Nine months ago, in offseason grades published about a month after the 2016 NFL draft, ESPN's Mike Sando teamed up with NFL Insiders Mark Dominik, Bill Polian, Louis Riddick, and Field Yates to give the Cowboys a "C" for their offseason:
The Cowboys' glaring need for pass-rush help became even more evident this offseason, once Randy Gregory got suspended the first four games and word filtered out that DeMarcus Lawrence is facing a similar penalty.
There were no complaints when the Cowboys selected running back Ezekiel Elliott fourth overall instead of addressing the pass rush. That was an exciting move that should help the team immediately and for years to come.
"I love the drafting of Elliott," Riddick said. "You just cannot deny the fact that the pass rush is still a huge problem and they really didn't address it. So when you have the second-round pick sitting there, you have to knock it out of the park. While I like the Jaylon Smith story, you probably could have helped your pass rush there. Other than Ezekiel Elliott, this is a tough one for me."
Dominik liked Dak Prescott's addition to finally give the Cowboys some young depth at quarterback, but he thought the Cowboys were banking on too many defensive players carrying question marks stemming from durability, production or suspension concerns.
"There is not a ton to knock Dallas on," Yates said. "You just would have felt more comfortable if the Cowboys had addressed their pass rush in the first couple rounds."
By ESPN standards, the "C" cumulative grade for the Cowboys was pretty bad. 24 teams received a better grade, only three received a worse grade. That ranked the Cowboys offseason somewhere between 25th and 30th.
But ESPN was not the only media outlet panning the Cowboys offseason. Pro Football Focus gave the Cowboys a "C+". Seven teams shared that rating, 19 had a better rating, six had a worse rating. Here's their explanation, including quite a funny take on Dak Prescott
The Cowboys stayed pretty quiet in free agency, and the draft was relatively low-key, as well, as they failed to execute a move for QB Paxton Lynch. Elliott should be a huge presence from day one, but you have to wonder whether they will ultimately look back at that pick and wish they had chosen Ramsey when they had the chance. This team is still in need of some talent upgrades in the secondary, and they missed an opportunity to improve there over the offseason.
Dak Prescott has raw physical tools, but was only the 14th-highest-graded passer in this draft class last season, and the 18th-best at passing alone. He has a lot of work to do to become a viable asset for the Cowboys at the next level.
You can google more 2016 offseason grades, and you'll find some hilarious takes from self-styled experts who are often anything but. In fact, I encourage you to do it; you might stumble across more takes like this one:
Looking around at the rest of the NFC East, thought the Giants and Redskins both did really well. Cowboys' draft is crap.— Jimmy Kempski (@JimmyKempski) May 1, 2016
With the 2016 season safely in the rear-view mirror, and nine months after publishing the original offseason grades, ESPN's Mike Sando yesterday re-graded the 2016 offseason for all 32 NFL teams and gives the Cowboys an "A" for their offseason, tied with the Chiefs and Ravens for the best grade in the league.
The C grade was handed down when Tony Romo was healthy, Dak Prescott was seen as long-term depth and the Cowboys looked like a team that would struggle to rush the passer. No one could have known Prescott would flourish as a rookie fourth-round choice. That includes the Cowboys, who famously settled for Prescott after trying to trade up in the draft for two other quarterbacks, Paxton Lynch and Connor Cook.
Prescott, first-round pick Ezekiel Elliott and the Dallas offense have performed so well that the defense, though improved, has looked even better by playing with leads. That situational context explains how Dallas has improved from 16th to fifth in points allowed while remaining relatively flat in defensive EPA, which measures performance in a situational context, taking into account key variables such as field position created by turnovers. This Dallas defense played with a lead for 699 snaps, up from 397 snaps in 2015.
The bottom line is that Dallas hit grand slams with Prescott and Elliott, transforming its team into a championship contender. Lesser-known draft choices such as defensive tackle Maliek Collins (five sacks) and cornerback Anthony Brown (nine starts) also made meaningful contributions.
Of particular note, four teams aced the 2016 offseason in the original article from May: The Raiders, Jaguars, Patriots, and Cardinals. Re-graded just nine months later, those three teams are all over the place. The Patriots retain their "A", the Cardinals slip to a "B+", the Raiders get a "B", and the Jaguars drop to "C+".
But that doesn't automatically mean that bad initial grades will morph into a good grade after a while. The Cleveland Browns received the worst ESPN offseason grade of all teams with a "D". Nine months later, they are still stuck with a "D" - though now they can at least claim not to have the worst grade anymore. That went to the 49ers with a straight "F", down from a "C" in May. I guess Chip Kelly will do that for you.
Free agency "grades" after the first day of free agency, just like draft "grades" right after the draft, are some of silliest rituals the NFL has produced. (Yes, we know that BTB engages in them too! Like we said, it’s a ritual). Complaining about those draft grades is probably even sillier.
Every year we'll see a wide range of assessments of each team's offseason moves. Some of them offer a reasonable assessment of a given team's offseason activities, others offer a much more radical take penned by authors who have little more than snarky commentary and click-generating headlines to offer.
None of this matters for the Cowboys. Initially ridiculed for their lack of spending in free agency and their inability to draft a QB early, they are now getting a lot of the recognition for their success. But none of that matters either.
Because ultimately, the success of the 2016 season will be judged by what happens in the postseason. And that starts on Sunday against the Packers.