|By Shawn Childs, Saturday, September 2, 2017|
After a disastrous season in 2015 (4-12) due to poor play at quarterback after the injury to Tony Romo, America's team rebounded in a big way last year (13-3) thanks to two impact rookie players (Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott). The offense scored 146 more points than 2015 (275) leading to the fifth-highest total in the league. The Cowboys also finished 5th in offensive yards, which was an improvement of 17 spots in the league rankings. Jason Garrett saved his job in 2016 with the help of his players. Garrett returns for a seventh season as head coach with a 58-46 record and two playoff appearance. Scott Linehan will run the offensive coordinator after strong rebound in 2016. Over three years as a head coach in the NFL, Scott went 11-25 with the Rams. He has 18 seasons of experience as an offensive coordinator. Ron Marinelli returns as the defensive coordinator for the fourth straight year. Ron's defense has been about league average in yards allowed over the last three seasons (2014 – 19th, 2015 – 17th, and 2016 – 14th) with a nice step forward in points allowed (306 – 5th). He failed in his chance at being a head coach in the NFL (10-38).
The Cowboys will need to revamp their secondary this year after losing CB Brandon Carr, CB Morris Claiborne, S Barry Church, and S J.J. Wilcox. Both Claiborne and Church played at a high level while Carr finished with about league average success. Wilcox had part-time snaps off the bench. The only upgrades in free agency to offset losses were CB Nolan Carroll and S Robert Blanton. Carroll is a downgrade for sure while projecting to be a third option at corner. Blanton did play well in 2014 for the Vikings, but his game has faded in the last two years while battling an ankle issue in 2016.
Also, Dallas lost three low-level options off the defensive line – DT Terrell McCain, DE Jack Crawford, and DE Ryan Davis.
Their biggest loss on offense was T Ronald Leary. He played at a high level in 2016, but his supporting cast did cover up some of his weakness. Leary was only covering La'el Collins who has stud upside.
The Cowboys moved on from RB Lance Dunbar, TE Gavin Escobar, and QB Mark Sanchez. QB Tony Romo found it more secure in the press box and retired.
T Byron Bell was added for depth on the line after missing the 2016 season with an ankle injury. DT Stephen Paea has a chance to be a neutral player in a rotational role. The Cowboys hope to rekindle Damontre Moore after dealing with injuries over each of the last three seasons. Moore played in 16 games at age 21 with the Giants in 2014 as a third round draft pick leading to a career-best 5.5 sacks
The secondary was on the minds of the Cowboys' leaders on draft day. They invested four of their first six picks to stop the pass – CB Chidobe Awuzie (2nd), CB Jourdan Lewis (3rd), S Xavier Woods (6th), and CB Marquez White (6th). Awuzie should be a nice addition. He has the movements and vision to handle WRs over the short areas of the field and plays well in coverage with a fluid transition out of his backpedal. He gets into trouble in run supports and when asked to play deep one-on-one coverage. He does his job more than he makes impact plays on the ball. Lewis is an undersized (5'10" and 188 lbs.) playmaker with more quickness than top end speed. He will have the most success against second tier WRs. He can play in press coverage, but he needs to cheat (hold) to maintain an edge. Woods is a playmaker when he plays deep in coverage where his game has the most value. He'll add value against the run while still needing to improve his tackling skills. He offers the most value going forward with some questions about his change of direction ability. White comes up short in speed and change of direction ability while holding his value when working off the line of scrimmage facing the QB. White lacks playmaking ability with risk in tackling.
In the first round, Dallas added DE Taco Charlton. His talent in college outweighed his production, which will come with more bulk and strength added. Taco needs to add an edge to his game to create more success against power defenders. Charlton has the quickness and physical attributes to offer upside rushing the quarterback while expecting to control his area of the field against the run.
WR Ryan Switzer was the selection in the fourth round. Possession type WR with value in the return game. His lack of size (5'8" and 181 lbs.) does limit his upside. Switzer has plus quickness, which is geared to work the short areas of the field while lacking throttle to gain an edge in the deep passing game even with 4.5 speed. He's projected to be the insurance policy for Cole Beasley.
With a trio of picks in the seventh round, the Cowboys drafted DT Joey Ivie, WR Noah Brown, and DT Jordan Carrell. Ivie looks to be an early down run option with a solid motor. His quickness and power don't create enough separation to win many plays on the other side of the line of scrimmage. Brown is a project at WR with a short resume of experience and opportunity. Noah has a solid combination of size (6'2" and 222 lbs.) with upside in his hands, but his route running is well below the needed level to have success at the next level. Carrell looks to be a tweener. His game projects better on the inside, but he needs more bulk and strength. He will be an early down player against the run with limited value rushing the QB.
Dallas has a great offensive line, which led to them finishing second in the NFL in rushing yards (2,396) with the second most rushing TDs (24). They had 17 runs over 20 yards, 72 rushes over 10 yards and 38 negative carries.
