Everyone is worried about the defense. With the way the loss went down against the Green Bay Packers, it’s easy to see why fans keep stressing over it. Aaron Rodgers led his team to touchdowns on their first three possessions of the game. Boom, just like that, the Packers had 21 points. And even after the Cowboys defense started making stops, the last vision fans were left with is a 70-yard completion (I’m embellishing a little here) from Rodgers to Jared Cook to set up the game winning field goal. It hurts. It hurts bad.
The Cowboys front office recognizes the need to strengthen the defense. They had nine draft picks and seven of them were defensive players. And while there are several defensive positions that will be spotlighted as potential improvements, the rest of the NFL better prepare themselves for the improvements the Cowboys made on offense.
Last year, Dallas finished fifth in the league in points per game. And of the four teams that finished ahead of them, three of them consisted of teams that went farther than the Cowboys in the playoffs - Green Bay, Atlanta, and New England. We get it, points make a big difference. Scoring an average of 26.3 points a game was good enough to win 13 regular season games, but this offense can do better. And they will.
When the Cowboys selected Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth pick overall in the 2016 Draft, they arguably got the best player in the entire draft. What holds even more water is the idea that they absolutely got the best player for a Cowboys team. Zeke is a great running back, but he’s an absolute beast when you put him behind this offensive line and play within the Cowboys offense.
Elliott had a great rookie season, proving his weight in gold, but he’s just getting started. With a year of experience now under his belt, look for him to unleash the hurt on opposing defenses. It took Emmitt Smith three years before he became an All-Pro and he only had two seasons his entire career where he rushed for over 1,600 yards. Zeke was an All-Pro his rookie season with a 1,631 performance. Don’t be surprised if he breaks the Cowboys single-season rushing record (1,845) set by DeMarco Murray a couple years ago and leads the team with the best record in the NFC (again) as he takes home the MVP crown.
There is only one quarterback who has had the best rookie season of any quarterback in NFL history. Just one. And that quarterback is Dak Prescott. So while some can all try to compare him to one-hit wonders like Robert Griffin III and Nick Foles, it’s only fair to remind them that no rookie QB has performed as well as Prescott has. Prescott’s play-making ability has many of us excited, but his ball protection aptitude is what helps us rest easy. His interception totals were low last year (4), but it’s not because he’s lucky. He doesn’t throw many intercept-able passes. There is no logical reason to believe Prescott will regress in year two. Ben Grimaldi explained it perfectly:
“Bring up the name Robert Griffin III all you like, but comparisons to Prescott rings hollow. Dak has a much better build, feel and mind for the game than Bob did, so that assessment is lazy and inaccurate.”
RG3 had a great rookie season, but even still Prescott completed passes at a higher percentage, threw for more yards, threw for more touchdowns, and he did all this while throwing for fewer interceptions. While it’s easy for people to just proclaim that Prescott will arbitrarily get worse, has anyone talked about the possibility of him getting better? Grimaldi continues...
There’s another prevailing thought that has been thrown around the NFL for the last 20-30 years; a player makes the most improvements from year one to year two. But again, that doesn’t seem to apply to Prescott.
Before Tony Romo got hurt last year, I proposed the question to the BTB community - can Dak Prescott save the day if Romo got hurt? While I wasn’t expecting it to be put to the test, there were some reasons to feel optimistic because of the traits Prescott possessed. I wrote:
He's very good at protecting the ball and keeps his passes manageable so he isn't the gunslinger risk a lot of rookie QBs are. He'll have a strong running game to work behind and he'll have plenty of weapons to throw the ball to. And if he doesn't like what he sees, he can just take off running.
So while Prescott’s breakout in the NFL surprised almost everyone, some of the things he accomplished didn’t just come out of nowhere. But the one thing to hang your hat on regarding Prescott’s ability to sustain this level of play is knowing that he’s one of those players that can max out his potential. His passion, his leadership, his commitment to preparing - all these things will help him continue to be successful in this league.
Feel the power of the Dak-side.
The Slot Machines
Every Sunday will be casino night for the Cowboys offense as they will feature two slot receivers in Cole Beasley and Ryan Switzer. One guys zigs, another guys zags... good luck keeping track of the whereabouts of all those sneaky little marsupials. That doesn’t even include the extra attention that Dez Bryant requires. Did I mention that Ezekiel Elliott is going to be a problem for defenses? And then there’s that Jason Witten fella, but when has he ever been a problem for anyone?
