While the depths may be a bit more pronounced, 2020 is not the first time the Dallas Cowboys have obviously been in need of drastic action. We saw the team largely fall apart in 2015 and, to a lesser extent, in 2017. As has been customary since Jerry Jones bought the team, the plan was to rebuild while still competing for the playoffs the next year with some new personnel and a few coaching changes, although Jason Garrett hung on to his job in those years. And it worked, sort of, as Dallas returned to the playoffs in 2016 and 2018. But last season, we once again saw a supposedly talented team falter down the stretch. Patience finally gave out with Garrett. Mike McCarthy was hired, some bigger names were acquired in free agency (although still at bargain prices), and the draft looked very, very good. Despite the bizarre and unprecedented limitations of the pandemic response, the Cowboys were thought to be a real contender this season, with a very talented roster under new coaches that would get the most out of them.
It was all great until the Cowboys started playing actual games. With a couple of key players already out before the first snap was taken, they soon were absolutely decimated by injuries, with the mortal blow coming in the loss for the season of Dak Prescott. The new coaching staff has looked absolutely overwhelmed. Now, this supposedly talent rich team is still being talked about around the league - but as one of the absolute worst. And we are not just talking this year. The defense in particular is within striking range of some all time records for ineptitude.
The “fix it on the fly” approach has finally, perhaps inevitably, failed. The only thing this team can now realistically compete for is the first overall draft pick. It is time for a major rebuild, the kind that can take two or three seasons once the commitment is made.
When McCarthy was hired as the first person interviewed, the staff went through what may be the first stage of the rebuild, although there is a strong likelihood that this staff is just a rough draft with major revisions still to come - perhaps before the season is over. Now it is time to tear down the roster.
However, you can’t just show everyone the door and start over with 53 new players. For a variety of reasons, you have to keep a core of players. But right now, it is hard to see just which ones you can rely on. Most of the best are either on IR or fighting injuries to stay on the field.
Sadly, with nine games left to go, we are down to examining who the Cowboys should keep, and who should move on. Be warned, that “should” thing is not always about the needs or desires of the team, as the elephant in the room that starts off the discussion illustrates.
The franchise QB
The equation concerning Prescott has changed significantly. First, if Jerry and Stephen Jones had even the slightest doubt of how valuable he is to the team, the way they just cratered against the Arizona Cardinals and the Washington Football Team cleared that up. With him at the helm, the Cowboys at least could stay in games, and even eke out a few wins. Given the sorry state of the NFC East, that may have been enough to get back to the playoffs. But without him, the team isn’t just playing poorly. The morale seems to have been destroyed, with reports of the locker room losing confidence in the coaches and the passive response to the dirty hit that took Andy Dalton out of the Football Team loss.
Prescott is more valuable to the Cowboys than ever. The problem for them is that they may no longer be his best option going forward. Over the past three seasons or so, there is a tremendous case to be made that he was carrying a mediocre (at best) roster. Now he and his agent should be taking a long, hard look at the benefits of moving on.
That would be an ugly situation, with the team having a second tag to use. But Todd France has shown a total willingness to play hardball, and if he and Prescott come to the conclusion that the best move for the QB’s career is to find a team with less dysfunction that has a lot of the other pieces in place, then they could well dig in their heels, with Prescott never playing another down in Dallas.
This is not the foolish idea of moving on from Prescott to draft a Trevor Lawrence or Justin Fields. That is not a viable strategy IF the team can still get Prescott to sign. It is all about what Prescott should do for his own benefit. But the Cowboys may be forced to looking for the QB of the future if the one they had right in their hands decides to fly away.
The rest of the offense
There is no doubt that the story of this season might be rather different if the offensive line was even a shadow of what it was. But with Tyron Smith and La’el Collins both out for the season, and Zack Martin missing games, the struggles have been real. Brandon Knight was the best of the replacement tackles, and now he is out. Connor McGovern has not been good at all filling in for Martin, which is why they are so desperate for Martin to get back. Connor Williams has been serviceable for the most part, but hardly a strength. The one bright spot is how rookie Tyler Biadasz has stepped in. He is expected to keep the starting job even with Joe Looney returning. Looney will probably be needed at guard at some point, anyway.