The Cowboys only attempted 30.2 passes per game (30th) while finishing 23rd in the league in passing yards (3,631) with 25 passing TDs and only six Ints. Their offensive line allowed 28 sacks (5.8 percent of the time).
LT Tyron Smith is a solid anchor on the offensive line after getting drafted ninth overall in 2011. He signed a massive $109 million contract in 2014 for eight seasons. Last year he offered an edge in all areas, but he missed three games with a right knee and a back injury. Smith is a top player at his position and an even higher bar if healthy.
LG Nate Theaker will battle multiple other options for a starting job after Collins was shifted to right tackle. Theaker was signed as an undrafted free agent this season. Overall, the options at this position are well below league average with the eventual winner developing as the season goes on.
C Travis Frederick is a great player at his position with high value in all areas. Dallas selected him in the second round in 2013. Over the last two years, Travis has been the best center in the league.
RG Zack Martin has been a beast in pass protection while offering even more value in the run game. Martin is a third player on this line that graded as an edge in all areas with three-plus seasons on his resume since being selected 16th overall in the 2014 NFL Draft.
RT La'el Collins will move from left guard to right tackle in 2017. His season ended after three games with a toe injury that required surgery. Collins moved into the starting lineup Week 7 of the 2015 season after the Cowboys signed him as an undrafted free agent. Collins was expected to be a first-round talent, but his value plummeted just before the draft due to speculation that he was somehow tied to his ex-girlfriend's death. His game has upside in all areas even with a short resume of success over two seasons in the NFL.
With a great RB and a QB who makes good decisions in the passing game and with his legs, Dallas has a high ceiling offensively when pairing with four strong options on the offensive line. This group grades as one of the best in the league with one huge question mark at left guard.
The above data shows the strength of schedule as far as rushing attempts (RATT), rushing yards (YDS), yards per attempt rushing (YA), rushing TDs touchdowns (TDs), completions (COMP), passing attempts (PATT), passing yards (YDS), yards per attempt passing (YA), and passing TDs (TDS).
This information is based on 2016, which will work as our starting point for 2017. We'll look at all the changes on offense on each team in the NFL plus the upgrades and downgrades on each team on the defensive side. We'll update this table when we finish the research on all 32 teams.
2016 LG Average = the league average of all stats from all 32 teams in 2016.
2016 Results = this is the results for each team in the NFL last year.
2016 Adjustment is based on the 2016 league average and the 2016 results for each team, this number will show if each team is above or below the league average in each stat and the basis for the strength of schedule.
Dallas faces eight teams with league average success against the run with the Giants (2) and Arizona being the toughest matchups. The only defense with high risk defending the run game in 2016 was the 49ers followed by the Broncos, who I expect to be better in 2017.
The Cowboys face six teams with strength defending the passing game with the Broncos being a very bad matchup. The Falcons and the Packers are the two matchups offering the most upside in the passing game.
Dallas ran the ball 50.6 percent of the time. They had success throwing the ball even with short passing attempts. This team will run the ball with an elite running back, and Dak Prescott will chip in on the ground.
The Cowboys' defense has five games (DEN. LAR, LAC, and NYG X 2) vs. teams who struggled to run the ball in 2016. They only play one team that rushed the ball well last year, which was the 49ers and they were helped by the QB position.
Dallas has three matchups (ATL and WAS X 2) against teams that threw the ball at a high level in 2016 plus three other games (SEA, GB, and ARI) vs. teams who have upside in the passing game. They face two opponents (LAR and SF) that struggled to throw the ball last year.
This defense led the NFL in rushing yards allowed (1,336), which was helped by a league low in rushing attempts per game (21.2). They allowed nine rushing TDs and six runs over 20 yards. Ball carriers gained 3.9 yards per rush.
The Cowboys finished 26th in passing yards allowed (4,167) with 25 TDs and nine Ints. They gave up only 6.9 yards pass attempt with 36 sacks.
The biggest question mark on this defense after the free agents lost in the offseason comes in the secondary. Dallas hopes to have the services of Orlando Scandrick who missed four games in 2016 with a hamstring injury. He's been an asset in coverage over the last three years. The second CB position will come from the two rookies drafted this year (Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis) and second-year player Anthony Brown who finished as a neutral player after getting drafted in the sixth round. Brown has elite speed (4.35 forty at the 2016 NFL combine) with an edge in strength. Anthony has upside in pass coverage with his best success coming in a trailing position. His transition on his backpedal isn't strong enough leading to big mistakes potential TD and holding penalties. With improvement in his technique, Brown will earn valuable snaps shortly (proved to be the case in 2016). S Byron Jones played great in his second year in the league after getting drafted in the first round in 2015. Jones had 88 tackles, ten defended passes, and an Int. He projects as an asset in all areas. The best option at the other safety spot may be incoming rookie Xavier Woods.
