In part one of this 10-part series, we set the ground rules by looking at the Cowboys’ team-building philosophy. Next we are going to do a three-part analysis of the team as it stands now - where the Cowboys are strong, just okay, and weak.
Where Are The Cowboys Strong?
The Front Office
While this is an area of the team that was once criticized heavily, and with good reason, the leadership of the Cowboys - Jerry Jones and Stephen Jones - has become very strong. Jerry just got voted into the Hall of Fame, and it’s not entirely because of his talent at promotion and money-making. Stephen Jones, as this nice profile from Sports Illustrated shows, has played a valuable role at moderating Jerry’s gambling tendencies and kept the Cowboys’ on track. The example of Johnny Manziel perhaps explains his influence best.
If that mirror could reflect the sources of this team’s success, it would linger on a 15-minute span in the Cowboys’ war room on May 8, 2014—the night of the NFL draft’s first round.
Johnny Manziel was supposed to have been picked by now—but there he was, fidgeting in the green room at Radio City Music Hall, when it came time for the Cowboys to use their selection at No. 16.
This was going to be a problem for Dallas. Jerry Jones was smitten with the Heisman-winning Texas A&M quarterback. But the men Jones had hired to help him make those decisions? Not so much. “If you’re scared [of Manziel],” one Cowboys executive joked to Stephen, one of those draftniks, “then I’m really scared.”
“I’ll never forget that morning,” recalls Stephen. “Jerry said, ‘Let’s go through the [prospects] again, make sure we all see eye to eye on how we’ve got ’em ranked.’” If Manziel was still there at 16, the patriarch added, “I assume we’d take him—wouldn’t we?”
Replied Stephen, with some delicacy, “Well, I don’t think we would.”
Jerry acquiesced: If any of three defensive players were still available—linebackers Ryan Shazier or Anthony Barr or tackle Aaron Donald—the Cowboys would choose one of them before the quarterback.
“And Zack,” Stephen reminded his father. Indeed, Dallas had Notre Dame guard Zack Martin higher on its board than Manziel. But Jerry wasn’t making any promises.
Surely it wouldn’t come to that, father and son finally agreed. Surely, by then, Manziel would be gone—or one of the defenders would still be available.
It came to that.
“So there we were, staring at Johnny and Zack Martin,” Stephen says. Jerry went around the table trying to wrangle support for Manziel, but he came up empty. “Lonely is the right word,” Jerry says. “I don’t think there was another soul in the room” who shared the owner’s enthusiasm for Johnny Football. Instead, Jerry suggested his team trade out of the pick. “But no one was calling to trade,” explains Stephen. By this time the boss “was not happy,” says the son. Exasperated, Jerry finally asked, “So no one in this room wants to take Johnny Manziel?”
“There wasn’t a peep,” says Stephen, who told his old man, “Dad, we need to take Zack.”
“All right,” came the reply. “Turn it in.”
Where would the Cowboys be today if they hadn’t turned in the Zack Martin card?
In addition to the Jones’s, Senior Director of Player Personnel Will McClay, whom we’ve dubbed their not-so secret weapon in the player personnel department is also a great strength of the team. Indeed, without McClay’s evaluations, Dallas’s decision to build through the draft might have gone for naught. As our own OCC has demonstrated, recent Dallas drafts have shown up on the field in a big way, which in large part can be traced back to Mr. McClay.
The Coaching Staff
In the same show where Jerry Jones was announced for the Hall of Fame, Jason Garrett was announced for Coach of the Year. It has been a long time coming, but is well deserved. Everything about the Cowboys on the field can be traced back to Garrett and the principles he instills in the team. The Cowboys also have former head coaches in Rod Marinelli and Scott Linehan to coach the defense and offense, and a slew of quality position-level coaches as well. Moreover, the team has really developed the continuity that helps winning in the NFL.
The only thing missing from their resumes is a Super Bowl. Let’s hope that’s remedied next year and for several years thereafter.
Who are the best players on the Cowboys? To evaluate that, we looked at a couple of ratings - Pro Football Reference’s Approximate Value and Football Outsider ratings for certain positions - and made our own assessment about where to draw the line. We also took into account how long these players are under contract, and considered their ages. (Note: these are not ranked in order.)
Quarterback Dak Prescott
By any measure, Dak Prescott had a fantastic season. As we argued here, when you consider his performance, his cheap rookie contract, and that his presence will allow the Cowboys to trade Tony Romo and gain cap space, Dak is the most valuable player in the NFL. He also just won offensive rookie of the year. His AV was 16.
- Plan: He is under contract until 2019. All signs point to him being the Cowboys’ franchise quarterback for the foreseeable future. Year two will be important to establish that conclusively.
