The Dallas Cowboys 2018 offseason started out a little bumpy. The franchise’s all-time leader in touchdown catches, Dez Bryant, was released. Then, future first-ballot Hall of Fame tight end and franchise leader in catches, Jason Witten, retired. On draft day when fans expected to get a new star wide receiver, boos rained out inside AT&T stadium when the team selected Boise State linebacker Leighton Vander Esch. As if that wasn’t bad enough, news broke that their All-Pro center Travis Frederick had been diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome, a disorder in which the immune system attacks the body’s nervous system. He would be lost for the season.
This team entered the season with a lot of holes to fill. Who’s catching passes from Dak Prescott? What players will be logging snaps at tight end? And who will fill Frederick’s shoes and what type of impact would that have? The Cowboys learned the hard way that these answers wouldn’t come easy and had a record of 3-5 at the midway point. Things were not looking so good.
But then, things slowly started coming together. The Cowboys replaced their offensive line coach Paul Alexander and promoted assistant Marc Columbo. As it turned out, Joe Looney played quite well. The front office made a big trade giving up their 2019 first-round draft pick to acquire two-time Pro Bowl receiver Amari Cooper. The young receiver was just what Prescott needed as he had 53 catches for 725 yards and six touchdowns through just nine regular season games. If you prorate those numbers through 16 games, it would be the largest WR production since Dez Bryant’s sole All-Pro season back in 2014. The team even started getting production out of their inexperienced tight ends as both Geoff Swaim and Blake Jarwin had a nice showing in their first season getting real opportunities to play.
And then there was their defense. While the organization has plugged away at remodeling this unit over the last few years, this season things started to really pay off. And understanding that DeMarcus Lawrence is the real deal is clearly apparent now. He had his second straight double-digit sack season, but more importantly - he was disruptive in all facets of his game. He’ll get a lot of money to be the team’s edge rusher for years to come. After searching and searching, it appears the Cowboys also found a nice under-the-radar 1-tech defensive tackle in Antwaun Woods. He’s under contract for another year. No one knew what to expect from Randy Gregory, but he ended up surprising people and recorded six sacks this season.
One of the biggest surprises came from what transpired with the linebackers. A group that was once so dependent on Sean Lee is now so stacked that his place on the team is unclear. We may have seen Lee’s last game in a Cowboys uniform. The reason for such is that the team has two outstanding linebackers in Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch. All those boos we heard on draft day can be stuck in a sack because the rookie linebacker earned All-Pro honors his first year in the league. He becomes only the third Cowboys rookie to earn that honor, but the third over the last five years (Zack Martin and Ezekiel Elliott). Not only did the Cowboys strike gold with their first-round pick this season, but they also hit the jackpot from their 2016 second-round gamble in Jaylon Smith. The Cowboys are the only team in the league that had a linebacker duo to each record over 120 tackles on the year (Vander Esch, 140 and Smith, 122) and neither of them were named Sean Lee.
The Cowboys also got solid production from their young secondary. It’s easy to forget that the team has completely overhauled this group over the last couple seasons. All the usual suspects - Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Orlando Scandrick, Barry Church, and J.J. Wilcox are all gone. The team has replaced them with three defensive backs from last year’s draft - Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, and Xavier Woods. Joining them are third-year corner Anthony Brown. Even the veterans are relatively new to their roles. Jeff Heath is only in his second season as a starter and Byron Jones just completed his first full season at cornerback. Jones earned All-Pro honors this season.
This defense is a very young group whose potential has yet to be reached.
2018 Cowboys defense:— Dan Rogers (@DannyPhantom24) January 12, 2019
3 DBs in their 2nd year -24,25,27
1 DB in his 3rd year -30
1 CB in his 1st year at corner -31
1 S in his 2nd year starting -38
1 rookie LB -55
1 LB in his 2nd full season -54
1 UDFA DT - 99
1 DT in his 3rd year -96
1 DE in his 1st year starting -94
and one pic.twitter.com/f0i24B2ST9
But potential and a dollar will only get you a cup of coffee as the Cowboys weren’t quite there yet. The Cowboys won 10 games on the year and it was good enough to take down the NFC East, but this team still had their struggles. Through 16 regular season games, the Cowboys offense gave us plenty of reason for pause. They ranked 22nd in the league in points scored. While a stretch of winning games and some moments of offensive burst gave us hope, it’s hard to escape such a large sample of middling play from the offense.
The Cowboys have won the division three times over the last five years. That’s a pretty good achievement and shouldn’t be swept under the rug. The team has won two wild card games in that span, but cannot get past the divisional round. One perception is that the team has plateaued and cannot seem to get over the hump. This would lead some to believe a change is needed to get some fresh blood. Do you want a new boat or do you want the mystery box? The mystery box could be anything. It might even be a boat.
Another perception is that the team has constantly gone through so many personnel changes that they struggle to maintain consistency. This team makes good on their promise to get better, but when are they going to ever be good enough to win a Super Bowl? If they can get to a point where they’re not having to overcome so much change, maybe then they can get in a groove across the board and play at a high level.
Looking around this roster, it’s easy to get excited about the future. While there are still specific positions that could use some help, there’s really no remaining position groups to blow up. Some things will just take care of themselves. Travis Frederick may return next year. Amari Cooper will be around for a full season and Michael Gallup gets better with each new game. And Blake Jarwin is starting to show a lot of improvement.
The Cowboys front office will have a lot of big financial decisions to make this year. The team has freed up a lot of cash thanks to some sacrifices they have made in recent years. Great drafting and frugal free agent spending has afforded them this luxury. While they won’t have a first-round pick in the next draft, the team will still have some picks where they can make a splash.
Dak— David Helman (@HelmanDC) January 13, 2019
All starters/difference makers for the Cowboys. All drafted. None taken in the first round.
If you don’t trust this team’s ability to find talent outside the first round, you haven’t been paying attention. https://t.co/UIZQhl6ILt
That has to feel good.
They may also decide to go another direction with their offense. The Cowboys have had success in the past under Scott Linehan, but the team isn’t getting the most from their offense. It wouldn’t come as a surprise if the organization shook that up a bit before the start of next season.
While it’s always disappointing when the season comes to an end, it’s always going to end in an unsatisfying fashion for 31 teams in the league. The Cowboys finished in the top eight of the 32 teams in the league. Finishing in the top 25% of the league is nothing to feel bad about. There’s always the expectations of something greater and that’s what this Cowboys team will need to focus on going forward. The good news is they have the leadership to keep getting stronger and they have a very young group of players on the rise. It’s frustrating to have to keep waiting, but great things are coming from this team. And when it happens, it’s going to be a triumphant testament to fight this team has and how they never gave up on each other.