DT Stephen Paea is a low-upside option on early downs against the run. He had a career-high six sacks in 2014 with the Bears, but only eight sacks in his other 63 games played in his career. DT Maliek Collins has the chance to be a special player at the next level when he adds more strength and improves his technique. For his size (6'2" and 311 lbs.), Maliek has exceptional quickness to create an edge after the snap. His desire to attack does lead to him being out of position at times. His build points to an inside position on the defensive line, but Collins would prefer to attack from the outside. In his rookie season, Maliek had five sacks with rotational snaps. DE DeMarcus Lawrence missed seven games in 2016 due to a back injury after the season. His game looked to over upside in 2015 (55 tackles and eight sacks). DE Tyrone Crawford is only a neutral player at best. He has 12.5 sacks over his last 45 games.
LB Sean Lee grades as an edge thanks to a massive tackle total (145) in 2016. He only has 2.5 sacks in his 75 games career with some upside in pass coverage. LB Jaylon Smith missed the 2016 season due to a bad knee injury that came in January of 2016. A year and a half later, Smith still isn't 100 percent. Jaylon is an undersized linebacker (6'2" and 223 lbs.) with impact speed and quickness to add value in covering the whole field in the running game, attacking the QB, and in pass coverage. LB Anthony Hitchens will man the inside linebacker position until Smith can play at a high level. Anthony has 220 tackles over the last three years with minimal value in sacks (3.5). LB Damien Wilson was only on the field for 284 plays in 2016. He'll be needed on the outside to start the year while offering no real upside.
This defense was helped last year by a ball controlled offense that kept the defense off the field. The secondary has some talent, but it will be a work in progress this year. A better pass rush would help cover some of the deficiencies in coverage. The second level of the defense has one plus player while Jaylon Smith may turn into an asset down the road. This bodes well for the offensive players on the Cowboys as this defense will grade well below the league average and the rush defense is going to have regression.
QB Dak Prescott - Solid/Safe Pick
A Cowboys fan couldn't ask for a better season from the rookie quarterback sensation. Prescott went 13-3 with an exceptional completion rate (67.8) and a high level of success per pass attempt (8.0). Prescott finished with 3,667 passing yards with 23 TDs and only four Ints. His ability to run (57/282/6) forced defenses to respect him, something they didn't have to do with Romo behind center. Dak passed for over 300 yards in two games while producing four games with three TDs in his 15 full games played. Over his last five starts in 2016 (not including Week 16 due to short playing time), Prescott had fewer than 200 yards passing in three games plus four games with one passing TD or less. Exciting young QB who looks to be a great game manager with enough skills in all areas to produce over 4,000 combined yards with over 30 TDs in his second season in the league. Top 8 QB with some in-season game risk when Dallas dominates teams on the ground. A Fantasy owner just needs to remember, he had his success in 2016 with a below-par season by Dez Bryant and minimal success in the passing game by Ezekiel Elliott. Steady option with enough explosiveness to make an impact in the most important part of a Fantasy season.
RB Ezekiel Elliott - Stud (low risk)
Update: Ezekiel Elliott has been suspended for six games by the NFL. Elliott has appealed the suspension and only time will tell whether or not he will be on the field for more than 10 games this season. He's definitely a risky guy to draft but in the Fantasy playoffs, he'll still be an absolute stud.
Last season I made this prediction about Elliott in my preseason write-up in early June:
He fell three catches and five TDs short of my expectation. Dallas scored 24 rushing TDs, so his opportunity was there to hit my target number, but I didn't have the vision of seeing Prescott starting 16 games while sniping six rushing TDs. Elliott led the NFL in rushing attempts (322) and rushing yards (1,631) while playing in 15 games (sat in Week 17). He scored two TDs or more in five different games while rushing for over 100 yards in seven games. On the year, Zeke averaged 23.6 touches per game. After the first four games of the season, he only had six catches for 44 yards. Dallas only completed 58 passes for 537 yards and a TD on 78 targets to the running back position. Ezekiel finished with 26 catches for 319 yards and a TD on 33 targets over the last 11 games of the season. I expect further growth in the passing game with continued success in the run game. His next step is 375+ touches with 2,200+ combined yards, 50+ catches, and yes, 20+ TDs. He can't match Le'Veon Bell and David Johnson in catches, but he's a great runner-up prize so enjoy the ride!
RB Darren McFadden - Fantasy Handcuff
After missing the first 13 games of the season, the Cowboys gave McFadden 27 touches for 104 yards and three catches over the last three games of the year with minimal snaps. Over the three seasons before arriving in Dallas, McFadden averaged only 3.3 yards per rush. This number jumped to 4.6 with the Cowboys in 2015 leading to his best season since 2010 (1,417 combined yards with three TDs and 40 catches). In his 11 games with a chance at starting snaps in 2015, McFadden had five 100-yard rushing games and six games with 20 touches or more. Viable cover, but his game can't match Elliott on any down, so Darren is only a low-level handcuff headed into 2017 with minimal chances without an injury occurring to Zeke.
