By Mike Crum
Dallas Cowboys Team Analyst and Co-Host of the Across The Cowboys Podcast
Do you guys remember August 16th, 2020? It seems so long ago. That was the day the Dallas Cowboys signed Everson Griffen. He was the “final piece” to this Super Bowl contending team. Griffen was to be paired with Demarcus Lawerence, A.K.A. “Tank,” Aldon Smith, Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe. That new dominant defensive line (DL) was going to open up the field for our two young stud linebackers (LB) while also helping our young secondary remain respectable with a great pass rush. The secondary could then rely upon getting turnovers and third down stops to give the ball back to this juggernaut of an offense.
That offense, wow was it going to be special. Nicknamed "Team 40 Burger" by the Cowboys fanbase because it was going to be a threat to put up 40-plus points in any game. Dak Prescott was going to be an MVP candidate. Ezekiel "Zeke" Elliott was going to be closing out fourth quarters, punishing defenders behind one of the top offensive lines (OL) in the NFL. Tyron Smith, Connor Williams, Joe Looney, Zack Martin and La’el Collins would give Dak all day to throw. The pass-catchers surrounding Dak were in abundance, too. Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and CeeDee Lamb made up possibly the best three wide receivers (WR) in all of the NFL. Blake Jarwin was projected to be a great stretch tight end (TE) target, and they had two backs that could effect the passing game in big ways. I can still feel in my bones how great this team was gonna be. Then it just never was.
Unfortunately, the curse of 2020 hit this Cowboys team hard. Injury after injury just drained this fan base as the Cowboys put up loss after loss. With the final blow, a season-ending injury to QB Dak Prescott, this season quickly turned into most of us looking forward to next year. I decided to break down some possible plans to make the most of the rest of this year and the offseason to come. In this article I’ll go position by position and lay out for you Cowboy fans exactly what adjustments the team needs to make for each group heading into 2021. I'll do this from a realistic approach, very much mirroring how this team's front office would actually attack free agency and the draft. If you're looking for me to sign two top-name free agents on day one, this article isn't for you. Let’s start with the offense and the clear key to this team, quarterback (QB) Dak Prescott.
Dak has finally proven himself, to any and all objective observers, as an incredible QB. That was made apparent by the difference in the splits of this 2020 team with and without him on the field. At the start of this season, I had Dak as the seventh-best QB in the league. Today, however, I can’t put him lower than fourth. Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson are the clear top two, followed by Aaron Rodgers and then Dak. That’s it, that’s the list. The Cowboys front office would be stupid not to sign Dak to whatever he wants. The whole team is a mess without him. Garrett Gilbert played well in a game against one of the best defenses in football. Based on that one game versus the Steelers alone, I would be okay with bringing him back as the backup QB. He will be a restricted free agent (RFA) at the end of this season, so if the Cowboys want him back, that won't be a problem. The final step in the QB plan is to make Andy Dalton look valuable. Let him start for the remainder of the season and pray that he plays well enough to get a new contract elsewhere, possibly even giving the Cowboys a compensatory draft pick (comp pick).
It’s always tough when you pay big money to a running back (RB). Zeke is still a good player, but he is no longer the type of player that can make his OL better. Zeke can’t do enough to be worth the cost of that contract, but he can still be very useful on this team. He is an excellent short yardage runner who can easily pick up 3rd and 4th down conversions and convert goal line carries into touchdowns. He can be used to wear down defenses, or finish them off in the fourth quarter like body blows to a boxer. Zeke is also an elite pass protector, something Dak definitely needs.
Nevertheless, for the rest of this season this team should lean more on Tony Pollard. The injured OL isn’t opening up holes like we hoped it would heading into the season. They may even be more effective with a shiftier RB who can make his own path. Look at the Vikings game, for example. Zeke had a great game indeed, averaging just under five yards per carry. But Pollard went for 60 yards on only five carries. Not only that, but Pollard could get more experience with more snaps and in turn save some valuable wear and tear on Zeke. You can even see this year that Pollard has improved at blitz pickup, which is enormous for his development.
Rico Dowdle is fine as the third RB. He isn’t going to see many carries, of course, so he really just needs to continue to improve as a special teams (ST) player. A day three RB in the draft is possible but I'd bet on an undrafted free agent (UDFA) as more likely.
