Dallas Cowboys 2021 Team Previewby Darius Walker August 27, 2021 0 comments
The Dallas Cowboys moved on from Jason Garrett after the 2019 season and hired Mike McCarthy. McCarthy is an offensive-minded coach who was brought in to fulfill the potential of the roster and to take Dak Prescott’s game to the next level. Prescott was having the best season of his career before suffering a season-ending knee injury in Week 5 against the New York Giants. His numbers were not leading to wins though because the Cowboys were sitting at a 2-3 record after five games. Prescott missed the last 11 games of the season and the Cowboys went 4-7 over that stretch, finishing with a record of 6-10. It was a disappointing season but now that Prescott is back healthy, Dallas is looking to bounce back in 2021.
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Dallas did not make any major moves in the offseason but they secured the future of the franchise by signing Prescott to a four-year, $160 million contract. There was speculation that they may have overpaid, but Prescott was on pace for elite numbers last season. As long as he continues his current trajectory, the Cowboys will be satisfied. Other than the Prescott deal, the team did not make many moves on the offensive side of the ball. Wide receivers Cedrick Wilson and Noah Brown were re-signed, two receivers who are deep rotation pieces. After finishing the season with the 28th ranked defense, Dallas focused on improving on that side of the ball. Dan Quinn was brought in as the defensive coordinator after being fired by the Atlanta Falcons.
Quinn had an unsuccessful stint in Atlanta but a fresh start will be good for him. The Cowboys attacked the secondary heavily in the offseason. The safety position has been a weakness for several seasons now and the team addressed it by signing Damontae Kazee, Malik Hooker, and Jayron Kearse. They also selected defensive backs Kelvin Joseph, Nahshon Wright, and Israel Mukuamu in the 2021 NFL Draft. Dallas also re-signed Jourdan Lewis, the team’s primary slot corner. Keanu Neal is a new addition at linebacker and he comes with some positional versatility. Carlos Watkins and Brent Urban were brought in to be rotational players on the interior. Dallas did not sign any household names but they improved their depth tremendously.
Prescott is entering his second year in McCarthy’s scheme with a ton of weapons at his disposal. CeeDee Lamb was one of the best rookie wideouts last season and he is expected to take a leap in his second season as a pro. Lamb, Amari Cooper, and Michael Gallup are a lethal trio. They were one of the most productive receiving units in the NFL last season before Prescott’s injury. Ezekiel Elliott is entering the season with a chip on his shoulder after having the worst year of his career. Reports from camp have been positive and Elliott is aiming to return to his elite level of play. The offensive line is back intact and is looking to rebound after a shaky season due to injuries.
The performance of the offensive line had a lot to do with Elliott’s down year. Zack Martin and Tyron Smith are capable of performing at an elite level and they are the key to the Cowboys’ offense. Dallas was a pass-happy team in McCarthy’s first season. Returning to their smashmouth style of football with Elliott pounding the rock and the offensive line dominating will make Prescott’s job easier. Dalton Schultz and Blake Jarwin will play key roles for the offense, serving as safety valves for Prescott. Tony Pollard is an electric playmaker and the Cowboys will try to get the ball into his hands more this season. If he can become a consistent playmaker then he’ll lighten the load for Elliott, keeping him fresh for the playoffs.
The Cowboys’ defense was bad in 2020. They ranked 28th in points allowed, 23rd in yards allowed, and 31st in rushing yards allowed. The hope is that Quinn will help them improve. He was the brains behind the “Legion of Boom” defense in Seattle and although he wasn’t able to replicate that same success in Atlanta, he’ll be a major addition. Dallas also brought in some new talent. Kazee and Hooker are big upgrades at safety. Kazee had 10 interceptions combined in 2018 and 2019 before missing 12 games in 2020. His ball-hawking skills are something the Cowboys haven’t had at the safety position in years. Hooker has been dealing with injuries for his entire career, but if he can stay healthy then his deal is a bargain.
Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch both have to play much better this season. Vander Esch’s problem is his availability rather than his actual on-field performance. After a promising rookie campaign, he’s missed 13 games over the past two seasons. Keeping him on the field is a must for this defense. Smith had the tackle numbers on paper but he struggled on tape. He took a step back in coverage and against the run. In a more structured scheme, Smith will be able to play more freely and will be put in a better position on a play-to-play basis. Micah Parsons gives the group great depth and a Swiss Army knife at linebacker. Neal gives them a big hitter who can move all around the defense.
Neville Gallimore will begin the season on injured reserve so the team is thin on the interior. They’ll lean on players like Watkins and Urban to carry the load in his absence. DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory are a good edge-rushing tandem. Lawrence’s back surgery may limit his impact early in the season. Once he fully recovers, the Cowboys have a pro bowl-caliber edge rusher who can make game-changing plays. Trevon Diggs is going into his second year and he’ll start on the outside at corner. Kelvin Joseph and Nahshon Wright are two rookies vying for the other starting spot. Wright is a bigger corner who fits Quinn’s mold.
Predicting the 53 Man Roster
Prescott’s shoulder injury has been the talk of the offseason but the Cowboys expect him to be ready when the season starts. A healthy Prescott means the team will most likely only have two quarterbacks on the active roster. Cooper Rush, Ben DiNucci, and Gilbert are competing for the backup quarterback spot. Gilbert has been the more consistent player during the preseason so he gets the nod here as the No. 2 quarterback.