Update: It's possible that McFadden will begin the season as the Cowboys No. 1 back if Zeke's suspension is not overturned.
RB Alfred Morris - Not Draft Worthy
Other than a pair of sniped TDs in Week 2 and Week 3, Morris never produced a moment in 2016. He finished with 69 rushes for 243 yards and two TDs plus three catches for 11 yards on six targets. He averaged 3.5 yards per carry, which was his second straight failed season (3.7 in 2015). In mop-up role in Week 9 vs. the lowly Browns' run defense, Morris had a season-high 17 rushes for 56 yards. Fading skill set and opportunity, but he does play behind one of the better offensive lines in the league.
WR Ryan Switzer - Dynasty Only
Over four seasons at North Carolina, Switzer caught 243 passes for 2903 yards and 19 TDs highlighted by a productive senior year (96/1112/6). His game is built around short area quickness while needing to build more strength. This season he'll be the top backup for Cole Beasley.
WR Dez Bryant - Stud (low risk)
With Elliott stealing the show on the ground and a rookie QB behind center, Bryant ended up being a frustrating ride in 2016. Over his first three games, Dez had two playable games (1/8, 7/120, and 3/40/1) before missing three games with a right knee injury. Over his next nine games, Bryant had value in seven games (4/113/1, 6/116/1, 6/80/2, 5/72, 4/84/1, 8/83, and 4/70/2), which worked out to 20.1 Fantasy points per game. Unfortunately, his two short games (1/19 and 1/10) lowered his value to 16.2 Fantasy points per game over this stretch. He played through a back injury over the last six weeks of the season. Dallas barely played him in Week 17 (one target while being on the field for 18 plays). Bryant had his most impressive game of the season in the playoffs (9/132/2 on 12 targets). With back-to-back injury seasons and a rising rushing offense, Dez will be overlooked by many Fantasy owners headed into 2017. His game still projects as a top 12 WR in PPR leagues. The Cowboys don't have many options competing with him for targets, so I'll set his floor at 90+ catches for 1,200+ yards, and double digits TDs.
WR Cole Beasley - Deep-league Only
In his fifth season in the league, Cole had his best opportunity for success. He caught 75 of his 98 targets (76.5) for 833 yards and five TDs. It was interesting to see Beasley have 23 more targets than 2015 and he caught all of them. Over the first 11 games of the season, he had between 50 yards and 75 yards in 10 games with eight games with five catches or more. Cole didn't score in his last six games of the regular season with fade in his value over this period (2/23, 4/41, 4/48, 4/25, and 3/49). This spring, he suffered a hamstring injury that shouldn't be a problem for the regular season. Clear second option in the passing game with Jason Witten starting the year at age 35. I'd like to see a few more big plays, but he is what he is…70/750/5.
WR Terrance Williams - Low Potential
There's been more miss than hit in Williams' game over his four years in the NFL. Even with Dez out for part of the year, Terrance finished with a 50 percent drop in opportunity (61 targets - 93 in 2015), but he did improve on his catch rate (72.1). Over 64 games in his career, Williams has 20 TDs while averaging 15.8 yards per catch. He can't make the QB throw him the ball, but Terrance also needs to do a better job of getting open. With a rebound in chances, his upside only looks to be about 50 catches for 750 yards and five TDs.
TE Jason Witten - Over the Hill (decreased production)
In his 14 seasons in the league, Witten caught 69 passes for 673 yards and three TDs on 95 targets leading to a ninth-place finish in TE scoring in PPR league. He averaged 9.4 Fantasy points per game, which was his lowest total since his rookie season. Jason hasn't missed a game since 2003 while averaging 96 targets per year. This season Witten will start the year at age 35 while delivering short value in TDs over the last two seasons (six combined TDs). The Cowboys signed him to a four-year extension in March, so they still believe he has enough in the tank. His game has faded enough where he can't be trusted as starting top 12 TE. More steady than explosive with a great career resume.
PK Dan Bailey - Stud (low risk)
This guy is one of the best kickers in the game. He's made 89.5 percent of his career chances (171-for-191) with excellent success from 50 yards or longer (24-for-35). Dan averaged over six attempts from long range over the last five years. Also, Bailey hasn't missed an extra point try in his career, which is impressive considering the NFL moved the kicker line back in 2015. As great as he is, he's only had over 32 field goal chances once (2011 - 37). Dallas scored over 45 extra points in three of the last four years. Love his leg, but the Cowboys will score TDs in close limiting his chance to make field goals. My kind of kicker as I hate when my kicker misses.