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2021 Team Report: Dallas Cowboys

Last updated: Mon, May 17

Offensive Philosophy

Year One of the Mike McCarthy era didn't go as planned, thanks in part to the early season-ending injury to Dak Prescott. The declining health and reliability of the once-vaunted offensive line also contributed to a meager 17th-ranked offense versus a 6th-place ranking in 2019. With Prescott signed to a long-term contract and healthy, 2021 should be a marked improvement. Despite the personnel issues, Dallas' pace of play was near the top of the league in 2021 (69.6 plays per game), although some normalization should be expected if the defense improves and provides more opportunity for ball-control drives.


Starter: Dak Prescott
Backup(s): Ben DiNucci, Cooper Rush, Garrett Gilbert

Starting QB: Dak Prescott steps into the season in unfamiliar territory, having secured long-term financial security after signing a 4-year, $160-million contract with $126 million fully guaranteed. With his contract situation solved, he and the team can solely focus on returning to form after a disappointing 2020. A season-ending ankle injury in Week 5 derailed a jaw-dropping trajectory, but the franchise passer should be healthy for the start of Training Camp. Prescott is a career 66% passer with a 4.6% touchdown rate and a mild 1.7% interception rate. He's improved in each season and enters 2021 with arguably his best supporting cast.

Backup QB: Viewing the position as a weakness in prior years, the Cowboys signed veteran Andy Dalton last season. It was a wise decision considering he started nine games after Prescott's injury. Unfortunately, Dalton's play was enough to earn him a free agent bonanza from the Bears, leaving Dallas with an uninspiring trio of Garrett Gilbert, Ben DiNucci, and Cooper Rush.

Running Backs

Starter: Ezekiel Elliott
Backup(s): Tony Pollard, Rico Dowdle, JaQuan Hardy [R], Brendan Knox [R]
Fullback(s): Sewu Olonilua

Starting RB: Does the offensive line make the back or the back make the offensive line? In truth, a great running game emerges from a confluence of strong line play and talented ball carriers. Ezekiel Elliott remains one of the league's most talented tailbacks, but he's coming off a down season that casts doubts on the decision to sign him to a six-year, $90 million extension. Elliott set career lows in attempts per game (16.3), yards per attempt (4.0), yards per target (4.8), and touchdowns (8), while playing fifteen games. Optimists can blame more than degrading offensive line play. They can point to Elliott's bout of Covid in the summer, Prescott's season-ending injury, and the defense's poor play. Presuming the All-Pro has a productive, healthy training camp, expectations for a bounce-back season are probably justified.

Backup RBs: Tony Pollard's impressive rookie season argued for an increased role in 2020, but it didn't materialize if you account for Ezekiel Elliott's missed playing time. Pollard ran for 20 fewer yards (435) last season despite 15 more carries, and his receiving numbers doubled but were still modest (28 receptions for 193 yards). He's a dynamic open-field runner and capable receiver and gives play-caller Kellen Moore an intriguing X-factor in an otherwise predictable offensive cast. Rico Dowdle enters the year as the No. 3 but has a wide variance of outcomes depending on whether he can improve his work ethic after a shaky rookie year. He has the talent to push Pollard for the No. 2 role, but it would be equally unsurprising if he's pushed aside by one of the rookies.

Fullback: Sewo Olonilua made the roster as an undrafted free agent last season and projects as the lone fullback again in 2021. He's a steamroller as a lead blocker but offers little else.

Wide Receivers

Starters: Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, CeeDee Lamb
Backups: Cedrick Wilson, Noah Brown, Simi Fehoko [R], Malik Turner, Stephen Guidry, Aaron Parker

Starting WRs: No position group is in better shape than the receiving corps, as Dallas has three starting receivers who could easily be the No. 1 on quite a few other rosters. Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup started 15 games last year, while rookie CeeDee Lamb started 14. Statistically, Cooper had the best season, leading in targets (130), receptions (92), yards (1,114), and catch rate (70.8%). Lamb overtook Gallup in the pecking order, running better routes with a far better success rate (66.7% catch rate versus Gallup's 56.2%). It's not unrealistic to think all three could eclipse the 1,000-yard mark in a full season with Dak Prescott under center.