If Smith and Collins can come back healthy, and Martin does not have more issues, then the team is in decent shape on the line, especially with Knight emerging as a decent swing tackle and Terence Steele at least gaining valuable experience for additional depth. There are plenty of other places the team needs more answers.
Tight end is similar, with Dalton Schultz one bright spot with how he has played. If Blake Jarwin also comes back from his injury, this is a solid position.
Likewise, the wide receivers are loaded with talent, even if they had some struggles at times individually. The question now is whether the team needs to look at possibly trading someone for more draft ammunition for the coming rebuild. The obvious asset that could be dealt is Michael Gallup. He could be worth dangling before Tuesday’s trade deadline, because his greatest value is as a deep threat - and with Ben DiNucci or Andy Dalton the likely QBs behind a fragile and struggling offensive line, he is just not going to get many chances to help the team on the field this year. If he can bring back a high pick, or even a pick and a player at another position that will help the team, the Cowboys should at least think about it. His cost on his rookie deal is certainly not an obstacle. If he is not put on the market this year, he certainly could be a valuable piece in the coming offseason to trade.
Part of the reason Gallup may be expendable is that Cedrick Wilson has finally emerged. He is a restricted free agent next year, which means the team has control over him. But if another team should be willing to part with a draft pick to acquire his rights, then maybe he could be the piece moved instead of Gallup.
Dallas may elect to keep both of them, since you can never have too many good receivers. But they must keep an open mind here.
That bring us to running backs, which is basically all about Ezekiel Elliott. Once considered a foundational part of the offense, he has so far this season shown he not only has feet of clay, but hands as well. This year provides some persuasive evidence that the running game is more dependent on the blocking than the ball carrier.
However, there is the little detail of that enormous contract. The team would have great difficulty just moving on from Elliott even if he should continue to be detrimental on the field. And it seems highly unlikely that he would be traded. Few if any teams would even consider taking on that contract. Dallas is pretty much stuck with him through the 2021 season. Hopefully he will be able to contribute more than he has in this debacle. Remember, though, that this rebuild may be a two- or three-year project beyond this year. Elliott’s true value should be revisited after next year, and with a cold, hard outlook.
There are not many players who really have shown that the team really needs to keep them. Reports are that Everson Griffen, Dontari Poe, and Daryl Worley are all being shopped for whatever the team could get back in a trade - and may be on the way out if nothing is offered.
Among the veterans, DeMarcus Lawrence is the only sure keeper. Aldon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch, and probably Chidobe Awuzie will be kept around. Randy Gregory still has to show he has something to offer, although the hopes are high for him in his return to the game. There is a core of young players with some upside, with Trevon Diggs the one who has shown real ability despite some growing pains. Neville Gallimore, Bradlee Anae, and Justin Hamilton all have shown real promise so far.
The rest are either going to be free agents or just have not lived up to hopes. The biggest example is Jaylon Smith, who like Elliott has a big contract that makes doing anything with him difficult. But the defense is set for a huge overhaul.
That is likely to be tied to a second reworking of the defensive coaching staff, because Mike Nolan and his assistants have just failed miserably. This is certainly a multi-year challenge.
If the Cowboys do wind up with a top five draft pick, which seems almost certain, they need to look long and hard at what is available at their spot, and what they might get in a trade back. With a ton of players set to leave in free agency, and several that need to be considered as outright releases, the team may need to go for quantity.
The time is here, however, when there is not real “if” to the idea of tearing a lot of the roster down and bringing in a ton of new, hopefully talented players. With the precarious cap situation, free agency is not going to be a viable option for the most part, and frankly, the Cowboys have been dreadful at that in any case. It is time to invest heavily in the draft, emphasizing the defense in 2021, and put together a new team. Of course, if Prescott decides to seek greener pastures, that first-round pick may need to be invested elsewhere. We can no longer think there is a lot of talent to work with in the building. It has to come from outside, and circumstances make the draft the only real way to do that.
There is one more issue, though. This all depends on Jerry and Stephen Jones admitting the truth and taking the needed steps. If they insist on sticking to their old ways and clinging to players and coaches for sentimental reasons rather than facing the facts, then we may be facing another long, frustrating stretch of failed seasons. And there is no reason to have confidence that is not exactly how it will go.