The Cowboys are absolutely loaded at the WR position. Amari Cooper is a very good number one WR. He isn’t Julio Jones or Deandre Hopkins, but you aren’t upset with him being your top guy. This season with four different QBs he is on pace for 100 receptions, 1,200 yards, and five TDs. He will definitely be on this team at least through the 2021 season and possibly longer depending on what they do with him once his guaranteed money runs out. His performance in this season shows he's a number one WR and only 26 years old, he will be the man here for the near future.
Rookie WR CeeDee Lamb is a bonafide stud. He would be a number one WR as early as next season on a team without an Amari Cooper on it, and the Cowboys have him on a cheap contract for five years.
Cedric Wilson is the perfect fourth WR. He is versatile on offense, having the ability to play outside or in the slot. He can throw the ball, too, so he can help execute trick plays. He is also a contributor on special teams as a returner. Wilson is a RFA, and I can’t see the Cowboys letting him get away.
This leaves the man the fanbase seems to be split on: Michael Gallup. There are three ways this thing could go. The first would be to trade Gallup. In doing so, the Cowboys would get something for him before he leaves in free agency, allowing them to go into a WR-rich draft where they can snag a rookie on day two or three to pair with Lamb and Cooper. This could be the best long-term play, but it would definitely make us worse in 2021. And if I'm running this squad and I have a healthy Dak Prescott, I’m trying to make a run next year. I’m not interested in getting a rookie up to speed, or hoping the guy you drafted wasn’t a bust, so I’m keeping Gallup.
The second way to handle this situation would be to play Gallup in 2021, try to win it all, and then hopefully get a comp pick in 2022 when he leaves in free agency. This is likely going to be the play, and I’m okay with it.
The third option is truly how I’d play it though. With how Cooper has played this year, I know I'm going to get disagreement, but I would play Gallup next year, and then after 2021 when Amari Cooper is out of guaranteed money I would move him in a trade for a draft pick, and then re-sign Gallup to a lower percentage of the cap than Cooper got. Here is my rational, by then Lamb should be the clear number one WR and I still believe with Dak, Gallup will be one of the best number two's in the league. In both the 2021 and 2022 drafts, I'd use a day three pick on a WR that I can develop. The position is deep again in the upcoming draft, and you can get day two prospects on day three. You just have to hope that one hits so you can develop him into a slot WR to pair with Lamb and Gallup. This way you still have an excellent WR core, but you can help your cap space at the same time. Dazz Newsome is a slot guy I’ve mocked to the Cowboys already. He has great vertical speed, and that threat to beat opponents deep allows him to get separation on short routes like hitches. That speed element is something that is still missing from this Cowboys team. Another intriguing prospect with speed is Anthony Schwartz from Auburn. He could run under 4.3 in the 40.
The one thing 2020 has been good for is that it’s shown that this team doesn’t need anything at the TE position. Dalton Schultz has proven himself as a capable number one TE option. This is great considering Blake Jarwin will be back next season, making Schultz an excellent backup to have. Jarwin is a stretch-the-field option who the Cowboys just signed to a four-year deal worth $22 million. I’d like them to bring back Blake Bell as their third TE. He is a great blocker and is fine as a primary backup if Jarwin or Schultz misses any time.
Dallas could also focus on the TE position in the upcoming draft. Tight ends rarely make an immediate impact in the NFL as they quite often take multiple years to break out. And, Schultz will be a free agent after 2021. Is it possible that if the right guy drops to the fourth round, the Cowboys could draft a guy to groom as the eventual replacement for Schultz? Absolutely. And if they do, two standouts I'd like for them to consider are Hunter Long from Boston College, and Tre' McKitty out of Georgia.
Here is the area where I’m going to make many of my fellow Cowboys fans mad. This is my testament and I'll scream it from the rooftops. This team's OL line is good whether they make a big move or not in the upcoming offseason. With Dak at QB, the Cowboys were operating as a top-three offense in 2020. His OL consisted of Brandon Knight, Connor Williams, Joe Looney, Zack Martin and Terrence Steele. Steele, a replacement level player at best was starting at right tackle, and they had a top-three offense! If Tyron Smith decides to retire and Collins can't come back from his hip surgery, the Cowboys OL would consist of Cam Erving, Connor Williams, Tyler Biadasz, Zack Martin and Brandon Knight. With that OL in front of Dak, this offense would easily be a top-five unit.