Running back Ezekiel Elliott
Elliott finished third all-time in rushing yards by a rookie, and broke several Dallas Cowboys rookie records. He finished just behind Dak for offensive rookie of the year honors, but was also a finalist for several other awards. HIs AV was 16.
- Plan: He’s under contract until 2019, but the Cowboys hold an option for 2020. Zeke should be stellar at least through the five years Dallas has control, but one hopes the Cowboys have another Hall of Fame running back who can last well into a second contract or longer.
Offensive linemen Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin
Though well deserving of individual praise, it makes sense to group them as a unit, as they are inseparable during the season. Along with Ron Leary and Doug Free, they won the inaugural Offensive Line of Year Award. They were also voted first team All Pros, again. Their AVs are each 13.
- Plan: Dallas has already bitten the long-term contract bullet for Smith and Frederick, and it’s only a matter of time until Martin joins them. He’s in his fourth year this season, but Dallas can lock him up on an option next year, and re-sign him to reduce his cap hit.
Wide receiver Dez Bryant
This was not Dez Bryant’s best year. He was out for several games after suffering an injury. As it was his first season with Dak, their connection was not always the strongest. Their best game together was the playoff loss to Green Bay, when Dez caught nine balls on 12 targets for 132 yards and two touchdowns. Nevertheless, Dez was named an alternate for the Pro Bowl, and remains a dominant receiver. His AV this year was 8.
- Plan: He is signed through 2019, when he’ll be 30, but if he would accept adding on a couple years, that would make sense for Dallas. He’s more likely to want to try to hit one last home run contract.
Wide receiver Cole Beasley
Unlike Dez, Cole had a breakout season with 75 catches on 98 targets for 833 yards, and five touchdowns. For much of the year, Football Outsiders had him leading their DVOA, as the most efficient receiver in the NFL. He ended up fifth, but only 1% out of second place. He also finished fifth in DYAR. His AV was 9.
- Plan: He’s signed through 2018, when he’ll be 29. Cowboys will likely want to keep him a couple years longer.
Linebacker Sean Lee
Turning to the defense, Sean Lee is the only true star so far on that side of the ball. He wasn’t selected to the Pro Bowl (he went as an alternate) but days later was selected first team All Pro, a higher honor. He played nearly every down, and would have played 16 games for the first time in his career if he hadn’t been held out of the last game. Even so, he finished fourth in tackles, just a few shy of second. His AV was 16.
- Plan: He’s signed through 2019, and he’ll be 31 this coming season. This will be his last contract in Dallas.
Linebacker Jaylon Smith
This ranking is based on potential, as Jaylon Smith may still not play in the NFL. But this little clip has been making the rounds.
Lab Work day 1! Dat Shake back #ClearEyeView pic.twitter.com/kuQmj89vjV— Jaylon Smith (@thejaylonsmith) February 3, 2017
If he is healthy and a full-go in 2017, he could be the second best player on the Cowboys’ defense, behind only his fellow linebacker Sean Lee.
- Plan: He’s signed through 2019. Hope he’s a long-term healthy difference maker in the middle of the Dallas defense.
Defensive tackle Maliek Collins
This evaluation, like Smith’s, is based to some extent on a projection off his fine rookie season. His five sacks ranked him tied for 9th among defensive tackles in the NFL with Ndomukong Suh and Kyle Williams. That was second on the Cowboys, behind Benson Mayowa’s six. Despite being a rookie, he played the most snaps of any Cowboys defensive lineman - 62%. His AV was 7, the highest of any rookie other than Dak or Zeke, and tied for 10th on the team.
- Plan: He’s signed through 2019. Warren Sapp didn’t hit his stride until his third season. Not saying Collins will be another Sapp, but we can dream, can’t we?
Kicker Dan Bailey
No longer the most accurate kicker in NFL history, he’s still a key weapon for Dallas in winning games.
- Plan: Signed through 2020. His contract seemed expensive at the time, but will be a bargain by the end.
Punter Chris Jones
He’s only 13th in the NFL in gross and net punting average, but he proved himself a well-rounded athlete when he ran 30 yards on a fake punt against Philadelphia, and when he leveled a Detroit player on a return.
- Plan: He’s signed through 2017. Expect him to be extended.
These 12 players, except Cole Beasley and Chris Jones, are signed at least through 2019. That doesn’t mean the Cowboys only have a three-year window to win Super Bowls. But they do have an advantage during that time because of Dak Prescott’s cheap contract, Ezekiel Elliott’s fresh legs, and their best-in-the-NFL offensive line.
(Final note: Tony Romo is not listed because expectations are that he will be traded.)
Part 1: What Is Dallas’s Team Building Philosophy?
Next - Part 3: Where Is Dallas Just Okay?