Last season the Cowboys kept three running backs on the active roster. This season it’ll be four because Ralston makes the team at fullback. Elliott is locked in and looks to be in the best shape of his career. Pollard is an explosive back and he’s great in space so he brings something different to the table. He’ll be the change-of-pace back. Elliott and Pollard will be a dynamic duo in 2021. The last spot at running back is between JaQuan Hardy and Dowdle. Dowdle’s contributions on special teams will earn him a roster spot.
Here is where the most talented position group on the roster exists. Cooper, Lamb, and Gallup were putting up big numbers last season before Prescott’s injury. With Prescott back in the lineup, the Cowboys have arguably the NFL’s best receiving unit. Wilson and Brown are both depth pieces. Wilson is their biggest target at receiver standing at 6’5” and he’s been playing well in preseason. Brown is the best blocking wide receiver on the roster and he contributes on special teams. Fehoko and Malik Turner are both having good training camps but Fehoko edges him out for the final spot at receiver.
Jarwin and Schultz are both capable of starting for the Cowboys. Prescott likes to utilize his tight ends as check-down targets so both will have a role in the offense. They are both decent blockers and safe red zone targets. McKeon went down with an ankle injury in the Cowboys’ preseason game against the Cardinals. He was having a good camp and was the clear leader for the No. 3 tight-end spot before his injury. He’ll be out for multiple weeks. If the injury lingers then Jeremy Sprinkle could end up in this spot but for now, it’s McKeon.
Depth up front was an issue for the Cowboys last year and they’re trying to avoid that problem this season. Smith, Biadasz, Martin, Collins, and Wiliams are the starters. Williams is the starting left guard and the backup center. McGovern is the backup guard. Nsekhe offers value as the swing tackle, a spot he was competing with Josh Ball for before Ball’s injury. Steele is a young player who has starter potential if developed correctly. He’ll make the roster with the staff hoping they can fine-tune his technique.
Dallas is thin on the interior. The injury to Gallimore has the Cowboys searching for answers. Gallimore flashed his potential last season as a rookie and was expected to take a step forward this season. His injury forces Quinn to experiment with his rotation. Watkins and Urban will be the starters. Watkins has shown a lot of potential in training camp and he’ll get the chance to prove it on the field. Bohanna and Odighizuwa are both rookies who were not expected to see the field much this year but will have to play a bigger role than expected.
The Cowboys may ultimately decide to go with four edge rushers here instead of five. Still, five seems like the best option to go with. Lawrence is coming off of back surgery and those types of injuries are notorious for hanging around longer than expected. Easing Lawrence into things with a light load to begin the season seems smart. Having young depth pieces with fresh legs like Basham, Anae, and Armstrong gives Dallas a multitude of quality rotation pieces on the edge. Basham is having a strong camp and both Anae and Armstrong have jumped off the screen in the preseason.
Smith, Vander Esch, and Parsons will see the most snaps at linebacker. Parsons was a top-10 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft and he’s been showing why, as evident with his play in the preseason. He has rare sideline to sideline speed and will play a big role as a pass rusher this season. Smith is hoping to bounce back this season. Vander Esch is healthy and looks better than ever. Neal knows Quinn’s system and is a hybrid linebacker who can play in multiple packages. Cox was drafted in the fourth round and has been one of their best defensive performers during the preseason.
Diggs is the best corner on the team and is a lock to start. Lewis is a solid option in the slot and while Canady is pushing him for that spot, it appears Lewis is most likely to be the starter. Canady’s play has earned him a spot on the roster. The other spot on the outside is up for grabs between the two rookies. Joseph is raw but also a great athlete. Wright is 6’4” and has played well in training camp. Goodwin is on the team solely for special teams. Anthony Brown could make the roster but the Cowboys may opt to release him and going with one of their younger options.
Hooker was signed on July 27, but Wilson and Kazee are the favorites to start the season opener. Kazee is another player familiar with Quinn’s scheme. He’s a veteran starter with a history of forcing turnovers. Wilson started 10 games last season but Hooker will replace him as the starter after the first few weeks of the season. With Hooker and Kazee on the back-end, the Dallas pass defense will improve dramatically. Kearse makes his mark on special teams. Mukuamu is a wild card here. He was a sixth-round draft pick so he could end up on the practice squad but his versatility is valuable.
Zuerlein, Anger, and McQuaide are the special teamers who will make the roster. Zuerlein bounced back from a poor 2019 season with 34 made field goals in 2020. Anger was signed as a free agent to give the Cowboys a veteran presence at punter. McQuaide is the new long snapper. He’s a two-time Pro Bowler so special teams gets a boost here.
One Player to Add
With the injury to Gallimore, defensive tackle is the obvious area to target. Several veterans on the market could come in and give the defense quality snaps. Geno Atkins comes to mind but Jurrell Casey is the player who Dallas should target. Casey was a Pro Bowler in 2019 before suffering a season-ending injury in 2020. He’s two years younger than Atkins and he can play at multiple spots on the defensive front. Adding a cheap defensive tackle with experience would be great for the defense. If Casey is fully healthy, then he could return to being one of the better defensive tackles in the league at a low price.
2021 Outlook & Odds
Dallas has the best odds to win the NFC East and their over-under win total is set at 9.5 wins. Keeping Prescott healthy and the improvements on defense will define the Cowboys’ season. It’s only year two but McCarthy has to produce this season or both the fans and media will begin to doubt him. With Prescott, Elliott, Pollard, Cooper, Lamb, and Gallup, the Cowboys are stacked on offense. Their offense alone will win them 8-9 games. Hiring Quinn and improving at safety and linebacker will make the Cowboys a respectable defense in 2021. A middle-of-the-pack defense with a top-five offense makes Dallas one of the better teams in the NFC.
Season Prediction: 11-6 and Win the NFC East
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