The team's success would still come down to how the defense holds up, and that’s the worst-case scenario. Don't forget that Zack Martin could always move outside as well as he did this year before sustaining an injury. The likely thing to happen is that Collins and Smith play next season, and this team has an excellent swing offensive tackle (OT) in Brandon Knight. Because of this, I wouldn't be looking to select an OL early in this draft. If Sewell were available whenever we picked I’d likely trade back because he will definitely be a coveted asset by other teams. Granted, I would not complain if we drafted him. Sewell would likely be the best player available at a premium position. Going with that strategy in any draft is always a sound one, but I believe we could help our 2021 team more by focusing on the defense. I would, however, draft some help along the line later then round one. Jackson Carman from Clemson on day two perhaps, or a guy inside in case Looney leaves as a free agent.
The defense this year is already in training camp mode. This coaching staff is evaluating their young players and attempting to develop them with each snap this season, while also getting an idea of what they are going to have going into this offseason. The evidence of this lies in the team moving on from veteran players like Everson Griffen, Daryl Worley, and Dontari Poe. This has allowed them to give more snaps to younger guys, and we have already found out a lot about those players. Guys like Neville Gallimore and Justin Hamilton have shown they can both be solid contributors. Gallimore maybe even showed a little bit more a few weeks back versus the Steelers. Add that to what Randy Gregory has done, and how Trysten Hill flashed before his injury, and this DL may not be that far away. Hill and Gallimore are the guys going forward at the three technique (3T) spot. Both are very young, and look like disruptors up front. I'm all for drafting an improvement at this spot, but I believe the other DT spot needs more attention. If Antwaun Woods is brought back as a RFA, he and Justin Hamilton could be nice depth at the one technique (1T). That leaves a need for one dominant run stuffer inside. A free agent like Dalvin Tomlinson or Mike Pennel would be great additions, but I don't know if the Cowboys front office will want to pay up for them.
Focusing on improving solely through the draft instead, I like a few guys including three big nose tackle (NT) types like Tedarrell Slaton out of Florida, Jordan Davis from Georgia, or my personal favorite, Tyler Shelvin from LSU. These guys could be around in rounds three, four or five. This is closer to the value that the Cowboys put on that position. Give me one good plug guy to stuff the run and keep opposing OLs off our LBs and we’ll be set at defensive tackle.
The edge-rusher position will depend a lot on whether or not Aldon Smith returns or can be replaced with a different veteran free agent. Demarcus Lawrence is getting healthy, and is playing like a stud once again. He is at the top of the league in sacks created, has a great pass rush win rate, gets lots of pressures, and we know how well he plays the run. The guy is a monster that just needs some others to help take some pressure off around him so that he can get those coveted sacks we all love so much.
Randy Gregory is finally back and he looks like he will be a problem for opposing offenses across from Tank on pass rushing downs. This past week he was sick which limited him to a mere 16 total snaps, although he did have four pressures on those 16 plays. Gregory is a freak of nature. Add Aldon to these two which would allow Dorance Armstrong and Bradlee Anae to be luxury depth guys and you are set going into 2021 without a need to spend big draft capital on another edge player. If Aldon signs elsewhere, I’d first look to bring in a free agent such as Melvin Ingram, or Ryan Kerrigan to play that role. If we can’t bring in any vets like those two, then we have a big issue that we will need to address with a top-100 pick. With the holes this defense needs to fill, it would be very nice to not have this be a 2021 need. If it is though, Gregory Rousseau is currently my favorite player in this draft class. He is an unlimited project that gets productivity off his raw talent and length alone. He was playing safety and wide receiver two years ago, and has only been an edge rusher the last two seasons. I just salivate thinking about Jim Tomsula getting his hands on this 6’7", 260-pound freak. In his one full year as an edge rusher, that moved inside quite a bit at the University of Miami, Florida, Rousseau recorded 19.5 tackles for a loss and 15.5 sacks. If we have a hole at the edge position, Rousseau is a man to target in the 2021 draft. He is a special kind of rare talent that good coaching can turn into a game changer. Although he is considered somewhat of an unknown - some draft analysts have him listed as a top edge player, while others have tagged him with a second-round grade. Staring that uncertainty right in the face, I still believe the right move is re-signing Aldon and then using the draft to fix the rest of this defense outside of the edge position. Other edge prospect you can target in the teens to twenties like Rousseau include Jayson Oweh from Penn State, and Jaelan Phillips, originally from UCLA, now in Miami. Either of those are more ready made traditional edge rushers.
