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A tale of three sides: What we know about the building of the 2020 Cowboys

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We aren’t likely to get OTAs, and who knows when training camp will start? But the team is already hard at work getting ready for next year.

Miami Dolphins
Mike Nolan is already deep into shaping his defense.
Joe Cavaretta/Sun Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

As fans of the Dallas Cowboys, the second thing we all really want is more hard data about what the new version of our favorite team will look like. It is a minor frustration among all the much bigger worries and concerns of this strange time, but not having OTAs to look forward to and huge doubts about when NFL training camps can begin are still aggravating. However, there are a couple of things we can look at to draw some conclusions. First is the new staff under head coach Mike McCarthy. Even more telling is what the Cowboys have done so far in free agency. (For all the moves to date, check out our free agency tracker.)

The game has three separate phases, and for Dallas, the approach to each has been quite different so far.

Offense

The big things that happened were the changes at head coach, with McCarthy being an offensive mind, and the one key coach that he retained. Keeping Kellen Moore as his offensive coordinator defines the most important partnership. McCarthy famously spent his year away from the NFL studying the league and looking for ways to improve his own skills. During that time, the job Moore did in his first year as OC stood out for McCarthy. Now Moore gets to build on his experience, and the current state of the offensive roster is all about continuity to make that work.

The big two players the team had to retain were, of course, Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper. Prescott has been tagged as a placeholder while the negotiations continue on getting a new contract hammered out. Progress is reported, and with the team committing to him as the future at quarterback, it is going to get done. Cooper is now locked in as well, which absolutely had to happen despite a certain scatological critique to the contrary.

Otherwise, there has only been one outside free agent signing on offense, tight end Blake Bell. He looks to be a depth signing. The departures are significant here, indicating a good bit about what the team is doing. Jason Witten, Randall Cobb, Cameron Fleming, and Xavier Su’a-Filo all have headed elsewhere, and sadly Travis Frederick has retired after his struggles with GBS.

There have been several re-signings that show us how the team is planning to move forward. Blake Jarwin is now the presumptive starter at TE, and Dalton Schultz will compete with Bell for TE2. The Cowboys brought back Joe Looney, likely with the knowledge that Frederick’s retirement was coming, and also re-upped Adam Redmond. With Conner McGovern also in the mix, they have options now to fill that big, bearded hole in the middle. Jamize Olawale is also returning at fullback, and there is hope that McCarthy and Moore will figure out how to better utilize him. Cooper Rush returns to back up Prescott. The only big hole yet to fill is slot receiver after a reported flirtation with Emmanuel Sanders fell through. That is almost certainly going to be addressed in the draft where WR talent is deep. Free agency could still yield something as well, although pickings are getting a bit slim. Other positions that should be considered during the draft are tight end, running back, and offensive line. Those would all probably be for depth.

Generally, the offense was not the problem last year. The next section is where the team needs to really find a way to beef things up.

Defense

As our newest front-page writer Terence Watson has discussed, the defense has a much bigger challenge under Mike Nolan and his assistants. The scheme will be new, and this is where the free agent acquisitions are truly revealing.

First, two of the biggest outside signings are Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe. Jim Tomsula is now in charge of the defensive line, and they show a badly needed emphasis on the interior. Poe is something we haven’t seen in a long time, a big, powerful 1-tech that should really clog up the middle in the running game. He also provides real value when the opponent is passing. Both he and McCoy have a history of producing there.

The controversial signing of DE Aldon Smith shows that the edge rush is also getting attention. He still has to be reinstated, but if he is, he is a low-risk gamble with high upside. The team is also waiting to see if Randy Gregory is allowed back into the league. If Roger Goodell doesn’t disappoint us, they offer real hope to get to the quarterback. Both will have to get back into football shape, however. The continued uncertainty about when camp will start is very big for the Cowboys. Robert Quinn, the most productive pass rusher from last season, is gone, and that is a big hole to fill.

The other significant acquisition is safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Like Poe, he represents a true change in priorities. Dallas just has not done much at that position in years. Clinton-Dix was a very affordable way to go. He also brings some promise of finally getting some picks. That is a big priority for new secondary coach Maurice Linguist, who was plucked from the college ranks. That was something of an exception on the staff. The other new coaches were very experienced NFL vets. It will be very interesting to see how Linguist does in the big league.

A less flashy signing is cornerback Maurice Canady. He is hardly a sufficient replacement for Byron Jones, a very questionable departure after the Cowboys were unwilling to meet the cost of retaining him. But he does provide some needed depth. The Cowboys did get Anthony Brown back, who at least has a lot of experience with the team.

Another thing to note is the experience the new players bring to the defense. This could be very important in getting the defense up to speed this year. Veterans just don’t have as much to learn, and of course Smith is well known to Tomsula.

Special teams

If the defense was a recurring problem for the Cowboys last season, special teams was an ongoing train wreck. Dallas was at the bottom of every category in 2019. There was the too-late replacement of Brett Maher with Kai Forbath, who made every kick after joining the team, and dismal performance in all aspects of the return game left the Cowboys with bad field position compared to the opponent all year.

New coordinator John Fassel has his work cut out for him. Fortunately, he brings a great reputation, and the team has already taken steps to make sure he has the players he needs. Forbath was re-signed, but the team was not content to stand pat. They had an interest in Greg Zuerlein, who has a connection with Fassel, but expected him to re-sign with the Los Angeles Rams. When that fell through, they brought him in, setting up a genuine competition.

They also re-signed several other players whose main value may be on teams. First and foremost was Mr. Perfect, long snapper LP Ladouceur. And possible assets for Fassel include linebackers Joe Thomas and Justin March, plus cornerback CJ Goodwin and safety Darian Thompson. Newcomers like Blake Bell and Maurice Canady could also see work on the unit.

Late-round picks and UDFA signings often wind up becoming special teams assets, so that will be very important as Fassel tries to turn his unit into something other than the hot garbage it was this past year.

There is still so much to do, and an unprecedented level of uncertainty for the league. But the framework is already well under way in Dallas. Now to hope the final structure is one that can make some noise.