Bottom line is that defenses are going to have a real problem covering all the Cowboys skill position players.
Dak absolutely loved having a target like Beasley around and he took full advantage. The speedy little slot receiver led the team in catches and yards last year. My pal Renny Mason has come up with a clever name for this duo - Weapons of Slot Destruction. Very catchy, let’s make it stick.
Free Rolling Rico
I’ve never seen so much excitement being generated from a player who was on the practice squad the previous year. Is it silly to think Rico Gathers is going to step in and be something special? Maybe. But us fans can’t help to be intrigued by the upside of an extremely athletic player who has spent the last year learning the tight end position. The thought of having the next “Antonio Gates” is very alluring.
But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. The Cowboys still have Jason Witten who will get the lion’s share of action. The team will also rely a lot on James Hanna and/or Geoff Swaim to handle most of the blocking assignments in 12 personnel. So Rico’s role won’t be a large one...at least not yet.
Think of him as Luke Skywalker and last year was the original Star Wars. He spent most of his time learning from a great Jedi Master (Romo). This year will be like The Empire Strikes Back. He’ll do some good stuff, but still isn’t quite a Jedi just yet. And next year it will be like Return of the Jedi where he will take his place in a vital role on the team.
Note: I’m not suggesting that Rico will get his hand cut off this year as he learns the disappointing news that Rob Gronkowski is his father. Although I must say, the resemblance of Bill Belichick to the Emperor is uncanny.
Bill Belichick is The Emperor. Period. pic.twitter.com/CG5Ll0T5Ll— Greg Kretschmar (@gregmorningbuzz) September 10, 2015
An Improved Offensive Line
The Cowboys did not draft an offensive lineman in the first round of the draft. In fact, they didn’t draft one at all. On top of that, one of their key starters left in free agency and one of them retired. That’s ultimately going to weaken that great wall in Dallas, right?
Let’s presume for a minute that Doug Free wasn’t that great. Now, some of you will have no problem buying in to that train of thought. I want to be clear, Free is not a terrible player. You could do a lot worse at the tackle position. And a lot of teams do. While Free has played solid during his time in Dallas, he gets a bad rap because by contrast to his OL peers - he’s lacking. And that’s not a fair way to look at him.
But despite him being fine, Free makes a good amount of mistakes. If there is a flag for a false start or a hold, there’s about a 50% chance it’s on Free. That’s not a good rate when you include how many other players are on offense.
So how would you feel about replacing him with a former should blue chip tackle that should have gone in the first round? Well, that’s exactly what you get in La’el Collins. He hasn’t done anything yet at this point in his career to deserve that label, but even if he doesn’t live up to those standards, there’s a great chance he’ll be an upgrade over Free.
Now as far as Ron Leary goes, he’s a little harder to replace. Leary is another player that isn’t spectacular like the big three of Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin, but he’s farther on the north side of mediocre than Free is. The Cowboys won’t get the level of play from their left guard as they did from Leary last year, but they’re going to throw some darts and hope to get real close. Here are those darts:
- Jonathan Cooper
- Byron Bell
- Joe Looney
The really good thing about these darts is the high floor they offer. At least one of these players will be solid. Another positive is that all three are better interior guys than outside so the move of Collins to RT is a double-win for Dallas. If Cooper makes the team, he will be the player with the highest overall draft pick of any of the Cowboys offensive linemen. However, he has endured some injuries over his career which has taken a toll on his athletic movement, but playing inside will help disguise it. And the same goes with Bell, who is more of a power guy than a finesse player. Play him at right tackle and we’re probably going to start missing Doug Free. Play him at right guard and he’s going to be just fine. And then you throw in Looney you have another guy who is smart and flexible. All three of these OL players are sharp when it comes to knowing what they are expected to do.
I can’t tell you how the line is going to shape out, but it’s safe to say that the Cowboys have some good pieces on the roster and they will figure out what makes them the best unit.
The Numbers Look Favorable
The Cowboys scored 421 points last year which put them in the top 10 in franchise history. And it should be noted that four times where they have finished in the top 10 in points are instances where Jason Garrett has been involved, including three of the last four seasons. This team can score points.
Many people will talk up the difficult schedule the Cowboys will have this year, but half of their opponents will be teams that are in the bottom half of the rankings when it comes to points allowed in 2016. The opportunity to score points will be there.
While many will focus on the defense and the potential liability it is for the team, make sure to take the time to embrace the explosiveness of the 2017 Cowboys offense.