting LBs: The Cowboys have a trio of impressive starters, but they're not without injury concerns. And the team's backup situation is tenuous. When healthy, Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch, and Sean Lee are all capable of All Pro play. Lee (34) is the elder statesman of the defense and was thought to be past his prime after a litany of injuries. But he found the Fountain of Youth in 2019 and played all sixteen games for the first time in his career. Lee played about 2/3rds of the team's snaps, which should be the recipe for 2020. Smith mans the strong side, and is neck-and-neck with DeMarcus Lawrence for the title of Dallas' best defender. Smith is coming off a monster season with 142 tackles, three turnovers, two-and-a-half sacks, and nine passes defensed. He can do it all, from rushing the passer to stopping a runner in his tracks to breaking up a well-thrown ball downfield. Vander Esch is the X-factor. He was brilliant as a rookie in 2018, but fell off in 2019 before missing the final seven games with a neck injury that required surgery. Vander Esch has spinal stenosis, which can be career threatening, but he and the coaches expect a full recovery. What's less clear is if Vander Esch's poor play last year, particularly against the run, was because he was playing hurt. If not, he has questions to answer because he was a shadow of the player we see as a rookie.

Backup LBs: Joe Thomas is an experienced backup who can play all three linebacker spots, but he's best suited for an interior role. Justin March looked lost in limited snaps last year; he cannot be counted on yet. Luke Gifford will compete with rookie free agents LaDarius Hamilton and Francis Bernard for the final rotational spot on game days.

Defensive Backs

Starters: CB Anthony Brown, S Xavier Woods, S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, CB Chidobe Awuzie, NB Jourdan Lewis
Backups: CB Trevon Diggs [R], DB Reggie Robinson [R], CB Deante Burton, S Darian Thompson, CB Maurice Canady, CB Saivion Smith, S Donovan Wilson, CB D.J. White

Starting DBs: Byron Jones left for a massive deal in Miami, which could have a ripple effect throughout the secondary. Chidobe Awuzie doesn't get the same publicity, but he's played well in two seasons as a full-time starter and was almost as effective as Jones last year. The worry, is that Awuzie flourished as a No. 2 corner and will now be matched up against opposing team's top receivers. Jourdan Lewis has been erratic and is often the source of fans' venom, but in truth he became an effective, consistent presence as the full-time nickel back. There's been speculation Mike Nolan may move Lewis to safety, but if it's not broken, don't fix it. The other starting corner spot is up for grabs, which means veteran Anthony Brown gets the nod until he's displaced. Brown is a replacement-level talent, and re-signed with Dallas after finding no interest in the open market. Ideally, he'll be pushed aside by rookie Trevon Diggs. At safety, Dallas added Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Clinton-Dix has started 90 games for Green Bay, Washington, and Chicago and played at a high level throughout his career. He's not a shutdown pass defender, but isn't a liability, and he's excellent in run defense. Incumbent Xavier Woods should keep the other spot, unless Nolan successfully converts a young corner to safety, as has been rumored.

Backup DBs: Trevon Diggs converted from wide receiver to cornerback after his freshman season at Alabama, and became a full-time starter in 2018. Diggs is a fluid, aggressive corner who can break up passes and come down with jump-ball interceptions thanks to his experience as a receiver. But he's raw and needs to learn how to handle double moves and nuanced route runners. Diggs isn't a finished product, but he could easily step into the No. 2 role over veteran Anthony Brown with a good training camp. Fellow rookie Reggie Robinson projects as a special teamer, but he could evolve into a defensive contributor in a season or two. Maurice Canady played exceptionally well in limited snaps last year; he could be a hidden gem.