Backup WRs: Rookie Simi Fehoko has an opportunity to immediately claim the No. 4 role, and with a strong season could convince the Cowboys to let Michael Gallup leave in free agency next offseason. Fehoko endured a suboptimal situation at Stanford but has intriguing traits, particularly an ability to play outside and in the slot. Cedrick Wilson is 25 years old with 22 career receptions, but the team valued him enough to re-sign him during the offseason. Noah Brown is also 25 years old, with 23 career receptions. The former Ohio State Buckeye is an unlikely contributor beyond core special teams.

Tight Ends

Starters: Blake Jarwin, Dalton Schultz
Backups: Sean McKeon, Jeremy Sprinkle

Last season was supposed to be Blake Jarwin's coming out party. The fourth-year tight end signed a 4-year, $22-million contract and was universally earmarked as Jason Witten's heir apparent. But the football gods had other ideas, ending Jarwin's season midway through the first game. In stepped Dalton Schultz, who acquitted himself well; he started 14 games and caught 63 receptions for 615 yards and four touchdowns. Schultz isn't an exceptional athlete, but he emerged as an effective safety valve across the middle and was a competent blocker. He and Jarwin likely form a committee this year, with Jarwin skewing toward obvious passing downs while Schultz can be on the field in any situation. Veteran Jeremy Sprinkle hopes to displace 2nd-year Sean McKeon on game days.

Place Kicker

Greg Zuerlein: Zuerlein bounced back from his down 2019 last year during his first year with the Cowboys. He led the league in field goal attempts, although his rate of field goal attempts went up and his extra point opportunity went down when Dak Prescott got hurt. Six of Zuerlein''s seven misses came from 50+, which is reassuring from an accuracy standpoint, but troubling when noting that it was his first year under 50% from 50+ since 2015 and only the second of his career. If he can find his long accuracy and additional extra points makes up most of the slack left by a likely drop in field goal attempts, Zuerlein should justify his top 6-8 ADP.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Tony Pollard, Cedrick Wilson

The Cowboys reportedly love backup running back Tony Pollard, but it's hard to get him on the field on offense when he's behind one of the highest-paid backs in the NFL. Special teams is another matter; Pollard finished 2nd in kickoff return attempts and 4th in kickoff return yards last year.

Punt Returners: CeeDee Lamb, Cedrick Wilson

In addition to finishing his rookie season with nearly 1,000 receiving yards, CeeDee Lamb also led the Cowboys in punt return attempts. It's quite common for a team to give rookies special teams responsibilities to get them more involved on game day and then phase those responsibilities out in Year 2 (as rookies, Alvin Kamara and Christian McCaffrey led their teams in kickoff and punt return yards, respectively), so don't be surprised if Lamb's special team workload drops substantially in 2021.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: LT Tyron Smith, LG Connor Williams, C Tyler Biadasz, RG Zack Martin, RT La'el Collins
Key Backups: OT Ty Nsekhe, OT Brandon Knight, OL Connor McGovern

The starters missed most of last year. But with left tackle Tyron Smith, right guard Zack Martin and right tackle La'el Collins all returning to full strength, this group has the potential for a real comeback. Left guard Connor Williams does a decent but unspectacular job. Center Tyler Biadasz is still growing into his role. Assuming the veterans can stay healthy, this line grades within the top-10 of the rankings.

Team Defense

The Mike Nolan experiment ended badly, but at least it also ended quickly. The veteran defensive coordinator failed to live up to his resume under new head coach Mike McCarthy and was jettisoned in favor of Dan Quinn. Nolan's main issue was attempting to install an entirely new defense during a global pandemic. The complexities of his system required teaching, practice, repetition, and experience. All of those assets were in short supply. While Quinn's tenure as a head coach was up and down, his defensive bonafides are without question. He'll have the Cowboys back in a 4-3 base front, and his system is predicated on simpler concepts that allow players to read and react. In the secondary, the Cowboys will run a Cover-3 base look, but like most teams, will vary coverage to suit the game plan. Quinn has a reputation as an intelligent in-game coach and should get the best out of a defensive roster that's been infused with a ton of draft capital.