The biggest unknown on this team is definitely LB. The key at this position is Leighton Vander Esch. If he is healthy all year and can be the on-the-field defensive coordinator for the front seven, then the team can maneuver other guys around him and be okay. I’m hoping they can bring back Joe Thomas as the team's universal backup. He is even solid enough in coverage to be a starter in nickel packages. Sean Lee is next season's Jason Witten. If he wants to be a coach, welcome back. If he wants to continue playing snaps, then he's gotta be wearing a different jersey in 2021.
With what remains of the current season, I’d love for this team to find snaps for Francis Bernard and Luke Gifford. The team needs to know what those guys can bring to the table at LB going into the offseason. Like DT, if a young guy or two steps up, the position isn’t as dire of a need. If, however, they are merely special teamers, then draft capital will have to be dedicated to bolstering the LB room. No, I don’t want to spend a top-50 pick on an off-ball LB, but it might be necessary. Whether it's Micah Parsons from Penn State really early. Guys like Dylan Moses out of Alabama, or Nick Bolten from Missouri day two. Day three guys like Monty Rice in Georgia or Baron Browning out of Ohio State, this team, one way or another will need to use draft capital on the position.
Now, let's talk about Jaylon Smith. He isn’t playing good football consistently, and honestly, he’s been pretty poor overall. Even factoring in a post-June first cut, the money makes it hard for me to believe that Jaylon won’t be a starter here in 2021. Jerry Jones calls him a "cornerstone of the defense." I think the key to next year is playing Jaylon to his strength of going downhill, keeping him out of coverage situations as much as possible, and cutting his snap percentages from 90-100% to 60-65%. The only thing about this position I’m fairly certain of is that Vander Esch and Smith will be the base starters. Beyond that, the team has a lot of work to do. In my latest mock draft, I sent both Palaie Gaoteote, IV from USC, and Amari Gainer from Florida State to Dallas as day three picks. I’m just looking for good athletes that have the ability to play the run and pass. Chazz Surratt from North Carolina would be an ideal fit as well. If I go the free agency route then I’d just try to keep Thomas or Justin March. Moving the young guys up could even be a solid plan, as the free agency market doesn’t inspire much.
The defensive back (DB) group could honestly be fixed with one strong offseason. It looks bad right now, but they are actually closer than we think. Let’s start at cornerback (CB). I’m devastated by the Trevon Diggs injury. From week one that kid has been matched up with stud WR after stud WR: Robert Woods, Julio Jones, DK Metcalf, Odell Beckham, Jr., DeAndre Hopkins and Terry McLaurin. Diggs went head-to-head with each and was getting better, snap by snap, game by game, and week by week. He stopped blowing coverages the last two weeks we saw him, and even lead the team in interceptions. Diggs looks like a great second CB or even a solid main CB on the defense. This makes me want to use a high pick on another top CB to make this group great. I’d love to do this from within, but we just don’t have the guys. I’d like to bring back Chidobe "Chido" Awuzie as a guy that can play outside, in the slot, as a dime LB, or perhaps even line up at safety on occasion. If the price is right, he can be a valuable depth piece in the DB room.
Anthony Brown is our slot guy, and he is fine there, but he isn’t elevating the unit as one of the starters either. Maurice Canady is coming back after opting out of the 2020 season and is a solid back up and STs player. I’d bring CJ Goodwin back as a ST ace also. Jourdan Lewis is gonna go elsewhere.
If we really wanna upgrade this unit the key could be Aldon Smith re-signing. If the edge rush is solid, it would give us the flexibility to use our top ten pick on a CB. I’m looking to pair Diggs with fellow Alabama CB, Patrick Surtain, Jr. Listed at 6'2", 202 pounds, Surtain, Jr. has the size the Cowboys covet for their secondary players. He is an excellent athlete for his size, and can play equally well against speedy WRs and bigger WRs, too.
Other prospects that fit Cowboys framework in the draft include Caleb Farley from Virginia Tech, or Jaycee Horn out of South Carolina. I would also keep my eye on Tyson Campbell out of Georgia. He fits exactly what the Cowboys like in a CB. Campbell is six foot two inches tall, he is extremely lengthy, and runs under a 4.5 in the 40. One of those draft picks, plus Diggs, Brown, Chido, Canady and Goodwin would create a solid CB room. In free agency we could maybe obtain an upgrade from Chido with a signing like William Jackson, III, but if we end up grabbing a CB early in the draft then it might not be necessary. Honestly, I'm really not too worried about the CB room. I know this front office values that position, but they truly need to complement them with a safety room that is finally producing the way it should be.
