Every summer for at least the past five years, ESPN has published its NFL Future Power Rankings (In$ider), an attempt to forecast how every NFL team will fare over the three upcoming seasons by ranking their quality in five areas: roster (excluding quarterback), QB, draft, front office and coaching.
For the Cowboys, this exercise has been a bumpy ride, so bumpy that you've got to wonder whether these are future power rankings at all or merely knee-jerk reactions to the last season. Here's a recap of the most recent rankings:
- In 2014 (after an 8-8 season the previous year), the Cowboys ranked 28th.
- In 2015 (coming off a 12-4 season), jumped to 6th overall.
- In 2016 (after a 4-12 season), they plummeted to 26th.
- This year (coming of a 13-3 season last year), the team rockets up to 6th overall again.
Here's the analysis that accompanies the Cowboys ranking.
2016 record: 13-3 (lost in the divisional round)
NFC East future rank: First
Why they're here: The Cowboys have owned the draft of late. Notable selections include Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin and Byron Jones. Sometimes the best draft decisions are those you don't make, too. The team passed on Johnny Manziel in 2014 (taking Martin instead), and failing to trade up for Paxton Lynch in 2016 led to the fourth-round selection of Prescott. -- Field Yates
Biggest worry: The Cowboys do not have anyone to rush the passer, and in a conference that featured six of the top eight finishers in Total QBR last season, that isn't good. They have tried to address the problem with players such as Greg Hardy, Randy Gregory, DeMarcus Lawrence and David Irving, but all of them have proven unreliable. Couple that with a secondary that has undergone a major overhaul and you can add the Cowboys to the list of teams with defensive concerns going forward. -- Louis Riddick
What could change for the better: The Cowboys found out last season that Prescott projects as a solid franchise quarterback. There's a chance Prescott could be more than solid. Coaches and evaluators want to see more before anointing him, but some in the league think he could be special. The No. 5 future ranking for Dallas' QB situation could be conservative if Prescott becomes truly elite. -- Mike Sando
I don’t really have much to take issue with here. I could quibble about the fact that four of the five teams ranked above the Cowboys (Patriots, Falcons, Packers, Steelers) have quarterbacks in their 30s with a limited shelf life, so calling this “future” power rankings is a bit of a stretch. I could also argue that the Cowboys should be ranked a little higher; others might argue that the Cowboys should be ranked a little lower. But all of that is arguing about the small print.
The big picture here is that the Cowboys have turned around the franchise faster than anybody could have reasonably anticipated, and faster than most teams have ever done. Just think back to the five-year interregnum between Troy Aikman's retirement in 2000 and Tony Romo's first start in 2006.
Today, instead of cycling through quarterbacks, head coaches, and defensive schemes, the Cowboys have found their franchise quarterback in 2016 Offensive Rookie of the Year Dak Prescott, have the NFL rushing leader in Ezekiel Elliott, and an O-line that won the inaugural Offensive Line of the Year Award and are still the second-youngest O-line in the league. They also have reason to believe they've restocked their defense with a lot of young talent from the last two drafts. Heck, they even have the reigning Coach of the Year in Jason Garrett.
One year ago, ESPN saw no future for the Dallas Cowboys. Just 12 months later, the future for the Dallas Cowboys is about as bright as it can be.