Defensive Line

Starters: DE DeMarcus Lawrence, DT Neville Gallimore, NT Trysten Hill, DE Randy Gregory, DE Carlos Watkins
Backups: DE Bradley Anae, DE Dorance Armstrong, DT Osa Odighizuwa [R], DT Quinton Bohanna [R], DE Chauncey Golston [R], DT Justin Hamilton, DE Brent Urban, DT Ron'Dell Carter, DE Azur Kamara, DT Austin Faoliu [R]

Starting DL: No one is looking forward to Dan Quinn's defense more than DeMarcus Lawrence. After posting 25 sacks in 2017 and 2018, Lawrence notched just 11.5 combined over the last two seasons. It's not that he's lost a step; it's that he was asked to play differently and focus less on putting his hand on the ground and getting after the passer. Under Quinn, Lawrence will return to a five-technique whose main job is to create havoc in the backfield. What's less clear is who lines up on the opposite side. Still, the two leading candidates are Randy Gregory -- who is trying to rehabilitate his career after substance abuse issues -- or Carlos Jenkins, a free-agent signee. There are questions in the interior as 2nd-year Neville Gallimore and 3rd-year Trysten Hill project as starters. It'll be a massive leap for both as Gallimore played just 38% of snaps while Hill managed 19% in five starts.

Backup DL: Three rookies bring a much-needed infusion of depth and upside into the rotation. Edge rusher Chauncey Golston is a better run defender than natural pass rusher, but he worked hard at improving his technique and notched 5.5 sacks as a senior at Iowa. Fellow third-rounder Osa Odighizuwa will play inside, but is a bit undersized (280 lbs) in obvious run downs. He's gets excellent leverage inside as a pass rusher, and will fit well in Quinn's attacking system, particularly on stunts. Sixth-round tackle Quinton Bohanna projects as a more traditional run stuffer, although he lacks mobility and will have to prove he can command double teams at the pro level. Bradley Anae was the Pac-12 defensive lineman of the year in 2019 but fell to the fifth round because of uninspiring measurables. Unfortunately, he failed to make his mark as a rookie but will have a fresh chance to earn playing time under Quinn. Brent Urban could easily displace one of the youngsters as an interior starter after grading out as a top-5 run defender last year in Chicago.


Starters: MLB Micah Parsons [R], WLB Jaylon Smith
Backups: LB Leighton Vander Esch, ILB Francis Bernard, LB Tarell Basham, LB Jabril Cox [R], LB Anthony Hines III [R]

Starting LBs: Micah Parsons opted out of the 2020 season but that didn't dissuade teams from viewing him as the top linebacker in the class after a dominant 2019 campaign. Parsons has the size, speed, and athleticism that unquestionably translates to the NFL level. He's a violent, instinctive tackler and can rush the passer or cover downfield as needed. His versatility likely earns him a starting role immediately. Jaylon Smith returns to the weakside. Smith has been an iron man, playing more than 90% of snaps in three consecutive seasons. While his tackle tally is gaudy, he's a liability in coverage and hasn't made enough impact plays to justify his hefty salary.

Backup LBs: Leighton Vander Esch looked like a perennial All-Pro after his rookie season, but injuries have neutered his play-making ability. When healthy, he's an every-down linebacker capable of rushing the passer or covering athletic receivers outside the hash marks, but will he stay healthy? The Cowboys chose not to pick up his fifth-year option; an ominous sign in combination with drafting Parsons in the first round. Tarell Basham intrigues as a developmental edge defender. He played 64% of the snaps for the Jets last year, but there are questions about his consistency and ability to cover on passing downs.

Defensive Backs

Starters: CB Kelvin Joseph [R], CB Trevon Diggs, S Donovan Wilson, S Damontae Kazee
Backups: CB P.J. Goodwin, S/LB Keanu Neal, DB Reggie Robinson, S Israel Mukuamu [R], CB Nahshon Wright [R], CB Rashard Robinson, CB Deante Burton, CB Anthony Brown, S Jayron Kearse, S Darian Thompson, CB Maurice Canady, S Steven Parker

Starting DBs: The secondary was arguably the weakest part of a bad defense, which is why Dallas used a second-round pick on Kelvin Joseph, and two later picks on Israel Mukuamu and Nahshon Wright. The Cowboys also gave Dan Quinn two familiar faces by signing safeties Damontae Kazee and Keanu Neal, who both played in Atlanta. Neal may move to linebacker, at least in certain formations. Kazee tore his Achilles last year and is on a one-year "prove it" deal, but he had ten interceptions in 2018-2019, which nearly matches Dallas' total over that span. If healthy, he's an upgrade. Trevon Diggs endured a baptism by fire as a rookie and came out unscathed. He's one of the few proven, young building blocks on the defensive roster.

Backup DBs: Dallas will enter training camp with at least sixteen defensive backs, and virtually every role is up for grabs. Donovan Wilson has starting experience, as does Anthony Brown, so consider them favorites for roster spots. But everyone else is fighting for roster spots.