I’ve been a Donovan Wilson fan since the start of the 2019 training camp. I was very happy that this coaching staff didn’t keep putting out guys whose ceiling is capped at being average. Darian Thompson was bad, Jeff Heath before him was better, but even at his best he was still mediocre. Wilson is showing that with more playing time he can develop into a starting-caliber safety with the ability to be a playmaker. He flies around the field and has no fear taking on blocks when in the box. He seemingly improves with every snap he sees. In the Vikings game he had nine tackles, half of a sack, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. He was impossible to miss out there. I believe he will start next year at safety, but he would be an excellent third safety if the team really attacks this position this offseason.
If it were up to me, I would let the opposite safety, Xavier Woods, walk this offseason. Let's face it, he's a JAG (just a guy) out there. He doesn’t make too many mistakes, but he doesn’t make any plays either. The Cowboys need to use the draft to improve this position, and possibly even sign a cheap free agent as well.
Depth-wise I like Reggie Robinson - similar to Chido - to play everywhere in the defensive backfield. Darian Thompson is signed and is a solid STs player. If I’m the general manager, I’m opening up free agency with a Cowboys-style signing of Malik Hooker. He should be pretty cheap due to his injury-prone label. Bring him in and tell him this is the place with plenty of eyes on you. If you can play well and stay healthy, a big contract will come as a result. He has Quinn and Cobb as examples, and Aldon might join those two as well. With those four in place, I’m going at the draft hard for safety in day two. The good news for Dallas is that even though the draft isn’t top-heavy at safety, there are a lot of good day two players that can be instant starters as rookies.
Let’s start with Andre Cisco out of Syracuse. I’m hoping his ACL injury terrifies other teams. I’d love to scoop up Cisco with an early 3rd round pick. He is a ball hawking safety that can play the run just fine. He's the perfect all around guy you want on the back end of your defense. If some other team recognizes his upside and snatches him before we can, then options like Paris Ford from Pittsburgh, Jevon Holland out of Oregan, or Hamsah Nasirildeen from Florida State would all be great day two picks. I personally would add Trevon Moehrig, but I don’t believe the team will look to draft a TCU player, or Georgia Bulldog, Richard LeCounte, because he doesn't fit the profile of what they like-size wise at DB. The point is, if this team properly values the position, the safety group could be really good in 2021.
For three years now, most of us have said Chris Jones shouldn’t be the punter. This still applies now. Hunter Niswander has been much better as the new punter and I suspect he will keep the job. Minus that, the STs is fine. Greg Zuerlein is hitting most of his kicks, minus the Ravens debacle. Pollard is improving as a kick returner, but needs to be less hit-and-miss. Lamb and Wilson are a fine punt return duo. The STs unit is the most improved on the team so far. Just let John Fassel do his job, and Mike McCarthy, make much better decisions on when to fake punt.
This Dallas Cowboys have a chance to do something very special next season. Let’s just imagine the team we put together here. Re-sign Aldon, draft Surtain, Jr., Cisco and Shelvin. Add a Malik Hooker and maybe a William Jackson, III in free agency. That defense shouldn’t be a bottom of the league unit. Give this offense an average defense, and with Dak back under center in addition to a healthy OL returning, this team is cooking with gas.
Lastly, let's quickly tackle the tank vs win debate. What if we finish last in the division this year? Our 2021 schedule would then consist of six games against an NFC East that a healthy Dak Prescott has owned. We would face a tough four games vs the AFC West, the silver lining of which is the preparation they'd get from squaring off against some of the NFL's best teams. That’s ten games; what of the remaining six? Well, four of those will be against the NFC South, as that's the division we'll face in 2021. And if we do finish last in the NFC East, then our last two games will be against the last place teams in the NFC North and West. This could easily lead to an 11-13 win season, meaning we could be flying into the 2021 playoffs.
On the flip side, what if this team continues to improve and somehow manages to actually win the division this year? Yes, we'd lose spots in the draft, and the schedule would definitely be tougher next year, but think of the confidence boost that would give this team. To go from where this year started to experiencing a playoff game would be invaluable. The coaching staff would get a taste of postseason play with these guys, while the young players would get to bask in the intensity of a playoff matchup. They could go into 2021 with a boost that can't be measured by an earlier draft prospect or an easier schedule. I have to say, Cowboys fans, either way I’m already excited! The only thing left to do is to see how the rest of the 2020 season plays out so we'll know what we can learn from this year in its entirety, and what we will take into one of the most thrilling and most important offseasons in the history of the Dallas Cowboys franchise.
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