There seems to be a consensus that the Dallas Cowboys got better this offseason. Of course, that is also being said about most, if not all, other NFL teams. It is not wrong, either. The fact is that unless a team is particularly inept in free agency and the draft, they should get better each offseason. It is when they replace players, and the ones that left for the most part either retired, were just cut outright because their old team was not that happy with their performance, or were able to get more in free agency than their former employees saw fit to pay them. So the thing for Cowboys fans to consider isn’t whether the team got better. It is how much better.
As it happens, we are entering a time when there is something of a dearth of breaking news about the team, so this is a good time to run through the positions and try to incorporate what we think we learned during the just concluded OTAs and minicamps. There is a lot to break down here, so this will be a multi-part series. The focus, obviously, is on what has changed for Dallas. Of course, these are the most preliminary of conclusions, and mileage may vary wildly once training camp and the preseason get underway. Still, here is what we can conclude in mid-June.
And we start with the most important position of all: Quarterback.
If you just look at a depth chart, you might assume that the team just tread water. It is the same three names that the team had on the roster to end last season.
But there is more to getting better than adding and replacing bodies. And if there was one thing that was consistent in all six of the practices that were open to the media the past few weeks, it was that Dak Prescott looked better than he ever has at this time of year. He earned a bit of a reputation during his first three seasons as not being a good practice player. Fortunately, he came to life in games. This year, however, he has been on point and crisp from the start. Jason Witten is in a unique position to judge this, having played with Prescott during his first two seasons in the league, then taking a year to try broadcasting before deciding he was happier on the field and un-retiring. And Witten has absolutely gushed about the difference.
Perhaps this is attributable to the hiring of Jon Kitna as the QB coach. As it happens, we wrote at length about that, so rather than rehash it all, here’s a link to check that out. It does seem clear that the questionable mechanics that plagued Prescott at times look much better. There is an aspect of this that is somewhat overlooked. The college game is certainly different than the pros. Players at that lower level are much more able to rely on raw talent and athleticism to succeed, but in the NFL, they usually have to deal with a different style of play as well as a much higher level of proficiency and talent on the defense. In recent years, some things that are still vital in the NFL, like playing under center, have almost disappeared in many programs, and that trend reaches all the way back to many high schools. College quarterbacks have to learn something new. This is one thing that has really changed over the years. Add in the restrictions on the amount of practice time allowed under the CBA, and teams across the league are still trying to solve this issue. Combine those issues with throwing techniques to having to perfect his work lining up directly behind the center, and it should not be surprising that Prescott is still very much learning the best way to do his job.
He has also said that a light came on for him during the last half of 2018. That is logical, given the stage of his career and the way quarterbacks develop historically. There is nothing that teaches more than actually lining up and playing in regular season games. Now he has three full seasons under his belt. As he gets more comfortable with the technical side of playing, he is also getting better at processing things mentally. Because it is such a great illustration of what I mean, I am going to reuse this from that previously linked article.
So the evidence is pretty convincing that Prescott is a significantly better QB than he was going into the 2018 season, with the full training camp and preseason to further improve. But there is another entire factor that is often not addressed much in these kinds of analyses, if at all, and that is the synergy of the players around him. We will consider the specifics for the remaining offensive positions in subsequent posts, but with the quarterback especially, this needs some specific consideration.
Everything on the offense is dependent on the offensive line, and last season saw significant issues there. It started with losing arguably the best center in the league, Travis Frederick, to a scary illness. All indications are that he is going to be back and able to play at or near the level he did. There were also issues at left guard with rookie Connor Williams a bit undersized and lacking the strength to move inside from his college position of tackle. He has some injury issues as well, as did Tyron Smith. Williams is bigger and reportedly stronger, while Smith looks to be healthy. That is going to be huge for pass protection, which of course means more time for that mental processing and letting routes develop.
Prescott certainly has a much better group of receivers to work with than this time last year. We all remember the “receiver by committee” approach and how badly it failed. That forced the trade for Amari Cooper at midseason, which paid immediate dividends, likely saving the season. A full offseason and camp should just build on that. The addition of Randall Cobb to replace the departed Cole Beasley has gone better than we could have imagined, with an immediate chemistry there that mirrors how Prescott and Cooper clicked. Cobb is also a more versatile player than Beasley, and is a bit younger to boot. The rest of the group has a lot of talented options for the 53-man roster, and is characterized by a major infusion of speed.
Witten’s return brings back one of the best “safety blanket” targets in the league. Don’t be fooled by the talk of a reduced workload. He may see a bit fewer snaps, but that could be more a function of using packages without a tight end than anything. When he is on the field, his savvy and skill will make him a valuable option when things downfield are not open.
The running game is a vital complement to the pass, and we all know what the team has in Ezekiel Elliott. That is not going to be any less effective, and as we will see when that group is discussed, could also be better.
Don’t discount how much the changes under new OC Kellen Moore are helping. Another thing that emerged in the OTAs was an increased emphasis on the deep ball, which can pay off in multiple ways. And we also hope that Moore will make better use of Prescott’s ability to be a real threat running the ball himself. It is something not all quarterbacks bring to the table, and if employed properly without putting Prescott in too much risk, it can be a real game-changer.
But whatever the reasons (and “all of the above” is a real possibility), Prescott appears to have really taken important strides. That is all good.
The backup situation is less positive. Although things looked up a bit the last couple of days of minicamp, there was not much good to say before that. But in the final two practices, both Cooper Rush and Mike White finally started to make some plays. It is possible that Kitna may be able to help both of them develop, and was just having to focus his attention on the starter. Now with camp coming up, he may be able to provide a real lift for the reserves. Consider this a TBD area.
Overall, though, the quarterback situation is definitely better, because the starter is. It is still early, but this is a solid and very favorable trajectory.